Skiving from shows one morning during New York Fashion Week, I find myself sitting opposite Maya Jankelowitz, one half of the Jack’s Wife Freda’s husband and wife duo, at the restaurant’s original outpost on Lafayette Street. Characteristically, the place is heaving, which is why we’ve taken our conversation to the bar, the only spot in the intimate venue not occupied by the kind of twenty-something hipsters many restaurants spend years trying to court.
It takes a while for our interview to begin. Anyone who’s witnessed Maya in action front of house will know why. You see, along with husband Dean, she pretty much knows each and every regular by name, which is why it’s not uncommon for her to be spotted kissing and hugging four out of five customers that cross the threshold. She comes across as warm, approachable and relaxed, though not entirely un-self-conscious. This may have something to do with the fact that, small talk over, I’ve whipped both my camera and recorder out of my bugling bag, ready to talk shop.
I’ve been to Jack’s Wife Freda a handful of times since, and that homely inviting atmosphere was still there. “I think it just started with myself and Dean just really getting to know everyone who came over and that trickled down to our amazing staff,” she says when asked about the secret behind the restaurant’s atmosphere. “We are all truly connected. We remember what you like or don’t like, we remember where you like to sit and we always look forward to meeting new people. In line with the food,” she continues, “we want to create this feeling of home, an environment where you can be yourself any time of day. Locals, skeptics, foodies and anyone seeking a good meal, coffee or pint for that matter, should feel welcome and comfortable. Being surrounded by like-minded people has always been important to us.”
For those of you who aren’t yet acquainted, it’s worth giving you a bit of background. First things first, the couple met working at Balthazar, where they stayed for almost 14 years before setting up shop three years ago. Together, they opened a second location on Carmine Street in the West Village late last year and what both spots have in common is a commitment to celebrating simple dishes, at affordable prices inspired by the dishes they grew up eating in South Africa for Dean and Israel for Maya.
While the name might not have rung a bell, you’ve certainly seen images of their signature dishes before. On any given day, they’re bound to pop up somewhere on your Instagram feed. Granted, I do fall victim to steering on the dramatic side at times but on this occasion it’s with merit. Thanks to Instagram, diners have spread the word about the restaurant’s killer menu and relaxed atmosphere. So much so, that it’s not uncommon to find tourists and locals alike, lining the pavement in the rain to get a table.
Thanks to the omnipresent #foodporn snap, restaurants are more aware than ever about the power of social media as a marketing tool but for Dean and Maya, it was a lot more organic than that. “We actually had never heard of Instagram when we opened Jack’s Wife Freda then,” she says. “Our Instagram account started as my personal account and I quickly discovered it’s a great creative outlet for me to document all that happens in our restaurant. I saw it more as a modern day family photo album.” As unintentional as their ubiquity on social media has been, it’s definitely made an impact. “That’s just where the world is heading,” she tells me, nonchalant.
If you had to list the most much-loved restaurants in New York, Jack’s Wife Freda would definitely be there. Bold statement, I know, but it’s true. The danger of such fan fare is that it can undermine a restaurant’s credibility. Think Meat Liquor, Balthazar in London or Chiltern Firehouse even. Maya prefers not to think of themselves as a hot spot, but rather a familiar spot you can enjoy a good bite in. It stems back to why they both started, trying to replicate the atmosphere at the home of Dean’s grandparents, Jack and Freda. “His grandmother was an incredible host, always having family, friends and couples over, and always lots of food and that’s where it all began,” she explains. The menu draws on both of their grandparents with everything from green Shakshuka from Israel to their unique take on South African peri-peri giblets.
If you’re heading there for breakfast, the Shakshuka comes with a delicious tomatillo sauce instead of the standard red tomato stew and if you want something lighter, you’ll find an incredible granola dish with a tangy Lebanese labneh as opposed to the usual Greek yoghurt. For snacks, opt for the fried fish balls, made from smoked whitefish and hake, finely ground and panko-crusted, then deep-fried and served with horseradish aioli. Don’t be put off by the sight of sandwiches on the menu for mains too. Each one has been tweaked and modified enough to keep things interesting and the to top it off, their burger will rival any good one you’ve had before and that’s no exaggeration.
Almost four years in, the pair has come a long way. “I will never forget the first three years of the restaurant. We had just had our second baby and couldn’t really afford a babysitter so I used to wait tables and take orders with him strapped on my back,” she confesses. “I understand now that to do something correctly, you have to give it everything, no matter how hard it is. There’s been lots of sweat, not much sleep and no days off but it’s the only way.” From where I’m sitting, it’s job well done.
Maya was shot at Jack’s Wife Freda on 224 Lafayette Street by Naomi Mdudu. To make a booking, call (212) 510-8550.