To celebrate Dirt Candy’s 10th anniversary, chef-owner Amanda Cohen kind of wanted to squish her guests in a corner of her Lower East Side restaurant to make it feel like the “little Dirt Candy” — the 18-seat, East Village basement-level dining room where it all began in late October 2008.
But instead, she’s hosting a two-night dinner party celebrating a decade of the vegetable-only eatery’s dishes in 12 plates this weekend. Historic fan favorites, like candied grapefruit, will return to the menu, and illustrated comic book-style menus will be party favors. The restaurant also hosted a private event for regulars earlier this week, captured in the photographs.
amNewYork spoke to Cohen about Dirt Candy’s legacy in NYC.
When you first opened, did you expect to make it in NYC for a decade?
No. I didn’t even think it would be popular for 10 minutes.
What started making you feel successful?
People kept coming back. We were pretty much busy every night and we actually started seeing regulars, which I didn’t understand. I was like, “Why are these people coming back?” and my server said, “That’s what customers do, they come back.” Then it made sense.
What was making these people regulars?
We opened in the bacon-is-king decade. I think people were looking for something a little different. I know it’s surprising, but you can only eat bacon so many times a day. We were offering something that was really unique. No one had ever seen anything like this in the city before. We were the only restaurant totally dedicated to vegetables. And we kind of still are. They’re at the forefront of every single thing we do, and that’s the only thing we want to highlight here. People wanted to know what this tiny little restaurant was and what we were doing with vegetables.
How did the popular reception shape the restaurant?
When I first opened, I said I was a vegetable restaurant, but the truth is I didn’t know what I was. People kept coming back for the vegetables, they really liked the fact we were using one vegetable five different ways in a dish. We started seeing what people were ordering over and over again and that really started to inform my cooking. It took me about six months to understand what customers wanted and what I could give them in the restaurant. And from that, Dirt Candy vegetable cuisine was born. At first it was just a couple words I put together, and then it became a fact.
When you moved to the new, bigger location in 2015, how did Dirt Candy change?
We became a better restaurant. We had an opportunity to do all the things we never could do before, with all new equipment — we could go all out. We did some pretty amazing things at the little Dirt Candy, but actually being able to have space changed the ways we cooked and looked at everything. We could do a much more rounded menu and different style of cooking where we can really explore a vegetable. At little Dirt Candy, I had an idea of what needed to be on the menu and each item served a purpose. Here, I was just like, oh screw it, we’ll do whatever we want and hopefully offer enough choices that everyone will be happy.
What freedoms does the bigger location allow?
The greatest gift we ever gave to ourselves was a pasta machine. That changed our world. We can make different shapes and sizes and flavors instead of having to hand roll it. We can bake our own bread because we have enough oven space.
What made you change from a la carte service to a tasting menu last year?
We had always had a tasting menu and that’s what we were getting the most positive feedback on. Partially because we were more experimental with it and partially because it was a good value. It’s hard sometimes in a restaurant to cobble together a meal and not feel like you’re spending way too much money. Here we can give you the right amount of food for the right amount of money. We realized the customers liked it when we chose the dishes for them.
You have so many iconic Dirt Candy dishes, how do you think of new ones?
You never know what people are going to like. You always hope for the best. In general, new ideas come from a flavor I want to explore or a vegetable that I want to put on the menu. Right now we’ve been working on a celery pasta dish I’m trying to play on an iconic celery dish and I started thinking of a Waldorf salad, and then go from there. And then I’ll remember there’s tiny celery, maybe we can make a pesto from tiny celery. Things kind of tumble forward from there.
What’s it like to have a 10-year-old restaurant in New York City?
I hope people are excited to see where we came from and where we are now. We really have grown as a restaurant. The food at little Dirt Candy was amazing, but what we’re doing now is even better. We’ve grown with our customers and they’ve grown with us. I’m really excited to be 10 years old.
IF YOU GO
Dirt Candy hosts 10 Years in 12 Dishes! on Friday and Saturday starting at 5:30 p.m. | 86 Allen St., 212-228-7732 | tickets $125 per person (includes tip but not tax), extra $50 per person for cocktail and wine pairing (includes tip but not tax) at dirtcandynyc.com