There was a time when the shop on the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 83rd Street was a New York neighborhood staple, with its soda fountain, barstools, and snug booths. But the world outside changed; Lexington Candy, for the most part, did not. Stepping into Lexington Candy today is like walking into a 1940s time warp.
The store started out in 1925 as an ice cream parlor and candy store, until the 1940s when it dropped the candy to expand its menu, now mostly sandwiches. Once flanked by a dance studio and a food market (with an old Pepsi-Cola sign), a Pilates studio is to the right these days and a medical supply store stands to the left, signs of changing times. And yet the place still has that old-time neighborhood feel.
Along the walls, pictures document the long-running history of the store. Green-topped swivel barstools line up along the hot pink counter. Behind the counter are curved soda fountains and on the back wall is an original price list, dating to when a milkshake only cost 20 cents. Severs bustle around with Lexington Candy emblazoned on baseball hats of different colors.
John Philis greets his customers by first name as they walk through the door: “Good morning Rob; Good morning Ed.”
A treasured luncheonette on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Lexington Candy celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2015 and is in its third generation of family ownership. When Philis’ grandfather, Soterios, came to the United States, it seemed logical to go into the service industry, which he did with a partner, Tami Naskos. “A lot of immigrants went into the food business because you don’t need to have a strong command of the English language,” Philis explained.
Philis’ father, Peter, started working at the shop around 1930. Not long after the Great Depression was in full swing, Philis’ grandfather couldn’t afford to keep his son on the payroll anymore. “It was still struggling to gain a foothold,” Philis said of the store. “The Depression hit and things were so tough that my father had to go find a job someplace else. He went to work in a fruit stand. He was able to come back after my grandfather’s original partner went back to Greece.”
Peter took over the business in 1948 and Lexington Candy’s look has not changed since then, after its final remodeling job that year. The exterior shop signs remained, the swivel stools remained, the soda fountain remained, and moving into the 21st century hasn’t meant much beyond now delivering food and expanding a social media presence.
Philis says the candy that the store once sold used to be displayed in the windows. “In the 1980s, it became stuffed animals and we use to sell them and put them in the window,” he said. “We did very well with them, but we ran our course. And then customers said, ‘Guys, you gotta put something in your window’.” So in the late ’80s, the store started displaying what is there now: Lexington Candy’s impressive Coca-Cola bottle display, which fills up the Lexington Avenue window and spills into the side street window. The bottles are from all over the world—from Djibouti to Armenia to Indonesia.
Philis said it started out as his own personal collection. “I love Coca-Cola,” he said. “When you travel around the U.S., you find different bottles celebrating different things. It’s a cheap hobby and I found the history fascinating. So I collected and it started growing and growing.”Finally the collection grew so big that John decided to use the empty shop windows to store the display. “I thought, ‘What’s more American than Coca-Cola?’” Customers and pedestrians on the street started taking pictures with the collection and soon, customers going on vacation would bring back bottles for Philis to keep the collection growing. “It’s Americana, it’s nostalgia, and it’s the number one brand in the world and everybody recognizes it,” Philis said.
Although much of the menu is made up of typical diner food, Philis and his partner since 1990, Robert Karcher, fret over its quality and authenticity. The eggs are made in a pan, not on a griddle; the coffee is from Vassilaros & Sons, the same company Philis’ grandfather entered into a partnership with when the shop first opened; the Cokes are made with seltzer and a real shot of pumped cola syrup.
Philis makes it clear that despite the restaurant’s Greek roots, the luncheonette is very much American. “We’re not a Greek diner,” he said. “We just added the Greek salad or Greek omelet a couple of years ago.”
The coffee urns, meanwhile, date back to 1948. And perhaps one of the shop’s most recognizable items is a sea foam green Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer, sitting on the counter. Philis says it dates back to 1940 and when or if the machine breaks down, there are two more machines just like it in the basement ready to replace it.
“It becomes harder and harder to find parts that break down,” Philis said. “But we do have sources around the country that we tap into. The Internet helps tracking things that would be difficult to find and helps us stay the way we are.” Running a business like this, according to Philis, is only done “through a lot of hard work and determination.”
But Lexington Candy’s customers seem to appreciate the effort. Ed Sukenick, a psychoanalyst who lives on the Upper East Side, has been going to Lexington Candy for ten years and loves the fact that the juices are squeezed fresh. “It used to be common,” he said, pointing to the squeezer, in the same style from the ’40s, “and now it’s rare. You know, it’s the little things. This place is a throwback to the days of chocolate egg creams.”
“I have my Ph.D. in egg creams,” John says with a laugh. He puts in a scoop of real malt powder into a metal cup and turns on the Hamilton Beach mixer.