There's something special about the 91-year-old Lexington Candy Shop, a humble luncheonette on the Upper East Side at the corner of 83rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Maybe it's the vintage decor: neon signs, a chrome-accented counter and signed celebrity photos. Maybe it's the 1940 Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer, admired by generations of customers. Or it could be the fact that Lexington Candy Shop still belongs to the family that opened it in 1925.
As a child, co-owner John Philis loved "going to Dad's store and having an ice cream soda." At the age of 7 or 8, he would come in to help on parade days — Puerto Rican Day, Columbus Day, St. Patrick's Day — by busing tables. Once Philis turned 12 and could take the subway alone, he started working the counter and the register. Then as a college student at New York University, he waited tables and learned to work the grill.
As his father edged toward retirement, Philis decided he would take over running the restaurant. "It was difficult to let a successful business that had been there for 50 years just disappear," he says. He thought he would do it for just a couple of years. "Two years is now 36. It's been successful." Philis' son joins him on busy days; he also has a longtime business partner, Robert Karcher.
Here are three secrets to Lexington Candy Shop's enduring appeal.
- The iconic Hamilton Beach triple spindle mixer.
Proudly occupying a spot on the mirror-walled back counter is the mint-green 1940 milkshake mixer. "This is a centerpiece of the store," Philis says. "People go nuts when they see it." Customers are always asking him questions about it, he says: "How old is that? How difficult is it to get parts? What happens when it breaks down?" The mixer has been working fine for more than 75 years, he tells them, and when it needs maintenance he brings it to a local repairman.
Fifteen years ago, Philis bought a new Hamilton Beach drink mixer to use while the old one was in the shop. It didn't go over well, he says: "People were aghast that we got rid of the machine." Tired of explaining that the switch was just temporary, he went down to the Bowery, "rummaged around," found another 1940s machine and bought it. Later he picked up a third Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer. To customers, he says, "they're all 'the big green machine.'"
- The best milkshakes in New York City.
It's not idle boasting. USA Today named Lexington Candy Shop's "frosted" to its list of the best milkshakes in the U.S., and CBS New York calls it the best milkshake in New York. The vintage mixer churns out 150 to 200 milkshakes a day on a weekend, Philis says.
Quality ingredients are key to a perfect shake, Philis says: "When you've got all great ingredients, and you blend them together, it works out great." Lexington Candy Shop makes its own syrups in four flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and coffee. Philis uses Bassetts Ice Cream, a super-premium brand made by a Philadelphia family since 1861.
- Doing things the old-fashioned way.
Lexington Candy Shop's commitment to the past is about service, not just appearance. Instead of squirting fountain drinks from speed guns, servers pump the syrup, manually add seltzer from a gooseneck and mix the drink with a spoon. Orange juice is always squeezed to order. Malts are made with genuine malt powder. There's no computer system, so grill cook Ivan has to remember all the orders flying at him. After 20 years on the job, he's a pro.
Favorite menu items include the butter burger (exactly what it sounds like — a burger topped with a scoop of melting butter) and the Lexington Special (roast beef, bacon, melted American cheese and a fried egg with butter and Russian dressing). The luncheonette's only nod to modern diets was adding a Greek salad to the menu a few years back. "We don't change," Philis says proudly. "We don't try to be trendy at all. We know our niche, and we stick to it."
Read our profile of another classic restaurant with killer shakes and a 1940s Hamilton Beach drink mixer: Pie 'N Burger in Pasadena, Calif. Do you love your classic drink mixer too? Tell us about it and your restaurant could be featured on our blog.