Sophie, the Soul Behind Casse-Croute, an Eatery in Tribeca

February 2006

“The smell was terrible” says Sophie, the franco-tunesian owner of Casse-Croute located on West Broadway between Warren and Murray in Tribeca.

After three years of apartment hunting, she had eventually found an apartment she liked. “It was a dump and needed serious renovations” says Sophie “but it was spacious and I was seduced by the view that it offered on the towers of the World Trade Center”.

“One month later”, she recalls, “I was at home, sleeping, when my sister calls me from France”.

“Where are you?” wonders her sister.

“At home.” replies Sophie.

‘Don’t you know what happened?” retorts her sister.

“I went to the window and remained speechless. All I could see was a black cloud and flames coming out of the towers” remembers Sophie. “I went down on the street to look at what was going on. This is when the towers collapsed.”

For Sophie a new chapter of her life was about to begin.

At a time where many businesses were closing down after the fall of the two towers, Sophie felt that it was the moment to fulfill her dream of opening her own place: “Tribeca had suffered tremendous losses, in human lives and in business. Nobody had the nerve to open anything down here. Yet something was telling me that this was the time to be here, to do something down here. The rents were low. I went ahead.”

In April 2002, Sophie opened Casse-Croute, an eatery in Tribeca.

Cooking was not Sophie’s passion. She grew up in a family of seven children in Southern France (on Casse-Croute’s walls lavender bouquets and pictures featuring Sophie in endless lavender fields are a nod to her roots).

Her mother did most of the cooking and, once in a while, her father or one of her sisters took over in the kitchen. They all enjoyed it. Sophie, however, never felt the urge to join in the family pastime. Her passion was traveling, which she did for fourteen years as an air hostess, first based in London, then in New York.

For Sophie “It was an easy and carefree life but after fourteen years I wanted to spend more time with my husband.” Her husband worked in a restaurant and was a gifted networker. They opened two successful restaurants on the Upper East Side (Ciao Bella and Baraonda). But after her divorce, Sophie longed for a radical break from the Upper East Side’s glitz. The break could not have been more radical.

Casse-Croute deserves the eatery name. The place is so tiny that it could be easily by-passed if it weren’t for the beautiful looking quiches in the window and the blackboard listing the changing daily menu on the sidewalk.

Casse-croute means sandwich in French. This is exactly what Sophie had in mind when she opened her eatery. “Initially I wanted to keep it simple: sandwiches and salads. I had no idea that, one day, I would produce quiches, tourtes, and other home-made specialties.” She adds: “As a matter of fact I had never thought that I would ever be cooking.”

“As it happened, I made a dish one day at a customer’s request, then another request was made and one thing led to another. In fact, I am not doing anything complicated. I remembered simple dishes that my mother or my sister made at home. I keep it simple but always use fresh and quality ingredients as well as lots of herbs.”

The dishes may be simple, according to Sophie. However, they are so delicious that she has attracted a crowd of regulars that do not mind squeezing in on the half dozen stools lining up at two tiny counters.

The customers do not seem to be bothered by the narrowness of Casse-Croute, to the contrary. They keep coming back and ask for more “I come at least once a week, sometimes more, for the best onion soup in town.” says Marta, a free lance video script writer.

As a matter of fact, it is exactly the narrowness and the stools that contribute to a unique ambiance and facilitate the communication between Sophie and the customers and among the customers. Marta raves to me about the Argentinean UN diplomat that comes regularly but Sophie does not leave her much time “He is married” does Sophie interject.

In just a few years Sophie has managed to create a set of faithful clients with whom she developed close relationships. She knows their names, their jobs, their favorite dishes. “There are many customers from the City Hall. The secretary of the mayor comes here. I also have a famous judge that comes all the time as well as writers. Some that wrote best sellers, others that were on Oprah. They like the relaxed atmosphere. Nobody bothers them.”

Some clients became friends, like Marie, the blonde Dutch-speaking Belgian Tribeca resident that pops in to say Hi. Sophie asks her “What are you doing this Friday?” to which Marie answers: “Going to the movies with you, of course!”

Another client orders shitake quiche to take out and asks Sophie if she knew a good plumber to repair his faucet. Sophie offers to send her handyman over to have a look at it.

Others, like Steve, a journalist writing for the New York Times magazine, pops in to enjoy a home-made lentil soup and a tourte (a type of quiche filled with meat and with a crust top) and regrets that his two-year old keeps him too busy to come over more often.

Behind her warmth and friendliness, Sophie is also a die-hard professional. Nothing escapes her. While exchanging the latest news with her customers, she directs her staff, reminding them to wipe the counter when a new customer sits down, although the counter looks pristine, or to change a glass of iced water on which she spotted a finger imprint. Every dish, whether it is served at the counter or taken out, is prepared with great care leaving each customer with a feeling of being uniquely catered for.

With her warmth, personality and passion in all she does, Sophie is one of these unique human beings that are capable of creating a little neighborhood haven in which people meet and talk while enjoying a good meal.

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