Moulard duck and pommes sarladaise have their place in the city’s system of persuasion, but for those looking to bend the ear of Patterson and Cuomo appointees at the secret Financial District power-lunch spot deep in the basement of the Equitable Building, humble vegan fare like bean strogonoff and boiled cauliflower has taken on a new prestige. The privilege of the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat buffet (soup included), as well as access to sundry New York City muckety-mucks, costs a whopping $4.98, no reservations necessary.
For five years, Little Lad’s, marked only by a handwritten sign, has occupied a windowless, underground corner of the Equitable Building on Broadway. Despite low ceilings, a sub-street-level location and taxing weather outside (90 degrees, humidity index 75 percent), Little Lad’s was humming on a recent Wednesday afternoon, with suits descending into the gloom to fortify themselves on Integrated Bean Soup and Nice Cream. “It’s a very positive place,” a senior staff member from the Office of the Attorney General, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Transom, “in everything from the quality of the natural foods to the quality of the people and the environment.” A city commissioner, who also requested anonymity, said that the “warm, spiritual element” of the restaurant made him sense that “the food was prepared and served with a lot of love.”
The décor strikes a note somewhere between Dutch colonial and Midwestern pizza parlor. After loading up at the buffet, customers sit at leatherette booths and cafeteria-style tables, absorbing their meals beneath stained-glass windows and wallpaper depicting photorealistic tulips. “Little Lad’s is like that kid in high school who should be a loser but is actually admired by everyone because he does what he wants and has no clue about what’s trendy,” Jonathan, a researcher for the NYC Criminal Justice Agency, told the Transom after a lunch of rib-sticking fare.
The agitprop is unconcealed at Little Lad’s, which welcomes customers with a foyer brimming with books like Don’t Drink the MILK! Frightening Medical Facts About the World’s Most Overrated Nutrient and The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan. Rhubarb tarts lie alongside DVDs filed into categories like Foods That Kill and Aspartame: Sweet Poison, and a television in the corner screens Vaccine Nation, a documentary that posits a link between government vaccines and autism. “If you ever think about having children,” Larry Fleming, the owner of Little Lad’s, advised the Transom, “you might want to watch this.”
Mr. Fleming, 63, is a Seventh Day Adventist who lives on a farm in Maine and commutes 500 miles to Manhattan twice a week in a truck packed with fresh produce to work at his restaurant. When pressed to reveal where he sleeps on his city visits, Mr. Fleming admitted that he often doesn’t sleep at all: “After I drop the truck off in Brooklyn, I go straight to the Hunt’s Point market to load up on fresh food,” he told the Transom. “Then I’m back at the restaurant at 6 a.m. the next day.” An employee confirmed his schedule.
Mr. Fleming cuts a stoic and symmetrical figure, calling to mind the sort of actor cast in TV shows to play a fictional U.S. president. “I grew up on a cattle farm in Washington,” he explained. “Yippee-ki-yay.” Mr. Fleming’s dietary philosophy–he emphasizes a “hearty breakfast, light supper and vigorous mastication”–originates in his faith, to which he converted in the early 1970s after witnessing the transformative effects of a good diet at a Chicago school for emotionally disturbed children, where he was a teacher.
Like Alice Waters, the Little Lad’s owner has taken a seasonal approach to cooking for decades, preparing food based on what shows up at the market or on his farm. Unlike Ms. Waters, he does not wear elfin hats or serve eight-dollar grapes on a plinth. (Mr. Fleming wears a suit and charges one dollar for grapes.)
Customers pay according to an honor system (“I had waffles and guacamole”), and those who don’t have cash on hand are told to settle up the next time they come in. The restaurant takes its name from a passage in John 6:8-9, in which an unnamed boy–a “little lad”–offers Jesus a modest basket of bread and fish, which the Lord in turn dispatches to feed the multitudes.
Lennon Edwards, an attorney who lunches daily at Little Lad’s, was eager to share his story with the Transom. “My secretary came upstairs one day and told me she’d gotten lunch downstairs for a few dollars,” he said. “I told her, ‘That’s impossible.’ So I came down and got myself a Chick-in-Salad for lunch. Then I realized it wasn’t chicken salad, and I thought it was disgusting. But my cholesterol was high, so I came back and ate here for 30 days, and at the end of the month my cholesterol went down 37 points. I’ve been eating here ever since.”
Mr. Edwards’ account proved typical, as a stream of vibrant-looking customers followed with their own testimonials. “This is the only place I can happily spend my money,” Roby Seth, an accountant, told the Transom. Ira, a city planner, recalled phoning Mr. Fleming from the White House to report that his allergies had vanished as a result of following Mr. Fleming’s advice. “Not only is the food great,” a customer named Dominic chimed in, “but the people here are friendly. Everything that I eat–every vegetable–I learn what it’s good for and where they got it.”
Mr. Fleming, who works the register four days a week, welcomes questions about his eating theories. When asked why the three-bean salad contains no vinegar, he explained, “In the Bible, Jesus says, ‘My enemies gave me vinegar to drink.’ It’s an acetic acid, so it shouldn’t touch your skin. I want to make a brochure with a guy wearing a chemical suit while he puts dressing on his salad.” Mr. Fleming also advises against drinking water with meals. “When you eat, food mixes with your saliva, which is acid,” he told the Transom. “But you know what dilutes acid? Water. If you spill acid on something, you put water on it right away. Quit drinking with your meals, and you’ll get way more satisfaction.”
A self-taught chef and father of six, Mr. Fleming is capable of pausing mid-sentence, engaging a flood of customers, and picking up exactly where he left off. “During World War II,” he told the Transom, “they found a guy in a concentration camp who was not as emaciated as everyone else. They thought–Hi, Leslie!–he was ratting on people and getting food as a reward. What they found is that he actually chewed each bite 200 times, getting more nutrition as a result.”
Having opened restaurants in Oslo, Japan, and most recently in Nigeria, Mr. Fleming is proficient in many languages. Over the course of a three-hour lunch rush, the Transom witnessed conversations with customers in Thai, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Serbian, Spanish, French, Tagalog and Farsi. “The challenge,” Mr. Fleming explained, “is to figure out which language to speak [to a customer]. I have an 85 percent success rate.” Actually, it appeared closer to 99 percent, with the sole error arising from a misapprehension of Nepalese dialect. The mistake was hastily corrected.
Between bites of coconut bonbon, customers updated Mr. Fleming on their ailments and thanked him for his hospitality. One woman promised pictures from her wedding, for which one of Mr. Fleming’s daughters sewed bridesmaid dresses. “Jess-i-ca,” Mr. Fleming greeted a pink-haired Chilean woman who stood in line for a lemon-blueberry cookie. (“Stressed is desserts spelled backwards,” goes one of his favorite mottoes.) A Japanese-born customer paused to exchange reminiscences about Osaka, and Larry, a trim IT specialist, extolled the spaghetti and wheatballs. The ano
nymous commissioner, for his part, testified that Little Lad’s is “the best lunch that you can get.” Mr. Fleming deflected all compliments. “We’re called Little Lad’s, but really we’re Hidden Lad’s,” he said. “I’m always getting better than I deserve.”