I had the best seat in the restaurant. Looking out the large front window at Thai 51, I got to watch people passing by on East 51st Street, New York City: Twenty-something visitors headed to the Pod hotel next door, he with an over-sized backpack on his back, she rolling a small suitcase behind her; a dark-haired woman with manicured nails wearing a flower-patterned dress and heels, on her way home from work, smoking a cigarette and talking on her cell phone; a pony-tailed young woman out for an evening jog in her grey sweatshirt, pink shorts and sneakers, headphones on; a young couple dressed up for a night out on the town, her hair pinned up, the nape of his neck still damp from the shower, his hand resting comfortably on her lower back. I marvel that neither his blue shirt and pressed pants nor her black dress are limp from the humidity, as my clothes have been for the last four days. I watched them all pass by, in the midst of living their lives, and enjoyed the notion that I was witnessing a half hour in the life of a real neighborhood and not tourist central.
When I had walked in the front door of the restaurant, I thought I would have to ask for a window seat, but the waitress greeted me and immediately led me in that direction. I was stunned when I saw where she was leading me: To a table for one. Literally. It was a two-top that was pushed right up against the wall, with just one chair and one place setting, facing the window. It was clearly intended for a solo diner. I couldn’t believe it. But I knew instantly this was the restaurant for me.
My waitress was Asian. She was pleasant and smiled a lot, but didn’t try to be my friend, which was fine. When she walked away to get my water, I had a chance to look around. The restaurant was small, not as loud as you might think with a party of six sitting behind me (two of them children), and I could still hear the top 40 music playing in the background. I took advantage of the Early Bird special–3 courses for $17. For an appetizer, I ordered the vegetable dumplings. They were delicious–moist in the center, with the added crunchiness of a topping that might have been fried onions or crushed wonton strips. I’m not sure. For the life of me, I can’t recall what the dipping sauce was, or what it tasted like. I was too taken with the street theater for which I had a front row seat.
My main course was the chicken with Thai fried rice. The presentation was fairly plain–a huge mound of rice, scattered with bits of pineapple, tomatoes, onions, scallions and egg, with the chicken tucked away inside. Digging out the chicken was like unearthing buried treasure. It was a fine meal, but not the best Thai I’ve ever had. I found myself missing the ginger chicken stir-fry from Tiny Thai in Essex, VT. The water, by the way, came in a pseudo Mason jar with a handle. Cute, but it didn’t feel very Thai to me.
Next to the table for one, my dessert was the biggest surprise to me. I ordered the coconut Thai pudding. It was quite hot. I wasn’t expecting that. It had the consistency of custard, with a mild coconut flavor. It was all right, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.
I would, however, return to Thai 51 whenever I stay at the Pod Hotel. It’s conveniently close, reasonably priced, and the food and service is solidly good. But most of all, I would want to reward any restaurant with the thoughtfulness and foresight to include a table for one in its floor plan–especially one that looks out onto the street for people-watching. I will try to ignore the cynic in me that is whispering that it might have been the only way they could squeeze another table into the place.