Date nut bread is the perfect in-between seasonal dish: not too sweet, but also not too savory, date nut bread is a great break from both the super-sweet treats and the savory portions of holiday dining. As easy to bake as any other fruit bread–even a horrible baker like myself can’t mess it up–date nut bread has the mild sweetness of dates baked into its batter, along with the nutty crunch of walnuts, that makes it a simple bread to bake or buy in the store. And, as a holiday bread, you’ll find mass-produced brands cropping up in grocery stores around this time of year.
But why buy mass-produced, packaged date nut bread when you can have a slice fresh, with a little schmear to go on the side? New York City’s got a deep history with the date nut bread that we may not even think of. Before the popular fad of boutique coffeehouse chains came to the world by way of Seattle, New York had its own national coffee chain: Chock Full O’ Nuts. Back in the 1950s and 60s, it was way more than a yellow tin in the grocery store and a catchy jingle: Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee shops filled the city, and offered breads, cakes, and pastries along with their high-quality coffee. And one of these pastry items became the chain’s signature dish: date nut bread sandwiches filled with cream cheese. The dense, chewy bread and the thick cream cheese made the sandwich quite a filling meal for very little money, and the “starving artists” of bohemian New York grew to be not-as-starving after a trip to Chock Full O’ Nuts. My mom remembers eating at the Chock Full O’ Nuts locations around the city when she was a teenager–it’s where she got her love of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. Although the bread wasn’t baked in-house–all baking was done in CFON’s warehouse facilities in Secaucus–the date nut bread sandwich was a huge hit all the way through the 1970s. But after the original owner died in 1983, the shops all shuttered, and the Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee house brand was a thing of the past.
At least, until now. Just a few years ago, Chock Full O’ Nuts announced they were relaunching their coffee house business in New York, with their first location open on 23rd Street and 5th Avenue in 2010. (Although it may have been an imitation, a Chock Full O’ Nuts cafe opened in Midwood when I was still going to high school, so around 2000 or so. I remember they had the best coffee smoothies there, way better than Dunkin Donuts’ Coolattas.) To reinvigorate their brand, Chock Full O’ Nuts even sponsored a Date Nut Bread Sandwich eating competition through the International Federation of Competitive Eating at Madison Square Garden! How cool is that?? You can order their famous date nut bread sandwiches at any of their new locations throughout the city, and enjoy them as you did when you were young, like my mom, or try them out for the first time and see what all the fuss was about back then!
Chock Full O’ Nuts
“The sandwich, made of two dense slices of date-nut bread slathered with cream cheese, was once a daily fixture of New York City life, particularly for those on a budget. In their respective memoirs, By Myself and Then Some, and Memoirs of a Beatnik, model-turned actress Lauren Bacall and poet Diane di Prima recount how they relied on Chock Full o’ Nuts’ date-nut sandwiches as a primary source of young-artist sustenance. Bacall remembers the sandwiches (10 cents when she ate them in the 1940s) and a cup of coffee (5 cents) being “not substantial, but filling—[they] got me through the day.””–Capital New York
““It finally dawned on us that we were missing the heritage, and that we really needed to get back to the roots of what Chock was really well-known for,” said Jim LaGanke, a vice president of the company, which has continued to sell its self-proclaimed “heavenly coffee” in stores. “We’re going to bring back Chock to New York in a way that people remember it.” Quite literally: the restaurant, on 23rd Street between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, is even offering two versions of its nutty sandwich — the original, on whole-wheat raisin bread with walnuts and Neufchatel cheese, and one with cream cheese on date-nut bread, which many people remember fondly despite its late introduction to the menu, Mr. LaGanke said.”–The New York Times
“You couldn’t pick a better comeback symbol than Chock Full o’ Nuts. For one thing, these lunch counters were the early vanguard of health food. Their meals were cheap, quick, delicious, and nutritious, like their famous Cream Cheese on Date-Nut Bread. In a city full of expensive faux-diners, all claiming to serve old-fashioned comfort food, this wonderful dish hasn’t been seen anywhere on a menu in years.”–The Village Voice
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“My chili-stuffed avocado, a daily special, was delicious and at $7.99 was a bargain for a whole Hass avocado, topped with two ice cream scoops of very good chili.and served with homemade chips The mac and cheese was creamy and old-fashioned and though I would have preferred a sharper cheese in the mix it’s definitely a kid-pleaser. And the date-bread cream cheese sandwich was everything my mother remembered.”–Elizabeth B.
“Love this place! The coffee is good, and the date-nut bread with cream cheese is insane. Our waitress was super nice and friendly. Will definitely be back!”–J. C.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!