There is nothing groundbreaking about the sandwich: slices of avocado, Cabot sharp cheddar, sprouts, red onion, tomato, and mayo that’s spiked with the smoky heat of chipotles. The bread — honeyed seven-grain from Tom Cat Bakery — is nice, but not immediately noteworthy, either. It arrives in plain white paper, and the fanciest thing is the scripty font used on the “Today’s Special” sticker that’s stuck to the side.
Yet when you see a line forming outside of Olive’s — the beloved Soho lunch institution — on Thursday afternoons, you might catch the vibe that you’re missing out on something important. And you’d be correct. Because this sandwich can only be enjoyed one day a week, and it’s truly the perfect lunch.
New York is a city filled with icon-level sandwiches: pastrami from Katz’s, the Russ & Daughters Super Heebster, the foil-wrapped BEC you order at any decent deli. These are canon sandwiches, and it’s time for Olive’s Thursday special to take its place among them. This is, after all, a sandwich that has nourished its fans, one day a week, for almost three full decades.
At its core, the Thursday Sandwich is a New York take on a California sandwich. “The ‘Hippie Sandwich,’ as our staff called it, was an overnight hit,” says Nicholas Hartman, who owns Olive’s with his wife, Toni. The original shop opened on Wooster Street in 1992, and quickly found a following among its Soho neighbors, which at the time were largely mom-and-pop shops, small restaurants, and galleries. “All of these owners had one thing in common,” Hartman says. “They loved their work and didn’t have time for a sit-down lunch. Toni’s vision was to have every benefit of a sit-down lunch, but have a menu specifically made to travel.”
Pre-wrapped sandwiches are, as a rule, generally much worse than fresh-made versions. But somehow, Olive’s always nails the timing: The sandwiches never lose any textural charm. And the Thursday sandwich is all about textural charm: soft, sweet, seeded bread; the crunch of onions and sprouts; the creamy, epic cheese-avocado-mayo team-up.
While the shop didn’t initially offer any specials, Hartman says they showed up about a month and a half after they opened, and they have long been a staple of the Olive’s experience. Grilled shrimp on white bread on Tuesdays. Flank steak on Italian baguettes on Wednesday. And this glorious, life-affirming beauty each and every Thursday.
There is nothing about this sandwich that demands its Thursday-only availability — last time I checked, you could buy cheddar and avocado every other day of the week — but the limits on when it can be ordered are another detail that help make it special. It forces customers to avoid falling into any kind of lunch rut (you simply cannot eat this sandwich each day for lunch, no matter how much you want to), and it gives you something to look forward to.
I discovered the sandwich soon after moving to New York in 2009. I had spent my college years doing what most students do: Washing down Taco Bell Fourthmeal with ice-cold cans of Beast. But a history of high cholesterol in my family — and a doctor’s recommendation to take a daily pill to bring down my own numbers — meant I’d take matters into my own hands and make the move to a vegetarian diet. My co-workers introduced me to the vegetarian gems of the Soho lunch scene, like pillowy samosas from Lahore Deli and black-bean burritos from the original Calexico cart on Wooster Street. But nothing was as satisfying as the Olive’s Thursday sandwich.
I am not here to preach the gospel of vegetarian eating. I’m once again an omnivore, albeit one who eats far fewer animal products than before and tries to focus on the small, the local, and the sustainable. But as our oceans rise and fires rage while the plant-based conversation becomes increasingly mainstream, eating less meat feels less like a personal preference and more of a social responsibility. That notion gives at least one more point to the Thursday Sandwich: One of the most delicious lunches you can eat in this city also happens to be free of meat. It also speaks to the sandwich’s timelessness: 30 years into its existence, it dovetails perfectly with the current wellness moment.
Though the actual Olive’s store relocated a few years ago, and a Brookfield Place outpost opened in 2014, the sandwich remains the same. That’s how its fans prefer it. “We have been blessed by our customers’ love affair with this sandwich,” Hartman says. “We always hear it: ‘It’s the happy sandwich,’ and ‘I start thinking about this sandwich on Wednesday night.’” In a city that’s constantly changing, it’s comforting to know that those seven simple ingredients are still hanging out together, still efficiently feeding a hurried crowd looking for a delicious lunch to make their Thursday something to look forward to.