By Julie Shapiro
FINANCIAL DISTRICT — The Milk Street Cafe filled with eager lunchtime customers just an hour after opening its doors on Wall Street Thursday morning.
The international food hall — which offers kosher, vegetarian and gluten-free options — won rave reviews from residents and workers who called it an improvement on the Financial District's drab lunch scene.
"I love it," said Elana Winslow, 29, who was eating vegetarian stir-fry and spring rolls with her husband and two young sons. "We're kosher, and it's not so easy to find places to eat."
Winslow lives nearby and said she looks forward to returning frequently to try the wide variety of dishes.
The sprawling menu by executive chef Steven Mettle includes peppercorn-rubbed roast beef, eggplant parmesan, a grilled chicken banh mi sandwich, a "Battery Park" salad with blueberries and spiced pecans, a sushi volcano roll and a caramelized onion focaccia flat bread. Most main dishes cost $10 to $13.
The desserts are all made in-house and include pistachio biscotti and sweet-salty cookies containing peanuts, chocolate chips and potato chips.
After circling the 23,000-square-foot food court Thursday afternoon, Marc Sacher, 40, an Upper East Side resident who works in the Financial District, settled on a smoked turkey salad sandwich.
"There's a lot to choose from," Sacher said, adding that he would likely be back.
Marc and Beth Epstein opened the original Milk Street Cafe in Boston in 1981 and have been working on expanding to New York for years. They devloped the menu by surveying tenants of their 40 Wall St. building, and as a result increased the size of their made-to-order salad stations.
The Epsteins raced around the large dining room Thursday, greeting strangers and old friends alike with broad smiles and battling mini crises like an overactive fire alarm.
"It's crazy, but that's a good thing," Beth Epstein said.
Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith helped ring the restaurant's opening bell earlier in the day and said he was glad to see the 120 new jobs the eatery brought to the neighborhood.
"I've heard of spending your way out of a recession, but not eating your way out of one," Goldsmith joked. "This is a great investment in lower Manhattan."
Milk Street Cafe, 40 Wall St., is open Monday through Thursday 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Catering and delivery will begin in July.