A last sign of a defunct Italian restaurant in SoHo

Not much has happened on Van Dam Street in the last century or so, and one gets the impression that the residents of this short street in the no-man’s-land between Greenwich Village and the western edge of SoHo like it that way.

But amid a block of almost perfectly preserved Federal-style houses from the 1820s, there’s a curious sign hanging off one facade that reads “21 Renato.”

Renato? This sign (hard to see in the photo, as well as on the street) is the last vestige of the restaurant Renato’s, opened at 21 Van Dam Street 1922 and described as “fairly elusive” by The New Yorker in 1941.

This was before SoHo was a luxury loft district, when the area was an Italian working class enclave of spaghetti houses and groceries bordering Greenwich Village.

Run by Italian immigrant Renato Trebbi, the restaurant (decorated by Village resident and illustrator Tony Sarg) attracted locals, businessmen, and an artistic and celebrity clientele.

“Renato’s at lunch time is a businessman’s haven, where women are outnumbered ten to one, perhaps because the feminine appetite isn’t quite up to a four-course midday meal, which is offered for the reasonable consideration of 85 cents to $1.60,” the New York Times noted in 1945.

In the 1960s, the place still sounded like a hideaway for those in the know, according to this restaurant guide written by Tom Wolfe.

“In the beginning 42 years ago it was just a little place belonging to the Village of Edna St. Vincent Millay and painter Tony Sarg,” Wolfe wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. “His murals still decorate the bar in the front of the house.”

Renato’s could have ended up like Arturo’s on Houston Street or even Fanelli’s on Mercer and Prince, Italian-owned neighborhood restaurants that thrived when Soho filled up with people and tourists with money.

But it’s unclear how long Renato’s lasted and if it was able to cash in on the crowds that came downtown in the 1970s and 1980s. This 1975 Edmund Gillon photo from the Museum of the City of New York, above, shows the Federal houses on Van Dam Street and the Renato’s sign on number 21 at right.

Renato himself died in New Jersey in 1985, but his sign remains.

[Third photo: eBay; fourth photo: Columbia University; fifth photo: MCNY; 2013.3.2.978]

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9 Responses to “A last sign of a defunct Italian restaurant in SoHo”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Wait……did I miss? Is it completely gone? No restaurant? Dob!!!

  2. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Sob! is what I meant!

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Right, no restaurant….

  4. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Per city directories, the first listing for Renato Trebbi at that address is in 1933 and the last is in 1960.

  5. Zoé Says:

    It’s obscurity was probably part of its charm. Sad…

    Tom Wolfe wrote a “restaurant guide” for the paper (?!). Those reviews must be great to read. Like Jeffrey Steingarten’s.

  6. Greg Says:

    More on Renato’s in the comments here,http://forgotten-ny.com/2014/06/sohos-historic-district/, some report it closed in 1976.

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    I wonder if anybody tries to get a reservation at the restaurant any more?

  8. Patricia M. Says:

    I’ve walked by it a thousand times and always meant to look it up. Thank you! Too bad it’s gone.

  9. devrah spadone Says:

    I worked in that big warehouse building in the photo to the left. It was a printing shop in the days when we still had hot type and the offices ran 24/7. I had a job doing paste ups and lay outs and later trained as a proofreader on the graveyard shift! Going to Hunter College during the day! Lasted about a year. I remember the restaurant and was treated for cocktails and dessert by a fellow employee back in 1972!

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