Archive for the ‘Bars and restaurants’ Category

Looking down at mosaic store signs in Little Italy

September 3, 2018

Lots of New York City shops used to have them: mosaics or tile inlays embedded in the sidewalk that proudly spelled out the name of the establishment at the store entrance.

These underfoot signs are few and far between in the contemporary city. But in the Little Italy of Lower Manhattan, specifically on Grand Street off Mulberry, you can still find them.

E. Rossi’s mosaic sign is one of the most colorful. This Italian gift and music store was established in 1910, according to the website.

Piemonte Ravioli opened its doors in 1920 and offers a maddening variety of homemade pasta. The sidewalk sign isn’t as colorful as E. Rossi’s, but it feels authentic and old school.

Ferrara beats E. Rossi and Piemonte when it comes to longevity. This bakery has been cranking out pastries since the late 19th century.

F. Alleva bills itself as America’s oldest cheese shop, founded in 1892. And according to this post from Eater, Tony Danza is one of the owners.

Italian food stores have New York’s best signs

July 23, 2018

Most of them are in the city’s faded Little Italy neighborhoods—white, green, and red store signs with 1970s-style letters spelling out an Italian surname and the choice delicacies they sell.

Mozzarella, ricotta, tortellini, gnocchi: Whatever the vintage sign says, you know you’re in good hands. So many of these old-school Italian food stores have closed up shop, it’s good to celebrate the ones that remain.

Like Piemonte Ravioli on Grand Street. Established in 1920. Reading the “Made Here Daily” sign in the window makes my mouth water.

Same with Russo’s, making mozzarella and fresh pasta since 1908 on East 11th Street—once the center of a mostly defunct Little Italy in today’s East Village.

Italian cakes and pastries are baked on the premises at Caffe Roma on Mulberry Street, going strong since 1891. I like this painted ad better than their actual store sign.

Park Italian Gourmet was unfortunately closed when I walked by on a weekend. Hopefully because it’s on 45th Street in Midtown and the office lunch crowds weren’t there, not because this Italian hero joint has shuttered permanently.

It’s too late for this Italian bakery with a different kind of sign in the Bronx’s Little Italy centered on Arthur Avenue. RIP.

Everyone ate at Jack Dempsey’s in Times Square

May 21, 2018

He wasn’t just a champion heavyweight but a cultural icon of the 1920s and 1930s.

So what does a cultural icon do after his days in the ring are over? Open what today’s critics might consider a celebrity theme restaurant in the busiest part of the city, of course.

Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant, as it was officially called, opened its doors in 1935 on 49th Street, across the street from the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden.

In the restaurant’s early years, Dempsey was known to hold court at a table, a legendary figure greeting customers and glad-handling guests.

“The former heavyweight champion was a gallant hose,” The New York Times wrote a day after opening night. “He was everywhere, from the furthest corner of the glowing main dining room to the edge of the soft red carpet near the entrance.”

Pinned to the lapel of his morning coat was “a kewpie doll. That, it was confidentially explained, symbolized the new venture.”

Times Square changed and the restaurant moved to the Brill Building, and eventually Dempsey’s attracted dwindling crowds. “During its waning years, Mr. Dempsey was a fixture in the corner booth, where he usually sat with his back to the window, greeting customers,” wrote the Times in 2000.

In 1974, the restaurant closed after a lease dispute, its memorabilia lining the walls packed up—but not before an appearance in the first Godfather movie.

Dempsey died in 1983, and today the corner where he held court in his original restaurant on 49th Street is now named for him.

[Third photo: MCNY x2011.34.3827; fourth photo: Wikipedia; fifth image: MCNY 97.146.164]

A last sign of a defunct Italian restaurant in SoHo

April 2, 2018

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]

A 21st Street building’s former life as a hotel

March 5, 2018

It may not have been the poshest hotel in the 19th century city. That honor could be bestowed on the nearby Fifth Avenue Hotel at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, where politicians and power brokers wined and dined.

But Bancroft House, the hotel that occupied the upper floors of the circa-1857 building that still exists at 922 Broadway, filled a niche.

The hotel, on the stretch of Broadway that would soon be known as Ladies Mile near fashionable Madison Square, billed itself as accommodations for “gentlemen” who desired “clean rooms and quiet night’s rest,” according to one 1894 ad in The World.

The price per night for cleanliness and rest: 50 to 75 cents, with weekly rates starting at $3.

Like any hotel, the Bancroft—with its enchanting slate mansard roof and rows of chimneys—has its darker stories. Newspaper archives cite suicides and a grisly 1887 murder-suicide, with a young porter stabbed to death by a guest, who then shot himself in the head.

“It was a crime with only one redeeming feature, from a police point of view,” stated the New-York Tribune, with characteristic bluntness. “The murderer had saved expense to the city by killing himself.”

By 1920, with Madison Square a lot less stylish, the Bancroft became the Hotel Courte. The American Express office on the ground floor remained, but not for long. The third photo above shows that it’s been replaced by a restaurant.

Today the lovely building with the mansard roof houses a deli and is described as a “boutique building” on Streeteasy. The rent for one recent one bedroom: $3495 per month.

[Top and second photo: NYPL; third photo: MCNY, 1920; x2010.18.90]

The forgotten men waiting on a Bowery breadline

January 15, 2018

Bowler hats, thin shoes, and shabby coats that need a good washing—what the men on this Bowery breadline in 1910 are wearing tells us everything we need to know about them.

The bars they’ve lined up next to are advertising Ehret’s and Schaefer beer, both once manufactured in Manhattan (Schaefer eventually relocated to Brooklyn.)

[George Bain Collection/LOC]

Toasting the new year at a dimly lit New York bar

December 31, 2017

It’s probably the oldest New Year’s Eve tradition in New York: gathering with others at a saloon or tavern and raising a glass (or flute, cup, or growler) as the clock strikes midnight.

That’s what photographer George Bain captured these festive folks doing circa 1910, inside a dark room under glass chandeliers and decorative wall-mounted plates. If only we knew the bar or restaurant they where they celebrated!

[Photo: Bain Collection/LOC]

The 1984 murder of a Studio 54 “miss party girl”

September 18, 2017

Connie Crispell lived in New York City from 1974 to 1984.

Her life in the city hit many of the cultural touchstones of the 1970s and 1980s—nights at Studio 54, after-hours clubs downtown, panic over AIDS. Yet her name and her tragic murder have mostly been forgotten.

Born to a prominent family in Virginia, Crispell came to Manhattan at age 22. She rented a two-bedroom at 12 East 86th Street for $500 a month and tried her hand at various jobs—marketing jewelry made out of subway tokens, founding a bartender-for-hire service.

But her true place in the city seemed to be on the dance floor at Studio 54.

Crispell and her roommate, “fell into a routine that began with taking a nap after work,” stated New York magazine in a 1984 article, which quoted a friend describing her as “miss party girl of New York City.”

“They rose at about 10 p.m. and showered. They put on disco music to get themselves in the proper spirit, and Crispell often made a pitcher of vodka tonics. Then they hopped in a cab and headed for Studio 54,” arriving back on 86th Street (below left) at 4 a.m.

By the end of the 1970s, her roommate gave up the party scene and moved out; Studio 54 shut down briefly. Crispell continued to spend money she didn’t have and was evicted from her apartment.

“With some financial help from her family, Crispell moved into a studio apartment in the old FBI building, on East 69th Street,” wrote New York. “She seemed to identify with the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she sometimes called her place ‘my Holly Golightly apartment.'”

As the 1980s began, Crispell worked in an office position with designer Carolina Herrera, then as an account executive at Ogilvy & Mather and later as a salesperson at Brooks Brothers.

Studio 54 reopened again, and Crispell returned night after night. “She became a kind of celebrity of the dance floor and was often admitted to the club without paying,” according to New York.

She dated a blue blood preppie and then moved in with a 60-something diamond tycoon. After that relationship ended, she took a $120 a week room at the all-female Martha Washington Hotel on East 30th Street.

She supported herself by signing up with an escort service that gave her a beeper and sent her to meet men at the city’s poshest hotels.

As her former roommate and other friends fell into more settled lives, Crispell continued to live on the edge. She told people she thought she might have AIDS, and she did a 10-day stint in Bellevue after threatening to jump from a 9th floor apartment.

Once she was released, she was back at Studio 54, inviting fellow club-goers home with her to her new sublet at 58 West 58th Street (above right) in the wee hours of the morning. “Soon Crispell’s home became a kind of salon,” wrote New York, attended by heiresses, designers, and Village People band member Randy Jones.

One of those after-hours party guests, however, was a 20-year-old convict named Charles Ransom. According to newspaper accounts, Ransom said that he and Crispell had sex after she hosted a Kentucky Derby party in April 1984. Afterward, Crispell told him that she thought she had AIDS.

Ransom said he blacked out and strangled Crispell, stuffed her nude body in a trunk, and put the trunk on the balcony of the apartment. He invited two prostitutes to stay at the sublet for several days before the owners returned and called police.

Ransom got a minimum of 25 years in prison. A month after the murder, Crispell’s friends held a memorial at Fifth Avenue’s St. Thomas Church to mourn “the loss of the girl who always wanted one more moment of fun,” wrote New York.

[Top photo: New York; second and third photos: Biography.com; fourth photo: Manhattan Scout; fifth photo: streeteasy.com; sixth image: Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin; seventh photo: New York Post via New York]

A brutal murder on 23rd Street rocks Manhattan

September 4, 2017

By all accounts, life in 19th century New York had been good to Benjamin Nathan.

A spectacularly rich stockbroker known to wear diamond studs on his dress shirts, Nathan was born in Manhattan in 1813.

In the 1850s, he became vice president of the New York Stock Exchange and as a member of the Union Club was one of the few Jewish residents embraced by New York’s business elite.

He used his wealth to support various charities and build himself, his wife, and his eight kids an elegant brownstone at 12 West 23rd Street (above). His four-story house was across from the Fifth Avenue Hotel (below in 1886) in one of the post–Civil War city’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

So who murdered him in his brownstone on the night of July 29, 1870, bashing his skull repeatedly with an iron bar and leaving blood splattered on the walls and floor?

Nathan’s brutal murder rocked the city, and the details are particularly gruesome. His body was discovered first by his 22-year-old son, Washington Nathan, who like his father and older brother, Frederick Nathan, 26, was staying at the house while the rest of the family was summering at their New Jersey estate.

At 6 a.m., “Patrick McGuvin, a janitor at the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel, was hosing down the sidewalk outside the hotel when Washington Nathan burst screaming from the brownstone at 12 West 23rd Street,” wrote Josh Nathan-Kazis (a descendant of Benjamin Nathan) in Tablet magazine.

McGuvin thought Washington was drunk, but then Frederick came onto the stoop screaming too. Both brothers had their father’s blood on their clothes.

When police arrived, they noted that Nathan’s body was found on the second floor (illustration above), and that “Mr. Nathan’s watch, and diamond studs had been stolen, the safe key taken from his clothes, the safe unlocked and some of the contents scattered on the bed,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the next day.

“There were indications that a terrible struggle had taken place at the office door,” stated the Eagle. The working theory was that Nathan—who was last seen by his son Washington at about midnight—had interrupted a burglary.

But questions lingered, and they focused on Washington. “[Washington Nathan] was an intemperate man who frequently fought with his father over his ‘habits of life’—drinking, whoring and reckless spending,” states Murder by Gaslight.

“His character made him the likely killer, and the press noted that he did not exhibit the same level of emotion as his brother Frederick.”

Both brothers had tight alibis. Frederick had gone to Brooklyn to visit a female friend on Carroll Street, then ate a late supper on 21st Street before coming back to the brownstone around midnight, wrote Nathan-Kazis.

Washington spent his time at several Gilded Age hot spots. “Between 7:30 p.m. and 12:20 a.m., Washington claimed to have visited the bar at the St. James Hotel three times, read a magazine at Delmonico’s, visited the Fifth Avenue Hotel, taken in an open-air concert at Madison Square Park, and spent nearly three hours at a brothel.”

After an inquest, however, both brothers were cleared—as was a live-in housekeeper and her adult son, who lived on an army pension and did odd jobs for the Nathans.

In the end, no one was indicted. The police believed he was murdered by professional thieves, even though the value of the items taken was small and it seemed odd to burglarize a house when Nathan was home, rather than on one of the days he was at his summer estate.

It’s been 147 years since Nathan was bludgeoned to death. As Murder by Gaslight put it, quoting infamous NYPD detective Thomas Byrnes: “The Nathan case is, ‘the most celebrated and certainly the most mysterious murder that has ever been perpetrated in New York City.'”

For more on the crimes and tragedies that rocked the Gilded Age city, read The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

[Top image: Tablet; third image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle July 30, 1870; fourth image: Murder by Gaslight; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NY Times; seventh image: NYPL; eighth image: Murder by Gaslight]

Everyone loved Central Park’s mineral water spa

August 14, 2017

You know how clean-eating New Yorkers never go anywhere without a bottle of water? Well, water—specifically mineral water—was a huge health trend in the 19th century city too.

Drinking and bathing in it was known as the “water cure,” which supposedly could treat fever, digestive complaints, and other body issues, as Ann Haddad wrote in in a blog post for the Merchant’s House Museum.

Wealthy New Yorkers took advantage of water curatives hawked by trendy hydrotherapists. They also headed upstate to visit the newly popular mineral spring resort spas.

For those of more modest means, an alternative came to Central Park in 1869: a mineral water “spa” that served several different types of spring-fed water.

The spa was the idea of a mineral water company owner, Carl Schultz, who (along with doctors touting the powers of H20) petitioned the Board of Health to allow him to open a venue in the park that would dispense water.

“The pavilion was erected in 1867 at the request of numerous physicians who felt that here was an opportunity of combining a mineral water cure with exercise in the open air,” recalled Scientific American in 1905.

After getting the go-ahead, Schultz had Central Park co-designers Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould build a delightful, Moorish style pavilion north of the Sheep Meadow at about 72nd Street.

“The waters are of two kinds: first the natural mineral waters from all the famous springs at home and abroad, and second mineral waters prepared artificially and scientifically, thus ensuring a definite chemical combination at all times,” wrote Scientific American.

The mineral water pavilion wasn’t just about clean water. It offered “morning summer recitals as an entertainment for the water-ingesting masses,” stated Ann Haddad.

Morning was an especially popular time at the mineral water pavilion, as seen above in an 1872 Harper’s illustration. According to the caption, these were Jewish New Yorkers socializing and enjoying the refreshing water.

Trends come and go, of course. After the turn of the century, with clean Croton-delivered water available to almost every home in New York City, the popularity of Central Park’s mineral water pavilion took a dive.

By 1960, the colorful little building with the fanciful roof was demolished. Today, the location is marked on park maps as “Mineral Springs,” a testament to the spa’s 19th century popularity.

[Photos NYPL Digital Collection]