Archive for the ‘Bars and restaurants’ Category

East 70th Street’s pinkish neon coffee shop sign

October 14, 2019

In this photo, some of the letters look red, others are definitely pink.

No matter what colors the letters are, this gorgeous glowing sign for Neil’s Coffee Shop on 70th Street and Lexington Avenue is proof that New York bars and restaurants still feature the city’s iconic iridescent neon store signage.

Neil’s is an under-the-radar kind of place, opened in 1940. And happily, the inside decor and menu are as old-school New York diner as it gets.

Where the hangman lived on Washington Square

September 30, 2019

You wouldn’t know it today, as you walk through the marble arch or past the central fountain. But an estimated 20,000 bodies are buried beneath Washington Square Park.

Paupers, unknowns, prisoners, yellow fever victims—between 1819 and 1821 or 1823 (sources vary), they ended up here, when Washington Square served as the growing city’s potter’s field.

The square, bucolic and out of the way, was an ideal spot for a burial ground. (Above, in the 1880s)

It would be another decade or so before the north side would become “The Row,” a place of fashionable brownstones for the rich. (Below, in 1936)

And though houses were starting to sprout up in what was then the suburb of Greenwich, this was not yet a dense residential neighborhood.

Still, when the potter’s field opened, the gravedigger, Daniel Megie, had to find somewhere to live close to work.

In 1819, this “keeper of the potter’s field,” who also served as the hangman for Newgate Prison at the end of Christopher Street, paid $500 for a corner plot of land on today’s Washington Square South and Thompson Street.

Here, he built a two-story wooden frame shack, “where he could keep his tools and sleep,” according to a 1913 New York Times article.

“For three years he dwelt there, smoothing the resting places in the Field of Sleep,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

As the prison hangman, Megie was tasked with executing prisoners in Washington Square—as legend has it from the infamous “hangman’s elm” on the northwest side of the square.

Megie departed his wood house in the early 1820s, when Washington Square ceased to be a potter’s field and the last public hanging took place.

What happened to him is lost to history.

But his home survived almost for a century, serving as a tavern, general store/soda fountain, and then as a Bohemian hangout Bruno’s Garret and then a coffeehouse/spaghetti dinner restaurant operated by Grace Godwin.

Today, the site of the wood frame house built by Washington Square’s hangman and gravedigger is part of NYU.

[Top image: Jessie Tarbox Beals, 1920; second image: NYPL, 1880s; third image: Berenice Abbott, 1936, MCNY: 89.2.1.126; fourth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; fifth image: NYPL 1925; sixth image: NYPL 1927]

Where you’d go for pierogi and borscht in 1976

September 30, 2019

Things probably haven’t changed much at the East Village’s Ukrainian Restaurant since this ad ran in the New York City phone book in 1976.

But that’s the way the people who run this old-school restaurant on Second Avenue seem to like it.

In business for 50-plus years, it’s a product of Little Ukraine, aka the Ukrainian community that settled in the East Village during and after World War II, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Other holdouts for hearty pierogi, stuffed cabbage, and borsch in the East village include the legendary Veselka.

RIP Kiev; you are missed.

Hot coffee and pie at a Sixth Avenue Automat

May 27, 2019

The last Automat in New York City closed its doors in 1991, and I wish I had the foresight back then to give the hot coffee and much-heralded slices of pie a try.

Instead, I’ll have to suffice with memoirs and stories from old-timers, who happily recall the more than 40 Automats scattered across the city in the middle of the 20th century—their steel and glass sleekness, their comfort, and how sitting in one made a newcomer feel a little more like a real New Yorker.

[Sixth Avenue and 57th Street Automat postcard from 1935: MCNY F2011.33.1809]

The mystery of an East Village lager beer sign

May 20, 2019

I’m not the first old sign enthusiast who came across this beauty of a beer sign on the tenement at 317 East Fifth Street.

Grieve wrote it up back in January, and I’m sure other fans walking along this quiet East Village block noticed the ancient signage, too.

“S. Cort Wines & Lager Beer” the faded outline reads on the left side of the store, over a large window supported by what appears to be a Corinthian-like column.

Looks like the same words appear on the right side of the storefront, which is divided by the building’s stoop.

Apparently workers who were recently renovating this ground floor storefront between First and Second Avenues uncovered evidence of this old East Village liquor store.

Or was Cort’s actually a bar—one that poured many a growler for locals as well cops from the Ninth Precinct a few doors down?

The tenement was constructed in 1867, but the basement-level store wasn’t put in place until 1893, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation via an update at EVG.

But it’s still a mystery when this establishment operated.

Considering the fact that Cort is a German name, it wouldn’t surprise me if S. Cort’s dates back to the turn of the century, when today’s East Village was 19th century New York’s Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany stronghold.

What became of 5 tenements on Elizabeth Street

March 4, 2019

What a difference 107 years make on the tenement block of Elizabeth Street between Prince and Houston Streets.

In the first photo, taken in 1912 by Lewis Wickes Hine, trash is strewn on the uneven Belgian block pavement. Broken-down carts line the sidewalk; boys huddle in the doorway of a bar bearing a sign for the Kips Bay Brewing Company, founded in 1910.

Kids run around, men stand by storefronts, and laundry hangs from fire escapes laden with pots, pans, and other household items.

It’s a Little Italy street of poverty—but it’s also a hive of human activity, rich with the unpretty details of daily life.

Amazingly, the string of tenements at 260 to 268 Elizabeth Street still stand. They’ve been cleaned up and repainted, and the fire escapes are uniform and clean, almost elegant.

Expensive boutiques and a roasting company occupy the storefronts. The Kips Bay bar is gone, as is the tenement across Houston Street. The block is still and tidy, absent of human energy.

But the little 1820s Federal-style house with the dormer windows on the corner still hangs on. (It was once Colonial Cafe, RIP!)

[Top photo: LOC]

The last Tad’s Steaks is in the Theater District

March 4, 2019

New York boasts plenty of trendy, pricey steakhouses. But it’s been a long time since the city has had room for a cut-rate chophouse chain like Tad’s.

Old-timers remember Tad’s, those red and white steakhouses with a late 19th century kind of typeface on its neon signs. They used to occupy Gotham’s crowded, slightly seedy corners from the 1950s and 1990s. (Above, a Tad’s once in Chelsea)

Times Square had a few (at left); one stood at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street too.

I recall another on East 14th Street just east of Union Square, which I think limped along after the Palladium closed and finally became a pizza parlor in the 1990s.

Now, only one Tad’s remains. It’s in the Theater District on Seventh Avenue and 50th Street (below).

The setup is basically the same as it was in 1957, when a North Dakota native named Donald Townsend opened the first Tad’s. He charged $1.09 for a broiled T-bone, baked potato, salad, and garlic bread, recalled the New York Times in 2000 in Townsend’s obituary.

“Little matter that the meat might be cardboard thin, with clumps of fat and sinew,” stated the Times. “For a tenth the price of a fancy steak dinner, a working man could watch his hunk of steer searing under leaping, hissing flames in Tad’s front window—’a steak show” in Mr. Townsend’s memorable phrase.

That broiled steak dinner now runs $9.09. But the cafeteria-style meal is still a bargain if you’re looking for an old-school New York experience or miss the city’s once ubiquitous mini-franchises, like Chock Full O’ Nuts or Schrafft’s.

[Top photo: Renee J. Tracy/Foursquare; second photo: Noiryork.net]

How New York did coffee in the 1950s and 1960s

December 3, 2018

If you’re craving coffee in the contemporary city, you’ve got options: your local Starbucks, a mini-chain like Birch or Gregorys, even a corner no-frills bagel cart.

But in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—before ordering coffee meant navigating a dizzying array of blends and milk options—New Yorkers sipped a simple cup of joe at one humble coffee house: Chock Full o’Nuts.

By the 1960s, about 30 Chock Full o’Nuts restaurants dotted the city. They were so ubiquitous, I wonder if any patrons questioned the name and what nuts had to do with it.

Turns out the chain actually began as a shelled nut shop in 1926.

That’s when a Russian immigrant named William Black opened his first nut store in Times Square, according to Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

By 1932, Black’s original store under a staircase at Broadway and 43rd Street expanded, and he eventually owned 18 nut shops.

But with the Depression still raging, Black “converted his nut shops into inexpensive cafes where a nickel would buy a cup of quality coffee and a ‘nutted cheese’ sandwich—cream cheese with chopped walnuts on lightly toasted whole wheat raisin bread,” states Savoring Gotham.

The famously delicious cream cheese sandwich would eventually be made with date bread, and the menu expanded to donuts, soup, and pie.

When Chock Full o’Nuts reigned as the number one coffee shop in New York City in 1955, the price of a cup came in at just 15 cents.

Customers appreciated the low price, no-tipping policy, and also the cleanliness. Employees prepared the food using tongs, not their hands.

By then, the chain had introduced their own brand of coffee in supermarkets. The catchy TV jingle about the “heavenly coffee” is forever burned into the brains of every native New Yorker born before 1980.

So what happened, and how did Chock Full o’Nuts fall?

After Black died in 1983, the company didn’t adapt to changing consumer tastes, according to a 1990 Washington Post article. In 1988, the 18 remaining Chock Full o’Nuts restaurants were sold to the management chain Riese Brothers.

The last Chock Full o’Nuts hung on in the 1990s at Madison Avenue and 41st Street. In 2010, the name was revived at a new coffee house on 23rd Street, but it closed two years later.

Chock Full o’Nuts ground coffee can still be purchased in stores, its yellow, green, and black coffee can marked by an image of the New York skyline—a reminder of the restaurant’s place in Gotham’s culinary history.

[Top photo: Chock Full o’Nuts website; second photo: MCNY, 1932, 35.165.49; third photo: Chock Full o’Nuts print by Ken Keeley; fourth photo: Chock Full O’Nuts on Cedar Street, New York Times; fifth photo: Chock Full o’Nuts on Canal Street, MCNY, 1980, 2013.3.2.864]

A Midtown bar that still has a wood phone booth

October 22, 2018

Beer has been flowing at P.J. Clarke’s on Third Avenue and 55th Street since Chester Arthur was president.

And while the place looks spiffier than it has in recent years, it’s still one of those old-school saloons that kept its Gilded Age decor, like stained glass, amber lights, and a pressed tin ceiling.

There’s another old New York relic P.J. Clarke’s appears to have held onto: the bar’s wooden phone booth.

Way back in the dinosaur era of payphones, every public place had one: a phone booth with a hinged door and small stool a person would tuck themselves into to make their call out of earshot.

While the phone itself and the seat are no longer in the booth at P.J.’s, the booth itself is still there  beside the end of the bar—only now it’s used to store glasses and napkins.

Not convinced that this casket-like space was a phone booth? Check out how similar its shape is to these, spotted at the Park Avenue Armory in 2010, and this one, at Bill’s on 54th Street, ID’d in 2015.

The Gothic-style Starbucks on Lexington Avenue

September 24, 2018

If you love tall city buildings with Gothic-style architectural touches, then feast your eyes on 511 Lexington Avenue.

This circa-1929 structure features a feast of cathedral-like Medieval dragons, griffins, and grotesques that appear to be ready to launch themselves off the facade and into Midtown.

Four human figures each representing a season are also on the facade, from spring to summer to winter to fall.

Head inside, and overhead you’ll see rows of gilded allegorical characters representing the human experience: one holds a palate, another reads by candlelight, another might be holding a sickle.

Sumptuous displays of Gothic ornamentation can be found all over New York. But this is the first time I’ve seen anything like it at a Starbucks, which (discreetly) occupies the ground floor of this building, the Lexington Hotel.

The 27-story Lexington (check out these cheapo 1930s room prices) was previously known for its mid-century Hawaiian Room and illustrious residents Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe lived here during their marriage in the 1950s.

Now it’s reputation could hinge on having the one Starbucks in New York that features carvings at its entrance that make you think you’re about to order your cold brew in a Normanesque church in Europe.

It’s certainly a lot different from another unusual Starbucks in Greenpoint…housed in a 1920s ex-neighborhood movie theater, complete with awning!