Archive for the ‘Bars and restaurants’ Category

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!

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]