Archive for the ‘Bars and restaurants’ Category

Brooklyn’s most charming doughnut shop sign

July 6, 2020

New York once had lots of neighborhood doughnut places, and this stamp-size shop on Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay keeps the tradition alive. Also known as Shaikh’s Place, Donut Shoppe still has the original sign installed by the shop’s first owner decades ago.

The shop has diversified over the years, adding to the menu tacos, chicken sandwiches, and other eats reflecting the changing demographics of this working class neighborhood. But people still flock here for the heavenly glazed and iced spheres of fried dough.

[Thanks to Duane Sherwood for sending the photo]

Travel back in time with vintage NYC store signs

June 29, 2020

The New York City of the moment is bringing many people down. Luckily, we can escape with a little time traveling thanks to these old-school store signs.

Matles Florist has been in Manhattan since 1962, and the vintage sign with the very 1960s typeface shows it. The store is on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

Is there anything better than a not-fancy New York pizza place? I don’t know how long Belmora, on East 57th near Lexington, has been cranking out slices, but the sign in the colors of Italy looks like it goes back to the 1970s.

Mike Bloomberg was apparently a fan of J.G. Melon, the corner restaurant made famous by its burgers. The place got its start in 1972, and it’s certainly possible the no-frills vertical neon sign dates back to the 1970s as well.

What the White Horse Tavern meant in the 1950s

June 22, 2020

The rough edges are long gone from the White Horse Tavern, the corner bar at Hudson and West 11th Streets that’s been serving drinks (not always under that name) since 1880.

Originally this dark, old school bar (above, in 1961) catered to longshoremen and locals. Today, it’s spiffed up for a sidewalk cafe kind of crowd.

But for a moment in time in the 1950s, this saloon with the white horse heads in the windows became a place for writers.

These writers, mostly young men, gathered in the wood-paneled back room to talk books, culture, and politics with others from across the political spectrum.

The White Horse’s postwar literary crowd were drawn to Dylan Thomas (right), the Welsh poet who became a regular, reportedly because it reminded him of the bars in Wales.

It was also where he had his last drinks, having collapsed on the sidewalk after downing 18 shots of whiskey on November 3, 1953. Thomas died at St. Vincent’s Hospital three days later.

His death enhanced the White Horse’s rep (above in 1940), and young writers made the place their own, according to Dan Wakefield, at the time a 23-year-old freelance writer living on Jones Street.

“We regulars in the back room thought of ourselves as underdogs and rebels in Eisenhower’s America,” recalled Wakefield in his 1992 memoir, New York in the 1950s.

“Most often when I went to the White Horse I was waved to a table by Mike Harrington, the author and activist who served as the informal host of an ongoing seminar on culture and politics, dispensing information and opinion interspersed with great anecdotes about left-wing labor leaders and colorful factional fights of political splinter groups I could never keep straight….”

The writers of the White Horse weren’t just left-wing. “Adding to the social life and political repartee in the back room of the Horse were fresh young righties,” noted Wakefield, who wrote that they “turned out to be perfectly pleasant, witty, intelligent people, and we lefty liberals and right-wing conservatives found we had more common ground of conversation and interest with one another” then with those who wee apolitical.

It’s hard to imagine in our polarized social media era, but people really used to get together in person at bars and engage in free-ranging conversations about books, politics, and culture.

Art D’Lugoff, who opened the Village Gate nightclub, recalled in Wakefield’s book: “I used to make the rounds of the bars—Julius’s for those fat hamburgers on toast, then the San Remo, the Kettle of Fish, and the White Horse. Booze was a social thing. The bar scene wasn’t just to get drunk. It was like the public square in a town or a sidewalk cafe in Paris—comradely meeting and talking.”

At the White Horse, Wakefield mixed with Norman Mailer, Seymour Krim, and James Baldwin (above in 1955), who lived on Horatio Street and was often targeted by the working-class Irish and Italians in the neighborhood.

Baldwin wasn’t the only one, Wakefield wrote, explaining that local Villagers “regarded all bohemians as suspicious interlopers. The hostility toward all nonconformists was heightened during the McCarthy fervor of the fifties, when mostly Irish kids from the surrounding area made raids on the Horse, swinging fists and chairs, calling the regulars ‘Commies and faggots.'”

The White Horse (above in 1975) was something of a neighborhood respite, and the bar’s literary reputation continued even after Wakefield left New York City in 1962.

At some point decades later, the vibe changed. These days, under new ownership, the White Horse (above, 12 years ago) is more neighborhood pub than literary hangout. But for a short time in postwar Greenwich Village, a crowd of young writers mingled with one another and volleyed ideas and opinions around that back room with passion, energy, and excitement.

[Top image: LOC; second image: Bunny Adler; third image: Danwakefield.com; fourth image: Carl Van Vechten; fifth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; sixth photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.613]

An 1897 building and a changing West 57th Street

June 1, 2020

When Lee’s Art Shop closed in 2016, New Yorkers lost an interesting and unusual place to buy art supplies and crafts.

What was also lost? An excuse to visit interesting and unusual 220 West 57th Street.

Lee’s occupied the four-story building since 1975. Completed in 1897, the building reflects the rise and fall of this stretch of 57th Street as both a cultural hub and a point along Manhattan’s “Automobile Row.”

It’s not easy to recognize now, as 57th Street is undergoing luxurification with new offices and residential towers. But in the late 19th century, the street first took shape as an artistic center.

Early apartment residences that catered to artists and musicians went up, such as The Osborne across the street.

Studio buildings were also built, joined by the Art Student League (also across the street), Carnegie Hall (a half-block east), and numerous galleries and music showrooms.

So it made sense when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which included architects, decided to build their headquarters in the late 1890s on West 57th Street, a budding center of the arts and creativity.

The ASCE clubhouse, complete with reading rooms, a library, and an auditorium, opened its doors in November 1897. (Above left, in 1897, and at right, in 1903.) Reviews lauded the building as interesting, artistic, and harmonious.

One reviewer called it “a beautiful example of French Renaissance in Indiana limestone richly carved,” per the Landmarks Preservation Commission report in 2008.

In 1917, after an annex had been added, the ASCE moved to West 39th Street and began leasing 220 West 57th Street.

The businesses that rented and altered the space in 1918 were also a reflection of the industry that encompassed Broadway and West 57th Street: cars.

Early in the century, Broadway between roughly Times Square and West 66th Street was the city’s “automobile row.”

“By 1910, there were dozens of automobile-related businesses, including many small automobile or body manufacturers, lining Broadway particularly between West 48th Street and Columbus Circle,” stated the LPC report.

Ajax Rubber Company, which made tires, moved into 220. The ground floor was renovated with big showroom windows, and then the ground floor was subleased to Stearns-Knight Automobiles, a luxury car maker based in Cleveland.

Automobile Row lasted into the 1980s. But by the late 1920s, 220 West 57th changed hands again.

It became a Schrafft’s, the casual lunchroom-restaurant chain with franchises all over the city (and such a storied New York business in the 1940s and 1950s, it even made it into a J.D. Salinger story).

Schrafft’s served its much-loved sandwiches, ice cream, and even alcohol (after Prohibition was lifted) for almost 50 years here, catering to shoppers and theater-goers until the chain’s better days had passed and stores shut down in the 1970s.

Lee’s took the space in 1975, later expanding to all four floors. Remnants of the previous tenants remained, according to Christopher Gray, who visited the space in 2000.

“But all around there are tattered fragments of the 1897 building: delicate plaster friezes of floral ornament, wooden trim and gilt decoration,” wrote Gray in The New York Times. “And a Schrafft’s devotee could recognize the restaurant’s 1928 brass and iron staircase, and the marble trim around the second-floor elevator.”

Twenty years after Gray’s visit, Lee’s is gone, and the building sits empty. What’s to become of the delicate limestone structure designed to fit into West 57th’s artistic and then automobile ethos? There’s been talk of new development, but it remains to be seen.

[Third image: American Architect and Building News via Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; fourth image: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; sixth image: Alamy; seventh image: LOC]

The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan

May 11, 2020

Sometimes you come across one outside tony pre- and postwar apartment buildings (and some businesses): a small sign that says taxi, or just a lone light bulb under the awning or affixed to the facade.

It’s probably unlit when you see it, but illumination is the whole point.

At night, if a resident needed a taxi, a doorman could turn on the sign from inside. A cabbie looking for a fare would see the lighted sign from the street and drive over. (Below, on Sutton Place and East 57th Street)

In a city whose yellow taxi fleet has been squeezed by ride hailing apps (not to mention this year’s stay-at-home orders), the idea of relying on a sign to get a cab sounds old-timey.

But even in the two decades before Uber came along, I’d actually never seen one turned on. Did anyone ever use these taxi beacons? (On York Avenue, right)

The New York Times asked the question in 2003, and doormen at the time said no. “‘They just drive on by,'” one doorman in a building on 79th Street and York Avenue told reporter Rob Turner. ”’We only do it to make the residents happy.”’

The Times posed the question o Andrew Alpern, author of Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

“[Alpern] suggests that these urban fireflies date to the 1940’s, or more specifically World War II. As men went off to war, a dearth of doormen ensued,” the Times article explained.

”Without a doorman to hail the cab for you,” the article quotes Alpern, ”they may have started putting in these lights so that the elevator man could flip on the taxi light. And that would be the extent of his trying to get a cab for you.”

So maybe no one uses them. But even turned off, these taxi signs—some elegant and stylish, others built for functionality—are unique urban relics of another New York.

I’ve only seen one recently in front of a business: for Tavern on the Green on Central Park West (top image).

Let the Subway Inn’s neon sign inspire you

March 16, 2020

We’re in a challenging moment in New York history; how things will unfold in the coming weeks is uncertain.

So take a moment to behold the strange allure of the gorgeous neon sign outside the Subway Inn, at Second Avenue and 60th Street since 2014, and allow yourself a moment to feel inspired.

Yep, it’s the same sign the Subway Inn had when this old-school dive was located a few blocks west on 60th Street near Lexington, a site the bar had occupied since 1937. Here’s a flashback photo from 2012.

Why did almost all of the McAnn’s Bars disappear?

February 10, 2020

Finding a black and white photo of a busy New York corner taken in May 1968 is quite a treat—especially when the photo shows iconic old city stores like an Irish pub, a Chock Full o’Nuts, and a Fred Astaire Dance Studio.

But where exactly are we? That’s what I really wanted to know.

It looks like Midtown, and after zooming in on the street sign I can make out a 45 or 48. Perhaps we’re at 45th or 48th Street in or near Times Square.

I thought I could figure out the location by looking into where McAnn’s Bar once was, which I assumed was just another Irish dive in a city that was once filled with thousands of Irish bars like it.

Little did I know that McAnn’s was actually a chain of Irish bars similar to the Blarney Stone, which old-time New Yorkers remember seeing all over the city. (Along with imitators, like the Blarney Cove on East 14th Street, RIP.)

But back to McAnn’s. The chain got its start in 1945 and at its height in the 1980s, there were 28 McAnn’s in the city, wrote Alex Vadukul in the New York Times in 2017. “The chain was known for its steam-table lunches and corned beef,” he wrote.

McAnn’s spanned the island, but most seemed to be clustered in Midtown. One was near Penn Station on West 33rd Street; another occupied 216 West 50th Street. A McAnn’s existed at 687 Lexington Avenue and just blocks away at 692 Third Avenue.

With so many McAnn’s, it was impossible to figure out where the 1968 photo was taken.

One McAnn’s with a gorgeous neon sign (above) made a famous appearance in a movie: the Third Avenue McAnn’s appeared in a nighttime scene in 1976’s Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle apparently stops in for a drink.

So why did almost all of the McAnn’s disappear? New York has changed a lot since the 1980s, and that kind of workingman’s watering hole was edged out of existence.

With one exception: inside the Port Authority. The last McAnn’s has been in this second-story, window-free space for more than two decades.

It attracts plenty of customers, including many regulars. Vadukul describes it in his New York Times piece this way: “It has existed behind a blur of miserable commuters for 20 years, and it is the last location of a forgotten chain of New York bars founded in 1945.”

[Top photo: Ephemeral New York; second photo: themoviedistrict.com]

 

The strange story of the Village’s “Raisin Street”

January 27, 2020

Never heard of “Raisin Street” in Greenwich Village?

If you lived in the nascent city of New York in the early years of the 19th century, you might have traversed it. The rise and demise of this little street has a curious backstory.

“Raisin Street” was a corruption of “Reason Street,” the name given to the one-block stretch between today’s West 11th Street and Barrow Street. At the time, the Village was a country enclave dotted with farms and small homes a few miles from the city center.

“Reason Street” honored Thomas Paine (at right), the philosopher whose 1795 treatise, The Age of Reason, criticized organized religion.

Paine, who was born in England, had a heroic reputation in the early 1790s. Before and during the Revolutionary War, he was considered a patriot because he encouraged the American colonies to fight for independence.

After moving to France and getting thrown in prison for supporting the French Revolutionaries, Paine came back to the States and spent his final years living in boardinghouse on Herring Street, soon to be renamed Bleecker Street. (Paine’s boardinghouse is the home in the center in a 1920 photo.)

Reason Street made it on an 1807 map by surveyor William Bridges (above). In the next few years, however, the name would be gone, as this 1828 map below shows.

Why the change? The Age of Reason, “an uncompromising attack on the Bible, proved to be unpopular, and did much to sully the reputation Paine had built as a patriot,” wrote Daniel B. Schneider in The New York Times in 1999.

When Reason Street “became city property in 1809, it was rechristened Barrow Street in honor of the artist Thomas Barrow. Barrow, a Trinity Church vestryman, was famous for his depiction of the church in ruins after the great fire that devastated the city in 1776.”

Despite his de-mapping, Paine’s presence in Greenwich Village wasn’t completely obliterated.

Though the boardinghouse he lived in on today’s Bleecker Street was demolished in 1930, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, another house he resided in on the current Grove Street still stands.

“As Paine’s health declined, it became necessary to move him out of the boarding house at 309 Bleecker Street where he lived,” according to the GVSHP blog, Off the Grid.

“Another boarder, Madame Marguerite Bonneville, took a small house on Columbia Street (today 59 Grove Street) in May of 1809, and moved Paine there. He passed away there on June 8, 1809.”

The plaque at left is affixed to the 1839 Federal-style house that replaced the home where Paine died.

The current building is the home of Marie’s Crisis—named for Paine’s The American Crisis, which urged the states to fight for freedom.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY X2010.11.220; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: Wikipedia; sixth image: TimeOutNY]

A moment in McSorley’s by an Impressionist artist

November 25, 2019

McSorley’s Old Ale House, on East Seventh Street since 1854 (or thereabouts), has long been a magnet for artists.

Perhaps the most famous was John Sloan—who painted various scenes of both dark moods and high spirits inside this former working-class Irish saloon in today’s East Village from 1912 to 1928.

But in 1916, another celebrated New York painter with a style very different from Sloan’s visited McSorley’s.

Childe Hassam had already made his name as an Impressionist painter in the 1890s. Hassam focused on what he described as “humanity in motion,” painting iridescent glimpses of city life centered along the stretch of Fifth Avenue outside his 17th Street studio between Union and Madison Squares.

Instead of a lush scene of light and air, Hassam’s “McSorley’s Bar” gives us a rich interior glimpse of the saloon with a well-dressed man holding a bottle (or about to grab one) at a wood bar—curiously alone and not necessarily in motion.

Veniero’s has the East Village’s best neon sign

November 25, 2019

On dark, chilly fall nights, Veniero’s neon sign glows with warmth and possibilities—of cannoli, tiramisu, pignoli, or any of this pasticceria’s other heavenly cakes, cookies, and Italian pastries tempting hungry customers from the long glass counter.

The shop, on East 11th Street between Second and First Avenues, has a familiar history. In 1885, Antonio Veniero left his Southern Italy hometown and sailed to America.

After working in a candy factory for eight years, he’d saved enough money to open a social club at 342 East 11th Street—then an enclave of Italian immigrants amid a larger neighborhood of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and other newcomers.

“He served homemade candy and roasted espresso,” states the store’s website. “Not too long after, he started baking biscotti. In 1894, Veniero’s was born.”

The current Veniero’s sign might be the most spectacular in the East Village. It’s old-school vertical and horizontal, and it reminds passersby that the place has been serving the neighborhood for an astonishing 125 years.

I have no idea what the original Veniero’s storefront signage looked like. Yet this photo, from the NYC Department of Records and Information Services tax photo collection, offers a peek at the sign circa 1940—not quite the same, but similar enough.

[Second image: Veniero’s in 2013; third image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]