Archive for the ‘Bars and restaurants’ Category

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]

Delmonico’s tasty menu on Evacuation Day, 1883

November 18, 2019

Do you plan to celebrate Evacuation Day on November 25 later this month?

Probably not. This holiday has been almost entirely erased from the calendar, thanks (in part) to the popularity of a certain other late November celebration.

But if you lived in New York in the late 18th century to the early 1900s, Evacuation Day was something to commemorate. It marks the day in 1783 when the British finally left New York for good after (brutally) occupying the city during the Revolutionary War.

On that morning, the Continental Army, led by George Washington, marched and rode from Upper Manhattan down to Broadway all the way to the Battery, where a Union Jack flag was taken down and an American flag raised. A celebratory dinner was also held at Fraunces Tavern.

The flagpole had been greased by the British, sparking a tradition of climbing up greased flagpoles every November 25. New Yorkers also fervently celebrated the day with a parade to the Battery, an annual event that officially ended in 1916.

Perhaps the high point of celebrating Evacuation Day came in 1883, its centennial.

Among other events, New York’s premier restaurant, Delmonico’s, put together an Evacuation Day Banquet menu, which is now part of the Buttolph menu collection at the New York Public Library.

Delmonico’s was on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street at the time, an enclave of Gilded Age luxury in Manhattan.

One of the first restaurants to popularize French cuisine, Delmonico’s printed their menus in French—and though I can’t translate all of the items on it, it’s clear that this was banquet was quite a feast!

[Top image: LOC]

Madison Square Garden, luminous by moonlight

November 11, 2019

No, not today’s MSG in the gritty West 30s. This is the second of the four versions of Madison Square Garden, the Moorish-Beaux Arts arena designed by Stanford White on 26th Street and Madison Avenue in 1890.

At the time this postcard was made in roughly 1907, White’s Madison Square Garden was one of the most recognizable buildings in New York City, a palace of inspiration and excitement that hosted everything from boxing matches to the circus to the annual Westminster Dog Show.

By 1907, the heyday of the Garden was coming to an end.

A year earlier, White was murdered on the very rooftop garden he designed. He was shot by the jealous (and mentally ill, a jury eventually concluded) husband of Evelyn Nesbit—the young showgirl White sexually assaulted after lacing her drink years earlier at his East 24th Street hideaway across Fifth Avenue.

This Madison Square Garden became the center of the city’s first trial of the century. The story of the building and the scandal surrounding it (including new information about this most notorious murder) is detailed in the new book The Grandest Madison Square Garden, by Suzanne Hinman.

[Postcard: MCNY Collections Portal, F2011.33.1324]

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]