31 March 2006

Follow the Garment Racks

Anyone seeking a taste of Manhattan before the money markets of the '80s and '90s polished its sidewalks and glass skyscrapers squeaky clean should leave the Disneyfied Tokyo known as Times Square and head a couple blocks to the south. Hell, just one block south will do. There are a few dirty, gargoyled buildings on the north side of 41st Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue which seem from a city entirely apart from the one found just 30 seconds to the north.

This is the Garment District, an area between Ninth and Sixth Avenues and 42nd and 34th Street which has thus far stubbornly resisted to find space for hot new restaurants and outposts of Applebee's. (Duane Reades you can find.) Dart down any of the side streets and you'll find hole-in-the-wall (and probably illegal) Spanish bars, Kosher pizza joints, specialty fabric stores not the least bit concerned with their appearance and signage which probably hasn't been changed or given a spray of Windex in 40 years. Rolling racks filled with suits and dresses make up half the traffic, turning the streets and sidewalks into an obstacle course. Hot-dog-and-papaya joints are numerous, as well as no-frills barber shops. This neighborhood is also home to one of the last hat stores in Manhattan, Arnold's Hatters, on 8th near 35th, and some genuinly scary (Holland Bar, Bellevue) and scarily eccentric bars (The Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge—that's its full name. It has no listed phone number).

My particular favorite is 38th Street between 7th and 8th. Ben's delicatessen, a ridiculously oppulent Kosher eatery is on this block. So is Lazzara's, which makes exceedingly peculiar and delicious retangular pies, and, though it was founded in 1985, looks like it's about four times as old. To enter, you must walk up a black, metal staircase into what looks like (and was) the hallway of an old tenament, then turn right into someone's erstwhile living quarters. Aside from adding a lot of tables and chairs, Lazzara's has made no attempt to make the space look like anything else. No natural light enters this sanctum. They serve the food as if you're a guest in their living room, and, given the musty decor, you feel that that's where you are.

Downstairs, there used to be a cafeteria of Italian delicacies, also run by Lazzara's and frequented by Italian-speaking mobsters. Now its a Balkan (!) restaurant. Further on is a long, skinny Kosher pizzeria, where the Orthodox eyeball all goyem as they come in. The pizza isn't any good. Kosher pizza never is. (Flavor is apparently forbidden in the Torah.) But the place is a hoot. Finally, on the corner of Seventh Avenue is the Spanish Taverna. It is not of this world. Looking through the barred-windows, you feel the urge to wipe your glasses, so thick lies the haze of time on this antiquated place. It's never reviewed in Zagat's. It never will be. It doesn't care. Nor do its patrons care what's going on in the outside world, anymore than did the barflies in O'Neill's "Iceman Cometh." I have read that it actually serves excellent Spanish food, Sangria and stuffed mushrooms a specialty. One day I'll work up the courage to find out.

29 March 2006

Blogger Babes

This posting is totally off-topic, so I will keep it short.

Has anyone noticed that the most celebrated females in the blogosphere are out-and-out cutiepies bordering on hotties? I thought one of the fine democratic principles of blogging was that any shut-in with talent could succeed in garnering an audience, regardless of their appearance. But look at Elizabeth Spiers (Dealbreaker), Jessica Coen (Gawker), Ana Marie Cox (formerly of Gawker, now an author), Stephanie Klein (Greek Tragedy), Jessica Cutler. A little mousy, all of them, but otherwise there's no reason why Tara Reid has a film career and they don't. Coincidence? Doubtful. It seems that the world of blogs works the same way the film, TV, theatre, radio, news and literature worlds do. Talent's great, but a pretty face will send you that extra mile. It will also look great on that book jacket.

28 March 2006

Garage Sale

I've passed by the Tunnel Garage on the corner of Broome and Thompson streets many times and thought it a nice bit of Art Deco, about as architecturally interesting as a parking garage can be. Almost charming. Little did I, or anyone else, know that the best part of the building was hiding under a round "24 hr. Parking" sign perched at the top of the structure. That sign was removed recently because the building has been sold and is coming down. Hiding under it, as a March 28 New York Times article reports, was a beguiling terra-cotta medallion, showing the front end of a Model T. The garage was built in 1927, when Model Ts were still prevalent.

Local historians are trying to save the building, but seems to be settling for the more realistic goal of saving the medallion, which is certainly a one of a kind bit of decoration. The new owner seems inclined to help, though wonders if the cracked circle will survive the attempt.

My question is: Why was it covered with that worthless sign for decades in the first place? Or, more broadly, what the fuck is wrong with people? You own a kind-of-interesting building. Sure, you're in the parking biz, so aesthetic matters are not your strong suit. Maybe you're a barbarian, in fact. But, surely, upon seeing a multi-colored, terra-cotta doohicky on top of your garage, you'd ooh and ahh and be struck by its novelty and maybe even its beauty. Wouldn't you showcase it, let the world see it? Or, at least, keep your ratty, workaday "24 hr. Parking" sign the hell off of it? Why do businesses make their ugly buildings even uglier by wallpapering them with garish signs that scream "I'm an eyesore that blights the street, but I don't care as long as I sell one more wingnut!"

Another question: Why don't developers incorporate things like that medallion into their buildings anymore? Why doesn't it even occur to them to build a structure they'd be proud of, or at least that the public wouldn't cringe at? (Yes, I know the answer, and it's not good enough.)

One last thing. Guess what will replace the garage once it's gone? You have five seconds. If you didn't say apartment building, you're a dumb fuck who doesn't know that every building in Manhattan is being torn down one by one to make way for faceless, Soviet Bloc-like housing, housing, housing. Let's hope those next tenants don't own cars, 'cause there'll be no place to park 'em.

27 March 2006

Days of Bread and Pastry Update

Strolled past Monte Leone's pastry shop (or, as they say, "shoppe") and discovered a few new wrinkles in the second coming of Cammerari's bakery. Seems the bakery was never actually, totally closed. Just closed in Carroll Gardens. There was still a branch in Bensonhurst—where Italian culture also thrives—churning out loaves for restaurants around the town. Also, an article in the window said Monte Leone's had been having cash flow problems and clashed with a health inspector. What? Didn't I buy enough mini eclairs and pignoli cookies to keep them in black?

So, contrary to my previous report, Cammerari's story wasn't as sad as all that, and Monte Leone wasn't exactly enjoying good times. I didn't say this blog was 100 percent fact-based. Just a smattering of fact, with a whole mess of opinion mixed in.

In that same article, one old-timer, excited about Cammerari coming back, said of its wares: "The bread was so crunchy!" Funny. "Crunchy" was just the word I kept coming up with when I conjured up memories about their bread. I didn't think the word was descriptive enough, but I guess it's dead on.

Swank Nite Life Hits Cellar

The press weasels at the Hotel Carlyle won't fess up to it—probably because they know they're making an awful mistake, and New Yorkers will hate them for it—but word is widespread that The Cafe Carlyle will be shut down this summer and relagated to some dank, subterranean room in the Upper East Side hotel's basement, thus making cabaret habitues feel more like second-class citizens than they already do.

The Cafe Carlyle and the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel are the last of the old-guard, elegant cabaret stages in Manhattan. Feinstein's at the Regency does a fine job, but it is less than ten years old and has no sense of history. Joe's Pub is an agreeable enough space, but made for ironic, downtown fare. The other places—Don't Tell Mama, etc.—are strictly amateur hour. Barbara Cook, who is currently playing the Cafe and is emblematic of the kind of top tier talent the hall attracts—announces the coming demise of the place nightly, speculating that the plush rose-colored banquettes and famous murals might be retained.

Why the Carlyle, which is supposed to stand for a kind of sophisticated Manhattan long since passed into history, would do this, heaven knows. But the hotel is owned by some mysterious, foreign conglomerate, probably based in Dubai or some other shady, profit-making country-slash-moneystate. So I guess the answer is probaby the old one: more money. No doubt, the space will be given out to high-end retail. The Cafe may charge $100 a pop to see Babs, but when I recently attending (on a Saturday night, no less), the room was half full, and the sound system lousy.

Is this anyway to treat the memory of Bobby Short?

24 March 2006

Squat Buildings Live in Midtown

Since I spent some time earlier this week trashing the owner of P.J. Clarke's new venture in the Financial District, I thought it only fair to report that I dined at the original, two-story, red-brick P.J. Clarke's on Third Avenue and 55th Street and am happy to report that the old temple of beer and burgers is still alive and well. Three deep at the bar and plenty of diners in the back. My cheeseburger was savory and delicious, and not of the impossibly monstrous size served up by most burger joints these days. The waiter had that smooth, no-nonsense efficiency that you want in such a place down pat, with just the right touch of politeness. And the bathroom was as ever. It occured to me while standing under the arched stained glass room of the men's room that pissing into the elephantine white urinals of P.J. Clarke's is one of the defining privileges of living in New York City. Too bad women can't enjoy it.

Attracting my interest during my stay were two cubby holes tucked into the small dining area just past the bar. Turn to the left or right and crane your neck and you'll spot two tables secreted away from the din of the room. The lucky diners at these four-tops can barely be glimpsed. The alcoves were obviously designed to accomodate the Tammany Hall chieftains of days gone by, allowing them privacy as they worked out their back-room deals. Who gets them now, I wonder? I can't imagine you can just walk in and ask for one. They must be reserved for regulars. However, I am now determined to claim one upon my next visit. But first I'll have to come up with a couple guests to join me, a back-room deal to work out, and a double sawbuck to slip the maitre'd.

23 March 2006

Moonstruck Strikes Again

In the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Monte Leone pastry shop on Court Street recently closed its doors and posted a sign in the window. Amazingly, it wasn't bad news. The sign said the shop would open again soon in collaboration with—wait for it—Cammareri Bakery.

Recognize the name? You should. The bakery, which once sat at the corner of nearby Henry Street and Sackett Street, was featured in the film "Moonstuck." Nicholas Cage's character, Ronny Cammerari, worked there. In fact, the filmmakers changed the name of Cage's character when they decided to use the bakery as a location. The store lived on reflected glory for a few years, with pictures of Cher up on the wall. But it closed in the late '90s in one of the saddest stories I've ever heard. The Cammerari who ran it lost his wife and was so dejected that he couldn't go on, so he gave up the shop and retired.

Since then, the location has been The Red Rail, which had a brief heyday as a Yuppie brunch hangout; then the Red Rail bar, which had no heyday whatsoever. Now, its the Carroll Gardens outpost of the overpriced Park Slope cafe Naidre's. Cammerari's was better than any of them. Another negative aspect of Cammerari's closing: Mazzola's, the bakery down the block, suddenly had no competition, so it started steadily jacking up prices.

So, to see that sign in the window of Monte Leone was like seeing a ghost. How could Cammerari be back? Did the sad old owner find a new wife? Did someone buy the rights to the name? And why does Monte Leone's, which has always done well, need a business partner? Stay tuned.

One odd side note: Monte Leone's used to be located on Columbia near Sackett, just a block from where Cammerari's once sat. They just can't stay apart.

Tuna Salad Lives on in Flatiron

Sometime the dailies, in their munificence, decide good news is news also.

In today's Metro section, The New York Times helpfully notified folks that Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop has been saved from Corcoran and the other devils of real estate. A former patron of the preserved-in-amber lunch counter, which sits just a stone's throw from the Flatiron building, decided to hop behind the counter and buy the business, rather than see it turn paws up. Josh Konecky is the modern saint's name (all hail) and, lord preserve us, he has an 18-year lease. So we won't have to worry about being without "The Best Tuna Sandwich in New York" until 2024.

Why, in these odious times, would a landlord do such a thing when he could easily welcome another Sephora? The Times' description of the man offers a clue. His wife runs a Russian bookstore in the space above Eisenberg's. Obviously, the landlord is an impractical man with a soft spot for unprofitable niche businesses. Plus, he gets to eat lunch at the Sandwich Shop every day for only $2.

Speaking of sandwich shops, does anyone know why the Andrews Coffee Shop is fast disappearing from the Manhattan landscape? Once, they were on every other corne south of 23rd Street. Now, every week another one is boarded up. These places were never classics, but they were reliable, cheap and unpretentious. When I made $18,000 a year at my first job in 1990, I ate at Andrew's at least once a week. It was the only sit-down restaurant I could afford. Perhaps they've been banned by the culture police for being hopefully un-fabulous.

22 March 2006

Authenticity Merchants

Recent news about P.J. Clarke's, the grand old tavern on Manhattan's east side, illustrates that local landmark saviors can also be cultural anti-Christs.

Clarke's, one of those old-world joints with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and huge porceline urinals, was on hard times a few years back until a group of investors (including Timothy Hutton, who is also the president of The Players Club and seems obsessed with New York history) decided to save the place. They closed it down for a while, and then reopened with a strong adherance to decor and menu traditions.

So, good, nu? Not quite. Because the lead investor, Philip Scotti, as it turns out, is just another of those soulless developers who have a chain restaurant where their sense of taste ought to be. Scotti plans to rubber stamp the Clarke model and plant a string of faux-tavern xeroxes across the nation, including one in that bete noir of American culture: Las Vegas. His first such attempt opened recently in the financial district. Its name? P.J. Clarke's on the Hudson.

Now, just a guess here, but I'm thinking that the original Clarke was probably a beefy Irishman with ruddy cheeks, a barrel chest and a meaty fist for anyone who suggested he call his watering hole P.J. Clarke's on the Anything. Such gentile suffixes are for the carriage set. But—as Scotti no doubt knows—they also work for the suspendered money merchants down on Wall Street, vulgarians who like to pretend, while downing a brew or two, that they're just like regular barflies—just ones with English-made shoes and bespoke suits.

There is some justice, however. New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, smelling a rat, branded the new Clarke's for the hollow and cynical copy it is in his blistering March 15 review. I doubt that alone will close the Clarke's manque. But we can hope. Maybe the downtown development curse known as Bloomberg, Pataki and Silverstein will do it in.

21 March 2006

Still a Player

I visited the Players Club in Gramercy Park last night and am happy to say it is still its glorious, fossilized self. Who knows who now pays dues at this Edwardian frieze of a club, but god bless 'em for keeping the place open so folks can see that actors once tried, at least, to comport themselves with dignity. The hundreds of portraits on the walls alone justify the organization's continued existence. A few John Singer Sargeants among them and one John Decker, Barrymore's boozy L.A. friend. Some of these players are long forgotten to the city's collective memory. But that makes their painted visages all the more poignant.

Pete's Tavern—the place that has flogged it connection to O. Henry into the ground—is around the corner on Irving Place. I thought about stopping in for a drink. But last time I went I had such a worthless meal of tasteless pasta at a lonely drafty table, I couldn't bear the thought of returning so soon. They have a thriving business there, and I'm glad. They'll stay open that way. I just wish the kitchen did better work. McSorley's and P.J. Clarke's can produce decent bar food, why not Pete's? Also, the help is a little indifferent. Don't let them shunt you back into the back rooms. That's not the real Pete's. Only the bar room was part of the original. Tough to score a seat there. The few booths are always roped off for some moneyed bastards who like to dream they wrote "The Gift of the Magi."

20 March 2006

Pizza Man Gone

I meant to mention this some weeks ago. New York lost an original pizza man in February. Arturo Giunta, who lent his name and pies to the Houston Street standby Arturo's for half a century, died at the age of 79 last month.

Arturo's has been on the same corner of Houston and Thompson since 1957—an eon in Manhattan real estate years. It's never had the same cachet with the trend-suckers and culture vultures as John's, Lombardi's or other classic pie purveyors. The New York Times never wrote soppy nostalgia pieces about it (not that I'm against those pieces; I'd write them if they'd let me). But it does good work quietly and steadily, and its beautiful old awnings and stenciled windows seem never to have been touched.

No word in the New York Post article announcing the death as to whether his surviving wife, daughter and son will continue the business. But if they don't, I'm coming after them with a pizza cutter.

Hello Again

Hello. I'm back, after a long break. I'd like to say I was on vacation at my villa on Lake Como, or at least that I'd passed out and coudn't remember my name. But I can't truthfully say any more than I suddenly got busy with non-blog real work. (Of course, all real work is non-blog, really.) But, never fear! Guilt has brought me back. It always brings me back.

This is not to say that New York trends haven't continued to suck since I last communicated. They suck more than ever, as shown in yesterday's City Section article about the Landmark Preservations Board that doesn't really protect New York City landmarks but rather gives developers the go-ahead to knock 'em on down. The latest is the squat, relatively unknown New York City Department of Purchase Storehouse, known as the Purchase Building, which sits hidden below the Brooklyn Bridge. I've actually passed this thing a couple times when playing with my kid in the nearby waterfront playground, and wondered why they didn't take that ugly fence out from around that cute, art deco structure. Well, know I know: Because the City wants to make it disappear, so Brooklyn Bridge Park can have plenty of elbow room.

This is the same uninspired commission of dunderheads that last year "undesignated" the 1915 Cass Gilbert-designed Austin, Nichols & Company building on the Brooklyn waterfront and the 1968 Jamaica Savings Bank, which kind of looks like those cool Kennedy Airport terminals that vandals trashed last year at an unveiling party gone amok. So, not only are they not protected worthy older building, they're agressively unprotecting them. Gosh: Think they understand they job much?