28 April 2006

The House That George Destroyed

Is there any point in pretending that America's Pastime is actual sport any longer? Or that the once venerable institution is worth protecting or honoring? Certainly, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner—surely one of the most execrable vulgarians in an industry pretty much stinking with execrable vulgarians—doesn't think so.

Why else would he be tearing down the most beautiful and storied baseball stadium in America, the so-called House That Ruth Built? Dumb old New York City—like every other dumb burg before it that found itself enslaved to the capricious demands of greedhead sports team owners—gave Georgie Porgie the go ahead to rip apart one of the city's most famous landmarks, and one of the Bronx's only reasons for living, so he could build a newer, brighter monument to capitalism, in which baseballs players will just happen to play a game or two from time to time. As historian Glenn Stout, author of Yankee Century, recently stated: "Today's ballpark is not a place to play baseball—that's completely secondary. It's just a delivery system for food, beverage and memorabilia, and a facility for business—luxury boxes and really expensive seats. The ballplayers are the equivalent of strippers on the stage to get people inside to pay extravagant cover charges and $20 for a light beer."

An ugly comparison, but sadly an accurate one. These corporate palaces deserve revolting names like 3M Stadium. There's no reason to call them anything prettier.
One most detail to make the deal just that much more repulsive: Georgie will be cutting down a few hundred mature trees to build his charmless new cash box. May the wood soon be used to line his chrome-plated coffin.

25 April 2006

Elegant Settee, No Waiting

Reason number 49 to opt for time-honored New York over the Current Hot Scene: immediately seating, with minimal bullshit.

This lesson was taught to me anew on Saturday when my friend John and I, having just endured Elton John's "Lestat" on Broadway, went swimming about the sea of humanity Broadway vomits into Times Square around 11 PM, searching for a place to have a drink. Angus McIndoe, the theatre boite of the moment? No available tables, third floor bar choked with a private party. Bar Centrale, the sizzling star hideout above Orso on Restaurant Row? No available tables AND no available bar stools or floor space; Bar Centrale requires you reserve a place at the bar ahead of time, and does not allow not-seated patrons of any kind. (This gives a new meaning to the warning "No Loitering.")

We stumbled down the steps of Bar Centrale, despairing and wet. Looking across the street at the grand 100-year-old Italian restaurant Barbetta, we wondered "We couldn't get in THERE, could we?"

We gave it a try and, yes, we could. A lovely lounge area, like something left over from some overstuffed, Belle Epoque mansion, was empty and ours for the taking. The well-dressed bartender gave us no attitude and brought us two well-made cocktails. We didn't have to speak over a whisper to hear each other. And, when they informed us the kitchen was closed, the bartender felt so bad for us, he brought us a place of salmon amuse bouche.

I bet Barbetta would have even permitted us to stand at the bar.

24 April 2006

What About Bill?

What doesn't Bill's Gay Nineties have that "21," Pete's Tavern, Chumley's and P.J. Clarke's and other classic Manhattan steak and ale places have?

While places like McSorley's and the Old Town Tavern get their dark wood and nostalgic ambiance sung in glorious write-ups nearly every year, Bill's sojourns on in relatively anonymity in its East 54th Street space, where it has been located since the 1920s, when it was a speakeasy. It's not even reviewed in Zagat's or mentioned in the guide's list of "Historic Places."

I suspect my attitude toward the place (which changed only last week) mirrored that of other citizens. Though I've passed by the address time and again over the past decade and eyed it with curiosity—the basement entrance, the iron jockeys—I never went it. Not having seen it extolled in the papers or guide books, I suspected it was a fake of some sort, perhaps a 20-year-old dive pretending to be a 100-year-old institution. That it never seemed to be crowded only strengthened my suspicions.

Last week, I walked through the door to find out the truth. A genuine, old wooden phone booth (working!) was at the left as you walked in. A long wooden coat wrack lined the left hand side of the front hall. Bill's name is spelled out in old coins on the floor. Actual swinging doors, adorned with stained glass, lead to the bar room which, like all these old places, is remarkably compact and snug. The atmosphere was quiet and sedate—a few regulars, the bartender unperturbed. The walls immediately provoked my interest, covered as they were with engravings of old prize fighters: Jack Dempsey, Jim Jeffries, Gene Tunney. I was halfway through A.J. Liebling's classic book of boxing essays, "The Sweet Science," and my mind was filled with ring-sing accounts. The bartender looked at the image on the cover—Sugar Ray Robinson slugging it out with Jack LaMotta—and said, "Isn't that that photo on the wall?" I turned around. Sure enough: a photo from the same fight was framed and hanging behind me.

The bartender told me the place is owned by Barbara Bart, the daughter of the previous owner and only the third person to own the place since its founding. He also told me they didn't own the building (ouch!). A piano player comes in every night at 8 PM. The second floor is the main dining area: fireplace, checkered tablecloths and countless framed bills of theatre attractions whose stars haven't been famous since 1911. Theatre and boxing. Odd combination. But this is how people entertained themselves in New York until the moving pictures came along.

So, why don't more people know about Bill's Gay Nineties? Maybe the odd name; people don't know what the "gay nineties" were anymore, or why they were gay, or how they were gay in a way that is different from the way things are gay today. Maybe the location, 54th Street between Madison and Park. Nothing's there, except an outlet of Sym's department store—although, oddly, its very near P.J. Clarke's, which attracts hoards. Maybe they just like it that way. Maybe they told Tim Zagat to get lost when he came around trolling for free drinks. Who knows? But I know about it now. I'll be back.

21 April 2006

McHale's Lives!—Sort Of

News about McHale's, the classic Theatre District haunt whose death instigated the creation of this blog!

No, it's not reopening. No, there is no current hope in hell that it will reopen in the near future. But, if you're game, you can now close your eyes and pretend you're eating one of McHale's classic two-ton hamburgers.

McHale's old fry-cook, a man by the name of Italo, who was responsible for those fine burgers—one of the main drawing points at the old 46th-and-Eighth joint—was adopted by a restaurant directly across the Avenue called, rather nauseatingly, Le Rendezvous. The place is trumpeting their new acquisition on the back page of the menu, which begins with a maudlin paragraph about how the demise of McHale's was a blow to the entire community. (True, but you don't have to get all syrupy about it.) It then goes on to list the same great line-up of all-beef patties and same cheap prices that were once found across the street. Otherwise, the bill of fare is mainly made up various Middle-Eastern dishes.

Now, Le Rendezvous is no McHale's. The décor is Modern Trendy Anonymous. The music is obnoxious and the hostess in a chilly Eastern European import who seems none too impressed with the Empire City or the might of the American Capitalist Machine. But, if you want to honor the memory of McHale's, or at least comfort yourself that the place hasn't entirely disappeared without a trace, a meal here might be in order.

Three-dollar Beers Have No Place in Times Square!

The Midtown Real Estate Barons, incensed that the Theatre District is still sneaking in cheap booze and eats in under their very nose, has forced the closing of the Sam's, the latest in a domino chain of death that has led to the demise of JR's, McHale's and Barrymore's. April 20 was the final night for the place.

All four were one-story, modest bar/eateries that lent aid and comfort to the working rank and file of Broadway, and all four lied within a one block area stretching from the north side of West 45th Street to the north side of W. 46th near Eighth. It's already known that McHale's—currently covered is ugly black masking from tip to toe—will be replaced by one of those condo towers made for Pod People Who Suck. The shadow forces that are buying up the block to the south, however, have not revealed themselves or the nature of Their Sinister Plan. Word on the street, however, is the power behind the many snuffed candles is none other that the Shubert Organization, whose fostering of a healthy theatre environment does not apparently extend to restaurants where theatre professionals can afford to eat. Nice short-sightness, Fat Cats!

Next to close will probably by Frankie and Johnny's, the steakhouse that dates back to the speakeasy era, or Puleo's. Both are neighbors of Sam's. A few more boarded-up storefronts and the area will begin to look like it did in the 1970s.

19 April 2006

New York Is a Strange Town

Two stories in today’s papers that could only happen in New York City: the metropolis’ doormen are threatening to strike; and police and firefighters conducted a thrilling nighttime rescue of citizens trapped in Roosevelt Island tram cars stuck high above the East River.

What other city in the country employs an army of doormen? What other city has a tram? Where else do doormen think enough of themselves and their profession, such as it is, that they go on strike and think someone will react (which the media duly has)? Where else would people choose to ride in a metal cage in the sky to get home, when a perfectly functional subway is available for use?

Despite the encroaching and unstoppable demons of gentrification and condoization, New York will remain a peculiar place. Thank God.

17 April 2006

Red Hook’s Ship Comes In

I was molding a hill for cucumbers in my five-by-three pod in my community garden on Saturday when a ship horn blast cut the afternoon air. Another cargo carrier, I thought. This part of Brooklyn, so near the last container port left in the borough, hears them all the time.

I should have been more curious. It was the freakin’ Queen Mary, docking in the new Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook for the first time, after a 38-day tour that took it around Cape Horn.

It is ironic, is it not, that this luxurious boat should find its new home abreast of one of the most distressed, unglamorous neighborhoods in the city: Red Hook. And how strange that Red Hookers will now periodically look upon the well-off tourists as they disembark onto the hardscrabble streets of Van Brunt and Islay, land of no Starbuck’s or subway service.

And odd, too, to think that, if I chose to (fat chance, at a few thou a room), I could wake up one fine morning, grab my case and hoof it down a few blocks to the Queen Mary gangway.

Next thing you know, the Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill Courier will be publishing “Shipping News.”

13 April 2006

Jay Dee, the Passover Palace

Necessity in the mother of discovery.

Recently, as Passover was approaching, my wife, who is Jewish, was crying out for Kosher for Passover grub to fill our fridge and cupboards. I work in the most non-Jewish part of Queens and dreaded the long trip into Manhattan to find the needed goods. So I boarded the V to blindly investigate Forest Hills, motivated by nothing more than the vague feeling that I’d heard somewhere sometime that there was Kosher food out there.

My instincts are good. There was Kosher food there, in spades. Restaurants, markets, pizzerias, sushi, butchers, a magnificent temple to eating called the Knish Nosh, and at least one bakery: the Jay Dee, as a circa-1950s sign about five feet high (and the biggest thing on the storefront) proclaimed proudly. Guess you’ve got to have a big sign to be seen across roomy Queens Boulevard.

Big sign, I thought. Old place, too. But Kosher? I ventured in. Shelves and racks and counters filled with pastries, cakes, cookies and bread. Nah, I decided, looks too tasty. None of these delicacies can be Kosher for Passover, a holiday renowned for engendering the worst excuses for dessert in the history of man. (The taste of sawdust comes to mind.) Nonetheless, I asked the somewhat fish-eyed young lady behind the counter if she had any treats suitable for holiday consumption. She wordlessly gestured to every single thing in the window.

An older man with whispy white hair came out from in back to tell me everything in the store was in fact Kosher for Passover. It was like some fantastical dream, like hearing that every course of the scrumptious meal you’ve just eaten was made from tofu. Meanwhile, through a small, square window in the back wall, an irascible old man barked out orders in Russian or Hungarian or something.

I chose a chocolate nut cake and something called a “cherry strip.” Really a strudel, but that’s a German term, and you can’t blame a Jewish bakery for preferring to say “strip.”

Fear Strikes Out

Last week, I mustered up the courage to enter and dine at the spooky Spanish restaurant on the corner of 38th Street and 7th Avenue, the one which I mentioned in my earlier posting “Follow the Pushcarts.” It’s one of those Manhattan places that seemed caked with the dust of time and is so decrepit and unpeopled one wonders how it stays in business year after year. (The West 50s and older parts of the Village are filled with these sorts of places; usually they are either French or Spanish, eternal cuisines not effected by culinary trends).

What had I been afraid of?

Turns out, the joint is called The Spanish Taverna, a rather linguistically confused piece of nomenclature. It’s creepy character is actually confined to just the outside, which is made out to resemble a cantina. Once inside, things are demonstrably cleaner. The small bar area is peculiarly twilit, and the barflies even more peculiar. But a few feet past that, one finds the largish dining area as neat as a pin and not at all in disrepair, though the lighting remains dim and the décor, including several indifferent oil paintings, drab.

But the food! The Spanish Taverna turns out to be one of the great Spanish restaurants in the city, a hidden gem. The menu is deep with classic dishes that go beyond the expected Paella. Seafood reigns, so I decided to order in that direction. The waiter—officious, friendly and knowledgeable, a waiter who actually cared about what he’s doing—steered me toward a medley of seafood bathed in a “salsa versa,” a green sauce of garlic, wine and parsley. It arrived in a pewter pot and was ladled by the waiter into my bowl (Service!). Absolutely delicious, with the shrimp and scallops fresh and firm.

This was preceded by stuff mushrooms so tender they reminding me of garlic-sautéed escargot, and refreshing homemade sangria. If only I had gotten food like this when I was actually in Spain, benighted land of heavy, gluttonous meals served at ungodly late hours.

The place was fairly empty, just a few regulars. Such a relief from the more crowded places nearer to Times Square. It’s not ancient: the waiter said it had been there 30 years. Why they don’t wash down the front, I don’t know. But then, more people would know about it and it would be spoiled.

10 April 2006

The Sound of Silence Silenced

I was walking down Ninth Avenue between 45th and 44th Street yesterday when I discovered to my lasting regret that the Studio Coffee Shop had shuttered—has been for four months according to the doorman of the building that housed the restaurant.

Now, New York still has plenty of old-style coffee shops to please those who like an unpretentious lunch and the kind of coffee that’s brewed in a pot, but the Studio stood apart in its special brand of Edward Hopperesque timelessness. It was run by a Polish family that didn’t speak English much and didn’t go in for smiles. There was a long counter and the requisite booths. The menu wasn’t remarkable in any way, but the prices were good. All this is par for the course.

The main quality the Studio had that set it up as unique didn’t really hit you until you were sitting there for a good ten minutes. Incrementally, you’d start to feel strange. Why do all the regulars seem to be in high relief? Why do all the aged details of the kitchen and counter area keep catching your eye? Why do you feel like you’re in the middle of a play?

Because there’s no noise. No aural landscape. The Studio never turned on a television or a radio. No elevator music was piped in. Nothing. Just silence. Deathly silence. Dust-is-settling silence. The Studio was the quietest eatery I ever walked into, and both eerie and comforting for the lack of static. You could hear every word every person said, particularly the business going on back in the kitchen. The clink of your spoon in the coffee cup sounded like a crescendo.

I’ll miss a place that, in this day and age, chose peace, when all everyone else wants now is distraction.

07 April 2006

Lost City: New Haven Edition, Part II

Continuing my travelogue of my daytrip to New Haven, the reason I trained it to the city in the first place was to pay a visit on Delmonico’s Hatters on Elm Street. The century-old hat shop is one of the last in the Northeast; headgear enthusiasts travel from all over New England to fill their hat needs. The place is on an intriguing little block—a high class, independent men’s wear emporium on the left, an ancient rubber stamp company on the right. The hat shop itself is quiet and unhurried—about 90 percent of their business is done over the internet now. Nonetheless, they have a full stock of felt and straw hats, caps, derbies, top hats, trilbies and berets. I purchased a fine straw panama with a black band and pinched front for the summer.

After that, I doubled back across the village green to the Anchor Restaurant, a classic bar with semi-circular red leather booths, wood-paneled walls and a great old neon sign outside. It’s a place for Martinis and Manhattans, where the guy in Frank Sinatra’s “One for My Baby” might roost to forget his troubles. A few old ladies were enjoying a midday lunch. The help was discussing their hangovers. It was cozy.
Next door was a tobacconist, equally ancient and untouched, called the Owl Shop. Apparently, it was once one of a chain of five, the first founded on Wall Street in 1934 by a Greek named Joseph St. John. The New Haven shop dates from 1937 and is the only one left. Apparently, when the Shubert Theatre down the street was a thriving out-of-town Broadway tryout stop, stage stars would stop in here to buy their cigars. Across the street is the Taft Hotel, now an apartment complex. This is the block of New Haven that mattered to theatre types during the last century, where a scene from “All About Eve” took place. Now, to keep up with the times, the Owl has opened a café in the back. Soon, hardware stores will have a café in the back.

I was too intimidated to go in, knowing that I, as a non-smoker, wouldn’t buy anything. On the train back, I read from A. J. Liebling’s boxing book “The Sweet Science.” He didn’t smoke either, but he would have gone into The Owl Shop. Too curious about life.

06 April 2006

Lost City: New Haven Edition

Yes, I know this blogger’s job is to rail against the desecration and demolition of New York City’s cultural landmarks (and, on the odd occasion, raise a huzzah for the preservation of same), but yesterday I took a day trip to New Haven, a city that seems to cherish its ineffable culinary institutions in a way that should make Manhattan blush. So, here’s what I saw and know.

Of course, New Haven is home to “Apizza”—not “a pizza,” but the weirdo term they use up there for their superlative, brick-oven pies. Frank Pepe’s (founded 1925), Sally’s Apizza (founded 1938) and Modern Apizza (founded 1934) are the standard bearers. The former two are on Wooster Street in New Haven’s absolutely adorable little Little Italy. All are modest joints with few niceties (Sally’s seems stuck in 1974; the décor is so horrible you can’t look away) with lines of people snaking out the door at all times. Each is worth the wait, even if I could name a pizzeria or two in NYC that surpass them in taste.

But, I didn’t go there yesterday. I went to Louis’ Lunch, squat little brick oasis on Crown Street which purports to have invented the hamburger sandwich in 1895. (There are about five or so rival claims for this epoch-shaking invention.) Their idea of a hamburger, which apparently hasn’t changed in one hundred years, is a flame-grilled mound of meat served on lightly toasted white bread with cooked onions, chopped tomato and cheese. No condiments allowed.

This is a stubborn little place, the “Soup Nazi” of the burger world. Ask for ketchup and they might throw you out. A sign on the wall says “This is not Burger King. You do not get it your way, you get it my way or you don’t get the damned thing.” Another says “Of course, I don’t look busy. I did it right the first time.” Then there’s a picture of a ketchup bottle with a red line through it. Also a coke bottle similarly banned. (Shades of the Greek Coffee Shop skit on early Saturday Night Live: “No Coke—Pepsi.”) There are chips but no other side dishes to speak of, and sodas mainly hail from an obscure local maker in East Haven.

If you’re a first-timer, don’t expect much sympathy from the staff of two. Boston Red Sox fan “Joe”—who makes the burger in these ancient metal, Venus-fly-trap, vertical grills that, wherever they were made, that place sure don’t make ‘em anymore, if it’s around at all—doesn’t say anything. And the counter girl, a pretty Asian girl, is as tough a cookie as you’ll ever want to meet, and my choice for the next Bond vixen. No admission of weakness or human frailty from her. Just “chips are on top, drinks on the blackboard.”

The joint itself is a beaut. Old wood carved through with graffiti. The variety of seating in the tiny place is a wonder in itself. Wooden stools perched on metal piping around one side of the counter; leather-cushioned ottomans around the other side; a couple snug, old wooden booths with curved, wooden sides; a row of “single” booths lining one wall, with a wooden tray of sorts perched in front of each diner—a lot like those old school desks; and one large cast-iron table with a series of seats around it.

There are also a lot of guns on the wall. Not sure what that’s about.

Oh, and the burgers are fantastic. Unlike any you’ve ever had, incredibly juicy and fresh. I believe the heating devices, made in 1895, are the secret. And the ingredients are the right ones; ketchup would spoil the mix. $4.50 is the price of a burger, in case you don’t want to look dumb; it’s not posted anywhere.

Tomorrow, I’ll post Part Two of my New Haven tour.

04 April 2006

The Best Bathroom in NYC

Bryant Park is not only the most elegant, best-kept part in New York City. It now has the town's best bathroom. A cool $200,000 helped pave the way to today's grand reopening of the park's Beaux Arts restroom, which has been closed for renovation since Jan. 15. How lavish is this public toilet? Get a load of this paragraph from the New York Times article:

"The new interior has grand 10-foot coffered ceilings, mosaic tiles, a crown molding of painted wood, illumination from brushed stainless-steel wall sconces, indirect cove lighting, a wainscoting of mosaic vines and floweres, mirrors framed in cherry wood and, yes, sinks and a baby-changing table capped with Bianco Verde marble from India."

Now, I don't know about you, but when I conjure up a description of my bathroom (or any bathroom), the words "coffered," "wainscoting" and "Bianco Verde marble" don't come to mind. That said, this is the kind of architectural decadence I approve of—the kind that benefits the public. Apparently, this WC is the most frequented in the entire NYC park system. And why not? With that decor, you exit feeling refreshed in two ways.