31 August 2006

Lost City: Chicago Edition: City of the Big Closures

The wind blowing down Chicago's State Street is apparently blowing tumbleweeds, not shoppers.

For Chicagoans, the latest newspaper headlines have been worldview-shattering. Last week, the owners of landmark State Street department store Carson Pirie Scott announced it will close its doors. Even more unbelievably, CPS's State Street neighbor Marshall Field's—the very name of which says "Chicago" to most folks—is to be converted into a Macy's, as will all Marshall Field's across the nation. Add this to the shuttering of legendary Loop schnitzel house Berghoff's last February, and the effect is as if it was announced to New Yorkers that Sak's, Bloomingdale's and Peter Luger's would be closing after Labor Day.

I went to college in Chicago and know its downtown well. It's hard to imagine the Loop even existing without MF, CPS and Berghoff's. Remove three legs from a chair and does it still stand? Adding to the sadness is that all three were housed in beautiful old buildings. Walking into Berghoff's was like walking into the era of Sophie Tucker and Stanford White. And the filigreed charm of CPS's Louis Sullivan-designed corner entrance can hardly be matched. The store reminded one that going to a department store was once a momentous, semi-dignified experience.

The only good news is that the building's owner, Joseph Freed and Associates, said it plans a massive restoration of the building's facade. And the Berghoff's dining room is still owned by the Berghoff family and used for private events. (So, whereas before the price of a bratwurst would buy you elegant atmosphere, now it will take $10,000.)

But poor State Street. As the song goes, "On State Street/That Great Street/I Just Gotta Say/They Do Things They Never Do on Broadway."

Well, sure they do. They steamroll over irreplacable history—just like in New York!

29 August 2006

New York: Not as Bad Off as You Thought!

I was watching the Doris Day-Rock Hudson film "Pillow Talk" last night (no jokes, please). Whatever else it is, it's a fine cinematic document of Manhattan in the late '50s, shot in glorious living color.

There's a sequence where Rock is conning Doris by posing as a Texan romancing her through the city on a series of dates. At one point there is, of course, a montage. Now, I spend most of my time on this blog bemoaning lost New York, but I was fairly stunned by the reality put forth by "Pillow Talk"—that much of what was great about the city then is still around today: Radio City Music Hall, Roseland, Broadway, the Statue of Liberty, the UN, Central Park hansom cabs, Times Square neon, Wall Street, Rockefeller Center's skating rink, Bowling Green, the Intrepid, the Circle Line and more. Even that old statue of mayor Abraham De Peyster downtown. The snapshots went on and on and my gaze grew wider as I thought: Golly, every one of those things is still here (save the Fulton Fish Market). New York's not as bad off as I thought. It's a hard thought for a curmudgeon like myself to swallow.

But, then, I watched "Where the Sidewalk Ends," a film noir from 1950, in which Dana Andrews buys a ticket at the old Penn Station, and I thought: God Damn the Bastards, they tore it down! And they'll do it again if they get the chance!

"The Palm Beach Story" has the same effect on me.

28 August 2006

August in New York

Just want to take a moment here to praise the miracle that is August 2006 in New York City.

Since a heat wave broke on Aug. 3, August has been a beauty. Temperatures have rarely broken the 80 degree ceiling. Skies have been sunny and blue and a light breeze has hung around the harbor. In my 18 years in New York, there has never been such an August—that is to say, an enjoyable one. I oughta know; I stepped off an Amtrak train in the unmerry month in 1988. I've experienced every sweltering 30-day period, since country house I have not. None of them were worth a dime. Just a circle of hell to get through in order to reach lovely September on the other side.

What a difference weather makes. No really—we forget this. The worst circumstances can be improved by a day of perfect weather, in which you feel at home in your clothes, let the air and sun play about you, and relax your stride so as to further enjoy the given atmosphere. I doubt it's been more pleasant in the Berkshires or Hamptons.

Rain is expected off and on through Thursday, which means August will pass into history without a return to its scorching ways. Now, please God, don't send us an Indian Summer. Fall is short enough as it is these days.

24 August 2006

Red Meat, Red Wine

I like the Palm restaurant on Third Avenue. It has history and charm and the feel of a former speakeasy. Food's good, too.

Recently I had occasion to visit the chain's branch on 50th Street in the heart of the theatre district. It's not old, but pretends to be, with caricatures and cartoons scrawled all over the wall. And I must say that, without the history, the old Palm charm flew out the window.

In theory, steak houses appeal to me. They reach back to different way of American dining, when meals lasted hours and hours and the meat was carved at your table; when Diamond Jim Brady spent ridiculous amounts of money to ship over a chef from Europe because he made a certain dish just right. New York is full of these places: Peter Luger, Smith and Wollensky, Keens, Sparks, Homestead, etc. The set-up is basically the same: dark wood; white or checkered tablecloths; ridiculous prices; inedibly large portions; and wine lists full of red, red, red.

So much for theory. In practice, I must admit, steak houses have begun to give me the creeps. First of all, I know I'm surrounded by fat cat businessmen with expense accounts who voted for Bush and follow sports. There there's the size of the steaks, chops, lobsters, potatos, etc. Must they be so enormous? Are they serving a race of Henry VIIIs? America has an obesity problem, guys, you know.

And where's it all coming from? The equivalent of a whole cow comes out of the kitchen every 15 minutes. As the plates go by, I start to think of vast herds feeding in swaths of Brazil that used to be rain forest, aiming their carbon dioxide burps right at the cracking ozone. I think is oceans depleted of lobster, clams, oysters and tuna. All while we bury our heads in the trough like Boss Tweed.

Also, lately, with my increased interest in wine, I have another, lesser gripe. Are there wine lists any more boring than the ones found in steak house? Hey! Buddies! There are other kinds of wine beside California Cabernet Sauvignon.

23 August 2006

No, I Don't Want a Mojito

The New York Post, in an Aug. 23 article, claims bartenders at many of Manhattan's high end bars don't know their cocktail ABCs. True enough! In the city which has a drink named for every borough except Staten Island, every other barkeep is as dumb as a post, unable to properly mix such basic staples as the Manhattan, Magarita, Martini and Gibson.

Still fired up by my recent visit to New Orleans, where they know how to make a proper drink, I recently bellied up to a well known bar in Midtown and asked for a Sazerac. I knew this would be a tall order, but I didn't expect the ditz behind the bar to say "What?" exactly. I explained it involves Rye, Herbsaint and Peychaud's Bitters. Again, she said "What?" OK, now I know that your average stiff isn't familiar with Herbsaint and Peychaud's Bitters, both New Orleans products not always seen behind New York bars. But Rye? How could you not know about Rye?

Reminds me of the story my friend Bill, a Broadway bartender, told of watching a young pup next to him at the bar take an order for Rye and start pouring a Bourbon. "What're you doing?" he asked. "It's the same thing," argued the pup. Said Bill: "Not to the Rye drinkers!"

Are chefs hired if they don't know how to cook? Then who's hiring these would-be actors who only know how to make screwdrivers, Cape Cods and Cosmos and other drinks they've seen on TV? No wonder every Sidecar I order tastes like processed lemon juice.

Brigid Vs. Egan

For centuries, the Catholic church was great at fostering great architecture; a stroll through any Italian church will tell you that. Apparently, the Archdiocese of New York is even better at destroying it.

The city's Irish and gay communities are joining forces (imagine that!) against the Church over the fate of St. Brigid's Church on Avenue B. Cardinal Egan, naturally, wants to tear down the unsightly place, with its nasty hand-carved altar screen and 158-year-old stained glass windows.

The ancient order of Hibernians wants to turn the place into the state Irish American History Museum, which is now located in lonely, far-away Albany. Egan is not moved. (Are cardinals ever moved?) Demolition was previously halted by an injunction, but not before All The Cardinal's Men managed to smash stained-glass windows etched with the names of survivors of the Irish potato famine—an almost comic example of wanton philistinism.

One of the windows of the church was decorated by a sign which read "Cardinal EGAN, How Will You EXPLAIN Your LIFE to Saint Brigid?" (Capitalization, theirs.) Which is funny. Except that I doubt that saints are as concerned with their names being on buildings as we humans are.

21 August 2006

No Comments—An Apology

My apology to all who have kindly sent comments my way over the past few months. I am still new to whole blogging thing, and did not even realize that comments were piling up, waiting for me to moderate and publish them, until a more computer-savvy friend of mine (who had sent a comment of his own) revealed the fact to me, and intimated the possible offense my inaction might breed.

Mea Culpa! No offense intended! I have read all your messages and published each and every astute response. Be patient with me. I'm a bit of a luddite at heart and I learn these things slowly.

And I promise: I'm going to buy a digital camera very soon and will start posting accompanying art. At present, I still use the Olympus I bought ten years ago. That's right: I actually load film and then later take it to the photo stores to have it developed! Can you imagine? Oh, and I don't own a cell phone. I know. I'm hopeless.

17 August 2006

Automat Returns!

Well, sort of.

A new, would-be chain called Bamn! (is that a profane version of "Bam!"?), which uses the basic automat format, is due to open on St. Mark's Place in the East Village. It has nothing really to do with the once-great, long-lamented Horn and Hardart empire, where coins opened cute little art deco doors and released pie and stew and whatnot.

The creators actually modeled the restaurant, which they hope to be the first of many, on Febo, a Dutch chain. I've actually been to a Febo in Amsterdam. They're bright yellow and dispense fatty little savories like fried cheese croquettes filled with chunks of ham. Disgusting and tasty, and very Dutch. Bamn! (gotta love that name) plans to serve up grilled cheese, pizza dumplings and the like—stuff that will last a while. Quarters and silver dollars will be accepted. Finally! A use for those Sacagawea coins beyond making change in Metrocard machines.

Is this a good thing for New York? I say yes, if the place has any of the charm of the original Automats, and if the food is any good. All I know for now is that restaurant will be hot pink, which I'm not so crazy about. Also, there will be few seats, eliminating the sense of community the original Automats fostered. To that I can only say, Bamn!

14 August 2006

Bialy's Stock

Kossar's Bialys has a new awning, which may be the only new thing Kossar's has invested in in decades.

You know Kossar's, right, the store whose bialys know no equal? It sits on Grand Street near Essex in the used-to-be-very-but-now-not-so-much-or-maybe-not-at-all Jewish Lower East Side. It does not do bagels, as everyone in the whole ding-dong world now does. It does the still somewhat obscure baily—flat, floury, indented, flecked with onion. (Actually, Kossar's does do some bagels, but nobody cares.)

For the longest time, the unpretty store bore a white, translucent, plastic sign with red letters reading "Kossar's Hot Bialys." ("Hot" was in a red box—the level of aggressive advertising at the time.) The sign was backlit, giving it a sort of dim, Hopper-esque illumination. Neon it wasn't. Now they have a spanking new, crust-brown awning with Kossar's spelled out in graceful letters. Whatthefuck? What did they need that crappy piece of gentrification for? It's not like Kossar's doesn't do business hand over fist. Slavish schmucks drive in from Jersey, Westchester and Long Island every Sunday morning to load up.
Awnings look good on Main Street in Westport or New Canaan. On Grand Street, they're out of place.

The hardscrabble kitchen inside is still the same, thank God. One of the things I've always loved about Kossar's is it isn't really a store; it's a busy bakery that they allow you to enter for a few second to buy some bialys—then, Get Out!

The Immigrant Experience—at $275 a Pop

The Tenament Museum on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side always seemed a worthy affair. I remember when it opened, more than a decade ago. There was a perfunctory ticket office across the street from a restored walk-up, wherein historical tours were conducted. (I still recall with a shiver the story of the 19th century father who left for work one day, leaving his large family behind, never to return.)

Well, the enterprise and the block has taken off some since then. The ticket office has moved a few doors over and is now surrounded by a largish gift shop, with snippy help and ample opportunities for buying ghetto-chic t-shirts, fridge magnets, calendars, wrapping paper, dishware and Metrocard holders, as well as tons of expensive books on what it was like to be dirt poor. Let's just say the place's sense of opportunism is creepy.

Creepier still, however, is the nearby Blue Moon Hotel. While it's true that there's no gaul like New York gaul, this is something special: a luxury, boutique hotel converted from an old tenament, and furnished with restored period furniture. ("Boutique," by the way, is hotel code in this city for "smaller, but still just as expensive.") It's a beautiful piece of refurbishment. But if you want to stay on former pushcart lane, you have a pony up a minimum of $275 a night; for more comfort, prices soar to $500.

I'm sorry, but this is perverse, and there's no other decent word for it. $275 for what?—to be closer to the haunted house across the street full of the tortured souls of immigrant dead? Why not just don a top hat, crush some urchins under your hansom cab wheels and be done with it? I'm all for preserving old New York, but when that preservation is just another scam for the money-grubbers, I'll pass.

The hotel, by the way, also boasts about "breathtaking" views of "the Williamsburg Bridge, Lower Manhattan, and Old Orchard Street." Yeah. I bet 1880s sweat shop workers got a good view of those just before they jumped.

A Few Status Reports

In the past, I've withheld my opinion on the old Best Pizza in New York debate that newspaper editors love so much that they turn to it every year. This is mainly because there are huge holes in my knowledge.

Well, I filled in one of those gaping cavities recently, and finally dined at Grimaldi's, the pizza joint on Old Fulton Street that the good folks at Zagat's routinely rank as tops in pies year after year. It's fairly maddened me these many years of living in Brooklyn that I've never been to the place, despite the fact that I can easliy walk there. But the lines are so ghastly on the weekends and evening—the only time I can go.

That line was once again snaking down the sidewalk on a recent Sunday when I dragged wife and kid to see it we breach the entrance. I was actually standing behind a real Italian, who turned to me and asked "Is this normal?" (Don't have to wait for good pizza in Rome—it's everywhere.) We gave up and had a mighty unmemorable meal at the Water Street Restaurant in DUMBO.

But I had the next day, Monday, off, and forged a plan with my wife. We arrived at noon, when Grimaldi's opens, and, sho' nuff, we were quickly escorted to a table. Let the word be spread. Early birders on weekdays will face no crowds! Our pizza arrived in under ten minutes and, yes, it's as good as they say. Crisp thin crust, flavorful sauce, toothsome mozzarella. Though I have to say that Totonno's in Coney Island is still my favorite pie, with extra points for atmosphere.

Later that week, I was wandering aimlessly through Chinatown—a wonderful pastime, and a good reminder that not ALL of Manhattan is gentrified and homogenized. As I swung around Bayard onto Baxter, I made a weird discovery among the many Malaysian and Vietnamese eateries. Chinatown has been slowly encroaching on Little Italy's territory for years, until the goombas are fairly surrounded on their tiny stretches of Mulberry and Kenmare. But here on Baxter was a stubborn holdout I've never heard of: Forlini's. An unfancy place of more than 50 years standing, it has three sections: a bar with booths, a small downstairs dining area and a more plush upstairs level. Apparently the joint, so near to Centre Street, is and always has been popular with judges and district attorneys. And according to every review I've read, the food is not just the usual red-sauce mediocre stuff, but top notch Italian.

You always here about New York's so-called "best kept secrets"—unknown treasures that are actually pretty well known by the time the press writes about them. Well this has got to be one of the real secrets. 18 years in New York and no one's ever said boo about it to me. Never read about in in the Times or Post or any "best of" lists. Zagat's doesn't mention it, even in it's list of old New York restaurants, where it certainly should rank.

Also, just a few doors south, is Paulie's Place, a tiny sandwich shop storefront, with a simple, ancient neon sign, an old green paint job and the look of something Berenice Abbott shot for the WPA back in the 30s. It was closed when I saw it, but a peer inside revealed a counter, a couple tables and a simple menu or heros. Obviously a local haunt. It had the look of a number of NYC places that are legendary for their longevity, modesty, old world ways and "echt" quotient. Yet, who's ever heard of Paulie's Place?

Maybe Baxter Street is where great restaurants go to be left alone.

11 August 2006

Lost City: New Orleans Edition: Snails and Ashtrays

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes: my account of New Orleans' lasting appeals. Sorry for the long hiatus. It turns out I am not a good blogger (read: obsessive blogger) and did not post a damn thing while on vacation. But I'm back, and here I pick up where I left off.

If you find yourself in New Orleans, and needs some convincing that you are in a place with a very distinct—or shall we say peculiar—culture, then take a tour of Antoine's. Antoine's is the oldest restaurant in the South, the oldest family-run restaurant in the U.S., and is a warren of wonderful weirdness, each room more grandly odd that the last.

The front looks a bit like a Dixie Sardi's, with lots of dark wood and countless framed whatsits on the wall, tuxedoed waiters standing by. Venture down the hall, though, and you encounter The Ashtray Collection. Under glass, are ash catchers from restaurants and bars the world over, many of them now long gone. It's like a bizarre roadside museum. Further back is a small, secreted room where, we are told, nothing you say can be heard by a human ear. Handy in Corruption Central.

Another private room with a long table looks like a Viking hall, and is decorated with the portraits and costumes (green, gold and purple) of past Mardi Gras kings—or, I should say, Rexes. In fact the room is called The Rex Room, and its full of expensive and elaborate crowns and scepters, some behind glass. It is very grand and very otherworldly.

The Japanese Room, meanwhile, which was designed with Oriental motifs around the turn of the 20th century century, was closed up after Dec. 7, 1941, and stayed that way for 43 years. After that, the Japanese suitably punished for their misdeeds, it was reopened and restored.

But for out-and-out, eye-widening weirdness, nothing beats the tiny Snail Room. They don't call it the Snail Room—I do, or did upon seeing a large design of a snail on one wall. This is the secret chamber of La Societe Des Escargots, the most exclusive club in all The Big Easy and maybe the world. Only 12 of the biggest social and business wheels of New Orleans belong at any given time, and no one new can be admitted until one of those dozen kick off. (How's that for a macabre membership rule?) These Sachems meet but once a month. I looked at the various posters and loving cups naming the members of the years. I recognized no one except Dick Foster, and I only knew him because he's the guy they named Bananas Foster after.

Which reminds me: Antoine's is where they invented Baked Alaska and Oysters Rockefeller. As far as I can tell, no Rockefellers were ever voted into the Snails.