The Village Voice's esteemed food critic Robert Sietsema has hit upon an idea that Lost City has been championing ever since I hung out my blog's shingle back in 2006: Classic restaurants and bars should be landmarked! The idea is a tricky one—how do you mix active commerce and historical preservation? Where do the merchant's rights end and the public's begin? Still, the notion is important and, during this critical period when the City's culinary heritage is fast eroding, it needs to be taken up and given some serious thought.
My initial thoughts on how such a set-up would work fall along these lines. You can't really grant landmark status to a working restaurant or bar, because, unlike a beautiful edifice or historic neighborhood, it's a breathing commercial enterprise. How do you preserve the concern if business is bad, and the place can't make money? How can you make an owner accept landmarking if he wants to retire and no one wants to assume control of the eatery? It's complicated.
But certainly, places like Katz's and Old Town Bar shouldn't be at the mercy of developers and real estate booms. They are part of the City's fabric. They belong to everyone, to history. So we should make it as easy for them to survive as possible. The City should give classic restaurants property tax breaks, or buy the buildings from the landlords and become the landlord, charging the restaurants a dollar a year. This will encourage the restaurants to stay put, for as long as the people in charge want to do. And if the owners want to get out, the City could orchestrate a transfer to another willing owner who would preserve the traditions of the place, interviewing capable and interested candidates.
Here is Sietsema's article:
A Modest Proposal--Restaurant Landmarking
I was hurrying down West 125th on the way to a new Ethiopian place a friend had tipped me to, when I stopped short. One of my favorite soul food spots, M& G Diner, was shuttered tight as a drum. The place had long been a 24-hour pit stop for southern-style fried chicken, sweet corn muffins, collards laced with fatback (and later, smoked turkey), creamy mac and cheese with extra cheddar melted on top, and the cryptic barbecued rib sandwich.
When I got home, I did a bit of research on the web and in my own collection of books about New York City. I turned up almost nada. Judging by the décor, the current M & G exterior, and its curving interior linoleum counter, the place certainly originated in the 1950s or earlier. The front remained emblazoned with the slogan, "Old Fashion' Good" - the fussy apostrophe dating to a time when people still cared about correct punctuation.
In fact, M & G was one of the last remaining soul food holdouts in Harlem, a beacon on West 125th Street that instantly evoked the history of the neighborhood going back to the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. There are only two or three of those old-timers that remain.
In the ensuing nights, I had a recurring nightmare that Katz's on Houston Street - one of my favorite restaurants in the world - also closed. Overnight, a condo tower rose on the site. In one version of the dream, a place called Katz's is installed in a ground floor retail space, but it looks like a fast-food joint on the Interstate, and the indifferent counterguys are slicing the pastrami and corned beef on slicing machines.
Why does it have to be this way? Why is our culinary birthright at the mercy of the whims of real estate developers? The city is quick to grant giant tax abatements and other goodies to developers, why not to restaurateurs?
Indeed, we need some sort of cultural landmark system that will forestall the decimation of our cultural treasures. If the city readily permits condo towers to rise over Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, destroying the low-rise character of the neighborhoods in the name of economic progress, why can't we be allowed to retain a handful of restaurants that really matter?
How the mechanism of this Heirloom Restaurant Designation would work is not the point of this piece--certainly, there would be many details to work out. It shouldn't be connected in any way to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is in the pocket of real estate developers, and often seems concerned only with saving brownstones.
But I've started a list of restaurants and other purveyors of prepared food I'd like to see preserved, and fear are in danger of disappearing. I'd love to have additional suggestions.
1. Katz's Deli (Manhattan)
2. Totonno's Pizza (Brooklyn)
3. Mitchell's Soul Food (Brooklyn)
4. Lemon Ice King of Corona (Queens)
5. Patsy's Pizza (Manhattan)
6. La Taza de Oro (Manhattan)
7. Pete's Tavern (Manhattan)
8. Veniero's (Manhattan)
9. Court Pastry Shop (Brooklyn)
10. Eddie's Sweet Shop (Queens)
11. Nathan's Hot Dogs (Brooklyn)
12. Calandra's Cheese (Bronx)
13. Margie's Red Rose (Manhattan)
To Robert's list, I suggest these additions:
Old Town Bar
McSorley's Old Ale House
John's of 12th Street
Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop
Yonah Schimmel's Knishery
Keen's Steak House
Le Veau d'Or
Homestead Steak House
L & B Spumoni Gardens
Everything on Arthur Avenue