The folks over at the Old Homestead steakhouse recently invited me to take a tour of the 141-year-old Meatpacking Distict chowhouse. I hadn't seen it since the recent renovation, so I happily took them up on the offer.
I had been sad to see the old place cut in half last fall when the owners gave up the lease on the southern half of the restaurant, after their landlords raised the rent. They now operate out of a comparatively narrow space, three levels high. But they own the building, so they won't have to worry about the whims of landlords anymore. And it's the building that has the famous Old Homestead vertical neon sign on it, as well as large cow figure, beloved symbols of New York-iana.
If you didn't pass that sign and that cow, you might not know you're in a restaurant that began serving right after the Civil War. Inside, architect and designer Glen Coben has made everything smooth and sleek. The floor is original, I was told, and the tin ceilings. But otherwise, everything's pretty new. It's that prototypical steakhouse look: dark wood, leather, white tablecloths, mirrors, dim lighting. The template hasn't change much since the days of Diamond Jim Brady. Very nice in its way. It's all quite handsome and understated, if a tad anonymous. I wouldn't mind a bit more fusty old bric-a-brac and memorabilia on the wall. If you're 140 years old, why not show it off?
My favorite part of the renovation by far is a private room on the second floor that used to be a closet. When they cleared out the space, I was told, workers uncovered an old painted sign that had long ago adorned the northern wall of the building just to the south (the same building that the Old Homestead used to lease). It reads in big, bold letters, "Prime Beef." It's beautiful and in fine condition, considering its age. And it gives the room a particular character, as does the fine view out the window—a close up of the bottom half of the neon sign. I could only imagine how the sign would illuminate the room at night with a cool noir air.
The owners say they had no idea that sign was there all these years. It presented a conundrum, though. It was obviously an outdoor sign. But the only way it could have been seen is if the building that houses the Old Homestead didn't exist. When I queried the Old Homestead people, however, they said the building they occupied was older than the building to the south. Mysterious. And impossible.
I told them of my confusion and asked if they were sure of their dates. Sure enough, they came back with reverse information. The building to the south was indeed older than the Old Homestead building. Thus, the northern brick wall of the southern building was once visible to to all who wished to gaze at the Prime Beef advertisement.
Given the age of the Old Homestead, one would then assume that the painted sign is at least 150 years old. Amazing. What was paint made of in the old days? Based on the innumerable old painted signs that are uncovered every year in New York, 19th century paint seems to last forever.