27 February 2009

The Fall of Music Row Further Confirmed

Lost City has recently learned more to confirm my earlier report of the coming demise of Manny's Musical Instruments as well as most of what constitutes Music Row, the block of W. 48th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenue which has for much of the last century been a destination for musicians famous and not.

A source in the know reaffirmed the fact that Music Row as we know it will be gone in just a few years, and that Rockefeller bought everything on the South side of the street. It would also appear that it was Rocky Center that decided not to renew the lease on seven-decade-old Manny's, which was purchased by Sam Ash in 1999.

Perhaps the change was inevitable. From what we hear, the spreading of the Guitar Center chain around the tri-state area (not to mention suburban Sam Ash branches) caused business to drop off on Music Row.

All in all, a sad story. And a great loss to New York's cultural heritage.

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to John's of 12th Street?"

The eternal candle at John's of 12th Street fascinates me. Can it really be true, that the owners have lit a candle in the same place every night since the 1930s, the wax building and building and building over the decades, cut back only when it gets too close to the ceiling? Could there be 70-year-old wax at the bottle of the burning, man-made stalagmite? Depression-era wax? World War II wax?

John's of 12th Street, apart from having a great name, is a cozy nook of history to enjoy a quiet bowl of pasta in. What's more, it's so unlike much of the rest of the East Village. I would love it if it were just down the block from where I live, and probably make it a haunt.

26 February 2009

Bloomberg's Bad News Week

Would-be Mayor-for-Life Mike Bloomberg didn't have such a great week—I mean, aside from closing the deal of the townhouse next to him and turning his Upper East Side home into a mansion. (No Gracie Mansion, but an actual mansion.)

King Mike, you remember, doesn't belong to any political party, since he's shed both the Democrats and the Republicans in the past seven vainglorious years. Now, of course, since he wants to be mayor for four more years—and rammed a term-limit law revision through City Council in order to do it—he needs some kind of party affiliation.

But guess what? Everybody pissed at him. Nobody wants him in their treehouse. The Republican Party of New York let me crawl to beg forgiveness on Wednesday, but gave him a cold, inconclusive reception. Seems the party has the not unreasonable idea that Mike should rejoin the party is he wants to run on the GOP ticket, but the ever unreasonable Mike doesn't want to do that.

So what's a power-mad fella to do? Well, go court the wacko Independence Party, which is run by Fred Newman, a man regarding by many as a sort of cult leader. Man, what the billionaire won't do to stay in office! But even Fred's not so keen on Bloomie.

Then again, maybe Mike needn't bother. There's a growing movement upstate in Albany to render null and void the whole term limit revision thing. The new law, if passed, "would prevent city lawmakers across the state from revising term limits laws without a voter referendum." The measure has the support they needed to advance the bills out of the appropriate committees in both houses.

The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Kevin S. Parker of Brooklyn, would apply retroactively and require a referendum on term limits in New York City in May.

Oh, and the Department of Building, which Mike supposedly fixed after two crane accidents last years revealed it to be inept, hollow and easily manipulated—is still corrupt.

Seems the guy can't catch a break. Could this be divine retribution for a Greek-Tragedy-size case of hubris? The press has caught on to Mike's streak of bad luck, too. Jacob Gershman, of the New York Post, put it best in a Feb. 23 piece called "Mike Marches Left: How Mayor Lost His Principles."

But along with his poll numbers and the city's economy, the mayor's stature is shrinking. His mockery of the political process is wearing thin among voters who were more tolerant during the good times. A Democratic lawmaker framed it like this: "The man thinks he can buy anything, and to large degree he's been right. He's not a Democrat or a Republican. He's a rich guy. That's his party."


Phil's Pizza in the Village has long been one of my favorite New York storefronts. But I've never been able to get a shot of it that does the place justice.

Well, Ken Mac at Greenwich Village Daily Photo has done the job for me. And a pretty picture it is.

Fishs Eddy Knows a Good Joke When It Sees One

The Fishs Eddy on Broadway near Union Square wants you to know exactly what is going on with it.

25 February 2009

Some Sad Pictures of the Harlem Renaissance Ballroom

Nathan Kensinger has taken some lovely and tragic pictures of the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino in Harlem, which was never landmarked and is now all but gone. "Built between 1920 and 1923 and was a black owned and operated center of culture - a movie theater, a ballroom, a space for basketball games, dances and meetings. It was the "setting for all of Harlem’s most important parties," according to author Michael Henry Adams, but by 1979 the complex had closed down and "by the 1990s it had so deteriorated that it was used as a setting for Spike Lee’s crack den from hell in the movie Jungle Fever.""

Go check out the rest of the photos.

A Little Manny's History

My post last week that Manny's Musical Instrument closing for good in May won Lost City some traffic from unusual corners. The mainstream press took scant notice, but a sea of response from the web's various music-oriented sites and chat rooms rose up like a tidal wave, and it hasn't subsided yet. Sites like ProSoundWeb, BassTalk, BeatGearCavern and Sonormuseum are not happy.

Many of these music fans and professionals noted that Manny's had not been the same place since it was bought on by neighboring rival Sam Ash, and had some snarky things to say about the current staff at the store. The original Manny was Manny Goldrich, a saxophone salesman who founded the store in 1935. His son, Henry, took over the business later, and Henry in turn passed it to his two sons in 1998. Manny died in 1968 at the age of 64.

Manny's has always been known to attract not just serious musicians, but legendary ones. In the early years, it was famous bandleaders and jazz men like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Swing Street, after all, was only four blocks away. Later, it sold to performers like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck Chuck Berry and the Beatles. Buddy Holly got his Stratocaster there. Gerry & the Pacemakers would pull up in a limousine and run into the store and hide upstairs to escape the crowds of groupies who had trailed them. Harrison and Starr would hang out and sign autographs. Clapton would hock guitars during lean times. (Those times must have been some time ago.)

A book about the history of the place was published by Henry Goldrich in 2007, with reprint of many of the signed pictures that line the walls of the store.

24 February 2009

I Take the Bus

I take the bus.

I didn't always. I was a subway man. Solely. Taxis on occasion when I could afford it. Buses I'd look at through the corner of my eye and wonder why anyone would suffer their slowness, their unwieldy maneuverings through choking traffic, their creeping uncoolness. I once worked in an office alongside a folksy man originally from Arkansas who refused to take the subway on principle. He took the bus to and from his home in the Village to work in Midtown, relishing the light and air. Subways were squalid holes in the ground to him. I thought he was a kook.

Not now. Now I tend to look askance at people who don't take buses, who don't even know what buses serve their area or what their routes are. A great part of living in New York is transit—being in transit and finding the best way to negotiate transit. If you only know the subway system, you're cheating yourself out of half your options. You're going to lose the war.

I began taking buses when I moved to Brooklyn. It started with a revelation one day as I was trying to figure out the easiest way to get from my house to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and realized I could do the trip in a straight shot, door to door, if I took the B71 along Union Street and Eastern Parkway. After that, I was hooked. Local buses could easily take me to Atlantic Avenue, BAM, Park Slope, the Brooklyn Museum, the South Slope. I became a regular on the (cursed) B61, B63, B75 and others.

Over the years, I even came to prefer the bus; if it seemed even a slightly easier commute, I would opt for a bus over the subway. I had nothing really against the subway. It was faster, there was no doubt. But the cars were more regularly crowded; seats were at a premium; the stations were filthy and depressing, and terribly hot in the summer; and people tended to behave more badly on the subway than they did on the bus. Buses were full of working people and mothers with children who minded their own business and looked out for others. Subways are home to a thousand loud-mouthed louts.

Moreover, you had to descend and ascend for the subway, and were robbed of sunshine and fresh air and scenery for the duration of your trip (except for the few strains of the subway system that travel overground.)

As I used the bus more often, I slowly began to realize that I had entered a parallel universe wholly in opposition to the American Way of Life. Successful Americans Don't Take the Bus—that was the silent message I started to perceive. It's a third-class form of transportation, way below personal vehicles, and still well under such travel modes as taxis, trains, and subways. When I mentioned the bus as a possible way to get somewhere to family and friends, they would furrow their brow and wrinkle their nose, as it suddenly detecting an unpleasant odor. The bus? Are things that bad for us?, they seemed to ask.

Looking back, I realized it had always been thus. Growing up, my family never took the bus. We didn't live in a particularly urban area, so it wasn't always an option. But for a number of years we dwelled in a fair-sized city with a decent bus system. Still, from the way my parents acted, you would never have known it. The idea was this: the bus was for poor people. If we used it, we would be allying ourselves with an undesirable social group. We would be failures. Buses were embarrassing. There was also some GOP political nonsense about how the bus system was a big waste of taxpayer money. This attitude has persisted to this day. Members of my family will not take a bus if you point a gun at their head. And I have had siblings who have lived one block from a bus stop.

I sometimes force people to take the bus. Recently, a friend visited me. I had to fight tooth and nail to get him to use the bus for a simple A-to-B journey. When he did, he said, "I've never had a good experience on a bus until today." My guess is he'd had few experience on a bus prior to that.

At this point, I'm a bit of a bus snob. If you've never partaken of the bus system, it seems to me, you haven't really fully experienced New York. On a bus, you see what lies in between the place you are and the place you want to get to. You see the neighborhoods change. You see street life. Moreover, the bus goes a lot of places that the subway system does not. Red Hook and City Island, for two examples among many.

I also take the bus as an subconscious political statement, for I hate Mayor Bloomberg's idea of New York as a "luxury city." Bloomberg, the SUV rider. Bloomberg, the fake subway enthusiast. You notice that Mayor Mike never touts the virtues of the bus system. He would never dirty the soles of his Bostonians by entering one.

Furthermore, I now think the bus fits with President Obama's call for The New Responsibility. Get over yourself; stop being selfish; stop being lazy; don't waste fossil fuels just to make things more convenient on yourself; teach your children how to use the bus; make mass transit a way of life. The bus. It's the noble way to travel.

Some Stuff That's Interesting

Pictures of the redo of Minetta Tavern have been released. Looks pretty gorgeous, with murals, caricatures and general historic spirit intact. Nice. [Eater]

The Moondance Diner, formerly of Soho, has opened in Wyoming. [Crain's]

Long Island City's landmark Pepsi sign is being reassembled. [Curbed]

Dunderheaded Rockefeller Center plans to convert the Rainbow Room into offices. Is that any way to treat a cultural landmark? [Eater]

Edwin Trinka, for 46 years the doorman at the Plaza, is retiring. [City Room]

This McDonald's is a Child's. [Ephemeral New York]

What are you looking at? [Restless]

Forgotten New York looks at some Places.

23 February 2009

A Good Sign: Killarney Rose

The Killarney Rose has been holding up its corner of Pearl Street in lower Manhattan for 41 years.

Broadway Duane Reade Wants to Look Old, But Also Doesn't Really Care

There's a Duane Reade drug store on Broadway and 20th that's making a half-assed attempt at looking like part of Old New York.

Before you enter the store, you tread over some well worn tile (far below), a remnant of whatever store used to be at this address before Duane Reade took over. Inside, though, the tile theme continues, and a variety of newer colored tiles are arranged to clearly spell out the message "Welcome to Duane Reade."

Nice! Except that the current manager of the store obviously doesn't give a good God Damn about this charming bit of artistry. Half the letters are covered up by black floor mats and a large display unit holding bottled water. "Welc to Duane Ade."

Huge Times Square Walgreens Kinda Sweet When You Think About It

At first glance, the new Walgreens at One Times Square looks like just another awful, garish big-box pharmacy. And, yes, it is that. But the store's nod to history makes it a more sentimental enterprise than is usually the case.

By moving into One Times Square (the old New York Times building), Walgreens is reclaiming old territory. The drug store chain has its first New York store in this same location in 1933, opening in the teeth of the Depression. It remained there until 1961, enjoying much of Times Square's post-War heydey. Walgreens abandoned Manhattan altogether in the 1970s.

The inner store is the usual sort of thing, except that the floor plan is exceedingly narrow, conforming to the shape of the building, and it rises up four flight, allowing for some nice views outside. If only if had an old-style soda fountain, so that Walgreens could serve up the malted milk shakes that it invented by in 1922.

22 February 2009

Strider Records Counting Down the Days?

A concerned reader wrote in recently to say that Strider Records, the small Village store devoted to vinyl, could close any day now. The man got the word from owner Bob Noguera himself, whom the reader described as "being at peace" with the reality.

If so, he may be the only one who will be at peace with it. Records maniacs—who lost Vinylmania, another Village destination for old-music lovers, in 2007—will likely be beside themselves. Me? I'm not a slavish devotee to vinyl, but I appreciate and understand those infected with the obsession, and think a neighborhood like the West Village, of all places, should have a plethora of stores that cater to such collectors.

Bob Noguera, who grew up in The Bronx, opened shop in 1979—first on Cornelia, then on Bleecker, then on Jones, all a stone's throw from each other (His block of Jones is the same one seen on the cover of Bob Dylan's album "Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan." He has devoted his life to the store, which gets calls from all over the world. He does not carry CDs, only collectible vinyl, mainly from the 1950s to the 1970s. His stores is stuffed to the gills with product and difficult to navigate; there's one narrow aisle. It's meant for serious browsing. Noguera stays close to the musical world by taking part in doo-wop groups.

I tell you, between Tin Pan Alley and Manny's and now this, music lovers in this City are suffering. Suffering.

21 February 2009

Iconic Neon Gets Its Due in Paper of Record

The New York Times' Christopher Gray delves into the critical topic of the City's landmark neon signs and their preservation on a Feb. 19 piece. The subject is much in the news lately due to the removal of the widely familiar P&G Cafe sign at 73rd and Amsterdam. The sign was landmarked and, while the owners, who are moving their business uptown, had the right to remove the sign, they apparently did not follow exact City protocol in doing so.

Gray, one of my favorite Gray Lady scribblers, talks about many of the signs that Lost City has obsessed over for years, including the Dublin House, Russ & Daughters and Gringer Appliances. And he does some nifty homework.

Gray notes that, "of a sample of a dozen notable neon signs in Manhattan, the earliest appears to be from 1933: that of Dublin House, a bar at 225 West 79th Street. Its sign was commissioned by the lessee, the Dublin-born John P. Carway, for whom E. G. Clarke Inc. designed a great two-sided sign with a green harp, and “BAR” and “TAP ROOM” flashing on and off — a masterpiece in neon."

Finally, someone at the Paper of Record says what we all know: certain neon signs are masterpieces, and should be protected and cherished.

We also learn about Charles Karsch, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant, and a master of neon art. He created the signs for the White Horse Tavern, Gringer Appliances and P&G! That's like saying one architect was responsible for the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the Woolworth Building. There should be a statue of him somewhere in the City! How many hundreds of hours of joy has he brought to generations of New Yorkers?

Gray also discovers that the cost of restoring old neon is not an argument against doing it:

Mr. Friedman said that his firm was making more neon signs than ever. And there is plenty of neon innovation out there, like the tumbled letters of BAR that proclaim the Essex Street Alehouse on Essex near Houston Street, and the moody blue script of the Nightingale, a lounge on Second Avenue at 13th Street.

His firm restored both the Gringer and Russ & Daughters signs. Mr. Friedman says the cost of putting vintage neon to rights is not an argument against it. While an entirely new neon sign like Gringer’s would be about $20,000, he says restoring one much like it would cost about $10,000, roughly the same as an entirely new plastic one.

New, But Not Good, News About Vesuvio

The New York Times digs into the Vesuvio Bakery mystery in tomorrow's paper, trying to figure out what's been going on with the iconic Soho storefront in the several months since its closed last year (and nicely linking to some Lost City coverage in the process).

Here's what they found out, and none of it's very encouraging:

Finally, near the end of last month, a “for rent” sign appeared in the window, and earlier last week, a real estate broker could be seen examining the space for clients who, he said, were interested in opening an epicurean deli.

One issue underlying these seemingly mysterious twists and turns is a dispute involving the bakery’s owners and the landlord of the six-story building whose ground floor the business occupied.

“My first choice would be to have continued on and have a historic bakery in a historic building,” said William Korn, a part owner of the building who lives in Colorado. “That’s not how it worked out.”

On Wednesday, under a court- ordered eviction, the bakery’s lock was changed, the landlords’ lawyer said.

So, Vesuvio won't be coming back after all. All we can hope is that the new tenant keeps the great storefront in tact, and does something in the line of food service.

20 February 2009

Manny's to Close in May; Entire Music Row of W. 48th Street Endangered

Manny's Musical Instruments, a Midtown landmark since 1935, will close its doors forever at the end of May, and the remainder of the Music Row—as the block of W. 48th Street between Seventh and Sixth Avenues is affectionately known—may soon fall like a row of dominoes.

Following up on a reader's tip, I paid a call on Manny's today and was told by a staff member that the store would shutter at the end of the May. Manny's was bought out in 1999 by Sam Ash, the musical 300-pound gorilla of Music Row and the most visible merchant on the street. A man from Sam Ash called a meeting at Manny's last Saturday and dropped the bomb that, after 74 years, Manny's would be put out of business. Some Manny's employees may be taken on by other Sam Ash stores here and in Jersey.

According to the clerk, however, that may only be the beginning of it. The folks from Rockefeller Center have apparently been buying up parts of the block, included a mammoth parking garage that lies across the street, and aim to level the entire street so that the Center can expand across Sixth Avenue. Put simply, Music Row, one of the last real vestiges of Old Times Square, will cease to exist.

Comments made by Paul Ash, president of Sam Ash Music, to The Real Deal in 2008, do not encourage one to think that Ash will put up a fight. "It's inevitable that Music Row is going to end," said Paul Ash, "One day, both of these corners will be built up like [they are] on the other end of the block, and we're just waiting for the shoe to drop."

Manny's sits on property owned by its founding family. In the same Real Deal article, Ian Goldrich, Manny's grandson, said "I get at least a call a day from someone who wants to buy the building."

Over the years, Manny's has serviced such clients as Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Buddy Holly, the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, U2, Eric Clapton and Nirvana. This almost hurts even more than the recent news that Tin Pan Alley might be torn down, because Music Row still exists. It's alive and functioning.

Lost City's Guide to the Upper West Side

If you want to understand the toll the last 16 years of short-sighted City Hall governance has taken on the City's soul, the quickest way is to take a dispiriting stroll down upper Broadway, anywhere between Columbus Circle and 96th Street. The central vein of the Upper West Side—a neighborhood that was long a bastion of New York's penchant for independent thinking and expression—has been almost completely denuded of local, individualized businesses. On some blocks, it's impossible to find a single storefront that isn't an outpost of some corporate entity. It could be Dayton or Scottsdale, for all the personality. As with SoHo, without the unique architecture, the area would be completely undistinguished.

The Upper West Side is a large chunk of land, and, quite frankly, what you get in living history for walking all those blocks doesn't quite compensate for your aching dogs. But, for those who are really curious, here's some of what's left:

: We'll start way the hell up north, on Broadway near 90th Street, with one of the region's mercantile gems. This narrow store has been here serving up fish and meats and soup since 1946 under several different owners. The current owner, Ira Goller, has been there since 1990.

"The Sturgeon King." To a certain extent, culinary life on the UWS has always centered on the finding and consuming of very good smoked fish. At Amsterdam and 86th Street, you get some of the best. Barney Greengrass (what a name!) has been luring them inside in droves for a century with its classic version of the Jewish "Appetizing" store. There's an accompanying restaurant, whose few tables are crammed together and routinely occupied.

WEST PARK PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH: Next door to Barney is this slice of red sandstone. The UWS has a lot of great churches. I'm including this one, however, because through some mystery it has never been landmarked. The 1890 building is a rare example of Richardsonian Revival, a robust style I dearly love. The church is currently closed and things don't look good for it.

AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY: Go over to Columbus and walk off all the food from Murray's and Barney's on the way down to 81st Street, where the huge Museum of Natural History takes up a few blocks. Take it in. It's kinda impressive. If you decide to go in, don't forget to go to the Hall of Ocean Life and stand under the model of the Blue Whale. Nothing quite places you in New York as does standing under that whale.

DUBLIN HOUSE: Turn west on 79th Street and head to Broadway. You can't miss the Dublin House. It's got a big neon harp outside. A great old watering hole as old an any business in the area.

ZABAR'S: OK, now you're within the UWS's heart of hearts—the tight ten blocks or so where the neighborhood still looks and acts the most like itself. Landmarks, both of the architectural and cultural kind, are thick on the ground from 81st to 71st, starting with the business that perhaps epitomizes La Vie Upper West Side more than any other: Zabar's. Crowded, cluttered, full of itself, beloved, hated, overproud and justifiable so. However you slice it, it's an experience.

: A narrow, hard-to-navigate, used book store across Broadway from Zabar's. A quintessentially New Yorky space and business. It's easy to lose a couple hours in here.

H&H BAGELS: Head south a block and enter the boiled-dough shrine that is H&H Bagels, as praiseworthy for its fat, circular bread products as for its spare, unshowy (save the weird chandeliers, above) decor.

: At 79th is the Anthorp, one of those places where every New Yorker, at one time in their lives, dreams of living. Built on land acquired by William Waldorf Astor in 1879, and filling a full city block, it has an enormous, dreamy inner courtyard that evokes Europe, and the feel of a Renaissance palace. It should. It was modeled on the Pitti Palace.

FAIRWAY: Further down Broadway, around 75th. The food miracles keep coming. This is the original, the hopelessly crowded, the infuriating, the spendiferous Fairway. "Unlike Any Other Market." And they're right. It is. It's like a Middle-Eastern bazaar, in its multitude of products and its boisterous, rude, heterogeneous clientele—only with a roof.

: Never my fishy cup of tea (a little too hoity-toity, and too pricey), but generations of New Yorkers have sworn by it. It's 97 years old, for Christ's sake. I give it its due.

THE BEACON THEATRE: At 74th Street on the east side of Broadway, a 1929 Art Deco gem, recently restored.

FISCHER BROTHERS AND LESLIE: Turn right at 72nd. Half a block in, on the south side, is the family-owned butcher Fischer Brothers and Leslie. Hideously expensive, but they know what they're doing, meat-wise, and they keep the Glatt Kosher flame burning on the UWS.

: As you turn around and re-cross Broadway, look at and admire the landmarked subway kiosk at the 72nd Street stop. If every subway station had a kiosk like this, what a place New York would be! It's 105 years old. One of only a few remaining in the City.

: Glance down Broadway to 71st Street. That big red-and-white buster on the left is the Dorilton, built in 1902.

TIP TOP SHOES: Keep going east and head to this largish, 69-year-old rarity: an enduring family-owned shoe store! Lots of New York personality. (Maybe too much; charm, the sales clerks sometimes lack.) And the name and sign are to swoon from.

THE DAKOTA: Keep going east until you hit the park. Here is the Dakota. If you've never heard of it, there's something wrong with you. Built in 1880, it was so named because its then-surroundings were as empty and desolate as the Badlands. It has another of those great inner courtyards you only find in large apartment buildings on the UWS. All famous Upper West Siders who haven't lived at the Apthorp has lived at the Dakota.

EMERALD INN: Double back to Columbus and walk down to 70th. Nothing so special, except that it's been around for 70 years or so. Recently, it was threatened with extinction. Drink up; you're almost done walking.

TAVERN ON THE GREEN: In Central Park, near 67th, it the sprawling, be-mirrored, over-chandeliered, ever-cheesy Tavern on the Green. But it's one of a kind. And when you're eating your Eggs Benedict in the Crystal Room on a Sunday morning and the equestrians gallop up outside the glass wall to rest their horses, it can be kind of magical.

: On 67th near the park, it is 92 years old and a byword for romantic dining. Known for its murals. The kind of New York landmark that wouldn't change if you held a nice to its throat.

19 February 2009

Gino in Danger

I'm sorry, but what is going on? I was just at Gino, the Upper East Side red-sauce stalwart, and it was crowded—on a Wednesday, at 7 PM, in a recession.

And now it's reported, by Eater via the Times, that the 64-year-old place is on the verge of extinction?

When you’re 64 years you feel the chill a bit more than the younger folks. So if the economy doesn’t warm up, said Michael Miele, the chef and one of the owners of Gino on the Upper East Side, the restaurant will close.

Mr. Miele was one of the trio of Gino employees who bought the place in 1980 from Gino Circiello, who opened the Upper East Side icon in 1945. (The others were Sal Doria and Mario Laviano, who died in 2006.)

“We’re down 70 percent over the past couple years,” he said, “especially now, forget it, we’ve got a big drop. If business stays like this, if it doesn’t pick up we can’t afford to stay open, we’re losing money.”

The zebras must not die! Here are a few possibly helpful suggestions for the old boys, should they choose to take them. Gino, you are an expensive restaurant, even for things like pasta. Try adding a few more economical items on the menu. How about a dinner prix fixe, something that would allow a diner to get out for under $30? A better, more thoughtful wine list wouldn't hurt. And try making better drinks; the cocktail are big, but on the sloppy side.

I Have a Bone to Pick With McDonald's

Time for a little off-topic rant.

First of all, I went into the McDonald's on Canal Street to use their ATM not to buy food. Not that I haven't ever purchased food there. I have. I just don't want to talk about that right now.

So, on to the subject at hand. See the little yellow sign on the McDonald's awning? "Free ATM." How do you take that? I take it to mean: a no-fee ATM. I can use it and my bank account with be charged zip. That is, of course, how everyone would interpret it.

Now let's look at these lovelies, pasted on the doors. "Free ATM." An exclamation point even. And no, I didn't see the tiny letters that said "for participating banks." Why? Because they are FIFTY TIMES SMALLER THAN THE WORD "FREE!"

And so I go in and, Whammo!, here's Mr. ATM, and he says to me (again in yellow) "99 cents," "99 cents," "99 cents." No "Free!" sticker on this baby! You pay money, buster, to touch me!

WTF? Is there a more egregious bait-and-switch in town? And this seems to be new to me, for I remember well when McDonald's used to have signs outside its franchise advertising its ATMs as "Only 99 cents!" Which was true, and cheap. Why change? Why lie? To get suckers like me into your fetid restaurants to graze off your dollar menu, that's why. Just goes to show you—ain't nothing free in a corporate outpost. Even if they take a little bit of your soul, they take something.

South Brooklyn: Land of Displaced Book Stores

Heights Books—which, we learned last year, had to vacate its longtime home on Montague Street—has found a new home at 120 Smith Street.

This area of Brooklyn is suddenly becoming quite literary. This is the second time in a year that a homeless book store has found new roots in the South Brooklyn area. In 2008, Manhattan's 12th Street Books relocated on Atlantic Avenue, renaming itself Atlantic Books. (No word on whether Heights Books will consider a name change—it'll be in Cobble Hill, technically.)

These two stores, combined with the venerable Book Court and dusty Community Book Store, give the neighborhood the number of book store choices a region populated by authors, editors, critics and journalists should have.

Two-Item Diner Goes Expansive!

The Piccolo Cafe on Columbia Street in Brooklyn, which last month opened with only two items on the menu—an egg sandwich and a cheeseburger—has been expanding like crazy! Why, there must be at least ten things on that menu now!

Italian sausage on a roll, eggplant parmigiana on a roll, chicken parmigiana on roll, cold cuts on a roll—man, if you want anything on a roll, this is the place to go. If you're a bowl kind of guy, go for the Minestrone. And they're got fries! Yes, sir. The foreign delicacy, French fries.

Seriously, though, I don't know is the stretching of the menu mean Piccolo is doing well, or the owner realized you can't make a go of thing with only two food selections. It's fun to watch the place evolve.

18 February 2009

Where Diamond Jim Brady Got Laid

I write enough about the City's old taverns, you'd think I'd know every musty watering hole in town. I guess not. A reader wrote in recently and asked if I'd ever been to his favorite dive, the Grand Saloon on 23rd Street near Lex. What? Who? Neverhudduvit.

I have an out. Grand Saloon had been called a million things since it began life in the 1880s, so its history isn't as obvious as, say, McSorley's, which has been just one thing forever. It housed a brothel during the days of "Diamond" Jim Brady, who was a frequent patron. It was called the St. Blaize Hotel & Restaurant in those days.

In 1911 it became Klube's Steak House, as the lettering about the door still states. I like the pictures on either side of a lobster and a plate of fruit, showing just what sports like Brady ate, and how much. It was a speakeasy in the 1920s.

The new owners have done a nice restoration, even if the interior is scrubbed a tad too clean. The tile floor is obviously original. They say they removed the ceiling and found a tin ceiling underneath, which they restored. They also uncovered the brick fireplace. It's a nice place to get a drink. It needs to be lived in a bit more, though.

A Survivor in Downtown Brooklyn

Downtown Brooklyn is the Bermuda's Triangle of historic New York. Nothing survives here, not even Gage & Tollner. Everything of value goes down and is replaced by something of unspeakable ugliness. So the Souvlaki House on Lawrence Street near Fulton is a kind of a miracle. Thirty-eight years in the same location! Good prices, and a nice, old-fashioned lunch counter.

Some Stuff That's Interesting

The Day-O restaurant, long vacant on W. 12th, has finally been repossessed. [Eater]

Some guys from Austin bought the interior of the old Cedar Tavern. Why does New York keep shipping its treasure out of town? [Grub Street]

The owners of P&G Bar and Grill did quite follow procedure when removing their iconic neon sign. [City Room]

The mystery of the long-closed Two Boots restaurant on Avenue A dissected. [EV Grieve]

Neat pictures of the decaying (and landmarked) Samuel R. Smith Infirmary building on Staten Island. [Kingston Lounge]

The Peter Pan Donut & Pastry Shop celebrated. [The World According to Bitchcakes]

17 February 2009

Red Hook Mystery Solved

Gothamist today did a run-down of various mysterious storefronts on Van Brunt Street, and what the work being done on them may portend.

I believe I can shed some light on one of the mystery addresses, the plywooded-up corner spot at the southeast corner of Dikeman. This, I hear tell, is going to be a combination eatery/cocktail joint going by the name of Fort Defiance (a nod to Red Hook's military past). The cocktails will be haute, along the lines of those found at Clover Club and the like.

UPDATE: I am informed by a reader that Gowanus Lounge actually reported this news back in Jan. 28 (although that item identified the cross street as Van Dyke, not Dikeman). Apologies. Had no idea. Anyway, the owner, I believe is a veteran of Manhattan's swank Pegu Club.

Car Cozy

Boy, it was chilly last night! How chilly was it? It was so chilly, the cars were wearing coats!

I was walking down W. 37th Street near Eighth last night when I noticed this old compact car completely covered by what I can only call a car cozy. At first I thought it was the work of a very inventive, but slightly cracked, New Yorker who cared a little too much about his or her car's welfare. Like those pet owners who buy their mutts elaborate wardrobes.

On closer examination, I realized it was an artwork, part of a small exhibition currently taking up the Chashama space on that block. (You can see the show in the background, behind the glass storefront.) The cozy is actually a patchwork of separate pieces of knitting, but it fits perfectly, particularly around the rear-view mirrors. The art show runs through this Sunday.

16 February 2009

Mesa De Development

On W. 28th Street in Manhattan, a construction outfit seems to have taken up makeshift residence in a former Spanish restaurant, called the Mesa De Espana. It's kind of funny, because the company has done nothing to alter the former restaurant's appearance. The signs and awnings are still there. It still has one of those typical whitewashed facades you see on Spanish eateries in this town, with ironwork over the small windows, and ceramic tiles placed here and there.

The restaurant closed only reception. I assume the construction guys have something to do with the huge development project going up next door.

Roll Call

In a hearkening back to Medieval times, when, in the exchange of goods, you didn't deal with representations of items (such as paper money or checks or internet sites), but the items themselves, the Met Food on Henry Street in Carroll Gardens has come up with a straightforward approach to check out. Instead of constantly referring a laminated price sheet which lists the cost of every kind of bread, a cashier has simply nailed each different sort of loaf to a board, placed right above her register, and tacked the corresponding prices right on to the bakery.

Ingenious, and charming. But I'm thinking any nighttime mice and rats are looking at the board and yelling: "Partytime!"

14 February 2009

A Good Sign: Midtown Lumber

On West 25th Street.

13 February 2009

Lost City's Guide to SoHo

The very idea of a history-minded walk around SoHo is depressing. The buildings are there, certainly. Cast-iron masterpieces are in surplus. But nothing of great value lives inside (great cost, yes). No ancient merchants. No artists. No tradition. Just commercial chain-store mundanity. Rough and tumble SoHo once teemed with industry. In the 1970s and 1980s it found a new pulse as a haven for art and artists. Shopping and restaurants followed, which was fine, as long as the culture remained. But the artists decamped for Chelsea in the 1990s, leaving only Pottery Barn and J. Crew to bask in the reflected glory of the Belgian Blocks. There's very little living history to choose from here, but what there is I list below.

JOE'S DAIRY: For whatever reason, the greatest density of old (mostly Italian) SoHo institutions lies on Sullivan Street, beginning with Joe's Dairy, an ancient cheese shop near Houston Street. They make sandwiches, too. The Catholic church ST. ANTHONY OF PADUA is across the street. It was built in 1888 and remains the center of Italian life in this neighborhood.

PINO'S PRIME MEAT: Just across the street and down the block is Pino's, a small butcher that does things the old way. There's been a butcher here for a century. Pino Cinquemani began his occupation of the address in 1990. He obviously didn't change much about the look of the place.

PORTO RICO IMPORTING COMPANY: Turn left at Prince Street and then right on Thompson for half a block. The 101-year-old, family-owned Porto Rico has four shops in Manhattan, but this odd, narrow, aging storefront is the charmer for me.

FAMOUS BEN'S PIZZA: Continue south. Ben's has been at the corner of Spring and Thompson for, well, not forever, but what seems like forever. It's a good source of an inexpensive snack in ritzy Soho, and there's something about the fresh tomato and onion Sicilian slice. Without it, SoHo doesn't really have a neighborhood pizzeria, which would be a crime. No neighborhood should suffer that.

MILADY'S: Head back north to Prince and cross Thompson. On the corner is a rare bar and restaurant in Soho that won't piss you off with its shallow trendiness. Cheap, too.

VESUVIO BAKERY: Next door to Milady's, painted as bright green as a spring leaf, is Vesuvio. Who knows what's going with this classic bakery, one of the ten best-preserved in the city (on the outside, anyway). It's been shuttered for months, after a brief life as a cafe. In its glory days, it was owned by community activist Tony Dapolito, the unofficial "Mayor of Greenwich Village," who died in July 2003. It had a spartan glory, bread in the windows, bread inside. No decor. The business was bread and Vesuvio was all business. Still nice to look at, though.

FANELLI'S CAFE: Walk west to the corner of Mercer. As far as I'm concerned, this 1847 tavern is the heart and soul of SoHo. It had a phase as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The Fanelli family owned it from 1922 to 1982, and the dark-wood bar, which serves food and is always crowded, retains the name. Everything about the place, from the neon sign, to the diagonally framed entrance, to the bathrooms, is special. A place to while the day away in.

DEAN & DELUCA: OK, you can hate me for it, but I'm going to include the ultimate Yuppie and tourist hangout on this list, only because, as far as culinary history in America is concerned, the shop truly is historic. Nobody was doing the fancy-schmancy-artisan-made-cheese-oil-and-everything jazz before Joel Dean, Giorgio DeLuca, and Jack Ceglic the idea hatched the back in 1977. And everyone thought they were crazy to hang out a shingle in nasty old SoHo. Sure, D&D was sort of like Patient Zero when it came to the malling of SoHo. They deserve the rap for that. But that doesn't discount what they accomplished. The building dates from 1883.

THE PUCK BUILDING: Continue on to Lafayette and turn right to Houston, crossing cool little JERSEY STREET. The Puck, to me, is one of the grand architectural paperweights that keeps the changing canvas of SoHo in place. A wonderfully beautiful Romanesque Revival landmark, it was built between 1885-1893. Puck magazine gave it its name. Spy magazine carried on Puck's tradition here in the late '80s. The gold statue of the mocking Puck is just the right antidote to the hoards of clueless consumers forever milling below.

THE BROADWAY AND BROOMS PANTHEON: Walk back to Broadway and head south to Broome. At the corner is a grand cast-iron building. This was built as the E.V. Haughwout Building. Many critics consider it the crown jewel of cast-iron architecture. But I mainly point it out because it was here that Elisha Otis—who gets my vote for one of the most human-life-changing individuals of all time— installed his first passenger safety elevator in New York City. Think of it.

THE PERFORMING GARAGE: Walk west on Broome to Wooster and jog left for a bit. The faceless, undistinguished brick structure at No. 33 is The Performing Garage, long home of American's greatest avant garde theatre company, The Wooster Group. Surely, Spalding Gray haunts it now.

KENN'S BROOME STREET BAR: Back to Broome and left to West Broadway. Kenn's was a pioneer in wild SoHo back in the 1970s, setting up shop in this 19th-century building, a former hotel when SoHo was the northern edge of the city. It remains what it was then: cozy, relaxed, a nice neighborhood bar. Next door is the CUPPING ROOM CAFE, which also dates from the 1970s, but is a little more upscale.

After passing all those twee boutiques and chain outlets and pricey restaurants, and fighting your way through the tourists, you'll want a drink. So get to Spring Street and head as far west as you can go (almost). The weirdly named Ear Inn is old, old, old. There's been a bar here forever. It's blue collar and they don't like cell phones. There's food, too, but mainly there's enough old-world atmosphere to choke a salty sea captain. Thank God.

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Gino?"

After all these years, I finally had dinner at Gino.

I've had drinks at the small bar (big sloppy drinks made by thick Russian hands), but never a meal. Truth to tell, the prices usually stopped me, and the insistence on cash only. I'd go again, but primarily for the atmosphere, which is priceless. And I wish I could paper my bedroom with the zebra-print wallpaper.

Here is my Eater "Who Goes There?" account of the place. Take a look at Krieger's fantastic photos, particularly the one of the two swells at the bar counting their dough. That picture by itself explains Gino's special place in the world.

This issue with Gino, the 64-year-old red-sauce survivor on Lexington Avenue near Bloomingdale’s, is not whether people go there. Obviously, tons of people go there. On a recent Wednesday night, the recession-proof restaurant was packed by 7:30, and even then the coat-room girl (yes, there is a coat room girl, every night) told me “This is not busy.” Even the tiny bar was deep with loose-livered businessmen. But who are they, these people who happily pass through a bright yellow door and then through a bright red door to plunk down $50 to eat mediocre Italian? Gino has an army of devoted regulars, but I’ve never met one of them.

All kinds frequent the narrow place. Old, young, Italian speaking, reserved Upper East Side types, back-slapping types, couples, large parties and women in fur coats. Actually, many women in fur coats. The one thing they have in common is they all know each other, and everyone knows Francesco, the maitre d’ of 27 years standing. Each entrance and exit at Gino is greeted by smiles, handshakes, kisses, waves, and “Hello”s from across the room. Nobody seems to arrive or leave unhappy. “It’s a big family,” said my red-jacketed waiter, who admitted he had only been in service five years. (Other waiters have been employed for 40 years.)

The attraction, in my estimation, is not the food, which is expensive and only acceptable. (My clams were rubbery, my lasagna mushy.) It’s the unchanging face of the room. The wooden phone booth; the coat room; the veteran, burly bartender, with his thatch of white hair, forever wiping down his bar; the drinks menu that prices Rob Roys and Old Fashioneds both with well liquor and top-shelf stuff; the insistence on cash only—nothing changes. Things are done at Gino the way they were at most restaurants 40 years ago. Even the mahogany bar and the tables are the ones chosen by founder Gino A. Circiello many years ago.

Accordingly, the customers behave the way customers did back them. Though Gino was first put on the map decades ago by the likes of Fred Allen, Ed Sullivan and Greta Garbo, there are no poseurs here now. No one is interested in being seen, or looking cool. They want to relax, and order something they’re used to from a waiter who knows what they like. Gino can give you that, but, sadly, only if you’re a member of the club. If you’re not, you can still have a pretty good time staring at the utterly unbelievable, one-of-a-kind, blood-red zebra-print wallpaper, and imagine how perfect a backdrop it would make for “Mad Men”’s Don Draper. It is my private belief that Gino would not have endured this long if, long ago, Gino himself had opted for another, less provocative print.
—Brooks of Sheffield

12 February 2009

Very Wrong

Curbed reports that the beautiful, 116-year-old, Upper West Side West-Park Presbyterian Church at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 86th Street—never landmarked, which is just wrong—is thisclose to be demolished—which is very wrong.

Preservation group Landmark West! has issued this urgent e-mail:

Neighbors of the red-sandstone historic gem anchoring the northeast corner of West 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue have recently observed workers removing pieces of West-Park's interior. More than one worker confirmed that the building is being readied for demolition.

Jesus. Didn't we learn anything from the Green Church? How could you even think of destroying that church after a single glance at its majesty?

Spring Cleaning at Rosario's

Good news for fans of the old Lower East Side slice emporium Rosario's, which was recently closed down by the Department of Health.

I passed by the joint last night at midnight and the lights were on and the roller shutter halfway up. Inside, workers, including the old owner, were busy tearing the place apart, on their way to making it spic and span. So, they're serious about reopening. And fast!

This Is New York, 1992!

I went to the Queens Museum for the first time this week. As any history buff knows, the main reason to visit this out-of-the-way place is the gigantic, awe-inspiring, absolutely-freaking-amazing New York Panorama. This model of all models depicts every building and every block in all five boroughs of the Great Big Beautiful City.

I expected something pretty great. But it exceeded all expectations. By rights, this should be one of the top tourist attractions in the city. A ramp surrounds the Panorama, which is 9,335 square feet and was built for the 1964 World’s Fair, by order of Robert Moses, by a team of 100 people working for the architectural model makers Raymond Lester Associates. It took three years. Imagine carving, painting and gluing little buildings for three years.

Since then, its been updated periodically. But the last time was 1992, just as Giuliani and Bloomberg were about to get their grubby mitts on the town and go on a building spree.

Certain parts of the city still look pretty accurate. But others are noticeably dated. Look at Columbus Circle, for God's Sake. No Time Warner complex. No ugly Trump thingy. The Coliseum is still there!

And, of course, the city still had the World Trade Center back then.

The museum worker I talked to said the money might be in place to bring the thing up to date in 2019 or so. That would be nice. Then again, the current model spares us almost everything ever built by Robert Scarano, Karl Fischer and the Toll Brothers.