29 April 2011

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to J.G. Melon?"

J.G. Melon sort of strikes me as an Upper East Side example of what Elaine's could have been. Like Elaine's, it's clubby and homey and attract stars and writers. Unlike Elaine's, it doesn't give two hoots about the celebrity of its clientele, and treats everyone well, be they famous or not. I'm not in this neck of the wood much. But when I am, I'm going to try harder to drop in for a drink or a bowl of chili, which is among the best I've had in the City.

Here's the Eater column:

A Lady Comes to Columbia Street

There's a wonderful, completely unspecial grocery and deli near where I live. It's owned by a Hispanic family and, being close to the Brooklyn docks and one of the few stores of its kind in the area, is mobbed every morning with working men and day laborers, ordering their hearty breakfasts and lunches to fuel them for the day of hard work to come. The customers and staff have come to know each other well, and they chat and josh around while the sandwiches and coffees are being prepared. As I have discovered they have one of the best egg sandwich deals in the area (egg, cheese and ham for only $2.50), I am often part of this scene.

One day, recently, I observed an interesting, and amusing, clashing of worlds. A young and pretty woman of about 25, in a skirt suit and holding a cell, came in. It was her first time in the deli. I imagine she had just moved into the neighborhood. "Do you do breakfast?" she asked the cook over the meat counter. Yes, he replied. "Do you have chicken bacon?" was her followup.

This comment got my attention. One glance at this place would be enough for any observant citizen to know this is not the sort of fancy, organic, boutique deli to have anything like chicken bacon. It's a Boar's Head joint. Indeed, the counter man said they had no such thing. The young woman said she's just have bacon then, along with egg and cheese—on a croissant.

Again, figurative cars were heard to screech to a halt. Croissant? Do you see any croissants? Do you see anything by kaiser rolls and white bread? Our young lady did not understand the humor of her requests. She was the only one who didn't.

As she waited for her sandwich, the woman busied herself with texting, never looking up. Now, this deli, in the morning, has many orders going. When a sandwich arrives at the cashier wrapped in white butcher paper, you have no idea if it's yours or another person's. You have to ask or wait for the cashier to announce what sandwich it is. And your order can take from five to ten minutes to arrive. I and the woman were surrounded by perhaps a half dozen other men, men in t-shirts bearing the names of unions, men in workshirts that had their names stitched over the pocket, patient men. One minute after she ordered, a sandwich arrived on the counter. The woman strode up immediately and seized it, and prepared to pay.

Needless to say, it was not her sandwich. It was the sandwich of one of the six men who had ordered before her. Imagine that. (She didn't.) The woman was surprised, and stepped back.

Sometimes, it takes so little for me to want to smack someone.

28 April 2011

The Clock on the Floor

It makes me a little sad when I look down at this old timepiece, inlaid into the sidewalk at the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, because the store that put it there, William Barthman Jewelers, no longer inhabit the store nearby. A few years back, they moved to bigger digs a little further north on Broadway. And their grand old home is now filled by this:

At least the clock is still there and wasn't ripped up. I wonder if that was out of respect or laziness.

27 April 2011

Silver Rod Pharmacy Has That Name for a Reason

Lost City solves mysteries!

In September 2009 I posted this image of the fantastic, and fantastically named, Silver Rod Pharmacy of Bensonhurst, and casually wondered at the curious name of the 84-year-old business.

Today, 19 months later, I got a message from one of the pharmacy's founders: "The name Silver Rod was a contraction of the last names of its founders, Simon Rodnon and a Mr. Silver-...I’m not certain of his entire last name. Simon was my grandfather. He also owned Deauville French ice cream also based in Brooklyn and a key supplier to the Silver Rod drug store chain and, yes, Junior’s as well."

26 April 2011

Inside the Luso-American Cultural Center—At Last

This building has driven me crazy for ten years. I have posted often about it—about it's long past; it's mysterious present; its forever locked door; my inability to learn much about the folks who own and run it. Once I almost got it, but the superintendent wouldn't let me in for fear of law suits.

But last Saturday, I ran some errands I didn't intend to, and took a route I hadn't planned. And when I walked by the red-brick former church, lo and behold: It was open! There was some sort of affair going on inside. DJ and buffet table. This time I didn't ask permission. I barged right in and took a look around.

It's a Jungle Out There. And Out There, Too!

I stepped into the Times Square Shuttle train last night, only to be greeted by a giant frog and a tropical jungle scene. The car was decorated inside and out with advertising extolling the virtues of an education at Adelphi. (Don't ask.)

Inside it was all bark and greenery. Kind of peaceful. Kind of wacko.

Then I heard another shuttle entering the station. I looked out the window to catch a glimpse of a normal looking car. But instead I see another tropical ecosystem! "Brazil is calling you," it beckons.

Who needs to go to the Botanical Gardens?

25 April 2011

Cafe des Artistes to Reopen as Leopard at des Artistes

The Times bring good news that the the Upper West Side landmark restaurant Cafe des Artistes, which shuttered last year among a sea of money and union problems, will reopen on May 2 under the similar name of Leopard at des Artistes.

The new owners, taking over from the Lang family, are Gianfranco and Paula Bolla Sorrentino, who own Il Gattopardo in Midtown. The Sorrentinos have renovated the place, including the nine, 1920s-30s-era Howard Chandler Christy murals that were so intrinsic to give the restaurant its unique charm. "Gattopardo," by the way, means leopard. 

Lest We Forget

There's still nothing going on with the landmarked Gage & Tollner space. And that wretched Arby's sign is still there. Tragic. Somebody give me a million. I'll open the space, and I'll keep it open.

22 April 2011

In Case M. Wells Is Busy

In case you find the line too long at M. Wells, the ridiculously hot new haute diner in Long Island City, consider visiting its neighbor instead, a dive Polish bar of roughly the same dimensions which appears to not have a name. But don't expect to eat. The awnings saying "Burgers," "Steaks" and "Seafood" are at least 20 years old. And the beer taps down work. But you can get a swell bottle of Zywiec. And you can't beat the subway access!

Purple Is Not Your Color

I haven't been to Brooks 1890 Restaurant in Long Island City since the century-old eatery changed hands last fall and underwent a renovation. The other night, however, I took a peek in. They seem to have retained the lovely character of the bar room. They've made one great mistake, however. For whatever reason, they've decided to light the beautiful, stained-glass canopy behind the bar—a one-hundred-year-old, one-of-a-kind item—with blue and purple lights. The effect is ghastly.

See below how the canopy used to look in happier times.

21 April 2011

President Street Brownstone Losing Its Squiggles

There are two brownstones on President Street facing Carroll Park that have long set themselves apart from their brothers by the distinctive scrollwork that adorns their fronts—decorative vines and urns and such. I have no idea if the etchings are original, or very old. I suspect not. They're in too good a shape to be of any great age. But I've always found the two buildings appealing in appearance, lending a curious Scandinavian air to the block.

Pretty soon, however, I suspect there will only be one such brownstone. The one to the left is covered in netting and workers have blasted away the facade, including the scrollwork. I doubt the owner has any intention of restoring it.

UPDATE (4/22/11): The brownstone will retain its squiggled, per comments left by friends and relatives of the owner. And the work is being done by Melchior Costas, who restored the building's neighbor 15 years ago.

20 April 2011

Shulman's Conservation Picture Framing, shabby though it might look, is proud enough of its long service to Sheepshead Bay that it puts "Est. 1931" in small letters on its worn, painted sign.

What makes the store truly interesting, though, is that it illustrates its craft in a surreal mural on the east side of its building. Some nice trompe l'oeil work depicting a room filled with portraits, a fireplace and a large curtained window. The mural has been there a long time, as the vines below attest. Too bad about the graffiti. In this case, I don't think it adds to the visual impact.

19 April 2011

Carroll Gardens, Home Sweet Mobbed-Up Home

I'll always remember the Court Street butcher who, a decade ago, described Carroll Gardens to me as the perfect safe neighborhood: "A Mafia foundation with a Yuppie overlay."

Over the years, people have tried to convince me that the respectable Yuppie onslaught had all but scrubbed away the Mob residue from the streets. But, even as I saw the social clubs disappear and the old Italian families sell their brownstones and move away, I never quite believed it. The devil was still in the details, and I was good at squinting.

My feelings about the nabe have been borne out by this whole crazy Lucali mess, in which the owner of the famous Henry Street pizzeria, Mark Iocono, got in a knife fight (a knife fight!—how old school!) with Benny Geritano, an ex-con with connections to the Gennovese crime family. On Smith Street, outside Joe's Superette (great prociutto balls!), opposite a public school, at 3 PM in the broad daylight. Blood was spilled, both went to the hospital, and both have been charged with attempted murder.

The coverage of this story has been crazy. The reason for the dispute keeps changing. Geritano was trying to collect a debt from Iocono. No, he was trying to shake down Iocono for a cut of the Lucali money. No, it was a love quarrel, with the two men fighting over the affections of neighborhood gal Annette Angeloni. And both men claim that they were acting in self-defense; the other guy struck first.

All three of the lead characters work in the neighborhood. Iocono at Lucali, of course, a place I've been to many times; which has already been reported as the place of employ of a Columbo Mob associate; and always has some old Italian guys sitting at a back table.  Geritano works at Bagels on the Park, near Carroll Park. And Angeloni works at Marielena Card & Gift Shop on Court Street, a storefront that used to house the great old red sauce joint Helen's. 

As my friend, born in the neighborhood, told me: "Every business around here less than 10 years old is connected in some way." Keeps things interesting, that's for sure.

Wooden Phone Booth Sighting: Montauk Bar

All of my past "Wooden Phone Booth Sighting" shots have been from bars, hotel and restaurants in the five boroughs. I cheat a bit on this one. It's from the Montauk Bar in Montauk, Long Island. But, what the hey. It's a beaut. Doesn't work, as you can clearly see. Sent to Lost City be a friend.

18 April 2011

Columbia Street Newspaper War!

The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times may hate each other's guts. And The Daily News and the New York Post may one day fight to the death. But Manhattan's got nothing on the tiny (co-called) Columbia Heights Waterfront District, which now has two independent newspapers fighting to cover its small patch of real estate.

The Red Hook Star Revue, working out of a small storefront on Union Street near Columbia, began putting out a paper last July. It was a scrappy, good-hearted effort that rather resembled a high school newspaper, with its cut-and-paste look, amateur photography and local boosterish attitude. Local real estate agent Frank Galeano and Editor George Fiala were the co-publishers. It has been amazing how much news they've squeezed out of the tiny hood.

But the two men have had a parting of the ways, and now Galeano alone has launched Columbia Street News, which covers the same area, and seems to have ads from the same stores. What's more, Galeano's office is right across the street from the Star Revue.

It's all pretty kooky. But it's also pretty awesome. I want to see battles over who will scoop next week's music listings for the Jalopy Theatre, today's burrito special at Calexico, whether Nancy & Sonny Convenience Store has snagged their FIFTH lottery millionaire, when and if the Red Apple Chinese takeout will update that DOH "C" grade. And who will get to the bottom of why Fultummy's can't stick to their operating hours?

Hope & Anchor Has "Bureaucratic Permit Foible"

Red Hook's Hope & Anchor diner is presently closed due to a "bureaucratic permit foible." Which is a quaint  way to put whatever the problem is. My question: their foible? or the City's?

UPDATE: Hope & Anchor is once again open.

The Custom House Murals

The old U.S.  Custom House at the foot of Broadway is one of the most beautiful buildings in New York, and, sadly, one of the least visited by locals and tourist. Every time I go in, it's virtually empty. That's a shame. The interior is as triumphant as the exterior.

My favorite aspect of the interior is the grand, oval, rotunda, with it's wonderful skylight and circle of maritime-themed murals by Reginald Marsh. 

For Marsh, "the painting of these murals was the culmination of years of ardent observation of New York’s shipping activities, its longshoremen, dock workers, tugboats, ocean liners, and cargo vessels. Marsh spent years as an illustrator, sketching theatrical scenes of the city, for magazines and newspapers like the New Yorker and New York Daily."

Here are a few of the murals:

17 April 2011

A Good Sign: Parkside Bar

On E. Houston Street, the Lower East Side.

15 April 2011

Lost City: Pittsburgh Edition: Jack's

On the glorious South Side, land of bars.

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to DeFonte's?"

I know one person who goes to DeFonte's in Red Hook. Me. Have for years. Unlike most of the subject of the "Who Goes There?" column on Eater, Defonte's was already a place I was quite familiar with. To be truthful, I find their work somewhat unreliable. Sometimes I walk away thinking "That sandwich should have been better than that." Other times, I am very happy. On this occasion, I had a meatball sandwich and was very satisfied.

Recently, my wife made friends with someone who lives down the block from DeFonte's. She can back excited one day, saying "I found this great sandwich place in Red Hook you have to go to. It's called DeFonte's. I looked at her like she had two heads.
Who Goes There? DeFonte's
Seen from the corner of Commerce and Van Brunt Streets, DeFonte's looks like an apparition; an isolated four-story, hospital-green mirage at the center of a crumbling, five-way intersection, roped in by telephone lines. The Ghost of Red Hook Past. And it is. The sandwich place is the oldest surviving eatery in the neighborhood by a very long shot. It was founded in 1922 by the DeFonte family, who still run it, and own the building it's in, and it is one of the few links to the area's industrial, longshoremen, shipping past.

14 April 2011

Nice Decorative Hole in the Wall You've Got There

At the northeast corner of Avenue C and E. 7th is the finest hole in the wall in Alphabet City.

Obviously, this beauteous piece of terra cotta work once surrounded a lovely clock. The clock was provided by the Public National Bank Building. This bank branch was erected in 1923 by architect Eugene Schoen. Schoen's work around the clock was inspired by Josef Hoffman, a founder of the Viennese Secession. The building was sold in 1954; Public National was bought out a year later. It was a nursing home for a while. Now it's a residence. It was declared a landmark in 2008. But what time is it?

13 April 2011

Always a Bar

The Local 269, a bar at the corner of E. Houston and Suffolk Streets, hasn't been around for that long. But, hey, that "Bar" sign hanging on the edge of the building—that's been through a life or two.

By its battered look, the sign's been around for a half century. So which bar left it behind? Hard to say. There have been so many bars at this corner. Before Local 269, this was the Vasmay Lounge. Prior to that, this was the address of the famous lesbian club Meow Mix. (That's still how I think of this corner.) Before that, it was a bar called The Far Side. Beyond that, I lose the thread. But surely there are some other taverns in the space's past. Anyone out there know?

Catering For All Occasions

C'mon, you know you want your next affair catered by John & Frank of Red Hook! You know it! They do "all occasions." Need packs of Winstons and Marlboros; Budweiser; Arizona Iced Tea and Snapple? They've got it!

12 April 2011

LES Laboratorio Del Gelato Really Looks Like Laboratory

I was walking down E. Houston Street when I passed by this white, well-lit place. I thought the neighborhood had gotten a new free clinic.

But, no, it was actually a new storefront for Laboratorio Del Gelato and Cafe Grumpy, the makers of yummy ice cream and espresso. And it actually looks like a laboratory. Sanitized. Everything just so.

You know, I really like Laboratorio Del Gelato's gelato. It's great. And I like Cafe Grumpy's coffee. But, come on guys. This is ridiculous. Get a sense of humor about what you do. Just make the ice cream. Make the coffee. Don't pretend you work as NASA. Old Italian immigrants did the same thing you're doing in the Lower East Side 100 years ago. And they didn't act like they were handling radioactive materials.

I started to read one of these informational posters. There are three of them. One about the espresso bar, one about production. Or, I mean, Produzione. And this one. Next thing I knew, a beat cop was nudging me with his night stick, rousing me from my sleep and telling me to "Move along."

The Distillery Next Door

Brian McCormick, co-founder of Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, recently sent me the above picture or a century-old jug in his collection. It pretty much floored me. President Street is my street, and the address of this distillery, Puziello-Luccaro Co., is quite near where I live. There are no businesses on my block today, but I know there were in the past. I've just never been able to find out what any of them were (save the famed restaurant Cafiero's).

The building has always looked unusual. It's taller and deeper than any building on the block, and the doorway is bigger. I should have guess it was an unusual business back in the day. It was a doctors office for many years, but has been vacant for at least a year.

11 April 2011

The Past Lives of Century 21

I doubt if many Century 21 shoppers have noticed—gotta keep your focus forward when bargain shopping—but that beloved downtown shopping mecca has set itself up in a collection of really old buildings. One of the south-facing facades (above) cuts off at the waist what looks like an ancient five-story building, while the east-facing facade (below) cannibalizes a lovely cast-iron building whose cornice says it was once the Germania Building.

The upper windows are all blacked out on both buildings, which meet each other at the back corners. I wonder if Century 21 uses those upper floors for storage, or has just left them empty, abandoning them to the rats and pigeons.

The Germania Building is easier to research, since the cornice handily provides the structures past identity, and its date of erection, 1865. 175 Broadway is its formal address. The building's Civil War age makes it quite remarkable, a real oldie for the area. It hasn't survived in very good condition, but it has survived. It was built for the Germania Fire Insurance Company, which was founded in 1859, at a cost of $40,000. Back then, this part of downtown was the city's insurance district. In 1892, the firm moved to a new eight-story, $200,000 building at the southeast corner of William and Cedar Streets.


This is the seventh post of "The Union Street Project," in which I unearth the history of every building along the once bustling Brooklyn commercial strips of Union Street between Hicks and Van Brunt, and Columbia Street between Sackett and Carroll.
Union Street between Hicks and Columbia has always been a commercial strip, lined with stores. A map I have from 1927 indicates that nearly every building on the block contained a shop; you can still see this was the case today; even though some edifices don't contain businesses today, the architecture obviously shows that they once did.

149 Union, on the north side of the street, is a rare exception. As far as I can tell, it was always a residence. I believe it is one of the oldest buildings on the block, dating from the 1850s or before, and is a brother to 147 Union Street, seen here the left. It's in better shape than 147, but its height, Federal-style doorway and unusual wooden cornice betray its age.

10 April 2011

The Kind of Things That Were Made on Tiffany Place

Here's a kind of follow up to last week's item exposing the falsified origins of the name of Brooklyn's Tiffany Place. (No stained glass, plenty of other factories.) A regular reader, in response, sent me images from two maps that laid out the one-block street. One was the famous one by city planner Richard Butt. He's the man who gave Carroll Gardens its deep front gardens. His map was from 1846, two years before Louis Comfort Tiffany was born; more proof that the street wasn't named after a factory the man had on Tiffany Place.

The other document was an 1886-88 Sanford series map that shows the area is wonderful detail. As I've said before, Tiffany Place was a corridor of industry, all through the 19th century and into some of the 20th. This map shows how much industry, and some of the specific enterprises. Here's a list:

H. Behr & Co. Sandpaper Factory
Hobbs & Co. Wallpaper Factory
Pierce & Co. Paint Company
Doug Meyer Spring Company
Thomas Watson & Co. Plug and Smoking Tobacco Company
Union Spring Company
Corset Steels Factory
Tin Shop (no name)
Paper Stain Works
Candy Factory (actually on Hicks, but close enough)

There was a big fire on Nov. 5, 1892, that demolished many of these concerns. There was $300,000 in damages. The conflagration started at Hobbs' place, and it, Walther & Co. fancy paper manufacturer, Sperry & Beagle upholsterers, a small button factory, and several tenements.

Lost City: Pittsburgh Edition: Recovery Room

One of the best names of a bar I've ever seen. It gets its name from being near a hospital in the Pittsburgh neighborhood with the rather terrifying name of the Mexican War Streets.

What makes the bar even more interesting: "Sleeping Rooms for Rent." As opposed to those other kinds of rooms. This is a family bar.

08 April 2011

O-ho The Wells Fargo Wagon Is A-Comin' Down the Street...

I don't give a damn that Wachovia is now Wells Fargo in New York. Their both weird names for a bank that begin with a "W." But if it means we'll see more of these crazy red cars in the City, I'm all for it.

07 April 2011

Garry Marshall Forces Early Christmas on Smith Street

It took a moment before I realized that the something that looked off about Smith Street this week were the strings of Christmas lights lining the Brooklyn street. They were hard to see against the gray-white sky. At first I thought lazy neighborhood officials had failed to remove the lights after last year's holidays had passed. But then I remembered that Smith Street didn't have any Christmas decorations. Then I noticed the food services trucks, lighting units and fat men with clipboards. Movie shoot!

The movie, which is sure to be awful, as it's called "New Year's Eve," and is a sequel to the execrable "Valentine's Day." There are pine boughs around the lampposts. Many of the shops along Smith are done up with Christmas decor, some of it on the tacky side for hip Smith Street (see above.) There's also a fake dance studio, which must serve as one of the film's set. I see Jennifer Garner as the owner of a charming indy Brooklyn ballroom dance hall.

The Enduring Romatic Fiction of Tiffany Place

Here's how the urban myth goes: Tiffany Place, a one-block, cobblestoned street just west of the BQE in Cobble Hill, got its name from none other than Louis Comfort Tiffany, the stained-glass genius, who had a factory here.

I have heard this yarn for years, ever since I moved to the immediate neighborhood in 2001. And I believed it. How could the story be otherwise, with a street name like that? Who else was named Tiffany?

Well, as it turned out, everybody. Brooklyn was once crawling with Tiffanys. And one of them got a street named after him. But it wasn't Louis.

Columbia Street Shop Has Always Been a Stinky Killing Floor

Residents of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Columbia Waterfront District like their history, but only when it's convenient. For instance, the latter neighborhood, which is west of the BQE and north of Hamilton Avenue, doesn't have much in the way of historic businesses. Most went under long ago, the victim either of Robert Moses' construction of the Expressway, or the City's long excavation of Columbia Street in the 1970s. The former killed most of the businesses on Hicks Street. The latter caused many of the storefronts on Columbia to literally fall to the ground in a heap.

But some shops did survive. It's just that they're not always the ones Yuppie nostalgists would have wished to keep around. Take the slaughterhouse above, located on Columbia north of DeGraw. On any given day, you can walk by and hear tightly caged fowl, clucking out their last few minutes until they're chopped, plucked and sold. Geese, ducks and rabbits also meet their maker here. The smell that emanates from the open store is appalling.

Many locals have long campaigned for the butcher's ouster. But if it ever does get the heave-ho, it will mean the exit of one of the last historic businesses in the area. For this address has always been a place to purchase newly killed birds, as the picture below, from 1935, attests. In fact, it is only one of two operations on Columbia Street that date from before World War II. (The other is a hardware store.) For this reason, I'd hate to see the slaughterhouse, as atrocious as it is, go.