31 October 2011

Subway Inn Is Not Dead

The horrific news spreading through the metropolis last Friday was that the Subway Inn, grand old dive of Lex and 60th, had given up the fight. The gates were rolled down, the iconic neon turned off, the phone disconnected. Many, including me, were ready to believe the worst. But one reader remained vigilant. She stopped by every night after work, and tonight the Subway was finally reopened. She took the above picture. Trick or treat? I'd say treat!

30 October 2011

White Horse Tavern Under Wraps

I walked by the historic White Horse Tavern in the West Village the other day and found the old watering hole all but obscured by a girdle of scaffolding. It's a shame to have the beautiful old building unavailable to the admiring eye, but I'm thinking (hoping, guessing) it's all to the good. DOB sheets posted outside say work is being done on the exterior including "scraping, priming and repainting the cornice and window lintels white; scraping, priming and repainting the masonry facades gray; resurfacing the deteriorated brownstone windowsills at the second floor...; removing and replacing all of the wood clapboard on the Hudson Street elevation from the southern building and repainting gray," and much more along those lines. So it seems like the place will look as good as new when all is done. I have to admit, on recent visits to the White Horse, I have surveyed the building with a worried eye. It was in bad shape.

The DOB papers also reveal a nice bit of history. The White Horse building is "a frame house built c. 1817, and was altered for use as a tavern; and that the small adjacent unnumbered building was built c. 1846-7 and later incorporated into the tavern...the cornice and storefront were altered in the mid-19th century."

29 October 2011

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Sarge's Deli?"

Sarge's Deli in Murray Hill has been on my "Who Goes There?" list for some time. In an era when the few remaining classic Jewish delis in Manhattan have been transformed into tourist attractions known mainly for their high prices, sliding quality and political photo-ops, Sarge's is an encouraging example of a deli that just is. And after 50 years it has yet to shake off its salty, unburnished New York character. I credit its obscure location with this. If Sarge's had been on Broadway or 34th Street or Houston Street, it would have been ruined long ago. Here's my Eater column:

28 October 2011

Subway Inn May Have Gone Under

Horrible news from Eater for dive bar, Old New York, and classic neon lovers (I'm all three): 
Potentially terrible news for lovers of classic New York City bars, as it appears the Subway Inn is no longer with us. A tipster reported that "the Subway Inn looks like it has closed for good", and we turned up this picture from last night showing gates rolled down with its iconic neon lights turned off. A call to the listed phone number revealed that it has been disconnected, which hints that the Upper East Side has lost a true legend. The place seemed to have hit on hard times recently and had even resorted to selling Atomic Wings in a last ditch effort to drum up some business. Maybe this is just a temporary vacation or someone is interested in taking the space over and running a dive bar, but it ain't looking good.
If it's gone, you can add it to the fast-growing New York dive bar death toll that includes Mars Bar, the Rum House and more.

Sardi's Phone Booths Removed

Once Sardi's had a beautiful bank of wooden phone booths on the second floor. They worked and everything. Then, a year or so ago, the phones were yanked out and the booths stood empty, a victim of the bastards at Verizon, which had started fining restaurants and bars for retaining their phone booth phones. (The tragedy was repeated across town in the months to come.) But at least the booths still stood.

No longer. Sardi's phone booths are no more. The owners told me they were forced to remove them when the Fire Department complained they need more room to access the floor in case of a fire. (No doubt the department leveed a hefty fine on Sardi's and thus met some goddam Bloombergian quote.) Below, how the wall used to look.

27 October 2011


The destruction of a building in the Theatre District recently reviewed that the building standing next to it once offered "Apartments." By the looks of it, it still does. I like the simplicity of the advertisement.

26 October 2011

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Kewpee Hamburgers Revisted

Four years ago, I went well out of my way to visit Kewpee Hamburgers in Racine, Wisconsin. I went because the fast food restaurant is one of only six franchises left in what was once a considerable Midwestern chain, and the only one left in Wisconsin. And the obscure inspired me. But I visited on a Sunday and, Racine apparently being a pious burg, everything was shut up tighter than a drum.

It took me until this month to find a second opportunity to visit Kewpee, a hamburger joint that reportedly inspired Dave Thomas to found Wendy's. This time I got in. It was a Thursday afternoon and there were few people about, inside or out. Racine's one of those mid-sized American cities whose downtown heart stopped beating sometime in the 1970s and has never quite sprung back to life. The sidewalks are deserted.

24 October 2011

Forgotten Coney Island Beauty

I was walking down Neptune Avenue recently when I passed this abandoned edifice of peculiar, Coney Island-esque grandiosity. What is that, I wondered. The oval, Moderne shape of the building, the decorative inlaid nickel in the shape of birds, snails and raindrops—it's just a wonderful, witty piece of neighborhood-specific architecture. Was is a bath house? An aquarium? A roller rink?

No, it was the Coney Island Fire Station Pumping Station. It was built in 1938, faced in limestone, and sits on a granite base. The Fire Department shut the station down in the 1970s. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. But it doesn't seem to have gotten much love since then. I learned from the Milli Fiori Favoriti site that it used to be even more beautiful. Four pair of stone winged horses once flanked the entrances. You can see a picture below. The ponies now live at the Brooklyn Museum.

19 October 2011

Fultummy's Goes Belly Up

After a month or more of not being open for business, but not exactly being out of business, Fultummy's, the erratic sandwich place on Columbia Street, has official gone bust. The non-commital "Sorry, We're Closed" sign has been replaced by a real estate sign.

18 October 2011

A Little Russian Bakery

There's not much around Mark Twain Middle School in Coney Island. A fire station across the street, some auto body shops. If you want something to eat, you have to walk a few blocks and then this is your only choice. I wasn't enthused upon entering, but inside I found a Russian deli of amazing variety and authenticity. They bake their own bread (I bought a high, narrow loaf of white; it was delicious), and have an enormous deli selection. They make the most of the small space; the shelves are chock full of goods and you could easily do your weekly shopping here (if you don't mind eating exclusively Russian fare). The clientele appears to be largely Russian; the signs are in Russian, with no translation.

The business is apparently quite an enterprise. They deliver bread to wholesalers and retailers, and ship to 40 states. The clerk said they had been there "a long time." But I think she just meant a long time in her way of looking at it.

16 October 2011

Bay Ridge Landmark Hinsch's to Be Saved

Out of the blue, there is now a fairytale ending to the sudden demise of Hinsch's, the historic lunch counter in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Brooklyn Paper reports:

Hinsch’s, Bay Ridge’s legendary luncheonette and sodaountain, will reopen under new ownership in November.
Gerart Bell, an owner of the Fifth Avenue restaurant Skinflint’s, confirmed on Saturday evening that he and two partners had reached a deal with landlord Anna Tesoriero to reopen the legendary greasy spoon, known for its egg creams, homemade candies and throwback decor.
“We’re shooting for Nov. 1,” he said.
The menu is not expected to change, he added.
The news, which was broken on the Facebook page of Councilman Vince Gentile (D–Bay Ridge), comes just two weeks after the 63-year-old family business was shutteredon Sept. 29 after city health inspectors found the shop between 85th and 86th streets was a refuge for rats, with rampant roaches and improperly refrigerated food...
After the closure, Tesoriero said she would seek rent of more than $10,000 a month — up from the $7,500 a month that Logue was paying.
Bell declined to comment on the specifics of the lease, but did say that Tesoriero cut him a deal because she wanted Hinsch’s to stay open...
Skinflint’s has its own syrupy history — the Fifth Avenue restaurant between 79th and 80th streets known for its burgers used to be the Myer & Blohm ice cream parlor.

12 October 2011

Final Seating: La Petite Auberge

Yesterday, I began a column which I hope I will only have to do very rarely. It's called "Final Seating." I will only write it when a former subject of my "Who Goes There?" column announces they're going to close. (This has happened a few times in the past, and I decided it was time to do something about it; consider the column a valedictory salute.) The inaugural column is about La Petite Auberge, the French holdout in Murray Hill that served its last souffle this past Saturday. The two owners couldn't have been nicer; a dying breed. Here's the column:

Final Seating: La Petite Auberge
La Petite Auberge was one of the last of the City's old-guard, French restaurants, a woody little refuge on Lexington and 28th where you could count on Le Filet de Sole Meunière and Les Cuisses de Grenouilles being on the menu—just as they were in April 1977, when owners Marcel Guélaff and Raymond Auffret, two sons of Brittany, first opened shop. In September, the two men decided it was time to retire. From the time they announced their decision in the New York Times, they were booked solidly every lunch and dinner; some regulars, desperate to get in their fill while they could, ate there every day until the final meal was served on Saturday night, Oct. 8. I spoke to the two genteel restaurateurs, distinguished men in suits and ties, the night before it all ended.
What was this neighborhood like when you first opened? Raymond Auffret: There were no Indian restaurants. It was mainly Armenian. There were Spanish, Italian, also French.
Was there a reason you chose this location? Marcel Guélaff: Yes. First of all, I was working at a restaurant here called Au Petit Paris. I worked there for 13 years. He worked there for seven years. And we know so many people. We thought those people would come here. RA: Also, it was personal. This is the restaurant where I learned my profession. It was a French restaurant back then. That was back in the 1960s. It was called Au Petit Paris. My mother worked here. My sister worked here. So we had a lot of connections here. As the years went on, when we bought it, it was a Brazilian restaurant. We felt a lot of…what do you say…good vibes. Marcel looked at a lot of other restaurants, but something was pulling us here.
Did the interior look different when you took over? MG: A little different. We changed the ceiling, we changed the floor. But the walls were left the same. RA: We called it La Petite Auberge, which means country inn. We wanted it to feel like a country inn. MG: You go to different little towns in France and you'll find an auberge, so many places called La Petite Auberge. RA: It's always a very nice restaurant, and when they call it "Auberge," it's usually an inn, so they always had one or two rooms if you'd like to stay overnight. We get calls all the time from travelers. They ask, "What are the rates?"
Has the menu changed much over the years? MG: The menu has been the same since we opened. We changed a few dishes. Not too many. RA: The main thing with us, we maintain classic, traditional French food. French food went through many things—nouvelle, fusion. We thought we shouldn't go along with the trend, and just keep doing what we do, and do it well. It's basically the same menu for 35 years. That's what brought the people coming back. They know what they're going to eat because it's still on the menu. MG: And what kept us alive is the best soufflé in town. People come from all over for the soufflé. Even Le Grenouille, the top restaurant in the city, people say our soufflé is better than theirs.
This was a popular place with the publishing industry in the early days. RA: When we first started, all the publishing companies were here. We used to have an honored guest who used to come here, Jacqueline Kennedy, when she was at Doubleday. MG: She used to sit in the corner booth, because she thought no one would bother her. Chelsea Clinton was here a few weeks ago. She was here with a professor.
How long had Justice Sonia Sotomayer gone here before she was appointed to the Supreme Court? MG: She was a regular here, and she had a party upstairs before she left for Washington, D.C. She was so nice a lady.
You two simply decided to retire. RA: Yes, we decided 35 years was a good number and we wanted to retire while we were both still healthy. Not because we have to, but because we want to. MG: But one thing I would like to mention. Like a lot of our friends, we are not happy at all with the ABC [the restaurant grading system of the New York Department of Health]. I think that's ridiculous for New York City. And the Health Department, they are killing a lot of restaurants around the city. They come three or four times here. Each time they come, you have to pay a fine—$1,000, $1,500, $3,000. That's not fair what they're doing.
RA: They always find something. They always come when we're in service. They nitpick. It's like the traffic policemen. They have to give out so many tickets… It's very difficult. In order to have an "A," you have to be under 13 points. But a silly thing can put you over the edge. Before you know it, you're above 13 points. Then you get a "B." Nobody wants to put a "B" in the window. And now, what is happening because of the new system, you get people who take advantage of other people's misfortune. As soon as we had an inspection, we get a call. "Hello. We notice you got inspected by the Health Department yesterday. We saw you had so many points. We're offering our service."
What service? MG: To fix it. To tell us what we have to do. RA: All it is, is a big scam. We're not new in the restaurant business. We know what's going on. But a new person is going to panic and think, maybe I should have these people come. And they're going to pay them thousands of dollars. MG: A restaurant with an "A" is no better than one with a "C." Because a lot of those [inspectors], they don't know food. When you serve Gigot, leg of lamb, you can not put that back in the refrigerator. It should be served rare. And they don't know that. You know how we got one point? The coffee machine. The server did not clean the machine right away, and the inspector was here [to see it]. What, the waiter should clean the machine, or serve the coffee first? You serve first, no? I would like to talk to Mayor Bloomberg. He is wrong about this.
Are you going to be taking the decor with you? MG: No. Very little. RA: Personal stuff. We're both from Brittany, so the [decorative] plates, we're going to take those.
Do you know what's going to come into the space? RA: Oh, yes. An Indian restaurant. Just what we need, right? They like the walls, because they want to make something high end, a little different. I guess it's supposed to resemble an old country home from their part of India. They're going to get rid of the bar and open the windows in front so you can see through. But the walls are going to stay. That's real wood. You can't even put in a nail, it's so thick. 
—Brooks of Sheffield

11 October 2011

Missing Louie Shoe Rebuilders

I am certain that nobody else in this athletic-shoe-loving world cares about this but me, but it's getting harder and harder for New York to get a shine on its shoes. I recently noted the disappearance of Star Shine off Times Square. There is no place to get a shoe shine in the Theatre District now. Grand Central has always been a hive of shoe shine stands; businessmen on the way to the office or important meetings have long been the clientele. But I noticed the other day that one of the long-standing shine joints—the one down the 45th Street Passage, I forget the name—had decamped.

Soon after, I passed down 32nd Street alongside the Empire State Building and was reminded that Louie Shoe Rebuilders—a longtime resident in the skyscraper—had left a couple years back, replaced by some anonymous food chain. One of the things that distinguishes New York from other cities—aside from the extensive subway system, and swarm of yellow cabs, the numerous food carts, the ubiquitous newsstands, the breakneck pace of the pedestrians—was that you could easily get a shoe shine, wherever you were (at least in Manhattan). This aspect is disappearing. Along with it, is yet another avenue in which a small businessman can get a leg up in this expensive town.

Fifth Avenue Pizza Sign Gone

The old-school Fifth Avenue Pizzeria closed back in 2008. But the owners of the the slice joint, and the landlord, left the sign up for several seasons for the visual pleasure of passersby. It was a simple sign, one of those white and red jobbies that I'm sure the Coca-Cola company paid for by the hundreds back in the day. But it always made me smile.

Now it's gone. Someone has rented the place, and construction is underway. The place has been gutted and the signage removed. This won't be one of those places that leave up the old sign, to be uncovered decades later. Alas.

09 October 2011

Gawdy Fawty-Second Street

I do my best to remind myself that not everything new in the City is God awful. I do. I really do. I do, do, do, do!! Like the other night, when I was standing in the middle of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, loathing the garish vulgarity of the Disney/Giuliani-built canyon, despising the bumptious bumpkins milling their thick, doltish way down the street, obvious to everything outside their gawky, picture-taking, mall-pace-walking bubbles. I stopped in one place and forced myself to look around myself, to gaze up and eyeball the scene with care.

07 October 2011

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Toledo?"

Now, Toledo really is a hidden mainstay, even by the terms of "Who Goes There?" It's 36 years old, but I've never met anyone who's went there, and never seen it written up. There's not one mention of it in the New York Times archive. Yet, there it sits, unworried, charging $50 for lobster tail. I can't afford this place. Maybe, if I'm feeling flush, I'll return, because I really liked the fish. But, really, it's a restaurant I want my boss, or rich uncle, to take me to and pick up the check.

Here's my Eater column:

06 October 2011

The Tile on the Bakery Floor

I've been meaning to go and check out Roma Pizza, the business that took over the former Zito's Bakery space on Bleecker Street, for some time now. Mainly to check out how much of the iconic bakery remained. Turns out, all that remains is just the old tiled floor, in all its broken, chipped, aged glory. Those tiles have known the tread of many old, tired Italian feet.

Not Everything Changes

A lot of space on this blog is devoted to bemoaning things that change, and not for the better. But, I must keep reminding myself, not everything changes. Some things—even some nondescript, ahistorical things—endure. Even in a hip, ever-morphing neighborhood like the East Village.

Take the block of First Avenue between 1st and 2nd. I used to live around here 20 years ago. This Laundry Center has been on the corner of 1st since then.

05 October 2011

Chumley's Looking Like It Might Actually Return Someday

I kinda, sorta, secretly gave up on the idea of Chumley's rebirth sometime in early 2010. The collapse of the historic, wonderful old speakeasy in 2007 tore my heart in two, and the subsequent indifference of the City and the utter perfidy of the scurrilous landlord killed me. Then the 19th-century brick building was torn down and a horrid pile of cinder blocks started rising from the ground in fits and starts. We were supposed to pretend this pretender was Chumley's back from the grave? I didn't even believe the ugly facsimile would ever see the dawn of day. Chumley's was gone. That was that.

Still, I have to admit I was surprised and hopeful when I turned the corner at Bedford Street and found this. It looks rather like a building, doesn't it? The cornice is plastic and crappy, the windows no great shakes, and it's half way to disguising itself as a brownstone. But it's something; enough to make me partly believe that a functioning building will actually one day soon stand on the site where Chumley's was. It still won't be Chumley's, even if they stuff the joint full with the original booths and pictures and bric-a-brac that used to make up the interior of the original bar. It will be a fake. But it will no longer be a complete failure, a despair-inducing hole in the ground.

I noticed something else cheering while I was checking out Chumley's. The building to the right of it—which was also in bad shape after the collapse, and under construction for a long time—now seems to be up and running. There's a light in the window, a newly refurbished doorway (albeit padlocked and covered in plastic), a fresh look to the old bricks. It's been brought back from the dead.

Up on the Rooftop

My eyes were gliding over the charisma-free face of upper Broadway between Columbia Circle and Lincoln Square—a blank, spirit-robbing wall of glass and metal—when they fell on this bit of skyline. The old Empire Hotel, roof signs intact.

The city used to have hundreds of these sort of simple, skyward advertisements. (Another classic, surviving example is the Essex House on Central Park South, below. Picture courtesy of Restless.) I suppose that, sometime around the start of the last century, they were considered vulgar. But, today I think their charm is quite clear. They puncture the blandness of the straight, cold cityscape, add a bit of variety and visual excitement. Signs such as this are both simple and grand. I wonder why hotels don't make use of this sort of option anymore. Too expensive, perhaps. Or maybe they mistakenly think them to be too old-fashioned. Or maybe nobody knows how to make these kind of signs anymore; the craftsmen are dead.

Can anyone out there think of any others that survive besides the Essex and Empire?

04 October 2011

Wooden Phone Booth Update: 347 Madison Avenue

OK. They're not wooden. But there are four of them. And—unlike many of the wooden phone books left in the City these days—they all have phones in them, and the phone all work! Hallaluah for that! And the bank of booths looks real sleek, too. Very "Mad Men."

This building is occupied by the MTA. It's very 1950s. In addition to the phone booths, there's an in-lobby newsstand and a lunch counter.

Lucali Having Problem With BYOB Boozers

Apparently, some patrons at Lucali are taking the BYOB policy at the famous Carroll Gardens pizzeria a little too far. This hilarious (and frankly unclear) sign recently appeared in the window. I guess Lucali has had trouble enough over the past six months—what with the owner having knife fights on the street and all—to have to worry about drunkards opening a bottle of wine per slice.

But I think this sign is just going to confuse matters more. What does it mean, "limited to 1, 2, and 3 bottles per table." Is it 1 bottle, 2 or 3? And bottles of wine, or bottles of beer? And is the limit the same for a table of 2 as it is for a table of 8? Guess the hostess has the details.

03 October 2011

The Neon We've Lost

The way the City is run under Herr Bloomberg, we've gotten used to old, timeless, irreplaceable mom-and-pop businesses disappeared at a rapid rate.

Lately however, the City has suffered a string of lost businesses that take their glorious neon with them, leaving the burg all the more visually bereft. Hinsch's, the Bay Ridge soda fountain, was only the latest. It had one of the greatest, and oldest, neon signs in the town (photos courtesy of Project Neon). Here are a few more.

01 October 2011

Hinsch's, Classic Bay Ridge Soda Fountain, Closes

Hinsch's, the 63-year-old soda fountain and luncheonette that was one of the oldest and best things about Bay Ridge, has abruptly closed. It was the owner's choice—partially. "Basically my lease is up and that’s all," owner John Logue told Brooklyn Paper. Logue posted a sign announcing the closure on the store’s window on Thursday.

However, a sign outside the Fifth Avenue shop—which I profiled in "Who Goes There?" only last March—said "Current economic conditions, customers changing eating patterns, and our desire to retire early have led us to this decision."

Also, a greedy landlord, as usual, takes some blame here. "Anna Tesoriero said that she was seeking rent of more than $10,000 a month from Logue or a deep-pocketed corporate client to take over the space —up from the $7,500 a month Hinsch’s was paying." And so you trade in a steady tenant and six decades of history for a temporary windfall. Ripping the heart of a community is worth that, right? Right?

UPDATE: Someone has contacted me who wants to save Hinsch's great neon signage. Does anyone know how to get ahold of owner John Logue? Please contact me at lostcitybrooks@gmail.com.