30 April 2012

The Fool With the Huge Obelisk

Think someone's overcompensating here?

Green-wood Cemetery has a lot of grandiose monuments erected by a lot of self-important people. But this one may take the cake. This obelisk marking the final resting place of Stephen M. Griswold may be the tallest in the cemetery. It's certainly the tallest I found during a recent tour of the western end of the famous burial ground.

So who was this grandee? Well, Griswold was famous in a way. But probably not in a way he would have liked.

A few weeks back I took a tour of the landmark Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, the one where Henry Ward Beecher was pastor. There I learned that a number of the parishioners were among the pilgrims that Mark Twain made fun of in his bestseller "Innocents Abroad." Apparently, Twain traveled to the Holy Land with the group in 1867—it was the first trans-Atlantic American cruise—and later used them as the models of the uncouth boobs featured in a series of articles, which were then collected into a book.

Griswold and his wife were in that group, and they were not portrayed in a favorable light. Maybe that indignity was what Griswold was trying to correct when his family commissioned this mile-high tombstone. Griswold was a jeweler otherwise, and the president of the Union Bank of Brooklyn, though he was a New York State Senator from 1886 to 1887. Guess his voters didn't read much Twain.

Leske's Bakery in Bay Ridge to Reopen

Last May, Leske's, the last Scandinavian bake shop in the one-time Norse stronghold of Bay Ridge, closed. And so the Brooklyn neighborhood lost one of oldest businesses, and one of the last vestiges of Swedish Brooklyn.

Now, it seems, Leske's is getting a new lease on life. I was in the area the other day and saw some workers hanging outside the bakery. Investigating, I found a couple articles and notices taped to the windows saying that the shop was due to reopen. Signs said Leske's would have new management, but the same bakers it had before. It will reopen in May.

I'm glad it's reopening, but the fact that it will have the same bakers is a matter of some concern. When I first posted something about Leske's, a received a few comments from old timers saying how the quality of the baking had gone done in recent years. Yesterday, I even received a message from a descendent of the founder: "Being the granddaughter of the founder of Leske's Bakery, nothing is like it use to be back then. My mother constantly raves of the donuts and black and whites, but everytime we've gone back, they were never like they use to be." Perhaps the previous management wasn't letting the bakers bake the way they wanted to. We shall see.

27 April 2012

The Brooklyn Theatre Fire, Etched in Stone

Perhaps because the location where it happened has been thoroughly sandpapered off the map, the great Brooklyn Theatre Fire of 1876 is little remembered today, except by the most searching of New York history nerds.

The disaster laid waste to the Brooklyn Theatre, which stood at the corner of Washington and Johnson Streets, one block north of what was then City Hall, and is today Borough Hall. Cadman Plaza occupies the area today. On Dec. 5, 1876, a fire broke out on stage during a performance. One thousand people were in attendance; at least 278 died. It remains the third most deadly fire to have occurred in a theatre or public assembly building in the U.S.

The main reminder of this catastrophe stands in Green-Wood Cemetery. It's an obelisk that spells out, in scrupulous detail over the four sides of the monument, what happened at the theatre. The remains of 103 of the victims are buried beneath. The inscription may seem over-explicit at first. But it's a good thing the people who erected it went into such detail. It's a compact history lesson for New Yorkers who today know nothing of the tragedy.

26 April 2012

Historic Brooklyn Florist McGovern-Weir Shutters

The McGovern-Weir Florist, on the western border of Green-Wood Cemetery Sunset Park, has closed up shop. On a recent visit, I found the roller-shutter down and the interior emptied.

However, this cessation of business appears to be good news for the 132-year-old structure, the only Victorian-era greenhouse still standing in New York. For the building was sold to none other that Green-Wood Cemetery, which bought it for 1.6 million. The cemetery plans to restore the lovely creation.

The greenhouse was built by James Weir, Jr. (son of founding florist James Weir), in 1880, at the corner of 25th Street and Fifth Avenue. Architect Mercein Thomas designed the glass and wood building. Fifteen years later, Weir hired architect George Curtis Gillespie to enlarge the greenhouse. The sign at top was once visible from a great distance. Weir and his two sons, James E. and Edward, all lived on 25th Street near the greenhouse.

Green-Wood also bought a building adjacent to the greenhouse. Though it is covered in aluminum siding, you can tell the house is very old from its ornate wooden cornice. Here's are some pictures of the building and the interior of the greenhouse, taken during a visit in 2009.

Weir Florist is still a going concern. They have a store on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. 

25 April 2012

Timboo's, Classic Brooklyn Dive, Closes

Timboo's, a classic old dive on Fifth Avenue in the South Slope, has served its last Bud.

I passed by recently, and found the bar, which was founded in 1969, had been supplanted by a cheery-looking place with the cheery name of Skylark.

Timboo's was the haunt of rummies and barflies, the folks who lived in south Park Slope when it was seedy and dangerous and ungentrified. It was a roomy saloon, with a big pool room in the back. The facade was priceless: a mirrored black glass sign with the faded, cursive white lettering and badly drawn Martini glasses, glass bricks, and a sun-bleached awning. A couple years ago, the bar tried to spruce up its act a bit, getting a new awning and replacing the old sign with a new facsimile. It was a mistake.

A reader told me at the time (June 2009) that the owners lived in Florida part-time, and Timboo's was now run by their daughters. Skylark is run by the same people who own Abeline's, a bar on Court Street in Carroll Gardens. At least it will be taken over by local people.

The weird name, by the way, was a conflation of the first name and last name of the two owners: Timmy Hodgens and Bobby Booras. Guess we could have been stuck with Hodbob's Bar all these years.

24 April 2012

Kenny's Castaways on It's Way Out?

Bleecker Street may be touristy. It may teem with bridge and tunnel types, an NYU students on the weekends. It may be a long way from the heady music cred days of the 1960s Village folk revival and the 1970s punk insurgence. But the strip has endurance. There's minimal turnover. Many of the same bars and small-time clubs that were there in Dylan's day are there now, including the Back Fence and Bitter End.

One of the oldest, Kenny's Castaways, at 157 Bleecker, may not be long for this world. Eater reported that the Bleecker Street stalwart in on the block, looking for the highest bidder. The owners have tired of the place and are fishing around for a buyer.

The building has a long history. In the 1890s, it was an early gay bar by the name of The Slide, called the wickedest place in New York by the New York Herald. The basement functioned as a brothel. The ceiling, woodwork, and ceramic tile floor from those days are still visible today.

It became Kenny's Castaways in 1974. The first Kenny's was located on E. 84th Street. When the lease was up in 1974, the club moved to Bleecker Street. 

Kenny was Pat Kenny, and his family still owns it. Many a gritty 1970s musical luminary played here: Jeff Buckley, New York Dolls (who played both at the 84th Street location and on Bleecker), Ricky Lee Jones, Steve Forbert, Blondie, Kiss, Patti Smith. Bruce Springsteen performed at the 84th Street Kenny's for a week in 1972. The Smithereens were the house band around 1980. Phish gave its first Gotham concert here in 1988. Joey and DeeDee Ramone met here. And, yes, Spin Doctors played here. 

Ashamed to say I have never been to Kenny's. I will correct that.

Last of Bill's Gay Nineties Carted Off

Eater posted this sad photo of the Bill's Gay Nineties awning being loaded into a moving van. The old-time midtown tavern and former speakeasy closed last month after more than 70 years in business, kicked out by a ruthless Irish landlord. A note on the bar's site reads: "We are working on our new home. Please go to our contact page and give us your email address and name so that we can keep you up to date on our progress and let you know how you can help."

No definite word on who won claims to the bar, woodwork and paraphernalia inside. The landlord first wanted to buy the interior from the owner. When she wouldn't sell, the landlord claimed he owned the stuff anyway. 

The Gap in the Block

Across from P.S. 29, on Henry Street, in Cobble Hill, there's a row of residences. Taking up the south side of the block is a group of austere buildings composed of yellowing off-white stone. Composing the north end are a couple of old, wide, red-brick structures, some with ornate detailing, followed by two brownstones. And in the middle is a gap, about two and a half feet wide.

This is unusual. As most New Yorkers know, blocks are pretty tightly fit in New York. Space is at a minimum, so buildings stand cheek by jowl, with not a whisker of air in between them. You can find a few cute alleyways in Greenwich Village, but generally, such things are not common.

23 April 2012

Before Jekyll & Hyde

The Jekyll & Hyde Club on Sixth Avenue is dead and gone. Thank God. Hate-hate-HATED that tacky, touristy pile of bricks. An eyesore of Las Vegas proportions.

But a reader sent me the below picture as a reminder of what used to be there. I had no idea. I know in its own way, the facade of The Magic Pan is as ugly as the Jekyll & Hyde Club. But there's something about that chain that charms me. Nothing quite says New York in the 1970s like The Magic Pan.

20 April 2012

That Tudor Thing on Fifth

What's with the Tudor fever dream at 581 Fifth Avenue near 47th Street? The one that looks like it may have been the birthplace of Shakespeare's father, but has the incongruously junky souvenir shop in the base? Best of Scotland used to be located here. That may explain the design scheme. But it probably doesn't. Anyone know?

19 April 2012

Diamond Row Has a New Dairy Luncheonette

Back in December 2009, we learned that Diamond Dairy, a darling of a kosher dairy luncheonette that was tucked at the back of the National Jeweler Exchange on Manhattan's Diamond Row, had closed for good. We wept and cried and rend our shirts, knowing another piece a quintessential New York has disappeared. 

The strange mezzanine space where the diner was sat empty for some time. I wondered if it would ever be filled again. Strolling down W. 47th Street yesterday, curiosity got me thinking and I poked my head in the exchange and weaved past the maze of jeweler stands. Lo and behold, the stairs were open and the space was open for business.

The new place is called, simply, Dairy Lunch. It seems to have opened recently; there are still "grand opening" posters on the wall. Of course, the joint is glatt kosher. Russian Jews appear to run it. The menu is large. You can get sandwiches, soups, blinis, salads, panini and ever kosher sushi. I had a tuna sandwich on a bagel. It was good.

The place lacks the charm of the Diamond Dairy. Why anyone would want to do away with that classic, 1950s, zig-zagging diner counter is a mystery to me. Dairy Lunch just looks like any old deli. Still, the space itself has a quirky charm that can't be erased. And I do believe those three stools seen in the picture are salvaged from the Diamond Dairy. 

18 April 2012

Faded Wrigley's Ad on Columbia Street Vanishing

Back in 2008, L&M Equities purchased the old buildings at the corner of Columbia and Warren in Cobble Hill West, and quickly tore them down. The idea was to erect a new apartment building. But for whatever reason, the plot stood vacant for the next three years.

That was OK by me, because the demolition had revealed an old advertisement  by that onetime king of outdoor signage, the O.J. Gude Company. It was an ad for Wrigley's gum, with the discernible slogan, "The Flavor Lasts."

Now, however, the cinder blocks have started to climb. And the gum ad is fast disappearing. A shame. Still, I'm glad they didn't go to the bother to paint over the ad. It's fun to imagine the surprise that will await New Yorkers when this crappy new building is inevitably torn down in 30 or 40 years time. The flavor lasts—and so do the faded ads.

17 April 2012

Accardi Hardware, Oldest Business on Columbia Street, Closes

Many changes are coming to Columbia Street in Brooklyn lately. Yesterday, I reported that the one-time bustling commercial lane had lost one of its longstanding businesses, the 62-year-old Sokol Bros. Furniture Store. And a building near DeGraw that has operated as a slaughterhouse since for nearly a century, recently shut its doors, owing to Gowanus Canal-related construction that unsettled its foundation. Now it seems that Columbia has been robbed of another—perhaps its last—survivor from the old days: Accardi Hardware and Industrial Supply.

Accardi held down the fort at 157 Columbia—between DeGraw and Kane—for decades, when the street, commercially speaking, was little more than a ghost town. I could never find out much about the place, just that it was family owned and had been there forever. (It was actually established in 1915, making it by far the oldest extant business on Columbia.) They had a billboard down on Van Brunt Street (see below) advertising their presence, so I imagine they got a lot of business from Red Hook outfits.

I'm not sure what happened, but Accardi is gone. It's been replace by Red Hook Flooring and Area Rug World.  Area Rug World was founded in 2008.

16 April 2012

Sokol Bros. Furniture Goes the Way of All Old Buildings: Apartments

Due to the numerous calamities that have befallen Columbia Street during the last 50 years—the big sewer dig of the 1970s; the erection of the BQE; the extension of the Brooklyn docks between DeGraw and Atlantic; all of which knocked out dozens of old Columbia Street buildings and businesses—there are precious few mercantile remnants of the thriving business district that once was.

One of the last survivors was the Sokol Bros. Furniture store, which took up three former brownstones on Columbia between President and Carroll Streets. The business was founded in 1950, making it a relative latecomer to the strip, which was by then already in decline. Michael Sokol took the reins from his father and uncle in 1976 and ran the shop until last fall, when he sold it for $3.3 million.

Lately, the place has been gutted and scaffolding has been erected. Construction is constant. The building will be converted into luxury apartments and three stories will be added to the edifice, making it easily the tallest, largest structure on Columbia Street (which is not protected by any sort of landmarking).

One of the one good things about such repurposings as this is you briefly get to see what the old building once looked like, as they tear away at the walls. Sokol Bros. has been covered up with an awful overlay of cream-colored bricks for years. Underneath somewhere are some ancient red-brick houses. Walking by today, I peeked inside and could see where old brick walls and a fireplace were revealed.

Sokol Bros. was a funny place. Though I bought a couch there once, and Michael was always on the premises, I never saw much business going on inside. It was the sort of family-owned, bare-bones, no-frilled, frozen-in-time furniture business that you used to see a lot of in Brooklyn. Every neighborhood had one or two. The furniture styles were always a few seasons behind the times, but the prices were good. The sprawling office in the back, walled by large wooden-framed windows, was left very much as it must have been in 1950. I would sometimes go in to ask Michael questions about how the old neighborhood used to be. He was one of the few remaining local experts.

Part of the store's appeal was the grand old, hollowed-out neon sign that adorned it. (See below.) It must have been something in the days when the Sokols bothered to fill the large metal letters with neon tubing—something I never saw. It hasn't lit up in decades.

I can't tell if the sign is still there. The scaffolding obscures the view.

14 April 2012

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

I don't know why it never occurred to me before to spotlight old standby Mexican joints like Lupe's, The Hat and Maryann's in my "Who Goes There?" column. I guess it's because I just take them for granted and never think of them disappearing. Also, all three were newish when I moved to New York. So I don't think of them as old, because to do so would me that I am, uh, old. Oh well. Time to face up to it: Lupe's has been around for 25 years. Here's my column:

13 April 2012

And Now, a Brief Rat-Squirrel Update

Half of the window lintels are complete on the slowly-but-surely back-from-the-dead Rat-Squirrel House in Cobble Hill. The one-time haunted house now has some sharp new lintels to match its new cornice. Still no glass in those windows, though. And, ironically, the renovation of the house next door—which is considerably less in need of a redo—is speeding along at a far more rapid pace.

Fall Cafe Replacement Revealed

Ciro's, the replacement for the Fall Cafe—a local landmark on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens for nearly two decades—revealed itself this week. New layout inside, though it looks like they've kept some of the old chairs that gave the Fall Cafe its ratty charm. And there might be the possibility of garden seating in back.

09 April 2012

A Gypsy Tea Kettle Memory

From a reader:
"I have a nice Gypsy Tea Kettle memory. While shopping in NYC on my honeymoon in 2000, I realized with horror my purse was no longer on my shoulder. After calling all around where we'd been that day with no luck, I called my home phone in Phoenix on the off chance someone had left a message. And there, on my answering machine, was a message from a lady with a heavy New York accent, saying she didn't know if this could be the right number, but that she'd found a purse lying in her entryway and it had my name and number in it. She said she was from the Gypsy Tea Kettle near Bloomingdale's in NYC, in case I got this message. So of course we hurried over there and met the tough, but nice, lady who'd left the message. Sure enough, there was my purse, minus some credit cards, but still with my driver's license and, best of all, the hankie I'd worn tucked into my sleeve during our wedding as "something new." It was a lovely, unexpected ending to a momentarily bad story! We tried to give her a tip, but she wouldn't take it. The Gypsy Tea Kettle will always have a fond place in my heart."
That Bloomingdale's-area Gypsy Tea Kettle was the last outpost of the chain. I must have closed soon after the above event happened. Here's a photo of a Gypsy Tea Kettle.

08 April 2012

The Russian People's Home of Greenpoint

I was passing through Clay Street, an obscure little side street in northern Greenpoint, near the BQE overpass, when I came by a simple brick building with a curious little off-center, hand-painted sign over the entrance. What, pray tell, is the Russian People's Home of Greenpoint? And why is it so small? And why is it in the middle of nowhere?

According to New York Shitty, this is an artifact of previous waves of Greenpoint immigration. We tend to think of the Brooklyn neighborhood as the home of many Catholic Poles. But, prior to that, there were many Polish and Russian Jews. The sign is a favorite of NYS's Miss Heather, who has mentioned it many times. She seems quite obsessed with it, actually. I get that. It happens to me.

I don't know when the Russian People's Home was established or if it is still in operation—there are no records of its operation anywhere—but I know that this address used to be a saloon in 1902 run by one Stephen Kerkens. He was arrested at that time for kicking a little girl who lived in the same building. A lot of people who lived and/or worked here at that time were arrested, including: Frank Ferkel, who was taken in for firing shots at a wedding, including one that struck a six-year-old boy; John D. Gaul, another saloonkeeper, who was in the country illegally; and the parents of eighteen-month-old Frank Salinsky, who fell from the third-story window in 1895 and died.

A Memory of Hav-a-Pizza

From a reader, a memory of Yorkville's long-gone Hav-a-Pizza:
I remember Hav-A-Pizza from the late 50's. It was the first place I ever had pizza. As I remember it, pizza, then, was kind of new as a fast food. I don't think my parents had ever had it. It was fantastic pizza. There was much more sauce and cheese on it than today's slices in similar joints. It had a distinctive, rich, aromatic flavor that I occasionally get a whiff of in a slice today that instantly takes me back to 86th and Lex. A girl I knew who went to an exclusive East Side private school, Nightingale Bamford, told me years later that the school decreed Hav-A-Pizza off-limits. I'm not sure why, but I think it had to do with the school's (mis)percetion that unsavory, Fonzie-character types hung out there. I remember the clientele as non-descript, average people, maybe mostly young people. I remember Tony who was always there flinging the dough in the air. He wasn't friendly, at least to us, but he wasn't unfriendly either. When I first went there a slice was not 25 cents, it was 15 cents, and this was not The Depression. This was 1957-196?. A soda was 10 cents. So 2 slices and a Coke cost 40 cents. Even back then, this was just pocket change even for a school kid with a modest allowance.

05 April 2012

The Faded Ad Wall on West 36th: Sam Landorf & Co.

Sam Landorf & Co. is the ad most erased by time on the hanging gardens of faded advertising that is the westerly wall of 64-70 W. 36th Street. You can barely see the "Sam" and the stuff beneath it is almost impossible to read. It says "creator of infants and children's dresses," I think. I wonder by Landorf's paint job faded so much more than his neighbors'. Shoddy paint? Excess exposure to sunlight and rain?

Landorf was a resident of this building for a shorter period of time than any of the other businesses featured in these ads. He moved in 1950 and moved out 1956, decamping to 34th Street. The concern was founded by Sam Landorf, who spent his whole life in the garment trade. Sam was born on the Lower East Side and went to work at the age of 13. The company was founded in 1949. Sam had spent many years at the Joseph Love & Co. before striking out on his own.

Landorf was a quick success. In the 1950s, he produced a line of girls' frocks called "Cinderella" and another called "Youngland." In 1954, the New York Times said Landorf had "pushed the Youngland Dress trade-mark close to the top in the short space of five years." Landorf sold $8 million in goods in 1954. He had nine factories in New York, Pennsylvania and Texas. The Youngland dresses were very safe and traditional, but made more of a fashion statement than had previously been the case with mid-priced girls frocks. Landorf was still advertising Youngblood in New York magazine in the early '80s. The ad said its children's dresses were carried at Macy's.

Here's a sample of a Youngland dress:

04 April 2012

Offending Yogurt Sign on Court Street Removed

The 16 Handles sign on Court Street lasted about five days.

The gaudy orange-and-green thing went up last Friday or Saturday. It immediately offended the senses of Carroll Gardeners, who thought it out of character with the Brooklyn Brownstone neighborhood.

I posted my (rather heated) feelings about the sign early on Monday. This was followed by similar sentiments on the prominent Carroll Gardens blog Pardon Me For Asking. Someone sent the posts and forwarded them to the vp of the franchise of the east coast chain. He wrote a contrite and polite message to me and PMFA, vowing to remove the sign and replace it with something more appropriate.

I expected a two-week lag or so. But by 2 PM today, the sign was gone. A case study in respectful merchant response to a community concerns.

The Subtle Westmore

The Westmore is a fairly typical mid-century apartment building. It's located on W. 57th Street, west of Columbus Circle. It was built in 1936 and is eight stories tall.

I'm sure the apartments inside are mighty fine, but what I love about it is the low-key, Art Deco way the building announces itself. Those stylish metal letters pictures—following the graceful curve of the small metal awning—are no more than six inches tall. And that's the only thing on the building's facade that says Westmore. It's quite beautiful, especially when the morning sun hits the sign, as it does in this picture. I assume the builders were anticipating that effect, and that's why they put the lettering on the east side of the awning.

Inside, the Westmore features a large garden court the width of a city block. Most of the apartments have bay windows looking over either the garden or the street.

03 April 2012

The Faded Ad Wall on West 36th: Bo Peep Mfg. Co.

Of all the old painted advertisements that climb up the west wall of 64-70 W. 36th Street, the Bo Peep Manufacturing Company—second ad from the top—has the most fanciful and memorable name.

The company was founded in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, it was situated at 1350 Broadway, off Herald Square. It was located here from 1941 to 1957. It ceased business sometime in the 1970s.

It's ad message is curious and unclear: "Brother and Sister, Individual and Companion Clothes, Play Togs." What does that mean exactly. Brother and Sister probably means they make clothes for little boys and girls. I get that. But how do clothes differ between a single person and a person with a companion?

02 April 2012

The Worst Sign on Court Street


Some weeks ago, Joe's Restaurant, an old diner and a standby of Carroll Gardens' Court Street for years, packed it in. The space was then rented to a yogurt joint. Which doesn't sound too bad on the face of it. But with the shop, called 16 Handles, comes this horribleriffic monstrosity of a sign, which made its debut a few days ago, scarring the eyes of innocent locals and frightening mild-hearted dogs and children.

Do store signs have to be approved by local community boards? If so, how did this garish piece of visual offensiveness get by the town fathers? This is, by far, the worst, the ugliest sign in the 20-plus block of stretch of Court Street. It is worse than McDonald's, Popeye's and Dunkin' Donuts, and that is saying something. The so-bright-they-hurt colors were obviously chosen to attract the attention of the freeway driver whizzing by a roadside rest stop. But this is a quiet neighborhood commercial strip in an old residential area. The chain is so ignorant of the neighborhood that on their website, they list this location as being in Cobble Hill.

UPDATE: The owner of the franchise contacted me and had the following to say:
Your blog was sent to me via a friend and I wanted to send a comment on behalf of 16 Handles. 
We agree that the signage used at this location does not fit the vibe or feel of your neighborhood.
It wasn't the intention of our franchisee to upset the community. 
We have heard you and we thank you for your feedback.
Our mission is simply to bring smiles to communities. The sign we hung clearly missed the mark. 
Having said that, we are working to have the sign removed and replaced with one which is more suitable for the neighborhood.
Jon Lake, vp operations - 16 Handles
I am stunned, as I have come to expect authority never to respond to the complaints of community members. All I can say, is, while I may not like the sign, the man who hung it is a gentleman. I applaud his reaction heartily. And, when the shop opens, I will try the yogurt.

01 April 2012

Oak Street's Haunted House

Give or two a few bends, the Greenpoint streetmap is a fairly predictable grid. But there's an interesting twist or two. If you walk westerly on Manhattan Avenue, then hang a right on Calyet, in a couple blocks you'll reach an interesting intersection. On the left, it's Guernsey Street. On the right it's Guernsey, too. But a right turn will take you only a hundred yards or so before the road makes a severe left. At that turn, it becomes Oak Street. After that, Oak runs a few blocks before being stopped dead by the East River.

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Frankie & Johnnie's?"

It's really hard for me to forgive Frankie & Johnnie's for what they did to the great old second floor bar. But if it helped keep the old Times Square steakhouse open, I guess the desecration can be understood. And I'd rather eat here more than just about any other place in the area before seeing a Broadway show. Here's my "Who Goes There?" column:

Who Goes There? Frankie & Johnnie's Steakhouse
After Sardi's, Frankie & Johnnie's ranks as the oldest surviving eatery in the Theatre District. It was founded in 1926 and has seen a lot of flops and hits, and the actors who starred in them. It was a speakeasy in its early years, according to lore. A few years ago, the place was almost lost to the city when the Shuberts, who own the property, began tearing down every building around it in hopes of erecting a hotel on the plot. But the economy tanked before the theatre owners could get to Frankie's, and the steakhouse won a last-minute reprieve. (Ironically, the Shubert execs loved Frankie's. They often ate and held meetings at the restaurant. Never trust a landlord.)
Despite having dodged the wrecking ball, the owners of Frankie's nonetheless found a way to wreck the joint themselves. Soon after being saved, they ripped out the old hidden bar upstairs—a wonderful, ramshackle little getaway if you knew how to find it, where Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lanskey once drank alongside John O'Hara and Frank Sinatra, and Jason Robards Jr. pilloried Richard Nixon to his face. They then installed a faceless, blah bar on the ground floor, and scrubbed up and widened the entrance to the old staircase that winds it way up to the tidy, second-floor dining area.
These renovations were mistakes, and noticeably decreased the seedy charm of the place. Still, Frankie & Johnnie's retains more charm than most. Tucked away 15 feet above Eighth Avenue, its small windows shaded, it still feels like a speakeasy, the most Runyonesque of Times Square eateries. The bill of fare remains avowedly old school. "I haven't seen calves liver on a menu in years!" said my brother during a recent dinner. (He doesn't get to many New York steakhouses.) He could have said the same about the creamed spinach, clams casino, mushroom caps or any number of long-standing F&J specialties.
The steaks here aren't the best in New York, but they're not the worst. I always have the petit filet mignon and I always enjoy it. And the creamed spinach rocks. So do the ridiculous number (eight) of potato side dishes. If you can't find a potato preparation you like here, you just don't like potatoes. Eating ain't cheap. Meat entrees start in the 20s and head up to the 50s. And you can't escape by ordering pasta. Somehow, penne with chicken merits a $26 pricetag.
There was a Frankie and a Johnnie at one time. Ownership passed down through the Johnnie line until waiter Peter Chimos bought the joint in 1985. Some of the present waiters are as old as Chimos. The hands of mine shook as he placed down my steak, but he was otherwise polite and attentive. He told me that the restaurant's many regulars stretch well beyond the Theatre District, or New York, or even the tri-state area. There are loyalists in every state, and when they come to New York, this is where they eat. And, of course, they still get their share of stage celebrities and politicians.
The Shuberts still own the building. Don't get me wrong, but I hope the economy doesn't improve too much. 
—Brooks of Sheffield