31 October 2012

City Island's Tony's Pier Restaurant Among Sandy's Victims

Among the victims of the Superstorm Sandy's wrath was Tony's Pier Restaurant, a local landmark in The Bronx's maritime City Island neighborhood.

Tony's sat at the very south end of City Island Avenue, facing directly out onto the sea. Damage from Sandy was perhaps inevitable, given its position. But Tony's wasn't felled by flooding, but by fire. Fifty-foot flames gutted and leveled the place, which was a favorite for lobster and seafood plates.

I cannot find out when Tony's was founded, but it is old enough. The current owners are the children of a man who used to work at Tony's in the 1950s and finally bought the place in 1981.

The owners hope to reopen in spring 2013.

A Good Sign: Cato's Army & Navy

In Greenpoint. Dramatic name: Cato.

25 October 2012

Gallagher's Steak House to Close After 85 Years

UPDATE: Looks like Gallagher's, thankfully, is changing hands, not closing down. More to come.


Now not even the stalwart steak houses are immune from the forced death march imposed upon New York's culinary and bibulous landmarks by cutthroat real estate values, a sunken economy and indifferent governing from City Hall.

Gallagher's Steak House, born in 1927, a child of the Roaring 20s, will die on Jan. 16.

Up until now, New York's iconic steak houses have seemed fortified against a New York that no longer seems to care about its New Yorkiness. Peter Luger's, Old Homestead, Smith & Wollensky, Keen's—they all still stand. Such places have always been patronized by fat cats with big bankrolls. As long as such luxurious creatures of business (and their expanse accounts) exist, cow palaces such as these have no worries. Such was the assumption. But rhe death of Gallagher's represents a worrisome fissure in the chop house facade.

Gallagher's began its existence as a Theatre District speakeasy, patronized by show folk, sports figures writers and politicians. It was founded by Helen Gallagher, a former Ziegfeld girl who had been married to Ed Gallagher of the famous vaudeville team Gallagher and Sheen; and her second husband, gambler Jack Solomon. When Prohibition ended in 1933, it continued on, business as usual, without missing a beat. When Helen died in 1943, Solomon married showgirl and florist Irene Hayes. Solomon died in 1963, leaving Irene sole owner. Hayes then sold to Jerome Brody, who had been the head of Restaurant Associates, the famous corporation which owned such places as Four Seasons, La Fonda de Sol and The Forum of the Twelve Caesars.

To most New Yorkers, Gallagher's is most famous for its sidewalk display of its wares. Large windows look into meat lockers, where various cuts of red meat sit and/or hang, a tantalized (or revolting, depending on your inclination) taste of the hearty fare that awaits inside.

In 1942, when LaGuardia's City Hall imposed a voluntary "meatless Tuesday" policy on the city, Gallagher's didn't even try to adapt; it closed. A sign in the window said: "Okay, Uncle Sam! We'll cooperate to the letter. We'll ever go you one better. Tuesday is meatless and also is eatless, for we will be closed on Tuesdays." The steak house fought bitterly with the government throughout WWII over meat rationing.

Gallagher's has franchise branches in Newark, Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

How to Review Landmark Restaurants, and How Not To

The events of this week provided an interesting object lesson on the tricky matter of how to review a landmark restaurant. Many reviewers feel that the same rules should be applied to all restaurants, whether 1 or 100 years old. If the food and service is bad or good, say so. No punches pulled. I find this perspective short-sighted. Historical eateries are not just places where people go to feed their face and have a nice time. They are part of the fabric and heritage of the city we dwell in. Their serve purposes well beyond culinary sustenance, just as City Hall is more than a building where politicians can get their work done, and classic skyscrapers more than a stacking of offices.

23 October 2012

How They Lived, How We Live

Here is a study in contrasts, on the corner of Richardson and Humboldt in Williamsburg. In the foreground, we have a handsome, three-story, brick building, with finely patterned blonde and brown brickwork, arches over the first story windows, a grand-looking entrance and an elegant cast-iron fence surrounding all. Who wouldn't be proud to live there.

Looming behind it you have a hideous, 11-story, "finger" building, erected by ubiquitous "architect" Karl Fisher in 2009. It was intended as a rush-job casing for million-dollar condos. Then the economy tanked, and it became a rental, like so many other Brooklyn condo towers. It was sold last year. Not sure what's happening with it now. But it's still ugly.

The smaller building, meanwhile, is a beauty forever. Though it looks (to me) like it was an apartment building, if actually began life as a schoolhouse, and also served as the Old Saint Catherine's Maternity Ward. (I tend to believe the ward part, the schoolhouse part not so much.) It was restored in recent years and now goes by the name of Humboldt Street Lofts.

Golden Farm Has What You Need

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Kensington is an interesting mix of Russian, Polish, Jewish, Hispanic and other entities. Plus some health-nut yuppies. And the sprawling Golden Farm grocery is here to serve them all, as the enormous awning attests. Inside, the shelves are packed with an interesting array of  goods, including locally made blintzes (locally as in just down the street), various odd Polish meat products made at meat plants in Brooklyn and well beyond, an enormous selection of fruits and vegetables and about a hundred varieties of tea, few of which I recognized.

A Glimpse of Grandness Under the Siding

A lot of crimes against humanity and beauty were committed fifty years ago or so when the aluminum siding came a-callin' along the streets of eastern Williamsburg. Homes along thoroughfares like Frost, Richardson, Withers and Humboldt are papered with the ugly stuff, masking what are probably fairly handsome, but humble, brick, brownstone and wooden homes. You just know you might be strolling down an attractive lane if it were not for some vile mid-century sales pitch by some itinerant tin man.

22 October 2012

A Good Sign: Ho May Kitchen

In western Williamsburg, an old-fashioned 1970s style Chinese take-out joint, with bulletproof plexiglass inside and everything.

THE UNION STREET PROJECT: 141 Union Street, Redux

This is the latest 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. 

I wrote about 141 Union Street for this series back in June 2011. Among the things I discovered at that time was that, in the 1920s, the address was the home to a lovely looking pastry shop, as you can see from the Municipal Archives photo below. R. Bottaro Pasticceria was the name of the place. I was not able to learn anything more about the shop.

Now, more than a year later, I do know more. I was contacted by the great-grandnephew of the owner. He told me the pastry shop was run by his great uncle, Pietro Bottaro. (The shop was thus called P. Bottaro, not R. Bottaro as I stated previously.) He came from Palermo, Sicily, around 1907-10, and opened the pasticceria around 1910. "His brother was my Grandfather who settled in Boston in 1907," wrote the reader. "My mother said they would always get a box of Italian cookie for Christmas from Uncle Peter. His wife was Vincenza and his children Salvatore, Anthony, Albert, and Santina. They lived at 17 1st Place in Brooklyn." The shop was there until sometime in the 1940s.

The best part of this new communication was the photo that the reader sent along, of his great uncle standing proudly in front of the store. Here it is:

20 October 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to John's Pizzeria?"

As the number of artisanal pizza options has risen in New York City over the last decade—as well as the pitch of the debate as to which serves the best and most authentic pie—I've come to rely on, and cherish, old standbys more and more: Totonno's, Arturo's, Patsy's, Sam's, and, of course, John's in Greenwich Village. Here's my latest "Who Goes There?" column from Eater:
Who Goes There? John's Pizzeria
John's Pizzeria doesn't get the respect accorded to other old New York pizza institutions, like Patsy's, Totonno's, or Di Fara. Nor does it get its due as a Greenwich Village icon the way places like the White Horse Tavern, Village Vanguard, or Cafe Reggio do. This, I imagine, is because it's a tourist magnet and perpetually filled to the gills with regular (i.e., uncool) people.
But, for me, John's holds up. The plain pie is not the city's crowing achievement of the pizzaiola's art. But it's good enough to be a standard bearer. The tang of its sauce and the char of the crust are remarkably consistent; the coal-fired brick ovens are still doing their job. I've never had an unsatisfying pie there. And, unlike Lombardi's—another landmark in New York pizza history, but one that is now a theme-park shell of what it once was—John's has retained its character. The main room—with its high, red tin ceilings, twitching ceiling fans, vintage concert posters, and battered wooden booths etched with the names of decades of whittling patrons—is simply one of the greatest, New Yorkiest spaces in the city. One can imagine the Italian denizens of Bleecker Street eating here in the 1930s and '40s; the jazzmen and beatniks of the '50s; the folkies and flower children of the '60s. History lives here.
Despite its reputation as a fave of the weekend bridge-and-tunnel tribe, John's still gets plenty of locals. It also attracts a lot of families, because no one blinks at kids being kids here. I recently dined here with eight tweens, and they couldn't have felt more at home. They inhaled the slices and happily poured themselves glass after glass of Coke from plastic pitchers. They also found the ancient bathrooms an infinite source of fascination.
John's was founded in 1929 by John Sasso, who reportedly learned his trade at Lombardi's (as did the founders of Totonno's and Patsy's). The original pizzeria was on Sullivan Street. When Sasso lost his lease, he dismantled the brick oven and moved it to the present location on Bleecker. There it has stayed. Sasso sold the pizzeria to his brother in 1955. It was eventually taken over, in 1973, by Sasso's great-grandnephews, Peter Castellotti and Robert Vittoria. It's still run by Peter (who was born in a building directly across the street from the restaurant) and his children, Peter Jr. and Lisa. During the Castellotti reign, John's began to expand. There are now three other restaurants, including a massive one in a former church space in Times Square. The latter is always swamped, with 45 minutes waits, because it's one of the only affordable eating options in the Theatre District. The pizza, however, doesn't match what's served up on Bleecker Street. You can't duplicate the effects of an 83-year-old oven. 
—Brooks of Sheffield

19 October 2012

Korner Pizza of Kensington

Korner Pizza has been on Church Avenue of the Kensington Neighborhood of Brooklyn since 1966. Despite the relatively new plastic awning, which is unfortunate, the place has a charming appearance to my eyes. The glass bricks are lovely. Inside are several of the curved orange booths that once were so common in pizzerias. And the two stone tables outside are a unique touch, allowing for al fresco dining. I assume from the traditional three-legged symbol on the wall (far below), the founding family is Sicilian. The owner, according to records, is Tony Imburgia.

18 October 2012

A Chinatown Institution on Opening Day

Since the day, back in March 2010, when I posted a series of ripe, flavorful photos from a curious 1978 New York souvenir book, readers have never stopped writing to me about them, commenting on and asking questions about them. I have even been contacted by a couple television producers inquiring how to obtain rights to the photographs.

Recently, I paged through the volume again (which was published in London) and stopped at the photo above. I hadn't realized what I was looking at when I first set eyes on the picture. This is actually an image of a newly born Big Wong Restaurant. Today, the Cantonese Big Wong is a Mott Street mainstay and Chinatown institution. But here we see it as the new kid on the block, with plastic flags and red-white-and-blue banners and everything. The place doesn't even have a permanent sign yet.

The now-gone restaurant to the left of Big Wong, Mon Sing, was well-regarded in its day. It, too, served Cantonese food. It was owned by Robert Tsang. Noted composer and arranger Hershey Kay loved the place and used to hold dinner parties there. New York magazine described it as a "good, cheap lo mein parlor that also serves won ton soup and spare ribs."

Another odd historical fact: the building Mon Sing was in, 65 Mott Street, was the first building in New York specifically constructed as a tenement. It was erected in 1824. It is still a residential building.

17 October 2012

They Got the Number Right

The world is still waiting for Greenwich Village's classic speakeasy, Chumley's, to come back from the dead. But here's a good sign. The joint's iconic address is back up!

Many theorize that the term "86"—as in scram, nix that, lose that, get rid of that, cancel—derived from Chumley's address of 86 Bedford Street. Whenever the cops would raid the speakeasy, the bartender would get a heads up, and the patrons would quickly file out the back door into a courtyard that led to Barrow street. The customers were "86"'d.

I spoke to the new owner a few weeks ago. There had been various reports that the bar would open this fall. He told me the reports were inaccurate and that there was no guarantee that he's open for business by Dec. 31, although he wished he would. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was doubtful he would, though.

However, seeing the old number 86 back where it belongs warms the heart.

16 October 2012

A Perfect Storefront: New Warsaw Bakery

I don't think I have to go into too much detail as to why the New Warsaw Bakery in Greenpoint is a perfect storefront. Tile signage! Looks like a painting! Salmon-colored!!

Believe it or now, the bakery is less than two decades old. You can buy a loaf directly from them if you ask nicely.

15 October 2012

A Good Sign: Price Wise Discount Center

In Glendale, Queens. Nice, fading, hand-painted sign. I like the choice of font for the words near the bottom.

12 October 2012

NYC Department of Health Strategies of the Past

A reader saw my January 2012 post about Foffe's, the bygone Brooklyn Heights eatery that was heavily into wild game dinners. Pictures of the place show slain animals hanging outside the restaurant whenever it was "game time." Such flourishes would never fly today, what with the overzealous and injurious activities of the Department of Health. But back then, restaurateurs could afford to thumb their nose at City Hall a bit. As the reader tells:
I am so happy to find your post and copies of the menu. My family was close friends with Alfred. He and my dad often went hunting together and would then prepare Game Dinners for their friends. These dinners were held upstairs and went late into the night. I have fond memories of being in the restaurant with his cats walking around and visiting the tables. Alfred told the Board of Health "Either I have cats or rats."

11 October 2012

Getting the Name Out, Street Level

Usuall, when you want to see a faded ad in New York City, you look up. They're typically haunting the upper stories of old brick buildings, painted there back in the day because that's the perch where the company's name and message would meet the most eyeballs.

Not this ad on the west wall of 24 W. 26th Street. The words are almost to the ground. As far as I can tell, the name of the long-gone company was Randall & McAllister. I can find out nothing about the business. But it's curious the sign should remain at such a low level. The address of the parking lot, 26 W. 26th, was once the first permanent address of the theatrical Lamb's Club. In 1897, it became a Yale Club. So there was a building here long ago. And yet the sign seems very old. Maybe there was an alleyway between 24 and 26.

Now There's Irony

A year or so ago, Brooks Brothers opened their hip version of themselves, The Flatiron Shop, in a corner space at Broadway and 20th Street. I didn't get a good look at it until accidentally passing by the place yesterday, so I didn't realize that it had taken up residence in the old Lord & Taylor building.

The structure, the third built and occupied by Lord & Taylor, was erected in 1870. The department store abandoned it to newer digs uptown in 1915. It used to occupy much of the block, but now only a sliver of the original edifice remains, and it is that sliver that Brooks Brothers now calls home. Brooks Brothers was, or course, one of Lord & Taylor's main rivals throughout the 19th century and beyond. The store was located at Broadway and Bond when Lord & Taylor was at this address, and later moved to 23rd Street. Brooks decamped for midtown the same year L&T did. Wrote the New York Times in 1915: "When Lord & Taylor decided to go to Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it was rumored Brooks Brothers would soon joint the uptown movement."

10 October 2012

Maybe They Should Keep It

Longstanding Carroll Gardens pizzeria Sal's was apparently part of a movie shoot last month that caused them to temporarily rename themselves "Salducci's." Guess the filmmakers thought that would make this very Italian joint even more Italian. The pasted-on awning is still there, as is the decal on the glass door. I kind of like the name better. Maybe they should keep it.

El Faro Indefinitely Shuttered

According to Eater and various sources, El Faro, one of the oldest Spanish restaurants in the City, and one of the oldest period, will be shuttered indefinitely followed a visit by the health department that forced it to temporarily close its doors. The owner, Mark Lurgis, said he has to raise $80,000 to make the necessary changes and will stay closed until he does so. (No doubt, the DOH charged its usual ludicrous inflated fees.) The restaurant's kitchen is 150 years old.

Ironically, this is the restaurant I had planned to visit for my most recent "Who Goes There?" column. The night I scheduled to visit was the night it closed. I changed my plans and visited El Quijote, another Spanish standby, instead.

09 October 2012

Fire Hits Carroll Gardens' D'Amico Coffee

A small fire last week temporarily silenced D'Amico Coffee, which has been roasting and selling beans on Court Street in Carroll Gardens for 64 years. A first broke out in one of the roasters, causing the business to evacuate the premises and some interior damage.

The Lost Colony

I passed by the midtown location of Colony Records, the iconic music store in the Brill Building that went out of business last month after a half century in Times Square. The place is empty, but the signs remain. I wonder what will become of them.

08 October 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to El Quijote"?

Twenty-four years in New York and I finally made it into El Quijote. What took me so long? I don't know. Something about the joint always seemed a bit cheesy to me. Maybe I associated it too much with the too-bohemian-by-half residents of the Chelsea Hotel. Also, the prices didn't help. If the dining experience was going to be a miss, I would be out $50 in the experiment. Now, of course, I wish I hadn't been so standoffish. El Quijote has a lovely, frozen-in-time interior and not bad food at all. Here's my Eater write-up:

New Marco Polo Partly Revealed

Marco Polo Ristorante, the Carroll Gardens landmark that is undergoing a makeover, has partly revealed its new look. The faux fieldstone frontage has been removed in favor a faux hacienda thing. Not sure if it's better. Just different. The subdued hand-painted sign, however, is a major change from the former red neon. I assume there's an awning on the way.