31 January 2006

Prisoner of Second Avenue

No further word yet on the fate of the Second Avenue Deli, which owner Jack Lebewohl abruptly and unceremoniously shut down shortly after Christmas, after a dispute with his landlord, who wanted to hike his monthly rent $9000 a month. Any hope that this was a bit a hardball bargaining on the part of Lebowohl, a former real estate lawyer, was snuffed out on Jan. 10, when the eatery's sign and facade were dismantled.

The closure surprised me. I met and lunched with Lebewohl just a week before the shuttering, and nothing he said indicated the place was in trouble. And, don't get me wrong—I never side with New York landlords, who are like so many trolls dwelling under bridges, threatening to eat you alive if you don't pay their price—but there is something fishy about the whole affair. The New York Times reported that the rent hike was written into a lease signed years ago, so Lebewohl knew about it. So why the grandstanding? And the Second Avenue Deli always made money hand over fist, so if this new rent really wrankled him, why not suffer under it for a while until you find a place to relocate, which is what he has said he plans to do? Instead, the public and the Deli's employees will have to go months before a new joint opens. And everyone know the longer you stay away, the harder it is to hit the ground running when you do reopen. New Yorkers are forgetful of the past. It's in their wiring. You have to stay in their line of vision constantly.

One last thing about all those articles about the Second Avenue Deli's demise. Many called it the last Kosher Deli in Manhattan. This was shockingly sloppy reporting. If Gotham reporters can't get Jewish culture right, who can? The Second Avenue Deli may have sold Kosher meat, but the place was open on Friday night and Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, which basically negates any Kosher claims. True Kosher restaurants are closed on the Sabbath. No self-respecting Rabbi is going to sanctify a place that sells pastrami sandwiches when folks are supposed to be in shul.

The Deli's not being truly Kosher doesn't make its departure any less sad. Let's just be straight about what's been lost.

30 January 2006

Buy That Building!

I was strolling around the Lower East Side this past weekend with my wife. We were pointing out some unorthodox (read: not in Midtown) tourist sights to some visiting friends from Italy. While doing so, we made brief stops at two cherished vestiges of the old LES: Yonah Schimmel's Knishery on Houston and Guss' Pickles on Orchard Street.

When I visit such landmark businesses, I can never hold back from asking the One Essential Question: Do you own the building? This is the key to survival in our vicious, ahistorial real estate market. If you're a lowly renter, you can be kicked onto the the sidewalk at any moment (see McHale's, Second Avenue Deli, CBGB's). Own the building and you can stay in business as long as someone in the family is willing to get up at the crack of dawn to "make the donuts," as it were. (This is also essential. The great South Brooklyn salumenia Lattacini Barese, founded in 1927, owned its Union Street building. But when owner Joe Balzano had a heart attack, neither of his sons were keen on rising each morn to make the fresh mozzarella. They sold the building in 2002. It's a real estate office now—natch.)

In both cases, the answer was depressing. Yonah Schimmel's doesn't own the the old tenement in which they're housed. "Chinese!," the counter woman gruffly replied. The woman behind the pickle barrels at Guss' laughed at the notion of ownership. This is bad news for anyone who wants Manhattan to have at least one shop turning out, as a specialty, knishs and pickles—two foods any self-respecting burg calling itself New York City should always produce.

27 January 2006

New Slob City

The New York Post reported Jan. 25 that New York City—that classy, swanky center of sophistication—now has only two restaurants that require a tie and jacket at dinner, down from 11 four years ago (and, say, a whole lot 40 years ago). The lazy public's demand for comfort done done them in. The sole holdouts: The Rainbow Room and the "21" Club. (And "21" actually doesn't enforce the dress code at lunch.)

As chance would have it, I went to "21" that very evening; not something I do very often, given the $27 hamburger, but, hey, it's Restaurant Week. There was New York manhood in all its splendor, in lapels and cravats, and no one complaining. I spoke to Jeff, one of the two managers, and mentioned the article. He told me that it privately drives him crazy that they can't make the clientele twist a piece of silk around their neck at lunchtime. There's a purist. I told him to keep up the good fight.

I also heard from a good source that the reason San Domenico rescinded its dress code was because of frizzy-haired, fat maestro James Levine. It seems he kept gliding in in shirtsleeves. And what Lincoln Center-area restaurant is going to turn away the 300-pound gorilla of the Met? Thanks Jimmy! You weren't pretty to begin with. And now a once suave corner of NYC is a little bit less handsome.

Levine doesn't seem to understand the truth that escapes much of the rest of the masses. Sure, we understand you want to be comfortable. But you're not the one who has to look at you. That's lucky us.

Barrymore's Nevermore

Looks like Barrymore's, the shabby, but loveable old theatre distict hangout, is going to follow McHale's to the Midtown graveyard. The Times reported Jan. 22 that it will close by the end of the month. It was never the unique place nearby McHale's was, and isn't as deserving of unbridled remorse and regret. Nonetheless, such small-scale, modest (in price and size) dens of theatricality are becoming harder and harder to come by around Broadway, unless you want to trek over to Ninth Avenue (not a bad idea, but there's nothing quite so romantic and exiting a restaurant and then walking right across the street to your show). So, it's the loss of yet another affordable beer, another non-chain joint, another remnant of the former, more charming, low-slung Times Square. All for a new Marriott or new Disney hotel, so the scuttlebut goes. Hasn't the city's populace always considered the first Times Square Marriott—The Marquis—loathsome, hulking and despicable? The Death Star, they called it (maybe still do). So, why build another?

The fate of Barrymore's neighbors—Sam's, Puleo's and Frankie and Johnny's—has not been declared, but seems all but sealed. Gosh, I hope that new Marriott has a really good expensive steak joint in it, maybe one named after a coach that never worked with a New York team. That'd be great.

26 January 2006

The Proverbial Straw

McHale's closed.

That's why I've decided to create this blog, something thought I'd never do, mainly because I have a visceral dislike of the word "blog," surely one of the most graceless syllables in the English language. (Leave it to the wordsmiths of the 21st century.)

But something has to be written about the disappearance of McHale's. And Howard Johnson's. And Le Cirque, Lutece, the Second Avenue Deli, CBGBs (soon), the Rainbow Room (as it was), Lattacini Barese, Frank's Department Store, Gage and Tollner and countless other classic stores, restaurants, bars, landmarks, merchants that have been steamrolled under the current, ruthless, soulless real estate market (all hail!) and our mayor's love of development, "progress," big box stores, unfriendly competition, faceless high rises and the high cost of living he's become accustomed to.

So here is the place where howls in a wilderness in protest of New York's fast and steady loss of history, culture and texture will be heard, since the dailies and weeklies seem less than alarmed (even though they are among the old world institutions which are in danger).

If you hear of any local and cherished corner of New York civilization that's in danger of extinction, please drop a line.

01 January 2006

Doesn't Own the Building (Landlord-Prone Landmarks)

These New York City business landmarks do not own the buildings in which they are located, and are thus prone to the whims of rapacious landlords.

* Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop (long lease)
* Jimmy's Corner
* Murray's Sturgeon Shop
* P.J. Clarke's
* Sardi's
* Subway Inn
* Yonah Schimmel's Knishery
* York Barber Shop

Owns the Building (Landlord-Safe Landmarks)

There historic New York City businesses own the buildings in which they are located, and are thus safe from the whims of rapacious landlords.

* Bamonte's
* Barbetta
* Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
* Carnegie Deli
* Ear Inn
* Fedora Restaurant
* Gene's Restaurant
* House of Pizza & Calzone
* John's of 12th Street
* Katz's Deli
* Keen's Steak House
* Lanza Restaurant
* Le Veau d'Or
* McSorley's Old Ale House
* Old Town Bar
* Patsy's Restaurant
* Peter Luger Steakhouse
* Poseidon Bakery
* Rao's
* Russ & Daughters
* Sam's Restaurant
* Second Avenue Deli
* Staubitz Market
* The Ear Inn
* Tommaso Restaurant
* Totonno Pizzeria
* Zabar's