31 March 2006

Follow the Garment Racks

Anyone seeking a taste of Manhattan before the money markets of the '80s and '90s polished its sidewalks and glass skyscrapers squeaky clean should leave the Disneyfied Tokyo known as Times Square and head a couple blocks to the south. Hell, just one block south will do. There are a few dirty, gargoyled buildings on the north side of 41st Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue which seem from a city entirely apart from the one found just 30 seconds to the north.

This is the Garment District, an area between Ninth and Sixth Avenues and 42nd and 34th Street which has thus far stubbornly resisted to find space for hot new restaurants and outposts of Applebee's. (Duane Reades you can find.) Dart down any of the side streets and you'll find hole-in-the-wall (and probably illegal) Spanish bars, Kosher pizza joints, specialty fabric stores not the least bit concerned with their appearance and signage which probably hasn't been changed or given a spray of Windex in 40 years. Rolling racks filled with suits and dresses make up half the traffic, turning the streets and sidewalks into an obstacle course. Hot-dog-and-papaya joints are numerous, as well as no-frills barber shops. This neighborhood is also home to one of the last hat stores in Manhattan, Arnold's Hatters, on 8th near 35th, and some genuinly scary (Holland Bar, Bellevue) and scarily eccentric bars (The Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge—that's its full name. It has no listed phone number).

My particular favorite is 38th Street between 7th and 8th. Ben's delicatessen, a ridiculously oppulent Kosher eatery is on this block. So is Lazzara's, which makes exceedingly peculiar and delicious retangular pies, and, though it was founded in 1985, looks like it's about four times as old. To enter, you must walk up a black, metal staircase into what looks like (and was) the hallway of an old tenament, then turn right into someone's erstwhile living quarters. Aside from adding a lot of tables and chairs, Lazzara's has made no attempt to make the space look like anything else. No natural light enters this sanctum. They serve the food as if you're a guest in their living room, and, given the musty decor, you feel that that's where you are.

Downstairs, there used to be a cafeteria of Italian delicacies, also run by Lazzara's and frequented by Italian-speaking mobsters. Now its a Balkan (!) restaurant. Further on is a long, skinny Kosher pizzeria, where the Orthodox eyeball all goyem as they come in. The pizza isn't any good. Kosher pizza never is. (Flavor is apparently forbidden in the Torah.) But the place is a hoot. Finally, on the corner of Seventh Avenue is the Spanish Taverna. It is not of this world. Looking through the barred-windows, you feel the urge to wipe your glasses, so thick lies the haze of time on this antiquated place. It's never reviewed in Zagat's. It never will be. It doesn't care. Nor do its patrons care what's going on in the outside world, anymore than did the barflies in O'Neill's "Iceman Cometh." I have read that it actually serves excellent Spanish food, Sangria and stuffed mushrooms a specialty. One day I'll work up the courage to find out.


KSx said...

(I was just talking to a friend about this today, when we stopped at Bryant park.) A few years ago I worked for some apparel distributors/salesmen crammed into a little office west of 8th Ave on 38th or 39th. I remember thinking as I walked thru the neighborhood: this is the way most of this city must have been, with tens of thousands of small-time capitalists trading buttons for zippers. At lunchtime I tried a few of the seemingly forgotten, but packed restaurants, including a place serving "bureks" -- maybe Djerdan Burek on 38th? The burek was fine, but the lunch crowd was even better, straight out of a time warp, or straight from the Balkans.

Anonymous said...

Even though this post is two years old I just have to comment. My dad was a garmento on 38th St. for many years, and he and his buddies always ate (and drank!) at the Taverna. Their food really is excellent, as is their sangria. Or at least it was in the 80s and 90s. My dad was friendly with the owners and most of the waitstaff back in the day.

Also on 38th St., if it's still there, is a great Italian place called Veronica's. It is cafeteria-style and the food is sooooo good. It gets very crowded for weekday lunch.