28 June 2006

Barbarian at the Dive Bar Gate

The other night, I was holding up a section of the bar at Jimmy's Corner, the last great dive in Times Square, drinking a Sam Adams, listening to the random output of what may be the best juke box in Manhattan (Chi-Lites, King Curtis, Stylistics, Billy Paul), when Mr. Clean Cut Connecticut engaged me in conversation.

Are there any other bars like this around here, he asked? Nope. Last one. Gentrification drove them out. He was sad. He gravitated toward these "scummy" dens no matter what city he was in. Well, good for him. Said he lived in Fairfield with his wife and three-year-old girl. Was staying at boutique hotel a couple blocks north. He was in real estate, whatever that meant.

Then he mentioned he actually owned the hotel he was staying at. Oh. That's convenient. Owned another nearby. Uh huh. Was developing a condo highrise on Flatbush in Brooklyn. $750,000 a unit. Great. Where'd I go to school? Northwestern, in Evanston, IL. Hey! He owns the Orrington Hotel, just across the street from the campus. I said I knew it well. He said, Oh, it's much nicer now than when you were there. (Funny, I remember it being pretty nice.)

Talked with this guy for 45 minutes, mainly because he bought me a beer and I felt obliged. What I wanted to say was: Stop building your ritzy boutique hotels and condo highrises, and these dive bars you love won't be driven out of business, you land-raiding fuck. What I said instead was "You know what you should do? Buy this building. Save this bar. That would be a good deed." That was the polite Midwestern version.

I Walk Along the Street of Sorrows

I was wending down 57th Street, the sometimes glorious, sometimes unlovely crosstown artery, when I noticed that developers had had their way (again) and were busy tearing down the former Automat building between Sixth and Seventh avenues on the north side of the street. Activists had tried to save it, arguing that the white-tiled, two-story edifice was the most visible architectural relic of the now-fabled self-service eats chain.

Built in 1938 in the Art Moderne style, the building was Horn & Hardart flagship store. According to web postings, jackhammering began before a permit was even secured. There's a certain rude urban poetry in a money-mad real estate baron tearing down what was once a dining haven for working class New Yorkers.

Walking further west on 57th, I realized the strip is strewn with sad stories of lost wonders. Near Carnegie Hall, the late, lamented, sui generis Russian Tea Room awning still stretches over the sidewalk, it's lettering stripped off but the outlines of the words still visible. The hours for the restaurant are still there on a gold plaque near the revolving door, and a gold relief sculpture of a couple dancing dears hovers yet above the entrance. You can still peek through the glass of the revolving door and glimpse the bad oil paintings on the walls and the fire-red décor. (To complete the picture, I swear two old women speaking Russian passed by me as I was peering inside.)

Now, here's my question: If the place had to close, why then does its corpse just sit here for years on end to make the passerby's heart hurt?

Ditto for Uncle Sam Umbrellas across the street. This is one of my favorite (if that's the word) mercantile ghosts. The small storefront was the last New York store dedicated to selling umbrellas and canes exclusively. (You can still find such shops in London—natch. James Smith is the outstanding example.) It shuttered more than six years ago. And yet, it's never been outfitted as another store, and the red, white and blue sign remains perched above the door.

Maybe developers like to close nice, old shops for fun, not just profit.

27 June 2006

Time in a Bottle

So I was given a tour of the fabled wine cellar at the more fabled "21" Club last week. (Don't ask why.) What a wonder of a place. Few place drip in one-of-a-kind New Yorky history like this cavern, which was constructed back in Prohibition days—thus, the 5,000-pound, brick-and-mortar secret door fitted snugly under one of the arches in the building's foundations. The hidden chamber is opened by inserting an old meat skewer in a termite hole until it meet with a metal plate and triggers a mechanism. (Dunno how that works. They explained it, but it's hopeless. I'll never get it.) Prohibition must have been a fun time to be alive. Who wants to buy drinks legally? I wanna drink gin in teacups!

Inside, it's 61F degrees, 44F in the white wine room. Ceilings are low, space is limited, the woodwork is all original. Jimmy Walker, the law-breaking-est Hizzoner New York ever had, and the best-dressed (walking stick, derby, spats,etc.), used to come down here with his showbiz mistress. His private booth remains as it was.

Back in the day, the owners obliged their guests by storing bottles they purchased from the wine list for future guzzling. That tradition ended 10 years ago because people kept forgetting they left bottles down here, and "21" has only so much square footage for errant booze. Still, about 2,000 bottles of vino wait down there for the rich and famous to uncork them. Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Richard Nixon, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jackie Kennedy, and a bunch of titans of industry.

Obviously, some of these worthies will pass no more through the iron gate of "21." Their children are welcome to some nice Bordeaux, Burgundy and Dom Perignon, though. Trish? You out there?

23 June 2006

Refuge of Civility

I have found one of the last redoubts of those all-but-lost touches of New York civilization: service, proper attire, quietude and dignity. It's Per Se.

Normally, my response to a restaurant that imposes a prix fixe of $210 would be sputtering rage. And I probably would have never ventured near the citadel of class and privilege if I hadn't stumbled upon it by mistake, while scaling the escalators of the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle in search of a post-show drink.

There it was on the fourth floor, looking more like a secret lair than a restaurant. Blue wooden doors are perversely set beside a sliding glass wall—the real door. Once inside the sanctum, I expected discomfort and intimidation. Instead I got a smile, and the offer of a jacket. Jackets are required at Per Se, making it one of the last places in Manhattan to insist on such decorum. Reminded me of the old days at the Algonquin. The first one was too small. The second fit. A gracious, preternaturally becalmed Brian brought me the wine list. I chose a 2004 Dr. Loosen Spatlese Riesling apparently made exclusively for Per Se. Sublime. Whether he was interested in my observations about the wine, who knows? But he paid respectful attention.

After that, I expected they'd just leave the poor guy with no jacket or reservation alone. (Pest!) But no. Intoxicating black truffle popcorn arrived. (Oh. My. God. You have no idea how good.) And hot roasted nuts. Then a servant all but bowed and scraped as he offered a tuna tartar amuse bouche on special tray and silver spoon. I felt more cared for than I have in weeks, months.

$210? I'd pay them twice that if they'd just treat me that well for two solid hours.

22 June 2006

Burger King

Just came back from lunch at Donovan's, the squat, sprawling, darkly lit Irish pub that slightly distinguishes the urban blight otherwise known as Woodside, Queens. It's been there for about 50 years, always popular with the locals whose faces look like maps of the Auld Sod, but kind of put back on the map last year when Time Out New York, in its continued perversity, said it made the best hamburger in greater New York City. (Knowing Time Out's hipster editors and editrixes, they probably got bored of Manhattan and the usual choices for best burger, and thought it would be cool to make a brief foray into uncool Queens.)

You wouldn't have thought any of the Guinness-drinkers holding up the bar inside Donovan's had ever picked up a copy of trendoid Time Out. But soon enough the bar bore a larger banner screaming "Best Burger in New York."

So, is it? Who knows? These annual "Best Of" issues put out by Time Out, New York, The Village Voice and the like have always perplexed me. They're just ad-grabbers completely devoid of authenticity, aren't they? Why else would the choices for best burger, corned beef, egg cream, movie house, pizza, theatre company, and sushi restaurant change from year to year? Film Forum was the revival house supreme in 2005, but a flop in 2006? Katz's was cutting great pastrami last year, but stocked only bum steers this year? I don't think so.

Aside from the need to reap new ad dollars each year, I'm guessing a lot of "Best Of" allure has to do with power. Every New Yorker likes to think they know the Gotham source for the best this, the best that. We're a burg full of know-it-all blowhards. (I know a guy who will tell you in all seriousness that the best produce—PRODUCE, mind you —comes from a specific market in Midwood. Holy Cripes! Has he squeezed every cantaloupe in town?) Editors are no different. They want to tell you just how much they know about the super-bestest slice in NYC.

A part of me wants to be one of those wiseguys. But I can't convince myself in all honesty that I've found the best burger in New York. After all, I haven't TRIED every burger in New York. Anyone who claims to know where the best burger is, without having tried each example, is a jackass. And anyone who WOULD try to taste every burger in New York in order to find out the answer, is also a jackass.

I like Donovan's'. It's one of those big, ungraceful, half-pouder jobs, like the late, lamented McHale's used to make. But it's not exactly better than the one at the Corner Bistro—another perennial contender—or the classic, delicious "21" burger, with its secret sauce.

So, as the narrator in the old Tootsie Pop commercial used to say, "The world may never know."

21 June 2006

Breakers at Tiffany's

I'm usually upset by news that an iconic store or restaurant has decided to divide itself and become that odious thing, a chain. This sort of greed-induced amoeba act always results in a watering down of the business' image and quality of service. Look at the P.J. Clarke's brach downtown, or the many extensions of Greenwich Village's John's Pizzeria, none of them a patch on the original Bleeker Street location.

Nonetheless, there's something right about the news that gem giant Tiffany's plans to open a new storefront at 37 Wall Street. That neighborhood is where most of their Fifth Avenue patrons work anyway, isn't it? There should be a Tiffany's in the Financial District, allowing money managers to pop in for a bauble for the wife or mistress on the way home from work. The space appears to be client-appropriate: an old Beaux Arts building with 35-foot-high ceilings.

The new store will actually be right around the corner from where Tiffany's began, at 237 Broadway. Back then it was called Tiffany and Young and sold, ahem, stationary and so-called "fancy goods." A few years later, it got around to jewelry. I believe you can still buy stationary on Fifth Avenue, up on the third floor.

20 June 2006

Real Estate and Nothingness

According to New York magazine, the absolute cheapest, rock-bottom price to be had for an apartment in Manhattan is $162,180. And it's a studio in Inwood.

Excuse me while I go kill myself.

15 June 2006

Fish Nut Alert: Your Secret Clubhouse Is Moving

The Curbed website tells us that the Capital Fishing Tackle Company, which has been in the same storefront next to the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street since 1962, and actually counts its New York days back to 1897, must close and relocate to W. 36th Street because the hotel wants to install a large retail concern there.

Does this sadden me? Well, yes, in principle, though I have to say fishing is not my thing, and I've never gone in the place. Do New Yorkers fish? Maybe those forlorn creatures angling off the Coney Island pier get their stuff here. Looking at pictures, it's a grand old place to eyeball. Beautiful old green-and-red neon sign. Display windows on either side of a recessed entrance full to rods and reels and such. They apparently have thousands of hooks and lures to choose from, which I guess makes sense, since there are thousands of kinds of fish.

Hopefully they will retain some of this feeling on 36th Street. This will be the fourth location for the business. It actually began back in 1862 in Germany. (Do Germans fish? Who fishes? Please tell me.) It moved to New York in 1897 and to its Chelsea location in 1962. Richard Collins, a former salesman, now owns the store.

In a recent Field & Stream profile of the place (they would profile it, wouldn't they?), John Martinez, a part-timer, expressed amazement that anybody (like me, I guess he means) would be amazed that Manhattan could sustain such a tackle shop. “Look at the map,” he said. “There’s water all around us.” Dude's got a point, except that much of that water contains fish nobody in their right mind would eat.

The article also said Capital gets a lot of foreign tourists, because tackle is as expensive as truffles and saffron in Europe. (What? Why? "OK, Rolf, we've only got 24 hours in New York. You buy the blue jeans and cigarettes. I'll get the fishing tackle.") Apparently the The Sultan of Brunei, a saltwater angler, stopped by for a shopping spree years ago. His Uzi-bearing guards shut down the place while he browsed. OK, so now we know who fishes. Sultans. That's who. Other regulars are given nicknames by shop workers. A few: the Professor, Crazy Mike, Kevin the Axe Murderer, Construction Sam, Bass and Lithium. OK. Sultans and nutjobs. That's who fishes. Yikes! Maybe it's a good thing I never went in. Still, I'm glad these people have someplace to go. Otherwise, they'd be on the street.

14 June 2006

Ain't Gonna Happen

Nobody is EVER going to refer to the Williamsburg Bank Building in Brooklyn as One Hanson Place, its faux-classy new name now that its been converted into a condo tower, any more than New Yorkers are going to start calling Sixth Avenue, The Avenue of the Americas, or refer to the PanAm Building as the Metlife building.

Sorry, demon developers. There's a price to pay for roping off the best bird's eye view of Brooklyn and pushing out all those poor little dentists.

Poor Little Lambs

The Lamb's building on W. 44th Street, at one time home to the quizzical, once-storied actors club Lambs, has severed its connection to the theatre forever. The Church of the Nazarene, which has owned it since the early '70s (but allowed theatre productions and companies to use its beautiful, carved-wood, third-floor theatre), signed an agreement with some monster called Hampshire Hotels Group, which plans to convert the space when Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote "Oklahoma!" into a hotel.

Sad. But at least they can't touch the 1906 Stanford White exterior and interior—they're landmarked. So we can all still enjoy the outside edifice, even if we have to pay top dollar to glimpse the inside.

Though it's no longer got the reputation of the Players Club in Gramercy Park—another actors treehouse, but one that's still going strong in its original location—the Lambs once stood tall in theatre circles. Everyone was a member, including Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, Bert Lahr and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It was modeled after a London club of the same name—named after Charles and Mary Lamb, who apparently were the objects of much actor freeloading back in the 19th century. It was founded in 1869. The American version came in 1874.

The Lambs still exists, and is currently situated at 3 W. 51st Street. But it appears to be a kooky shell of itself, if the website is any signifier. The members hold "Gambols" and "Low Jinks, an unrehearsed entertainment" every Friday night, but who would want to go since the dues-paying roster now boasts not a single famous name. I scanned the list in vain for a figure I had seen on stage or film. Glenn Miller's niece. A mixologist who calls himself "The King of Cocktails." Gini Dustin, "Chanteuse Extraordinaire." "The Love Chef." Kids birthday party clowns. Who are these people? Oh, wait, I found somebody: Joyce Randolph. You know, Trixie from " The Honeymooners." She must have joined back in the '50s. And Abe Vigoda, who may be the oldest actor in the world. Oldest-looking, anyway.

And for all that anonymity, they still have a secret "Members Only" area of the site. Oooo. There's also a big ol' disclaimer on the home page, reading "The Lambs is a registered trademark of The Lambs, Inc. We are not the Lamb's Theater nor related to the Church of the Nazarene or its Manhattan Initiative. We are the original historical club which built the theater on West 44th Street in 1905 then sold it in 1973. Please do not allow misinformation and misrepresentation confuse you." Yeah, I'm sure people are misrepresenting themselves as Lambs all over town. The scoundrels.

12 June 2006

The Kid's Got Moxie

I happened to be in Rockefeller Center the other day, the sprawling lobby of which always gleams with Art Deco glam. I was about to board elevator "H" when a snappy little laddie, about 5-foot-5, in a fresh gray uniform, said "Don't get off at the first stop, sir. That's the lady's floor. Your stop is the second stop." He was so clean cut, so well-spoken and so perfectly, retro-ly dressed, it was like a elevator bank exchange from a 1930s movie. If I had given him a quarter, I'm sure his eyes would have gone wide and bright and he would have chirped, "Thanks, mister!"

Developers Rain on the Dead

Luxury condos. Someone rends the city's cultural fabric, and you just know luxury condos are at the bottom of it. (Are their any other kind of condos, by the way? Everyday condos? Middle-class condos? Efficiency condos? Must every condo-dweller live in the lap of luxury?)

The folks of Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in New York City, recently noticed that the tombstones in their circa 1829 graveyard on W. 21st Street had all kinds of schmutz on them. Where was it coming from? Why, the huge former Chelsea department store next door, which is being converted into more of those lovable old luxury condos. The construction site was raining mortar on the graves, some of them belonging to Jews who had fought in the Revolutionary War.

The culprit? Elad Properties—a name so bland, you know they're up to no good. Elad the same outfit that's busy ruining and condoizing the Plaza Hotel. No one from Elad was quoted in the Times article about the mess. Just Elad's lawyer, who said a few sharky, noncommittal things. Can't let a bunch of corpses who once fought for our freedom get in the way of $7.5 million dollar "castles in the sky." Not too worried about that final castle in the sky are the muckamucks at Elad.

But watch out guys! The name of Shearith Israel's Rabbi is "Angel."

07 June 2006

Dubai Is Good for Something!

Dubai, the nuttiest money-choked Arab nation of them all (Man-made archipelago? Sure! Underwater hotel? Why not? Home to Michael Jackson? You bet!) has finally done something that makes the world a better place.

The New York Times reports that the royal emirate has purchased the old Knickerbocker Hotel, one of the last architectural gems left from old Times Square. (Actually, one of only two survivors, not counting the landmarked theatres. The other is the Paramount building.) It plans to return the 16-story Beaux-Arts building, which is right smack dab ON Times Square at 42nd and Broadway, to its hotel origins.
If they succeed, the Knickerbocker will easily become the most beautiful place to lodge in Times Square. It's terra cotta and limestone facade and mansard roof have always been a balm to the eye. And the place's short history as a hotel (1906 to 1921) is toothsome. George M. Cohan hung out there. So did Caruso, who would stand on the balcony of this room and treat the crowds to impromptu recitals. Maxfield Parrish's 30-foot-long painting, "Old King Cole," hung in the bar. It's now at the St. Regis (will Dubai want it back?), which is fitting, since the firm of Trowbridge & Livingston designed both hotels. Other art adorning the place included sculptor Frederick MacMonnies' two electrified fountains, Charles Finn's "Masque of Flowers" in the Flower Room, and, in the Knickerbocker's cafe featured, a mural by western chronicler Frederic Remington "The United States Cavalry Charge." Also, some say the Martini was invented there. But people are always claiming shit like that.

Let's hope Dubai's plan comes to pass. Hey, it's better than financing terrorists or trying to take over our ports.

01 June 2006

Time Out Gets its Hooks in Red Hook

Time Out New York, the Lets-Kill-The-Trend-By-Naming-It weekly has officially trained its ruinous publicity gun on quiet old Red Hook. "Red Hook Has Arrived" screams the bright, brick-red cover of this week's issue. Say goodbye to cheap rents, Red Hookers!—TONY has gutted your lifestyle.

In TONY's defense, they don't screw things up this time around. The "27 Reasons" they list to visit Red Hook ARE actually the most interesting things about the neighborhood. These are the places the real locals frequent. What TONY doesn't say is they've selected the ONLY 27 interesting things in the neighborhood. There are still a lot of bleak, empty blocks in the old Hook; not a lot of hipster hubs to pick from. They also conveniently underreport the towering projects that still dominate the scene, and the poor residents of those towers, who probably don't spend much of their time sucking down treats at Baked and The Good Fork.

Another pet peeve: they fold in the slender nabe west of the BQE and north of Hamilton and the Gowanus Expressway into Red Hook proper. They had to do this in order to include some of the popular restaurants and bars on Columbia and Union into their purview. But—I've said it before and I'll say it again—that ain't Red Hook. I don't know rightly WHAT it is: Carroll Gardens West, Columbia Heights Waterfront District, whatever. But in the old days—before the BQE, before realtors invented Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens—this chunk of land was part of larger South Brooklyn, which stretched down to Hamilton. Look at any old map and Red Hook begins south of Hamilton. So how in hell did it suddenly creep north a dozen blocks? (I suspect the machinations of class-conscious parvenu Carroll Gardeners, who don't want their now swank neighborhood confused with grungy old, always-under-construction Columbia Street.)

That said, the TONY feature brings some deserved attention on two great pieces of authenica: DeFonte's Sandwich Shop and Sunny's Bar. The former, a long edifice of commerce in a sea of urban desolation at the end of Commerce Street, makes the best Italian sandwiches I've had since the death of the Lattacini Baresi Salumeria. It's the last of the old Red Hook lunch places once frequented by hordes of longshoreman. Sunny's meanwhile, near the very end of Van Brunt, is run by Sunny Balzano, the descendent of a family that's owned the tavern since the 1890's. The bare closed for a good patch until Sunny returned from an artist's life in Cali to revive it. It used to be open only once a month and was known only to artists through the grapevine. Donations were accepted for beers. Now, it's open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights. The décor hasn't changed much. It's a frozen-in-time place. May it stay that way.