31 May 2007

Boots for Breakfast

Take a close look at the awning on this coffee shop on Morris Park Boulevard in the Bronx. "Sandwiches. Donuts. Newspaper. Cigarettes. Workboots."


Yes, workboots. Enter the narrow shop and the boots line the left hand wall, inhabiting rows of cubbyholes the reach up to the ceiling. The tiny coffee shop counter is in the back, and seems like an afterthought.

"I've never seen a coffee shop that sold workboots," I told the woman at the counter, using a line she probably here's everyday. "Works for me," she said. "Been here 28 years." All those years, she's sold boots, she said. Who buys them? "Depends on the clientele." I'll bet.

A Good Sign: Fortune House and Fascati Pizza

Well, two good signs, actually. I put these storefronts together because they sit side by side on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights, near Clark. I love the signs, because they make the street appear as if it's stuck in 1952. If either sign has been touched since it was first thrown up, I'd be surprised. Despite their dowdy appearance, both much do great business. How else could they survive in this real estate market?

29 May 2007

Katz's Survives Bruni Test

What? Does Katz's have a sign on its back that says "Kick me?" Why does fate seem to have it in for the venerable Lower East Side deli. First, that putz who got in a drunken fight with a security guard threatens to sue the place. Then the rumors that a condo tower would wipe it out. And now, just when it's weak and vulernable, the New York Times sends its egomanical pitbull restaurant critic Frank Bruni after it. Katz's needs a Bruni assessment right now about as much as a hole in the head.

I've frankly had enough of Bruni. The man's all about his own power and reputation, as far as I can see. That said, his review is fairly respectful. His keeps the wiseass remarks to a minimum. He leaves the "Ah, but is it really that good? Is it Bruni good?" devil's advocate stance at the door. One star he gives the place. But he correctly praised many of the deli's offerings, and emphasized the special quality of the service set-up:

To revel in its pastrami sandwich, one of the best in the land, with an eye-popping stack of brined beef that’s juicy, smoky, rapturous. To glory in the intricate ritual of the place: the taking of a ticket at the door; the lining-up in front of one of the servers who carves that beef by hand; the tasting of the thick, ridged slices the server gives us as the sandwich is being built; the nodding when we’re asked if we want pickles, because of course we want pickles.

It’s a ritual unique to Katz’s, an argument, along with Katz’s age, to consider it the king of New York delis, reigning above the Carnegie, above the Second Avenue Deli, which closed a year and a half ago. It may reopen, but not on Second Avenue, a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted.

Katz’s shouldn’t be. At few other restaurants can you feel that you’ve stepped this surely into a living museum, a patch of urban mythology.

Bruni the reporter, however, strikes out. Trying to discover if the owner Fred Austin plans to sell the place, he finds out about as much as any of us have. Though he does reveal Austin as a bit of a merciless sadist, toying with New Yorkers' hearts and minds:

When I asked Mr. Austin about the latest rumors that Katz’s was being sold, he said it was entirely possible that somebody could come along and “offer me an amount I can’t walk away from,” but that none of the many offers made so far were sufficiently tempting.

I remarked that his response seemed to leave him plenty of wiggle room.

“How about that?” he said mischievously.


(Very) Little Germany

I must admit, it had been a while since I last wandered around in Yorkville. Nonetheless, I was shocked by what I took in during a recent stroll along Third Avenues from 96th to 86th streets. The chains have completely consumed the area. The street's a soulless mall. I grew physically sick with each successive block.

Needing some solace I hung a left at 86th and headed toward Second. There, I found a bright, albeit thin sliver of individuality and the last beachhead of what was formerly the main German enclave in Manhattan. Standing nearly side by side, divided only by a bakery, are Schaller & Weber, the German sausage emporium and grocery store, and the Heidelberg Restaurant, one of the few eateries in Manhattan to service straight-ahead German cuisine. Residents of the lower reaches of Manhattan know Schaller & Weber from the packaged links they see in the meat department of Gourmet Garage. This is where they come from. (I discovered a new item—cocktail bratwurst—which may become my new passion.)

Heidelberg, meanwhile, is known only to diners who don't follow restaurant trends. This place could be in Illinois, so few are its nods to the swankery of modern-day dining. However, the swells who hang out at the Gowanus Yacht Club would find a lot to like in its miniature outdoor beer garden.

I was sad to see the Elk Candy Company, which was right around the corner, on 86th, has closed. Their marzipan window displays were something to see. Also long gone are Cafe Geiger and the Ideal Restaurant. I did find a Hungarian bakery and a kosher meat market stubbornly hanging on. Watch out, boys. You're surrounded.

28 May 2007

One Church, One Graveyard

There are always good stories in the New York Times' Sunday City Section, but the May 27 issue had two particularly good ones.

One is an account of the last Sunday service at the Mary Help of Christians Roman Catholic Church on East 12th Street in the East Village, which lets you know what's being lost with the Archdiocese of New York's recent rash of church closings. I never went inside Mary Help of Christians. Now I wish I had.

The second story is about Woodlawn Cemetary, New York's other famous cemetery, after the more celebrated Green-Wood in Brooklyn. It's about the recent transfer of the the cemetery's huge archives to Columbia University's Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, stuff most scholars have never seen before. The prose by reporter Laura Shaine Cunningham ("The love shimmers off the cream-colored stationery." "I can almost hear the faint sounds of `When the Saints Go Marching In.' So many will want to be in that number.") is much too flowery (you didn't need to tart up this tale, Laura), and that headline "Romancing the Stones" really needs to be retired for good, but the story's still a engrossing one.

W.F. Mangels Work Still on View at Coney

I was watching my kid go round and round on this old horse-and-buggy kiddie ride at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park in Coney Island when I noticed a small iron plaque at the bottom of every buggy. "W.F. Mangels Co. Coney Island New York" it read.

I found the idea of a manufacturing company that identified itself as being based in Coney Island (not Brooklyn, not New York City, but Coney Island) fascinating, so I looked into Mr. Mangels and this is what I found out (some of which I'm sure you smarties out there already know): He was William Fredrick Mangels, a German immigrant. He came to the United States in 1883 and founded his company in 1890. He quickly became a big wheel in the carousel biz, making most of the carousels found at Coney, including the recently shuttered B&B Carousel.

He is thought to be among the first in his line to create kiddie rides, which would explain the Deno attraction.

Mangels is most famous, however, for invented The Whip, which was introduced in 1914. The world went wild for The Whip; the rides were everywhere; some still exist. He died in 1958. His son Albert took over for a while until the company finally folded in the late '70s.

The horse and buggy ride still works fine. My son clanged the hell out of his bell.

Spelling It Out for Red Hook

I saw this hilarious sign on a fire box on Van Brunt. The FDNY must think Red Hookers especially thick—so dense they don't know how to put into words the fact that they have just seen a conflagration.

This non-functional box also made me wonder if the city doesn't want Red Hook to just burn to the ground. They recently put one of the neighborhood's firehouses out of commission, after all. Sure would make it easier to put up more big box stores and semi-truck-friendly roads if the area was all scorched earth.

The Bug Carousel on Memorial Day

I like all of NYC's carousels, but the Bronx Zoo's particular specimen is something special.

26 May 2007

Lakerol and Laconics

An oasis of slightly bizarre solemnity in midtown can be found at Church of Sweden, a narrow, grandish stone building with high arched windows, that is nonetheless easily missable, on E. 48th Street off Madison. It's an actual church with services in Swedish on Sunday, but if feels more like an obscure private library. The walls of the long main room are lined with books and above them, behind a banister, is a demi-floor also lined with books. At the back is a little snack counter, where various Swedish teas, cakes and Lakerol mints can be purchased. There's also an odd shop of sorts, with CDs, books, postcards, knick-knacks and t-shirts are sold.

I used to come to the church sometimes during my lunch hour when I worked in the area. I liked the peace of the place, the way it ignored the rest of the world. It was always full of silent, slow-moving blonde people. If you're not Swedish, however, you have to be a little brave to enter it. There are no allowances for the English speaker. Almost all the signs, posters and books are in Swedish. The staff isn't welcoming. You'll get no smile when you make your purchase, and the cashier will seem a little put out that he is made to speak English for a few seconds.

There is one time of the year when things warm up: the annual holiday craft fair. The church is transformed into a bazaar, with vendors selling Christmas ornaments, candles, cakes, sweets, and everything you could want for your Santa Lucia festivities. It's sweet and fun. And in the basement you can buy Swedish meatballs and hot cider and such. Of course, it's not for everyone. I took some of my workmates to one of these shindigs. They were bewildered.

Sidewalk Mogul

This is sort of off-topic, but too weird not to report.

I was walking west down Franklin Street in Tribeca, when what do I see but restaurant titan Drew Nierpont, sitting in a chair in front of a table on the sidewalk in front of his office space. I guess it must have been too hot inside, so he moved operations into the open air. Nonetheless, it was strange to say the least to see burly old Drew curbside, puffing on a big cigar, looking like Francis Ford Coppola's brother, and acting basically like he owned the street (which maybe he does). Standing around his impromptu office were three underlings patiently awaiting orders or answers to questions. A more striking exhibition of power I've rarely encountered.

24 May 2007

Cup of Ribs?

OK, so maybe you've never looked up at the neon sign for Virgil's Real BBQ in Times Square and wondered, "Why is the sign for a BBQ joint shaped like a bowl?" Or maybe you thought it was shaped like a Weber grill or something.

Anyway, unasked, I am here to clear up the mystery. Virgil's inhabits the space once used by the old chop suey palace, The China Bowl. So, yes, that sign is shaped like a bowl and once bore the words "China Bowl." It was a classic neon sign of its time, and the place itself was a great evocation of its era, full of circular, red-leather banquettes, and graced with lighting so dim you couldn't see the faces of the people at the next table. I was lucky to have eaten there once before it closed in the mid-90s. If you want to see what it looked like, rent "Glengarry Glen Ross." It's the restaurant the real estate agents are always ducking into (even thought the movie is set in Chicago.)

A Good Sign: The Walter Kerr Theatre

Since it went up in the early '90s, I've always had an affection for the marquee of the Walter Kerr Theatre on W. 48th Street, with it's hyperactive neon picture frame of vibrating color. It's a big garish, I'll grant you, but no other Broadway marquee fills me with a sense of showbiz razzle dazzle as much as this one does.

Del Re in Manhattan

I've seen Del Re's old red knife-grinding truck rattle through Brooklyn many times over the years. I know the clang of its bell very well. But I've never seen it out of the Borough of Kings.

So I almost fell over the other day when I caught it stopped on a corner of Third Avenue in the east 80s in Manhattan. Idling there, the bell clanged again and again, calling all Upper East Siders with dull scissors and dinner knives. None came that I saw. Does Del Re troll all five boroughs after all? Or is this a new thing? Does anyone know?

21 May 2007

Second Avenue Deli in Time for Christmas?

Well, this is kinda awesome news: the Second Avenue Deli will return from the grave in five months time, re: Eater.com. I say "Kinda" because it will be reborn at 33rd Street and Third Avenue—far from its original location at Second Avenue and 12th Steet, and far, far way from it's spiritual base: the former location of the Yiddish Rialto. But who knows—maybe the place will include some of the old joint's interior.

The news came to Eater.com is a notably romantic way. The informer told of the old Second Avenue Deli van pulling up alongside his cab on Atlantic Avenue. A brief exchange took place between the cab passenger and the van driver, in which the latter spilled the beans about the famed delicatessen reopening in a new location. (New of this move actually cropped up back in January, but there hasn't been a peep since.)

33rd and Third. Does anyone else think it's funny that the Deli will now live at this address? When I was young, my sister, hopeful of a career on the stage, won the part of a dancer in a community production of Sweet Charity. She bought a book on accents to practice her Brooklyn twang. One of the phrases she repeated ad nauseam was "33rd and Third," pronounced "Toirty-toird and Toird." Like some old-time movie taxi driver. If the Deli really opens, some old time Brooklynites can finally get some use out of that locution.

Trillin's Chinatown

Maybe I've been reading too much Calvin Trillin, but lately I've been overcome by the culinary urges he desribes so well in the books of his "Tummy Trilogy." Trillin makes you want to pick up and pursue that hidden delicacy nestled in a small hill town halfway across the world.

Since I can't afford to do that, I settled for Chinatown. Trillin writes about New York's Chinatown more than any other food destination in the world, with the exception of possibly Greenwich Village (where he lives) and Kansas City (his hometown). When two friends who had recently moved from Los Angeles to New York expressed a desire to dine in Chinatown, I decided to let Trillin be my guide. He mentioned a restaurant called New Chao Chow in at least three of his food essays. I did some research and found it was still in business. (Some others he had mentioned have since closed.) So I told my friend to meet me and the wife there.

New Chao Chow is located on Mott Street just above Canal. The signage was encouraging: old style and simple without being garish. I don't know how old the place is, but, since Trillin mentioned it in an essay from the mid-70s, it's at least 30 years old. He harped upon the Seafood Noodle Soup and other reviews recommended the duck, so I ordered both. On reflection, the place might not have been the ideal choice for my guests, who, I had forgotten, are both vegetarian. So is Wifey. And New Chao Chow didn't have much to speak of in the vegetarian column. Just Buddha's Delight and other standards. However, they said their dishes were fine, if not spectacular.

New Seafood Noodle Soup was not just fine, but truly spectacular. Shrimp, fish balls and heaps of fine vermicelli noodles in a flavorsome broth. Every spoonful was a symphony of intermingled tastes. The duck was a surprise, in that it was served cold. However, it was wonderfully savory and subtley flavorful. On the side, some pickled ginger was a nice accompaniment.

The restaurant is small and does not try to impress with decor: in my mind a sure sign of a serious Chinese eatery. The help is speedy and courteous and kind to children. The food comes up in a metal dumb waiter. I'd recommend it if you eat seafood and meat, not so much if you don't.

20 May 2007

Wooden Phone Booth Sighting: Sam's

They don't work, but they're there.

These wooden phone booths are in Sam's, the old time pizzeria on Court Street near Kane. It's one of the last holdouts of the old Italian neighborhood. The pizza's pretty good, the service a bit huffy and eccentric. There are red leather booths and you can get a Rob Roy.

As far as I known, these are the only extant wooden phone booths left in Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens. Please let me know if I'm missing any.

Past articles:
Wooden Phone Booth Sighting: Chumley's

17 May 2007

This Is No Good and I Don't Like It

Katz's Deli is going to sell out, let some Visigoth tear down that beloved one-story block of a building where it resides, and then inhabit the soulless, towering condo warren the Hun will vomit up in its place?

So goes the hideous report on Grub Street, which I pray to God isn't true. For me, it's cold comfort that Katz's would still remain in an altered form. I take issue with Grub Street's contention that "Much as we love the ancient walls and counters, they don’t define what makes the place special." The hell they don't. I like their pastrami as much as the next guy, but eating it inside Katz's one-of-a-kind world of counters, photographs, slogans, back-lit menus, old neon, antiquated dining fixtures and sea of tabletops, and eating it inside any old nondescript room DO NOT REMOTELY COMPARE AS EXPERIENCES. That interior not only in large part defines what makes the place special, it defines what makes New York special.

As for Grub Street's next assumption, that "we’re sure if it did happen, every effort would be made to make the new place look the same as the old"—well, I guess I'm just more cynical than they are.

Aw, just wake me up. Tell me it's all a bad dream. Or least a spurious rumor.

Mystery of 37 Carroll Street Solved

Back in February, I wrote about the amazing roofless, wall-free, Dali-like suspended facade that is 37 Carroll Street, situated between Columbia and Van Brunt, and wondered aloud what the story was behind this peculiar, unofficial neighborhood landmark.

Today, I walked by the "building" and all was revealed. Lo and behold, construction work was underway—the first I had seen in five or more years. I gazed in wonder at the new brickwork. Then a buoyant, middle-aged man accosted me with his huge grin. "You like my building?" he boomed. It was the owner. The eighth wonder of the world had an owner. I let fly with the questions, unable to withhold my curiosity.

And this is what I learned. The building, dating from around 1905, has stood that way for 20 years! The owner, a bricklayer, used to have his business in the ground floor space. For years, he's wanted to convert the address into rental units, but had to wait for a zoning change—the area was previously zoned for industry. The change just recently came through. So he's erecting a building around the facade, adding an extra floor to the top, and building another matching structure right next door.

So, why did he retain the facade all these years? He likes it. He thinks it's beautiful. The brown and tan brick it's composed of is hard to find these days, so the building next door will sport a facsimile of the design. He said he was never afraid the wall would fall down. "That thing is as solid as rock. It never moved an inch."

The French Court

Sure is a lot of activity going on at the northwest corner of Court Street and Degraw, the space once occupied by a dingy branch of OTB. On the DeGraw side, workers are feverishly pounding away at some nice-looking red brick. Peering through the dirty glass doors on Court, one can see some already assembled brick archways. They sure weren't there when OTB was around. A restaurant landscape, to be certain.

A chat with the fine folks at old Scotto's wine shop next door confirmed it is to be a French bistro. This made my heart sink a bit, until I learned that the place will be owned and run by the same guys who own P.J. Hanley's, and ancient tavern just down the road. So one imagines they might be respectful of the Court Street vibe and the general flavor of the neighborhood. We shall see.

16 May 2007

P & G: No Cover, No Minimum, No Walls

Thanks to the New York Observer for an update on the nervous-making situation at endangered UWS tavern P&G.

The landlord, who smells money in the air and has been trying to shove the old bar onto the street, has found a "new way of chasing us the hell out of here," says P&G owner. That new way? Well, basically, ripping down the walls of the place to make needed storefront improvements. How do you conduct business with no walls? Good question. My guess is the landlord doesn't expect P&G to conduct any business, which is exactly the point. Scumlord wants a bank branch in that choice corner spot.

The Observer has been tenacious is covering this story, and the new article is full of tasty tidbits: a Jacques Torres chocolate franchise is moving in next door (talk about jarring juxtapositions); the bar's lease expires at the end of 2008; the owners are contemplating bringing in a real cook to spur cash flow.

McHale's, Chumley's, P&G. Take heed, New Yorkers: your classic bars are fast disappearing. Soon there will be no place where anybody knows your name.

15 May 2007

This Was Cafiero's

About half a half-century ago, this storefront on President Street near Columbia Street was Cafiero's Italian restaurant. I've always been suspicious of the buidling; I knew it was a well-known eatery once, but could never get the straight dope on it. Everyone always told me it used to be a "famous restaurant," with eyes wide, and then couldn't recall the name of the place. Finally, a local oldtimer who lives down the block from me, and had seen Cafiero's in action, gave me the news.

The name doesn't resonate much today, but once upon a time Cafiero's was one of the preeminent fine eats places in South Brooklyn, an establishment visited by the local mobsters as well as prominent lawyers, politicians and judges driving in from downtown Brooklyn. Story goes Joe DiMaggio wined and dined Marilyn Monroe here once or twice.

The restaurant closed sometime in the early '50s, according to my oldtimer. If you peek through the ever-shuttered windows, you can spy high, ornately designed tin ceilings. I can't find out anything more about it, not a menu, not a picture, not an anecdote. Anybody out there got anything?

Non-News About Jade Mountain Sign

It was nice of the New York Times to show its concern in print about what will happen to the classic "Chow Mein" sign still hovering over the now-shuttered Jade Mountain on Second Avenue on Sunday. It would have been way cooler if the Paper of Record had actually dug up some news about the sign's fate.

As usual in these situations, the owners of the sign seem to have no sentimental feeling toward the neon artwork. I feel for the Chan family, which owned Jade Mountain and still owns the building it's in, and which suffered the great loss last fall with the death of the family patriarch. But could they not know what's going to happen to the sign? It's their sign. Surely, they have an idea if they want to sell it, preserve it, give it to a museum or just throw it out. All in all, a very frustrating article. Anyway, here it is, in all it's worthlessness:

For decades, they floated over Second Avenue near East 12th Street like twin stars guiding tipsy East Villagers home: “Jade Mountain” in glowing pink bamboo-style letters, and above it, in rosy neon, a smaller, two-sided sign bearing the words “Chow Mein.”

But these days, the name of the old-school chop suey house is obscured by a giant “For Lease” poster. Jade Mountain closed in February, five months after Reginald Chan, its 60-year-old owner, was hit by a truck and killed while making a delivery on a bicycle. As Mr. Chan’s family, which owns the building, looks for a new tenant, neighbors fear that the vintage neon signs, like the restaurant, will soon disappear.

Emily Rems, a 32-year-old magazine editor who lives on East 14th Street, is particularly fond of the Jade Mountain sign, and the buzzing sound it made when some of its letters started to dim. “It just seems like it’s been there forever and ever,” she said the other day, “and there’s something comforting about that.”

The chow mein sign captivates Ed Cahill, a 46-year-old actor and filmmaker. “It’s like something off a Hollywood lot,” Mr. Cahill said.

The restaurant, which opened in 1931, spoke to a bygone era, serving steaming plates of egg foo yong and moo goo gai pan until the day it closed. Last week, passers-by were still pressing their face to the glass as if willing it to reopen.

Mr. Chan’s 25-year-old son, Nick, who lives above Jade Mountain, does not know the history of the signs or what will become of them once the space is leased. “I don’t know who would have room for something like that,” he said.

But for Ms. Rems, who once kissed her boyfriend underneath the Jade Mountain sign, the image will always have a certain glow. “I thought it would be lucky,” she said. “Now I’ll have to do it one last time.”

Hot Sauce to Be Replace by Hot Time

Little Charlie's Clam Bar, an Italian joint of 80 years standing on Kenmare near Bowery, is apparently gone for good.

A sharp-eyed reader on Eater.com noticed that the interior had been dismantled. I'm sorry to say I never went there. From what I can cull, the place was well loved, and known for its almost intolerable hot sauce. (You could buy their sauces by the quart to take home.) Lotsa heros on the menu and decent prices. Nothing over $20 that I could see. The seafood was highly thought of, and the atmosphere wasn't of the touristy sort you get in most of the remaining Little Italy places.

Charlie's was run by four generations of the Filipazo family until recently. Apparently, William M. Gaines, founder and publisher of "Mad" magazine, often ate there.

The restaurant will be replaced by Fourty Deuce, a new club and burlesque joint run by Las Vegas guy Ivan Kane, who wants to "bring back the mystery" to New York nite life, or some such bilge. What's wrong with just bringing back decent fried calamari to New York nite life?

13 May 2007

Viking Runes

What with the annual Norwegian Day Parade due to take place in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, this Sunday, May 20, I thought I would point out that there are still a few remaining signposts of the neighborhood's once mighty Norwegian-born population, beginning with large, peaceful park named after Viking explorer Lief Ericson.

There are several churches that still conduct services in Norwegian, including this one just north of Ericson Park.

Nordic Delicacies on Third Avenue caters to those oldtimers who still cling to Scandinavian cuisine, such as it is.

And the Norwegians, Swedish and Danes still have functioning social clubs on the side streets in the mid-60s along Eighth Avenue. They're all nondescript buildings and rather hard to find. The Danish club has the most lavish digs, and has a working restaurant. The Swedish club is done out in spiffy blue and yellow, the colors of the Swedish flag. The Norwegian club is called Sporting Club Gjoa, and still competes in soccer.

I plan to go to the parade. I'm curious, since half my heritage is Norwegian. I will report back next Monday.

12 May 2007

Red Hook Lane, We Hardly Knew Ye

I've often glanced at the small downtown Brooklyn side street known as Red Hook Lane, that runs diagonally to all the other major thoroughfares in the area, and wondered what it's story was. It seems to serve no useful purpose. And why's it named after Red Hook?

110 Livingston provides a fascinating explanation and tells how the historic road may soon be wiped off the map and disappear from history.

11 May 2007

A Good Sign: Tad's Steaks

I know. It's a horrible, tawdry chain, and I'll never, ever eat there. But you gotta admit: the sign is great. Best part: the prestigious listing of cities Tad's can be found in—New York, Philadelphia, Chicago San Francisco—as if they were Harry Winston's or something.

09 May 2007

Meet You at Longchamps

Longchamps was a chain of restaurants that was highly popular with Ladies Who Lunch in the post-WW II years in New York. There were a number around town, mainly situated around Madison and Fifth. When cheating Fred McMurray's secretary Edie Adams rats him out to his wife in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," the two women meet at Longchamps. The places were elegant, smart and very Deco. They boasted plenty of mirrors and murals.

They're all gone now, but this sign high about Madison and 49th intrigued me. Sure enough, the address—423 Madison—was once a Longchamps location. It's now a Pax chicken joint.

I found this about designer Winold Reiss, who created many of the stylish Longchamps locations:

The exterior of Reiss's 1941 design proposal for a new bar and roof garden at the 49th Street and Madison Avenue Longchamps displays the chain's trademark vermillion coloring and lettering, including the falling "S," while the undulating lines that enliven its canopy and bronze wall panels recall the early borders of the M.A.C. The entire effect is not dissimilar to that of the Barricini candy box already illustrated: the name or sign identifying the product or establishment has been completely integrated into its design; the fa├žade has become a sign rather than simply providing a place for one.

In 1969, the unctuous, tacky Riese Company—despoiler of classy New York restaurants chains such as Child's and Schrafft's—gobbled up Longchamp's nine locations. But why complain? They gave us Charley O's and Tequilaville in exchange.

Holy Burger

What I love about New York City is it keeps turning up new treasures no matter how long you've lived here. By rights, I should have known about Prime Burger on 51st Street near Fifth years ago. Maybe I've missed it because it's hidden in the shadow of St. Patrick's Cathedral I missed it all these years, and I pretty much avoid the Church. But yesterday, I decided to walk through the Cathedral, and my reward upon exiting on the 51st Street side was to be faced with an awning that read, Gertrude Stein-like, "Burger is a burger is a burger—Ours is Prime." Intrigued, I approached the unassuming little coffee shop. Plenty of articles in the window attested to its longevity and greatness. The site was once that of the first Burger Heaven in NYC, they said; the place became Prime Burger in the 1960s and has been so ever since. So iconic is the joint that it was given a James Beard Award in 2005. A Beard Award for a burger joint. Now, that's some burger joint.

So, I stepped in for an early, unscheduled dinner. The place looked untouched. Classic dull metal, conical lighting fixtures hung from the ceiling. A long counter snaked along the right side of the room. The cash register had an old-style change chute attached. The waiters work white jackets. The Beard medal was sloppily hung from a picture behind the register. (The sight reminded my of those movie stars who say they keep their Oscar in the bathroom.) You had to love the place.

Best of all was the seating. On the left, there were two semi-circles of what looked like elementary-school desks. A wooden plank attached to the arm of a chair pivoted out so you could sit and then pivoted back in to serve as your individual table. Very odd and singular. They reminded me of a similar set-up at Louis' Lunch, the classic burger place in New Haven. (They claim to have invented the hamburger.) The arrangement is referred to as "the track" by the waiters.

I kept it simple: I ordered a cheeseburger and a Diet Coke. As I waited, a newspaper clipping informed me that I had inadvertently sat in the very seat occupied by Sarah Jessica Parker in 2005. Some publicity shoot. Well, well. The burger arrived, four ounces of beef on a simple bun on a paper plate. I was informed of the presence of ketchup and a spicy pepper relish at my elbow. The burger was good. Not special or distinctive in any way. Just good in the way you expect all cheeseburgers to be good. A very reassuring cheeseburger. Cost $4.95.

07 May 2007

Subway Inn: Collapse Candidate?

It never really occurs to us (or to me, anyway) that the old New York businesses we prize are naturally housed in old buildings—buildings which may not have been kept up over the years they way they ought. But recent crumblings at Chumley's, Ward's Bakery and other edifices have driven the point home, and made me wonder what other addresses may be in iminent danger.

Banking a corner near Bloomingdale's the other day, I spotted a likely future victim of age and gravity. The Subway Inn, time-honored den of beer and darkness, takes up the ground-floor space of what must be one of the sorrier-looking structures in Manhattan. Putting aside the fact that the townhouse is in serious need of a bath, the floors above the bar are a wreck. The stonework is chipped and broken, the iron railing is bent and crooked, and every line that ought to run straight slants. It's a disgrace; a building just begging for a headline and a comdemned sign.

I don't know who owns the building, the owner of the Subway Inn or someone else, but if you're reading this: please, sir, pick up a phone and call a contractor.

Chumley's to Buy Chumley's Building?

The New York Times seems to have taken up the Chumley's story. It ran yet another article about the temporarily closed speakeasy—the victim of a derelict landlord and a collapsed chimney—on May 6. Who knows? Maybe, since the closure of The Lion's Head, a lot of Times reporters drink here.

Anyway, the most interesting part of the story mentions that the owners of the bar may soon buy the broken building from its present keeper, the much, and quite rightly, maligned Margaret Streicker Porres. Said the reportage:

The owners do not intend to keep Chumley’s closed forever, though. In fact, said Bill Butler, a real estate broker and a spokesman for the owners, they are in discussions — “very serious discussions, if you will” — to buy from the landlords the whole building, a former stable and blacksmith shop, and restore it.

“As a matter of fact,” Mr. Butler said, the bar owners are “awaiting an imminent contract of sale.”

Sounds good. This is the best news yet that Chumley's may indeed be saved. Streicker Porres never cared about the place. Let someone who does buy the building.

06 May 2007

Sunday Lunching at Red Hook Park

I took the B61 to the B77 to Red Hook Park midday Sunday to partake of the super-cheap delicacies at Red Hook Park, as I had read that this was the opening weekend for the park's increasingly celebrated vendors of soccer-field-side treats.

Indeed, they were open for business, just as in years past, before the New York Times discovered them. I had a sort of Calvin Trillin episode (if you've read his food writings, you know what that means) and felt compelled to try just about everything on offer. I started with a a pork huarache (sort of a large open-faced quesadilla) from the stand second over from the left as you enter the field on the corner of Bay and Clinton. I continued with a tamale stuffed with beans, a Salvadoran style pupusa (like a smallish, pudgy quesadilla—I guess everything's a bit like a quesadilla), filled with cheese, with shredded cabbage served with hot sauce on the side.

I thought that would do it, but soon after I went to the tent to the right of the entrance and got two shredded-chicken tacos and a large glass of tamarind-flavored drink. I would've eaten more if I could, but by that time, I couldn't.

The servers couldn't have been nicer. And every thing I mentioned above, taken together, cost about $15. Visiting the field reminded me of how New York City felt when I first moved here 19 years ago. Great meals could be had for $5, folks on meager incomes didn't feel like outcasts, and you knew a great day in the city could be had if you were just willing to go look for it. Perhaps the Red Hook Park vendors have preserved this way of life because they're on the very edge of the city. I know everything's moving up and up in Red Hook, but I hope this corner of the neighborhood remains modest and honest.

04 May 2007

The Brooklyn Inn Mystery Solved

Eater.com finally got to the bottom of the mystery of what is going to befall the beloved Brooklyn Inn when the joint's new manager Jason Furlani contacted them, responding to all the sound and fury on this site and others last week about the possible fate of the place. And it's all good, I'm happy to say. Here's what he told Eater.com:

Okay - here's the bottom line: the Brooklyn Inn is going to maintain EXACTLY the same vibe as it did before. How do I know...?

I'm the NEW manager.

My name is Jason Furlani, and for almost thirteen years I've worked for the individuals who NOW own/operate the Brooklyn Inn (as well as own the building it's housed in - that part was correct) and - for the record - they have NO PLANS to turn it into anything other than what it is... the Broooklyn Inn.

In fact - the only things that ARE being done to the space is a function of making it better/more comfortable for you - the Brooklynites that hang there. The NEW owners (who - by-the-by - currently have three very popular bars in the city, the oldest being twenty-five years old) LOVE the Brooklyn Inn.

They are making capitol improvements - like having the tap lines cleaned on a regular basis (and NO - they weren't before...) the bathrooms redone/cleaned up (and if you REALLY hang there you KNOW it needs it) and some pluming issues that are really boring to discuss. Anyone has a problem with any of that - feel free to call us on it.

All told - I am sorry the rumor mill has spewed out so much crap and caused so many such anxiety. Guess that's the legacy of the old management. Must have REALLY loved the place to allow that to happen, ESPECIALLY after we assured them it was never in the cards.

So here's the deal - I'm there - you wanna talk, come on by... Meanwhile the Brooklyn Inn - IS and WILL BE..."as-is."


Jason Furlani
Manager, Brooklyn Inn

I can live with that. And, for my money, the rumor mill was all for the good, because it brought out the truth.

No-Name Nabe to Get Wine Store

Red Hook Flats, Carroll Gardens West, Columbia Heights Waterfront District, whatever you want to call it—that undefined area west of the BQE and north of Hamilton Avenue is going to get a wine store, it's first as far as I can tell.

Construction is underway on Union Street in the space previously occupied by Pegasus Video, a nice independent rental place with a quirky vibe and a parrot. The workers inside didn't know what the address was going to be, but the notice posted on the door said it was going to be run by Old Brooklyn Wine and Liquors Ltd. (don't know if that's the name of the store) and that the owner had applied for a liquor license.

If the shop is a decent one, this is good. There's no place to buy wine in the area. One must walk to Court or Smith, or down to LaNell's in Red Hook. The only place nearby is Henry Street Wine and Liquors, which most locals agree has a paltry selection and is run by a meathead who knows nothing about his stock.

The 21st Arrondissement

One of the odder aspects of the jacked-up tourism trade in New York City is that you can find custom-made picture postcards for sale at the counter of even the crummiest, out-of-the-way bodega. You sometimes have to wonder: what tourists find their way to these dark holes of trade, and why would they be so charmed by the experience that they would purchase a momento of the visit.

This particular assortment was found at a run-down mini-mart on Columbia Street that no tourist would ever chance upon, unless they ran out of gas on the way to Fairway. "Scenes of Brooklyn" the box read. Yet, the first picture in the stack looked far grander than any scene I'd ever encountered in the Borough of Kings. My God. Where are those statues, those maricured gardens, that grand manor hidden?

Turned out, the photo is a scene from Paris. Talk about your bait and switch.

John Custom Tailor

There's this guy John. He's a custom tailor. He has a shop.

03 May 2007

The Last Good Bar in Times Square

McHale's has been gone from the corner of Eighth Avenue and 46th Street for 16 months now, but the hole it's left in the neighborhood continues to yawn. Everyone knew what a great bar it was, but even I am surprised at how irreplaceable it has turned out to be. No other tavern possesses its combination of history, warmth, good food, affordable prices, atmosphere, local color and all-around New Yorky-ness. Most of the places in Times Square where you can get a drink now fall into three categories: hotel bars that make you feel like a tourist; high-hat fancy-pants cocktail emporia (Blue Fin, Bar Centrale, The Whiskey), where $12 martinis and intimidation are the name of the game; and crass faux Irish pubs, all variations of the same uninspired mix of dark wood, big screen TVs, maps of Ireland and Guinness.

There's the Cub Room on 47th, but it's kind of charmless and the drinks aren't well made. Rudy's on Ninth is an out-and-out dive of legendary proportions, but its clientele and free hot dogs can get downright scary at times.

More and more, when in the neighborhood at night, I don't even consider the options. I just turn on my heel, march down 44th Street and disappear inside Jimmy's Corner. This is the last great Times Square tavern, a joint of character and authenticity. The bartendresses are friendly (and it is all women behind the bar); the owner, old Jimmy himself, is always present; the juke box is loaded with standards, jazz and soul; and the drinks are cheap.

A few things to know about Jimmy's Corner. It's owned by Jimmy Glenn, a former boxing trainer, so there are pictures of pugilists and boxing bills all over the walls. He once owned a gym where aspirants to the ring would spar and train. You may see an actual boxer there from time to time. It's narrow as hell: a long bar, a row of stools beside it and a few inches between the chairs and the wall for people to pass. If you venture past the jukebox, it opens up a bit. It's hard to see the folks back there, so if you want to meet somebody you're not supposed to, this is the place.

The gals behind the bar are chatty and a bit raunchy. One might think they were tending bar in a Texas honky tonk. They're all dressed in black and short skirts (which, I imagine, is how Jimmy likes it). Taped to the mirror behind them are hundreds of dollar bills signed by various patrons from around the country It's pretty crowded on that wall. A waitress told me there's a waiting list for dollars to be posted. Right now, they stil accept signed dollars but put them in a pile on top of the cash register. The bar make soon start taping the bills to the ceiling to accomodate the overflow.

Last time I was at Jimmy's I sat beside a German tourist. He signed his dollar and passed it over the bar. I was a bit surprised to see him there. I asked how he found Jimmy's. He said he had been roaming Times Square all night, trying to find a bar that wouldn't make him feel self-conscious and underdressed.

See? That's the whole problem with the new Times Square right there.

02 May 2007

Barrymore: Botanist

A number of Greenwich Village buildings evoke the bygone bohemian atmosphere of the neighborhood, but few do the trick for me the way 132 W. 4th Street does. John Barrymore lived in this now charmingly dishabille townhouse around 1918, when he was still a young men; a drunk and a waistral already with one divorce behind him, but a man with promise and, when put to the test, drive.

He lived on the top floor; his landlady was a patient soul named Mrs. Juliette Nicholls. She had not wanted the actor with the bad rep, but was persuaded and soon let him have his way with the upper climes of the building. What did having his way mean? Well, Jack had a touch of the interior designer in him. He hung wallpaper, laid carpets, converted doors into mirrors, flung taffeta all about.

And that was just the start. He covered the skylight with saffron chiffon, built a bay window (which would seem to be the window on the top floor in the picture below) painted the walls gold, lit candles to age the walls and furniture, covered a baby grand piano in gold brocade topped with a bronze pheasant, and littered the floor with books, bottles, paints and brushes, old guns, maps and dolls.

Then he took to the roof. He carted in five tons of topsoil from Long Island, planted cedars, wisteria, cherry trees and grapevines, and installed a working fountain and beehives. He called the whole thing The Alchemist's Corner. It's hard to imagine today. Apparently, few people were allowed into his sanctum, one being his brother Lionel.

After he moved out, the building flooded. That would be Barrymore in a nutshell: poetic beauty intertwined with comic disaster.