31 May 2012

Truly Yours Best Hats

I am obsessed the hats and get sad when I think that not too long ago there was a haberdashery or two in nearly every neighborhood in New York. And now we have, maybe, three or four real hats stores in the City. (I don't count the places that sell a limited selection of ready-mady baseball caps, Kangol caps and cheap, too-small straw porkpies and call themselves hat stores. That's like buy a bunch of loaves of Wonder bread and Drake's coffee cakes, sticking them on the shelves and calling yourself a bakery. I mean Worth & Worth, JJ Hat Center and the like.)

I found this matchbook the other day. It was remarkable enough in that it was a matchbook for a hat store, not a bar or restaurant. I don't think I've ever seen that before. But the address, 139 Nassau, corner of Beekman, rang a bell. Seemed to me I remembered a hat store being on that corner.

I was right. The corner was the home of Young's Hat Store until recently. The faded sign is still visible, though the shop is gone. At some point it was also called Hat Corner. According to this New York magazine listing, Hat Corner began selling hats there in 1959, and Truly Yours began doing business in the 1890s. So the address was associated with headgear for more than a century. Remarkable.

Found an ad for the store from 1957. As on the matchbook, they proudly proclaim this is "Our Only Store." And they feature their "Bankers Hat," which is manufactured by and sold only at their store. They carried Homburgs, Tyroleans, Flat Tops, Light Weights. "Water Blocked" and "Richly Lined." Nifty.

30 May 2012

The Story of Hankow Gardens

Funny thing. The commenters who responded to my recent post about the bygone Times Square chop suey palace China Bowl didn't talk that much about China Bowl. They shared memories of another chop suey palace on 34th Street called Hankow's or  Hankow Gardens.

I had never heard of this place, so my curiosity was piqued. And so here is this week's second foray into lost New York Chinese restaurant lore.

Well, it was called the New Hankow Restaurant and was at 130-132 W. 34th Street. It was there in the 1950s, and in 1968, New York Times restaurant critic Craig Clairborne weighed in, saying "It is pure speculation, but at midday this may be the busiest Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. Customers queue up to await their turns at table, and you might suppose from the crowds that the food was wildly fantastic. It isn't, but it is more than adequate and the appetizers show considerable imagination."

There was a Hankow Restaurant at 124 W. 34th Street in the 1930s. According to a report in the Times on Sept. 8, 1937, it sustained considerable fire damage. I'm guessing this led to the birth of the New Hankow Restaurant.

According to one reader, "the chinese restaurant on the south side of 34th that was on the 2nd floor was in a building that was demolished when the building that Old Navy is in was built (10 or 15 years ago). They had classic chinese/american food and I remember going there as well. The food was quite good!" Almost right: it's a Sephora now, not an Old Navy.

Couldn't find a picture of it, but I did find this old matchbook.

Silk of Summit Street

Saw this cast-iron faux pillar holding up one corner of a building on Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, and was intrigued for a couple reasons. One, it was old enough to say "South Brooklyn," the former name of the area that today comprises Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Red Hook. Two, Mr. Silk had a business on Summit Street, a path on the northern border of Red Hook that is only a few blocks long. I've never seen any extant evidence of an old Summit Street business before.

Today, Summit is just a couple short blocks of lackluster housing stock on the west side of the BQE and one block of rather pretty housing in the east side. Over the highway is the area's only walking bridge, leading straight to St. Stephens Catholic Church on the east end. Before the BQE cut it in half in the 1950s, and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel was built, Summit had a different personality. It ran four straight blocks, all the way up to Hamilton Street where it met the old Trolley line leading to Hamilton Ferry. There were a number of businesses on the lane back then.

The Roman-Catholic Thomas Silk's place of business was at 70 Summit Street. He was a blacksmith and was working at his trade as early as the 1840s, when he had an office at Water Street in Manhattan. If I have the right Silk, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that he died in October 1902, and was "one of the oldest inhabitants of South Brooklyn" at the time of his death.

70 Summit Street still stands. It has a place-of-business look about it still.

Poor Fairchild

Most of the tombs at lovely Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn look like this. Kept up fairly well and looking pretty grand for their age. Who know how many family members visit on a regular basis, but someone's looking to their appearances.

This vault, high on a slope in the southwest corner of the cemetery, is not so lucky. I was attracted by its untended, unloved facade. Both doors have been boarded over, one with wood, the other with brick. The stoneface has fallen away in places, revealing the red brick beneath. There's been no tending of the grounds surrounding it. And one of the names of the formerly interred has been removed.

The one that remains is E.B. Fairchild. Who was this unlucky son of a bitch? I checked the Green-Wood burial database and uncovered one Eugene B. Fairchild as one of only two Fairchilds with the initials E.B. buried there. The name corresponded with the lot number number where I found this crypt, Lot 42.

Eugene was buried on July 11, 1881, according to Green-Wood. The New York Times reported that  a Eugene B. Fairchild died in 1877. (Perhaps it takes a few years to build a crypt. I don't know.) The Times described him as "a well known and much respected gentleman, who as President of the Waverly Boat Club and a prominent member of the Masonic fraternity." A lot of Masons attended his funeral.

Who knows if this is the same guy. The name was probably not that uncommon a one back in the 19th century. But what happened here? Given that the doors are shut up, I can't imagine Eugene's still in there? Did he find space at a better cemetery?

29 May 2012

Memories of Hav-A-Pizza

Some posts can surprise you. For instance, when I posted this picture of Hav-a-Pizza in June 2011, I didn't expect that many people remember the old hole-in-the-wall pizzeria on E. 86th Street. But people did. Fondly. Here are the comments, which nicely fill in the Hav-a-Pizza story. The second one is from Frank Brevetti, the grandson of the store's owner. (Guess what? The shop closed because the landlords raised the rent. Same old story.) The fourth is from the son of a man who worked there.
"I remember when pizza was 25c a slice.About the mid 60s. And everytime the subway fare went up right away the price of a slice went up too."
"My grandpa owed hav a pizza. It was the landlords that forced him out both in Ny and again in NJ. They kept raiseing the rent to the point they couldent stay. In 1972 THEY WANTED 100grand a yr for that 20 by 20 store. Just rent. Try to pay that at 25c a slice."
"I remember Hav-A-Pizza from the late 50's. It was the first place I ever had pizza. As I remember it, pizza, then, was kind of new as a fast food. I don't think my parents had ever had it. It was fantastic pizza. There was much more sauce and cheese on it than today's slices in similar joints. It had a distinctive, rich, aromatic flavor that I occasionally get a whiff of in a slice today that instantly takes me back to 86th and Lex. A girl I knew who went to an exclusive East Side private school, Nightingale Bamford, told me years later that the school decreed Hav-A-Pizza off-limits. I'm not sure why, but I think it had to do with the school's (mis)percetion that unsavory, Fonzie-character types hung out there. I remember the clientele as non-descript, average people, maybe mostly young people. I remember Tony who was always there flinging the dough in the air. He wasn't friendly, at least to us, but he wasn't unfriendly either. When I first went there a slice was not 25 cents, it was 15 cents, and this was not The Depression. This was 1957-196?. A soda was 10 cents. So 2 slices and a Coke cost 40 cents. Even back then, this was just pocket change even for a school kid with a modest allowance."
"My dad Ernie used to work there making pizzas with Tony. We have a picture still today through the front window, of my dad flinging the dough in the air. It so nice to see this pic. It brought back many memories for my dad when he saw the pic, My dad and tony still talk everday."
My dad Erniused to work there making pizzas with Tony. We have a picture still today through the front window, of my dad flinging the dough in the air. It so nice to see this pic. It brought back many memories for my dad when he saw the pic, My dad and tony still talk everday =)My dad Ernie used to work there making pizzas with Tony. We have a picture still today through the front window, of my dad flinging the dough in the air. It so nice to see this pic. It brought back many memories for my dad when he saw the pic, My dad and tony still talk everday =)

28 May 2012

Is Dennett Place Really Bennett Place?

Dennett Place, the one-block thoroughfare of workingmen's cottages situation behind St. Mary Star of the Sea in Carroll Gardens, has always been a favorite conundrum of local historians. (That's a 1940s tax photo of the street above; it's not as attractive today—lots of aluminum siding—but still cute.) Nobody knows for whom it was named, or even if it should be spelled Dennet or Dennett. There are no famous Brooklyn Dennetts. But there is a history of Brooklyn Bennetts.

I got the idea that the street has been misnamed for more than a century when I read a personal history of the street, written by a resident of the street and published on the Brooklyn Historical Society's blog. The writer tried to get to the bottom of the street name's origin, and in doing so uncovered this old map from the 1860s where the alley is named Bennett Place.

That Drug Store That's Always Been There

Some City landmark businesses don't get a lot of attention from the press, simply because they're not that flashy and don't draw attention to themselves. One such is Thomas Drugs, which has been quietly keeping the Upper West Side healthy since 1904. Regular reader Upstate Johnny G reminded me of the shop—which I've passes by hundreds of times—and I realized that I, too, have neglected Thomas and never posted a thing about the drug store.

Thomas is at Columbus and 68th Street. And maybe they like their low profile. For I can find out little about them. They have no website. And, as far as I can tell, they shop has never been in the news and the owners never interviewed about anything.

Something funny about the name Thomas—it seems to breed drug store longevity across the nation. A Thomas Drug Store in Thomasville, Georgia, says its the oldest drug store in that state. It was founded in 1881. Another Thomas Drug Store, in Meyersdale, PA, has been there since 1896. There is Thomas Drugs in Cross Plains, TN, which was established in 1930. In contrast to Manhattan's Thomas Drugs, all those drug stores make a big deal of their histories.

27 May 2012

The Story of the China Bowl

Virgil's, the huge Times Square BBQ joint, recently got a big new sign and bright red awnings to go with it, I noticed. They also exchanged the stationary bowl-shaped sign at the top of the restaurant for a rotating oval one. That last renovation was a shame, because the bowl-shaped sign was all that remained of the address' former tenant. It was bowl-shape, you see, because it used to say China Bowl. That was the name of the Chop Suey palace that occupied this spot on W. 44th Street for decades until 1993, when the owners of family-style joints Ollie's and Carmine's bought it and converted it to Virgil's.

Dennett Place, From the South

Because you can't have too many pictures of this curious, Carroll Gardens, one-block street of former workingman houses.

26 May 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Prime Burger?

I used this week's "Who Goes There?" column on Eater to pay my respects to Prime Burger, which is closing today, Saturday, May 26. Here's an account of my visit:

24 May 2012

The "Incredibly Good Idea" of La Groceria

Here's a nice picture. A reader sent it to me asking if I knew anything about this Greenwich Village restaurant, which sat at the wedge-like space where Sixth Avenue meets W. 4th. (There's a Grey's Papaya there now.)

I did find something out about it. It opened in 1963 and was hailed by Craig Claiborne, the New York Times restaurant critic, as "an incredibly good idea...The restaurant is modeled after an Italian trattoria, and is a combination espresso shop and dining establishment with antipasto, pasta dishes and main courses." Imagine a New York foodie world in which that sort of thing would have been novel.

The place earned its name because it also sold Italian products from its shelves. Though Claiborne liked the "idea" of La Groceria, he was disappointed in the execution. The antipasto was "trite," the pasta "overcooked," the sauce "amateur." The espresso, however, was "excellent."

La Groceria was opened by Vito A. DiLucia, a restauranteur who seemed to favor theme joints. His other restaurants were O'Henry's Steak House and the English Pub. Formerly, he had been a travel agent. He died in 1970 at the age of 67.

La Groceria was still there in the mid-'80s. Not sure when it closed. But it wasn't there in 1988, when I hit town. 

23 May 2012

Park Slope's Catene Deli Closes Shop

I passed by the old Catene Deli on 9th Street and Fourth Avenue in Park Slope today and found a big sign draped over the old sign saying "For Lease." Guess I'm late to this: the place closed in October after 46 years of operation, under the same family.

The small joint (it was tiny inside and strictly take-out) was opened in 1965 by Vincent Cervasio after he had cooked for more than a decade in the kitchen of the MetLife Building. Later it was run by his son, Vincent Cervasio Jr. As the sign states, fried calamari was the specialty. You could order a fried calamari on a hero.

Not a famous institution. Not a historic eating destination. But the sort of local culinary landmark that you like to see anchoring a neighborhood. Sad.

22 May 2012

That's One Old Card Store—I Think

I noticed this card shop on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge. Boy, does it look old. Not just because of the old-fashioned contours of the storefront and the cast-iron cornice. But because the owners have let it look old. That's one weather-beaten awning. And who prints a discount permanently on an awning?

A Good Sign: Munchy Coffee Shop

On Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park. About thirty years old, I think.

21 May 2012

Prime Burger to Exit as Midtown Integrity Teeters

Prime Burger, the Midtown diner of great longevity and startlingly un-ironic urban authenticity, is going to close. The news comes from Eater, who hears it from a tipster, who said the end may come as soon at Saturday. The reason: the building, owned by the Prime Burger people, has been sold. So I assume this is a decision that they readily invited.

The place, situated opposite St. Patrick's Cathedral, is 74 years old, and has a timeless New York diner atmosphere and wonderful school-desk-like individual tables you won't see anywhere else in town. The burgers are simple and cheap and good. That it is closing is a crippling loss to the City, and to the character of increasingly faceless Midtown, which only a few weeks ago lost the beautiful bar Bill's Gay 90s. The foodies who run the James Beard Awards prized it enough to give the joint a trophy back in 2005. If you want to know more about it, read this.

They haven't announced an exact closing date yet. But it will be soon. So I'd run.

Lost City: Asheville, NC, Edition: S&W Cafeteria

As I mentioned briefly in a previous Asheville post, Asheville's economic unluckiness was in many ways its fortune. The Depression hit the city pretty hard. So the wonderful buildings erected by the city's wealthy founders were not torn down in favor of newer, uglier ones, but remained intact.

The S&W Cafeteria is so outlandishly ornamental it looks like a branch of the Bank of Byzantium. It was built in 1929 from designs by Douglas D. Ellington. And, indeed, the grand structure actually served as a cafeteria. S&W was a Charlotte-based chain of restaurants, founded in 1920, featuring low-cost, southern food. There were branches from Georgia to D.C. "S&W" were Frank Sherrill and Fred Weber. And, yes, other locations were as opulent as this one. Even though it was a humble eating experience, like many chains of that era (Longchamps, Child's, etc.), the management wanted you to feel the experience was dignified and special. When shopping started gravitating toward the suburbs and its malls, S&W started closing down its downtown locations, like this one.

The building reopened for business as S&W Steak & Wine in 2008.

18 May 2012

Lost City: Fredericksburg, VA, Edition: Goodrick's Pharmacy

Goodrick's Pharmacy, on Caroline Street in downtown Frederickburg, Virginia, claims to be the oldest continually working soda fountain in the nation. If their founding date of 1863 is right, and the fountain installed in 1912, I'd have to say that may be true. Confederate veteran William Barber Goolrick was the veteran.

17 May 2012

How New Corner Restaurant Got That Name

When I visited the old Brooklyn eatery Colandrea New Corner Restaurant for the first time a few weeks back, I thought the name odd. It obviously seemed to be the sort of name that a joint picks after it has been forced to move, or was in its second iteration of some sort. Yet all the evidence I could glean told me that New Corner had always been where it was. It wasn't a new corner. It was the same old corner.

And then this comment came in yesterday:
This is a quote from my mother who grew up on 74th and 10th: "Used to eat at the New Corner Restaurant all the time; a particular favorite of my Father's. Actually 'back in the day' it was called the Five Corners Restaurant, then they changed up the streets and a corner was lost. So, I guess the name needed to be changed to either 'Four' or 'New'..."
Now you know. I do, too.

Rat-Squirrel House Sheds Its Scaffolding

Here's a sight we haven't seen on Kane Street in Cobble Hill in years. The infamous Rat-Squirrel House—and its neighbor—completely free of scaffolding. Soon, the world will never suspect the building's sordid history. 

16 May 2012

Joe's Superette's Prosciutto Balls Found

I'd heard scuttlebutt and seen Internet reports that the famous prosciutto balls of the shuttered Joe's Superette were being made at a Soho pizzeria called Prince Street Pizza. I've been in deep mourning ever since that low profile Carroll Gardens institution closed last year. So I was curious.

I didn't manage to get to the pizzeria until a few weeks ago. I saw prosciutto balls on the menu on the wall. And when I saw a laminated New York Times article about Joe's (below) on the counter, I was hopeful. But it wasn't until I saw Louie—looking straight-jacketed in an official Prince Street Pizza polo and baseball cap—that I knew it was all true. Louie was the guy who made the balls at Joe's, taking over the duties after his boss Leo Coldonato—the inventor of the delectable treats—got sick.

I had a true Brooklyn encounter with Louie. I greeted him, told him I used to go to Joe's a lot, and had heard the balls had migrated there. He didn't betray a glimmer of recognition or gratitude; just shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't remember you," and walked away.

I ordered a batch of prosciutto balls. They were as I remember. Yet, somehow different. Bigger, and richer with ricotta. I recall eating six very easily at Joe's. Here, four of the balls nearly overwhelmed my senses. Still, very good. Though not exactly the same.

I also learned a bit of Joe's history from Louis. I always assumed that Joe's closed because Leo died. That's not exactly true. Louie said he closed because the landlord hiked the rent, indicating he would have continued on if the rent had stayed the same. He also said a Greek restaurant was going into the space.

They're Tearing Sokol's Down

As they began work on converting the old Sokol Bros. Furniture store to apartments last month, I thought they were just going to gut the existing, three-lots-wide set of buildings and build from within. I was wrong. Based on the goings-on today—see above—they're tearing down the whole thing and will be erecting a new structure.

Version of McHale's to Return?

McHale's, the timeless bar at the corner of 46th and Eighth, closed more than six years ago. And it still hurts. You can go visit the neon sign at Emmett O'Lunney's pub on W. 50th Street. But otherwise, not a trace of it remains outside the memories of a few hundred Broadway stagehands. Me, I now go to Jimmy's Corner for my beer and the Edison Cafe for cheap Times Square eats.

Now, JVNY reports the words of tipster who says this: "This past Friday I was walking with friends in Midtown and we stopped by the gin mill on West 50th St that has the old McHale's 'BAR' sign. The lady standing in front told us that 'McHale's is re-opening on 51st St.' We immediately walked over to investigate. There is a bar under construction on the north side of 51st St between Broadway and 8th Ave, real modern looking, no sign up. We yelled in to what appeared to be the owner or at least manager who was going over blueprints or something. We asked 'is this place McHale's?' and he said yes. We cried that 'how can you name a place after a former business?' and he said 'why can’t I?' then backed off when he heard our outrage and came up with what I think is a story. He said 'I bought the name' and when we asked about 'Jimmy' he said he’d be there once a week and that they hired the old chef from McHale's."

This news may be so. But it cheers me not at all. Listen, I can open up an eatery and call it Toots Shor, but it doesn't it make it so—any more than Gabe Stuhlman's Fedora has anything to do with the original Fedora; the current Hurley's is a patch on the original bar on Sixth Avenue; or John DeLucie's upcoming restaurant in the Bill's Gay 90s space will have any real connection with Bill's.

McHale's outside the original McHale's space and location would not be McHale's. McHale's without Jimmy McHale would not be McHale's. Recreating burgers, however good, does not reconstitute a 70-year-old bar. Sorry.

To find out more about what I thought about McHale's and its shuttering, see here and here and here.

15 May 2012

Star Shoe Shop, Village Survivor

I have walked by the Star Shoe Shop on Bleecker Street, near Crosby Street right by the Two Boots pizza, for decades and not quite grasped how old it is until I went in recent and got my shoes shined. Ready? It's been there more than 70 years. Unbelievable.

14 May 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to L&B Spumoni Gardens?"

Never know what "Who Goes There?" subjects are going to get people excited. My account of L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst/Gravesend pulled down more comments than any other WGT since Sarge's Deli. Here it is:

13 May 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Colandrea New Corner Restaurant?"

It's my hunch that the footbridge above the Fort Hamilton Parkway was built expressly for the convenience of the Colandrea family and their patrons. Here my "Who Goes There?" column from Eater:

10 May 2012

Lost City: Asheville Edition: Little Pigs Bar-B-Q

When I'm down south, I look for barbeque. Recently, I was in Asheville, North Carolina. I was told that Asheville was not a big barbeque town. Nonetheless, I looked for barbeque. I had heard of an old roadside place called Little Pigs—a name that is hard to resist. So I asked after it. I was warned off it, told it wasn't very good.

But I've got a hard head, so I went anyway. Little Pigs was founded in Asheville by Joseph Carr Swicegood Sr. in April 1963. In January 1986, he hired Bob Conner, a former district manager for Burger King, as the general manager. Conner still runs it. According to the website, he embraces "the philosophy that Little Pigs must maintain a clean and comfortable environment with great food and superior customer service. Little Pigs offers personal service and we recognize our regulars on a first name basis."

Lot of stuff on the site about cleanliness and customer service and value for your dollar. Which is great. But I go to barbeque places for the barbeque. And, while I love the Little Pigs sign and the building and general ambiance of the place, the barbeque was disappointing. Perhaps the most lackluster bbq I've had in the south, with next to no flavor. It tasted of "I don't care." The beans were a little better, and the hush puppies were good. But those are side attractions. I hope Little Pigs remains in business. The potential there is huge. But I also hope they start putting some effort into their product.

05 May 2012

Lost City: Asheville Edition: Mountaineer Inn

Asheville, North Carolina, is a beautiful town. Though a boho center of liberality today, it came into being through the efforts of millionaires like George Washington Vanderbilt III, Edwin Wiley Grove and George Willis Pack, who fell in love with the remote area enough to fill it with some of the most beautiful art deco architectural monuments in the country, as well as a few mansions for themselves. (Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate is the largest private home in the United States.)

The Mountaineer Inn is not one of those monuments. But it is a marvel in its own right, mainly due to its wonderful use of old-school neon. The shotgun-toting neon hillbilly seen above stands about 30 feet tall, and keeps watch over Tunnel Road, a strip of hotels and restaurants on the other side of a mountain to the east of Asheville.

04 May 2012

Recently, I reported that Leske's, the old Scandinavian bakery in Bay Ridge that closed last year, would be reopening soon, using the same bakers as before. In response, I got this comment from a reader:
I live across the street from what used to be Leske's, and according to the new managers its going to re open with same recipes and bakers... that is a FALSE and a poor fake!!! All the bakers found new jobs and they are stable. One of the bakers is baking most of the stuff at Jean Danet bakery across the street from Leske's and there kringler and black and whites taste REAL good. It's similar to Leske's.. Please dont believe that fake sign! The new owners are lying to every one! 
I have no idea who's telling the truth here. But the timing of the comment was a coincidence, because I had been thinking about Jean Danet bakery in recent days, and wondering about its history.

Jean Danet is just a couple blocks to the north of Leske's on Fifth Avenue. It has an old-looking vertical sign on the side of the building, but a shiny new facade and interior. I expect the bakery's been renovated recently. Ironically, the redo's specific intent was obviously to make the facade look old! Look at the fake-ancient-ruin mix of bricks and plaster.

Anyway, here's the story according to the Danet website: "Originally started as a french pastry shop forty years ago, Pat Giura decided to keep the original name of Jean Danet and use the owner’s original recipes when the Giura family bought the business back in 1998. It was a natural fit for the graduate of The French Culinary Institute and certified Wilton Cake Decorator who grew up working at Savarese Italian Pastry Shoppe, owned by his parents, Cathy and Mario Giura."

Interesting pedigree. If the Leske's bakers are indeed employed there, the pedigree just got even better.

03 May 2012

Roof Message

I've passed by this old building at Broadway and S. 6th Street, which houses the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center, hundreds of times. I must be blind, because, until the other day, when approaching it from the west during a lovely sunset, I did not notice the spectacular roof tiling. It spells out, in red tiles, K.C. Savings Bank—that is, Kings County Savings Bank.

The building was erected in 1868 by the firm of King and Wilcox. King was none other than Gamalial King, the carpenter who created Brooklyn's Borough Hall. As the AIA Guide points out, it looks more like a millionaire's mansion than a bank. It was built in the French Second Empire style. The building operated as a bank until 1989. A restoration of the structure began in 1999.

Looking at past pictures of the building, I realize I may not have noticed the roof because it was sometimes covered with a billboard.