31 December 2012

Bring Out Your Dead: 2012 Roundup of Lost New York City Landmarks

Every year since I began this blog has seemed like a bad year for New York landmarks, with too many classic restaurants, bars and stores falling under the steamroller of progress. But somehow 2012 feels like one of the worst. Maybe that's because of the exceeding quality of the places that have closed. Any year that includes the exit of such irreplaceable establishments as Bill's Gay Nineties, Prime Burger, Donovan's Pub, Lascoff Drugs, Colony Music and Manganaro Grosseria Italiana has to be counted a black year. So, here is the final sad and sorrowful tally. 

Final Images of the Lost Lenox Lounge

Harlem's historic Lenox Lounge—Manhattan cradle of jazz and deco—closes on Dec. 31. A circumstance of infinite regret. If you didn't make it up there during the boite's last weeks, please enjoy these photos from my final visit.

28 December 2012

Heimesch Coffee Shop

The individuality of New York's many neighborhood is one of the City's great strengths. Only in Orthodox Jewish Borough Park (and maybe a couple other areas) would the coffee shop arm of a gas station be called the Heimesche Coffee Shop. For those who don't know their Yiddish, Heimesch (also spelled Haimish) means cozy or homey. This particular coffee shop doesn't look very cozy. But what the hell. It's the intention, right?

27 December 2012

Harvey's Chelsea House Remembered by Readers

I posted last week about the bygone Olde New York restaurant Harvey's Chelsea House. Since then, a couple readers have shared their memories of the place. This has been gratifying, as I had assumed that nobody remembered the place. (I've never seen it written about since it closed twenty years ago.)

Maximum Bob wrote:

This used to be my main hangout. I used to work out at a gym a block away and would hit the bar afterwards for a burger and a beer. It was an elegant, grownup place. The night before I got married, my best friends and I came here for dinner and drinks.This was the 80's. I will never forget Harvey's and that time in general. If I could go back in time I would jettison this age of mediocrity in a nanosecond.
And Lionel said: 
It was a great place with one of the finest bars I spent time bellying up to. It had two old fashioned cash registers that were functioning and used. Some very talented artist did an oil painting that depicted the bar and was beautifully accurate. I was heartbroken when it was no more. I would occasionally see the actress Sandy Dennis in the back having a sandwich. Interestingly, many of the bartenders, and or owners, always referred to the bars that they worked at as ‘the store,’ kind of a holdover from old New York. It was a truly beautiful barroom.
Sandy Dennis was a regular?! I love the memory of the place even more now.

26 December 2012

A Perfect Storefront: Elias Shoe Repair & Shine

It's a bit a of given in my universe that shoe repair shops often make for perfect storefronts—because they are compact; because they pack a lot of visual stimuli in their windows and doors; and because they rarely change over the decades (there is little business incentive to refurbish such a humble business.) Elias Shoe Repair is on W. 72nd Street on the Upper West Side.

24 December 2012

Christmas in Kensington

This rather elaborate display of lit up angels and trees lines the borders of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Kensington. It's quite a sight at night.

21 December 2012

Scary Christmas

The residents of Cobble Hill know well the house on the corner of Kane and Strong Place's habit of impaling dozens of small jack o'lanterns of the spikes of its wrap-around cast iron fence every Halloween. And they know how the owners of that house leave the pumpkins there to slowly decompose as the days dwindle down to a precious few. Jack and his brothers are looking pretty haunting these days, some eight weeks after Oct. 31. Still, I'd like to put a Santa hat on each and every one of them.

Gargiulo's at Christmastime

I recently went down to Gargiulo's, which was damaged by Hurricane Sandy, to show some support and have a meal. The century-old restaurant was shuttered for a few weeks, after flood waters soaked the property, which lies just a block from the boardwalk in Coney Island. The lobby was deluged and the water reached as high as a foot above the elevated dining room. But the owners worked fast to open up, not wanting to lose out on holiday business.

The lobby bar is still under renovation, hidden behind a wall. This gives the foyer a more truncated look, taking away from the expansive feel you expect at Gargiulo's. But the dining room is in full working order, complete with lavish Christmas decorations. The service and food was excellent, as always.

19 December 2012

A Good Sign: Gramercy Cafe

Get rid of the awning. The neon sign is all this cafe needs. In Gramercy Park.

18 December 2012

Remembering Harvey's Chelsea House

Back in the early '90s, when I was a non-blogging, budding sentimentalist, I worked for a time at a horrible theatre trade magazine in the Flatiron District. (It wasn't called that at the time.) In my attempts to distance myself from my boss and duties, I would use my lunch hour to range as far from my office as possible.

I remember frequently passing an old restaurant at 108 W. 18th Street which has a grand, vertical, three-story sign that said "Harvey's." Peering in, I saw a long bar, high ceilings, tile floors, beveled glass and a dining room in the back. It was one of my first impressions of what was meant by the term Olde New York.

I didn't know much about the place, and soon thereafter it closed for good. I have been obsessed with the joint every sense. Recently I decided to find out more about the restaurant that still haunts my memory. It was worth the inquiry. 

When Harvey's Chelsea House closed in December 1991, it was 102 years old. A man named Dick Harvey had owned it for its final 16 years of its existence. He told the New York Times that taxes, insurance and utility costs, compounded by a bad economy, had forced him to close. 

Harvey's Chelsea House opened in 1889 as a kind of dark-wooded, manly eatery that was prevalent and popular at that time. It was finely appointed. It had a 40-foot bar of red, burled, Honduras mahogany, crystal cabinetwork, a brass clock and rear cabinets of bevelled glass. I'm not sure what it was called back then—it seems to have been called the Old Chelsea Restaurant at some point—but certainly not Harvey's Chelsea House. Dick Harvey took over the location in 1977. He, at the time, also managed 0'Neal's Balloon, had reopened the Landmark Tavern, and had a reputation as "the fastest bartender who has ever worked New York," according to The New Yorker. Harvey refinished the mahogany and added five chandeliers and an historic display of bar-and-res-taurant glassware. (That means that the "old" sign outside I admire so much was no older than 14 years when I saw it.)

After Harvey gave up the fight, the place remained closed for a while, then was reopened as Tonic by one Steve Tzolis, the principal owner of Il Cantinori, Periyali and Aureole, all restaurants in Manhattan. 

A newspaper described the new incarnation thusly: "I figured the owners would simply rip it apart and sell the fixtures and that if it ever reopened, it would be painted white. So it was a wonderful surprise to walk in on a recent night to find the place looking much as I remembered, only better. (It has been spruced up and is now a warm red.) It is also a scene. Young executives in pinstriped business suits, guys in white T-shirts and bikers’ jackets, lithe young women in jeans or black dresses were packed several deep at the bar, and they weren’t all just waiting for tables. The maĆ®tre d’ led me away from this merry throng into the room next door, which, although full and lively, seemed quiet by comparison. It was like being sent to sit with the grown-ups. My friends were already at the table."

Tonic didn't take. The building was torn down in 2006. What became of the beautiful bar, the mahogany, the cast iron, the glass, the brass? Junked or broken up and sold.

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to The Lenox Lounge?"

The news that Harlem's iconic Lenox Lounge would close on Dec. 31 sent me out to the legendary boite for my latest "Who Goes There?" column. It's a first for the column in a way, in that few people think of the place as a restaurant; it's a jazz club first and foremost. However, they do serve full meals in the Zebra Room in the back.

Here's the article: 

17 December 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Loeser's Deli?"

My Nov. 30 "Who Goes There?" column for Eater took me to The Bronx for only the third time in the history of the feature. Here's the piece:

10 December 2012

The Ghosts of Columbia Street: More Irving Street Shots

Here are some more shots of the vanished Brooklyn waterfront road called Irving Street, all courtesy of Freebird Books.

08 December 2012

Statues at Times Square's "Show Folks Shoe Shop" to Be Restored!

Last week, I posted an item about how the four statues that adorned Times Square's century-old I. Miller shoe store building had disappeared. The address is to be occupied by the Express clothing chain in the future, and there was some question as to whether the corporation would restore the two-story stone building's unique facade to its former glory—including the figures depicting Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Marilyn Miller and Rosa Ponselle in their most famous roles.

A women in the preservation community contacted me and said she would look into the matter. She wrote back with this good news:
I did find out that the building is being restored - by a VERY good firm. And that the sculptures have been taken down to be cleaned, repaired and re-installed - once restoration is completed. So...and I can't believe I am going to say this...but it appears that EXPRESS is doing the right thing. And doing the great building the honor it deserves.
Following Sandy, and the closure of Stage Deli, and the imminent closing of the Lenox Lounge, this is the best news I've heard in weeks.

07 December 2012

A Change of Sign at Tout Va Bien

I'm not sure when this happened—probably some time ago—but Tout Va Bien, the old school French hold-out in Hell's Kitchen, has changed its neon sign. The classic original sign (above) has been removed, and a reasonable facsimile (below) has been put in its place. The new one's not bad, but not nearly as charming. It lacks the handmade quality of the original. The font is more ordinary. Most significantly, they've going from two colors to one.

I imagine the old sign just died one night and a replacement was required.

06 December 2012

A Good Sign: Columbia Florist

A family-owned florist on 231st Street in Riverdale, The Bronx, Columbia has been in the neighborhood for decades. The newer awning does nothing for me, but the older sign on top does.

05 December 2012

The Ghosts of Columbia Street: More Irving Street Images

Earlier this fall, I started posted selected images from a cache of old photos of Columbia Street that were uncovered by Freebird Books, a local used book store. The photos dated from the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the more interesting shots depicted Irving Street, an old, two-block waterfront street that has since been demapped.

The proprietor of Freebird recently scanned and uploaded a new set of the photo collection. (There are many more to come. Freebird owns all the photos I post here.) Among there are a variety of shots of Irving Street. Two of them are seen here. The one above, from the 1970s, gives you a pretty good idea of what the expanse and character of Irving was, despite the damage to the photo. Pretty breathtaking how the road stretched right down to the river.

As the owner of Freebird says in his caption: "By the late '60s it was essentially a quiet cul de sac for the Puerto Rican community, a backdrop for events and sports activities. The reclamation of a large empty lot on the street's northern side is chronicled in these photos, as well as other attempts (like mural paintings) to beautify other abandoned buildings."

The photo seen below is from 1964 and depicts a parade of sorts.

04 December 2012

Another Great One Gone: Lenox Lounge to Close

One of the greatest and most lasting landmarks in Harlem—Hell, the whole city!—will be lost Dec. 31 when the famous Lenox Lounge closes its doors.

Owner Alvin Reed, who brought the historic jazz boite back from the dead in 1988, declined to renew his leave when the landlord—guess what?—doubled the rent. Guess the greedy landlord saw the gleaming Red Rooster down the block and figured he should be getting richer than he was. Reed owns the rights to the name, so the new tenants will reopen it as the Notar Jazz Club. Richie Notar is the managing partner in the Nobu Restaurants group, will be taking over the space.

"If they want to use Lenox Lounge, they will have to negotiate with me," said Reed. "I brought it back and I want to see it stay there. I want to keep the legacy alive. I am Lenox Lounge, and I will be Lenox Lounge for quite some time. And if they want Lenox Lounge, they want me."

Every jazz great played Lenox back in the day. The interior is a living museum. I was there just a few months ago. Few spaces in New York can match the magic of that art deco interior. When a good combo is playing, and couples are chatting and drinking, the scene is classic cosmopolitan urbanity at its finest. It takes little effort to imagine life in New York during its post-WWII heyday.

Silver Lining of Bill's Gay 90s Renovation

Loath as we are to admit it, there is a slight silver lining to the old Bill's Gay 90s space's recent transformation into the fancier Bill's Food & Drink. As you may recall, when the former owner's lease was not renewed earlier this year, she took all the historical artifacts inside the bar with her—posters, pictures, even the joint's two old bars. All gone. The new owners had no choice but to recreate an oldish-looking interior. But, in restoring the anteroom outside the bar, they uncovered an old mural that had been hidden for decades. Apparently the mural was revealed when the original owners were taking down the pictures that hung there; not even they knew it was there. It's a collection of whimsical ads for liquor brands, painted as if they were posted on a brick wall somewhere. Based on the brands featured—Ballantines, Ambassadors—it probably dates from the 1930s and 1940s, when those whiskeys were more popular. The slogans ("A Sure Hangover") poke fun at the liquors.

A Good Sign: Cambridge Podiatry Center

Nice blocky letters. Plain and simple, yet it has a style. Like the whole storefront, too, with the yellow brick and venetian blinds.

02 December 2012

The Show Folk on the Show Folks' Shoe Shop Disappear

A few months ago, the news unrolled that the retailer Express was going to take over the old I. Miller show store in Times Square. A few folks expressed the hope that this might mean the unusual building might finally be refurbished. The previous tenant, TGI Friday's, had never given a damn about the century-old, landmarked structure, with its quartet of statues of famous performers—Ethel Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Marilyn Miller and Rosa Ponselle—from the 1920s.

A Stage Deli Memory From 1969

The Stage Deli in midtown Manhattan closed last Thursday after 75 years in business, the victim of rent hikes and a bad economy. To show how much New York character the place had, enjoy the New York Times write-up from July 5, 1969:
Jewish waiters—who are used to giving the orders—turned polite and deferred to astonished customers yesterday.
It was Independence Day, and the independent Jewish waiter marked the day in the most signal of ways, with a startling change of face.
It has been said that Israel won the Six-Day War by putting guns into the hands of Jewish waiters—but yesterday they laid down their arms. Snarls were out; smiles were in. Waiters grown irascible on endless chopped liver and chicken soup beamed with good nature. From every pore oozed the sour cream of human kindness....
At the Stage Delicatessen on Seventh Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets, a waiter tried earnestly to explain the startling change. "It's Independence Day," he said brightly, "and who could be more independent than the Jewish waiter?"...
But it was difficult. When a customer asked a waiter at the Stage why he wasn't wearing a name badge, he replied: "Why should I wear my name? Everybody calls me names, anyway."...
A policeman who walked into the Stage Delicatessen looked incredulously about him at the strangely happy multitude. Then the manage said playfully, "You're under arrest."
"All right," said the man in blue, "as long as you keep me in here."