30 October 2013

Faded Times Square Ad Endangered Now That Astor's Porn Palace Gone for Good

Walking up Eighth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen the other night I noticed that the building I once referred to as William Waldorf Astor's Porn Palace was gone.

This was the building on the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue and 46th Street. One of the oldest structures left in the now-almost-completely-gentrified neighborhood, it had been girdled with a sidewalk shed for years, its windows all punched out and half-covered with plywood. For a time, I wondered if it would ever been taken down. Of course, it finally was.

The people who took it down probably only saw an eyesore. I doubt they had an inkling as to its history as a possession of the Astor family. From 1853 to 1921, the Astors owned this corner, as well as a number of properties on W. 46th. (The Astors once owned the building that now houses Barbetta.) They divested themselves of the area when it got a little too raffish for their tastes.

Cobble Hill Pumpkin Tradition to End

Over the last decade, many residents of Cobble Hill and the surrounding area have come to look forward to passing the corner of Kane Street and Strong Place on Halloween. On that date, the residents of the old brick building on that plot decorate the prongs their long, two-sided, cast-iron fence with dozens of small, carved Jack-O'-Lanterns. It's quite a sight, those long rows of pumpkins. 

This year, however, is apparently the last that we'll be able to gaze upon that cheerful, macabre scene. A sign posted on the fence reads "Final Year in this location!" I guess the owners are on the move. The bright side to this is that this year we can all join in in the fun. The sign instructs that if you bring a pumpkin of the right size (4 1/2" to 5" wide, and taller than it is round), pre-carved to the correct specifications (leave the top on, remove the innards through the face, cut a 3/4 " hole in the bottom for the spike), they will impale your creation and have it join the display. I plan to participate. 

As in past years, the pumpkins will remain for weeks until they rot and fall away.

23 October 2013

Lost City: Washington D.C. Edition: The Italian Store

I have relatives in various areas of the country. I enjoy visiting them, but, food-wise, often find the occasions discouraging. For many of my relations live in various suburbs. These days, "suburb" might as well be a synonym for "food desert." Eating options include the usual chains. As for at-home dining, let's just say a large portion of our country's population relies of frozen and processed food for their daily sustenance.

Being from New York, I am, of course, spoiled where comestibles are concerned. So spoiled that I've developed a glass stomach. Truly, eating at fast food joints or chowing down on the salty caloric entrees at Chili's or Applebee's can make me physically ill. I simply can't eat that stuff anymore.

Recently, I paid a call on a cousin in Arlington, VA. I didn't have any great hopes where meals were concerned. But then The Italian Store was casually pointed out to me as a place worth checking out.

18 October 2013

That Old Bar in Greenpoint

At 623 Manhattan Avenue, corner of Nassau, in Greenpoint, there's a bar called Irene's Place. Though you won't see that name anywhere on the outside. The owner is one Irene Kabala. There are signs that say Idle Hour Tavern on the inside. And that does seem to be the joint's real (or original) name, at least as far as The New York Times and the local Community Board are concerned. It's frequented by the area's Polish population, and Polish beer is served. (There's a neon Zyweic sign in the window.) There's also Polish music on the juke box. But, usually, it's extremely quite inside. And it's always dark.

While the bar has always intrigued me, the building it's in has intrigued me more. A three-story brick number, it looks terribly, terribly old. The cornices, the lintels, the vents, the wooden door on the side, the flagpole perched on the corner, every detail looks original. Only the faux-stone facade on the ground floors seems modern, and even that was probably put in in the '60s.

17 October 2013

A Very New York-y Street

A few hundred feet along the southeastern corner of 39th Street and Eighth Avenue may be among the most New York-y stretches of sidewalk left in Manhattan. I'm talking old New York, of course, the one filled with scrappy, independent, local businesses, the one free of chains, the one populated with working folk who provided humble but necessary services, the one with a little grit in the seams.

The street features a barber shop, a shoe repair shop and a liquor store, all of considerable age. (Try to ignore the fried chicken joint.) I've written about the liquor store—officially, Cambridge Wine & Liquors—before. It's one of the oldest spirit sellers in the city. Not only does it date from the fall of Prohibition, but the space was occupied by a liquor store before Prohibition as well. The beautiful neon sign dates from the '40s at least.

16 October 2013

New Italian Restaurant Takes Old Italian Grocery's Place

Tavola, an Italian restaurant, has taken up residence in the Ninth Avenue midtown address occupied for 121 by Manganaro's Grosseria Italiana, which closed in 2012. (I wouldn't be surprised if Tavola is only the second commercial tenant the building has seen.) It opened in late September 2012. (I'm reporting on it now, because it's the first I've seen it since it opened. Better late than never.)

It's heartbreaking to see the space taken up by a new business, but it could be worse. The owners of Tavola seem respectful of their predecessors. The facade is unchanged, the tin ceiling remains, as do the wooden shelves that once held groceries, and they've made good use of the vertical neon sign. Also, the old blue-and-white metal sign that once hung outside now adorns one of the inside walls. Minus the "Manganaro" part, that is. I guess the family must have taken that part with them.

The owner bought the building, so there's a chance Tavola will stick around for a while.

15 October 2013

Le Figaro Cafe Replacement Replaced

Back in 2008, we all had to watch and grit our teeth as Le Figaro Cafe, one of the last survivors of the days when Macdougal and Bleecker was the center of creative and bohemian life in New York, went under and was replaced—in exquisitely apt New-New York form—with an outpost of the Qdoba fast food chain.

Well, that lasted all of four years. Qdoba has called it Qdits. A fine illustration of how worthless and evanescent the things we're replacing our landmarks with are.

12 October 2013

Cellar of 18th-Century Bull's Head Tavern Uncovered on Bowery

New York historian and author David Freeland emailed over the weekend with some exciting and alarming news regarding an ongoing demolition going on at 50 Bowery, south of Canal Street. This address was the site for many years of the Atlantic Garden, a popular and long-lasting German beer garden that opened in 1858 and was the site of many seminal musical and vaudeville moments. ("A Bicycle Built for Two," for example, was first sung there).

But the site holds an even older historical significance. The original building that held the Atlantic Garden was believed to have been a renovation of the 18th-century Bull's Head Tavern. This famous bar was built around 1750 and sat at the northern edge of New York City as it then existed. Anyone traveling in or out of the city by land passed it. During the revolution it was occupied by soldiers, including General Washington. The saloon was for a long while owned by butcher Henry Astor, of the Astor family, until it finally closed sometime in the 1820s, driven out by societal forces that object to the farmers who would herd their numerous cattle in pens surrounding the tavern. In 1858 Kramer took possession of the Bull's Head building and opened the Atlantic Garden in it. He expanded that building in the 1860's and added the big steel frame beer hall in back of that building. The steel frame, I am told, is there now.

Lost City: Milwaukee Edition: The Signs of Downer Avenue

Downer Avenue, a bit to the north of downtown Milwaukee, goes on for some length, but only about two blocks of it are devoted to commerce. But what a two blocks they are.

Despite the presence of a Starbuck's, much of the street is dedicated to businesses that have been there a good spell. And old businesses means old signs. Above is the marquee to the Downer Theatre, which has been in business for a century and is the oldest operating movie theatre in Milwaukee. It's the anchor of the area.

04 October 2013

The Story of Brew's, a Forgotten Murray Hill Watering Hole

A responder to my recent postings about the salvaging of the old bar from Harvey's Chelsea House asked me why Lost City have never posted anything about Brew's. To which my eloquent response was "Huh?" Never heard of the place. And so I endeavored to find something out.

Brew's was a pub that stood at 156 E. 34th Street, near Lexington, in Manhattan. It opened in 1937, and lasted until I'm not sure when. At least until the turn of the millennium. Anyway, it's gone now. 

The oddest thing about the place—at least to me—is it's name. It has nothing to do with beer. Improbably, Brew was actually the surname of the family that ran the joint. 

I found few accounts of the place, and no photos. The New York Times, in 1980, described it this way: "Brew's is a typical neighborhood pub with some differences, starting with the raffish bar decor, such as a yellow-light horseshoe over the cash register. Rear tables have checkered cloths and Tiffany-type lights, as does the large, step-down dining section. Brew's looks inviting, the bar ambience is hale and hearty, and the music on Thursday to Saturday is pure, pleasurable warmth, honky-tonk style."

Sounds delightful. By 1998, the Paper of Record's opinion hadn't changed much (and neither, it seems, had Brew's). It wrote: "Brew's is a dim, old-fashioned, classic American pub, with Tiffany lamps, bare wood floor and red-and-white checked tablecloths. At Brew's, people still drink beer at lunch. Nobody seems to be in a rush. The hamburger is worth taking the time to enjoy. It is big, and the meat is loosely knit, charred black on the outside and juicy within, and served on a seeded roll that stands up to the juicy meat. This is the kind of burger you want to keep eating. Fresh-cut french fries are crisp and delicious."

An invaluable book I have, called "The New York Book of Bars, Pubs & Taverns"—published in 1975, and filled with descriptions of watering holes that no longer exist—tells us more. It says Brew's used to be located between Park and Madison Avenues and was "an old Irish shot 'n' beer shack." The Brew family didn't assume ownership until the 1940s. By the 1970s, the bar has a "cosmopolitan air," and was frequented by Wall Streeters and advertising and fashion executives. (Sounds a bit like P.J. Clarke's today.) The account, too, mentioned the nightly music offerings with approval. However, the books says the acts leaned toward Dixieland Jazz, not honky-tonk.

Sadly, the book does not include a picture. Anyone out there have a photo of Brew's?

03 October 2013

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Oaks Chocolates

The Fox River Valley in Wisconsin, snaking along the southeastern edge of the state, from Milwaukee to Green Bay, is home to an amazing number of long-standing, family-owned candy shops. Every city surrounding Lake Winnebago seems to have at least one local treasure. Green Bay has Kaaps's; DePere has Seroogy's; Manitowac has Beerntsen's; Appleton has Wilmar's. Oshkosh is particularly rich in this respect: it has both Hughes Home Maid [sic] Chocolate Shop and Oaks Chocolates.

02 October 2013

Harvey's Chelsea House Bar Reborn: A Closer Look

Last week I reported the astounding news that the 1880s-era bar that had once lived inside the old Harvey's Chelsea House, in Chelsea, has somehow survived the destruction of that building in 2006 and now sat inside The Bar Room, a new bar and restaurant on E. 60th off Lexington.

I, of course, had to lay my eyes on this wonder myself, and wasted no time getting there, visiting over the past weekend. The bar is indeed there. My eyes recognized it, and the bartender confirmed the testimony of my senses.

01 October 2013

A New Look for Defonte's

The owners of Defonte's, the oldest ongoing business in Red Hook and arguably the finest sandwich shop in New York, have slapped a new coat of paint on the old building at the forlorn corner of Columbia and Luquer Streets. (I always want to call Defonte's non-neighborhood Five Points because of the odd confluence of five streets that lead to the store.) The address has gone from the odd pale green is boasted for many years (and which always reminded me of the interior of a public bathroom)—see below—to a bold dark green, with bright red for the blocked-out windows, and white for the lintels.

I guess it's an improvement. Anyway, it's going to look fantastic at Christmastime.