Goodbye to Places that Made New York New York: Restaurants We Lost in the Pandemic

I scan the list with my heart in my throat, occasionally whispering “oh no!”, remembering places I’ve been and loved, meant to go back to, never did and now never will.

The list, of some of the hundreds of mom-and-pop-type businesses closed in New York City since this cursed pandemic began, is in New York Magazine’s annual “Reasons We Love New York” issue, out this week. The magazine, partnered now with Curbed, the behemoth real estate site, put the story’s title this year in the past tense. It’s “Reasons We’ve Loved New York,” a farewell to the many places that have closed permanently in 2020, listed in order of the year they opened, from oldest to most recent.

Some are truly historic, like the Paris Cafe in South Street seaport (how is it I never went there, or even heard of it, since it opened in 1873?) and Gem Spa (1921), where I used to buy egg creams and Bambù rolling papers as a college student in the late ’60s.

Also tragically lost is Monkey Bar (1936) on East 54th at the Hotel Elysée, below, a swanky spot with retro murals, where we memorably celebrated my aunt’s milestone birthday, my sibs and cousins and I all decked out spiffily, having gotten babysitters for our young children.

It grieves me that Jules Bistro (1993) on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, is no more. It was a semi-subterranean place for salad Niçoise and steak frites in the afternoon, live jazz later, with a sliver of sunny street view reflected in wraparound mirrors. Jules seemed decades older than it really was and possibly located in Paris. It was a go-to for meeting friends since my cousin Pamela introduced me to it, and I considered it a real treasure.

And so many more that spark heavy-duty nostalgia. Frank’s Cocktail Lounge on Dekalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (1972), dark even at noontime, where I went exactly once during a break from studies at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture, and always meant to return. The Cupping Room in Soho (1977), below, with both a casual front counter, a sky-light, art-filled dining space and heavenly whipped eggs, is gone. Even Cranberry’s (1977) on Henry Street in north Brooklyn Heights, which could be counted on for a very good sandwich to bring down to the promenade. What will come in their places? Chains or independent businesses? Or will the spaces be vacant for years?

Was Chinatown bakery Lung Moon (1968) the place we used to get char su bao, sweet bean-filled rolls, warm from the oven, for small change? And how could Lucky Strike on Grand Street be gone? Another clone of old Paris, a less glitzy, more neighborhood-y version of Balthazar and Pastis, with the same owners, it was reliably there for 31 years, and I expected it to remain for decades more.

The demise of some tried and true Booklyn spots of more recent vintage also pains me. On Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, both The Good Fork (2006, Korean home cooking) and Fort Defiance (2009, cocktails in the afternoon), below, which survived Hurricane Sandy but couldn’t come back from this, have gone out. (Fort Defiance has been reinvented as a grocery store.) Goodbye, too, to Soda Bar (2002) on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, dark and atmospheric, with great neon signage. And my ever-reliable Building on Bond (2008), with its leafy corner location, outdoor tables even before they became a necessity, local beers on draft and terrific Cobb salad.

Odessa, the Ukrainian diner on Avenue A, was not one of “my” places. I am partial to the still-extant (but for how long?) Veselka on Second Avenue (same idea — cabbage soup, pierogies), but a recent article by Christopher Bonanos perfectly describes how I would feel if Veselka were to suddenly disappear. Odessa, he writes, was a place that could be counted on to be open and accessible and cheap, easy in a city where easy don’t come easy. The kind of place you didn’t have to think about. No lines, no reservations, “It was just there,” Bonanos writes, “and then it wasn’t.”

Recently, I perused cartoonist Ben Katchor’s new book about now-defunct Jewish dairy restaurants, the kind that still existed all over the city when I was a young adult, the sort of places Isaac Bashevis Singer would go for lunch and story ideas. I remember eating at the Garden Cafeteria on the Lower East Side, Famous Dairy on West 72nd, the Art Deco Dubrow’s in the Garment District, and of course, Ratner’s on Delancey Street and on Second Avenue, and Rappoport’s, also on Second Avenue in the East Village.

As both a budding vegetarian and a Jew, I was familiar with the food, which was very like my grandmother’s concoctions of bow-tie noodles with kasha or cottage cheese; vegetarian chopped liver made of hard-boiled eggs, string beans, onions and walnuts; a simple bowl of slice banana with sour cream; steaming red borscht with bits of dill floating in it on a cold winter’s day. All these places disappeared one by one over the decades, as did the elderly Jews who used to sit on benches in the median strip of Broadway on the Upper West Side, chatting away in Yiddish.

One of my first stops when this is over will be to the East Village, to make sure B&H Dairy, above left, has survived. It’s a hole in the wall with only a narrow counter for seating, on which to perch on a round stool and order a bowl of mushroom barley soup, and one of the very last of its breed. Just a few days ago, a devastating fire on Second Avenue at 7th Street destroyed a very beautiful Gothic Revival church. I’m sorry about the church, but I’m glad the fire was across the street from B&H.

A city must mutate; it can’t remain the way it was forever. I understand that. But this sudden and rapid rending of the city’s fabric is unprecedented, even for New York City, and therefore frightening. Will all these atmospheric, memory-filled places be replaced, and by what? And when?

Seize the Sunset

“Live each season as it passes: breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…”

Henry David Thoreau

The year’s events have made us feel vulnerable, more conscious of the precariousness of our human lives.

Maybe that’s why the passing days seem all the more precious, but lately I can’t bear to spend a sunny day indoors. I want to get fresh air into my lungs, even if I have to surreptitiously pull down my mask to do it, and drink the drink — that would be wine, usually. I want to make beach fires, take walks, visit parks and see sunsets — especially the sunsets, in their infinite variation. They are the closest thing I’ve had lately to a religious experience.

Though the existential dread of climate change is ever-present and the intractability of this pandemic has taken us by surprise — yes, I know we were warned there would be a fall/winter surge, but who really believed it would last this long? — the sun goes about its business.

For the moment, we are still heirs to a glimmering world. Seize each day, consciously and gratefully. Evenings, too.

(Top) Where I find myself now and for the next few months: Brooklyn, N.Y.

(Below) Where I found myself in September and October: Long Island, N.Y.

New York, City of Restaurants, Bent but not Broken

When I think back on this sad time (assuming I survive it), the above image will always evoke the Covid era in New York City for me.

Bar Tabac, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

The art, by Jorge Colombo, appeared in The New Yorker magazine last summer as part of a series titled, prematurely as it turns out, “The City Recovers.” In this view of Tribeca at night, I see melancholy and unnatural quietude, as well as the courage that has been required of the city’s restaurant owners to just get by.

James Restaurant, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

There are any number of heartbreakers, aside from the human toll, of this virus’s effect on my home town. It’s brought New York to its knees. People are fleeing for the suburbs. No wonder, with schools opening, then closing, on a mayoral whim, because of an arbitrary number. The glass towers of Manhattan have been standing mostly empty, their millions of square feet of office space unoccupied and unneeded, perhaps forever. Broadway has been dark for the longest period in its history. The subway ended its century-long tradition of 24 hour service. Ridership is a third of normal, while crime has gone up, a result of the mentally ill going uncared-for elsewhere, the NYT says.

Bountiful produce from James Restaurant, Brooklyn

All of that worries me when I consider the city’s future, but it’s the restaurants I find most touching — their desire to stay alive, their ingenious reinventions as greengrocers and purveyors of raw ingredients, their cute promotions (show us your ‘I Voted’ sticker and we’ll give you a free cookie!) and makeshift arrangements for outdoor dining. The set-ups range from ever-more-elaborate plywood structures with rudimentary roofing, partial walls and seasonal décor like hay bales, pumpkins and baskets of mums, to orange traffic cones and clear shower curtains as space dividers in two former parking spots.

Miriam, Park Slope, Brooklyn

They seem to be meeting with varying degrees of success. Some of the impromptu sidewalk cafés, attached to restaurants that lucked out by being located on a pleasant corner, attract lines for Sunday brunch. My local high street, Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, has many good restaurants — Olmsted, Maison Yaki, Amorina, White Tiger, Alta Calidad and more — and they all seem to be hanging in there. But many others report that they’re struggling, and the city may lose half its eating establishments by the time this is done. New York’s restaurant stock is a collective institution, of generally excellent quality and unimaginable variety, and it mustn’t be allowed to disappear.

Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

The city has now extended outdoor dining year-round, but I fear for those half-enclosed huts, even with heat lamps, when winter winds start whipping around the corners. I’ve occasionally wondered why New York doesn’t have a thriving sidewalk-café culture like Paris. Then I remember: I’ve been to Paris in mid-winter, and it’s not that cold. Not by New York standards.

Fifth Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn

I have a bulletin board on which I tack the cards of places I’ve gone and want to remember, almost always for their atmosphere (I rarely remember what I ate). There’s Cotenna, a hole in the wall on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, into which a friend and I once stumbled on a rainy afternoon after a movie, and sat for hours at the end of the bar. Wild Son, on a sunny industrial block near the river, where the food was so healthy and fresh and the bartenders so friendly and the margaritas so tart and well-priced. Jones Wood Foundry, the nearest thing to a cozy, unpretentious British pub on the Upper East Side. Not only haven’t I been to any of these favorite spots lately, I’ve only been to Manhattan twice since last winter, both times for doctor’s appointments.

Shore Parkway, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn

Here in Brooklyn, I wonder how Café Paulette on Fort Greene Park and Cobble Hill’s Henry Public, with its tin-ceilings and marble mantels, and the quirky June on Court Street, are faring. I hope they’re all doing a booming business in take-out and delivery, and I look forward to rediscovering them on the other side of the vaccine. Myself, I’ve dined inside restaurants not at all, outdoors maybe five times, and have rediscovered home cooking. (This is as well in some ways, as I had been in the longstanding and very expensive habit of eating out practically every meal, and balance was needed.)

Vanderbilt Avenue, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

I imagine the city will eventually come back, will glitter and sparkle once again, like it did after September 11, like it did after Hurricane Sandy, picking up where it left off and continuing on its way, like the shape-shifting organism New York City has always been. ##

Hot Town, Summer in the City


IT’S NOT OVER ‘TIL IT’S OVER, but as soon as you start seeing ads for back to school shopping, you know it can’t be long before the Halloween decorations come out.

The knowledge that it will soon be September has always cast a pall over August. Growing up, I waited eagerly for the big fat back-to-school issue of Seventeen magazine to show up on my local newsstand August 1st. I was so bored I devoured its 600 pages of wool skirts and cable-knit sweaters immediately. Though it was still high summer, I was painfully conscious that its appearance signaled the beginning of the end.

Later this week, I’m off to Montreal and Quebec City for a few days and will be blogging my ass off while there, no doubt, so there’s that to look forward to. In the meantime, the days count down on summer in the city. With frequent forays out of town, y’know, it hasn’t been half bad.

July began with a day trip to Kykuit, below, the Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, a century-old Italianate-style ivy-covered pile, romantic on the outside, boring within. Chief joy and surprise: Nelson Rockefeller’s collection of modern art, relegated to a basement space, world-class though it is, and wonderful outdoor sculptures (like the Elie Nadelman figures below), perfectly placed.


I abandoned Brooklyn again to ferry over to Governor’s Island, where my daughter is now working, and what a surprise. In the past couple of years, they’ve (almost) completed a park called The Hills, as close to unspoiled nature as you can get in New York City, with a skyline view at every turn.


For culture, I joined a friend at the Whitney Museum in Chelsea to see Alexander Calder’s mid-century mobiles, below, so simple and yet so brilliant. The views from the outdoor terraces there are always stunning.


Then there was a two-day road trip to Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Mass., cultivated over a period of decades, exclusively with plants native to the region. We found accommodation nearby at the oldest continuously operating lodging in the U.S., the pre-Revolutionary Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass., below. (It burned nearly to the ground and was painstakingly rebuilt in the 1950s, so it’s hard to say what’s original and what’s not, but the illusion is impeccable.)


I tried a few new-to-me Brooklyn restaurants, including L’Antagoniste in Bed-Stuy, a tad precious and a tad pricey, and the French-Senegalese Cafe Rue Dix in Crown Heights.


Even treading city sidewalks in summer is made pleasanter by overflowing window boxes and creatively planted tree pits.


Follow me on Instagram, where I’m having some fun… @caramia447


Say Hi to NYC’s Second Avenue Subway


ON NEW YEAR’S DAY, New York City opened its first new subway line in over half a century — well, three new stops, anyway. The far Upper East Side, once a pain to get to, is newly accessible via these three stops along Second Avenue at 72nd Street, 86th Street and 96th Street (it’s the yellow”Q” line on the map below).


It’s visible proof of how transportation can bring new life to a neighborhood that for the better part of a decade was, to my mind, a place to avoid — inconvenient, boring and ugly.

But absent the scaffolding and the sawhorses and the orange cones and the big holes in the ground, Second Avenue looks fresh and optimistic, chock-a-block with old and new bars and restaurants to serve the densely populated high-rises that line the avenue.

Three times recently, I found myself on the Second Avenue subway. The trip from mid-Brooklyn to the UES now takes just under 30 minutes.

I met a friend for brunch at Jacques Brasserie on East 85th, an old favorite, and discovered a cozy hole-in-the-wall pub that I happened to stumble upon coming out of a doctor’s office — Jones Wood Foundry on East 76th.


The architecture of the stations, while impressively scaled, is unexciting, but the art in the three stations makes up for it. The MTA calls it “the most expansive permanent public art installation in New York City history.”

At 72d Street, full-body portraits of colorful, eccentric New Yorkers, rendered in mosaic tile by Brazilian born artist Vik Muniz, are imbedded in the white wall tile along the concourse, like so many fellow passengers.


At 86th, there are overscaled photo-based portraits in mosaic or ceramic tile, some of famous musicians and artists (Lou Reed, Kara Walker, Philip Glass). They’re the work of Chuck Close (who also included a couple of self-portraits), and they are mesmerizing, both from up close and far away.


Abstract murals of porcelain tile by Sarah Sze wrap the interior of the 96th Street station, into which we’ll descend below (yes, I visited all three stations just to see them).


I’m glad I didn’t have to live through the protracted construction, but now that it’s done, I have to say: well done, MTA.