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?

BOOK REVIEW: Discovering Vintage New York

DiscVintageNYcoverTHE TITLE OF MITCH BRODER’S new book is just what I’ve been doing lately: Discovering Vintage New York (Globe Pequot, $17) — or what’s left of it, anyway. While friends plan winter trips to Paris, Costa Rica, Burma, and other far-flung places, my own wanderlust is limited these days to the New York City of an earlier era. With Broder’s book as my guide, I’m discovering or re-discovering venerable Manhattan bars, restaurants, bookstores, hat shops, bakeries, etc. — some well-known, some not-so, some dives, some fancy — that have miraculously survived the relentless march of commerce.

I’m much happier at the Old Town Bar on East 18th Street, a dimly lit 1890s tavern with a 55-foot-long marble bar and a dumbwaiter bringing sandwiches up from the basement, than in some trendy new spot. Everything is original: tin ceiling, tile floor, stained glass windows, converted gas chandeliers. “We don’t want to be a hip place,” says an owner, and hurray for that. Broder, a seasoned newspaperman, wants us to have the whole back story; he gives us three pages of reportage on each of 50 places, plus sidebars with 25 more.

The book is a handy compendium of places I once frequented but had forgotten, always meant to get to but never did, and a few I’d never heard of at all. Wait too long, and some of these spots might not be there when you finally get around to it, Broder points out in the book’s introduction. “When places like these close, people who always meant to visit them start grieving. I wrote this book to save you some grief.”Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop174 Fifth AvenueNew York, NY10010

Here’s a partial list of my winter itinerary, drawn from Discovering Vintage New York:

Barbetta, an old-school Italian restaurant on W. 46th Street, opened in 1906 in a brownstone parlor floor

El Quijote, a kitschy Spanish-themed restaurant on W. 23rd St., est. 1920

Right: Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop

B&H Dairy, a Jewish lunch counter on Second Avenue dating from the 1940s. I remember the mushroom barley soup from my NYU days, but never dared to dream it was still in business.

Milano’s Bar on E. Houston, est. 1923 (new to me, though I’ve seen it in passing).

Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street in Chinatown, on the street since 1920, though in a different storefront, and possibly the first to serve dim sum in New York.

Yonah Schimmel’s antique knish bakery I know, and Cafe Reggio on MacDougal, the last of the original Village cafes where you can still get cannolli and baba rum and cappuccino in a nicotine-stained 1920s interior, both included in the book. Mysteriously, the White Horse Tavern, Minetta Tavern, Walker’s and Raoul’s, all favorite downtown haunts of mine, are not. But I find it heartening that there are enough old places left that Broder couldn’t cover them all.

Let the new places continue to open (and close). I’m feeling some urgency about checking out the holdouts. If not now, when?

Below: Wo Hop

Wo Hop Restaurant17 Mott StreetNew York, NY10013