30 December 2011

Lost City: Wisconsin Edition: Wilmar Chocolates

For whatever reason—most likely, the heavy late-19th-early-20th-cenutry influx of German, Dutch, Belgian and other immigrants in the area—there are a high proportion of old-fashioned, quality, family chocolate shops in the towns of the Fox River Valley, nestled around Lake Winnebago in central-eastern Wisconsin.

Among there are Seroogy's in De Pere; Beernsten's, a wonderful old soda fountain in Manitowoc where you can also sit in a booth and enjoy a cheap lunch of bratwurst and chips; Oaks, a century-old candy shop in downtown Oshkosh; and Hughes Chocolates, an unfathomably quaint chocolate factory situated in a white clapboard family home on a suburban street.  (The New York Times called it "a figment of Wisconsin's imagination.) You walk through a side door down to the basement, where you can buy plain white boxes of bulked chocolates (no fancy individual wrappers) from a small counter in a room so cramped you have no choice but to leave immediately after you make your purchase. Hughes chocolates have been a Christmas tradition in my family for decades.

29 December 2011

Sign's History Revealed

Back in June 2010, I puzzled over this sign at 30 E. 29th Street in Manhattan. It seemed so much older than the restaurant, Campanile, that sat under it.

Recently, a regular reader, the author of Project Neon, wrote it to tell me she had cracked the case. It used to be called the Weathervane Inn. It was founded by Nat Levine, an immigrant from Poland, who moved here in the 1920s, and ran a place called The Milk Bar on Nassau Street prior to opening the Weathervane. Patrons included Joe Namath, Lauren Bacall, and Joe Louis.

The Levines liked the sign as much as I do. To wit: "The neon sign was considered important enough that they carried a service contract that meant the minute a single letter went out a service person immediately came to fix it." If only such devotion was more evident today.

The Weathervane was sold in 1973 

28 December 2011

Wooden Phone Booth Update: Marchi's

This inset phone booth is probably not as old at Marchi's restaurant—1929—but I bet it's at least 50 years old. Unlike the other booth in town, it still has its phone. You can get a dial tone, but you can't make a call.

23 December 2011

Marchi's. An extra-long meal; an extra-long "Who Goes There?" column. Not a bad place to go at Christmastime. There's a tree, a million nutcrackers and they play Christmas music non-stop.

Merry Christmas, all!

22 December 2011

Christmas Under the Onion Domes

Not a good picture, I know. But I had to run it. I love that Christmas trees are being sold in the shadow of the the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on N. 12th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Looks like a scene from Russia.

21 December 2011

The Most Beautiful Bakery in The Bronx

I don't know which bakery in the Belmont area of The Bronx is the best. But I know which one is the most beautiful. Addeo Bakery.

20 December 2011

A Good Sign: S.M. Rose Carpet

This is hands down the best neon sign for a carpet stores I've ever seen. S.M. Rose is on Fordham Road in The Bronx, near Arthur Avenue. I was a bit confused by the huge metal Chevrolet logo on the side of the building. Until a found a listing of Rose that described it as "associated with following industry(s): Used Car Dealers - Automobiles, Used Cars Only, Floor Covering Stores - Carpets, Retail."

19 December 2011

A Corner in Flatbush

This building at the corner of Church Avenue and Rogers Avenue is interesting enough in contemporary terms, since it is the home of Nio's Trinidad Roti Shop, a restaurant of some local renown. One Nio Badall founded the Trinidadian eatery some quarter century ago.

But I am more interested in what the building was before that. The sprawling, two-story, brick, corner edifice is so obviously an old structure—with its peaked cornice, oval window and decorative lintels—that one imagines it was a significant local landmark going back as far as one hundred years, if not more.

Alas, I have found out nothing about this building aside from the fact that it was a restaurant back in 1935. Anyone out there have any information?

Would You Get Your Taxes Done Here?

On a lonely sidestreet off Church Avenue in Flatbush, in a low-slung, oddly built brick building that may have been a stables of a small factory, is an accountant with no name and an unprepossessing address. I picture motley surroundings upstairs, a low ceiling, cluttered desk and an old, wily, not entirely trustworthy may in an unbuttoned vest and eyeshades. Bill Sikes might get his taxes done here. If Bill Sikes ever did his taxes.

15 December 2011

A Good Sign: Parisi Bros. Bakery

In Astoria since 1969. Not to be confused with the Parisi Bakery in Little Italy.

The Grandest McDonald's in Town

Is this the grandest McDonald's in town. It's certainly in the running. This Flatbush Mickey D's is situation inside an old branch of the Lincoln Savings Bank built in 1932. It's four stories tall, granite, with large, three-story, arching windows.

Lost City: Milwaukee Version: Karl Ratzsch's

Karl Ratzsch's Restaurant loomed large in my Milwaukee childhood. The old German downtown restaurant was where you went for special occasions. It's name evoked the kind of awe in a kid's mind that perhaps The Four Seasons and the "21" Club still do in New York. I remember going only seldomly, and being jealous when I heard of others going. In particular, my wealthy aunt and uncle's family's habit of going to Ratzsch's every Christmas day before coming to our house—and not inviting us to join them—was an annual source of frustration and anger to my mother.

14 December 2011

A Visit to the Reweaver

I hadn't been to a reweaver since I wrote about (and thus discovered) the trade for a New York newspaper about four years ago. And I missed it. The vanishing trade is so old-world-immigrant, so idiosyncratic, so invisible to everyday view—and, also, so necessary!—I couldn't help but love it. Reweavers are relics of a thriftier, more sensible time, when people actually had their old garments mended and darned. They are a rebuttal to our diseased, disposable lifestyle.

I had a couple beloved sweaters that had a hole or two; it was time. I grabbed them and headed to midtown Manhattan. Last time I checked there were still three or four reweavers around. The oldest, by far, is Alice Zotta. Like all the other reweavers I know, she works out of a cubby hole on a high floor of a highrise. Hers is on W. 45th, near Fifth Avenue.

Last time I visited, little Alice was still on the job, as she had been for 70 years. She has since retired, I was told, but the company continues, run now by her daughter. Otherwise, the "enterprise" is the same. There's a small, anonymous vestibule, and you conduct your business through a doctor's office window, passing your garments through to a woman, pointing our the spots that need repair.

They're a salty group, the reweavers. Dyspeptic, unsmiling, truth-tellers. They'll let you have it in no uncertain terms. "I don't know if we can do this," they'll begin. "This is a big job." "This might be impossible." "This is gonna cost you." "Are you sure you want to do this?" Comments like that. They really do their best to turn you away. You have to pay in advance, because, as the worker told me, "We've been burned to many times." Zotta's office is filled with clothes people have left and never paid for.

I'd go to the reweaver more, but the work does cost a lot. The reweaving of one smallish hole will run you $50, and many jobs start between $70 and $100. So you better goddam love that suit or pair of pants to pay the sort of money that could easily buy you a new garment. I did love these three sweaters. But one had been attacked by moths so viciously I was told it would cost $200 to repair. So, with a sigh, I abandoned it to the trash. The other two, however, I decided to save.

I'm looking forward to picking them up. Zotta always does peerless work in a dying craft.

13 December 2011

This has got to be the flashiest key-maker-shoe-shop-jewelry-watch-repair store in the City. Every single little nitzy thing this tiny Flatbush business does is emblazoned in light. Either the owner really likes neon, or he's crazy.

12 December 2011

Willie Had a Liquor Store

The bold, rather unpleasant sign above this Church Avenue business tells you its it's Willie's Liquors. But look further up and you'll receive the same information in a much more enjoyable package. The old neon sign would seem to indicate that this Flatbush business has been around since the 1930s or '40s. I love that it's called Willie's Liquors—not William's, or Bill's. And I'd love to know who Willie was. But I don't.

Despite the signs, this liquor store apparently officially goes by the name of 77 B&C. Utterly charmless. Long live Willie.

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Lee's Tavern?"

My first "Who Goes There?" column in Staten Island, and ain't I but proud?

Who Goes There? Lee's Tavern
Yeah, it's called Lee's Tavern, not Lee's Restaurant. And it is a tavern. An old one. It's got an old wooden bar, tin ceilings, tile floors, TVs showing sports matches, serves Bud and Coors, the whole nine yards. So what's it doing in this column? Because Lee's also serves what some think is the best bar pizza in the five boroughs, and has been doing so for decades. And because there are plenty of tables. People find this place and sit down for dinner every night of the week—despite the fact that the blonde-brick building, in this lonely corner of Staten Island known as Dongan Hills, has no signifying features, least of all a sign.
Lee's has been around since 1940, when it was founded by Leroy Moresco, known to all as "Mr. Lee." Diego "Dickie" Palemine (everyone has a nickname) bought the place in 1969. After Diego was killed in a hotel fire while vacationing in San Juan in 1986, his family continued to run the bar. Today, his strapping son, also called Diego, does double duty, manning the bar, and walking out to the floor when someone makes a food order.
The Lee's menu includes salad, garlic bread and scungilli—all of it cheap—but pizza is the thing here. Bar pies are an odd subset of the American pizza world that typically connote a smaller size, a thin crust and sub-standard ingredients. All of that is true here, except the last one. The ingredients here are good and the skill with which they're put together is considerable. Lee's cheese pie is sweet, subtle and tasty. And the clam pie is as good as anything I've had in New Haven. If you think you're gonna get better at $5.75 and $8 a pie, respectively, you're a putz.
I suppose Lee's gets a questing foodie like me every now and again, but mainly this is a Staten Island-sustained joint. If any of the patrons were from outside the immediate area, my social antennae didn't detect them. All the customers strolled in like they had just come from around the corner. Lotsa back-slapping going on here. Fat hands on sweatshirted backs again and again. Everyone knows each other. Everyone knows each other's sister or mother, and they all ask how that sister or mother is doing. Ninety percent of the drinkers and diners were dressed in athletic gear: track suits, warm-up jackets, sweat pants, basketball jerseys, athletic shoes. That not a single one of them had just come from doing anything athletic was a dead certainty. Staten Island folk don't seem to know that they dress like extras from "The Sopranos" and "Working Girl." Or they do know it, and don't care. Or they do, and are proud of it. I don't know. If I could call Lee's my local pizzeria, I'd be kinda proud too.
—Brooks of Sheffield

09 December 2011

An Italian Butcher in Caribbean Flatbush

I stumbled upon one of New York's oldest butchers the other day during a long rainy walk through Flatbush. Sitting anomalously in the middle of the various Caribbean and Spanish shops on Nostrand Avenue was Michael's Prime Meats, a remnant of the neighborhood's Italian past.

08 December 2011

A Good Sign: Bigzee's Tavern

I include this Staten Island bar for several reasons. One, Bigzee's is such a great name for a tavern. Two, you can still see that the place used to be called Donovan's, as nobody has bothered to paint over the sign above the awing sufficiently. And third, because of the odd, oval signs to the left in which Bigzee's proclaims its many attractions.

Flatbush's Merry Oldsmobile Sign

This is surely the only extant neon Oldsmobile sign in New York City. I almost passed it by without noticing, so seamlessly has it facing into the background of visually hectic Flatbush Avenue, near Avenue D.

It's a beaut of a sign, two-sided and three stories tall. Also, the block at the bottom, by some miracle, works. Most certainly, this was an Oldsmobile dealership once upon a time. The sign also used to be red, based on old photos.

05 December 2011

Rat-Squirrel House Gets New Cornice

Last we checked in on the slowly improving, former horror show know as the Rat-Squirrel House, it had lost its cornice and gains a new roof. Now the long-delapidated Cobble Hill residence has a new cornice. It's a crappy one, of course, because cheap is the way to go in these dark days of Gotham development. Looks to be fiberglass. But it's the same shape as the old one. And maybe they will paint it brown or something.

04 December 2011

Hey, Windows: Why So Round?

Walking down E. 85th Street between Second and Third Avenue, I was struck by the unusual roundness of these ground floor buildings. They're not only arches, which is fairly common in older building, but they bulge out at the sides and are abnormally side. The same is true of the doorways at 222 and 220 E. 85th.

The AIA Guide noticed the windows, too: "Bold, sensuous arches and their batterned bases form, seemingly, keyholes that ground these unusual tenements." The buildings were built in the 1890s, not 1910, as City records erroneously state.

01 December 2011

Bill's Gay Nineties Dilemma Grows Murkier

Alarmed by the rumors swirling around the classic Manhattan bar Bill's Gay Nineties, I paid a call on the former speakeasy to raise a glass, stare at the old boxing posters and theatrical bills and see what I could learn. The blue-blazered swells around me were swilling their Cutty and waters and dirty Martinis as if nothing were amiss. Very likely, they had not read the reports in the New York Post and Crain's that Bill's had declared bankruptcy and was being courted by the oily downtown scene-meister John DeLucie (The Lion, Waverly Inn, etc.)

A Good Sign: Grande Monuments

It's the rare New York business that has both great old standard signage and great old neon signage. But Grande Monuments on Graham Avenue in Williamsburg hits that trick. The business was begun in the late '40s and is still family owned. (Grande is not an adjective in this case; it was the name of the founder). It's a weird mash-up place. They sell headstones and bread. The bread comes from Fornaretto Bakery in Brooklyn, where owner Jerry Ragusa's daughter Angela works. It's his way of having her in the business.

30 November 2011

Weird Thing Growing in Red Hook

I saw this strange sight on Reed Street in Red Hook, opposite the Fairway, rising out out what has long been an empty lot. Couldn't make heads or tails out of it. The shape of the building's skeleton doesn't say house or apartment building. It's the huge deck or balcony or whatever that throws one off. Makes it look like a beach house or a resort-ish restaurant of some kind.

The DOB postings say its going to be an "eating and drinking establishment." A damn big one, by the looks of it. Brownstoner says the place will be called Brooklyn Crab. "The applicant for this liquor license states that it will be a seafood restaurant with hours of operation being from 5 to 10:30 week days and 5 to 11:30 weekends and holidays. There will be two open air spaces, to wit: a deck and a covered roof area." That explains that. So will they buy their crabs from Fairway?

Violent Vines

"Open the window or the shutters get it!"

29 November 2011

More Sad Bill's Gay Nineties News

This article in Crain's may explain the upsetting recent news that a snazzy local restauranteur John DeLucie has been talking to the owners of the former midtown speakeasy Bill's Gay Nineties about renovating and taking over the W. 54th Street saloon: 

One of the city's oldest restaurants, Bill's Gay Nineties, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The Prohibition-era establishment, located in a five-story townhouse at 57 E. 54th St., has been unable to negotiate a lease extension with the building's landlord, according to the filing.
Its owner, Barbara Olmsted, wrote in the filing that she still hopes to reach an agreement with the landlord or to move the business to a nearby location.
Ms. Olmstead owes just $40,000 in back rent. The business' other debts are relatively small, as well. The estimated total liabilities are between $100,000 and $500,000.
“It looks like it's a straight-up landlord dispute, in which the tenant is trying to buy more time” said bankruptcy attorney Fred Stevens, a partner of Klestadt & Winters.
The filing also blames the bankruptcy on the recession and “the difficult climate facing New York restaurants.”
Ms. Olmsted did not return several phone calls nor did her attorney, Lawrence Morrison. Her father, O.B. Bart bought Bill's Gay Nineties in 1965 and she took over the business in 1979. The Bart family is only the second owner of the speakeasy, once a watering hole for some of Hollywood's most famous names including Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.

This news came as a surprise to me. I always assumed Bill's owned the building and that was one of the reasons it had stayed in business for so long.

Can New York's Restaurant Swells Please Keep Their Glitter-Stained Hands Off the City's Landmarks?

First Graydon Carter souped up the legendary Waverly Inn and the Monkey Bar. Then Gabe Stulhman fancified  the Village icon Fedora. And Torrisi Italian Specialties, is threatening to take over Rocco's, the old Village Italian standby. Now this:
Former Waverly Inn chef John DeLucie is opening a new front in the restaurant war with his former boss Graydon Carter. The team behind clubby eateries Crown and The Lion — Mark Amadei, Sean Largotta and DeLucie — is in talks to take over 1920s speakeasy Bill’s Gay ’90s right across the street from Monkey Bar, co-owned by Carter. If the deal goes through for the East 54th Street townhouse, they hope to reopen it by the spring. Sources say they plan to re-create the old-time feel of the original bar with a first-floor tavern and several private rooms. Carter was partners with DeLucie at Waverly Inn until he left last year to open The Lion. A Crown rep had no comment.

Here's a news flash to Mr. DeLucie: Bill's already has an old-time feel. Don't fuck it up with your vile whoring-after-the-1%, faux-authentic sensibilities. This is not your element. You have no idea what a real New York tavern is. So: Back. The. Hell. Away. From. Bill's.

Macy's Wooden Escalators Gone, but May Return

A recent visit to Macy's Herald Square brought back the hurtful reminder that most (all?) of the wooden treads on the ancient, historic wooden escalators have been replaced in recent years by standard metal trades. Apparently, a series of accidents resulted in the old wooden treads being ripped out. The sides of the Otis escalators remain wooden, but the crowning beauty of the contraptions was really the treads. The wood was warm; the metal is cold. I went up several floors looking for ones that were still wood, but didn't find any. Maybe they lurk at the top of the building.

But when I went home to do some research on the subject, I was delighted and surprised to find a story in the Nov. 1 edition of the New York Times that reported that Macy's is planning an extension, multi-year renovation of its flagship store, to begin this spring. Included in the redo will be the "preservation of 42 of 43 historic wooden escalators in the current store – a unique and distinguishing feature of Macy’s Herald Square." So they're coming back, I guess!

Among the other welcome improvement: "Restoring the first floor “great hall”... The original great hall’s ceiling height will be restored"; and "The ornate “Memorial Entrance” on 34th Street will be restored and reopened. Windows along Broadway, 34th Street and Seventh Avenue, which have been covered up over the years, will be reopened. Windows on the upper floors also will be uncovered to allow more natural light into the building. Sidewalks will be replaced, with Macy’s-branded paved “welcome mats” added at every entrance. Awnings and canopies reminiscent of the original building will be added. New exterior lighting will highlight the building’s elegant architectural details."

For those who wonder what the old wooden escalators looked like, here's a video I took back in 2008.

Brown's Fuel Service, Carving a Name for Itself in Staten Island

Brown's Fuel Service has been in business on Staten Island for more than 50 years, providing oil, gas and electricity to island residents. It's a family business, now run by the second the third generation (though the family name seems to have switched to Palmese). I was struck was the simple, yet bold elegance of the carved sign on their Sommers Lane headquarters. I also very much like the old clock on the side, which told the correct time.

Glaser's Still Going

Glaser's Bake Shop, the 109-year-old Yorkville institution on First Avenue, and perhaps the oldest continually operating business from the Little Germany days, is still going. Just saying, in case anyone was wondering. I don't get up there very often. But I was in the area this past weekend and made sure to swing by for a pastry. They have started making cherry turnovers, for all who are interested.

28 November 2011

Another "Who Goes There" Subject Falls

Spanish Taverna, a Garment District standby that I profiled in a July 2009 "Who Goes There?" column, has closed. I can't tell when the shuttering happened. According to a Yelp posting, the place was will in operation in October. But the phone has been disconnected. And there's a "For Rent" sign in the window, the other windows being papered over.

Here's a bit of what I found in 2009:
The inside, however, is as drab as ever. Tan, brown, yellow—the colors of the 1970s. There’s a nook of a bar up front, and an oddly airless, somewhat depressing dining area in back, with rows of booths on either side. A wealth of mirrors on the sides and in the back lends the illusion of space, as do the unusual plastic arcs which hang from the ceiling and partly divide one booth from the next. I’ve never seen this latter design feature in any other restaurant. It must have seemed terribly modern 34 years ago when Spanish Taverna opened.
Those who come here (Garment District workers, who like to haunt the bar; foreign tourists from Australia, Spain and elsewhere; a few elderly pre-theatre diners) seem to regard it as a hidden gem purveying some of the most authentic Spanish grub in the metropolis. Indeed, the food, while hellishly expensive (entrees range from $18 to $30; a glass of sangria is $8) is more than decent, and undeniably bountiful. I particularly like the mariscadas—various kinds of stew brought to the table in weathered pewter kettles. And everything is served with a dish of very nice, thinly slice fried potatoes.
So, that makes three former "Who Goes There?" subjects that have bitten the dust this fall: Spanish Taverna, La Petite Auberge, and Hinsch's (though the latter is slated to reopen new year under new management). And Rocco's will close early next year. I would have done a "Final Seating" column for Spanish Taverna if I had but known.

27 November 2011

A Good Sign: J. Braun Liquors

I found this wonderful old liquor store sign over the weekend, at Lexington and 90th. Judging by the name, a remnant of the area's German past.

UPDATE: Additional info sent by a reader in the know: "The proprietor was Julius Braun (1914-1995), a Jewish immigrant from Poland who arrived in NY in 1921 with his family. I don't know when Julius opened the store on Lexington Avenue, but it has been there since at least 1971."

There aren't enough people named Julius anymore, in my opinion.

23 November 2011

Tree Delivery

Saw this truck pull up outside the Chelsea Garden Center in Red Hook a few hours ago. Someone's going to be ready for tree shoppers the day after Thanksgiving.

22 November 2011

Curious Window Hardware on Grove Street

I was in the West Village the other day when I paused in front of this handsome old Federal Style house on Grove Street. Admiring the obvious age of the building's facade, my eye was caught by some metal prongs which protruded from the side of each window. There were two on each side, four to a window in all, and had long since been painted over. What were they? What purpose did they once serve?