Sunday, May 29, 2011

Gene's Restaurant: One of New York's Best Spots for Civil Service

By Mitch Broder

The main thing I knew about Gene’s was its claim to have opened in 1919, which I understood to limit my chances of having a chat with Gene. So I went to its Web site and saw an old post card that said “Established 1923.” I was impressed by a place that gets older in both directions.

I read some MenuPages comments, and almost all of them praised the food. But some of them knocked the restaurant. Those are what got me to make reservations.

“This place is old-school,” one said. “It’s not a youthful environment,” another said. “The atmosphere is a little depressing, it’s really not a restaurant for young people,” a third said.

I was once youthful. Or at least younger. I didn’t like noisy joints then, either. I now questioned equating a non-trending place with bingo night at the morgue.

So I went to Gene’s, and I found it peaceful and soothing, which to me is almost the opposite of a little depressing. But it is indeed old-school. It has paintings and mirrors and wrought-iron bars, which make it seem enduring, and waiters in waiter jackets, which make them seem like waiters.

My waiter coached me on my decisions, perceptively sensing my decision issues. I had the ravioli, my companion had the pasta special, we shared a profiterole, and we could hear ourselves speak. Everything was delicious. Other people smiled at us. All of this also seemed almost the opposite of a little depressing.

I spoke to Danny Ramirez, who runs Gene’s with his brother, David Ramirez. Gene, as I guessed, is no longer available for interviews. Danny acknowledged that the restaurant appeals to older people, but not exclusively: “Most of the kids want something wild and crazy, but there are some young crowds that like the old-fashioned stuff.”

Good for them. They’ll have all the parmigianas to themselves. And they’ll still live longer due to reduced nerve damage. And maybe one of them will have the ambition I didn’t to determine whether the place was established in 1919 or 1923.

Meanwhile, I was ambitious enough to determine the meaning of “old-school.” Urban Dictionary defines it as follows: “A positive appellation referring to when things weren’t flashy but empty of substance, were done by hard work, didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, and required real skill.”

I’m just quoting.

Feel youthful at Gene’s Restaurant, at 73 West 11th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, in Manhattan.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Signing Off: New York City Rejects Potty Vibe

By Mitch Broder

New Yorkers this year took a stand against eating a Chinese novelty food while sitting in a urinal.

I am so proud.

Kung Fu Bing, at 189 East Houston Street, posted a notice reading “Store Is Temporary Closed For Restructuring,” which, loosely translated, means “If You Liked Our Food, Feast on Your Memories.” All that was left inside were mirrors, counters, tables — and plastic chairs reminiscent of the more contemporary tinkling stations, such as the Toto Toilets Model UT104E#01 Low Consumption Compact with Integral Trap.

The restaurant, another notice explained, had been there to introduce “a unique integration of Asian flavor in the form of a sandwich. ‘Bing’ means ‘pancake’ in Chinese and is the heart of our concept and the secret of our success.”

The statement concluded with the hope that the bing would become “as popular as the ‘taco’ from Mexico, the ‘pizza’ from Italy, and the ‘naan’ from India,” though not the “hot dog” from Coney.

It’s not working out. Before closing after its brief stay in the East Village, Kung Fu Bing closed after a brief stay in Chinatown.

The failures may be partly related to the food. Online comments range from “Oily, gummy yet crispy” to “Greasy, nasty sauce, weird meat. One of the worst things I’ve ever tried.”

But maybe the failures are also related to the unappetizing chairs. If I had found bings before they bombed, I would have avoided them on the grounds of toilet seats.

Fast-food establishments, of course, are known for accommodations that encourage fast feeding — but they usually make at least a passing attempt at camouflaging them.

In any case, seating comfort rarely figures in dining reviews. I don’t get it. My butt aches enough as it is without paying to make it ache more.

Vintage New York believes that ninety percent of New York City restaurant seats could use a cushion.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Primeburger Coffee Shop: Have Lunch With Some Tomatoes

By Mitch Broder

Among the best scenes for meeting chicks in Manhattan are the lounges, the clubs, the cafés, and that old place where you eat in a high chair.

The chicks you meet there may live in Argentina, but I never promised a lasting relationship.

The place is The Primeburger, whose menu attraction is the Primeburger, but whose main attraction is its portrayal of 1965. It has barely changed since its renovation that year, which is why it still has the high chairs, which I personally see as airplane seats, which doesn’t make them any less humbling.

The seats are in three-sided nooks. The nooks have two seats in each side and an end table in each corner. They’re like little living rooms. When you sit, your waiter locks you in with a swiveling fake-walnut tray. When food is on it, you can’t get up. Neither can the chicks.

I recently had four Argentinian chicks in my living room (not including the women above). They were tourists, as many Primeburger patrons are. We were sitting there facing each other. They had to at least smile at me. Fortunately for them, I was more interested in 1965.

The Primeburger began as part of a chain called Hamburg Heaven. The store opened in ’42 and became The Primeburger in ’65. The current owners bought it in ’76 and decided that one renovation was enough. That has helped them survive, not that it’s hurt to be across from St. Patrick’s.

The walnut Formica walls are original. The blond Formica counters are original. The black perforated conical midcentury-modern light fixtures are original. The mechanical change-maker is original, the burger broilers are original, and at least one waiter is, too, though they all wear white coats with “The Primeburger” embroidered on them, so they will all look original.

Most of all, the seats are original — and rare, if not unique. People wait to sit in them, because the people who are already in them tend to stay there. “I take pictures all day long,” says the co-manager Michael Di Miceli. “We get people in here on their first day in New York, and they come back the whole week.”

So there might be time for a lasting relationship, though I’m not looking. I chatted a bit with my chicks and sent them packing to Argentina.

Of course, you may not even get chicks. Your may get four men in black suits, which is what replaced my chicks. But then, that could be just what you’re looking for.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Signing On: Is This Bakery Trying to Be Something It's Not?

By Mitch Broder

Some New Yorkers are still disturbed that Vesuvio still says “Vesuvio” when it’s been almost three years since it was Vesuvio.

I’m more disturbed that it sells chocolate-chip cookies for $2.50 and doesn’t fill them with enough chocolate chips.

Vesuvio was an Italian bread bakery that opened in 1920. It got famous for its Italian bread but more famous for its façade. It had the cute little storefront you imagine every little store in New York City once had. It still does. Except that the façade is now a façade.

In 2008 Vesuvio closed; in 2009 it reopened as a Birdbath Neighborhood Green Bakery. The people inside tell you it’s Birdbath. The window outside tells you it’s Vesuvio. Needless to say, this confuses tourists. Needful to say, it confuses New Yorkers.

Small clues to the new identity await the keen observer. For one thing, Birdbath doesn’t sell Italian bread. For another, what it does sell isn’t particularly Italian. But it doesn’t exactly go out of its way to set the customers straight. The confusion, as played out among patrons, is sometimes comical.

Yelp, for instance, lists Vesuvio as closed, but the “reviewers” are perplexed. One wrote: “I work right around the corner, and not only are they definitely NOT closed, but they still have the best cookies ever.” Another wrote: “Why does it say closed? I don’t understand. I had a cookie here on Friday.”

Some people commend the bakery owner for preserving the vintage storefront. Some people vilify him for exploiting the vintage storefront. Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York distills the conflict: “… in the presence of these preservations and simulations,” he writes, “we’re not sure what to feel.”

He’s right. I like seeing the old store the way it was, but it mocks me because it doesn’t deliver what it seems to promise.

Just like the cookie. Sure, it’s crunchy outside and chewy inside. But without the imagined load of chips, it leaves you a little empty.

Evaluate the Birdbath Bakery at 160 Prince Street, between West Broadway and Thompson Street, in Manhattan.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rocco Ristorante: Light Up the Place, They'll Pick Up the Check

By Mitch Broder

Rocco is more than a staurant. But at night it looks like a staurant. Which is why its owner has authorized Vintage New York to relay this exclusive offer:

Go to Rocco. Climb a ladder. Put the re back in restaurant. If the owner is happy with your work, he’ll give you dinner free.

This offer developed while the owner, Antonio DaSilva, was acknowledging the importance to the staurant of his suspended vintage neon sign. “That sign is the alert,” he confided. “People sometimes don’t remember what street we’re on, but they see that sign and they say, ‘Oh, that’s it!’”

Except that now they don’t always see that sign, because the sign took a beating in the endless winter that may now finally have ended though I still wouldn’t bet on it. “Sometimes it’s on,” Tony said. “Sometimes it’s not on.” On my visit, one side was not on. The other side said “staurant.”

Both sides are supposed to say “Rocco Restaurant,” which is what the place has been since 1922, when Tony’s great-uncle Rocco Stanziano first opened it. Rocco ran it till 1966, when his nephew Gianni Respinto took over. Gianni ran it till 1992, when his nephew Antonio took over.

Tony doesn’t know when the sign went up but he thinks it was near the beginning, which was around the time that neon signs came to America. Both sides also used to say “Wines-Liquors,” but Tony’s not asking for the world. He’ll be happy if they just say Rocco Restaurant, even if he now calls it Rocco Ristorante.

Then people will again know where to find their Veal Piccata, their Dentice alla Livornese, and their Gnocchi alla Gorgonzola. And they’ll be able to take pictures of the antique sign that look better than mine, though the sign doesn’t actually need to be fixed for that.

Tony did call a neon repairman but the guy didn’t show. That’s what drove him to make his public offering. “Free dinner if you repair the sign,” he said. Then he thought it over. He knew that free dinner might not cover the repair. “OK,” he decided. “Four free dinners.”

Find your way to Rocco Ristorante, at 181 Thompson Street, between Houston and Bleecker streets, in Manhattan.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Strangely New York: In the End, It's Where I Want to Be in the End

By Mitch Broder

I was condemned, delivered, redeemed, and invited to hula-hoop with three girls.

In New York, you can cram a lot of living into 20 minutes.

I share this with you today because this blog is still young, and I’m still intermittently clarifying why it exists. This is why. New York is my perfect town because it requires no planning. You enter it and stuff happens to you. Whether you want it to or not.

In this case, I had no sooner entered the Grand Central subway station than I saw a man wearing a T-shirt that said “End of the World.” He gave me a pamphlet that explained that Judgment Day is on May 21st and the End of the World is on October 21st, which on the bright side meant no more winters.

Eager to exhaust my MetroCard balance, I took the train to Union Square, where I saw more people handing out the pamphlets. One smiled for a picture. The pamphlet said “the time for salvation is drawing to a rapid close.” Luckily, when I emerged from the station, salvation awaited me.

Two nice young men representating the Mitzvah Tank asked me if I was Jewish and if I wanted to put on tefillin. Tefillin are little black boxes containing biblical verses, which many Jews strap to their head and arm daily, because every day is Judgment Day.

I declined because I don’t wear tefillin on Union Square at 15th Street, but the nice young men blessed me anyway. I wondered if things were as bleak as the pamphlet people thought. I decided they weren’t when I saw the blue van laden with hundreds of green plastic coconuts.

The van contained Vita Coco 100% Pure Coconut Water and girls in yellow T-shirts and flip-flops, carrying hula hoops. I wasn’t sure how I felt about coconut water but I felt pretty good about the girls. They came out, assembled near the park, and asked me if I wanted to hula-hoop.

I declined because I don’t hula-hoop on Union Square at 16th Street, but the girls graciously hula-hooped for me anyway. They suggested that I wait for free coconut water but I was running late, and besides, I had decided that coconut belongs inside of chocolate.

Yet I was still refreshed. I hadn’t accepted what anyone had offered, but I had been noticed. I had counted. Somehow I had mattered.

That’s another reason why I’m blogging, and another reason why I’ll keep doing it.

At least until October 21st.

Vintage New York respects all religious beliefs and beverage preferences. Most, anyway.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Town Shop: Where the NYC Man Can Get a Lift

By Mitch Broder

If you’re looking for that special kind of support that every active man needs, you can now find it at a properly intimate place:

New York City’s most famous bra store.

The most famous bra store is The Town Shop, the flagship of a family business that dates to 1888.  It’s the place where a bra-fitter gives the eye to a patron and instantly knows her bra size, because “Finding a Perfect Bra is an Art, Not a Science.”

That’s the store motto. “Your Support is Our Business” is the slogan. Both used to refer to women,  but the sexist reign is over. The Town Shop has begun carrying the Spanx Zoned Performance Crew, which — depending on the wearer’s needs — is, in fact, a man bra.

“It’s a control undershirt,” clarifies Danny Koch, who runs the store with his father, Peter Koch, who’s the son of the late Selma Koch, who made the store famous with her uplifting attitude. “It’s a powerful, squeezing undershirt that enables you to button the jacket that you couldn’t button before you put it on.”

He acknowledges that in this example he is referring to himself. The Spanx can control any part of the torso. But it appears to be uniquely useful for the man with a bosom. Or, as the package copy prefers: “Firms and tones chest.”

Danny says that Peter insisted that the Spanx would never sell. It is selling. A man bought one while I was standing at the counter. The buyer already owned one and professed that it cures his problem. “Now,” he said, “I can eat anything I want.”

For that privilege, he pays $78 a Spanx. That’s pretty high compared with regular undershirts. But regular undershirts don’t firm and tone.

“People buy things that they need,” Danny Koch says. “If you need it, it’s not high.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Signing Off: Were Their Messages Properly Mixed?

By Mitch Broder

I would not trade my life for a perm.

I might trade my life for permanent hair, but that’s beside the point.

The point is that there was an Upper West Side salon that seemed to suggest that if I patronized it I would croak — and maybe that’s why it croaked.

City places are always going, but lately I’ve passed some places that whisper to me of something that may have hastened their departure. As I’ve gazed up at their sad awnings and thought about what I’m reading, I have not been able to keep from wondering … Could it have been the name?

Thanks, but not just yet...

Looks to be a long one...

Now I guess I'll have to...

Naturally, they dropped...

And so the cupcakes stopped.

Vintage New York extends its condolences to all lost NYC businesses. Most, anyway.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bill's Gay Nineties: The New York Speakeasy That Sings

By Mitch Broder

Barbara Bart showed me all of her secrets.

Well, not all of them. But I’ll be back.

Barbara is the owner of Bill’s Gay Nineties, which may be the city’s first restaurant to have been nostalgic on its first day. It opened in the 1920s, with a theme of the 1890s. It reassures me to know that even ninety years ago people wanted to go back thirty years.

It also reassures me to know that ninety years ago people were hunting for stuff that went back thirty years. That’s what Barbara said that Bill Hardy did to get the stuff that fills the restaurant’s three floors, like the red Fire Alarm Telegraph box, the Park Row street sign and the tinted photographs of showgirls, which I prefer to the tinted photographs of boxers.

Everyone can see this stuff. But not everyone can see the secrets. Barbara clearly wanted to keep me entertained, which meant that she was either very comfortable with me, or very uncomfortable with me.

The first secret she shared was her name: It’s actually Barbara Bart Olmsted. She married a relation to Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park. We sat on the second floor at a little round table, and that turned out to be the second secret: “This is a speakeasy table,” she said, and invited me to slip my hand under the tablecloth.

There, beneath the wooden tabletop I felt — another wooden tabletop. That’s where you stashed your drink when the cops came in for the sing-along. Bill’s, of course, was a speakeasy, but this is its only remaining speakeasy table. I pictured myself at it in 1924, squirreling away my root beer.

When I composed myself, Barbara asked if I’d like to see the secret room. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, even if I had no idea what it was.

She led me back down to the first floor, then through a door that said “No Admittance.” She took me down stairs that were little more than rickety wooden planks. She unlocked a battered wooden door that looked like it led to a clubhouse. She guided me through a room that could actually be a clubhouse.

At the end of the room was a little door made out of bricks. Beyond that was the secret room — where you could stash all of your root beer.

The room was so secret that I dared only peek in. Nobody knew where I was, and after all, it was a brick door. But Barbara invited me back to Bill’s some night to sample the sing-alongs at the piano, and I eagerly accepted, because I knew more surprises awaited.

I intend to return soon. I’ll tell you about it. I’ll ask the piano player if he knows “Secret Love.”

Explore Bill’s Gay Nineties at 57 E. 54th St., between Park and Madison avenues, in Manhattan.