Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gem Spa: A Sweet Sip of a Long-Lost City

The egg cream is above the awning. The owner prefers no indoor photography.
By Mitch Broder

The awning at Gem Spa says “New York’s Best Egg Cream,” so let’s just take a moment here to get a few things straight.

New York’s Best Egg Cream was made by my grandmother.

New York’s Second Best Egg Cream is made by my mother.

New York’s Third Best Egg Cream is made by me.

I assume that Gem Spa had no room on its awning for “Fourth.”

Then again, my grandmother’s gone, my mother’s quit the kitchen, and I’m too shiftless to make anything, so the place could have a point.

If New York City had an official drink, it would probably be the coconut-water melon-smoothie latte. But last century, it would have been the egg cream. The egg cream is vintage New York not only because it made its name here, but also because its name consists of two things that aren’t in it.

My old seltzer bottles with old seltzer. Do not drink.
An egg cream is created by mixing Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup, whole milk, and pressurized seltzer. The operative word is “mixing.” The correct ingredients are critical, but so is the correct hand. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you might as well guzzle a Yoo-hoo.

That’s why it is near futile to anoint a place for its egg cream. It’s not a place that makes it, it’s a person, and persons vary. And a person’s work may vary with intangible factors, like time of day, mood, and temperament. Unless the person was my grandmother.

The best egg cream I remember getting on the Lower East Side was at an egg cream booth at the corner of Orchard and Grand. It was called Dave’s. It was run by Dave. The egg creams were made by Dave. Egg creams were a living for Dave. And he probably learned from my grandmother.

There are no more egg cream booths, and if there were they wouldn’t give you a free pretzel rod like Dave. That’s what makes Gem Spa precious: It’s the closest thing we have left. It may look like the Burma Bazaar, but it embraces the lore of the egg cream, and it mixes you one from a little fountain in the middle of the checkout counter.

Gem Spa is like an egg cream in that no one seems to know how it started. Sources suggest that it was born as a candy store in the twenties. Reportedly, two men bought it in 1957 and named it Gems Spa. “Gems” was from family initials. “Spa” was a word they liked.

My old Fox's U-bet, from the refrigerator. Do not eat.
Since the seventies, it has changed hands and looks several times (and dropped that S), but apparently the egg cream technique has been handed down. The current owner is Ray, who doesn’t like to publish even his first name because, he says, he wants people to think of “Gem Spa,” and not of “Ray.”

“This is known to the whole country,” he says. “People come to drink our egg cream from Texas, California, Europe, everywhere. It’s in the visitors guides. People read about it and they come. And once they have the egg cream, they have to come back and have it again.”

Once there, they can also have other traditional Lower East Side confections, like Joyva Marshmallow Twists, Jell Rings, and Halvah. And they can stock up on newspapers, magazines, cigarette lighters, birthday candles, dominoes, Chiclets, mood rings, safety pins, bobby pins, scarves, sunglasses, and hats.

The egg creams come in four flavors, though an egg cream should be chocolate. They come in a paper cup, though an egg cream is best in a glass. They can come with a pretzel rod, though that will cost you extra. They can be close to perfect, though they can sometimes be  less close.

As to the origin of the egg cream and its name, we will never know. Theories and claims abound, but there is no way to prove them.

Some say one Louis Auster  invented it. Ray says Gem Spa invented it.

I say my grandmother invented it.

There’s no way to prove she didn’t...

Mix it up at Gem Spa, 131 Second Avenue, at St. Mark’s Place, in Manhattan.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Strangely New York: At Least One Celebrity Chef is a Bit of a Wag

David Burke Townhouse.
By Mitch Broder

David Burke’s dogs don’t have faces, which is kind of creepy, though there’s something to be said for a dog without a mouth.

There’s also something to be said for a chef who puts faceless dogs in your face in front of three upmarket restaurants on the Upper East Side.

It’s a little thing. But it’s a droll thing. And that’s more than you typically get at the type of place that serves dishes like Hudson Valley Rabbit Degustation. The dogs disarm you. You crack a smile. You crack the jokes that everyone cracks. You have a moment of mirth on the sidewalk. You can’t argue with that.

Fishtail by David Burke.
A white plastic dog is tied by a red leash to a long wooden bench in front of David Burke Townhouse, on 61st Street. Another white dog is tied by another red leash to a railing in front of Fishtail by David Burke, on 62nd Street. An orange dog looks out the window, or would if it could, at David Burke at Bloomingdale’s, on 59th Street. It has no leash; it’s indoors.

Kids sit on the dogs and get their pictures taken. Other dogs sniff the dogs because, plastic or not, they’re dogs. A few people have dognapped the dogs. But Burke has always replaced them. They’ve become a trademark. And they were conceived in a matter of principle.

Burke moved into a building that had just altered its pet policy. “If I’d moved in four months earlier I would have been able to have a dog,” he says. He fleetingly toyed with the idea of filling the foyer with toy dogs. He chose instead to be mature. He bought the toy dogs for himself.

“We’re serious restaurant people, but we want you to come and have fun,” he says. This is, after all, the man who also sells Cheesecake Lollipops.

And the dogs ask for so little, he adds: “They’re very loyal, don’t bark, there’s very little cleanup, and they’ve all had their shots.”

David Burke at Bloomingdale's.

Pet the trademarks at David Burke’s restaurants on the Upper East Side, in Manhattan.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tony's Shoe Repair: He Keeps the Shine on the Family Business

By Mitch Broder

Tony tries to run his shoe repair with the craftsmanship it had in the thirties, which is commendable since he didn’t run it then, and moreover, he isn’t Tony.

Tony is the son of Tony, who also isn’t Tony, but who is also the son of Tony, who also wasn’t Tony. The real Tony was the guy who opened the store in 1928 and sold it six years later to another guy, named Gaetano. Gaetano kept Tony’s sign, thus becoming the second Tony and setting the stage for his son Dan and grandson Gaetano, or Guy, to become the third and fourth Tonys.

Guy is the Tony I spoke with after being drawn into the store by its evocation of 1966, which is when it was last redecorated. He is Guy Pisani, the current owner, who has worked in the shop on and off since 1964, when he was five and shines were a quarter. He goes by Tony.

Guy took over from his father, Dan, in 1997, and by then, he says, the shop’s best days were behind it. Those were in the eighties, when the shop was in the heart of a teeming garment district. “We made more money in the eighties — charging two-thirds less — than I’m gonna make in the rest of my career,” he fatalistically claims.

Back then, the neighborhood supplied tens of thousands of potential customers, Guy says, of the kind that got their shoes shined three or more times a week. “If you took a job in the garment district in 1965 and worked there till 1995 and had five jobs in that time, you were never more than two or three blocks from Tony’s Shoe Repair.”

Now that the garment district’s in China, the old district is in decline. Tony’s Shoe Repair lives more on women’s shoe repairs than on men’s. And the district decline has been paralleled by the shiny-shoes decline. “It started out as dress-down Fridays,” Guy says. “Now it’s just dress-down.”

So along with fewer repairs there are fewer shines, which is a shame all around, because a shoeshine is a vanishing cheap thrill. For four bucks (everything’s gone up) you get to sit on a throne and have a man work at your feet. And at Tony’s, the five thrones transport you to a year of four percent unemployment.

They are red, vinyl, and high, with a backdrop of rec-room wood paneling and a sign that spells shoe-dyeing wrong, all within reach of a daily newspaper. Across from them are five black chairs with little red footstools. They are for awaiting unoccupied thrones. They are usually vacant.

Dan Pisani knew people, Guy says meaningfully, and the people he knew gave the shop an edge. “Tons of deals used to be made on the shoeshine stand,” he says. “Now they’re too busy texting someone they don’t need to text ’cause they’ve already been in touch with them four thousand times that day.”

No, he is not in love with the times. Nevertheless, he says he still loves the place, and he sounds like he means it. Though he has planned his getaway, he’s in no rush. Still, I wanted to try out a shoeshine. But I was in walking shoes. I’m part of the problem. My dress shoes are still shiny from 1996.

Guy forgave me. It was enough that I loved his stitchers. He showed me the antique machines, and I was duly impressed.

Meanwhile, customers came in and praised him. They respect him, and he respects them.

“There’s a lot of honesty in this type of work,” he says. “If you do the work right, you can do it for decades.


Step into Tony’s Shoe Repair, at 208 West 35th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, in Manhattan.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Signing Off: More Reasons to Give Your Store Name More Thought

By Mitch Broder

As I continue to write of Manhattan haunts that have flourished for decades, I continue to find that they tend to have names like Katz's, Bill's, and Rocco's.

I also continue to find that the ones that get too creative tend to get into trouble — like, for example, Swich, Curl Up & Dye, and Dodo.

Since I posted about those last three places I have discovered more shuttered stores whose names I suspected might have contributed to their shuttering. Either way, their names left me shuddering. But you be the judge. Would you have lined up to get into these?

Could the menu perhaps have seemed too finite?

Could the menu perhaps have seemed too infinite?

Should any cantina be cosmic?

I would have questioned whether to go in...

Hiding won't sell the panini...

Success means never having to say Om Saree...

New York City Street Scene Restaurant Ginger
Then again, maybe Cinnamon was just the wrong spice...

Vintage New York takes no pleasure in store closings. It's just wondering.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Emilio's Ballato Restaurant: His Signatures Are His Signature


By Mitch Broder

Every restaurant in New York City has an autograph from Ernie Anastos.

Emilio’s Ballato Restaurant has an autograph from everyone else.

Actually, Ernie’s pretty trim for a guy who’s eaten at 25,000 places, but that’s a topic for another post. The point here is that Emilio’s is a place where celebrities can hide from the world — after which they can see to it that the world knows they were there.

It makes sense if you’re a celebrity, and it makes sense if you’re Emilio Vitolo. He’s proud of his clients, so he serves them, then takes their names. On his walls are four giant canvases covered with the signatures of famous people from assorted disciplines and assorted eras.

The canvases are about five feet high and two feet wide. Two are behind glass; two are exposed. The exposed ones are the works in progress. Among the signatures are those of Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Brad Pitt, Kiefer Sutherland, Drew Barrymore, and Alex Rodriguez.

“These people, they come here, they eat,” Emilio says. “Nobody bothers them. Nobody cares.” The canvases, he says, are “a memory that when I go, I leave to my kids, to show that I met these beautiful people. They could go anywhere in the world, but they come to me.”

One reason is that he’s not so easy to come to. Emilio’s is a single restaurant that’s in at least six different neighborhoods. New York magazine says it’s in the East Village, Time Out New York has it in both Little Italy and Chinatown, Citysearch calls it NoLita, and Yelp puts it in NoHo, while Emilio himself maintains that he’s in SoHo.

Wherever it is, it’s hidden and homey, with distressed walls and mirrors, and soothing song from the likes of Sinatra and Roselli. While I was there, Emilio insisted I eat. I had Tagliatelle alla Bolognese and warm prosciutto bread. The food was so good that it made me forget my planned lunch of Katz’s hot dogs.
Emilio has given the restaurant its current old look, but it really is old; John Ballato opened it in 1956. Emilio is the third owner, and he takes his stewardship seriously. That’s why he didn’t ask me to sign one of the canvases.

I understood. It didn’t hurt my feelings.


And anyway, I know that my status will change after my post about Ernie Anastos.

Sign in at Emilio’s Ballato Restaurant, at 55 East Houston Street, between Mulberry and Mott streets, in the neighborhood of your choice in Manhattan.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bryant Park: Stop By For a Moment's Peace, If You're Flexible

By Mitch Broder

At Bryant Park everybody packs into the outdoor cafés to drink, then everybody stumbles onto the lawn to pass out.

Well, it’s plausible. But not true. The people above are at least semiconscious, for they have come to the park to raise their consciousness. They are practicing yoga for an hour, which can be very relaxing, especially when you’re watching them from a chair.

There is outdoor yoga all over the city, but these sessions could be the most challenging. Bryant is not the most tranquil of parks. It’s a lovely park, and it has lots of chairs. But it’s frenetic. It has a buzz. Maybe it’s all that information seeping out of the New York Public Library.

The yoga is free. It’s sponsored by Lululemon Athletica, a company that manufactures “technical yoga and run clothes.” The company has a manifesto. It includes “Do one thing a day that scares you.” I’m all caught up for today. I read the manifesto.

There is yoga at 10 a.m. Tuesdays and at 6 p.m. Thursdays, through September. I like to watch the evening sessions to get in touch with my inner sloth. The yoga doesn’t look easy. The people twist themselves up a lot. I think of joining them. Then I think of ThermaCare Heat Wraps.

But I like the leaders. There’s a different one each week, and they are all soothing, even though they are heavily miked. One was Chrissy Carter, who believes that yoga is a gift, which I would accept, since regular lessons can be pretty steep. One was Yogi Charu, who believes in karmic reaction, which suggests that I will suffer for writing this post.

The most entertaining part of the session, though, comes after the session, when some of the participants indulge in moves of their own. After Yogi Charu, I saw some women engaging in acrobatic power yoga.

They offered to lift me up with their feet.

I was tempted. But I feared karmic reaction.


Bend a little at Bryant Park, Sixth Avenue at 42nd Street, in Manhattan.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rolf's German Restaurant: Four Wursts, No Waiting


By Mitch Broder

Today’s forecast for New York City is scorching and stifling.

Will you be having the weisswurst, the knackwurst, the bratwurst, or the smoked bratwurst?

Didn’t think so. And you’re not alone — which is why Bob Maisano often is.

Bob is the owner of Rolf’s, an old-fashioned German restaurant that serves old-fashioned German food, which is not light summery fare. In the fall people line up here for the bodily insulation, and for the dazzling Christmas lights. In July you can hear the sauerkraut settle.

“When people think of German, they think of Bavarian, which is what we are,” Bob reflected one afternoon when I stopped in for air-conditioning. “You have your sauerbraten, your schnitzel, your sausage, your potato pancakes. And people go to outdoor cafés in the summer, and we don’t have one.”

Having one might help. But probably not. Then you’d be out of the air-conditioning with your rahm schnitzel in cream sauce. The irony is that the inside of Rolf’s looks like an outdoor café. It’s the Bavarian Forest with fake oak leaves, and a choice of table or booth.

Still, it’s a place for the cold months, even without the wursts and potatoes; other entrées include beef stew, grilled rib eye, roast pork loin, and braised chicken leg. Then again, there’s baked tilapia, sautéed salmon, and rainbow trout, along with Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier. On tap.

And peace and quiet.

Yes, that's a person at the end of the bar.
Rolf’s is the kind of place that seems quiet even when it’s noisy. The clientele is mature, the music is soft, and there’s no TV. “I don’t want any bickering here over what channel to put on,” Bob says. “People come in here to eat dinner, and it would interrupt their conversation.”

That’s also why the German theme ends with the menu and the oak leaves. There’s no oompah band playing beer songs and Bavarian marches. The staff is not clothed in dirndls, trachten socks, and lederhosen. “It’s not all that necessary,” Bob says. “Unless you’re at Disney World.”

When Rolf’s debuted, however, there was no Disney World. So for a while its founder, Rolf Hoffman, picked up the slack. He opened in 1968 with theme detail Bob calls “hardcore.” Rolf died in 1981. Bob took over with a partner, Ben House.

Ben died in 1996, and Bob has run things since. He keeps feeding the Christmas display, which now threatens the ones on Fifth Avenue. In summer, he still has his regulars. And he has some free time.

He cleans.

He changes the oak leaves.

He keeps your wiener schnitzel warm.


Spread out at Rolf’s German Restaurant, 281 Third Avenue, at 22nd Street, in Manhattan.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Little Old New York: Take Advantage of This Small Opportunity!

Focus in on the lower half of the photograph. That's your floor space. 

By Mitch Broder

If you’ve always dreamed of opening up a little shop in Manhattan, act now. Make a deal, and you could be opening up the littlest.

Well, not quite the littlest. Here and there in the city are umbrella-hawkers and palm-readers operating in recesses barely big enough for an umbrella or a palm. But 184 Seventh Avenue South is just elbow room beyond those. It’s little enough to be manageable, yet big enough to sleep one.

Aaron Gavios of Square Foot Realty says that a lease is out on the store, but he also says that a lot of leases have been out on the store. It’s been available for a couple of years. It’s a tricky place to rent. It’s 10 feet by 15 feet. Bed Bath and Beyond has not expressed interest.

No one with a lot of money has expressed interest. No one with a little money has evoked interest. The rent is $2,800, and the landlord reportedly doesn’t deal much. The next-door neighbor is a place called Fantasy World, whose name may be a warning.

But you could succeed. Others have. You just have to think things through, like the last occupant, the Oz Moving Depot. They sold boxes for moving, and people around here are always moving. The boxes, of course, were folded. Otherwise the store would have lasted four days.

There are other possibilities, Aaron says: “It could be very good for an ice-cream store.” That’s true. People around here are always eating ice cream. You just need an ice-cream counter, an ice-cream scooper (that would be you), and enough wall space for a flavor list, which will undoubtedly be short.

Aaron alternately envisions “a shoe store, a clothing boutique, a candy store, or a convenience store — there is good foot traffic there.” He doesn’t suggest an umbrella-hawker or a palm-reader, perhaps because those are the other next-door neighbors.

Think it over, but not too long, lest someone else grab your 150 square feet. Aaron says you could make a pile, though you’d have to store it elsewhere.

“I’ve seen people do $5 million a year in 800 square feet,” he says. That means about a mil for you. Minus $8 for your Con Ed bill.

You get the scaffolding at no extra charge.

Size up your new store at 184 Seventh Avenue South, near West 11th Street, in Manhattan.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fanelli Café: Can a 164-Year-Old New York City Bar Survive Me?


By Mitch Broder

I recently had my first lunch at Fanelli Café. I like to give a new place a century and a half to settle in.

If the findings of Richard McDermott are correct, there has indeed been lunch of some sort at the site of Fanelli since 1847. McDermott made it his hobby to pinpoint the ages of the city’s old bars. He put Fanelli second after Bridge Café, born in 1794, the year of the Whiskey Rebellion.

When I got to Fanelli I saw seven doors, which made me feel welcome. I chose the two under the transom that faces the street corner. The glass bears the name of Nicholas Gerdes, who sold the bar 110 years ago. I was too late for his food. Also for the Fanellis’. They sold the bar 30 years ago.

My corner. I'm not in the picture.
Nevertheless, I’d heard that the place still has a great burger. I sat in a room with yellow tin walls and wooden chairs that could predate Nicholas. It was cozy. I ordered the burger. It came, and it looked just fine — except that the bun was riddled with pulverized onion.

I don’t like onion. Even pulverized. I told the waitress, and she offered to exchange my bun for a lobster-roll bun. I accepted. She also assured me that I was not the first with this problem, which was a surprise, as was the lobster-roll bun, since Fanelli doesn’t sell lobster rolls.

The burger was delicious, though for a while I was craving lobster. I wondered why they serve everybody onion buns without asking. I spoke to the owner, Sasha Noe. He was sympathic, but he appeared to think that I actually was the first with this problem.

And yet he was troubled. We spent some time talking of the bar’s history. McDermott’s research shows that Fanelli began as a grocery, but it points out that there was a fine line then between “grocery” and “saloon.” A succession of people became the saloon’s keepers, including Gerdes from 1878 to 1902. Michael Fanelli took over in 1922. Sasha’s family replaced the Fanellis in 1982.

But as we talked, Sasha kept coming back to the onions. I felt bad. I’d had my lobster bun. I tried to reassure him. He had the second-oldest bar in New York City, I reminded him. But he still seemed wounded. If you happen to make onionless burger buns, this might be the time to pitch him.

I said goodbye to Sasha and again mentioned that I loved his burger.

“Now you got me thinkin’,” he said. “I’m not gonna sleep tonight.”


Choose your bun at Fanelli Café, 94 Prince Street, at Mercer Street, in Manhattan.