Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Old New York: Discover It All in "Discovering Vintage New York"

By Mitch Broder

Walk by the Streit’s matzo factory and get handed a hot piece of matzo as you pass the open window of the matzo-cooling room.

Sit down at Marchi’s Restaurant and get served the one and only meal they’ve been serving there every night for the past 70 years.

Slip into Marie’s Crisis Café and get amused by people singing show tunes around a piano before you break down and start singing along.

I can’t live around such opportunities and not tell people about them. That’s why I’ve written a book called “Discovering Vintage New York.”

About two years ago, I started writing Vintage New York the Blog. But long before that, I dreamed of writing Vintage New York the Book. And that’s just what I did — dream. But as vintage spots kept disappearing, I knew I’d better get to work while the dream could still come true.

The result is the first and only book to collect all the Manhattan restaurants, shops, cafés, and nightspots that take you back in time. It covers more than 75, and it spotlights 50 with profiles that tell you what each place is like now and how it got that way.

My blog, as its subhead notes, allows for “justifiable detours.” But the book travels exclusively on Vintage Road. All the spots are at least 50 years old (or very close to it). And all the spots, in some genuine way, evoke a bygone era.

The subjects range from the Café Carlyle to Katz’s Delicatessen, and from The Four Seasons to The Donut Pub. I spent hours at every one of them and interviewed people at every one of them. I wanted to get each spot’s history straight and to convey each spot’s unique charm.

A friend who once worked in publicity has called the book an “adventure map,” and though I have to leave terms like that to publicists, I secretly think she’s right. No one I’ve met along the way has known about all of these places, let alone been to all of them. Or even to a lot of them.

I add this in the book’s introduction:

I chose places that some of us see as the heart of New York — the ones that created the city that’s squeezing the likes of them out. When places like these close, people who always meant to visit them start grieving. I wrote this book to save you some grief.

More than that, I wrote it to tempt you to visit these spots for fun. They are precious places, and they almost always leave you with precious memories. I don’t want to say how many vintage places have disappeared since I started dreaming. I’ll just say that no matter what you think, nothing lasts forever.

I tell more about the book in the introduction, and I thank the many people who helped to make it possible in the acknowledgments. Still, I’m compelled to shamelessly steal my own words again, and repeat the first paragraph of those acknowledgments:

The people who most directly made this book possible are the people who own, manage, and otherwise tend to the places featured in it. Thanks to everyone who invited me in, showed me around, told me stories, and kept the places going long enough for me to show up.

And now I also thank The New York Post for introducing the book to New York City with a big splash, in last week’s Sunday paper. It was appropriate, since The Post is the oldest newspaper in the city, and yet it was nimble enough to scoop me on a story about myself.

Find what's really cool in “Discovering Vintage New York,” published today by the Globe Pequot Press. It makes a great gift. I’m not just saying that.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Old Yet New in New York: Papaya King Crowns the East Village

By Mitch Broder

They snap downtown just the way they snap uptown.

That’s all that matters. Papaya King East Village is a success.

Yes, the hot dogs that gave a second career to tropical fruit drinks have ventured from East 86th Street to St. Mark’s Place. Thus, Papaya King has a second location for the first time in decades. And the dogs traveled well. Here, too, they’re one of the best bites of New York.

The new store is three times as big as the old, and it has a concrete porch. It takes some time to acclimate to all that luxury.  But the hot dogs are the same, which is to say perfectly tasty and snappy, as are the buns, which is to say perfectly fluffy and crunchy.

As is the papaya drink, which is to say perfectly creamy and frothy. It’s unlike any other fruit drink you know. It’s mysterious. And best left that way.

Papaya King, born on that uptown corner in 1932, has had other branches, but they disappeared despite the perfection. The original location was bought by a group of investors three years ago. The new store is their first attempt to build on history.

“It’s a good match for the brand,” says Blake Gower, the group’s head of development. “It’s a quintessential New York experience on a quintessential New York street.” He’s especially proud of the porch: “It’s one of the key design elements. It kind of makes this place feel like it’s always been here.”

Blake wanted to have a place that looked new to people who like new things and old to people who like old things, and he got as close as you could expect. The classic neon sign, for instance, is new and yet manages to say Old New York in the middle of the city’s body-piercing corridor.

Inside, the walls preserve a Papaya King tradition: little signs designed to enlighten you about frankfurters and fruit. But here they’re tailored to the neighborhood, as in: “Right across the street from where you’re standing was the legendary Five Spot Jazz Club. All the greats played there. Bet they wished for franks after shows.”

Blake dug even further back to come up with the bamboo counter and the thatched grill awning laden with artificial fruit. They recall Papaya King’s origin as a stand called Hawaiian Tropical Drinks, where just fruit juice was sold, sometimes by a man crowned by a pith helmet.

The porch has wooden chairs that make you feel like you’re at the old homestead, until you notice the view of the St. Mark’s Hotel, the St. Marks Ale House, and Karaoke St. Marks (and you get a snootful of smoldering sandalwood from the nearby incense stand).

It’s a unique blend. But it could be what the neighborhood needs, since Papaya King could be what every neighborhood needs. Among nearby competitors is Japadog. But Japadog has hot dogs with bonito flakes. Papaya King has two hot dogs and a fruit drink for five bucks.

It has toppings, too, though not bonito flakes. But try a couple of these dogs straight.

As the longtime slogan promises: “Our Franks are Tastier than Filet Mignon.”

Eat royally at Papaya King, at 3 St. Mark’s Place, between Cooper Square and Astor Place, in New York City.