When New York Was a Restaurant Town

| 17 Mar 2021 | 11:11

I’m a born and bred New Yorker. I’ve lived with my wife Carolyn on the UES for more than 55 years. Pandemic, no pandemic, taxes, no taxes, I’m here to stay. Professionally, I’ve been a restaurateur and have owned restaurants with celebrity partners and others who weren’t. Before owning restaurants, I worked in them. Restaurants are my life. In my DNA. These days I neither work in nor own a restaurant. When I walk around today’s New York, I’m overwhelmed with memories of when NY was a restaurant town.

The restaurant industry has certainly changed from my days in the business starting in the 70’s and continuing through the early aughts. Today, the pandemic has forced restaurant owners to take drastic steps to stay in business - serving food and drinks outside on the street in freezing weather, changing limits of occupancy, building outdoor structures, paying Grubhub, Uber Eats, Door Dash, et al for delivery to hungry New Yorkers grounded in their apartments. And, for better or worse, this is the likely direction of New York restaurants.

Back in my day, restaurants, bars, and night clubs were the lifeline of the city. New Yorkers went to restaurants before and after a day or evening activity or event. They socialized at restaurants for entertainment. If you had tickets to a B’way show, it was Sardi’s or Joe Allen’s or Rosoff’s. If you were going to see the Knicks play or to see some of the greatest college basketball teams in the country at the old Madison Square Garden (between 49th and 50th on Eighth Ave.), you sat down for a pastrami sandwich and a potato knish at the Carnegie Deli. In 1968 when the Garden moved to 32nd and Eighth Ave/, Al Cooper’s on 36th St. in the heart of the Garment Center, was where you went for dinner and cocktails.

For those who hit the track and had a good night at Yonkers Raceway, it was dinner and drinks at Dominick’s on Arthur Ave in the Bronx where they had the best veal parmigiana in the city. Or to the Lobster Box on City Island for a steamed lobster. On the nights that things didn’t go well at the track, you headed for Dewey Wong’s where Dewey would extend credit for the best shrimp and black bean sauce with fried rice. Who needed Netflix and TV when you could see Sammy Davis Jr. live at the Copa, Tony Bennett at Basin Street East, Steve (Lawrence) and Edie (Gorme) at the Empire Room in the Waldorf? Or a young Woody Allen at the Blue Angel?

I remember seeing Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield as newcomers at Upstairs at the Duplex in the Village. At 4 in the morning, after an evening at one of those night clubs, we would head up to Harlem to the original Patsy’s on First Ave. and 116th St. for drinks and a bowl of pasta fagiola. Or head down to Chinatown to 69 Mott for spare ribs and a huge lobster roll. And there was always the Brasserie at 4 a.m. for the largest apple pancake you ever ate. I loved seeing Baryshnikov dance at Lincoln Center followed by a burger and a beer either at O’Neals’ or the Ginger Man.

Then there was the First Ave. scene for a night of bar hopping, meeting new friends and getting together with old ones. You could start at Skitch Henderson’s Daly’s Daffodil, move on to TGI Friday’s, then to Warner Leroy’s Maxwell’s Plum. You never knew who you would see there. Mr. Laff’s, right next door, was where Yankee shortstop Phil Linz held court nightly. Then, making your way north on First Ave. you could stop at Jerry Brodie’s Muggs for one of the twenty varieties of burgers on the menu and wash it down with an ice cold beer on tap.

Maybe after hitting a few more spots you could end the night at Elaine’s where the literary crowd gathered. You could always count on Elaine to be there to show you to the bar or a table with some sort of wisecrack. Things didn’t slow down on Sundays. For some restaurants, it even picked up with brunch. One of my restaurants, Samantha’s at First Ave. and 78th St., offered the best bang for your buck brunch. Bloody Mary, fresh fruit cup, eggs benedict and coffee for $3.95. Upper East Siders lined up every Sunday from 11 a.m. til 4 p.m.

Those days are history and so are the city’s restaurants I knew. I’d like to give a special nod to some of the old favorites spots I would frequent. Bruno’s on East 58th St., where Izzy Snow, a bookie from my Bronx boyhood, would buy dinner for all of his clients every Wednesday and Friday night and then lead us up to the second floor for an all night crap game ... Il Vagabondo for Italian food and a game of bocci ... Michael’s Pub, where Gil Wiest made sure the food and live music was always great and that he had a weekly ad in local papers promoting Woody Allen’s band ... Jim McMullen’s comfortable UES hangout ... Rick Newman’s Catch a Rising Star for a fun night ... the Red Tulip for a classic chicken paprikash. And who could forget Sign of the Dove for a romantic dinner, where the maitre d’ would present a woman with a menu without prices and the man with a menu with the pricey prices. Quaint, maybe clever, but would never happen today.

As for me, I gained fame and celebrity in the restaurant world by partnering with celebrities - Patrick Swayze at Mulholland Drive Cafe. Marla Maples at Peaches. Britney Spears at Nyla. Ashford and Simpson (Nick and Valerie) at Twenty Twenty. I learned early on, when I owned my first restaurant, that people loved going to restaurants where celebrities went. And Samantha’s, named for my daughter Samantha and which I owned with two non-celebrities, was a block away from Rick Newman’s Catch a Rising Star. Young and up and coming talents like Robin Williams, Pat Benatar, Rodney Dangerfield, Andy “Latke” Kaufman performed there and ended the night at Samantha’s for dinner and drinks. When word got out, Samantha’s was packed. I was on my way to find a celebrity to partner with in a restaurant. It worked. Those were the days.