SoHo Restaurants (Part II): Gastronomic Memories
Back when artists first began moving to SoHo in the 1960s, there were no restaurants in the neighborhood, only diners and luncheonettes open for breakfast and lunch that catered to the people who worked in the factories and warehouses. After 5 pm when the workers went home to other parts of the city, there were scant food options save for Fanelli's and a few other bars. As the resident population began to grow, however, restaurants that were open for dinner began popping up.
Thanks to all of you who wrote in with stories of favorite, or at least memorable, SoHo restaurants. I’ve gathered remembrances of some of the most popular spots.
Shalom Japan (early 1980s)
The name of the restaurant says it all! Shalom Japan was a kosher Japanese restaurant in SoHo in the early 1980’s. It never occurred to me back then that there was anything out of the ordinary about the restaurant. The restaurant was Japanese, I am Japanese. The restaurant had a floorshow, I’m a big fan of song-and-dance acts. What’s so strange about that?
This is what readers remember:
This is where my brother and I had the reception for our Bar Mitzvah! For years after we would constantly quote one of her classic lines from the show, “Not funny, so sorry.” And she would also say “I’m as American as apple pie.” It was such an interesting spot.
My wife and I went there several times when we were newlyweds and living in lower Manhattan. That was 1980-81. To this day when someone in my family (even though my now adult children had never been there) tells a joke or makes a (supposedly) funny comment that bombs, the silence is broken by declaring “Not funny? So sorry.” That was Miriam’s line in her show. It never fails to get a laugh.
In 1982, I landed the job as the weekend maire d’ based on my (then) unique knowledge of both kosher food AND Japanese cuisine. Little did I know I was also expected to emcee the shows…”Shalom, shalom, you’ll find shalom, the nicest…” Eventually I found a better paying job but it was a surrealistic experience while it lasted.
Gael Greene in her 1980 New York Magazine review writes:
Well, why not? Why should anyone be deprived of sushi transcendence or the joys of tempura by the conflicts of spiritual vow? That’s exactly what Miriam Mizakura reasoned. Miriam is Japanese and Miriam is Jewish. She also sings, dances, does impressions and Yiddish jokes with a Japanese flavor.
Dinner at 8:30. The floor show has begun. Shalom Japan, the vanity night-club. Miriam is a bundle of Debbie Reynolds, stripping from kimono to miniskirt, doing Zero Mostel in Yiddish and Japanese, coaxing a surprisingly game diner from his table to join her onstage…
Fanelli’s is my comfort place. I go there to have reliably good food (tasty without any bells and whistles) with reliably good service (courteous without any bells and whistles), exactly what I want and expect, every time since I was a small child. There is such comfort in this kind of continuity.
This is what readers remember:
[Growing up above Fanelli’s,] I remember that our bathroom smelled like a bar bathroom: Beer, pee, and cigarette smoke. It must have come up through the plumbing!
I had a lot of painter friends and we had many wonderful late nights sitting in big groups, drinking a beer and telling stories. Of course, that was before we all gave up cigarettes.
This was a cafe where lots of people met, especially for Saturday lunch and would stay for hours – it was a great hang-out bar. People I remember who are now gone . . . Al DeLaura, Mel Roman. Real regulars.
There used to be a numbers man for the neighborhood, who would take the numbers that the bettors picked that day. … I believe you could get into the pool for as little as a quarter, definitely a dollar, maybe even a dime. Anyway, the numbers guy would hang out in front of Fanelli’s around noon for an hour or two, standing outside, right near the front door, accepting the numbers slips, pieces of papers with the chosen numbers. It was all very casual.
In Anderson & Archer’s SoHo (1979), they describe Fanelli’s as follows:
Never restored or recycled, Fanelli’s lives as a vivid reminder---an original. The air, cooled in the summer by wooden ceiling fans and the heavily carved mirrors behind the bar flash back images of drinkers blurred by time. The icebox and the television command their utilitarian space without embarrassment. There are a few tables in the front. The back room, set up as a “’Ladies’ and Gents’ Sitting Room” usually has its half dozen tables crammed with local businessmen and artists and their friends around six o’clock… Mike [Fanelli] never forgets his regulars and wants to ignore all that nonsense happening on West Broadway.
O.G. Dining Rooms (1970s)
I think I am too young to recall the O.G. Dining Rooms, but several people mentioned that they have fond memories of this casual, no-nonsense eatery. I wish I had gone there. It sounds kind of wacky and as-is. Very SoHo-of-a-certain-vintage.
This is what readers remember:
They were on Thompson Street, just south of Prince. On the wall was their motto: If you're in a rush, you came to the wrong place. I went there in the mid to late 1970s.
Nobody ever told me where the name came from, but I always assumed it was related to the huge photograph on the wall of Ocean Grove in New Jersey, a Methodist campground community next to Asbury Park. What I remember about the food was it was inexpensive. A good meal that fit the budget of a guy starting out. I think they put blank white paper on the tables for people to draw on. A real nice vibe.
I remember [OG Dining Room] from the late 1970s, when I lived one block to the south at 79 Thompson. A steep flight of steps led up to a long, narrow restaurant space inside a very old three-story building. What I best remember are late nights with sinful desserts - especially chocolate cakes or brownies with whipped cream - and coffee.
Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder review O.G. in their column, "The Underground Gourmet," in a piece entitled “O.G. is O.K.” (New York Magazine August 25, 1975):
The O.G. occupies a long, stoop-high former store that is neither narrow not wide. The entrance décor literally drips with rope sculpture, artifacts, and hanging plants. With the open kitchen lining the left wall, the general decorative spirit is a kind of controlled funk. It is nonetheless a very comfortable restaurant with broad, widely spaced tables and an easygoing atmosphere. Service trades off informality and pleasantness for what it lacks in efficiency.
Food (1971-late 1980s)
I loved eating at Food. When I was old enough to go to restaurants on my own, and I would bring my school friends there and they just thought I was soooooo cool for introducing them to a real bohemian hangout. Those chunky soups, the thick, yummy slices of wheat bread with sweet butter, and those enormous slices of carrot cake big enough to feed a family of four!
This is what readers remember:
“Food was the first place I noticed that offered Perrier water as a standard refreshment, and it was quite a novelty then.”
Food was in our building on Wooster St, although Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman held the lease on the restaurant space. They lived around the corner on Prince St. in the same building as Ornette Coleman. It was one of the few good places to eat in the early neighborhood, and being so close, we ate there often.
There was really a naissance of eating well back then, brought on, I think, by having a lot of people nearby who were from Europe or who had traveled to Europe. It was another way that SoHo influenced the whole American culture really. Prior to 1970, you had to really search for food items that we pick up in the local groceries today.
And food (the stuff) was a vital component of the neighborhood feel of SoHo. Dinner parties were a staple. But no one brought Ambrosia Jell-o salad to a pot-luck at Jack Ceglic’s [founder of Dean & Deluca] house. Hanne Tierney (native of Bohemia) made goose liver pate. Giorgio DeLuca brought exotic cheeses, my mother, Jane Snowday, made tapenade in her new Cuisinart. Good stuff.
I worked there in ’75... I remember there were always 3 giant pots of fabulously delicious soup, we would make these big sandwiches, hand cut the bread, homemade chicken salad, tuna, hummos, sprouts, watercress, etc. Robert DeNiro’s father was a regular then. Everyone who worked there was either an artist, musician, dancer – cooking, serving, preparing.
Wow, When I think back about Food I remember they elevated soup from the Campbells condensed goop to wholesome full meal entrees and perfected that American cliché of “Wonder Bread with margarine ” to chewy whole grain bread with fresh butter. Also, their sour cream optional salad dressing predated the mainstream “ranch dressing” craze. Oh, and sliding your tray to the cashier on those aluminum tubes was so High School American. Also I remember a yellow butter cake with chocolate frosting.
In a 1975 review in the now defunct SoHo Statement, “‘Food’s’ Food One of SoHo’s Tasty Bargains,” Lynn Flatow writes:
Everyone in SoHo knows there has been an absence of good restaurants that offer homey atmosphere and imaginative robust meals at inexpensive prices. Food (Carol’s Place), at 127 Prince St., which opened three weeks ago, has the friendly casual ambience that the Soho neighborhood really digs.
With the cooperation of the Soho community, photographer Carol Goodden and a group of artist and musician friends converted and redecorated a Puerto Rican luncheonette.
The atmosphere at Food is “home kitchen help yourself. The preparation of all the food is right there as if you were indeed in your own or a friend’s kitchen.
Broome Street Bar (1972-present)
Broome Street Bar is one of the only old-time hangouts that’s still around. Once an artists’ hangout, the clientele is now mostly tourists with some locals sprinkled in. I never could get used to eating those hamburgers in pita bread!
This is what readers remember:
I used to go in there before the Reisdorfs took over. As I recall, before that it was a run-down joint called (somebody’s) Clam Bar. Sometime in 1972 it suddenly closed, after which there was a sign in its window declaring, “Closed Due to Illness.” The “illness” was a serious one, since the previous owner had been killed, reputedly (as I was told) because he had gambling debts that he somehow “forgot” to make good on.
I loved the Broome Street Bar. Those great hamburgers on pitas. The big thing was that no matter how well known or not well known an artist was, there was no shmoozing, you were just there with everyone. I thought Kenn was a gallant gentleman, with his cowboy hat which he always tipped when we met. I always wondered who put up the colorful chalk menus on the wall, and I never asked.
In the ’70′s, Kenn and Bob’s was such a friendly place, my little daughter could go there and wait for me to meet her after work before we went home across the street. We could leave our keys there for friends to pick up. We could say, “Would you hang on to this back pack, book, sweater, or whatever had been left behind at our house until so and so comes by?” “Can I use the phone?” As a single working mom, making those swaps, having a safe meeting place and a place to run into friends for a beer while the kids colored, was such a boon in that hectic life of logistics before cell phones. We were truly a neighborhood then and Kenn and Bob’s was a pivot point.
About Kenneth Reisdorf, former owner of Broome Street Bar, from his 2014 obituary:
Mr. Reisdorff, who was known to most as Kenn, was a gentlemanly fixture in the neighborhood, recognizable by his custom-made cowboy hats from a hatmaker in New Mexico, turquoise jewelry, cowboy boots and friendly demeanor. He was in on the original happening of SoHo, during a time when it was still factories, just beginning to be wildly creative, and the Broome Street Bar was the epicenter of the young art crowd. Robert Mapplethorpe was a regular, along with Robert Jacks, Ken Tisa, Robert Boyles, George Kokines and many other talents who formed an exciting, entertaining and encouraging clique of artists.