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here is evil afoot in the city. It is a strange atrocity seemingly born of two crimes, each from a different era in the annals of infamy — the first, from our own time, is identity theft; the second is a 19th century horror, body snatching. The last few years have been painful for anyone who appreciates an eatery that has ripened like a cellared wine. Gino, Carmine’s Italian Seafood, Le Boeuf a la Mode, L’Entrecôte, and Bill’s Gay ‘90s, to name a few joints dear to our stony little hearts, have all left us. We can curse a variety of causes for their demise, usually the rapacious real estate market or age catching up with the proprietors, but the main thing is they are gone for good. After a suitable period of mourning they will live on in our memories, and no doubt a more flattering light could not be found. But now a new and strange complication arises. That joint you loved is dead as a doornail, but there stands in its stead a weird shadow version of itself. The address is unchanged, the same name is on the door, but what is this monster?
The comic assortment of crusty regulars has been replaced with pod people from an American Apparel ad (albeit with pants on). The menu is unrecognizable. That isn’t necessarily bad, many times it’s an improvement, although you won’t like the new prices one bit. Then there is the decor. Sometimes nothing is different, really, it’s just a little cleaner. You might miss some of the fascinating cracks and wrinkles that age brings, but you can’t complain about a good scrubbing. Sadly, this best case scenario is a rarity. In most instances the makeover is so extreme, the spirit of the place so thoroughly expunged, you have to wonder why they kept the name.
rewards eternal novelty would be knocking themselves out to put their own stamp on a new venture. So why would a highfalutin’ restaurateur choose to pick the bones of the dearly departed?
If you know Grade “A” Fancy at all, you know we were fans of Fedora, both the creaky old doll of an Italian restaurant and the sweet lady who was its owner and hostess for nearly 60 years. Both were Greenwich Village landmarks, as distinct and iconic as the arch in Washington Square. There was a continuity about the place, a connection to the neighborhood’s past that was uniquely its own among the Resurrecting an expired dining institu- old-time joints still hanging on. Guests tion is often sold as some variety of loving of Fedora were treated to a trip in one of tribute, but a tribute would of course be the most gracious — and oddball — time from someone intimately familiar with the machines in New York City. place. What we are seeing is essentially halfway between identity theft and grave Today you can walk down West 4th Street robbing. Perhaps they are after the built- and see the familiar name in neon above in cachet that history can lend (which three steps down to what looks like the they are apparently entitled to because same old door at number 239. Don’t they paid some money). You would think be fooled. Come with us on two visits that the kind of self-aggrandizing hotshots to the same address, each a restaurant who open au courant eateries in a city that called Fedora.
e walk down the stairs and through the doors into the dining room. The bar is to the left, nearby are the payphone and ladies’ room. We just want cocktails, so we grab a couple of stools. There is a special light that only exists here, a kind of pinky grayish undersea gloom. The yellow ochre walls are covered with old photos, posters, handwritten signs, the accumulated flotsam of a restaurant’s long life. It is early evening and dinner is decidedly underway. There are a few single tables, a few more couples or small parties; a pretty good turnout for Fedora, although it may be all the business they do tonight. If there is anyone left by ten it’s considered a late night. Many in the crowd are distinguished gay gentlemen past sixty who have been eating here for decades. Some of the younger set may be out-of-towners who make this a destination each time they visit New York. George, the endearingly deadpan waiter/bartender, never plays favorites when
choosing who will be the victim of his wicked wit. Poor George is being rushed off his feet tonight, what with three tables to ignore, and now we want Martinis, of all things. We manage to coax a round of drinks out of him and soon ease into a conversation with a pair of guests at the bar fresh from Atlanta, in town to see some shows, who couldn’t wait to get to Fedora again. And now the front door opens and the entire restaurant breaks into applause as Fedora herself descends into the room, waving to her public, stopping to greet old friends. She takes this curtain call every night after the nap that helps her recover from an afternoon’s shopping and cooking for her devoted customers. Fedora settles in at a table near the kitchen and holds court as regulars drift by and chat. It’s like going to grandma’s house, if gran mixed you a high-voltage cocktail and was surrounded by a crew of leather boy helpmates. We decide not to impose further on the long-suffering George and slip away into the night.
t spells Fedora in neon, but this sign is actually a reconstruction, a sort of clone of the original. This one is possibly safer, as there is no chance of it falling down and braining passersby, but without the patina of age it lacks the charm of its ancestor. No matter, let’s see how the new Fedora stacks up. During the liquor license process, the new owner, Gabe Stulman, told the Community Board he would restore the restaurant to “what it looked like in the ‘Thirties” — a neat trick, considering Fedora opened in 1952. Well, it can’t have the same vibe, of course, but if they’ve gone to the trouble of keeping the name there may be some bit of the old place alive inside.
The bar is longer and the crowd is pubescent. The brusque reception from the anxious young lady in charge of seating (hostess, I think they call it?) makes it clear that the honor of sampling their modish drink menu is a lot to ask. She will condescend to let us have the two open bar stools, provided no one else comes in who wants dinner at the bar, because that means we shall be uprooted and banished to some unnamed territory. We smell sucker trap so we bolt. Okay, it’s not our scene, and we didn’t expect it would be. This was never going to be anything like Fedora, it was not intended to be. So why didn’t the creative genius wunderkind restaurateur simply give this hellhole a new name? Something reflectWalking into the dining room is like ing the young, trend-worshipping high-flystepping into a dream, one where you ing scene he’s wrapped up in? Just about identify a familiar space but there is anything but Fedora would do me fine. nothing recognizable in it. White walls are hung with portraits of hiphop artists (to complement the execrable soundtrack) and below are black leather banquettes.
o one bats an eye about the dearth of originality nowadays because the last time anything new happened (outside of some video game, and we don’t know nothing about that) was in nineteen-eighty-something. (Note: there is some debate on the precise date, but you get the idea.) Art, music, fashion, any and all creative endeavor has been cannibalizing itself, in ever-shorter cycles, for a third of a century so it’s not surprising that the most popular form of creation is now collage in the form of mashups, samples, and parodies. Authenticity is optional, like a slice of cheese on a burger. You can buy a new Fender Telecaster shiny and bright from the factory, or the same guitar pre-aged to look as if it has already lived a lifetime. History is just one more ingredient, so throw it into the blender with your fave low-brow genre fiction and call the resulting best-selling smoothie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. To actually create something new from scratch is so unfashionable that a pathetic nonentity like Q.R. Rowan can cobble a spy novel together from the labors of a dozen superior writers, fool enough people to get it published, and, (wait, the sick part is coming) after his fraud is uncovered, have several naughty internet pundit types argue that Rowan might be some kind of artistic genius on a par with Marcel Duchamp and not simply a thief. (Full dis-
closure: there was a time when I bought that Duchamp was totally the best artist ever, smashing those cultural paradigms and all, then my skin cleared up. I still love a lot of Duchamp, but now it’s only when he actually makes an object that I’m interested.) The callous Lazy-I Generation* is not alone in its eagerness to cut and paste for profit. The corpse revivers on Madison Avenue make no bones about using dead celebrities to shill from beyond the grave: Audrey Hepburn gives you a come-on and the Gap sells you tat in place of the slacks with the perfect 1954 cut she wears in the ad. Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola peddles itself on the eye-catching image and famous name of a cat, who, being quite deceased, has zero to do with their enterprise. It is the old game of bait and switch at its most ghoulish. If you’re in the restaurant grave-robbing biz, one thing you do not want to steal is the same old crowd, god forbid. The new ownership makes damn sure that these joints become entirely high end. The Waverly Inn and the reanimated Beatrice Inn are aiming for an exclusive clique. The old bar crowd that frequented Minetta can no longer call it home. Even if they manage to get past the hostess stand/guard station they’re sure to be put off by the ambiance,
since what was one a relaxing refuge is history, simple as that. Like a nouveau now more like the Lexington Avenue line riche purchasing a European baronetcy, at rush hour, if the IRT had gold-plated it is phony status, and all in the head. At hamburgers, that is. And you know that the Fedora the exchange was more blunt: same older gents who every week went Stulman positioned himself to get the to Fedora for the world’s worst chicken lease, cutting everybody else out of the parm are probably not cozying into a deal, by kissing up to the family with a booth for scallops and house-cured lardo promise to keep the name. at the new Fedora. Possibly, like some beardy adolescent in What do you hope to gain when you ap- a Bedford Avenue boutique who buys a propriate the identity of an old established Blondie tour t-shirt (suitably distressed to restaurant? When serial restaurateur look all 1978-ish, even though the design Keith McNally, responsible for decades is a complete anachronistic phony) the of Page Six staples like Odeon, Pravda, idea is to display your supreme good taste Balthazar and Pastis, bought Minetta by referring to some past glory you had Tavern he was not aiming to throw his no part in. We would argue that you aren’t prosperous arms around a neighbor- convincing anybody how cool you are. All hood institution that was painfully in it signifies is you had the cash to buy the need of new management and love it up. t-shirt — or the Minetta Tavern. He wanted to own the Minetta Tavern’s
*The Lazy-I Generation They call them the Millennials or Generation Y, but if you ask us the latest young cohort of barbarians to skip down the pike should be named The Lazy-I Generation. One part Slacker, one part Me Generation bonding over a consumer culture cocktail, the Lazy-I’s have it made. The mountains of content available electronically make it all too easy to avoid having to create your own identity. Basic survival skills are replaced by the appropriate app, and any bump in the road of life will be smoothed over by the awesome new mommy who lives in the iPhone.
How It’s Done
n instance of benevolent restoration is P.J. Clarke’s. Clarke’s was an old-timer even at the time of its first real crisis during a redevelopment boom in 1960s which saw huge swathes of midtown Manhattan laid to waste. A holdover from a time when the length of Third Avenue under the el was lined with saloons, Clarke’s had, under one name or another, been dishing up suds since 1884. But developers had the valuable corner lot in their sights, and after years of refusing an outright buyout, in 1967 Clarke’s cut a deal that kept the bar intact while a skyscraping office tower rose to surround it on two sides. Vive le resistance! Incredibly, Clarke’s not only survived this first threat, they thrived, and they did it by scrupulously avoiding change. As the world outside the etched glass double doors raced on to the future, the bar, its traditions and décor remained as immutable as the pyramids. Then in 2002 the other shoe dropped. With 60-plus years still left on their lease, the owners’ financial difficulties brought the bar again to the brink of extinction. But like the cavalry riding to the rescue in the last reel of a cowboy picture, a syndicate of rich fans of Clarke’s bought the business and
saved the day. They took the change of management as an opportunity to give the old lady a thorough face-lift and yet managed to restore the space without destroying its character. Sure, it was cleaner, and the menu was updated, and they moved the kitchen, but almost everything — the age-darkened mirrors, the venerable 19th c. cash register — was meticulously preserved. The magnitude of the urinals still inspires awe. We miss the little “Clark’s Bar” pads on which you wrote your own food order, a holdover from earlier day when a favorite busboy was promoted to waiter before it was discovered his English wasn’t up to the job. Much sadder, none of the same characters are there to take those slips. Despite talk of retaining staff after the year-long renovation, today younger and more generic go-getters work the room. Bartenders are evidently coached to routinely enquire of your name and shake your hand — it feels more like a corporate mixer than a gin mill. Still, taken as a whole, the restoration of P.J. Clarke’s is a testament to how this kind of thing can be done. When threatened with complete annihilation, they managed to preserve much of the glory for future generations.
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