The following is a guest post by Mitch Broder, author and blogger.
It’s unlikely that nineteenth-century New York had an oatmeal saloon, but it reportedly had several hundred oyster saloons. The city more or less launched its food scene with its oyster joints, which set the stage for the present-day oatmeal joint, not to mention the present-day stuffed-bagel-ball joint.
In this century, spots like those two have been proliferating, not surprisingly as store rents have been tripling and sextupling. Non-billionaires who have a dream of opening a traditional city restaurant often find themselves scaling the dream down to, say, a city schnitzel spot.
This economic reality is what inspired me to write a book called New York’s One-Food Wonders: A Guide to the Big Apple’s Unique Single-Food Spots. The book tells the stories of all our offbeat one-food places, along with the stories of all our offbeat one-thing places.
My previous book, Discovering Vintage New York, covers the city’s classic old spots, but I’ve always seen the singular places as classics of their own. Like so many of the vintage spots, they keep originality — and peculiarity — in a cityscape that’s quickly and sadly losing both.
They also keep independence here. Nearly all of these spots were founded by passionate people, not by dispassionate investment groups. They’re a last stand for creativity — and some of the young ones are getting old. Peanut Butter & Co., the all-peanut-butter joint, is in its eighteenth year.
The places in the book range from far older to far younger. But this blog is city headquarters for the far older. So here, exclusively for Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, is my list of the elder statesmen — Manhattan’s ten oldest one-food and one-thing wonders.
1946: Fountain Pen Hospital (10 Warren St.) Though now more store than hospital, it’s still run by its founding family. And it’s the last major place to get pens that don’t come twenty to a blister pack.
1936: Kossar’s Bialys (367 Grand St.) This is the last major place for people who still know what bialys are. It’s run by two guys who took it over two years ago. Call first, since they’ve been renovating.
1932: Papaya King (179 E. 86th St. and 3 St. Mark’s Place) Hot dogs and tropical fruit drinks count as one thing, because in New York City they’re married — and this is the stand that married them.
1929: Marchi’s Restaurant (251 E. 31st St.) For the Marchis, I stretched the book’s concept; their single thing is their single meal. Every night they serve only the same five-course dinner they’ve been serving since the end of World War II.
1927: Gem Spa (131 Second Ave.) This newsstand actually has lots of things, but it’s famous for just one thing: its egg cream. The recipe for it is as closely guarded as the one for Coke.
1917: The Drama Book Shop (250 W. 40th St.) If it’s stardom you’re bound for, here’s where you find your vehicle. The shop stocks about ten thousand plays, and in 2011 it won its own Tony.
1913: Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant (Grand Central Terminal) It’s a grand reminder of the city’s aforementioned oyster era. Also a grand reminder of what you can do with a ceiling.
1911: JJ Hat Center (310 Fifth Ave.) The last of the traditional men’s hat shops takes you back to a time when a gentleman was always topped off, and generally with something other than a baseball cap.
1910: Jean’s Silversmiths (16 W. 45th St.) It began as a curiosity shop, and a century later it still looks like one. (It was named for Jean Valjean, the celebrated silver collector.)
1910: Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery (137 E. Houston St.) Even Yonah succumbed to economic reality, says the shop’s owner, Ellen Anistratov: “He wanted to teach people spirituality,” she says, “but there was no money in it.”