reasons to love new york

Farewell to My Go-to

Ruth Reichl, Rumaan Alam, Jiayang Fan, and more on losing the place where they were a regular.

Cake display at Scotty’s Diner, 2019. Photo: @dinersofnyc
Cake display at Scotty’s Diner, 2019. Photo: @dinersofnyc

This year, we have devoted New York’s annual “Reasons to Love New York” issue to a celebration of the go-tos that have closed since the pandemic struck. A wake for the places that defined our lives here — that gave us community and let us try on new identities in return for our money. The bars where we came together for after-work drinks, the boxing gym where everybody thinks they’re in an action movie, the gallery that trusted you to build a cloud, the coffee shop where you were left alone to read, the restaurant with the full bar where you’d find yourself trying to eat after an all-night bender, the place that was so of its moment that it became a relic and then (deservedly) an icon. All gone. And sadly, probably, more to come before the city returns to its purpose: a place of gathering. We’ll be sharing these tributes all week on Curbed.

Department Store

Lord & Taylor

Lower East Side, first opened in 1826

America’s oldest department store, tracing its origins to a small dry-goods shop on Catherine Street. By 1860, it anchored Ladies’ Mile at Broadway; the flagship on Fifth Avenue at 38th Street opened in 1914 but shut last year. In August 2020, the store announced it was closing all its remaining locations

I hadn’t been in Lord & Taylor for decades when I heard it was closing. But my memories of the store go back to my childhood, when I would be so happy doing anything with my mother by myself without my two sisters and brother in tow — not that I didn’t adore them, but as I was the eldest of four siblings who all arrived in rapid succession, time alone was rare and treasured. She’d take me with her to Lord & Taylor to shop, and we’d have lunch at the counter of the Soup Bar on the tenth floor. I loved chef William L. Palmer, who ruled there. I remember a large soup cauldron in the middle of the island he served from, with all of us sitting at the horseshoe-shaped counter around him. He was large in spirit, and in girth, and made me feel special when he asked me what I wanted to eat, not that I had much choice; his secret recipe for Scotch broth was served every day, then on certain days his clam chowder. The best was his dessert of apple crisp with hard sauce. I never had that anywhere but there. —Wendy Goodman

Restaurant

Hoy Wong

Chinatown, first opened in 1978

Hoy Wong is not the kind of restaurant that makes it onto any foodie’s list of destinations. The dimly lit basement hole-in-the-wall on the corner of Canal and Mott was a place I had passed many times on my way to meeting friends at trendier places. But then sometime around 2010, I started seeing a dentist a block away. One day, I ended up at Hoy Wong’s; there seemed to be no better way to celebrate the end of a teeth-cleaning session than to stuff the space between my molars and incisors with gnashed-up bits of barbecued meat. Somehow, this was formalized into a post-dentist ritual. Most of the time, it was quiet. If there was another diner, he was almost always alone as well. The man who chopped up the meat for me — I always requested the fattiest — had a glistening pate and a generous belly. After he ladled some cooked cabbage on top, he would push the plate into the microwave, conveniently located between his cutting board at the front of the restaurant and my table. He watched me scarf down the plate as closely as I watched him prepare my meal. He never seemed to remember who I was. Every so often, he would ask, “Are you a student? Maybe a new college graduate?” Of course, back when I started going to Hoy Wong, I was few enough years out of college that I could, with good conscience, nod yes. In Cantonese-accented Mandarin, he would then inquire about where I was from. When I said Sichuan, he would smile knowingly and nod at the massacre of spilled chile oil on my table.

When I passed by Hoy Wong in late February, the racks of golden duck and chicken hanging from their necks in the window were gone. Instead, there was a note posted, something about the lease being up, even though the neighbors knew better. So many restaurants in Chinatown had been forced to shutter because of the pandemic that Hoy Wong’s closing went largely unnoticed. The note was signed “Hoy Wong,” which I assumed was the name of the owner until I looked up at the sign and saw that it was the name of the restaurant itself. How strange that I had never known its name. In my brain, the little barbecue joint lived without identification, a place where I could eat for under ten bucks and where, briefly, I could be as unidentifiable and inconspicuous as Hoy Wong was in a city teeming with brand-name eateries. I still go to the same dentist, though, and a month ago, when I stood on that stretch of Mott in front of my former haunt’s corrugated-metal shutter, I was surprised to find myself longing for something other than duck and squid: a small, quiet place in this vast city where one can feel at once alone and at home. —Jiayang Fan

Restaurant

Lucky Strike

Soho, first opened in 1989

My best friend, the artist Borna Sammak, who went to NYU in the 2000’s, used to say that Lucky Strike invented the twenty dollar cheeseburger. I arrived a bit later than that and have no way of confirming this. I will remember the warm welcome, the crowded seating arrangements, ordering the Niçoise salad or the twenty dollar cheeseburger before getting on with the business of being myself. In normal times, being myself involved sitting down for conversations with nice people on the topic of how things should look. For instance, one time I went in to meet the artist and critic Walter Robinson, who had a retrospective around the corner at Deitch on Wooster Street, and that guy can really hold forth. There were at least four very nice paintings of cheeseburgers in that show. I made my name in this town around the same time as that showing paintings down the street at a gallery that was also shuttered during the pandemic, which, for legal reasons, I’m not supposed to talk about. But the restaurant’s location, as they say, was everything. I don’t know where else one would go for decent, modestly priced food in West SoHo. Certainly not next door at Toad Hall, which is strictly alcoholic. Lucky Strike was essential to my experience of the emerging downtown art market as far as lunch and dinner once or twice a week was concerned.

Photo: @matchbookdiaries

Another time, I met my friends, the writers Alissa Bennett and Naomi Fry there for lunch a day or two after a particularly bruising breakup. Bennett was also my art dealer at the time, but, then as now, she was always more concerned with my personal life. It’s a long story, involving flights to and from Sweden as well as crying at The Cock on 2nd Avenue at 3 a.m. on a weeknight. I was feeling rather embarrassed about it. Between courses, Fry and I stepped out for a smoke (I’ve since quit). What she said was so good, and I’ll never forget this: “You do know how to spin your own narrative, don’t you?” Well, of course I did, but it’s stuff like that they don’t teach you at NYU. You just have to get out there and have lunch with nice people. —Sam McKinniss

Restaurant

Scottys Diner

Murray Hill, first opened in 1990

There is, or was, a coffee shop, Scotty’s Diner, between 39th and 40th on Lexington — closer to 39th, on the west side of the street, bright-blue awning. The owners are Greek brothers, Theo/Teddy and Stelios/Steve, but they often answered to “Scotty,” even though Scotty was long gone.

In 2016, I returned to the city from Charlottesville after 30 years away, writing and teaching (with frequent visits in between), and found myself residing (after trying Brooklyn and a faculty sublet by NYU) not far from where my wife and I had had an apartment in Murray Hill. I used to go to a place on Third Avenue, between 34th and 35th, but it was no longer there. I had needed all the intangible things that coffee shop provided me back then, when I was a book editor, and I knew I needed them again now. The truth is, I didn’t know what sort of life awaited me when I came back. I was single, in my 60s, my daughter was grown, and I had two marriages and a broken engagement behind me. I was hopeful that I could renew the many friendships I had had when I lived in New York before, and the ones I had maintained during my time away, but I wasn’t certain that would be possible, even if I acted or seemed confident otherwise. One of the minor reasons I had left the city was the frustration and disappointment I felt in not seeing friends on a regular basis. Good intentions aside, people are busy, especially in New York, ever striving. I also learned, rather quickly, that as most people get older, they tend to narrow their world, not expand it. Some friends seemed puzzled by my return. For whatever reason, when people leave New York, they rarely, if ever, come back to live.

On the surface, I had been successful — besides being a book editor, a best-selling nonfiction author, and devoted teacher, I had been a broadcast journalist with CBS and did award-winning voiceover work — but the picture was misleading. I was still reeling from the end of a relationship, missing the daily responsibility and joy of raising a child, and relishing a new purpose — finding a way to be among more people every day than an author’s solitary life normally provides. I could have stayed in Charlottesville, but I have never been afraid to take a risk, and I felt that a return to urban life — to the only place where I never had had to explain myself — was a logical next step in my ongoing desire to defeat loneliness.

And Scotty’s turned out to be the sort of home — refuge, really — where, to a large extent, the lost could be found.

If you see something, say something.” This was the first thing Teddy said to me, a mischievous grin on his face, as he poured me a glass of water and slapped a menu down. “But what if I see nothing?” I jokingly snapped back. “You no say anything,” he said.

Somehow, a bond was forged. We were a year apart in age, Teddy and I, and, in time, he let me sit at the first booth, which was a half-booth, and it was his, though he never occupied it for long. When he sat still long enough, we talked about soccer — he used to play and now avidly followed the Cypriot First Division — and he told me a little bit about his second wife, Loretta, and, secretly, about Mohamed, who would pick him up at his home in Queens at 5:30 each morning because he had gotten tired of taking the 7 train and his days were long, so much so he would sneak off for catnaps in a chair in the basement. (Mohamed was a slight extravagance that Teddy didn’t want everyone to know about.) When I told him I made my living as a writer, he lifted his eyebrows and looked at me as if I had come from outer space, or was a wolverine from the Upper Peninsula. I knew what he was thinking, because I had seen the look before: That’s not a real job.

Unlike Steve, who was preternaturally shy and three years younger, Teddy was there to greet people as soon as they entered underneath the lit marquee, as if going to a Broadway show. If you were part of a family, he bent down to meet your children as if he were a grandfather (which he was), knowing that eating out for them was a big deal, then seating everyone, making a fuss over you, yet always running through in his head how long certain tables had been occupied, and how accommodating he could be. He never stopped moving, glad-handing and charming and switching between Greek and English and something else mixed in (which he playfully wouldn’t identify) as he went. He knew when Australians preferred to visit New York, and New Zealanders, and Italians, and the British — all the countries actually. He did his homework. In its Midtown location, Scotty’s had regulars and office workers. But it was the tourists they depended on most, and he counted on the hotels nearby and general word of mouth to recommend those tourists make their way there.

The more time I spent at Scotty’s, the more I realized I was reliving my own life as a busboy and a waiter from the summers of my youth — my fascination with human behavior leading to my becoming a patient listener, a noticer, a writer. The world of Scotty’s allowed me to make new acquaintances as I attempted to find the contours of the next uncertain chapter of my life. For me, it was a fresh window, a different doorway, a way station to the world, all in one place, and Teddy was its effervescent gatekeeper.

There was “Champion,” who arrived every Monday at four, and whom Teddy and Steve treated with reverence. Teddy had worked for him at the Gemini at one time, and they dropped everything when this king of the diner world arrived. (If I could, I made sure to be there, because those raucous, laughter-filled conversations comprised the singular New York music I had dearly missed.) And Jimmy, who had been a trader on the floor of the American Stock Exchange and had a day-trading habit he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, break, and an undying love of the Brooklyn Nets. I happened to have a friend who played for them, and so we went one night and he had his photo taken with Joe Harris, which made Jimmy so happy that “happy” is a woeful choice on my part. “Delirious” is more like it. And Tashi, a Manchester United fan from Nepal who knew more about the Premier League than anyone I had ever met, worked the register and took delivery orders every day but Wednesday, when he played tennis. (Though reluctant at first, he was open to my getting him enthused about the 2019 Women’s World Cup, and interested in the play of Rose Lavelle, the breakout star for the United States, whom I had profiled years earlier.) Tashi and Teddy had a way of communicating I could never quite decipher. But when Teddy got perturbed, Tashi always seemed to know how to lower his temperature.

Tommy, one of the nighttime chefs, had a perfect “Fu Manchu”–style mustache and played Lotto across the street at the bodega every day before putting on his white uniform. He made patty melts and grilled-cheese sandwiches for me with the kind of meticulous care that brought me, sentimental by nature, to the verge of tears. Simon was brash and theatrical and could balance six plates up his arm (eight if necessary). We had words once on a Sunday when two friends were with me from out of town and I felt he rushed us out too soon — an incident he and I quickly got over. Then there was Dallas, another chef, who insisted he worked harder and did things more correctly than anyone there; Dallas always lit up when he saw me: “My friend, my friend” he would bellow. But when I suggested we visit his native Greece together, so he could show me where he grew up, he demurred. “No, I live in America. I love America.” Stephanos, Steve’s son, worked the registers in the afternoon and into the evening, purchased the latest iPhone the second it came out, and worshiped the Yankees, though he boycotted the 2019 season in terms of going to games because they had not signed any big-name agents, but was back on board for 2020 because they had picked up Gerrit Cole. It was always understood Stephanos would inherit the business some day.

Behind Stephanos, the photos were proudly displayed on the Wall of Fame: Daryl Strawberry, Cousin Brucie and Laila Ali, the Champ’s daughter, after her last fight at the Garden. Either Teddy or Stelios was in each one, Jimmy in some others. But of all the pictures on the wall, there was one that had more meaning, more poignancy, than any other: the one with James Gandolfini, Tony from The Sopranos.

“He was here, twice, for lunch, not long before he died,” Teddy said quietly, his head slightly bent, the sadness of it still lingering with him. “His doctor’s office was nearby. He had a tuna on rye, with tomato. In that booth, with his wife and young son,” he added, pointing to the third one on the left. “I waited on him.”

Scotty’s closed on March 17, though at the time Theo and Stelios Groutas refused to believe it was for good. I think a lot these days about “Beege,” a tall, soft-spoken woman around 80 who was still a knockout but who often needed help getting to her booth every night, where she would sit with red wine in a proper wineglass, reading all three New York dailies with intense concentration while, judiciously, eating chicken Parm with spaghetti; a fascinating, furtive figure who learned more about me than she would allow me to know about her, and, trust me, I tried. Beege has no place to go now, and she is hardly alone.

Postscript: On April 24, Teddy’s wife, Loretta, died of COVID-19. We’ve kept in touch; on the day before Thanksgiving, we spoke again. I knew him well enough by now to hear the restlessness in his voice, and to sense how determined the brothers were, all uncertainty notwithstanding, to find a way to open their doors again and begin anew.  

—Jonathan Coleman

Restaurant

Otto

Greenwich Village, first opened in 2003

Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson made a documentary, Dick Johnson Is Dead, about her father, who moved in with her. Otto was located on the street level of their building.

When dad moved in, it was hard for him to move around, especially at night. So we would go downstairs for dinner. There was something sort of magical about that. You go out one little door and go in the next, and it’s sort of like that dream where you find another room in your house. Now there’s a whole restaurant in the house. That was fun with Dad’s dementia, because he’d ask if the restaurant was across the hall — in his mind, it would sort of change positions in the building. Eating out was really empowering for him. He was always saying, “Can I get the bill? Can I get the check?” As soon as the food was ordered — “I’ve got this.” He felt the autonomy of being able to pay for dinner, to take me out to dinner. —As told to Helen Shaw

Pub

Foleys

Midtown, first opened in 2004

Baseball memorabilia at Foley’s. Photo: Jeremiah Moss

I had a signed baseball on display at Foley’s in Midtown, but then again, so did just about everybody. Shaun Clancy, the owner of Foley’s NY, “An Irish Bar With a Baseball Attitude,” had signed baseballs from just about anyone who stepped in his bar and thousands of people who didn’t, from the Pope to Ted Williams to Chuck Berry. (I remember the night they took down Kevin Spacey’s.) But if you wanted to have your own ball up, all you had to do was ask. Foley’s was the baseball bar in New York City, beloved inside the game and out; if you stayed up late enough to watch the West Coast games there, you’d likely end up drinking next to the four umpires who did the Yankees game earlier that night. But Clancy, a seventh-generation bar owner whose father worked at Toots Shor’s (and who also famously banned “Danny Boy” for his bar, insisting the song was written by a Brit who had never even been to Ireland), mostly took care of his core customers: Pure baseball fans. The place became the perfect spot to hide away and live in the world of the diamond. I hosted a monthly gathering of St. Louis Cardinals fans for about a decade, regularly attended by hundreds of Cardinals fans around the city, including diehards Jon Hamm and Andy Cohen. But hardly anyone ever noticed they were there, or bothered them if they did: We were all too busy watching the game. (They still both signed a ball.) —Will Leitch

Diner

Carroll Gardens Classic Diner

Boerum Hill, first opened in 2005

My last visit to Carroll Gardens Classic Diner (What’s in a name? What more could you want?) was on a sunny, chilly Tuesday in October 2019. I was to chaperone the second-grade field trip to a high school in Queens to see a ballet. I love the ballet, though I am less fond of lurching school buses and other people’s children. Also, I was a little hung-over. I had an hour between the start of the school day and the start of the trip. The diner was empty, as they often are weekday mornings, so I could commandeer an entire booth, leaf through the London Review of Books, and eat a Greek omelet. The salt banished my lingering headache. There are so very few years in which your kid wants you along and considers your presence on a class trip a victory. On the bouncing school bus — 45 minutes there, 45 minutes back — my second-grader held my hand the whole way home. —Rumaan Alam

Restaurant

Momofuku Ssäm Bar

East Village, first opened in 2006 (moved to Bar Wayō, South Street Seaport)

The first time I went to Momofuku, the one with ten seats, only three were occupied. The place was brand-new, and the young chef stood watching as I inhaled every drop of that fantastic bowl of ramen. Then he brought out another dish. “It’s a ssäm,” he said. “What do you think?”

Not much was the answer; it struck me as a sadly clunky Korean burrito. So when Ssäm Bar opened a couple of years later, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.

But I went anyway, just for science. Turns out there wasn’t a ssäm in sight (unless you counted the hideously expensive bo ssäm you had to order in advance). Instead, there were wildly inventive dishes. With the first bite, I felt as if David Chang had reached inside my mind and conjured up my secret fantasies. Lush swaths of sea urchin snuggled into whipped tofu alongside giant tapioca pearls. The flavors swirled around my mouth; the textures did little pirouettes; and I grew deliriously happy. I went on to have raw bay scallops, pickled vegetables, and crisp Brussels sprouts drenched in fish sauce and chiles. I’d found a new home.

I loved everything about the place. The raucous noise, the way perfect strangers exchanged food, the quirky wine list. My teenage son and I went as often as we could (my husband never appreciated the place), and we were never disappointed. One night, the chef arrived with a new dish he’d been playing around with — lychees topped with an icy Riesling gelée and pine-nut brittle. He plunked the bowls down, picked up a grater, and soon, pretty pink curls of frozen foie gras were raining into the dish. I took a bite, closed my eyes, and waited for the cold shards to come together. It tasted like magic.

Nick loved the restaurant so much that he drove home from college to celebrate his 21st birthday there. It was late when he and his friends made their way downtown to devour pork buns, rice sticks with spicy sausage, and endless plates of sliced ham.

Just before midnight, his girlfriend noticed that one of his favorite bands, Yeasayer, was sitting just a few stools down. She went over to whisper that Nick was about to turn 21, and as midnight struck, the band began to sing. As they improvised a raucous version of “Happy Birthday,” the entire restaurant joined in.

I loved the food at Ssäm Bar. But what I loved even more was the way it transformed New York City into a warm and welcoming village. —Ruth Reichl

Restaurant

88 Lan Zhou

Chinatown, first opened in 2007

Andrew Kuo:

As a kid, I used to eat dumplings in Chinatown every Sunday afternoon, and my parents would buy bags of frozen dumplings from the neighborhood to boil up at home. I started going to the original Lan Zhou and buying their frozen dumplings about eight or ten years ago. They had a different style; the wrappers were thinner and not as doughy as the ones at Vanessa’s. I bet a super-nerd could tell you more, but to me, the filling was extraordinary because it wasn’t sweet. It had a nice round flavor, and it was fattier and had a coarser grind. It seems like I ate at the original location a million times — once every two weeks or so. I mostly went by myself. But most of my memories are of eating their frozen dumplings in my apartment late at night, around 4 a.m., while waiting for a painting to dry washing brushes. Knowing they’re in my freezer is very comforting to me. I’m currently holding up three bags of 88. The idea of having them as an option is as satisfying as eating them. It kind of breaks my heart to dig into my reserves. —As told to Chris Crowley

Restaurant

Baohaus

Lower East Side, first opened in 2009

When I was little and people asked me where my parents were from, I would lie and say Japan. It’s a big ask for a 7-year-old to explain the existence of an entire country to people only aware of the MADE IN TAIWAN sticker. But as an adult, to answer that question, I’d take friends to Baohaus. The pork buns were served Taiwanese style, with relish, red sugar, cilantro, and crushed peanuts. It’s a dish exclusive to Taiwan that’s hard to find. Baohaus served it along cans of Apple Sidra, the Taiwanese version of Martinelli’s apple cider. Under that neon sign was the first place I found a taste of home in a bun in New York. —Kathleen Hou

Restaurant

The Forest Hills Diner

Forest Hills, first opened in 2010

Place settings at Forest Hills Diner in Queens, 2018. Photo: @dinersofnyc

Not necessarily the best diner in the neighborhood, but my favorite because it became my family’s go-to Saturday-morning spot when my son was little. He’d charm the waitresses and wave to customers on his way out. For a while, we called him “the baby mayor of Forest Hills.” —Joe DeLessio

Bar

Burnside

Williamsburg, first opened in 2011

Nearly six years ago, we got all the boxes dropped off at our new place, and the first thing we did was go to Burnside. We were cranky as only people who have thrown their lives into deliberate disarray can be. We required fried food.

Burnside was on Grand Street, just east of the BQE, four blocks away from the apartment where my now-husband and I had just moved in together. We’d been there before (a birthday party or two) but never particularly sought it out. Its advantage now was that we had heard of it. That afternoon, we sat at a big table by the sunny front windows, drinking beers and eating BLTs and fried cheese curds. It was still almost empty — a quality my husband has always liked in a bar — but in a way that felt anticipatory. We were feeling anticipatory too. We still had to unpack all our stuff and buy a couch. But now we had a local.

Burnside had been decorated in the Edison-bulb era of Brooklyn bars: peeling wallpaper, wood paneling, thrift-store art. Its great asset (in addition to fried food) was a range of good places to sit. There were big tables for groups but also unexpected nooks that could accommodate just one or two. There was a tiny table by the back door, hidden behind the bar, which we’d stake out whenever possible and set up camp. Some people played shuffleboard (Burnside had shuffleboard), but we treated Burnside as a place to read a book or do a crossword. It was a bar for a rainy weeknight or a Sunday afternoon. The place got crowded on Friday and Saturday nights, but in the off-hours, the bartenders seemed to have a reliable assortment of friends around. We’d order at the bar and chat a little while we waited.

Between March 2015 and March 2018, we probably averaged one trip to Burnside per week. March 2018 was when my husband stopped drinking, but we still went maybe once every two weeks. He’d have seltzer with bitters and lime; I’d tip extravagantly on one or two beers. If someone I was supposed to meet for work drinks expressed a willingness to come to Williamsburg, I’d suggest Burnside and feel like I was almost off the hook: I was basically getting to stay home. I remember wondering if we’d stop in and say good-bye whenever the hazy future arrived in which we moved someplace else, but as it turned out, we never got the chance. —Molly Fischer

Bar

Flowers for All Occasions

Bushwick, first opened in 2015

Paperboy Prince:

When I ran for Congress earlier this year, I wasn’t your typical candidate — a young, queer Afro-Latino rapper. I actually had the first meetings for my congressional campaign at Flowers. This place was built for me as someone who does a lot of events for the queer and trans community and the underground artists’ scene. It’s a cool place aesthetically — it looks like you’re inside a tree — and it’s multipurpose: café, bar, event and art space, venue. So I thought it was a great spot to meet with my campaign manager. He lives in a different part of Brooklyn and hangs with a different crowd than I do. But he had come to Flowers, and it became a strategy center for my campaign. We would have sensitive conversations, stuff you don’t want other people to hear. Private! I wouldn’t feel comfortable having these same kinds of conversations in other cafés, right? I could literally plan my political campaign but then later hang out with friends. It was super-affordable, too, and the people who worked there were cool. They supported what we were doing and never tried to push us out. You think a place like that is going to be there forever but then, four or five months after my campaign launched, it’s not open anymore. —As told to Jane Starr Drinkard

*A version of this article appears in the December 7, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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Farewell to My Go-to