The Age of the Great NY Cafeterias

March 4th, 2012 § 17 comments

Fast food franchise junk, escalating real estate prices, changing customs. These all knocked out the great New York cafeterias that fed old schmoozers, loquacious intellectuals, cab drivers, garment center workers, students, artists — everybody, in fact. In terms of cuisine, the best was Dubrow’s. There were three: one in the garment center (this was where HG dined before Knicks games at Madison Square Garden); one on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn (where HG dined after watching Joe Klein, Floyd Paterson, Joey Giardello and other fighters at the Eastern Parkway Arena); another branch on Brooklyn’s Kings Highway (too quiet and staid for HG). All were decorated in high, post-Depression, “modernist” style with plenty of mirrored walls and pale, glistening wood. The garment center Dubrow’s (on Seventh Avenue in the 30’s) was a madhouse during weekday lunch hours. The wonder was how the cloak-and-suiters and skilled workers could eat so much and talk so much at the same time. The Eastern Parkway Dubrow’s was favored by Jewish bookmakers, horse players, gamblers, loan sharks and the last remnants of Brownsville’s Murder Inc. and associated Lepke mob. These were guys who favored expensive hats, sharp suits (by Brooklyn’s Abe Stark) and big cigars. A guy not wearing a suit, tie and hat was a “bum,” despised by all. By 1985 all the Dubrow’s were gone.

The Belmore Cafeteria on 28th Street and Park Avenue South (Fourth Avenue before the fancy name change) was a 24-hour-a-day place favored by cab drivers. Martin Scorcese’s movie “Taxi Driver” burnished its fame. The scenes between Robert DeNiro and Peter Boyle take place in front of The Belmore. Phil Siegel ran The Belmore for decades and never changed its motto: “New York’s Most Fabulous Restaurant.” Like Dubrow’s, it had plenty of Jewish and Eastern European specialties but there were many eclectic culinary surprises as well. It was always busy. At its peak, The Belmore fed some 5.000 New Yorkers every weekday. Siegel sold the cafeteria and its corner site in 1981 to developers of a “sliver” condo development.

A sad and quiet cafeteria was The Senate on Broadway and 96th. There were lots of tattoos there. No, not the multi-colored skin-scapes favored by today’s hipsters. These were the grim number tattoos of Holocaust survivors, men and women who conversed quietly over endless cups of tea. I.B. Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish writer, was often there eating tuna salad (he also favored The Eclair,a middle European pastry shop and restaurant on W.72nd). Singer based many of his stories on the aged folks he met there — people whose stories bordered on the supernatural. There were two other groups at The Senate: junkies and hookers. The strung out junkies ate trays of the sweetest cakes they could find The hard working hookers favored more robust fare. They ate fast. Their demanding business agents didn’t like them taking too much time off.

The cafeterias of New York have vanished. Mickey Dee and the landlords have won.

The Belmore circa 1976

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§ 17 Responses to The Age of the Great NY Cafeterias"

  • peter hellman says:

    Around 1973, when I was editing my book Chief! with publisher Arthur Fields, who worked out of an office tower on the north end of Union Square (2 Park Ave South, i believe), I’d stop at the Belmore for supper. And, yes, the taxis were always parked at the curb, which I guess was legal after 7 pm. I think I went for the kasha varnishka.

    HG–you’ve written a truly lovely evocation of the cafeteria era!

  • Steve Sovare says:

    My grandfather was a cook at the Belmore in 1942. He passed awary in FL in 66′ and I never knew him. I’ve been researching a family tree and found his 1942 Draft Registration Card, lising “Siegel” and Belmore Rest. Cafeteria as his place of employment. I hope others have stories of this time, my guess is he was a personable friendly gentlemen to Mr. Siegel’s patrons.

  • Jesse says:

    I was a part time cab driver in NYC from 1972 to 1980, and the Belmore was surely a Mecca for us drivers. One of the reasons was that the surrounding streets were full of taxi stands, which were special areas where cabs could park legally at any time, day or night.. As one walked into the place one immediately notice all the tables packed with shmoozing cab drivers. I often wondered how they could earn a living if they spend so much time each day at the Belmore! But it was a great place with lots of personality, and I was was sad to pass by years later and see that it was gone. I wonder how many retired NYC cab drivers still have dreams of the good old Belmore. Truly,the closing down of the Belmore marked the sad end of an era. Those days are gone forever.

  • Jason says:

    My father used to live on Troy and Carol Street in Brooklyn and often talked about Dubrow’s.

  • Stuart "Schmulkie" Bernstein says:

    I too drove a cab while I was attending Brooklyn College. I have such fond memories of the flowing seltzer, the short rude “yid” smoking a cigar and handing out the tickets. What wonderful memories of great food and conversation with other hacks..

    It was a great place to arrange to purchse a “pancake”. LOL I’m not referring to a hotcake.
    A pancake was a device designed to overide the “hot seat” which the cab barns installed to keep the driver’s honest. It would automatically turn the meter on when someone sat in any of the seats other than the driver;s..

    Oh what memories and “greps.” Fistache?

    • Gerry says:

      Schmulkie, you are a man after my own heart. I guy who understands food and mamalushen. As a CCNY guy (class of ’50) I forgive your attendance at inferior Brooklyn College.

    • Eric Frange says:

      I remember “pancakes”. They were very easy to make; all you needed was some electric wire, plugs of the correct size & soldering flux. I also remember the giant scale just to the side of the Belmore’s entrance.

      It’s amazing those great cafeterias are all gone. The only explanation is that people prefer the garbage offered by the fast food places.

      Dubrows, the Belmore & the Garden Cafeteria on East Broadway had great stuff cab drivers and students could afford. Sadly they are unable to compete with Burger King and worse.

    • Eric Frange says:

      I remember “pancakes”. They were very easy to make; all you needed was some electric wire, plugs of the correct size & soldering flux. I also remember the giant scale just to the side of the Belmore’s entrance.

      It’s amazing those great cafeterias are all gone. The only explanation is that people prefer the garbage offered by the fast food places.

      Dubrows, the Belmore & the Garden Cafeteria on East Broadway had great stuff cab drivers and students could afford. Sadly they are unable to compete with Burger King and worse.

  • Lorne Berkovitz says:

    I went to Dubrow’s on 7th avenue with my parents on a visit to New York in 1964. My brother and I were delighted with the seltzer dispensers. In Toronto where we were from we had never seen this in a restaurant before. I still remember the murals that had that WPA vibe. Very socialist. My parents loved the food. The seeming overwhelming Jewishness of New York was such a contrast to old-time Waspy Toronto. Of course it’s now as multi-cultural or more than New York.

  • Movie Mike says:

    You missed the Famous Cafeteria on 86th St between Bay Parkway and 21st Ave in Bath Beach. Seriously Mafiated, the sandwich guy took bets, all kinds of shady characters conferenced at tables in the back, and young guys like then-unknown Peter Max, Paul Sorvino and Larry King hung out all night. I was in high school and often hung out there at a table with three friends, they were Stuyvesant science guys and I was a Lafayette High poet and fiction writer.

  • Mark Weiss says:

    The challenge is to recognize and appreciate the great spots of today and make the most of them until they’re gone.

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