In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.
“SoHo looks like it did 40 years ago,” says Sasha Noe, the owner of Fanelli’s, one of the neighborhood’s oldest and most amiable watering holes. The bar, which sits at the corner of Prince and Mercer Streets, is where I often eat breakfast. Until recently, it served bacon and eggs in the morning, and burgers and chili later in the day. But on March 15, when the city mandated that restaurants could offer only takeout and delivery service, it closed. Through 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, the bar had remained open, its neon sign a welcoming beacon; now, like nearly everything else in SoHo, it’s shut. Even the glamorous stores — Louis Vuitton, Fendi and the others — that normally provide a glittering backdrop to the neighborhood are boarded up to protect the handbags.
“We never really did takeout,” says Noe, who, when he’s not watching his three kids, has spent the past couple of weeks fixing things around the place, conferring with his suppliers, sending whatever remains in the stockroom to the Bowery Mission and working out a way to pay his whole staff — which he intends to do for as long as he can. A couple of blocks west along Prince Street, Raoul’s, where New Yorkers have been eating steak au poivre since it opened in 1975, has also locked its doors. Its owner, Karim Raoul (son of the original Monsieur Raoul), who lives above the restaurant, tried to keep takeout going but doesn’t want to endanger his employees. Also, he could no longer get the right burger buns. “It’s always about the buns,” he says. Then, too, as I write this he’s just come back from the hospital with his wife and their new baby.
Noe is right: SoHo is nearly deserted, almost as it was in the 1980s, although in those days there was more graffiti, and commercial bakeries belched smoke all night. From my window at seven in the morning, the neighborhood appears as it always does early in the day. The sun is out. The gleaming white cast-iron buildings look as they must have since the 1870s and ’80s, when they were built as showy warehouses for prosperous dry goods merchants. For a moment, I marvel at the quiet: no crowds, no sneaker-obsessed shoppers, only a few construction workers and the heroic people delivering medicine and supplies.
Gourmet Garage began in the 1980s as a produce warehouse located in a SoHo auto repair shop where, after the trucks had gone, locals could pick up strange and foreign items like arugula, radicchio and endive. It’s a New York minichain now, but the store on Broome Street still feels like the kind of grocery where we shopped when I was growing up in Greenwich Village. What distinguishes it, never more so than now, are the people who work there: Ron Armstrong, the patient manager; Jean Dorlizor, who in the past would often talk about music and his kids as he stacked the shelves; Annette Vestal, with her lilting Jamaican accent, always ready to discuss hairstyles. There’s Justin Danon, who does just about everything in the store; Amir Durant, who now often picks up the phone in the morning with information about produce coming in during the pandemic, and Mouhamed Karanara — “Call me Al,” he says, referring to the nickname he picked up years ago — who does checkout and delivery. Like everyone, they are scared, but they come to work because they have to, to earn a living, and to help keep the city going.
Yesterday, my phone rang and it was Jolie Alony from Thompson Chemists, SoHo’s corner drugstore and a local gathering place where every other Tuesday night there is a band that plays bluegrass; not this week, though. “We’re just checking that all our regulars have enough supplies of their meds,” she says. Jolie and her husband, Gary Alony, who is the pharmacist, own the store; their three kids, Daniela, Jonathan and Maya, are there every day now, along with the new intern, Wael Hamed, all of them answering phones, ordering messengers and restocking shelves. “We’re fine,” says Jolie, and in the background I can hear one of Gary’s favorite records blasting: Funkadelic’s 1970 “Free Your Mind … and Your Ass Will Follow.” Even clients who have decamped to Woodstock and the Hamptons are calling in orders. “It’s hard for them to get out,” says Jolie without a hint of irony. “Most urgent requests are for Q-Tips, nail brushes, shampoo and toilet paper.”
But a New Yorker cannot live on toilet paper alone. At Di Palo’s, the Italian specialty food store on Grand Street, Lou, Sal and Connie Di Palo, the three siblings who own the shop, are there most days now, making sure there is plenty of great cheese, pasta, olive oil and silky pink San Daniele ham. “We don’t let our staff or the kids come in,” Lou says. It’s a tough time for everyone in the food business and Di Palo’s is offering an extra 10 percent on gift certificates, as well as easy, contactless pickup. “We just ask people to call us, come down and we’ll pass a bag out the door,” Lou explains. Sal will always have a few jokes to tell over the phone. And there will be the usual chocolate eggs later this month. Without them, no New York Easter seems possible.
Or, indeed, Passover without Russ & Daughters, whose main store on East Houston Street has sold smoked fish and Jewish delicacies since 1914. Every year the shop is stocked with holiday specialties: matzos, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup. And while the original location and two cafes — one on Orchard Street, the other at the Jewish Museum — have temporarily closed to help their staff stay safe, the company’s depot at the Brooklyn Navy Yard is still operating. “People want comfort desserts,” says Johanna Shipman, the store’s indefatigable manager, who’s been helping out in Brooklyn. “We’re selling a lot of babka and rugelach.” And there are still plenty of deliveries to Los Angeles and Florida when people realize their family members there are sad and lonely and in need of lox. “I worry about everyone,” she says, “and I worry, too, about the continuity of Russ & Daughters and the things that matter in the city, that make it worth living in.” Most years, the Orchard Street cafe hosts a second-night Seder; this year, on April 9, it will be virtual.
In the evening, as Greene Street empties out almost entirely, Benjamin Gutenbruner shows up at my building on his bike with a package of sausages from the German butcher and food store Schaller and Weber. He usually works at the shop’s Brooklyn outpost, but when it closed, “Benjamin asked to be part of the team at the main store on the Upper East Side,” owner Jeremy Schaller says. “Every day he’s riding into the store on 86th and Second from Greenpoint on his bicycle, rain or shine. Without guys like him we wouldn’t be able to stay open.” I hang a bag of Schaller and Weber wieners on my neighbor’s doorknob. Another neighbor leaves a bag of chocolate-covered orange peel on mine.
By around 10 at night, the street outside my window is deserted except for a solitary dog walker. Half the neighborhood seems to have left the city by now, in cars packed with grocery bags and small children. In my apartment, I escape into the 16th century by allowing myself a chapter or two of Hilary Mantel’s new novel, which I picked up at Three Lives & Company, my favorite bookshop, before it closed temporarily just over two weeks ago. “People were scrambling to get their books before being stuck at home with nothing to read,” says Troy Chatterton, who runs the store on 10th Street in Greenwich Village. “But the coronavirus has managed something that big-box bookstores, online booksellers, superstorms and building maintenance have failed to accomplish: It’s driven us to the internet.” The store has set up an online ordering system to serve its customers at least until it reopens.
At midnight, when I put my book down, I look toward the lofts across the cobblestone street there and the little tableaux in the lighted windows: people watching television; people making supper; somebody on the phone sipping wine. A woman on her fire escape sees me and waves. SoHo feels like a hamlet once again. But the city is silent the way it was just after 9/11: that deep, thick silence you can lean against, that is odd, disorienting, the background buzz of New York turned off.