I was hurrying down West 125th on the way to a new Ethiopian place a friend had tipped me to, when I stopped short. One of my favorite soul food spots, M& G Diner, was shuttered tight as a drum. The place had long been a 24-hour pit stop for southern-style fried chicken, sweet corn muffins, collards laced with fatback (and later, smoked turkey), creamy mac and cheese with extra cheddar melted on top, and the cryptic barbecued rib sandwich.
When I got home, I did a bit of research on the web and in my own collection of books about New York City. I turned up almost nada. Judging by the décor, the current M & G exterior, and its curving interior linoleum counter, the place certainly originated in the 1950s or earlier. The front remained emblazoned with the slogan, “Old Fashion’ Good” – the fussy apostrophe dating to a time when people still cared about correct punctuation.
In fact, M & G was one of the last remaining soul food holdouts in Harlem, a beacon on West 125th Street that instantly evoked the history of the neighborhood going back to the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. There are only two or three of those old-timers that remain.
In the ensuing nights, I had a recurring nightmare that Katz’s on Houston Street – one of my favorite restaurants in the world – also closed. Overnight, a condo tower rose on the site. In one version of the dream, a place called Katz’s is installed in a ground floor retail space, but it looks like a fast-food joint on the Interstate, and the indifferent counterguys are slicing the pastrami and corned beef on slicing machines.
Why does it have to be this way? Why is our culinary birthright at the mercy of the whims of real estate developers? The city is quick to grant giant tax abatements and other goodies to developers, why not to restaurateurs?
Indeed, we need some sort of cultural landmark system that will forestall the decimation of our cultural treasures. If the city readily permits condo towers to rise over Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, destroying the low-rise character of the neighborhoods in the name of economic progress, why can’t we be allowed to retain a handful of restaurants that really matter?
How the mechanism of this Heirloom Restaurant Designation would work is not the point of this piece–certainly, there would be many details to work out. It shouldn’t be connected in any way to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is in the pocket of real estate developers, and often seems concerned only with saving brownstones.
But I’ve started a list of restaurants and other purveyors of prepared food I’d like to see preserved, and fear are in danger of disappearing. I’d love to have additional suggestions.
1. Katz’s Deli (Manhattan)
2. Totonno’s Pizza (Brooklyn)
3. Mitchell’s Soul Food (Brooklyn)
4. Lemon Ice King of Corona (Queens)
5. Patsy’s Pizza (Manhattan)
6. La Taza de Oro (Manhattan)
7. Pete’s Tavern (Manhattan)
8. Veniero’s (Manhattan)
9. Court Pastry Shop (Brooklyn)
10. Eddie’s Sweet Shop (Queens)
11. Nathan’s Hot Dogs (Brooklyn)
12. Calandra’s Cheese (Bronx)
13. Margie’s Red Rose (Manhattan)