Hmmmm, will flying to Mars for dinner make me seasick?
There has always been an element of zaniness in the New York dining scene, ever since pretty girls started selling hot ears of buttered corn down on Delancey Street in the 19th century — or maybe even before that, because a restaurant banquet earlier in the century featured guests enjoying an entire formal meal while seated on horseback.
Here, in order of increasing absurdity are the 10 restaurants that strike us as the strangest in the city’s history. And whether the food was good or not was usually beside the point.
10. Asti — Every square inch of the walls was plastered with portraits of composers, librettists, singers, and other opera memorabilia. To pounding piano accompaniment, patrons in the crowded restaurant took turns leaping up and strolling around the room, belting out opera at ear-splitting volume; you might find yourself sitting through “The Toreador Song” from Carmen several times in a single evening. Yes, hundreds loved this Greenwich Village institution, where even the worst amateur singers were welcome, and where stars from the Met and City Opera sometimes made appearances — but the food was mediocre at best, focusing on red-sauced Italian-American standards that led the 1997 Romac Report to exclaim, “Even an average cook can do better at home.” And if you think enduring bad opera would make a fun evening, see how much of the video at the end of this countdown you can sit through. We’re betting you don’t make it past the singing pizza chef. 13 East 12th Street, 1925 to 2000
9. Motown Café — The year 1997 was the high point for what were then known as theme restaurants: tourist-oriented places where the décor and menu were contrived to provide an all-encompassing kitschy experience based on an entertainment-oriented theme. Few still exist today, but at one time the actual or contemplated restaurants of this sort in the city included Marvel Mania, Official All-Star Café, Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Café, Harley-Davidson Café, Soap Dish, Brooklyn Diner, Laugh Factory Funhouse, and the short-lived Motown Café. The latter dished up horrendous soul food, and was decorated with framed gold records, autographed musical instruments, and costumes mounted in cases. There was also a glittering, lip-synched floor show that provided the only break in the monotony of dining there. Scariest were the life-size wax effigies of performers living and dead, including a teenage Michael Jackson wearing a fringed leather jacket leaning over a second floor railing to snicker down at the diners below. And this was years before he almost dropped the baby from the balcony. 104 West 57th Street, late 1990s
8. Village Barn — In the years surrounding the First World War, the streets around Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village became thronged with restaurants descended from teahouses, where city dwellers and tourists alike would come to gawk at the anarchists, authors, practitioners of free love, socialists, kooks, and other bohemians who inhabited the neighborhood. In his book Appetite City, former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes chronicled places whose names telegraphed their wackiness: the Purple Pup, the Wigwam, the Mad Hatter, the Pirate’s Den, the Crumperie, and, most ambitious and long-lived of all, the Village Barn — a huge, high-ceilinged space decorated with saddles, scythes, harnesses, and other farm implements. Patrons yodeled like heartsick cowboys late into the night, and doffed their hats and sport coats and square-danced to a hillbilly band. The place also staged nightly turtle races. A 1939 article cited by the blog Ephemeral New York observed, “The humor is rough and ready, the accents nasal, the costumes rural.” The club closed in the mid-’60s and was soon thereafter rebuilt by Jimi Hendrix as Electric Lady Studios. 52 West 8th Street, 1930 to 1965 (dates approximate)
7. Autopub — In 1971 The Cue Guide to Dining in New York called this place “one of the most physically intriguing spots in New York,” while the Forbes Guide noted the same year, “Arrows, road signs and maps are at every corner.” Not only could you ogle the latest models of Chevys, Buicks, Pontiacs, and Cadillacs upstairs in the General Motors showrooms, you could descend to the downstairs restaurant complex called the Autopub and actually sit at tables retrofitted into the gutted chassis of automobiles, new and antique. You could also just get a drink in the Pit Stop bar. A separate dining room with the same in-car seating showed movies, twice a day. It proved a favorite of urban dating couples, who didn’t have a drive-in to go to, or a car to drive to the drive-in, either. One movie that paradoxically enjoyed a particularly long run was Airport. Predictably, the food wasn’t too good, running from sticky-sweet baby-back ribs to filet mignon with herb butter to “Coney Island” (red) clam chowder, served with shoestring potatoes. The space later became part of the toy store FAO Schwarz. 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, 1962 to 1979 (approximate dates)
6. Shopsin’s — The original Shopsin’s at the corner of Bedford and Morton in the West Village evolved from a grocery store (the subject of a Calivn Trillin piece) run by legendarily eccentric Kenny Shopsin and his now-deceased wife, Eve, with assistance from their five-member brood. The tiny place had an elaborate set of strictures known only to the cognoscenti. One of the chief joys of being a regular there was seeing prospective diners eighty-sixed from the place (and this was a common experience) for unknowingly transgressing one of the rules. If you tried to go in, for example, with an outside can of Coke, you’d be thrown out immediately. Other rules included no parties over four people, no two people at the same table ordering the same thing, and no requesting to see the menu before sitting down. Stranger than the rules was the menu itself, eventually nearly 900 items long, involving many freakish and punning oddities invented by the chef. Included were pig newtons (eggs, grits, pork, fig gravy, “high school” sandwich), slutty cakes (pancakes with peanut butter in the middle), and Jihadboy sandwich (beef, pomegranate, tapenade, feta, pistachios, tahini dressing on ciabatta). Soups were a particular specialty, and the food was often quite good — though you sometimes had to take guff from the chef, who cooked your meal only a few feet away in full view, cursing and ranting, but sometimes being wise. Free racks of candy were provided, too. 120 Essex Street, 1975 to present
5. Forum of the 12 Caesars — Located in the United Rubber Building, the Forum has lately been lionized by a Mad Men episode, but the bust of Caesar Augustus seen dimly in the background, and waiters hustling about in odd costumes handing out gigantic menus, only hinted at its weirdness. According to a recent Eater piece by Raphael Brion, the restaurant “was modeled on Imperial Rome and featured mosaics with gladiators, waiters in purple velvet jackets, and bartenders that wore leather jerkins ‘of authentically Roman cut.'” Ice buckets resembled Centurion helmets; the taps in the restrooms sported bronze dolphins. It was clearly a gilded palace of bad taste, with high price tags on the menu to match. Predictably, the bill of fare was over the top, too, featuring a mishmash of what was then called Continental cuisine, but with Roman themes. (No real Roman foods, like poached dormice or vegetables with garam sauce, ever passed through the kitchen.) A meal might include Hercules oysters with pink caviar, venison stewed with spaetzle and wild berries, partridge cooked with juniper and finished table-side with flaming gin, and deviled wild-boar cutlets. Some of the dishes sound surprisingly Top Chef — but then chefs overreaching has long been a theme of New York dining. 57 West 48th Street, 1957 to 1976
4. Duvet — Oddly enough, two competing establishments were opened in the same year. The other was called Bed, and both were dedicated to making you feel like you were dining and drinking in your own pastel-tinted and dimly lit boudoir, with seating provided in beds. Round plastic rings kept your drink upright as you sat on the mattress in the curtained enclosure, bolstered with firm pillows at your back. Dinner was served on TV trays and giant-screen TVs broadcast a near-psychedelic swirl of soft colors. More hallucination than dinner, the bill of fare included drinks like the cloyingly named (and overly sweet) Pillow Talk, White Satin, and Sweet Dream. The food was vaguely Asian-inspired, including eel with pink grapefruit, and sea bass with caramelized orange and pistachios. Blech! Duvet closed abruptly after allegations surfaced that one of the nightclub-restaurant’s security guards had raped a patron in the bathroom. 45 West 21st Street, 2004 to 2009
3. Twins — The restaurant was founded in 1994 by a pair of identical twins — Lisa and Debbie Ganz — and the actor Tom Berenger. It boasted a staff composed of 37 pairs of identical twins, who worked side by side during their shifts, wearing identical uniforms, like one of those old Doublemint Gum commercials. The décor was pure Upper East Side, with stained-glass Twin Towers as the focus, and two-for-one drinks offered to all twins who came in to dine there. Additionally, the place sported double light fixtures, two-sided business cards, double mirrors, double bar stools, and every other lunatic thing they could imagine to do on the twos theme. It was like getting hit on the head and seeing double. Their unpunctuated slogan: “You can only make a first impression once we make it twice.” Unexpectedly, the food wasn’t too bad. In a 1995 Diner’s Journal, Ruth Reichl wrote, “The kitchen’s tour de force seems to be cheese fondue, which arrives bubbling over a fire and surrounded by cubes of bread, tiny hot dogs, curly fries and pieces of broccoli. It may not be a great gourmet treat, but children find it lots of fun. They like the Twin Burgers as well, two mini-burgers on English muffins buried in an avalanche of fries.” Hey, maybe Twins invented the modern slider. 1712 Second Avenue, 1994 to 1999
2. Mars 2112 — This theme restaurant tries to re-create the experience of traveling to and dining on the planet Mars. Yeah, right! At 33,000 square feet, it’s the city’s largest theme restaurant, indeed one of the largest in the world. Still open today, it seemingly has enjoyed great ongoing success. Originally, patrons had the option of climbing into a small spaceship and being jolted for a couple of minutes prior to entering the dining room, but this amusement-park-style ride has been kaput for several years now, so one enters the sprawling space by simply walking through the doors — after being issued a Martian Federation visa, that is. Inside, find an interior that looks like a strangely lit cave, a staff dressed like Martians (or at least a 1950s comic-book version of Martians), and a menu that tastelessly mixes mythology, astronomy, history, and science-fiction imagery in such dishes as Fermi’s chili cheese fries, Magellan mozzarella sticks, and Skylab steak au poivre. 1633 Broadway, 1998 to present
Your $25 sashimi appetizer arrives enveloped in mountain vapors.
1. Ninja — Imagine a windowless restaurant deep in the stuffy basement of a Tribeca building, crudely outfitted to look like — a Spanish castle? The premises are a literal maze of fake stone painted black, curving and rickety wooden passageways, and private booths bunched inscrutably with garish plastic flowers. The waiters are outfitted as Japanese ninjas, lacking swords, throwing stars, or nunchuks, but having a propensity for jumping into your frame of view and screaming at three-minute intervals, or feinting as if throwing, say, a plate of food in your direction when your order eventually does arrive. Despite this noisy activity, the waiters don’t pay any real attention to your table, and spend most of their time reciting a canned set of jokes at every table in their area, or should I say prefecture? On a too-recent visit, Fork in the Road heard our waiter say to nearly every party as he went down the pathway, “I put a roofie in your food. Haha, no I didn’t. That wouldn’t be legal.” Gone are many of the thematic stunts pulled when the restaurant was in its infancy, and prices were much higher, as evidenced by Frank Bruni’s review. This place is not for the nervous, and you could do better, food-wise, in a neighborhood Japanese carryout. 25 Hudson Street, 1995 to present
The ninja waiter is your friend — unless he’s jumping out and screaming at you like a lunatic on the street.
All seating is in booths, and the décor seems vaguely Spanish.
Next: That video from Asti. See how long you can stand to watch it.
A typical evening at Asti, located where Strip House now stands