I remember going to Bill’s Gay Nineties (57 East 54 Street) for the first time about three years ago and realizing how great it was. People thrown together — Wall Street honchos, midtown tourists, my friend and me — and we’re all singing the same old showtunes and hits of yesteryear together. We sat at the bar next to an older gentleman with rose-colored bifocals and a yellow silk tie who told us that his recently acquired stepson (whom he hated) made $5 million a year as a lawyer.
We ordered a few things off the menu (a hamburger and some chili?), and we ate them without thinking about how good or poor they were, as the vibe of the place made everything taste like a NYC buttered porterhouse. It was loud, and exciting, and fucking fantastic. Then, just before we asked for the check, we overheard the place was closing. “The landlord is a prick. Excuse my language,” said the bartender. “But we’re gonna find another place.”
That night at Bill’s ended up being my first and last night singing showtunes in that great ground-floor bar. I went to see what replaced Bill’s just a few months ago (now Bill’s Food and Drink) and, while similar, the patina was gone. Also gone were the old vintage photos, that aged wood-funk smell, and the feeling that you could only be in NYC. Gone was old Wall Street and in its place were hedge-funders drinking off an overpriced wine list. Not surprisingly, the food was better this time around, but what was once a piano bar now has a piano player three nights a week.
The old Caffe Dante (79-81 MacDougal Street; 212-982-5275) was a quintessential New York treat. It was great. And I was catching it almost 95 years after it first opened. It was the ultimate coffee and sweet-treat hangout spot. With old wicker chairs and an always frantic yet sweet waitress. I never minded that the espresso was never that good. (On a side note: The strawberries and fresh cream were always bangin’.) I always took my dad there when he was visiting town; New York–raised, a Florida resident now, he loved the place — it was the “real deal.” And then one day, like a sharp, acute pain in my chest, I heard the bad news: It was remodeling. For some reason, they decided to spruce up a place that in all its years had never needed sprucing-up. As it turns out, the rent was jacked up by the landlord (from $11,000 to $18,500) and the owners felt an expanded menu and cleansing of the restaurant’s soul would serve its monetary needs best. I understand why they did it — but it still was a bummer. And now just this week word has been flying around that it may (or may not) be closing.
Whether they stay open or close, I say this: Enjoy your favorite hangouts while they are still alive and breathing and kicking. A restaurant can be like any seemingly great relationship: You never know when it might end for a sad, unexpected reason.