Will the recession save the mom-and-pop shops?
In June of 2008, the 24-hour bistro Florent closed its doors forever. Florent was a victim of its own popularity and enormous success. 23 years before, a French guy named Florent Morellet decided to open an around-the-clock eatery in the middle of a desolate warehouse district. Not much was hanging around the neighborhood in those days, with the exception of a lot of beef carcasses and a few transvestites. All of that changed in 1985, when Florent’s pink neon sign lit up the cobblestone street. Soon hipsters, club kids, and even Upper East Side preppies were heading down to the Meat Packing district for a late night cheeseburger or Moules Frites.
As the area started becoming known as Me Pa and the girls in stilettos were no longer men, but gal pal devotees of “Sex & the City”, the rents started to rise. The building owners decided, after more than two decades, it was time to raise Florent’s rent from $6,000 to $30,000. Florent threw a depression soiree and bid adieu.
6 months earlier on Christmas eve, and just a few blocks east on 14th Street, Sucelt Coffee Shop served their last plate of black beans over yellow rice and shut down. The reason? Skyrocketing rents. The owner Jehnny Navarro had taken over the 10-seat Latin American eatery from her father, who opened in 1976.
The Upper West Side fixture, The Emerald Inn, was about to face the same misfortune. The watering hole, which was frequented by many of the neighboring ABC News crowd for decades, had opened in the 1940’s and survived many years of gentrification along Columbus Avenue. Now their luck was about to run out with their rent intended to double. However, a simple twist of fate gave them a stay of execution. With the economy down, the landlord couldn’t find a tenant to take over the space.
New York City is no stranger to economic roller-coaster rides. And while flush times are great for those in the real estate business, not so much for the mom-and-pop shop owners. I live in Chelsea, an area that was once filled with Spanish, Puerto Rican and Cuban markets and restaurants. Over the past few years, Chelsea has become a very chic place to live. The area is filled with former warehouses, which makes for great lofts, which attract those with a nice wad of cash. Once the money comes in, the bodegas go out. But the problem with “trendy” in the restaurant business is that it has a short shelf life. So, eventually the trendy places just become tired.
Luckily, a few Hispanic eateries from Chelsea’s earlier profile have survived the most recent round of gentrification.
La Nacional, is an old school tapas and paella restaurant, located in the basement of the Spanish Benevolent Society. The bar is filled with aging ex-pats watching European soccer under bad florescent lighting. Less than a year ago, it was facing down the barrel of the good-bye gun. Today, with its affordable prices, pitchers of fruity sangria and authentic food, it not only attracts local Spanish families, but hipsters in hoodies and even the chocolate guru himself, Jacques Torres.
La Taza de Oro is another throwback in time. It’s one of the last surviving Puerto Rican diners, with daily specials like pigs feet, oxtail, tripe soup and octopus salad. Foodies have been praising this less-than-shiny 9th Avenue joint for years, and even Chelsea resident/movie star Harrison Ford has been spotted eating there.
So, while our pockets are less than ample, our stomachs can still be full. Maybe Per Se and Le Bernardin are no longer within reach during these tough economic times, but perhaps it’s a good opportunity to explore the little places that tend to be overlooked. Most have stood the test of time and for good reason. I guess the silver lining of the recession is that smaller, less known ethnic places have a fighting chance. The melting pot is boiling over with an abundance of inventive food and the hard-working, passionate people who toil over hot stoves will hopefully be able to pay their rent and not get pushed out to make way for a John Varvatos store.