MacDougal Street is one of our favorite blocks in the Village. Walking down it is usually a pretty slow undertaking because of the crowds so its often hard to appreciate that many old businesses still existent on this now tourist-heavy block. Usually we find ourselves walking in the street, instead of the sidewalk, just trying to make it through at a decent clip. The presence of rain, however, makes walking a whole lot more enjoyable and transforms this relatively short stretch. As we walk north from Bleecker Street, we first see the neon glow of Monte’s Restaurant sign, easily missed during the day.
MONTE’S TRATTORIA has been in business since 1918. It has been owned by chef Pietro Mosconi and his family since 1983. We spoke with Pietro Mosconi when compiling our new book NEW YORK NIGHTS and here’s an excerpt:
“In 1976, my sister and I opened up the restaurant, Villa Mosconi, in the space formerly known as Mona Lisa in Greenwich Village. When we first opened, my lawyer had advised me to go and visit all the Italian restaurants in the area, and one of the restaurants I visited was Monte’s. I remember that although the menu was very limited, the food was good. The owner’s mother, Mrs. Rasasco was running the kitchen and as long as she was there to provide guidance, things went well. But when she became older and was no longer in the kitchen, problems started. Also, since my restaurant opened up down the block, Monte’s business had declined. As his business slowly started decreasing, Mr. Rasasco ended up with two mortgages to help make ends meet. One day, his lawyer secretly called me up and told me that he had just advised his client, “to wise up and sell the restaurant before it was too late.” He told me to keep my mouth shut, but that the business and the entire building would soon be put up for sale. I looked into the property and it needed a lot of work but in 1983, my brother and I went in together and purchased the whole thing.
Luckily my cousin is very handy because he used to be a builder in Italy, and he and I slowly renovated the whole place together. We installed a new kitchen and dining room and even put in a private room upstairs for parties or for a la carte dining when we are busy. What is original is the neon sign outside, which was installed in the 1950’s. I kept the signage because I liked it and also felt strongly about keeping the name Monte’s, which was shortened from Monteverde, a city in Italy known as the “green mountain.” I feel fortunate that my father was so shrewd and brought me here to New York so that I could have this wonderful opportunity. Now my son is working at the restaurant with me and I am teaching him everything I know. It’s a hard task to fill.”
Next up, heading north is Minetta Tavern.
This shot, also from NEW YORK NIGHTS, shows not only the tavern, but also a rain-soaked, deserted MacDougal Street. On certain nights like this, Greenwich Village is quiet and all that you hear is the wind in the trees and the occasional sound of a taxi rushing by on wet pavement.
MINETTA TAVERN was established in 1937. It was named after the Minetta Brook, a small stream that ran southwest from 23rd Street to the Hudson River. The original owner, Eddie Sieveri became known as Eddie Minetta because he owned the restaurant for so many years. Minetta Tavern became a famous dining spot for beatniks, celebrities and literary luminaries including Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’ Neill, E.E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas and Joe Gould. Eddie Sieveri sold the restaurant in 1972 and in 1995, Taka Becovic from Montenegro, Albania who had worked as a busboy at the restaurant purchased the business. Taka Becovic kept the original Northern Italian menu and also left the original interior unchanged. In 2008, Becovic reluctantly sold the restaurant and its entire contents after his landlord considerably increased the rent. Keith McNally, Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr who have worked together on various restaurants since 1997, took over Minetta Tavern in March 2008. They kept the restaurant’s name and historic neon sign and during renovation tried to preserve much of its distinctive interior including the original wood paneling and wooden bar with its stained-glass shelving, murals of Greenwich Village sights and scenes along the walls, as well as pictures of faded celebrities. The menu however was changed to a largely French menu.
Crossing the small Minetta Lane, we see Cafe Wha?
Live music venues, once a staple of Greenwich Village, are becoming harder to find. Cafe Wha?, still in business today, opened in the 1950’s. Artists frequented Cafe Wha? as it was known to be a sanctuary for talent; Allen Ginsberg regularly had cocktails here. The Cafe Wha? was the original stomping ground for prodigies Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Kool and the Gang. Comedians Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby also began their road to stardom at Cafe Wha?.
Cafe Wha?, seen here in an older rainy day shot from our book STORE FRONT: The Disappearing Face of New York, is also located in the same building as PLAYERS THEATRE, a space for New York performances and rehearsals. The building also includes a main stage 248 seat Off Broadway theatre, a 50 seat Off Off Broadway black box theatre, four rehearsal studios and an office suite for arts organizations. Built in 1907 and converted into a theatre in the late 1940’s, the Players Theatre has been a jewel in the midst of beautiful Greenwich Village, serving as a magnet for performing artists and their audiences. The theatre has been home to such long run productions as An Evening with Quentin Crisp, Charles Bush’s Psycho Beach Party, Teller and Todd Robbins‘ Play Dead and Ruthless starring an 8yr old Brittany Spears, Natalie Portman and Legally Blonde the Musical’s Laura Bell Bundy. We liked this picture as it shows a stretch of tiny Minetta Lane, rain soaked and empty. The Original Cafe Wha? sign pictured above was eventually moved around the corner and replaced with the multi-sided one seen in NEW YORK NIGHTS.
The Olive Tree Cafe is next up, continuing north up MacDougal.
The Comedy Cellar was founded in 1982 by then standup comedian, and current television writer/producer Bill Grundfest. The upstairs portion is a restaurant called The Olive Tree Cafe. They share the same menu, kitchen, and staff. The Comedy Cellar, like The Comedy Store, uses a showcase format, as opposed to a headline format like most clubs. A show will consist of between five and seven comics performing sets of roughly 20 minutes each. Regular performers there include Colin Quinn, Opie and Anthony co-host Jim Norton, Mitch Fatel, SNL star Darrell Hammond, Dave Attell, Louis C.K., Nick DiPaolo, Artie Lange, Dave Chappelle, and podcast host Marc Maron. Also, some rising stars in comedy frequently perform, including Dov Davidoff, Robert Kelly, Sherrod Small, Keith Robinson, Gregg Rogell, Nikki Glaser, and Ben Bail. The photo also shows and increasingly rare phone booth.
Mamoun’s Falafel is up next.
Mamoun’s Falafel has been serving high quality Middle Eastern Food since it first opened its doors to the public in 1971. It is the oldest falafel restaurant in New York and one of the first Middle Eastern establishments in the United States. Family owned and operated since the beginning, the restaurant is now part of the history and culture of the Village.
Caffe Reggio has been open since 1927.
The café is famous for its espresso machine, which was imported from Italy by the original owner, Domenico Parisi. Mr Parisi spent his life savings of $1,000 to import the chrome and bronze espresso machine to his café. The machine was made in 1902 and was the first of its kind and has a base formed by dragons and an angel sitting on its top. When filled with hot water, the machine makes a cup of espresso in just about three seconds. Mr. Parisi is credited as being the first person to introduce the coffee drink, cappuccino to the Unites States. Café Reggio originally only served coffee, all made by Mr. Parisi himself using the espresso machine. In the 1960’s, Mr. Parisi sold the business to Hilda and Niso Cavallaci, and their son Fabrizio now runs the café.
Newstands are another one of our favorite subjects to photograph and are getting tougher to find as the remaining ones are being replaced with stainless steel and glass booths. This one on MacDougal Street is now gone.
The healthy sized stacks of newspapers show that this photo is from a different time, as circulation numbers for daily newspapers have been declining sharply nationwide.
Ben’s Pizzeria is up next at the corner of MacDougal and West 3rd Street. The sign immediately caught our eye stating “The Most Famous Pizza in the World.”
Pizzerias in the city, as we mentioned in another blog post develop cult followings. The unfussy Ben’s has been in business since 1956.
Making a left on West 3rd, we see an old friend. Any time we can manage to work a record store into a post we will, especially Bleecker Bob’s Records, which looks like it will unfortunately be closing soon as its rent was raised from $10,000 to $20,000.
Neon clocks, albums stored in milk crates with cardboard dividers, and every inch of wall space inside shouting something “music” all make it one of our favorite images in our book NEW YORK NIGHTS.
Lastly we hit the Blue Note Jazz Club with its shiny piano-shaping awning lit with blue light.
We tried to shoot this spot many times, late at night, and rain or not it was always hopping. We got lucky one night and were able to capture it without a line out front. Blue Note Jazz Club has been in business since 1981. It was founded by Danny Bensusan who was committed to creating a jazz club that would treat deserving artists with respect, while allowing patrons to see the world’s finest jazz musicians in a close, comfortable setting. It quickly established itself as an important venue for mainstream jazz, bop and Latin jazz.
Walking west we continue out to Sixth Avenue and turned north, looking for a coffee and some water for our pit Hudson.
More of our NYC walks:
Bleecker Street between 6th and 7th Avenue:
Second Avenue in the East Village from 14th Street to Houston: