Let’s Eat! Let’s Dance! Let’s Eat Again! Late Night Living in Three Parts
For his New York Stories column, author and former Mudd Club doorman Richard Boch revisits the iconic gathering spots of the late 70s and early 80s.
Part I: Let’s Eat
Not sure if we’re talking 1976, 1986, or somewhere in between but if you got out of bed in the very late afternoon, wondering if that’s daylight or streetlight—at some point, and probably sometime before midnight you had to eat. That was the schedule, and everyone, or at least everyone I knew, kept those same hours.
Everyone is the catch-all here—a signifier for the Downtown 400 or possibly 500 people that went out nearly every night. There were some key places to eat, places to drink, places to dance. There were places that were cheap and easy, places that were somewhat popular and still others that were social meccas. Then by 1am or maybe 2, after however many drinks and several lost moments in a bathroom stall, the great convergence would occur. It had to happen for the simple reason that once you left your apartment or loft you were incommunicado until you arrived at the next stop. We’re talking pre-tech, pre-mobile-device here. Payphones of course were readily available but unless you were calling a coke dealer from a dark corner somewhere, did we really want to press a public payphone up to our faces? Ok, well maybe we did but regardless this is all just the tip of an iceberg called New York Nightlife and it set the tone for the years ahead and decades that followed.
The year was 1976, and I was living at 167 Bleecker Street. The Village Gate was across the street and it was still all about Jazz. Punk infiltrated The Gate by Summer ’77 but for now, it was Mingus and Miles and Nina Simone. The club offered a bit of food that was served till a fairly late hour. There was also a proper restaurant in the upstairs space, Hisae’s at The Gate, an Asian fusion affair that offered mostly seafood. It was open late and it was popular until it wasn’t.
It was still ’76 when a high school friend and I went looking for The Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, an ahead-of-its-time restaurant venture way down on Chambers Street—a no man’s land of warehouses, outmoded factories and artist studios. Mickey Ruskin, the pioneering and visionary founder of Max’s Kansas City, always believed that money followed art and opened the place in a neighborhood he believed was ripe and ready. Food was served till 2am and before long everyone from Talking Heads to Lou Reed were performing on the makeshift stage or having dinner at the Ocean Club. By the Fall of 1977 I was living on Murray Street, two blocks away.
Then by September 1978, Ruskin’s restless spirit was once again on the move. I can still remember running out my front door to catch a cab at the corner of Church and Murray Streets and heading for Chinese Chance One University Place, the last joint owned and operated by the legendary saloon keeper. One U or Mickey’s as everyone called it became the ultimate art world hang, specializing in alcohol, cocaine, shrimp cocktail, steak and fried zucchini. There was also the obligatory daily seafood special though none of it really mattered. What mattered was the blue-chip art on the walls, who was there and whether or not Mickey knew who you were.
One U didn’t always mean dinner—it often meant after dinner for a few drinks and a few close encounters of the various kind. It was a jumping-off point for the evening’s potential next stop depending if you wanted to drink, drug, dance, get laid—or maybe all of it. Then there was the probable possibility of a 4, 5 or 6am breakfast somewhere, followed by the occasional but often desperate, after-hours club crawl. But really now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and stay focused on what to do for dinner.
By the very late ’70s and into the early ’80s everyone had a favorite restaurant for 11pm or midnight dining—probably two or three. There was Spring Street Bar and Restaurant, right there hiding in plain sight in the heart of SoHo. Located at the SE corner of Spring Street and West Broadway (now a luxury eyeglass store), Spring Street as the place was called, was a somewhat pricey, white tablecloth joint serving not-quite-nouvelle cuisine favorites like Filet of Sole and Artichoke Vinaigrette. Managed for a time by the popular and handsome man-about-town, Frankie DeCurtis, Spring was populated with neighborhood locals, artists and a bit of uptown money. I’m sure there were the barflies who hung all night but it was really just an eat and leave kind of place. There were very few places in SoHo at the time other than The Ballroom, the Broome Street Bar (it’s still there), and the one-time funky bistro La Gamelle on Grand Street (the eventual site of Lucky Strike). Chanterelle, the haute-cuisine, New York Times Four-Star dining spot that served till 11pm or so, opened its original SoHo location in 1979 and certainly was a sign of the times and the gentrification boom the neighborhood was about to experience.
Crossing Houston Street there were places that were memorable for a variety of reasons—John’s Pizza on Bleecker Street and Restaurant Rocco, a red sauce Italian place (now the fashion world pasta outpost Carbone) on Thompson Street. I went to John’s on a first date fresh out of college back in 1976, and all these years later I still eat there occasionally. It’s delicious pizza, the booth seating is very uncomfortable but the celebrity photos that cover the walls are priceless.
Heading east to Lafayette Street and just opposite the Public Theater was Lady Astor’s, with its throwback velvet curtained, crystal chandelier décor. The dingy colonnade façade and Gaslight Era style certainly had an odd appeal but the best surprise was the Continental Cuisine as if anyone ever knew what that really was other than being standard restaurant fare. The food was quite good and reasonably priced, dinner was served late given its proximity to The Public Theater and the clientele was a mix of young and old, gay and straight, theater-goers and party-goers. There was even a good chance of spotting a stage or screen legend like the Hollywood Golden Age film director Otto Preminger (I actually made him sign my napkin) or the slightly past prime Broadway legend Carol Channing. My roommate and I ate there fairly often though I have no memory of what we ordered considering where to and what’s next was probably on our minds.
Walking a few blocks west along Eight Street was One Fifth, the fashionable, hip and higher-end dining establishment managed by the legendary McNally bros, Keith and Brian. Tricked out with faux ocean liner décor (porthole window treatments, nautical knick-knacks), the restaurant was located on the ground floor of the luxe residential building One Fifth Avenue and served a version of dinner till a fairly late hour. Patti Smith lived upstairs at One Fifth with Allan Lanier of Blue Öyster Cult and for a time Keith Richard and supermodel Patti Hansen lived in the building too. Sam Wagstaff, the collector, connoisseur and Robert Mapplethorpe benefactor was holed up in the penthouse. I shared a few late dinners with Robert at One Fifth but was often too coked up to eat anything more than a watercress salad—remember watercress salads or better yet, watercress soup? It was all just a bit of casually fancy dining for the late-night crowd. The added plus was the McNally charm factor and their willingness to cash personal checks for Mapplethorpe among others. From there or anywhere depending on the year, it was off to Studio 54 or Mudd Club, Danceteria, Pyramid, Area, Palladium or just some crash and burn hole in the wall where we might’ve known the bartender or loved the jukebox. Occasionally it was Ramrod or the Mineshaft but that’s best left for another article or maybe even Part III of this one.
There’s got to be a thru line here or maybe two semi-parallel thru lines. The Odeon at West Broadway and Thomas Street founded in 1980 and the previously mentioned John’s Pizza founded in 1929, fifty years prior, certainly fit the bill. The former was the brainchild of the McNally brothers and their partner Lynn Wagenknecht. It was slick old-school cafeteria décor with a high ceiling, red upholstered banquettes, lots of mirrors and a legendary downstairs bathroom. The years since have been kind to both.
I was drinking at a table in the dining room at One U when Larry Wright, the go-to printmaker for 1970s Color Field painters said “OK let’s hit the new place.” I could see the look on Mickey Ruskin’s face when we split but the writing was on the wall. Those mythical Downtown 500 were always loyal to Mickey—some like Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers and John Chamberlain had been drinking at his joints since the 1960s Max’s Kansas City days—but by 1980 there were choices popping up. I remember ordering fish at Odeon that night and it came wrapped in a banana leaf. We got a laugh out of that but I cleaned my plate with the exception of the leaf. After dinner, we headed for the Mudd Club a couple blocks away where we drank and drugged and danced the night away. The next evening, we kept it simple with a pizza at John’s before heading to One University where we drank, got high and played pinball and Space Invaders in the back room.
Today the Odeon is still going strong though the McNallys have long moved on. Keith opened Nell’s with the actress Nell Campbell, the hot for a couple years club on Fourteenth Street and followed it up with the eventual Balthazar-Pastis empire. Brian opened Indochine at the site of the old Lady Astor’s along with Canal Bar, 150 Wooster and a number of other nightspots. Lynn Wagenknecht, to this day, remains The Odeon’s owner and guiding light.
John’s Pizza, with its 1929 launch and 1934 move to Bleecker Street is a quite bit older than The Odeon but they share the NYC legacy of having achieved iconic and legendary stature. Between the two of them, we’ll always have a place to eat.
Ok, so now it’s 1.30am, it’s still early. Where are we going next?
Part II: Let’s Dance
Part III: Let’s Eat Again and Dance Some More
WORDS Richard Boch
FEATURED PHOTOGRAPH Iggy Pop and David Bowie / Special Thanks to Bob Gruen
Richard Boch writes GrandLife’s New York Stories column and is the author of The Mudd Club, a memoir recounting his time as doorman at the legendary New York nightspot, which doubled as a clubhouse for the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Debbie Harry, David Byrne, among others. To hear about Richard’s favorite New York spots for art, books, drinks, and more, read his Locals interview—here.