New York has never been a sentimental city. We build it, take it down, move on, and only the presence of the Landmarks Commission means there’s any thing left. As a New York lifer — born, bred, raised, still here — I know. I live in SoHo, where way back when there were famous department stories like Tiffany’s along Broadway, famous brothels and gin palaces on side streets like Prince (read Caleb Carr’s brilliant the Alienist, set in the late 19th century). My own building went up in 1884. A century later artists arrived, galleries opened, and now, of course, SoHo is possibly the greatest shopping mall on earth; the shop in my own Greene Street building? Tiffany’s.
But the old does remain, sometimes hidden in plain sight. And these one-offs, these singular New York locations are what still give the city its underpinnings, the deep rumble, the sense that something — everything — happened here. One way and another, we’ve actually been here since the Dutch landed at Corlears Slip in the early 1600s. They came not for religious reasons but for commerce, and the city has been in business ever since.
Here are my favorites classic places in the city, all a hundred years or more, and a few runners up heading for the big birthday.
Russ & Daughters: Smoked Fish and More
For an old-school lox bagel, Russ and Daughters is the place to go. (Photo: Russ and Daughters/Facebook)
You’ll know it by the neon salmon wiggling its tail on the sign over the front door. Russ & Daughters is on East Houston Street where it’s been since 1914, when Mr. Russ opened what New Yorkers know as an “appetizing” store. Once upon a time, Jewish New Yorkers thronged here to get lox and others kinds of smoked fish for their Sunday brunch. Now everyone shows up: local hipsters, famous foodies, passers-by.
My own father knew the original Mr. Russ, who, having no sons, made the business over to his daughters. Now his grandchildren, Nikki and Josh (first cousins) run it, along with some amazing characters like Herman “the artistic slicer.” Watch while he slices up some delicious salmon (I like wild western Nova Scotia), so thin you can read the newspaper through it. You can pick up a sandwich — my own favorite is smoked sturgeon, smoked salmon, and a little cream cheese on a toasted bagel.
The bagels are the best in the city, so are the homemade cream cheeses and salads. And the smoked fish! People come here for fabulous caviar, but also for latkes, the crispy potato pancakes generally eaten for the Jewish holiday of Hanukah. (Around the corner on Orchard Street, you can sit down for a bite at the spiffy Russ & Daughters Café.)
A. W. Kaufman Lingerie
A.W. Kaufman has all your lingerie needs covered. (Photo: Eden, Janine and Jim/Flickr)
On Orchard Street, a prime Lower East Side shopping street, there’s a tiny shop with the most gorgeous undies. A.W. Kaufman sells imported designer lingerie, labels like Bonsoir and La Perla. There are camisoles and cover-ups, not to mention bras and panties, cotton and silk. I like to think of Fanny Brice (the original of Funny Girl), who would have been 20 years old when the shop opened, getting her gorgeous underwear right here.
Di Palo Italian Food
Head to Di Palo’s for the best in Italian meats and cheeses. (Photo: Di Palo)
Recently Lou Di Palo published Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy, 100 years of Wisdom and Stories from Behind the Counter. Lou’s great-grandfather, an Italian cheesemaker set up shop in 1910. Down the generations, the family grew the shop that got bigger and better. Now Di Palo has the best Italian cheeses in town. Recently I sampled some ambrosial truffled cheese.
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The shop is run by Lou himself and many members of his family and they’re always happy to give you a taste of the sensational meats, the sausage, hot and sweet, the Speck Alto-Adige, the prosciutto from San Daniele and Parma. Olive oils and vinegars you’ve never heard of, some imported only by DiPalo are here, and so are Italian sweets. Prepared foods are available every day. Go early. Everybody rushes in for the fresh mozzarella made on the premises the same day.
In a world full of chain drug stores, C.O. Bigelow reminds you what the world was like pre-Walgreens. (Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr)
This wonderful old drugstore has a neon sign outside that reads: 1838. It’s got an enormous array of soaps and salves and scents, fragrances and face care, apothecary and homeopathy, including Bigelow’s own Lavender and Peppermint line of soaps. Roam the spacious aisles of C.O. Bigelow for imported shaving brushes and hair brushes, and imagine that in 1839, the year after it opened, Herman Melville might well have popped in to stock up before his first voyage at sea; in 1842, Walt Whitman, back from Long Island and living in New York, probably stepped into Bigelow, too. Shaving soaps and brushes, scents and aftershaves, perfume and all kinds of toiletries, as well as medications of every kind.
J.J. Hat Center
With J.J.’s help, we can totally bring the hat back (where it belongs). (Photo: J.J. Hat Center)
Ah, when men wore hats…but wait, they still do. Thanks to certain hipster types and also men of style, hats have made a return. In New York, since 1911 men — and women, too — have shopped for their head gear at the J.J. Hat Center on Fifth Avenue near 32nd Street. And what hats! Fedoras for winter and summer, including the great coconut classic to keep you cool, or the Stingy Blues fedora made of felt. The Boss of the Plains Stetson is something you might only want to wear out West. But boaters, caps, and a classic Panama always looks cool on the dog days of summer.
It’s worth remembering that the early Dutch — and other Europeans — always wore hats. From 1550 to 1850, felted beaver was worn by every European man of fashion. Felted beaver was made into top hats for the nobs and cocked hats for the Navy. At J.J., you can pick up a Brooklyn Porkpie, or, go for broke with the Valencia, made from mink and beaver fur felt. I love these hats.
Warning: once you cook with Raffetto’s fresh pasta, you might never be able to go back to store-bought again. (Photo: Young Sok Yun 윤영석/Flickr)
Raffetto’s opened in 1906 at its current location on Houston Street and ever since then, it has sold the best pasta in town. Buy it ready-cut or have it cut to your own taste or buy the dough to make it at home. Want linguine, tagliatelle, fettucine, wide fettuccine, pappardelle, lasagna, squares for manicotti and cannelloni? Fresh dough for ravioli? Want it in flavors like lemon, spinach, rosemary, whole wheat, buckwheat, chestnut, saffron, black squire ink, and many others? Raffetto’s your place. And there are homemade sauces, too, from arrabiata to pesto, from Genovese walnut or pink sauce with Cognac.
Paul Mole Barbershop
Because why would you trust your locks to anyone who hasn’t been in business for over 100 years? (Photo: Paul Mole Barber Shop/Facebook)
Need freshening up after all that shopping and eating? Head uptown to the Paul Mole Barber Shop. This Upper East Side institution has been keeping guys groomed since 1913. It’s the quintessential old barber: leather and chrome chairs, wood paneling, shaving mugs on display that belonged to famous customers. You can get hair cuts, manicures, steaming towels for a classic shave, the works. And best of all, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio got himself duded up right here.
Sleep like a king snuggled in some quality linens from Harris-Levy. (Photo: Harris Levy Fine Linens since 1894/Facebook)
I love great linens, sheets, tablecloths, napkins. My mother and grandmother shopped at Harris-Levy, which has been open since 1894 on Forsyth Street on the Lower East Side. Fine bed linens. Imported linens. Monogrammed linens. Linens custom-made for you and your trousseau. (Does anyone have a trousseau any more?) Towels, duvets, featherbeds. Hand-embroidered French tablecloths and napkins. And there’s a wonderful bargain bin. In short, it’s heaven at Harris-Levy, which is a far cry from Bed Bath and Beyond.
Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Company
Your art deserves an equally beautiful frame, so why go anywhere other than the best? (Photo: Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Company)
My mother was obsessed with beautiful picture frames and sometimes took her very best things to Madison Avenue to Lowy. Founded in 1907 by Julius Lowy, this is possibly the greatest and most august framer in not just New York, but the entire country. It has 4,000 frames of every sort: vintage, modern. I love the 19th century American frames.
The shop will make you a frame for something special. It will work with you on a piece you love which needs restoring. It’s quite a grand place, but don’t be intimidated. Your beloved piece is as important as somebody’s original masterpiece.
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