In April 1946 there were 34 Schrafft’s in the New York metropolitan area. At the swanky, five-story outpost at Fifth & 46th St. the hostesses wore long gowns. But gentility in the first half of the 20th century had its dark side. Schrafft’s discouraged African-American patrons, who would be seated politely without comment and then ignored by the wait staff, so it’s hard to idealize this time too much – not everyone was having fun. But Schrafft’s was one of the first restaurant chains to hire women managers and most of the cooks were women. The restaurant at 61 Fifth Avenue, which opened in 1938, had a curved facade with windows and a two-level interior decorated with murals. Scrafft’s continued to flourish through the 60s and but steadily declined through the 70s and eventually disappeared.
In that same building, The Lone Star Cafe opened a club that operated from 1976 to 1989. I came to New York in 1980 and I remember it but being from Texas and having just escaped, I wasn’t interested in a Texas-themed café. But it was popular for a time and everyone played there; Willie Nelson, Kinky Friedman, Roy Orbison, The Blues Brothers, Clifton Chenier and James Brown, who recorded a live album there in 1985. Words from a Billy Joe Shaver song hung on a banner out front: “Too Much Ain’t Enough.” The roof sported a huge 40-foot iguana which made it hard to miss, but neighboring businesses did not appreciate the sculpture and after a court battle, it was removed.
After The Lone Star closed, for years, a deli operated out of that space and Schrafft’s beautiful interior and the sound of twangy country music was a distant echo of the past. The lot was eventually sold, in the 21st century and that beautiful building, which should have been landmarked, was torn down to make way for just 4 luxury condos. Million Dollar Listing reality star, Elliman broker, Fredrik Eklund eventually sold the units that ranged from $28.5 million for the penthouse to $12.975 million for one of the duplexes, making the total “sellout value” around $70 million. (That’s a lot of milk shakes and grilled cheese sandwiches!)
This seems to be the history of New York of late – but it’s been going on for a hundred + years. I didn’t go back before Schrafft’s but something was there before and people probably bitched when they built Schrafft’s as some “ugly, modern monstrosity”. Everyone seems to constantly complain about “old New York disappearing” – but does anyone REALLY expect real estate owners to ignore insane profits or for the city to be frozen in time by some sympathetic mayor? Let’s hope for every sad loss of a great landmark, there are more happy newcomers like The Highline park, Hudson Yards and new performance venues coming out of long-neglected spaces. New York City is renewing itself constantly and will continue to do so long after we’re gone. (And if predictions come true and the sea level rises 20 feet, it’ll be Venice, anyway) However, I DO wish Penn Station was still around.