NEON NIGHTS. NYC’s classic neon alight.

by Kevin Walsh

New York has a marvelous collection of neon signs, and while we’ve heretofore collected scads of them on previous Signs pages we’ve never previously done a Neon Nights page, when the signs are doing what they were born to do. Your webmaster’s Canon Powershot S1 IS is ill-equipped for night photography. That’s why you call in the pros, like Forgotten Fan Steve Garza, who uses a Canon 20D w/ 80-200mm f4.

New York’s neon can be found from velvet rope venues and world-famous restaurants all the way down to $1.50 a beer dives, where your webmaster can frequently be encountered.

The greatest, of course, are the ones that have been preserved over the decades, whether by accident, neglect, serendipity, or even by a dedication on the owners’ part to preserving neon signs. There’s just a few around town represented here…we wanted Block Drugs, for example, on 2nd Avenue and East 6th Street, which is straight from World War II. NYC’s unrelenting summer rain and humnidity, though, has prompted the owner to keep the sign turned off for now, fearing dangerous conditions. Hopefully it will shine when things dry out a bit!

LEFT, 8th Avenue and W. 39th Street; right, Waverly Place near 6th Avenue. Liquor store signs are a FNY favorite, as more than any other venue, liquor stores keep their old neon decade after decade.

Collins Bar, 735 8th Avenue near West 46th Street.

9th Avenue near West 55th. The metal may be rusting away but the neon and glass still has the power to illuminate. As you can see the sign alternates between WINES and LIQUOR. But if you take just a quick look, it seems to say WINOS.

There’s neon signs all over town…the signs must number in the thousands, large and small. But the most fascinating ones, of course, are the ones that have a few decades on them; there just seems to be a verve, an attitude, and a feel that doesn’t appear in signs made, say, after 1965 or so.

Neon seems to break down into 3 categories…liquor stores, bars, and diners. Bright Food Shop, 8th Avenue and West 22nd Street, has one half of the sign on the klink on each side. The Cheyenne Diner, 9th Avenue and West 33rd Street, is where your webmaster has scarfed dozens of Mohegan Burgers with fried onions and bacon, elevating his cholesterol count just a little more each time. Though the Bright is also a classic eatery from the 40s, it features more adventurous Mexican-Asian Fusion fare.

LEFT: Lex in the East 60sat East 75th. Looks inviting, with the battlement-like facing and the “coffee’ neon, but on my only time in the place, they were swabbing the decks with ammonia (Greek diners LOVE to swab with ammonia.) It also prevents your webmaster from returning. Swab in the off-hours.

Forgotten Fan Eric Costello writes: “I lived across the street from it, and ate many a Texas cheeseburger deluxe (hamburger with cheese and fried egg) there. The couple that owned it since the early 60s retired at the end of last year and closed the diner with no notice around New Year’s. They’re in the process of finishing a conversion to a Starwich. The neon material was taken down just this week.

Could be worse. I was afraid they’d tear down the building.

That sign! One of the most iconic examples of neon signage in Manhattan can be found at the Dublin House, 225 West 79th just east of Broadway, opened in 1933 by John Carway on the ground floor of a 19th century landmarked townhouse. Despite what the sign says about a tap room, Michael Flatley doesn’t perform here.

Gringer and Sons has been selling appliances since 1918 and while their neon sign at 29 1st Avenue, near East 1st Street, isn’t quite that old, it looks as if it’s from the fab 40s.

Like so many long-established NYC distributor of potables J.G. Melon (3rd Avenue at East 74th Street) started out as aspeakeasy during Prohibition; it has had its present name since 1972. Over the years it has hosted many famed customers including Grace Kelly, Billy Martin, Brooke Shields, Gerry Ford, and a flock of Kennedys. The interior was filmed for ascene in Kramer vs. Kramer. And also like many NYC bars, it claims the city’s best burger, but according to Jef Klein’s Best Bars of New York, JG Melon’s burger is endorsed by celebrity chef Bobby Flay. That settles that!

Of course, we’re here for the classic red neon sign.

Late and lamented at 8th Avenue and West 46th Street is McHale’s, an institution for the better part of the 20th Century, closed in early 2006 so that a 40-story high rise could be built. Just what we need!
Even the Stoplight Man was heading for McHale’s for Pete’s sake.

photo: Diane Bondareff for The New York Times
Jennifer 8. Lee wrote in the NY Times:

“In a city of $15 cosmopolitans, McHale’s sells $4 pints of beer and Ketel One and tonic for $4.50. The burgers are so thick that they crumble under their own weight.

With its darkened windows and aging neon lights, the restaurant is invisible to all except those who already know it, a shared secret for the stagehands, neighborhood regulars and the khaki-clad types who work at Viacom and Morgan Stanley in Times Square. Its intimacy embraces newcomers, taking some by surprise. “I walked in the other day, and they’re like, ‘Hey, Brian, what do you want?’ and I’m like, ‘What? You know my name?’ ” said Brian Silverman, 29, a guitarist on “Movin’ Out,” playing across the street.

The pub is an oasis that has so far escaped the sweep of Times Square development. “Times Square should change with the times, but I think it’s become too commercial and too Disney World,” said Tyler Miller, 32, a messenger who has been coming to McHale’s for six years. “It’s nice to have something from the past.”

The bar still has some original windows from the days when it was called the Gaiety Cafe. The wooden bar is from the 1939 World’s Fair. The blinds were installed for an American Express commercial with Jerry Seinfeld that was shot two years ago.”

Fork over your $3.95 and read the whole thing.

A short while after McHale’s closed, your webmaster was slouching down West 24th Street and lo and behold, there was the McHale’s neon sign on the sidewalk in front of an antiques shop. I never got to drink at McHale’s. Tough toenails, junior! There are more important people who need a view of New Jersey!

I was just watching Broadway Danny Rose,and in one of the final scenes, just after Woody Allen has given Mia Farrow the cold shoulder at a Thanksgiving party, has a change of heart and rushes after her down 7th Avenue. They meet at the Carnegie Deli (where else, in that movie) but you see Woody running past the Famous Oyster Bar at 7th Avenue and West 55th Street.

This is the lesser known of NYC’s two “Oyster Bars”; the other, world-famous one, can be found in the basement at Grand Central Terminal.

The P&G Cafe is readily apparent to anyone getting out at the very busy IRT Broadway 72nd Street station, as its incredibly colorful sign is right on the corner of Amsterdam and West 73rd Street. Wendy Mitchell reports in New York City’s Best Dive Bars that the Allman Brothers and, well, Jack Wagner have been seen in there, and the interior has appeared in Donnie Brasco and Runaway Bride.

How the heck papaya juice, the King of All Drinks, attained its status as the perfect accompaniment to dirty water hot dogs ranks as one of the most challenging NYC puzzlers, along with how all those alligators got in the sewers. This sign can be found at the first Papaya King at 3rd and 86th. It holds a peculiar fascination for your webmaster, as it figures distinctly in a random, ragged piece of unconnected memory. I remember walking up the East Side one afternoon many, many years ago and stumbling on this Papaya King; this was long, long before I conceived of FNY; I may even have been still in school. But it has clung to my memory like the last chicken in the shop clings to its hook.

Patsy’s is on West 56th near Broadway, founded in 1944 by Pasquale “Patsy” Scognamillo. Rush Limbaugh frequents the place when he’s in town, but don’t let that stop you.

On Ninth Avenue above the Port Authority Bus Terminal (which will always be skeevy, no matter how many times they redesign, fumigate, remodel, exterminate, refurbish and detoxify the old barn, and I wouldn’t have it any other way) you’ll find ethnic restaurants by the dozens; but between 44th and 45th, you’ll find just the basics please: a pyschic, salsa and Rudy’s. You might not necessarily want them in that order. But they are there for you.

Rudy’s is a dive and proud of it. The vinyl seats are cracked and the wall photos are askew. Who cares. There is a $4 Miller Lite pitcher special at 8AM, and hot dogs free of charge for lunch and dinner. Rudy’s has been doing what it does since 1934.

Smith’s is close by Rudy’s, just an avenue over at 8th and 44th.
Wendy Mitchell:

“The Irish bartender was incredibly welcoming, even if the crowd mostly kept to themselves. The regulars just sort of grunted to one another, but after a few hours of drinking, you could be their best buddy. That is, if you can stomach the stench coming out of the men’s room and the musical accompaiment of Was Not Was ‘Walk the Dinosaur.’ Good luck.”

I was here one snowy night to meet Paul Lukas of Uniwatch.

The Subway Inn is named for the two subway lines that meet here, the crosstown (at this point) BMT (N, R) and uptown IRT (4, 5, 6). It’s unlikely any Bloomingdale’s customers will soil their furs here…
Wendy Mitchell once again:

“Women are a [rare] sighting. As is anyone under 30. Maybe that’s why some of my heavy-drinking associates never want to come here. Even dive bar regulars Sara and Nik vowed never to return with me to this nasty haunt…”

The Waverly Restaurant, Waverly Place and 6th Avenue. Note that the lettering is slightly different on each side, indicating that the signs may have been installed at different times. So many signs say “steaks, chops.” I have a feeling in former times, chops, whether pork or lamb, were more popular restaurant fare than they are now. Can any butchers tell me why there aren’t beef chops?

Clarence Otis Bigelow opened this drug store in 1838 on 6th Avenue between West 8th and 9th Streets. There are still working gaslights inside. Carter Hotel, 250 West 43rd, is one of Times Square’s budget hotels and offers 700 rooms for under $100 a night. It has benefited from the modern-day cleanup of the area.


Best Bars of New York, Jef Klein and Cary Hazlegrove, Turner Publishing 2006