Before we had easy access to sushi and Thai food and the closest thing the neighborhood had to ethnic fare was Italian ices, we frequented a few neighborhood eateries that were more often than not dives, but hold many special memories. Here are just a few.
Jahn’s. Jahn’s was an area ice cream chain that looked like an old fashioned ice cream parlor with booths with red leather and stained glass light fixtures. You could get an amazing ice cream sundae with hot fudge, whipped cream, and a cherry and if you happened to be with a big spender you could grab a few spoonfuls of their Kitchen Sink, which was a trough of ice cream that could feed eight. It was probably a few dollars in the 1970’s, but the last time I checked the price it was $51.95. I don’t even have eight friends, let alone eight friends with more than six dollars to spend on an eighth of an ice cream sundae.
Jahn’s also had a party room downstairs and I had a birthday party there when I turned nine. In addition to the ice cream, I had live entertainment; my brother Jeffrey, who attempted to make animal balloons for our guests. He was shooting for dogs, but most of his creations ended up looking like huge phallus’. Fortunately, the ice cream made up for the lack of age appropriate party favors.
The Chow-Chow truck. The Chow-Chow truck was an Asian- influenced food truck that sold the best french fries in the world. I have no idea why french fries would even be on the menu with egg rolls and other Chinese food options, but I didn’t care and I would stop at nothing to savor a few of these grease-infused fries served in a cone-shaped paper cup. Usually by the time the Chow Chow truck made a stop by the school playground, we had already spent our money on ice cream. As an alternative to purchasing a cupful, we would stand on line near a paying customer and wait for some of the fries presented in the overflowing cup to fall out and into our waiting hands. We often missed and when the fries fell to the ground we applied the dubious five second rule…if we picked the fries up in five seconds or less, they were safe to eat. And we counted very slowly. Heck, let’s be honest; a few times people trampled on the fries that fell to the ground and we still picked them up and ate them. Yes, they were that good.
Alexander’s. In addition to being what I was sure was the largest department store in the world, Alexander’s had a full-service restaurant with pretty good hamburgers and great pickles served in a metal bowl. Most of my time at Alexander’s was spent in the record department purchasing 45’s (note to readers born after 1980: this was the 1970’s version of downloading a single song), looking at albums, or paying for toys I pretended my parents purchased for me, but occasionally I did get to eat at Alexander’s (usually when someone else was treating).
Queens Center Mall. The first real mall in the neighborhood opened when I was 11 and moving into prime shopping age. After browsing the assortment of tee-shirts from the popular Ancil House, a novelty store that pressed decals of various images onto shirts and added felt letters spelling out your name (the full name, not the initials; it’s totally different!) we worked up an appetite and needed to treat ourselves to some good eats in the food court. It was here that I got my first taste of all the crappy chain food that most New Yorkers are lucky enough to avoid, like Orange Julius and Panda Express.
Knish Nosh. Hungry but short on cash? No problem. Eat a knish from this popular eatery and enjoy the week and a half it takes to digest one of these things.
Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips. Truly disgusting and not worth the trauma of crossing The Boulevard of Death to get there. Why would anyone want to imitate British cuisine anyway? Mom refused to bring home McDonald’s or Burger King, but this was on the approved foods list.
Jay Dee Bakery. The Jay Dee Bakery was generally reserved for special occasions like school birthdays, visits from our grandparents, and the appearance of other relatives in our house which generally only occurred on leap years. My grandparents would stock up on the prune and cheese danish from this Hungarian Jewish bakery on their visits and usually throw in a pound or two of bakery cookies that looked much better than they tasted. Up until the age of six, I seriously considered pursuing a career as counter girl at the Jay Dee Bakery because I assumed the job entailed eating whatever baked goods you wanted and occasionally serving a customer.
White Castle. Oh, the thrill of walking into a hamburger joint and being able to order burgers by the dozen. The hamburgers were so small that 12 of them was the equivalent of one Swedish meatball. But the real treat for me at White Castle were the shakes. They were so thick that if you attempted to drink them with a straw you could easily have a brain aneurysm, so you quickly grabbed a spoon and opted for a major brain freeze instead.
Wine Gallery. We started going here in high school even though we were too young to be served wine. If we were lucky, we would hang out with some 18 year old who managed to score a pitcher of sangria. I’m not sure what the appeal of this place was, other than that it was a step up from White Castle, but I remember thinking you were with the “in crowd” if you were hanging out here.
Shalimar Diner. This was another “place to be seen” in high school. Kids seemed to end up here after every major school event even though it wasn’t located that close to the school. But it was open late and the over 50 waitresses in their orthopedic shoes seemed to tolerate the nonsense and mayhem that only a group of teenagers can cause. I think most of the guys ordered hamburgers here and most of the girls ordered sweets. The muffins were the size of softballs and a piece of cake was so big it came with its own zip code. I remember the food being fair, but the company always made up for it.
The hot dog cart lady. Outside the school playground there was an old German woman who had a hot dog vending cart. After we had spent our money on ice cream and eaten trampled on french fries, we scrounged around for five cents between five kids and asked the hot dog lady if she would give us five cents worth of sauerkraut. One of my friends once asked for two cents worth of mustard and I think this is where she finally drew the line.
Jewish Chinese food. Growing up, I ate the same Jewish Chinese food that all the reformed Jews in the neighborhood ate; spare ribs, pork fried rice, pork egg rolls, pork-filled wonton soup, and egg foo young. My parents ordered Chinese food every Friday night and it was always the same thing. Once I left home and occasionally visited my parents for this Friday night tradition, I would attempt to order something “outside the box” like chicken and broccoli and my father would look at me in disbelief and pray that this was just a phase I was going through and hope I would soon return to my senses and chow down on something that had pork in its name. The last time I had a spare rib was 1981. Sorry dad.
The Lemon Tree. This was a disco (it was the 70’s people!) that was open to kids under 18 on certain days of the week and served non-alcoholic beverages. I assume they served food too. I wouldn’t know. I never went. Perhaps I was waiting to be asked; I don’t know. I defer to my hipper friends to recount tales from The Lemon Tree. I have none, even though I perfected my “hustle” in gym class in the 7th grade.