Inside Café Edison's Final Day; Broadway Bids Farewell Over Matzo and Memories

News   Inside Café Edison's Final Day; Broadway Bids Farewell Over Matzo and Memories
 
On Dec. 19 The Café Edison served its last bowl of matzo ball soup, and Playbill.com was there to savor one last nosh. From chorus kids to Broadway stars, New Yorkers to tourists, the no-frills diner known for its characteristically brusque New York service and Jewish comfort food was the culinary crossroads of the theatrical world.

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Photo by Monica Simoes

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All good things, as they say, must come to an end. And so it was that after 34 years of serving blintzes, matzo ball soup, sandwiches, burgers and a laundry list of other comfort fare, the Café Edison closed the doors of its West 47th Street mainstay following a rent increase imposed by the Hotel Edison, home to the restaurant since it first opened.

For years, guests could see the original proprietors, Harry and Frances Edelstein, greeting theatre luminaries and out-of-town tourists with the same brusquely familiar warmth. Originally from Poland (hence the restaurant's soubriquet, the Polish Tea Room), the restaurant remained a family business after Harry Edelstein died in 2009; his son-in-law, Conrad Strohl, took over management of the cafe. Similarly, the hotel was passed from late owner Ulo Barad to his son, Gerald, who raised the restaurant's rent, forcing the closure.

Over the cafe's final weekend, Strohl expressed gratitude to New York's theatre community for making the restaurant into something more than a hotel coffee shop. "The stagehands always look for places to eat, and they're more concerned with a place that's quick—very quick—and reasonable," he said on Saturday as waiters raced by with plates of blintzes and French toast. "And then we started getting all the bigwigs. [Producer] Bernie Jacobs really was the first one to start bringing people in. He had that corner over there, and he always said that he signed more deals in that corner than he did in his office." Likewise, Manny Azenberg was another regular, and a prominent fixture in the restaurant's roped-off VIP section by the front doors. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson was a steady customer: "They should have put a sign there!" Strohl exclaimed, pointing to a corner by the coffee counter. "That was his favorite seat. He used to come in and sit; he wouldn't bother anybody. Just drink his coffee and have his breakfast. And he'd write away." Neil Simon, another Pulitzer-winner, wrote a play about the restaurant, 45 Seconds from Broadway, which played the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2001.

Jerry Zaks
Jerry Zaks

Following the announcement that the restaurant would close, Broadway notables returned in droves for one last visit, generating lines out the door and into the hotel lobby on the final days. Others took to social media to vent their frustration. "All my fancy-schmancy, hoity-toity friends would recoil in horror when, when making dinner plans, instead of their 'nice' restaurants, I would say, 'Can't we just go to The Edison Café?'" Tony-winning composer Marc Shaiman posted to Facebook. "Well, they win. Now there is no reason to ever go to midtown." Talking with Playbill.com, he praised the familiar fare and the equally familiar service. "I don't like waiting forever to order some nouvelle cuisine," he said. "Give me a grouchy waitress and a blueberry blintz on the table five minutes later." On closing day, Broadway director Jerry Zaks, who directed 45 Seconds from Broadway, fought his way through the crowds, greeting people waiting in line to get in and shaking hands with waiters as they hurried past. "I came here as a civilian," he said, "and then I found out that Harry and Frances were Holocaust survivors like my parents, and that they, in fact, had people in common." Once the Edelsteins learned of their connection to Zaks, he added, they took him "under their wings," keeping him fed and "rarely, if ever" letting him pay for meals. "Harry and Frances were my second Jewish parents—only the good parts!" Zaks said with a laugh. "I have very, very, very fond memories of this place, but mainly of them and the people who work here, who always made sure I had a spot behind the velvet rope." And while Zaks feels that the loss of many independent restaurants in the theatre district is "unfortunate," he also acknowledged its inevitability as more chain restaurants move in and fewer business professionals see the value in community establishments. Ulo Barad, Zaks noted, was also a Holocaust survivor, and maintained a gentlemen's agreement with Harry Edelstein and his successors to keep the restaurant open. "Once [Barad] passed, his son (who I'm sure is a good man) didn't feel the need for this place," Zaks said. "And there you go. It is a loss."

Christine Pedi
Christine Pedi

Forbidden Broadway regular Christine Pedi, currently starring in Newsical, came by for lunch on the restaurant's final day, and compared the Edison to New York itself. "When I visit other cities around the world, the first place I look for is their version of the Café Edison," she said. "I want the nearest true and authentic slice of local culture and color. No faking, no pretending, no bullshit." She especially lamented the loss of an independent theatre district eatery. "Without care and attention to our history, New York will be nothing but fast food chains serving plastic food," she said. "I'm sure that when The Café Edison first moved in, there were people who were disgusted with the unlikely combination of a diner in a ballroom. But that's New York, too!" she emphasized, describing the restaurant as an embodiment of the American Dream: "A simple, inexpensive, unaffected, working man's greasy spoon (and I mean that in the best way; that's why I love the latkes) managed to match the grace and elegance of this glorious structure through hard work, simplicity and welcoming the people of the neighborhood." The Edelsteins and their successors, like many immigrants, came to "a shiny new city," Pedi continued, "and carved a place for themselves and others. I have every confidence that The Café Edison will do that again, because that's what's at its heart. That's our city."

Other Broadway performers shared memories from the restaurant and its place in the community. "I had my very first bowl of matzo ball soup at The Edison," Donna Lynne Champlin remembered. "I'd just graduated from college, and I was feeling very overwhelmed by everything, not to mention I was dirt poor. I'd stumbled on the Edison Hotel on a rainy day because I was looking for a place to rest in between two auditions (not to mention I didn't want to spend the subway money for four trips instead of two) and I wandered into the café...I sat down at the counter. I was surprised by how brusque the waitress was, but I rolled with it and asked her what I could get for five dollars. She looked me up and down and then just left. A couple minutes later she came back with a bowl of matzo ball soup that looked totally foreign to me as an Irish Catholic raised in upstate New York. She saw my face and said, 'Trust me, kid.' I tried it, was absolutely hooked and I've been a regular for the past 20 years.

"I could never go in there without seeing someone I knew, which was always part of its draw," Champlin continued, adding that she always felt welcome "whether I had a five or a 50 in my pocket. I'd bring my mom and make a show of letting the waitress' 'Whaddya want?' roll off my back, because I was a New Yorker and that's how we roll. The Café Edison has always made me feel like I belonged in a big city no matter how small I was, and I am heartbroken that The Café Edison has now been made to feel the opposite."

"I loved dining there between matinee and evening performances," Broadway and cabaret regular Bryan Batt said. "Michael Urie and I went a few Sundays ago to have one more bowl of the best matzo ball soup in the world! We have lost so many iconic individually owned New York traditions to just basic greed...I guess when every corner is either a bank, a giant drug-store chain or an overpriced coffeehouse, people will take notice. Greed cares not for history."

Shaiman, with his characteristic biting wit, summed up his frustration with the closing succinctly: "As for my feelings towards the landlords at The Edison Hotel, all I can say is, 'Where is North Korea when we need them?'"

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