Harry Edelstein, Who Hosted Broadway as Owner of Edison Café, Dies at 91

Obituaries   Harry Edelstein, Who Hosted Broadway as Owner of Edison Café, Dies at 91
Harry Edelstein, who served matzo ball soup and blintzes to the likes of Neil Simon and August Wilson as the owner of the Edison Café, the most theatrical coffee shop in New York, died on July 13 in Englewood, NJ. He was 91 and lived in the Bronx until 2006.

Along with his wife, Frances, Mr. Edelstein welcomed some of the brightest lights on Broadway to sit on counter stools and eat some of the humblest food in the theatre district. On the surface, The Edison Café — known to habitués as "The Polish Tea Room," in mocking reference to the more tony showbiz hangout uptown, the Russian Tea Room — was simply a live-in diner servicing the patrons of the Hotel Edison. But a keen-eyed theatregoer might, over his iced tea and egg-salad sandwich, spy playwright August Wilson in the corner nursing a cup of coffee while making notes on napkins; dramatist Neil Simon lunching with longtime producer Emanuel Azenberg; comic Jackie Mason holding court; and Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld — the most powerful man on Broadway during his lifetime — sipping from a modest cup of lentil soup.

Simon felt such affection for the homey place, with its mock-grand chandeliers and decorative scrollwork, that he modeled the restaurant in his comedy 45 Seconds From Broadway after it. A poster for the short-lived 2001 show hangs in a prominent place near the cash register.

For their most esteemed guests, the Edelsteins reserved a VIP section near the front door. Mere mortals were banned entrance to the collection of two tables and a booth by a small velvet cordon. Powerful producers are known to conduct serious meetings in the unprepossessing space.

Mr. Edelstein and his wife were both natives of the same small town, Komorow, in Poland. They married in Warsaw in 1945, having lost most of their family members in the Holocaust. Their careers as restaurateurs began at outer-borough eateries in Canarsie and Ocean Park. They came to Manhattan as the managers of a restaurant in the old Piccadilly Hotel on W. 45th Street. It was near the Shubert offices, whose executives began to frequent the place. When the owners sold the hotel and began doing business at the Edison on W. 47th, they invited the Edelsteins to come along. The present coffee shop — set up in a former ballroom — opened for business in 1980 and quickly became an institution.

Mr. Edelstein's approach to business reflected his working-class upbringing; he didn't go in for fancy service and fancy prices. "You go in a big restaurant, a famous restaurant, you take one drink, two drinks, everything is tasting good!" he said. "Here, without whiskey, it still tastes good! You go to a big restaurant, they give you one soup. Here, you get six soups, every day. All homemade." One of those daily soups, a meaty chicken soup weighed down to two enormous fluffy dumplings, was thought by many gourmands to be the best matzo ball soup in the city. Famous names knew they could fetch a bit of privacy at the diner. Mr. Edelstein remembered sheltering Matthew Broderick from his fans. "Kids would come running for him for signing autographs," he said. "I say, you come here and sit down. Nobody's gonna bother you." Wilson, who shunned publicity, also sought out the café at a haven where he could enjoy an anonymous meal with minimal interruptions.

The diner was also a home to union workers and struggling actors, who knew it as one of the few theatre hangouts in the city where they get a full meal, and some sympathetic company, for little money.

In 2004, the Edelsteins were given a special Tony Award for "Excellence in the Theatre." As fate would have it, Vincent Sardi Jr., owner of the famous, and significantly most expensive, theatrical eatery three blocks to the south, was honored the same year. In recent years, Mr. Edelstein's son-in-law, Conrad Strohl, has assumed management of the Edison Café.

Mr. Edelstein is survived by his wife, his daughter Harriet, and his son-in-law, Conrad; his son Scott, and daughter-in-law Holly; 6 grandchildren, 3 grandchildren-in-law, and 3 great grandchildren.

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