The Bridge Café to Gertel’s on Hester Street
Richard J. Garfunkel
March 6, 2006
New York City still remains a remarkable place no matter how old I get and how many changes the old town goes through. A few weeks ago we were down at the South Street Seaport Museum to see the macabre and fascinating “Bodies” Exhibition and had a “gift” certificate to eat at the Bridge Café. The cafe is located at 279 Water Street, one of the last remaining cobbled byways in New York City, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Unfortunately the restaurant was not open and we decided to reschedule our visit to this quaint little eatery to another time in the future.
Well the future arrived today, and we arranged with my sister Kaaren, her husband Charles Hale and her married daughter Melissa, who was visiting from her home in Boston to meet us, and old friend Stan Goldmark (MVHS 1963) who was there when we arrived. We waited the few minutes until its doors opened at 11:45 am. Thankfully the morning was clear as crystal and the weather cooperated by moving up into the mid forties. Meanwhile one would think that one could find a parking space in and around that area, but incredibly none was to be had. It seems that there was a rumor that a movie was to be filmed in that same locale, and not was only was every space taken, but a mysteriously epidemic of orange cones were around almost all of the parked cars.
Stan had driven effortlessly over from Cold Spring Harbor and Kaaren and her family found their way down to the bowels of the South Street Seaport by car service. South Street may never be the same since the Fulton Fish Market was transferred up to the Bronx’s Hunt’s Point Market in 2005 after 184 years of continuous service to the fish mongering crowd. Of course it has been only a year since its closure and the stale malodorous memories of mackerel, marlin and other Neptunian delicacies still lingers about as the latent smells waif in and out one’s nostrils. Of course many native New Yorkers may remember Sweet’s and Sloppy Louie’s that used to be landmark culinary watering holes for generations down here on South Street. Sweet’s was destroyed by the December nor’easter that hit the city in 1992, and Louie’s went the way of the wrecker’s merciless and unsentimental ball in 1996.
But the Bridge Café, which is one of New York’s oldest restaurants, dating from around 1790 with its tin ceiling, has survived many changes since Washington was inaugurated in New York and said his famous “Farewell to His Officers” speech in 1783 at the reconstructed Fraunces Tavern, which is located not far away at 54 Pearl Street. (A bomb planted by the FALN, a Puerto Rican ultra nationalist group on January 24, 1975 destroyed Fraunces Tavern, in part, killing four and wounding 50. It has been reconstructed more then restored and currently is still a full functioning eatery.)
Meanwhile back to the meal. Within a few minutes after meeting our waiter, whom I have since learned was really an actor (tress) posing as a waiter, we ordered from the brunch menu and the place was quickly filled to capacity. I had a “hanger steak” and scrambled eggs. Just so you know a “hanger steak” is reminiscent of a Romanian steak that you can still find in some Jewish or Greek diners here and there. Everyone else seemed to opt for the omelets. Before long our drinks arrived, the talk became animated about one thing or another, and the main repast was served. For the life of me I am not sure what we talked about. Usually it is politics, the social order or baseball, but I do recall we touched a bit on the insane cost of higher education. Since Stanley has a daughter still in college, at Syracuse University, it was basically a dispassionate approach from the rest of us whose children have been long out of school.
Well the meal ended successfully, we all strolled out into the wonderful daylight sun of a crisp March early afternoon, where upon I posed every one for a photo. The Hales were off to see my mother and we had other plans. We were going to go to the Brooklyn Museum, but since the meal ran a bit late we decided to stroll around the bleakish South Street Seaport. If it was something special in the past, it certainly no longer holds any real allure. Unlike the restorations in Baltimore Harbor where the Constellation, sister ship to “Old Ironsides”, the Constitution is at birth, the old Philadelphia Naval Yard where the Olympia is docked, and the fabulous Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall in Boston, the South Street Seaport is more like a worn-out shoe.
So after walking around for a few minutes, we parted from Stan and decided to head up to the Lower East Side and look for Guss’s Pickles. We drove north on Pearl Street which becomes the Bowery right after old Delancy Street. Once past Canal we made our way up to Houston and turned east towards Essex. I was convinced that Guss’s was located there. Once on Essex Street we did pass the Pickleman and his barrels, but I was not satisfied and we continued the whole length of Essex until Hester without seeing the famous Guss’s Pickles (85-7 Orchard Street, founded in 1910 by Izzy Guss, a Russian immigrant. The Dutch grew cucumbers in Brooklyn in 1659 and started to pickle the cukes not long after.) Linda had a back up target and that was the famous Jewish bakery, Gertels. Lo and behold as I passed Hester, I looked quickly down the block and there was the old weathered Gertels sign hanging in the breeze a few stores into the block. I stopped, let the young lady out and told her I would circle the block. Just in case I couldn’t do it easily, we both had our cell phones handy. The trip around to Orchard Street and then a right on to Hester not only was effortless, but as if by wizardry, a space opened up right in front of Gertels (53 Hester Street, founded in 1914). As I parked Linda emerged with bag in hand, and was quite fortunate to get the last onion board and rye bread. With a space in hand, we opted to search for the “king of pickles.” Walking up Hester we turned right on Orchard Street, which is still very representative of the old Jewish Lower east Side. I had been down in this area many times in the early 1970’s when I was in the home fashion textile business. I spent many interesting and enlightening hours visiting the now long gone center of Jewish retailing, on and around, Grand Street. It is all Chinese and Asian now with only the ghosts of Shoreland, Eldridge and Penchina Texile lingering about on the old brick facades of the hundred plus year old buildings. Grand Street is now just another commercial street branching off from the heart of Chinatown and its bustling energy.
Heading down Orchard Street we were “roped” into an orthodox-run men’s store that was right out of the 1950’s. It was an experience to say the least. We had some common ground since the wife of the proprietor was from Boro Park and she shopped at, and knew my friend and customer Gitta Steinmetz and her tablecloth business. I was sorry I didn’t really need anything they had, but we did learn that Guss’s was not far up the block. Within a few more moments the “Promised Land” was reached, Linda was now in charge as I took some more pictures and watched a television interview with one of the current owners. Pickled tomatoes, half-sour and sour pickles and stuffed olives were sealed up tight and packed away. We had achieved our culinary goal. We had traversed both extremes of European culinary heaven. On one hand, we brunched in heart of old Americana with its English style cuisine, and then we found the remnants of the old eastern European Jewish culinary basics, bread and pickles. What could be more delightful?