This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
[Photos: Bess Adler]After Sardi's, Frankie & Johnnie's ranks as the oldest surviving eatery in the Theatre District. It was founded in 1926 and has seen a lot of flops and hits, and the actors who starred in them. It was a speakeasy in its early years, according to lore. A few years ago, the place was almost lost to the city when the Shuberts, who own the property, began tearing down every building around it in hopes of erecting a hotel on the plot. But the economy tanked before the theatre owners could get to Frankie's, and the steakhouse won a last-minute reprieve. (Ironically, the Shubert execs loved Frankie's. They often ate and held meetings at the restaurant. Never trust a landlord.)
Despite having dodged the wrecking ball, the owners of Frankie's nonetheless found a way to wreck the joint themselves. Soon after being saved, they ripped out the old hidden bar upstairs—a wonderful, ramshackle little getaway if you knew how to find it, where Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lanskey once drank alongside John O'Hara and Frank Sinatra, and Jason Robards Jr. pilloried Richard Nixon to his face. They then installed a faceless, blah bar on the ground floor, and scrubbed up and widened the entrance to the old staircase that winds it way up to the tidy, second-floor dining area.
These renovations were mistakes, and noticeably decreased the seedy charm of the place. Still, Frankie & Johnnie's retains more charm than most. Tucked away 15 feet above Eighth Avenue, its small windows shaded, it still feels like a speakeasy, the most Runyonesque of Times Square eateries. The bill of fare remains avowedly old school. "I haven't seen calves liver on a menu in years!" said my brother during a recent dinner. (He doesn't get to many New York steakhouses.) He could have said the same about the creamed spinach, clams casino, mushroom caps or any number of long-standing F&J specialties.
The steaks here aren't the best in New York, but they're not the worst. I always have the petit filet mignon and I always enjoy it. And the creamed spinach rocks. So do the ridiculous number (eight) of potato side dishes. If you can't find a potato preparation you like here, you just don't like potatoes. Eating ain't cheap. Meat entrees start in the 20s and head up to the 50s. And you can't escape by ordering pasta. Somehow, penne with chicken merits a $26 pricetag.
There was a Frankie and a Johnnie at one time. Ownership passed down through the Johnnie line until waiter Peter Chimos bought the joint in 1985. Some of the present waiters are as old as Chimos. The hands of mine shook as he placed down my steak, but he was otherwise polite and attentive. He told me that the restaurant's many regulars stretch well beyond the Theatre District, or New York, or even the tri-state area. There are loyalists in every state, and when they come to New York, this is where they eat. And, of course, they still get their share of stage celebrities and politicians.