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Gary He

The Triumphant Return of New York Neon

How the glow went from strip clubs to trendy restaurants

For decades, the iconic neon sign outside Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side has been drawing in hungry, late-night partiers like moths to a pastrami-sandwich flame. It is one of the few classic restaurant signs left in a city that is constantly in flux, where neon was once in style, then out of style, and now very much in style again.

Neon restaurant signs are increasingly lighting up the city: Down the street from Katz’s, El Luchador has a sign that reads “Tacos vs. Burritos,” as if to urge customers to choose between two legendary (and tasty!) masked wrestlers. Over on Orchard Street, Dudley’s displays a pulsing affirmation that “Everything is going to be fucking amazing.” A few blocks north at Asian tapas restaurant Carma East, a neon sign washes the darkened dining room in a white and yellow glowing pun: “Let The Lights Dim Sum.”

The modern neon restaurant sign is more than the utilitarian block text that reads “Open” or “Bar”: It is now an inspirational or witty remark, sometimes rendered in handwritten typeface. It’s an intricately designed graphic, often displayed indoors. Neon can be found at fast-casual to fancy restaurants, from the hyper-efficient salad assembly lines at Sweetgreen, to upscale destinations like Cut by Wolfgang Puck, a brand that has Michelin stars in two locations. The proliferation of neon was perhaps unthinkable just a decade ago, when the glowing tubes invoked images of strip clubs, dive bars, and seedy, late-night diners.

Neon signs didn’t always have negative connotations. In the early 20th century, French engineer Georges Claude developed a way to produce large quantities of neon gas, which was eventually used for commercial purposes. Neon made it across the pond, at first in the form of signs for a Packard car dealership and subsequently became popular in American cities and along highways like Route 66, advertising everything from motels, shops and, yes, even restaurants.

The first signs were so bright and seemed so otherworldly that people would stop and stare at them for an awkwardly long time. But in the 1960s, new municipal signage laws and cheaper alternatives lead to a sharp decline in neon sign usage, except in places like Times Square and Las Vegas, where it came to represent the shimmering splendor of those cosmopolitan centers. But as those cities developed a reputation for crime and seediness in the following decades, so did their brightest, most visible markers.

A Tracey Emin neon sign inside Cut by Wolfgang Puck in Downtown Manhattan
A Tracey Emin neon sign inside Cut by Wolfgang Puck in Downtown Manhattan.

For Jeff Friedman, the head of sales for Tribeca-based sign producer Let There Be Neon, the comeback for neon signs in mid- to high-end restaurants began with the artist Tracey Emin, who has rendered her handwritten expressions in neon for her work since the early 1990s. These art pieces made their way into hotels and restaurants, at first in London where Emin is more of a household name, and then the rest of the world.

“We have people coming in asking for reproductions of Tracey Emin,” says Friedman. “Of course, we have to decline.”

Schiller's iconic neon during the opening credits of Saturday Night Live.

Schiller’s Liquor Bar, which opened 14 years ago and is closing August 13, was one of the first restaurants to bring back neon as an element in design, says Elizabeth Von Lehe, the director of strategy at design firm I-Crave. The McNally restaurant uses neon around the bar and has a sign outside that is so iconic that it appears in Saturday Night Live’s opening montage.

“Their neon use was what created that nostalgia and approachability that you now see is paramount for a successful upscale restaurant,” says Von Lehe. “They were the Instagrammable moment before Instagram. ”

Success on the photo-sharing platform can make or break a restaurant especially when it first opens and is a big reason why neon is becoming increasingly common in dining rooms across the city.

Tijuana Picnic on the Lower East Side

The degree to which the food and space is photogenic “defines the modern restaurant,” says Becca Parrish, CEO of restaurant public relations firm Becca PR. “When a restaurant provides sweet-looking elements to shoot, they make it easy for guests to share their experience… with friends and anyone watching.”

“[Neon] photographs beautifully, much better than a lit painted sign,” says Richard Pandiscio, who has designed branding and interiors for hotspot like Le Coucou and The Grill. “That does make it perfect for Instagram. There’s also a warmth and a touch of nostalgia that comes with it, the sense that the establishment has been around a while.”

Shay & Ivy managing partner Evan Rosenberg calls his restaurant’s neon sign the “most Instagrammed thing inside of the venue,” echoing the sentiments of many other restaurateurs. “After our sign went up, the Instagrams started rolling in,” said Adam Fulton, co-owner of The Garret East in the East Village which has a sign that declares, “No Bad Days.”

“It's an opportunity for your diners to be your marketers with Instagram,” says Von Lehe. It lt also stretches a restaurant’s marketing and design budget.

No restaurant has more experience with this than Two Hands in Tribeca, where model Karlie Kloss posted an Instagram of herself posing in front of the neon sign in the ladies’ bathroom, tagging the restaurant in the process. Her 6.3 million followers lapped it up to the tune of over 140,000 likes. With a Karlie Kloss Instagram post valued at between $25,000 and $50,000, the return on investment for the $1100 sign has been pretty good.

ladies celebrating ladies tn @twohandsnyc #iwd2017

A post shared by Karlie Kloss (@karliekloss) on

“The neon image does a great job of standing out within the Instagram feed,” says Phillip Huynh, director of paid social for advertising agency 360i. “It’s a unique visual that stops the scroll for a second, which is typically all that is needed to generate engagement and brand awareness.”

Indoor neon use at restaurants doesn’t always work as intended. When Cut by Wolfgang Puck first opened in downtown Manhattan, the neon sign in the dining room (which reads “Move Me”) was so bright that it cast an eerie purple glow across everything from the tablecloths to the food itself. The restaurant eventually had to dampen the brightness after complaints from customers.

“People were having seizures,” joked one employee about the situation.

The Shop

Glassblower Jimmy Vu at work in his studio
Glassblower Jimmy Vu at work in his studio

Inside Let There Be Neon’s ground-level shop in Tribeca, a team of artisans try to meet the increased demand for handwritten typeface signs and other fanciful designs, which has increased from being just 1 percent of the business just five years ago to 7 percent today.

“It is an area of neon creation we had not previously seen,” says Friedman, who notes that traditional typefaces and non-restaurant commercial applications still account for the bulk of his orders.

Unlike LED panels and other types of signage, there is no automation — every neon sign must be made by hand. The company’s master glassblower, Jimmy Vu, began honing his craft in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in 1988. He found such a dearth of artisans working in the field here that he had his son Joseph train as a glass apprentice. On a muggy July afternoon, the duo works on their latest project: a sign for Luke’s Lobster.

The process starts with a blueprint of the neon sign printed to scale, which Vu uses as a bending guide as he heats the glass tube on a ribbon burner that operates at 1200 degree Fahrenheit. The glass quickly becomes malleable and a bend is created before Vu blows into the tube, expanding the bent glass back to its original diameter as it quickly cools. He repeats this process until the tube has been twisted over itself dozens of times to form the shapes based on the guide.

Once Vu is done bending the glass, his son takes them over to another station, where the tubes are emptied of air and attached to electrodes. If the tubes are filled with neon gas, the sign will glow red; electrified argon gas will glow blue. Using a combination of various gases and coated tubes of different densities, the artisans are able to create almost a hundred colors of varying degrees of brightness.

From there, the signs are painted, mounted, and attached to a transformer that will convert American 110-volt outlets to the 1,000 to 15,000 volts needed to charge electrons inside the tubes and make it glow. Because the gas exists in a vacuum, the glass tubing will last forever, provided that it doesn’t break.

For Luke’s Lobster — which started as a small shop in the East Village that’s now a chain with locations around the country — neon was never a consideration until this year.

“In the early days we had the initial impression of neon signs, and the general public has it too, that they are gaudy,” says Ben Conniff, co-founder of Luke’s Lobster. But as neon has become more ubiquitous, management’s opinion on it warmed, especially since neon signs solved visibility issues for locations in busy areas like Nomad and Union Square.

“I definitely do see neon more,” says Conniff. “I think there is a general design trend towards the industrial, towards repurposing elements that you might not have traditionally found in restaurants, to invoke a certain vibe. Neon plays into that feeling.”

Whether it’s to instill a sense of nostalgia and approachability, or just a really thrifty and beautiful way to rack up the likes on Instagram, neon can be spotted everywhere, from fast-casual spots like Shake Shack and Sweets by Chloe, to high-end restaurants like Ocean Prime and Cote Korean Steakhouse. DeKalb Market Hall, a collection of more than 30 food vendors in downtown Brooklyn that opened just last month, has neon signs affixed to almost every stall, creating a quasi Hong Kong/Tokyo vibe.

Neon signs also play a crucial role for the rapidly expanding Major Food Group, which trades heavily on nostalgia. The signs appear in a handful of MFG’s restaurants where it makes sense, from the old-school Mulberry Street-inspired neon signs of Torrisi and Parm, to the glowing pink ones that frame the entry to Dirty French — that MFG managing partner Jeff Zalaznick says was inspired by “70s porn neon.” The Carbone sign is a rendering of the restaurant’s name over the deteriorating remnants of the iconic neon of Rocco Restaurant.

“In my mind, it was one of the great New York signs,” says Zalaznick. “We left it exactly as it is. We put ‘Carbone’ over the main part, so what you have is a sign that is looking to what we were doing, but also preserving the past.”

Special thanks to Melissa McCart, Serena Dai, and Matt Buchanan

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