There are few events more disconcerting in life than the demise of a dependable takeout restaurant. I’m speaking of David’s Chicken, on Third Avenue between 75th and 76th streets, which departed recently. I first learned they’d gone out of business when I dropped by Bonte Patisserie, across the street from David’s, and Suzy Bonte gave me the sad news. It happened suddenly, she explained. No one seemed to know why. Citarella had arrived on the same block about a year ago offering rotisserie chickens at half the price. But they also had half the flavor, and one of David’s employees had told Mrs. Bonte that Citarella hadn’t laid a hand on them.
I crossed the street to investigate. Sure enough, the store was dark, the rotisserie still, and the deli case, once laden with cauliflower soufflé, sour pickles and creamy caraway-seed coleslaw, lay barren. An official notice of possession hung in the window next to a flier, which now had a time-capsule quality to it: “Today’s special vegetable-braised leeks.”
For me, David’s Chicken evokes almost Proustian memories of yesteryear. I first discovered their birds when I was writing a magazine profile of Donna Karan back in the 80′s. The assignment provided several notable sensory experiences. One of them was standing backstage on top of a table, clutching my reporter’s notebook during Donna’s fall show, watching such supermodels as Christy Turlington, Elle MacPherson and Cindy Crawford undress. Another was tasting David’s Chicken for the first time the night before, when Donna ordered it for her staff as they helped her put the finishing touches on her collection. Suffice it to say that between Christy Turlington’s and David’s, I became something of an expert on what constitutes a good breast.
As I stood before David’s window now, homebound pedestrians stopped to mourn with me. “I’m going to miss them,” a middle-aged lady said.
“Maybe I’ll start cooking instead,” mused a young businessman.
I wasn’t willing to let David’s out of my life so easily. I called Roberta, the rental agent whose phone number was taped to the window for anybody interested in leasing the space.
Roberta didn’t share my grief. “You’re very lucky,” she said. “The place was closed down by the Department of Health. It was infested with roaches and mice and rats. They were also closed down for nonpayment of rent. They left owing a lot of money, and they left making a lot of people sick.”
“Who?” I challenged. Certainly not I.
“My husband, for one,” Roberta snorted. “The last time I ordered, my husband got very sick.”
Ely Samuels, the property’s managing agent, was similarly unsympathetic. “They left owing over $100,000 in back rent,” he said. “We always had trouble getting the rent. It was not a recent phenomenon.” But what about the food, I asked. Surely, one should make an exception for anybody with the talent to make a bird that moist with skin that crispy.
“I eat kosher,” Mr. Samuels explained. “They didn’t have any rabbinical supervision.”
Roberta had, perhaps unintentionally, raised an interesting philosophical question-or at least as close as most New Yorkers get to one in these hedonistic times: If a takeout place is infested with roaches, but you don’t know about it, and the food tastes great and you don’t get sick … does it really matter?
Frankly, I wasn’t sure how I felt. So I called the Department of Health for the details about David’s violations. An improperly displayed city permit would be one thing, rats the size of cocker spaniels roaming the basement quite another. A health department staff member offered to fax me the citations, but warned that they were voluminous; she put them in the mail instead.
Where should I begin? On May 6 of this year, mouse droppings “in abundance” were noted in the walk-in refrigerator. As it turned out, the mice were as fond of David’s baked turkey as I was of their roast chicken. The health inspectors spotted “gnawed” marks on the birds.
On one visit in February, the inspectors detected a “very strong and offensive urine odor”-as opposed to a subtle and fragrant one, I suppose-in the basement near where the canned goods were stocked. They also discovered Do It All germicidal foaming cleansers, Tat house and garden insect killer, and something called Bondo, an auto body sealant, sharing a shelf with food. As a New Yorker who lives in an apartment with limited shelf and closet space, this was a transgression I was willing to forgive. But the live roaches the inspectors surprised near the Hobart oven unit in the kitchen during an October visit, the same day they spotted rat droppings in the basement and came across an odor possibly rising from dead vermin, gave me pause.
For the first time, I began to contemplate the previously unimaginable-that even if David’s reopened at a new location, as somebody next door at Garlic Bob’s told me he’d heard they were going to do, I might switch my business to Dallas BBQ, where you get half a chicken, French fries and corn bread for less than the cost of just the chicken at David’s. But loyalty and years of finger-licking prevented me from defecting until I’d spoke with David Denowitz, the store’s founder, and gotten his side of the story.
I reached him in Boca Raton, Fla., where he runs another David’s Chicken. I wanted him to reassure me that I wouldn’t be risking cholera the next time I bit into one of his wings. David started by thanking the community for their outpouring of support and announced he hoped to be back in business on the Upper East Side before the Jewish holidays.
I asked about the vermin problem. David blamed it on the landlord who, he charged, hadn’t made needed repairs to the subbasement. What of Roberta’s charge that the place was filthy? “The place wasn’t filthy,” David sighed. “The place was tired.” He didn’t deny they owed the landlord around $100,000. “We were trying to force their hand,” he explained. “It didn’t work. We decided to vacate the premises.”
“Citarella didn’t put us out of business,” he went on. “They brought more people to the street. We were doing better business than before.”
My conversation with David left me less than confident. I decided to call Patti Cohen, Donna Karan’s amanuensis, to help me through my pain. Patti started laughing when I mentioned David’s Chicken. They hadn’t ordered from there in years . “We’re much more health-conscious,” she said. “Now it’s chopped vegetables and grilled fish and chicken. It’s the 90′s now.”
A brief, bittersweet silence passed between us as Patti and I thought back to the good old days before Donna went public, and I reminisced about a time when a reporter could stand on a table ogling the world’s most famous models with impunity.
“You just whet my appetite,” Patti admitted. “Even back then I used to take off the skin, even though that’s the best part. I loved their coleslaw and their pickles. I’m starving.”
Me, too. Except maybe for beef.