Mme. Romaine de Lyon, the famed, shuttered omelette bistro on East 61st Street, has not gone over easy into that good night.
Last week state tax officials, citing unpaid sales taxes, auctioned off the 65-year-old restaurant’s contents, from aged Teflon pots and pans, rickety bar stools and silverware, to more sentimental objects such as used CD’s, signed celebrity head shots and a solitary piano.
But the city’s department of taxation and finance says the restaurant’s current owners are still on the hook for more than $600,000, mostly in unpaid sales tax.
About 50 people showed up at the auction at the restaurant itself, which concluded with a bulk bid of $10,000 from Patty Nasello, the owner of two New Jersey restaurants called Midtown and the Chicken Shack. Afterward, devoted long-time customers pleaded to buy back keepsakes from Ms. Nasello. John Walsh, who had been coming to Mme. Romaine’s three times a week for over a decade, wanted the glass chickens in the window.
“In the evening, it was like an international Cheers ,” Mr. Walsh said, adding that the bistro’s two veteran waitresses, Gigi and Ania-with 15 years of service each-contributed to the continental ambiance.
Apparently funny people love eggs, because Mme. Romaine’s celebrity clientele had a preponderance of them-Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Joan Rivers, Jack Carter, Mary Tyler Moore and Joan Collins-but it’s the civilian regulars who are feeling a little scrambled now that their omelette hamlet has closed.
“We all came to get something to remember this place by,” said Marcelle Hoffman, who has been frequenting Mme. Romaine three or four times a week since it opened at its current location. “This is my club. Whoever you were, when you were at Mme. Romaine’s, you were family. The food was marvelous, and the owners kept all the celebrities’ privacy. Mel Brooks used to have a regular table in the back, where he wrote the screenplay for The Producers , and the owners never told a soul.”
Mr. Brooks was traveling in Europe-perhaps in search of Gigi and Ania-and could not be reached for comment.
Famous for its European, family-style atmosphere, the restaurant had been serving over 500 different omelettes to New Yorkers since 1938, when it was located at 133 East 56th Street and Mme. Romaine herself whipped the eggs. The restaurant moved two more times before landing at its 61st Street and Lexington Avenue location about eight years ago.
But the restaurant business can be a hard-boiled one, as the owners-three siblings who inherited the restaurant from their mother in 1978-discovered when state tax officials invaded the place around noon on June 18, throwing everyone out, sealing the place shut with a padlock and seizing the restaurant.
According to Michael Bucci, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Finance and Taxation, the restaurant owes roughly $617,000, mostly in unpaid sales taxes. The auction held last week reduced this amount by just $10,000.
“You can’t wipe out all that debt with a $10,000 auction and just call it a day,” Mr. Bucci said. “If the owners have other assets, we usually go after those.
“We don’t like seizing businesses,” Mr. Bucci added. “It’s really a preventive measure, so when a business isn’t operating anymore, it can’t go further into debt. Closing a business stops the hemorrhaging.”
The tax problems were probably the coup de main . According to Keith Ingham, who played piano at the restaurant in the evenings, the owners have been in debt for many years. “They were in debt before they moved, and they got more into debt when they bought the place on 61st Street,” he said. “It’s been a downhill process.” Financial consultant and customer Gervais W. McAuliffe said that he guessed the restaurant was about $30,000 behind on its rent, which was set at a steep $8,000 per month.
And the restaurant’s vintage liquor license, prominently displayed over the extensive bar, expired on Feb. 29, 1996.
The State Liquor Authority claimed to be unaware of the restaurant’s lack of a license. “It borders on an impossibility, and seems almost inconceivable to me, that they carried on like that for seven years, breaking a multitude of laws,” said State Liquor Authority deputy commissioner of administration Mark Anderson. “It’s most unusual.”
Instead of buying from a wholesaler, which requires a license, the restaurant just bought liquor from local stores to replenish the bar, which stocked well over 100 varieties of booze, customers said.
Not renewing the license, and saving $4,442 every two years, was an open secret around Mme. Romaine. “The owner once said to me, ‘We just managed to slip through the cracks,’” one customer divulged.
Indeed, when The Transom asked co-owner Yvonne Fravola about the expired liquor license, she said only: “We were aware of everything going on in the restaurant.”
While Mme. Romaine’s customers are melancholy about the closing, the owners reacted with bravado and relief.
“I’m celebrating,” said Ms. Fravola. “It’s been a long haul. It’s time to retire. The restaurant business is not like it used to be.”
“It’s not a sad day,” said Yvonne’s brother and co-owner, John Benson, who was wearing a Trump National Golf Club polo shirt on the day of the auction. “We fell behind on our taxes-if you ain’t got the money to put up, what can you do? We used to get a lot of European business, especially during the holidays, but then 9/11 hit, the economy fell, the war started and it all got to be too much.”
Mr. Benson added that the rents along 61st Street are too high for restaurants to survive, noting that two restaurants in the area, Il Valletto and Commissary, recently shut their doors as well.
-Lauren A.E. Schuker
She Bites, He Shoots
Well, it’s one way to deal with the paparazzi. Eagle-eyed readers of the July 9 edition of The New York Times dining section noticed an interesting photo credit accompanying the picture of celebrity voluptuary Nigella Lawson in her weekly food column for the section. The photographer turned out to be one Charles Saatchi, the notoriously press-shy advertising mogul who happens to be-as they say across the pond-shagging Ms. Lawson.
“We signed him up as our new cub photographer,” said Sam Sifton, editor of the Dining In/Dining Out section, of the photo that depicted Ms. Lawson picking vegetables in the Rialto market in Venice, Italy. Turns out the couple had visited the canal city to take in the Venice Biennale. “He very graciously allowed us to use that shot that he took on vacation,” Mr. Sifton told The Transom. “We were happy to use it, but he’s not a regular photographer. Usually, Times photographer Jonathan Player takes her pictures for her column, but he doesn’t travel with her.”
The British tabloids have been dining out on Mr. Saatchi and Ms. Lawson ever since the couple began dating in 2001, just six months after Ms. Lawson’s husband, London Times columnist John Diamond, died of cancer. The couple’s Venice sojourn even sparked a few stories when they reportedly engaged in excessive public displays of affection at the Biennale.
Comedian David Cross, who is best known for the late 1990′s HBO show Mr. Show , was sitting at a back table of the 11th Street Bar in the East Village. He was with a group of similarly balding comedians, including Todd Barry and Jon Benjamin, who, with Mr. Cross, host a downtown variety show called Tinkle .
They were all there to meet writer and comic actress Sarah Thyre, who was in town from Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, TV’s Andy Richter.
Mr. Cross, after agreeing to take a few questions, said the mood in the country right now was one of “quiet viciousness and rampant fear.”
“I think it’s the same thing it’s been going through for a couple of years,” he elaborated. “It manifests itself in certain forms of cloaking yourself in ignorance and drinks.”
Mr. Cross, who was on his second or third beer, looked like he wanted to return to his beverage, but given his talent for tirades-his 2002 album was called Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! -he couldn’t resist spewing a little. “Don’t fucking look to a comic in a bar for the truth!” he said. “I mean, it’s out there ! You know what’s going on! It’s been said by the left [and] by people who are actually centrists. Robert Byrd is not a fucking liberal by any stretch of the definition. He’s not! But listen to what Robert Byrd’s been saying for two years.”
The comic had clearly heard CNN Crossfire host Tucker Carlson’s empty promise to eat his shoes if Hillary Clinton’s book, Living History , sold a million copies, which it did by early July.
“Tucker Carlson got off easy,” Mr. Cross said. “I’d like to see him go the way of Isadora Duncan-like his bow tie kind of unravels when he’s in a convertible, and it wraps around the right rear tire of the car and then it chokes him and decapitates him.”
Michael Savage, who was recently fired from MSNBC for making anti-gay remarks, was merely “a blip on the screen,” but Karl Rove was a different story.
“I jerked off twice to the picture of Karl Rove at the [Howard] Dean for America rally,” Mr. Cross said. “Have you seen that picture? Oh, it’s awesome. It’s this pasty, kind of slightly overweight, overfed, nerdy white guy, and he’s in the gayest fucking outfit. Like suburban gay, kind of pink with the collar-up Izod and bad shorts.”
Mr. Cross needed another beer. Before he left, he shared a few reasons to go on living.
“New York City,” he said. “My girlfriend. A new season of The Office . Cheese-any kind of cheese. The continuing ability for me to go to kind of hostile places to do stand-up, which I really do enjoy. If people are yelling at me, then I get to unleash. Not in a clever, funny way, but just go: ‘You know, you’re a fucking dumb cunt, and by that I mean you’re dumb and a cunt.’”
He continued. “Whatever the next great band is going to be, I can’t wait for that,” he said. “Simple stuff. Barbecue. No, I don’t mean cooking out. That’s not a barbecue-that’s grilling . Barbecue! Barbecue ribs, you know? Fucking, you know, Memphis style, you know, mustard-based … South Carolina style, vinegar-based. I’m talking about barbecue . All right, we’re gonna end it here.”
Mr. Turtle in the Soup
Turtle conservationist Richard Ogust’s commitment to the animal kingdom became public knowledge last week, when stories in The Washington Post , the New York Post and on ABC News revealed that the 50-year-old wildlife rehabilitator has turned his Hudson Street loft into a refuge for over 1,000 turtles and tortoises once destined for soup pots in Asia.
But while the articles focused on how much money Mr. Ogust has spent on the care of his reptilian menagerie, they failed to mention the $73,657.83 he owes a bunch of mammals: the investment partnership through which he purchased the Tribeca loft where the rescued turtles reside.
According to Chapter 11 bankruptcy papers Mr. Ogust filed in May, that’s just one of the debts he has to pay. Though the papers value his “rare animal collection” at $125,000, Mr. Ogust’s total liabilities exceed $5 million.
The debt to the Hudson Street partnership-which is converting the former commercial space into 24 residential units and two business spaces, and hopes to gain a certificate of occupancy by the fall-is particularly ironic, since it is Mr. Ogust’s 3,500-square-foot-loft within the building that houses the endangered creatures.
When reached by phone, Mr. Ogust first said that the turtles had nothing to do with his financial troubles, and that their lower Manhattan livelihoods were in fact subsidized by the Tewksbury Institute of Herpetology in New Jersey. In fact, he said, the Tewksbury Institute, along with the Turtle Survival Alliance and other partners, is helping him to build a new complex for the swimmers in New Jersey.
“The turtles’ upkeep is not my financial responsibility,” said the affable Mr. Ogust.
But a few hours later, he had rethought his position.
“Look, it’s real simple: Turtles are expensive,” he said in a follow-up phone call, “and their maintenance has caused me financial stress.”
When asked about his previous claim concerning the Tewksbury Institute, Mr. Ogust confirmed that the privately funded institution helps him out, but added that “over time, there are a lot of expenses associated with the turtle rehabilitation: time, space, coordination of people. Ultimately, money comes out of one’s own pocket too.”
That was as close as Mr. Ogust got to explaining how he managed to ring up $5 million in debts. He declined to discuss his financial troubles any further.
Mr. Ogust has been collecting turtles for nearly a decade, beginning with only a few dozen. But as Dr. Seuss once sagely predicted in Yertle the Turtle , “From all over the pond, they came swimming by dozens / Whole families of turtles, with uncles and cousins.”
Mr. Ogust couldn’t say how many reptiles are now in his care, except to put the number at over 1,000. But he told The Transom that a piece in Friday’s New York Post , which bore the headline “NYer Shells Out Big Bucks to Save City’s Turtles,” mischaracterized him as “Public Enemy No. 1 of New York’s Chinese Restaurants.” Mr. Ogust said that he gets most of his turtles from overseas confiscations, when boats illegally transporting endangered species to be cooked up in China and other points east are intercepted.
“The animals in Chinatown are worth animal-rescue, but they are not necessarily endangered,” he said.
A lifelong New Yorker and a former Dalton student, Mr. Ogust said that in addition to being a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, he is also a writer in the midst of a years-long magnum opus about which he would not divulge details. He said that the turtles he saves cannot be returned to the wild once they’ve been exposed “to the food trade.”
“The example, classically, is like what happened with the American Indians,” said Mr. Ogust, “where a cold could be lethal. Once they are exposed to other turtles, something that is innocuous in one species can be deadly in another.”
Instead, Mr. Ogust is working to establish a complex of “assurance colonies,” where thousands of endangered turtles-which he described as “long-lived and slow to reproduce”-will be able to mate. He hopes that in the future, their offspring will be able to return to the wild.
Meanwhile, though, it costs a lot to keep a Manhattan turtle in filtered water and worms. Mr. Ogust said that his current food and maintenance bills run about $4,000 a month-not to mention the guys who are paid to haul fresh lettuce up to the ninth floor of Hudson Street three times a week while the elevator is broken.
And if 1,000 turtles living in the top loft of a spacious-and fairly cheap-Tribeca building doesn’t confirm all your worst fears about who gets the best real estate in Manhattan, check out the details of Mr. Ogust’s 2000 lawsuit against the board of directors of his former residence, at 451 Broome Street in Nolita.
According to the papers filed in that case, Mr. Ogust owns two adjoining apartments in that building: the 13th-floor penthouse, with a 1,400-square-foot deck, and a 2,200-square-foot place on the 12th floor.
The turtles lived in the penthouse.
But a series of roof leaks prompted a disagreement between Mr. Ogust, the building’s management and the contractors hired for repairs. In his lawsuit, Mr. Ogust charged that the necessary repairs were never made to the roof and that, as a result, water damage and “bacteriological ‘spores’” had left the apartment uninhabitable.
The defendants claimed that Mr. Ogust obstructed their efforts to get the repairs done in a timely fashion. A statement by a “special referee” refers to the claim that “Ogust hampered their efforts in that he maintained a large collection of lizards and other animals and insisted that he not be separated from them during the repair efforts.”
Mr. Ogust’s bankruptcy lawyer, Mitchell Greene, said that Mr. Ogust’s financial troubles didn’t have anything to do with his turtle-keeping, but rather with the ongoing Broome Street lawsuit. “He is a solvent debtor,” said Mr. Greene, “and his assets exceed his liabilities. If Broome Street gets resolved, everything gets resolved.”
-Rebecca Traister; additional reporting by Jake Brooks
So old Elaine Robinson got started in a Ford, and Griffin Dunne got started in film looking for snatch. At the Tribeca Grand Hotel on July 9 at a special screening of The Graduate , the director-slash-actor-slash-producer explained.
“I first saw this film when I was 11 years old, and I don’t know how they let me in,” he said. “All I knew was that I was going to see a vagina.”
Mr. Dunne was presenting the movie as part of a series of American Film Institute screenings of “Grand Classics,” presented by The Week magazine. The swarthy, shaggy artiste extolled the iconic chef d’oeuvre .
“Before The Graduate , every movie smelled like a French poodle. They were all like Down With Love ,” he said, scrunching his nose at the recent, boppy Renée Zellweger–Ewan McGregor romantic comedy, set in the 60′s. The French poodle–free Graduate was released in 1967. “But The Graduate was different. And I fell in love with this short, dark guy with the big shnoz!” (That would be a young Dustin Hoffman, kids.) “He reminded me of me. I couldn’t believe someone let this guy be in a movie!”
Also there to address the crowd was the film’s screenwriter, Buck Henry, who seemed mystified by Mr. Dunne’s vagina remark.
“By the way,” he told the crowd at one point, “if any of you can really find that vagina that Griffin mentioned …. “
“It was a snapshot!” Mr. Dunne yelped. “O.K., well, maybe it was breasts.”
-Anna Jane Grossman