Still, Dr. Soufer has a soft spot for his tenants, and even though Citibank made him an offer for the same building, he refused to sell out. “They were willing to pay anything! But I like Steve, and I told him as long as I’m alive he’s going to be here.”
Perhaps that’s why Mr. Despotis is magnanimous about landlords raising rents. “It’s a business,” he said. “The market is crazy.”
THE $7.95 GRILLED CHEESE
Of course, with exorbitant rents come exorbitant prices, at least for diner food. “If our rent is raised our prices will have to go up,” Mr. Bastas said. Mr. Zannikos of 3 Guys agreed that he would probably have to raise prices if his rent goes much higher. “The workers from the neighborhood who purchase food here may not be able to afford it then,” he said. “We’re already known as the most expensive coffee shop in the city because of our location.”
“The prices are so high already that it’s pretty insane,” complained Ms. Chaiken. “I took the kids to Sette Mezzo [at 71st Street and Lexington], and the lunch there was only nominally more expensive.”
“It gets to a point where you might as well be eating at Bergdorf’s,” said one neighborhood mother. “But,” she pointed out, “at 3 Guys you can order a salad while your kids get grilled cheese and fries.”
“How much can you charge for a grilled cheese?” wondered Mr. Despotis. (Try as much as $7.95 at some of these joints, and that’s before the leases have been renewed.)
Still, many patrons refuse to stand by and watch their favorite haunts be eviscerated by retailers flush with the almighty euro. Some have turned to the New York City Council. “This is a difficult social problem that needs to be addressed on a broader level,” said Councilman Daniel R. Garodnick of District 4, which includes the Upper East Side.
Mr. Garodnick noted that the Council’s small business committee is considering ways to encourage restaurant owners to stay in the community, such as zoning changes and tax incentives. “These coffee shops are community gathering places,” he said. “They give character and life to an area. We need to be careful, or they will be lost.”
It appears that the diners, unlike certain beloved neighborhood institutions, have not quite made it to landmark status. “The law does not give us the authority to tell a property owner how his or her building can be used,” said a spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Roger Lang, director of the nonprofit New York Landmarks Conservancy, said that his organization focuses on architectural and not cultural significance. “We’re building huggers,” he said.
However, concerned citizens can advocate for favorite endangered retail establishments through a project called Place Matters (www.placematters.net), formed jointly in 1998 by the Municipal Arts Society and a national not-for-profit called City Lore. So far, Juniors in Brooklyn and Minetta Tavern in the Village have made a citywide survey called Census of Places that Matter—why not 3 Guys, Viand and the Amity? And hey, while you’re at it, stick the Nectar on 82nd there, too!
“Other cities have been able to support small business owners by establishing a progressive tax,” remarked Vanessa Gruen, director of special projects at the MAS, “but the New York State Constitution does not allow it.”
And so for the time being, Madison Avenue shoppers may have to trudge a little farther to find the greasy fare and casual atmosphere they have enjoyed for years. “We need coffee shops for quick, informal lunches and as a safe haven for teenagers,” Ms. Leibowitz implored. “Plus”—oh, that treasured New York rite!—“you can go in alone and sit at the counter!”
“People come in and ask where Gardenia is,” mournfully said Joseph Wohltjen, a salesman at Searle, next-door neighbor to the doomed diner. “It’s definitely missed. It’s retail or nothing now.”
But no matter how many fabulous new European designer boutiques open along the Avenue, even the most intrepid fashionistas need to eat at some point. And right now, the pickings are as slim as the waifish women in the hood.
“The people who live and shop around Madison Avenue still want food,” said Noufri Argiros, son of Spiro, the 3 Guys co-owner. “And you can’t eat a Prada bag.”