Last Call At Grange Hall

Three nights before Christmas and the bar at Greenwich Village’s coziest restaurant, Grange Hall, was packed with martini-drinkers celebrating the last sprint toward the holiday. Seventy stockings hung from the bar, each imprinted with the name of a regular customer. But the mood was bittersweet, owing largely to the “Restaurant for Rent” sign hanging out front.

“People have been coming in and asking about the sign,” said Del Pedro, the longtime bartender. “They don’t believe it.”

Indeed, the regulars are having a tough time swallowing the news that the restaurant, located on a meandering curve of Commerce Street, will close at the end of February.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Jennifer Lambert, 31, a longtime regular who recently moved away from the city but was back for the holidays. She was sitting at the bar with friend Carla Silverman. “This place just feels like New York.”

“You know you’re in New York when you’re here,” said Ms. Silverman, 43.

“Timeless-like it’s been here forever,” said Ms. Lambert.

But it was only 12 years ago that business partners Jacqui Smith and Jay Savulich founded Grange Hall, a landmark restaurant whose 1930’s memorabilia, classic martinis and jazz music made it feel like a throwback to another time.

“Jay has this love of the Depression era,” said Ms. Smith, 49, sitting in one of Grange Hall’s booths on a recent afternoon. “And I wanted to open a restaurant that would serve homey comfort food. It seemed like a natural fit: heartland food and the Depression years.” Plus, they had a good track record: The pair started the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Gulf Coast restaurants together.

At the time of their latest inspiration, the Blue Mill Tavern on Commerce Street was closing down. A former speakeasy, Blue Mill was an “old socialist hangout,” according to Ms. Smith, drawing regulars like Eugene O’Neill and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

Moving into the space vacated by the Blue Mill, Ms. Smith and Mr. Savulich left the dark walnut dining booths and terrazzo floor intact. They added 1920’s lamp shades, a 1941 Brunswick bar, images of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and posters touting the National Recovery Administration. On the back wall they hung a Diego Rivera–style mural painted by artist David Joel.

The name Grange Hall was a nod to Ms. Smith’s grandparents, farmers from Ohio and members of the Grange, a political and social agricultural association formed after the Civil War.

Working with chef Kevin Johnson, Ms. Smith created a menu of traditional Midwestern dishes like succotash, potato pancakes and broiled steak.

“The idea was basically to serve my grandparents’ recipes minus the lard,” said Ms. Smith, who has warm brown eyes and a head of curly brown hair streaked with magenta. “The restaurant was fairly successful fairly quickly: I was a neighborhood local, so people knew me, and the location played a factor. And we were serving the comfort food that people want to eat at the end of the day.”

And even celebrities need comforting: Liv Tyler held her sweet-16 birthday at the restaurant, while the New York Post ‘s Page Six chronicled Brad Pitt’s 30-minute wait for a brunch table (“He waited,” said Ms. Smith, “but everyone waits.”) Bill Clinton popped in last year, and a few weeks later Monica Lewinsky came in and was overheard bitching that Bill was dining in her neighborhood.

Mr. Pedro, who has worked the bar for the last eight years and favors 1940’s psychedelic ties, likes to tell stories of the regulars, including the one about the married couple who’d been coming in for years.

“She was a playwright,” said Mr. Pedro. “I’m not sure what he did-lived off her, probably. They got divorced. But they had a verbal agreement in their divorce settlement that Grange Hall was her spot. She could keep coming, but he wasn’t allowed.”

The restaurant endeared itself to the neighborhood by hosting fund-raisers for the antique lampposts that now light Commerce Street and for a documentary, The Collector of Bedford Street , which was nominated for an Oscar last year.

But like many New York restaurants, Grange Hall lasted as long as its lease. With the restaurant facing increased operating costs, the partners have decided not to re-sign, according to Ms. Smith.

“It’s so sad the Grange’s ride is over,” said Kathy Donaldson, president of the Neighborhood Block Association of Bedford, Barrow and Commerce Streets. “We have many restaurants here, but the Grange has just been lovely to the neighborhood. They’re really special people-it’s like losing a best friend.”

Like most of the community, Ms. Donaldson is anxious to see what restaurant will replace Grange Hall. “Every landlord wants to rent to a big-name restaurant,” she said. “We’re worried that whoever comes in, they are going to have to make high rent and they won’t be friendly to the neighbors.”

The building at 50 Commerce Street is owned by realtors Judith and Richard Kingman of Kingman Real Estate. Ms. Kingman said that a handful of restaurant owners have toured the space and that any business moving in would have to sign a lease with noise and operating-hour restrictions.

“A successful restaurant is one that makes their neighbors happy,” she said. “I think we’re all hoping that that kind of restaurant moves in.”

As for the triumvirate that worked at Grange Hall, Mr. Savulich is retiring, chef Johnson is moving upstate, and Ms. Smith plans to open a “low-country Southern food” restaurant in Harlem in the spring.

In an ironic twist, Grange Hall is getting a glitzy send-off: Sex and the City will shoot its final episode there during the first week of February.

“They’ve asked us to do a little party after they finish the shoot. They said it’d probably be an emotional night for them,” said Ms. Smith. “I think it’ll probably be a sad night for everyone.”

-Dakota Smith

Singles’ Scoop Shop

Elina met Igor near the gefilte-fish-flavored ice cream.

“I started working here,” said Elina Badalbayev, 18, smiling radiantly at fellow Uzbek immigrant Igor Fattakhov, 19, as they stood in Max and Mina’s ice-cream parlor in Queens last week. “Then he started working here. And after that, things happen. Now I’m holding his ice-cream cone.”

In the Orthodox Jewish world east of the Queensborough Bridge, there are people who have never heard of Suede and Bungalow 8-and wouldn’t go there if they did. Why should they, when at Max and Mina’s your bishert -the Yiddish term for predestined love-is probably waiting for you, along with ice-cream flavors like lox, herring, babka, ketchup, salmon and horseradish?

“It’s more than ice cream,” said Abe Beyda, a 41-year-old marketing executive from Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway area, who was hanging out at the counter at 1:15 a.m. on a recent Saturday night. “It’s more of an ice-cream attitude. In this community, this is a very hip place to be.”

Bruce Becker, 35, who started Max and Mina’s in 1997 with his brother, Mark, 30, views himself as a “bartender with ice cream. The difference is that alcohol’s a depressant; ice cream is almost an endorphin.”

And a welcome one on this stretch of Main Street just off Jewel Avenue, where the men tend to wear black hats and knit yarmulkes and the dates are often arranged.

“If these people went to an Irish bar, they’d stand out,” said Mark Becker. “When they meet in an airport or hotel lounge, it’s awkward. A place like this takes away the edge.”

Bruce and Mark grew up revering their grandfather, Max Sockloff, an organic chemist whose diploma from Columbia University hangs on the wall of the store, alongside Wacky Pack covers, an etching of Jerry Garcia, and photos of the Three Stooges and Joe DiMaggio.

“He made his living with toothpaste and paint,” Bruce said. “His hobby was ice cream.”

After the old man’s death, Bruce was cleaning out his home and happened upon his recipe book. He stashed it in a safety-deposit box.

“I was working on Wall Street and was asked to sell some bad stock. I know people who went to jail for things like that,” said Bruce. “That’s not how I live. It was time to get out.”

The brothers opened their shop, with seating for 19 and capacity for 50, across the street from the Jewish Center of Kew Garden Hills, and on the same block as Shimon’s Dairy Restaurant and Ramat Gan Fruit and Vegetables. Because of their late-night hours on Saturday, they had a built-in market with the post-Shabbos set. Initially, they were conservative with their flavors, introducing palatable blends like peach-strawberry, raspberry-apple and mango caramel. As business increased, they unveiled ice cream inspired by the bean, barley and potato stew favored by Jews adhering to the Biblical prohibition against lighting an oven-or any other spark-during the Sabbath. They substituted milk for the mayonnaise their grandmother, Mina, mixed into her horseradish. Their lox-flavored ice cream contained real lox. “And that’s not cheap lox, either,” Bruce said. Some of their more than 500 flavors became permanent fixtures; a few, like pickle and jalapeño, were discontinued before the first tub was empty.

Word of the ice-cream brothers spread beyond Jewel Avenue; in 2002, People Magazine placed the brothers on their Top Bachelors list.

Counterman Danny Asis, 20-who keeps a guitar in the back, and occasionally charms female customers with a rendition of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”-remembered a visit by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, who happens to be an alumni of the Yeshiva of Flatbush.

“He wanted to try all the flavors,” said Mr. Asis. “He was running around tasting things, shouting, ‘ Uch! Uch! ‘ Then he got to the balsamic vinaigrette and strawberry and just devoured it.”

Over time, Mark Becker noticed a social pattern in the store: large groups of young women coming in to commiserate after their arranged dates were finished. “Once girls began coming here, guys would find out and kind of circle around them,” he said. “It was ladies’ night.”

Matches were made. Yisroel Orenbuch, a 29-year-old software tester, was the guy that women in the neighborhood perceived as a platonic friend who could be recruited as an impromptu handyman.

“One day, I walked into the living room and saw my mother and Yissy fighting over cash,” said Rachel (Froyo) Frohlich, a 28-year-old special-education teacher. “She was trying to reimburse him for some furniture he moved, and he wouldn’t accept it. So my mother said, ‘If you won’t let me pay you, use the money to take Rachel someplace nice.'”

The two began going to Max and Mina’s as often as three times a week. Seven months later, Mr. Orenbuch asked the Becker brothers to create a combination of Ms. Frohlich’s two favorite flavors, mint Oreo and mint chip. When the couple next entered the store, he presented Ms. Frohlich with a tub of “Froyo’s EngageMINT” and a ring. She accepted both.

“The urge to merge is universal,” said Matt Turk, a singer who frequently performs at Max and Mina’s. “But when you’re told ‘You’re here to merge,’ it’s a turnoff. Over here, things can really happen the way they were supposed to.”

Playing to his kosher Deadhead constituency, Mr. Turk’s repertoire includes a song composed in a Palestinian refugee camp.

“I sang this one time, and a woman just freaked out,” he told the crowd at the ice-cream parlor on a recent night. “Everybody’s not ready. But you people are open-minded, so I’ll try it.”

Mr. Turk plucked at the mandolin and sang in Arabic, as the orange neon in the store window created a reflective glow.

“We don’t have to go anywhere,” Mr. Turk said after he’d finished the song. “It’s all happening here.”

-Keith Elliot Greenberg

Last Call At Grange Hall