NYC's 10 Weirdest Restaurants
There has always been an element of zaniness in the New York dining scene, ever since pretty girls started selling hot ears of buttered corn down on Delancey Street in the 19th century -- or maybe even before that, because a restaurant banquet earlier in the century featured guests enjoying an entire formal meal while seated on horseback.
Here, in order of increasing absurdity are the 10 restaurants that strike us as the strangest in the city's history. And whether the food was good or not was usually beside the point.
10. Asti -- Every square inch of the walls was plastered with portraits of composers, librettists, singers, and other opera memorabilia. To pounding piano accompaniment, patrons in the crowded restaurant took turns leaping up and strolling around the room, belting out opera at ear-splitting volume; you might find yourself sitting through "The Toreador Song" from Carmen several times in a single evening. Yes, hundreds loved this Greenwich Village institution, where even the worst amateur singers were welcome, and where stars from the Met and City Opera sometimes made appearances -- but the food was mediocre at best, focusing on red-sauced Italian-American standards that led the 1997 Romac Report to exclaim, "Even an average cook can do better at home." And if you think enduring bad opera would make a fun evening, see how much of the video at the end of this countdown you can sit through. We're betting you don't make it past the singing pizza chef. 13 East 12th Street, 1925 to 2000
Library of Congress
9. Motown Café -- The year 1997 was the high point for what were then known as theme restaurants: tourist-oriented places where the décor and menu were contrived to provide an all-encompassing kitschy experience based on an entertainment-oriented theme. Few still exist today, but at one time the actual or contemplated restaurants of this sort in the city included Marvel Mania, Official All-Star Café, Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock Café, Harley-Davidson Café, Soap Dish, Brooklyn Diner, Laugh Factory Funhouse, and the short-lived Motown Café. The latter dished up horrendous soul food, and was decorated with framed gold records, autographed musical instruments, and costumes mounted in cases. There was also a glittering, lip-synched floor show that provided the only break in the monotony of dining there. Scariest were the life-size wax effigies of performers living and dead, including a teenage Michael Jackson wearing a fringed leather jacket leaning over a second floor railing to snicker down at the diners below. And this was years before he almost dropped the baby from the balcony. 104 West 57th Street, late 1990s
8. Village Barn -- In the years surrounding the First World War, the streets around Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village became thronged with restaurants descended from teahouses, where city dwellers and tourists alike would come to gawk at the anarchists, authors, practitioners of free love, socialists, kooks, and other bohemians who inhabited the neighborhood. In his book Appetite City, former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes chronicled places whose names telegraphed their wackiness: the Purple Pup, the Wigwam, the Mad Hatter, the Pirate's Den, the Crumperie, and, most ambitious and long-lived of all, the Village Barn -- a huge, high-ceilinged space decorated with saddles, scythes, harnesses, and other farm implements. Patrons yodeled like heartsick cowboys late into the night, and doffed their hats and sport coats and square-danced to a hillbilly band. The place also staged nightly turtle races. A 1939 article cited by the blog Ephemeral New York observed, "The humor is rough and ready, the accents nasal, the costumes rural." The club closed in the mid-'60s and was soon thereafter rebuilt by Jimi Hendrix as Electric Lady Studios. 52 West 8th Street, 1930 to 1965 (dates approximate)