The Café on the Corner

FANELLI'S 1982 (photo by Dave Glass/Flickr via Alex/Flaming Pablum)

Those little square crackers that leave a slight orange residue on your fingers.  Cheez-its?  Is that what they’re called?  Their salty, cheesy flavor is what propels me on my journey along memory lane to Fanelli’s.  Not the smell of Scotch or the loud hubub of laborers and artists rubbing shoulders as they bet on fights or watch a Yankee game.

I remember an old man sweeping outside, just under that by now oh so famous red “cafe” sign (Mike Fanelli himself perhaps?), and then putting his broom away in the shed that is now the Soup Kiosk.  Inside the shed, there was a bin full of little crackers (Is that, in fact, what a “cracker barrel” is?).  The man would stick his hand in the bin an throw a handful of crackers to the pigeons on the sidewalk he’d just swept clean.  He LOVED to feed the pigeons.  And he once let me stick my hand in the bin too and grab a handful of crackers to nibble as an after-school snack.  Am I remembering that correctly?  Did he really give me crackers meant to be bird feed?

Considering that Fanelli’s is less than a block from my house, I do not go in there very often.  If I’m craving burger or if I need to stop for a quick lunch before heading out into the world, then I pop in, eat the same reliable food (tasty without any bells and whistles) with the same reliable service (courteous without any bells and whistles), and leave feeling that I got exactly what I expected, every time.  I find such satisfaction in this kind of consistency.

Fanelli’s, known by a variety of other names before 1922 when Mike Fanelli bought it and ran it for the next 60 years, has been continuously serving food and drink to the public since 1847.  This makes it the second oldest such establishment in New York City.  If you go into the back room, liquor licenses from years way past are framed and hung around its periphery as a testiment to its longevity.

In the early days, the bar catered to bigwig politicos from City Hall, and there was a brothel upstairs.  As the neighborhood changed, so did the clientele.  Industry brought factory workers and then in the 1960’s and 70’s, when Mike Fanelli was still working behind the bar, Fanelli’s transitioned from being a blue collar joint to an artists’ hangout.  It seems that it took Fanelli a while to warm up to his new regulars as the bar became a bohemian oasis in the desert that was SoHo nightlife.

The bar is currenty owned by Sasha Noe, whose father bought it from Fanelli in the early 80’s after promising never to alter it (apparently Fanelli’s sons did not want to take over the family business).  His patrons are now a motley melange of locals, tourists, and office workers, and though you are as likely to see immaculate Prada loafers as paint splattered Cat boots walk in on any given night, they tread on the same old tile floor and sit at the same old bar from yesteryear.

Although I have my own special memories of Fanelli’s in the 1970’s, I still feel a bit silly mentioning them.  Fanelli’s is a BAR after all, a place where grownups hang out at night.  And I do not have any memories of that—I was in bed sleeping, like all of the other good little boys and girls of SoHo.  So grownups—and I know you’re reading this—what do YOU remember about the our little café on the corner?

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30 Responses to “The Café on the Corner”

  1. Nancy Gabor Says:

    Yuki, it was interesting to read your memories of Fanelli’s. I had a lot of painter friends and we had many wonderful late nights sitting in big groups, drinking a beer and telling stories. Of course, that was before we all gave up cigarettes.
    This was a cafe where lots of people met, especially for Saturday lunch and would stay for hours – it was a great hang-out bar. People I remember who are now gone . . . Al DeLaura, Mel Roman. Real regulars.

  2. nina Says:

    Thank you for this journal!

  3. Yukie Says:

    And thank you for tuning in! Any memories you might have are, of course, always welcome.

  4. MacLeod Pappidas Says:

    I remember that our bathroom smelled like a bar bathroom: Beer, pee, and cigarette smoke. It must have come up from Fanelli’s through the plumbing!

  5. Yukie Says:

    ZOINKS! Really? That must have been rather unpleasant. Can you confirm that Mike Fanelli was a pigeon enthusiast? Do you remember that? You must have seen him all the time when you lived upstairs!

  6. MacLeod Pappidas Says:

    Hi Yukie.
    I’m afraid I really don’t remember Mike very well. I’ll ask my Dad!

  7. Sean Says:

    There used to be a numbers man for the neighborhood, who would take the numbers that the bettors picked that day. The bettors worked as laborers, mostly seamstresses, in the factories in SoHo in the 70s and 80s. All the individual numbers selections were bundled together and brought over to this numbers man by a runner who worked in the factory. Numbers were very big until Lotto filled a similar void. I believe you could get into the pool for as little as a quarter, definitely a dollar, maybe even a dime.

    (The winning number would be the last three digits of the attendance figures published in the papers for Aqueduct race track that day.)

    Anyway, the numbers guy would hang out in front of Fanelli’s around noon for an hour or two, standing outside, right near the front door, accepting the numbers slips, pieces of papers with the chosen numbers. It was all very casual.

    He was not shady or tough looking, as the stereotype might indicate. He was a kind of doofy, middle age guy, who wore a saggy jacket, worn white shirt, and a mismatched tie, with a little beat-up fedora. He had a mustache and his face was beginning to sag, and he wore thick-lens glasses.

    The numbers runners also used the two pay phones in the lobby of the old Prince Street Post Office, where Apple is now.

    Anyway, the numbers guy was always a fixture outside of Fanelli’s in the early afternoon.

    MIke Fanelli was a skinny old guy. Pleasant enough. The joint would sell short beers for 50 cents, as well as glasses for a dollar or two. Pints were unheard of then. Free peanuts on the bar. Then he died and the ambiance changed.

    The 50 cents short beers disappeared, as did the free peanuts. You could no longer bring the booze over to the tables, because the new owner instituted waitress service – and the collection of sales tax. Then, I believe, food was introduced on the ‘grand’ scale it it now.

    So, Fanelli’s got more commercialized, with fewer truckers and artists, and more tourists, who would read about “the new discovery” in the tourist books.

    I wonder what happened to the numbers man, after Mike died.

  8. Gail fanelli Says:

    The man feeding the pigeons was my Uncle George, Mike Fanelli’s son.
    Mike was my grandfather.My uncle George loved animals, in addition to feeding pigeons he also feed every single stray cat in the neighborhood.

    • Yukie Says:

      So George was the cracker man! I only have pleasant memories of him. Perhaps his love of animals carried over to children as well.

    • cathryn Says:

      Gail, great info. It’s so hard to imagine any stray cats now! I wonder when the last one was there. Love your uncle’s love of pigeons too. (Pigeons now seem to have such a hard time in SoHo … so little space to navigate tho’ I notice at least one vendor who looks out for them.)

      Great piece and comments. I have some memories at Fanelli’s even more recently.

      p.s. Yukie, I did a piece on Washington Square Blog about your blog a couple of months ago. hope you saw it.

  9. Gail fanelli Says:

    He was decorated WWII hero who never spoke about the war but wore his dog tags till the day he died. He was also my favorite uncle.
    Gail

  10. Gail fanelli Says:

    I grew up on Thompson Street between Spring and Broome in the 1960’s. The stray cats all lived in the many alleys and basements in the neighborhood. There was a man who lived in my grandmothers building at 68 Thompson that kept pigeons in coops on the roof.They would fly around the building in big circles while he led them with a flag.

  11. wendy beck Says:

    I worked at Fanelli’s in the early 70’s for a few months (and hung out there before and after). In those days after 4PM or so, the only thing you could get to eat was a ham and cheese sandwich. It made waiting tables pretty easy. And if I ever got stiffed, Mike would give me a tip. It was a good gig.

    When you mentioned a guy out front sweeping, I thought it was Alfred, Mike’s brother. But I remember George, too.

    Every time I go back to NYC (I live in San Francisco now), I visit Fanelli’s hoping to see some ghosts of good times, I guess.

  12. Gail fanelli Says:

    Alfred was not Mikes brother, in fact he was my Uncle George’s( Mike’s oldest son) best friend, not a family member. Mikes brother was Jimmy.

  13. Diana Doner Says:

    I remember going out to dinner with Jimmy Fanelli in 1976. I had just newly arrived in NYC and my friend, who knew Jimmy well, organized this evening. I was about 25. Jimmy was an incredibly nice man, very much of the 50’s era manners and it seemed he was known by all the Italians we encountered. It was very exciting -a very New York experience.

    Diana Doner

  14. Gail fanelli Says:

    Yes Jimmy was my great Uncle. He was a true gentleman. I miss him.

  15. Carol Says:

    I remember the early morning drinkers at the bar, probably truck drivers. did they open at 9 or before then?

    as Sean said, numbers runners were a big part of the neighborhood. one of the guys who worked the freight entrance of my building was the area runner. he had a certain authority in the neighborhood and once got me back my dog when I was up on the room and he went missing

  16. Eugene Gannon Says:

    I used to go there back in the seventies. It was a time of transition for the neighbourhood, there were very few bars then. Besides Fannellis there was Ken’s Broome Street Bar, Rashid Ali’s ;Ali’s Alley and then odd bars would pop up for a short while and not last too long.
    Fanelli’s was a bar for boxers and their fans and used to have photos on the walls, but it was never a rough place. I remember there was a waitress who worked the back room who was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. And the back room tables had buttons to summon service. That’s all I can remember for now as I mainly drank on St Marks

  17. Setting the Bar « The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] which they were located.  Other than THE BAR, i.e. Fanelli’s (see my post on Fanelli’s here), there was the Spring Street Bar, the Prince Street Bar, the Greene Street Cafe, and, of course, […]

  18. SoHo Memory Quiz Answers Part III | The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] Fanelli’s, known by a variety of other names before 1922 when Mike Fanelli bought it and ran it for the next 60 years, has been continuously serving food and drink to the public since 1847.  This makes it the second oldest such establishment in New York City.  If you go into the back room, liquor licenses from years way past are framed and hung around its periphery as a testament to its longevity. Read my post on Fanelli’s (The Cafe on the Corner) here. […]

  19. James Pulling Says:

    EXCERPT: FANELLI’S

    Still, compared to what it became, Soho in 1973 was fairly desolate. There were not many options for food and drink. There was the scruffy Bob & Kenn’s Broome Street Bar and the far trendier Spring Street Bar. Both opened in 1972. And then there was, and is, Fanelli’s.
    While not the oldest bar in the city (Fraunces Tavern, which opened in 1762, is the consensus candidate for that distinction), Fanelli’s is nevertheless very old. Liquor licenses dating back to 1877 hang in the back dining room. They were issued to Nicholas Gerdes, whose name is etched in the transom above the front door. Mike Fanelli bought the place in 1922 and renamed it.
    Because Lara (Not her real name) and I had full time jobs, our appointments with prospective landlords were made in the early evening. Tired and hungry from work and rental negotiations, we happened upon Fanelli’s Café, which then served almost no food after lunchtime and closed around seven, as soon as the blue collar clientele finished their last beers. Sitting down at a table with a white linen tablecloth (as opposed to the red and white checkered oilcloth that cover the tables today), we were approached by Alfred, the waiter. “What do you have to eat?” Alfred talked slowly. “I can make yus a ham and cheese sandwich.” “Sounds good.” Alfred lumbered over to an ancient refrigerator which stood in front of the service bar. He took out four slices of white bread, two slices of ham and two slices of processed cheese and proceeded to assemble our dinner. Alfred, we later learned, had a steel plate in his head.
    Watching the action was a small thin man in a white shirt and apron standing near the end of the bar. He had very black dyed hair (Shinola hair, we joked). He seemed fixated on Lara. He came over to introduce himself. It was Mike Fanelli. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Ruth Bader-Ginsberg and was as old then as she is now.
    That our new address was around the corner from Fanelli’s turned out to be a blessing and a curse. It was certainly convenient. But who had time to spend weekday afternoons at a nearby café?
    In October 1973, OPEC imposed a total embargo upon the United States in retaliation for aiding Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Oil prices quadrupled. The city, already on shaky economic grounds, felt the full brunt of the ensuing recession. Lara and I were laid off in short order.
    Our unemployment checks went a long way at Fanelli’s. Draught beer was available for a quarter, albeit in very small glasses. The preferred beer was Rolling Rock, in long neck bottles. Mike’s two sons, George and Raymond, took care of the bar. George, who had a jaw twice the size of Jay Leno’s, said little. Raymond was a complainer. “Did you hear that guy (meaning Mike)? Did you hear that guy? He calls me kid. Kid! I’m sixty-five years old and he still calls me kid!”
    At Fanelli’s, I’d say the ratio of working class patrons to artists was five to one when we moved in. The blue collars drove trucks, forklifts, ran freight elevators, schlepped. They came in all flavors but had one thing in common – they were huge. Fanelli’s appeased their appetites with hearty fare. For lunch a buffet of hot food was set up at the service bar. Ladling honors fell to a tall guy and a short guy who were rumored to be lovers. If they were gay, they were wisely discreet, given the immediate environment and the times. No PDAs allowed.
    Taking up the slack for extraneous chores was Frenchy, who was sweetness incarnate. I saw Frenchy collapse on the floor of the back room; he was dead before the ambulance arrived.
    But Mike Fanelli was the center of this particular universe, and he could be a mean son-of-a-bitch. There was a crazy Irish painter named Brian Henderson who lived here courtesy of his government’s generous grants. Brian, who had Larry Fine hair and a thick brogue, called Mike a wop and Mike got a lead pipe from behind the bar and chassed Brian down Mercer street. In his youth Mike had been a boxer, most likely in the bantam weight division, though I am unsure if he went pro. Posters of boxing champions still adorn the café.
    Mike was in his eighties but that didn’t stop him from him wooing Lara. I was an encumbrance who he probably called a bum behind my back as he did of all the artists who drank at the bar. So I tagged along for dinner at a Chinese restaurant across the street from what was then the Americana hotel. Mike had a fist full of crisp five dollar bills which he distributed to any one of the white tuxedo jacketed waiters he encountered, and there were many, scurrying about with plates covered with silver domes. After our excellent meal we cabbed it to his apartment across from the Waldorf-Astoria. Mike showed Lara a closet full of his dead wife’s clothes which she wore during the Truman administration. Mike wanted Lara to take something. Lara picked out a hat with a little veil. Then Mike sang a love song in a thin warble. Mike was no Sinatra, who was to Fanelli’s café what George Washington was to Fraunce’s Tavern. (Yes, Old Blue Eyes had been a patron according to Mike.) It was an excruciating evening.
    “Alfred likes to kiss the girls,” said Larry Bennet, the new day bartender, which meant there was a night bartender. George and Raymond had hung up their bar towels and Fanelli’s was staying open later and later to accommodate the new customers. Larry was an artist and a Marine Corps dropout. He played guitar in the Sex and Drugs band. Larry kidded Alfred but it wasn’t long before Alfred joined the Fanelli brothers in retirement.
    Also retired were the twenty-five cent beer and the luncheon buffet. The underutilized kitchen came to life for lunch and dinner. The refrigerator was junked to make room for more tables. And to service those tables were attractive young waitresses. Unemployed Lara was to be one of them. That had been Mike’s plan all along. Son-of-a-bitch.

  20. Gail Ann Fanelli Says:

    i think James Pulling has some facts wrong about my family!!
    If he wants to meet me some time i would love to set him straight.

  21. Gail Ann Fanelli Says:

    My grandmother never lived in the apartment near the Waldorf.
    I don’t know who the clothes he claims were in the closet belonged to. I think this is fiction.

    Does it bother Mr. Pulling that him and his friend Lara took advantage of an 88 year old man who was suffering from dementia.
    My grandfather passed away not too long later.

  22. Kathryn Fanelli Says:

    Hi Gail, I’d like to make contact.
    Kathryn Fanelli

  23. Al Heitzer Says:

    Is Vincent Fanelli a relative? Lived on Sullivan Street off West Houston Street.

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