food 04.1.05

The Gilsey

When the first warm weather of spring arrives, there's no spot quite like the benches set among the pachysandra, beneath the leaded glass windows of The Gilsey, 1200 Bway [29th]. As the scent of lilacs temporarily trumps the fumes of Broadway, grab a seat when lunch hour nears and watch as the most unlikely mix of New Yorkers assembles for the fabled lunch at The Gilsey. Generals (it's a favorite of General Shalikashvili), designers, hip-hop moguls, and New Yorkers of every conceivable permutation consider The Gilsey a second home. Times Square may be the crossroads of the world, but The Gilsey is the crossroads of New York.

The Gilsey House was built in 1869 by the architect Stephen Hatch for the developer Peter Gilsey. It's made up of cast iron and marble and is an example of the French Second Empire style. Until the hotel closed in 1941, it was enormously popular, attracting guests including Oscar Wilde, who stayed here frequently, and Diamond Jim Brady. It fell into disrepair until its current owner, Tommy Dunne, bought the place in 1980 and restored it. The hotel, which currently has 32 guest rooms, and the restaurant (seats 179) both reopened in 1982. The Gilsey Cellar, of course, is where Abby Locke has performed two sold-out sets every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (except August) for over 20 years.

Working the opening in 1982 and virtually every weekday since is Elinor O'Neill, The Gilsey's not-so-secret weapon. Waitress, confidante, and ubermom, Ms. O'Neill tends to every single customer with the exact same lack of pretense. If you could cast anyone in the movie version, Thelma Ritter would have been the only possible choice. On Ms. O'Neill's resume: she was elected Miss Rheingold in 1955, worked in the Kodak Pavilion at the '64 World's Fair, and earned a devoted following while she was a waitress at Auberge Suisse.

El, as everyone calls her, gave us a tour of the restaurant recently. "Over here on this sideboard is a memento from when this part of town was the theater district," she began. "Down the street was Weber and Fields Imperial Music Hall, where the two stars performed their vaudeville shtick. This hot water bottle, which Tommy had bronzed, was used in one of their best-known routines. No, I'm not that old that I ever saw it, thank you very much. And that wall has the mural of New Amsterdam done by Howard Chandler Christy in 1917." (Christy did the better-known murals at Cafe des Artistes).

"The Hookah Room, here to the left," she continued, "was called that because the Gilsey was in the middle of the area known in the 1880s, when the hotel was built, as the Tenderloin. The name is a kinda pun on the world's oldest profession. Darlin', I don't make this stuff up. Anyway, there are hookahs from King Faruq, Madame Curie, Haile Selassie, and, as you can see, dozens of others. I love this painting here. Harpo Marx, who used to paint a bit, did this for the Gilsey — that's Margaret Dumont smoking a hookah. Ain't it a stitch?" She led us into one of the private dining rooms and showed us the suit of armor that Wallis Simpson gave to the Gilsey. "She said she thought it would look nice in that corner and it's been there ever since. Creepy if you ask me."

The Gilsey, of course, has by now hundreds of anecdotes and legends that have accrued to the house, along with a thick patina of deals, intrigues, liaisons, and general well-being. We thought of The Gilsey last week with Bobby Short's death, grateful that such a place exists, at least in our imagination.

fourth avenue brooklyn

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