Sunday, November 4, 2018

Then and Now: Carmine's at South Street Seaport, Manhattan

Then and Now: Carmine's

Beekman and Front Street, 1982.

The South Street Seaport is a historic old gent that became a theme park for the tourists long ago, but there is some real history there which is withering away. The above photograph that was taken in 1982 on Beekman and Front Streets captured some of that fleeting history. I decided to compare the change over the years at Beekman Street and Front Street from 1982 to 2018. I took a picture from Google Street View below to show the change.

The unidentified gentleman hauling the hand truck is engaged in hauling some fish from the Fulton Fish Market to one of the local establishments - perhaps Carmine's Bar and Grill in the background. The very authentic cobblestones under his feet appear rougher back in the day than they are now, undoubtedly smoothed over during the area's redevelopment because the tourists don't like a bumpy ride. You want it authentic - but not too authentic, if you know what I mean.

As shown, Carmine's was at the corner at 140 Beekman Street and Front Street. There are several "Carmine's" in New York City, all of them claiming with some legitimacy to be "the" Carmine's, but this Carmine's was the "real one." Founded in 1903, Carmine's was the oldest restaurant in the South Street Seaport until its closing after a grand 107 years on 30 June 2010. While you might think that the 2009 recession caused its closing, the recession actually had nothing to do with it. Instead, it was the same old story that closed Florent in the Meatpacking District countless other famous eateries. The landlord simply jacked up the rent too high and that's all she wrote. In New York City, not only do you have to provide a valuable service and establish a clientele, but you also have to withstand constantly rising rents and landlord "opportunity costs." It's a tough task that takes out some of the best old restaurants and replaces them with nail salons, dry cleaners, and chain coffee shops.


While you would think, being at the Seaport, that Carmine's was most famous for its seafood, that' not quite true. In fact, patrons loved Carmine's for its Italian food - which admittedly often involved fish of some kind. When you go to those old joints that have been there since before your grandpappy was born and order "authentic" seafood, be forewarned: it often isn't that tasty dish that you were expecting. I ordered "original" clam chowder once at the Seaport and it sure was authentic. It also sure was practically inedible for my untutored palate, which is a reflection on me and not the dish, but there you have it. I manfully ate it anyway, grimacing at the strange spices. Anyway, Carmine's was a classic old waterfront hole in the wall that anyone who ate at one in the Seaport back in the day would recognize. It had all the trimmings: the polished dark wooden bar, dark wooden booths, the inevitable seafood decor of nets and life preservers and so forth, mature waitresses who had been there since World War II - you get the drill.

The local cops and dockworkers would hang out there, so you know it had to be good. Really if you want to find the best places in town, good and cheap, ask around for where the firemen or the EMTs eat. You'll usually wind up with a great experience.


In 1982, the year the picture was taken, the Seaport's prospects improved - for tourists, anyway - when redevelopment began to turn South Street Seaport into the theme park that it is today. Prior to that, the Seaport was simply a working seaport, with the overpowering smell of fish from nearby Fulton Fish Market always in the air (Fulton finally left in 2005). There would usually be a big pile of fish or, well, something resembling fish in front of the Fish Market in the morning, and that was the time of day to close the car windows as you drove by. In the 1970s, it was a place where you didn't want to really spend much time, where you just assumed "deals" were taking place under the FDR and the cops liked to park. We drove through often, never stopped - as George Bush might have said, wouldn't be prudent.

These days, in my very humble opinion, the only reason to go to the Seaport is the mall, where you can grab a bite or a drink and then go out and sit for free on the terrace with fabulous views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River. The Seaport's owner - yes, it's the Howard Hughes Corporation - recently replaced the mall with another mall And one mall begat another mall...

The owner of Carmine's made noises for a while about reopening the restaurant somewhere else, but that almost never happens, and it didn't this time, either. He finally admitted Carmine's was gone for good in 2011. Now occupied by Vbar Seaport, a generic Italian eatery perfect for the tourists, the building is the same (minus the classic old Carmine's signage). There's still an Italian restaurant there, but the locals miss their Carmine's.

I hope you enjoyed this little stroll into the past and back into the present.  The more things change, the more they stay the same, and that's the story of Carmine's at the South Street Seaport.

The old Carmine's location ca. 2018 (Google Street View).


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