A digital reality tour of five classic New York locations still here, and five since gone.
America celebrated an important anniversary late last week. Obviously that refers not to July 4 but July 5, which marked 25 years since Seinfeld debuted, back in 1989.
As much as Seinfeld is a show about nothing, it's also essentially a show about New York. No other series integrated Manhattan life into its story lines to a greater degree (with the possible exception of Sex and the City). In a 1998 interview with New York magazine, Jerry Seinfeld attributed much of the show's success to a comedic voice that felt "much more specific, and more neurotic, and more New York":
It wasn't clear at the beginning that the city itself would be such a big character in the show. … I really think one of the secret appeals of the show is this kind of utopian existence of living in Manhattan and not having to work.
So rather than staging a show about nothing, New York made Seinfeld a show about anything. The city supplied the "excruciating minutia" that kept the narrative motor running for a group of self-obsessed, over-analytical, otherwise-unoccupied characters (think about it: only Elaine had a steady job). From Steinbrenner to Mickey Mantle to Keith Hernandez, chance sidewalk encounters to apartment and doorman etiquette, an endless parade of health clubs and diners to a bottomless dating pool, glorious Hamptons weekends to 3 a.m. cock fights to games of Risk on the subway—the situations were all contrived, and anywhere but New York they might have felt like it.
Given the close connection between city and show, it seemed fitting to check on Seinfeld's geographic legacy a quarter century on. Some of the show's main haunts have suffered no obvious shrinkage; at others, the prognosis is negative. Such a list could be infinite (and many great fan sites, like Maps About Nothing, catalogue the locations brilliantly), but keeping the reality tour mostly near the Upper West Side, we looked at five classic Seinfeld spots still here, and five since gone. Giddy-up.
Tom's Restaurant—called Monk's Café in the show—remains right where the Seinfeld gang left it. Located just a few blocks south of Columbia University's main campus, the iconic neon sign still attracts snapshots on a daily basis, and the (otherwise unspectacular) diner seems to court tourists more than locals; its new outdoor seating area is enclosed by (painfully tacky) panels displaying the names Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, and there's plenty of show paraphernalia inside. The interior for Monk's is said to be based more on Broadway Restaurant, between 101st and 102nd streets, which recently closed down to meet health codes before reopening. One too many rubber bands in the soup?
The Original Soup Man
259-A W. 55th Street
Speaking of soup, the Original Soup Man chain immortalized in the Soup Nazi episode moved back into its original stall at West 55th Street in 2010. The real life Soup Man, Al Yeganeh, does bear some similarities to his fictional counterpart: He looks a little like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, seems to "suffer" for his soup, and actually serves Mulligatawny. But Yeganeh reportedly found no humor in his portrayal; it's been said he banned Jerry from the soup counter and forbids any "Nazi" references during interviews. That tension aside, there's a huge sign above the stall on 55th that declares "Soup for you!" See what they did there?
129 W. 81st Street
The West 81st Street address that was home to Jerry, Kramer, and Newman can still be found on a quiet block between Amsterdam and Columbus avenues. But the show exterior doesn't look like the one above for good reason: The true building is evidently located at 755 S. New Hampshire Avenue—in Los Angeles. And the actual West 81st Street is far less lively than it often appears on the show. Most of the sidewalk traffic in this area is young couples with strollers walking to or from either Central Park or the Museum of Natural History. In other words, Kenny Rogers Roasters isn't moving in anytime soon.
Nexus of the Universe
1st Street & First Avenue
In a clever nod to the way New Yorkers section themselves off by neighborhood, Kramer rues the day his girlfriend moves downtown from the Upper West Side—not wanting "one of these long-distance relationships." He packs a suitcase to visit her, gets lost at the corner of 1st Street and First Avenue, and calls Jerry in a panic. "How can the same street intersect with itself?" he says. "I must be at the nexus of the universe!" The universe of 1st and First is still there, of course, though the surrounding life has changed a great deal since Kramer's day. It's even imitating art: A club at one of the corners calls itself the Nexus Lounge.
234 W. 44th Street
This mainstay of Manhattan's theater district, known for the celebrity caricatures that adorn the walls, has been in the same spot on West 44th Street since 1927. Kramer took his Tony to Sardi's—actually, the Tony took Kramer to Sardi's—after he mistakenly received the award while serving as a seat filler during the ceremony. The producers of (the fictional) Scarsdale Surprise agree to let him keep the award if he fires Raquel Welch for failing to move her arms while she tap dances, which ends in disaster for the Tony. (The woman is a menace.) Welch's cartoon isn't hanging in the actual Sardi's, but fans of the episode will be glad to know that Liza's is. (Yes, Minnelli.)
358 W. 44th Street
Just about every episode in the first seven seasons opened with Jerry's monologue at this comedy establishment. There must have been plenty of leftover footage from the first few seasons, because the place filed for bankruptcy in 1992, just four years after the show began, and shut down in 1993. Today the site is home to the Producers Club, a creative space for show-biz types. It's also the starting point for the Kramer Reality Tour led by Kenny Kramer, the real-life basis for the character (and Larry David's old apartment neighbor). Not all is lost in the area, though; Westway Diner, where Jerry and Larry came up with the idea for the show, is still alive and kicking just around the corner.
West 80th Street & Broadway
The Upper West Side's favorite bagel spot—and occasional place of employment for Kramer—closed in June 2011. After going on strike for 12 years to get $5.35 an hour, Kramer finally went back to work for H&H when minimum wage reached that level ("Now you know who to thank for that!"), only to go on strike again when his boss wouldn't give him the day off for Festivus. The real H&H is still awaiting its own Festivus miracle; owner Helmer Toro reportedly pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2010, and now the site is home to a Verizon store. Really makes you wonder what the strike was all for.
The old Metro Theatre played a key role in two of Seinfeld's most memorable episodes. In "The Stall," Elaine is left toilet paper-less in the theater bathroom because the woman in the next stall over—who happens to be dating Jerry—"can't spare a square." In "The Opposite," Georgie Boy uncharacteristically confronts a bunch of movie hecklers, having decided that given the way his life has gone he should do the opposite of every instinct he has. The Metro closed in 2005, and in 2012 the Times reported that a drafthouse cinema would replace it, but that plan seems to have given way to another effort to turn the site into a galleria. Let's hope whoever moves in keeps the bathrooms stocked.
208 W. 70th Street
In exchange for a new Armani suit, Jerry agrees to take fellow comedian Kenny Bania to dinner at Mendy's, then located just west of Broadway on West 70th Street. Jerry orders the salmon despite Bania urging him to order the swordfish ("Best swordfish in the city, Jerry. The best."). But Bania himself orders the soup so he can save the meal for another time. They do end up back at Mendy's, but the restaurant wasn't long for the Upper West Side. (The location itself may be a little cursed; its latest tenant, the high-end Greek restaurant Loi, just shut down, too.) There is still a Mendy's at East 34th Street. They don't serve swordfish. They do serve salmon.
Before going the way of most brick-and-mortar video stores, Champagne Video on Broadway provided the setting for some classic Seinfeld scenes. Among them is the time when George gets charged $98 for losing his copy of "Rochelle, Rochelle" (Tagline: A young girl's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.) There's also the time when he tries to rent Breakfast at Tiffany's to avoid reading the book, finds out it's been rented, snoops out the address of the person who rented it, then goes there and spills grape juice all over the couch. Today the Champagne site is home to a store called The Children's Place. Probably not the place to find "Rochelle, Rochelle."
- Royale Pastry (237 W. 72nd Street). Schnitzer's Bakery in the show, the place that sold marble ryes and chocolate babka in the Seinfeld days is now, quite fittingly (you might say), a Jenny Craig.
- Bleecker Bob's (118 West 3rd Street). Called Ron's on Bleecker in the show, the spot where Kramer and Newman unsuccessfully hawk their thick stack of old records ("We got Al Jolson here! Al Jolson!") will soon be a Starbucks.
- Brentano's (597 Fifth Avenue). A Scribner's bookstore until 1988, the site kept its literary legacy as a Brentano's during Seinfeld's run, but closed up despite an elaborate system for flagging when a book had been in the bathroom (in the show, at least). The address housed a Sephora of late.
- Hunan 5th Ave. (323 Fifth Ave.). The Chinese restaurant where George, Jerry, and Elaine spent an entire episode waiting for a table is, like the Jon Voight car, no more. You can only take customer bribes without seating them for so long.