While strolling down 46th, I came across a throng of people spilling out of Havana Central. Cuban music was playing, people were dancing, and drinks were flowing. Apparently, I was witnessing the celebration of Cuban Independence Day. And a party it surely was! Inside, the space transported me to the Caribbean isle in the 1950s, filled with palm trees, cold drinks, and seafood. For a short time, I felt worlds away from a side street of Manhattan.
On another visit, when the atmosphere was somewhat calmer, I had the pleasure of chatting with the manager while sipping on their signature drinks: mojito, sangria, and the elaborate 'Birds of Paradise.' He explained to me that it is their hope that the restaurant recreates the festive energy of expatriate life in a pre-Castro Cuba.
"We are the oldest restaurant on our block. We try to keep a low profile while doing the best we can, and every day we appreciate that we are living in this country, ” said Guadalupe, who has been married to Rafael Rivas — affectionately known as Papa Bear — for over forty years. The restaurant was founded by three Cuban cousins, who took Rafael under their wing when he came to the U. S. from the Dominican Republic in his twenties. With their encouragement, he started out as a dishwasher, then a lineman, and eventually ran the show up front. When the cousins decided to retire in the mid-1980s but could not find a buyer, Rafael stepped up to the plate and asked if he could take over Margon. With years of hard work and small payments, Rafael has upheld the cousins' tradition of serving Cuban favorites, such as roasted pork, oxtail, fried sweet plantains, and rice and beans to the line of customers that stretches out the door on any given day. Little by little, each member of Rafael's family was brought from the DR to join the fold. Guadalupe — who met her husband while they were both on a tour of the Statue of Liberty — along with Rafael's brother, sister, sister-in-law, and many of their children — are all part of this warm and loving family affair. Papa Bear's smile lights up Margon — and his entire family smiles with him. They work like a well-oiled machine, serving a constant flow of customers ranging from construction workers on break, to ladies meeting for a leisurely lunch, to a gentleman in his eighties who never misses a day to sit down and enjoy his usual. According to Guadalupe, “We have the best customers. They come from all over the world. We have every accent. They visit once and then they tell their friends.
Not only does Barbetta profess to be the oldest restaurant on Restaurant Row, it is also one of the oldest Italian restaurants in New York. Opening its doors in 1906, in four adjoining townhouses built in the late 1800s by the Astor family, Sebastiano Maioglio began his long restaurant career. The emphasis has always been on Italian dishes and wine from the Piemontese region, where he was from. Sebastiano’s daughter, Laura, took over in 1962, and immediately began to remodel the restaurant in the style of 18th C. E. Piemonte. With her passion for collecting art, great sense of personal style, frequent visits in Piemonte, and an art history degree from Bryn Mawr College, it is no wonder that Barbetta’s exquisite interior has become as highly regarded as its food. The dining room demonstrates its old-world opulence, with ornate chandeliers, chairs, and tables meant to evoke a palazzo of the eighteenth century, during Piemonte’s cultural height. The baroque interior serves as more than just a reference to its heritage; it is a part of it. The great chandelier in the main dining room initially came from a palazzo in Torino, where it belonged to the royal family. Laura negotiated to obtain this 18th C. E. chandelier for two years. Other highlights of Barbetta’s extensive collection include the harpsichord in the foyer - crafted in 1631, as well as hanging wall prints from Piemonte - part of a distinguished set crafted in 1682. Items that could not be authentic, such as the numerous chairs and barstools, are reproductions of museum pieces that were specifically chosen by Laura to be reproduced in Italy. The garden, available for dining in the summer, holds trees dating back over a century ago, and, in line with the interior, holds the atmosphere of refined European aristocracy. Barbetta, while serving as a cultural landmark, remains focused on the excellence of its ever-changing list of dishes while serving classics such as risotto and polenta since its founding. Every dish on its menu since 1962 has been approved by Laura, and celebrating its long history and heritage, each menu item is marked with the year it began to be served, while dishes from Piemonte are in red print. Although esteemed for its dishes, Barbetta is also famed for its 72-page wine list, which has won numerous awards. Barbetta has also transformed the Italian dining scene through its numerous examples of “being the first”- from its conception to the present day. A few highlights include its beginning as the first Piemontese restaurant in New York, its status as New York’s first elegant Italian restaurant after its 1962 transformation, as well as its usage of numerous ingredients that at the time, were not commercially available in America and which had to be specifically imported by them from Italy. A particular example of one of these imported ingredients is white truffles. Years ago, Barbetta’s own truffle-hunting dogs became so well known that they were asked to perform a demonstration at Carnegie Hall in 1992. Barbetta is also unique in its emphasis on low sugar and low salt dishes - Laura even decided that Barbetta would smoke its own salmon to ensure it would not be too salty. Laura described Barbetta as “an institution, much more than a restaurant, ” due to the extensive culture that has been built around it and that it has created. The description as “much more than a restaurant” struck us as particularly apt, due to Barbetta’s long list of famous regulars - from The Rolling Stones to Jacklyn Kennedy - its exceptionally elegant and unusually spacious interior, variety of phenomenal food, and historical significance.
Joe Allen, founded in 1965, is the archetypal post-theater restaurant. With one of the longer histories on Restaurant Row, Joe Allen has been serving classic American cuisine in a brasserie setting since I was a little girl. I was always happy to come here with my parents and be able to order a hamburger rather than having to go out for a fancy meal. Mr. Allen - who also owns Orso, an Italian restaurant next door – had an initial concept to provide a comfortable, dynamic atmosphere with good food. And while the restaurant continues to serve some of the best comfort food around, spending time at night in the bar area, shows Joe Allen's real appeal. The high energy level from the post-theater crowd is contagious. The manager explained to us on one visit that they are the first phone call that people make after they have secured their seats for the next Broadway show. And, while he remained hesitant to divulge names, he shared how many actors and actresses have continued over the years to head immediately to Joe Allen after they perform - "here, " he elaborated "you're surrounded by theater, and we do all we can to promote that culture. " I can attest to the numerous actors who grace their tables, as I have had the pleasure of meeting a few over the years, as well as a highlight one evening when Barbara Walters sat right next to me. It is hard to say something new about Joe Allen, so long has it been a staple for theater goers. While the menu remains updated and contemporary, Joe Allen does not take any risks. Rather, it thrives on its reputation among patrons based on its long tradition of casual dining. Seeing the last of the pre-theater crowd during our visit, we were struck by how Joe Allen seemed appropriate equally for a quick burger and glass of wine in half an hour before a show, or a long, late into the night dinner where no one wants to head home.