Sunday, November 4, 2018

Then and Now: Carmine's at the Seaport, Manhattan

Then and Now: Carmine's

Beekman and Front Street, 1982.

The South Street Seaport became a sort of theme park long ago, but there is some real history there. The above photograph that was taken in 1982 on Beekman and Front Streets captured some of that 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 appears to be hauling some fish from the Fulton Fish Market to one of the restaurants - perhaps Carmine's Bar and Grill in the background. The cobblestones appear rougher back in the day than they are now, undoubtedly smoothed over because tourists don't like a bumpy ride. You want it authentic - but not too authentic, if you know what I mean.

Carmine's sat on the corner at 140 Beekman Street. There are several "Carmine's" in New York City, 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 on 30 June 2010. While you might think that the 2009 recession was to blame, in fact, it was the same story that closed Florent and so many other famous eateries and had nothing to do with the recession: the landlord simply jacked up the rent 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. It's a tough task that takes out some of the best old restaurants and replaces them with nail salons, dry cleaners, and chain restaurants.


Carmine's was renowned for its Italian food, not necessarily for its seafood. In fact, when you go to those old joints and order "authentic" seafood, be prepared, because it often isn't that tasty dish that you were expecting. I ordered "original" clam chowder at one of them in the Seaport once and it sure was authentic, and it also sure was practically inedible for my untutored palate. Anyway, Carmine's was a classic old joint in the best sense of the word that anyone who ate at one in the Seaport back in the day would recognize. It had all the trimmings: the ancient dark wooden bar, dark wooden booths, the inevitable seafood decor of nets 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.


In 1982, the year the picture was taken, the Seaport took a turn for the better - for tourists, at least - when redevelopment began to turn it into the theme park that it is today. Prior to that, the South Street Seaport was simply a working seaport, with the overpowering smell of fish from nearby Fulton Fish Market always in the air (Fulton left in 2005). There would usually be a big pile of fish or, well, something in front of the Fish Market in the morning, and that was the time of day to close the car windows. It was the kind of place where you didn't want to really spend much time, the kind where you just assumed "deals" were taking place under the highway and the cops liked to park. We drove through often, never stopped. 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 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 so it goes...

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. 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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