fedora, still glowing

May 1, 2009 | add comment

Originally published in WestView

A string of red bulbs hangs over the bar. An antique cash register houses the night’s earnings. The décor conjures up days gone by…I feel like calling my grandpa just to say hello.

You’ll no longer find jumbo shrimp for a quarter, but little else has changed since this restaurant opened in 1952. The crowd may be sparser, or at least less glamorous. Still, folks visit today for the same reason Lauren Bacall did. She wears Chanel No. 5 and shares the name that illuminates West 4th Street in neon letters.

A radio is playing classical music. I snack on pretzels at the bar. Shortly after 8pm, Fedora walks in. The regulars scattered throughout the dining room applaud. This endearing gesture is standard practice, I soon learn. Tonight she is wearing a gold broach. A floral scarf drapes her petite frame. Behind her, liquor bottles stand next to framed family photos and a letter from Rudy Giuliani wishing her a happy 80th birthday.

Fedora is now 88. “I’m imported,” she tells me, though she’s been living in New York since the early ‘30s. Born Fedora Nannini in 1921, she was named after the Italian opera. She informs me that Nannini is a common surname in her native country—this, she learned from Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque. She changed her name upon marrying the late Henry Dorato. I ask her how they met. “I flirted,” she says.

As I’m sipping my drink, I get to know a couple of seasoned patrons—Sari and Roger. Sari’s preferred cocktail is Kir, a French libation of white wine and crème de cassis. Fedora serves it on the rocks in a brandy snifter. I learn that earlier in the evening a young woman left without her purse. She ordered chopped liver, paid in cash and walked out. Fedora has the purse behind the bar but only looks inside after our meddlesome request. “Three dollars, is all,” she says.

Later on, her son Charles drops in. He runs a dental practice upstairs. Photos of his granddaughter—whose middle name is Fedora—adorn the walls of 239 West 4th Street. Family ties have long since graced the building (Fedora lives on the top floor). When Henry was growing up, his dad too ran a restaurant on the ground level: Charlie’s Garden. For a spell in the ‘20s, it was a speakeasy. True to name, it had an open air space in the back. Charlie eventually closed the outdoor area—in part due to city regulations—and enlarged the bar. You can still see the line where it was extended.

In the late ‘40s, Charlie retired. For a brief while, it became Bill and Jerry. After that closed, Fedora and Henry (who had been an army chef in the Philippines during WWII) decided to give their own restaurant a try. That was 57 years ago, and the doors are still open. Fedora has always been involved in some form, whether bookkeeping, cooking or managing behind the scenes. But since her husband passed more than ten years ago, she’s been running the place altogether, six days a week.

The menu—with dishes like sirloin steak, baked prawns Florentine and eggplant parmigiana—hasn’t changed much. When she was growing up, her mom didn’t let the children cook because food was too precious to risk wasting on mistakes. “I didn’t even know how to boil water,” she deadpans. In the kitchen, Fedora relies on common sense, nothing more. As I’m walking home, I get the feeling she applies this notion to life.

I return a week later. The forgotten purse is still here. I take a seat next to Sari and Roger and order a glass of white wine. There’s a full moon tonight and a lively cast of characters to greet it, including a jovial man in a purple tie. He introduces himself as James Dean. “I’m a rebel without a car,” he says in (what I think is) a British accent. He buys a round on his way out. To my right, two large, grizzly men in flannel and beards order a pair of Manhattans. Fedora serves their drinks straight up. They cost $7 apiece. An hour passes and I meet a literary agent who is reciting the Shakespeare sonnet that’s tattooed on his back.

I ask Fedora about the restaurant’s early days. “When you don’t speak English, you make a lot of mistakes,” she says, describing how she used to keep a calendar of staff vacation schedules. She’d write “Larry off,” “Jimmy off,” and so on. This system proved satisfactory until an employee named Jack requested time off. Nuance is easily lost in translation.

I find her understated manner and anecdotes charming—like the one about an elephant named Champagne. This animal was her neighbor’s pet in the ‘50s. The owner welcomed publicity and wanted to expand his backyard to give Champagne more room to perform. He offered Fedora a larger dining room and kitchen if she would relinquish part of her yard. She refused. The elephant would’ve had to parade through her dining room to get to the yard. Her neighbor called her a “stupid ass” for turning his proposal down.

On one of my return visits, a baseball game is airing on the corner TV. Roger mentions a sketch a young artist once drew of Henry, who loved ballgames. Fedora retrieves it from behind the bar and brushes the dust off. It’s dated 1994 and shows him sitting with an elbow propped up on the bar, a melancholy expression on his face. Fedora doesn’t like the drawing. “He was always happy,” she explains. 1994 was the year an intruder entered the restaurant, robbed Henry and hit him with a pistol. He died three years later. After putting the sketch back behind the bar, Fedora tells me it’s more important to like each other than to love each other.

Her back has been giving her pain lately. “She’s not the type to sit,” says George, one of the waiters. I ask her if she ever considers retirement. “I don’t even think about it, but I know one day I’ll say ‘enough…basta.’”

The woman who ordered the chopped liver never did come back for her purse. I can only suppose this is because she came for dinner, nothing more—and left far too soon.

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