If you haven’t ventured over to Alphabet City lately (I hadn’t in a while myself), some longstanding neighborhood staples have been disappearing from Avenue B.
Gone are: the terrifying sculpture of faded wet stuffed animals and scrap wood that was the East Village’s own version of the Close Encounters mound, the 30-plus year old eatery Life Cafe (inspiration to and a setting for the play Rent), and as of the end of this month, the Lakeside Lounge (great explanation of why that place mattered here ). The only one of my old haunts left on that strip is 7B, and now that can’t be certain either.
However, the biggest news to me was the imminent closing of the 16-year-old veggie dive Kate’s Joint, which owed $30 grand in back rent. Although I hadn’t frequented the place in years, it was a major setting of my life in New York.
I was a vegan new resident of Brooklyn in 2001 and at that time a huge aficionado of fake comfort foods*, so I was hooked on the restaurant offering meat & dairy-free burgers and brunches. I often met up at Kate’s with dates, friends who are no longer in New York, friends I’m no longer friends with, and a friend who is no longer alive.
* Veggos who consume a lot of faux versions of beloved comfort foods are the dietary equivalent to “reformed” homosexuals. Somewhere, desires aren’t getting satisfied, and something's gotta give.
My obsession with their deep fried tofu buffalo wings was such that This Charming Man made me a charm necklace of one (pictured at left). I once entered into a contract to not eat Kate's buff wings for a month (pictured below, right). I won’t tell you what the stakes were, but thankfully I held up my end of the contract and did not have to grab something while announcing something unladylike in a public place. (Other contracts forbade specified Kate's regulars from air guitaring and from calling someone else before noon.) And once I ate at Kate's twice in one day (weird when you don’t live or work in the neighborhood).
Kate's had a punk rock aesthetic which unfortunately sometimes described its level of cleanliness, a recurring complaint heard about the place. The bathrooms were covered in graffiti, drugs and disease, and looked like the chambers where characters regain their consciousness in the Saw movies to discover they are chained to a pipe and they are probably about to die a tortuous death.
The bartenders were often fetching young tattooed men in cowboy shirts. For a time I knew the whole starting lineup. I was proud when I brought in a boy I had a crush on and one of the cute bartenders slapped down two beer bottles in front of us without us even ordering. I was all like [suave voice:], “That’s why I come here.” I might have appeared cool for a moment. It was like Cheers with a more STD-ridden bathroom.
You get the picture. But this isn’t just about me. At least one wonderful couple is together and one extra human exists on planet Earth thanks to Kate’s.
I’ve mentioned it here before. In 2005, ECS and I were passing a ridiculous Saturday on the lawn of Tompkins square park, just barely avoiding sitting on hypodermic needles, when we stopped in to Kate’s. There, we met a charming Australian employee named Ed, and the two were a couple from then on. Just over a year later, we held their wedding shower at Kate’s, where my date that night was my own future husband. They moved away to Australia, we moved away to Louisiana, both of us couples simultaneously visited NYC for New Year’s and reunited (where else?) at Kate’s.
In 2009 they moved back, and in 2010 we moved back and then...no more Kate’s. That year, ECS & Ed’s baby was born. Things had changed in other ways. The economy had a meltdown while we were away. My industry collapsed and was reforming, friends had left the city for good, the hubbs and I were both unemployed. We were different than before, no longer going out in the East Village, no longer caring to spend time in places with gross bathrooms, or even needing to leave our Brooklyn neighborhood on the occasions we could splurge for dinner. I was now eating seafood and chicken, which made a lot of other restaurants a lot more exciting and I no longer wanted fake versions of meals.
But other than some weird cosmetic changes, on the few times I went there for old time’s sake, Kate’s was exactly the same, just with less patrons. Maybe that’s what did it in, not adapting in the face of consistently cited problems.
The failure of Kate’s has as much to do with the rising rents in its neighborhood as it does with changing tastes. A veggie junk food diner was something of a novelty in the '90s that didn't adapt with the times. Kate herself commented on this in a Wall Street Journal article about New York veg restaurant closings, but she only got it part right saying if she added real bacon to everything on the menu, it would lead to success.
Two Saturdays ago, ECS, Ed, baby Frankie, Therese, ECS’ sister and I spontaneously made our way to Avenue B after the BUST Craftacular, since we heard Lakeside Lounge was closing, and we stopped in Kate’s first to eat. We would have an official “one last time” at Kate’s with more of the old gang later, we said. Below is Miss Frankie and the buff wings that sort of, in a way, brought her into existence.
She ordered rice and wasn't into it. That's not one of the things they did well there. Our visit was kind of the same, only with baby. Although we were all over the place as a hangout, it was still a bummer. After eating we walked the few blocks to the north side of Tompkins Square Park to the Lakeside.
It was a quiet afternoon at the Lakeside, strange to have daylight and a toddler in a bar, weird to have a beloved neighborhood gathering place closing without much warning. After one last photo booth session with Therese, I had to split to meet other friends in Brooklyn.
Three days later, the marshal seized the property at the corner of 4 and B that was Kate’s Joint. So it's really over now. We never had our last blowout there, but I'm glad we had the small one we had.
As I typed through these memories about Kate’s on the last Saturday of April, lunchtime rolled around. I ordered in the organic chicken tenders dipped in hot sauce from Buffalo Boss. No wonder I hardly leave Brooklyn on the weekends anymore.
Today, though, after I hit publish, ECS, Frankie, and Therese will come over for brunch. Then we might go to the Lakeside Lounge one last time, though I'm also just as fine with not going.
1. Everything on Ave. B is closing, wah. 2. But remember all those good times? 3. And remember what that well-known personality called you that time!? 4. Good times.