|A LONG-RUNNING HIT
|By Mervyn Rothstein
Neil Simon once told The New York Times that there is something magical about the Cafe Edison . But then Simon wrote a Broadway play all about the place - 45 Seconds From Broadway. The play opened in 2001 and wasn't a success - it ran for only 73 performances. Cafe Edison, on the other hand, is a long-running hit - it has been around for more than a quarter century.
Unofficially known as the Polish Tea Room, Cafe Edison sits unobtrusively in the Edison Hotel, on 47th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. It looks on the outside as if it's merely an old-fashioned Jewish delicatessen-style diner. Which it is.
But it's a lot more. Yes, it has really good Jewish-style food - pastrami, corned beef, brisket, homemade roast turkey, chopped liver, potato pancakes, kasha varnishkes, blintzes (cheese, cherry blueberry) bursting with richness. And incredibly hearty soups - matzoh ball, chicken noodle, cabbage, mushroom-barley, goulash, hot and cold borscht - made fresh every day and served in gargantuan bowl-size portions, enough themselves for a big meal.
Yes, the waiters can be reminiscent of those of storied legend from delis past - clever and witty, with a pleasant yet take-no-prisoners attitude. And yes, the prices recall a quieter era: $3.75 for a bowl of that superb soup, $7.45 for fully stuffed pastrami, brisket or corned beef on rye, $7.45 for three mammoth blintzes.
But the food is only a minuscule slice of the magic. You see, Cafe Edison, in addition to being only 45 seconds from Broadway, is an integral part of the Great White Way. It has been a dining room away from home not only for the folk behind the scenes, but for the big names too. Simon himself sat and wrote at its tables, and discussed future plays with his longtime producer, Emanuel Azenberg. August Wilson, who first dined at the Edison in 1984, is reported to have sat at a table for hours at a time, using napkins as notebooks to write dialogue and scenes for at least three of his plays.
In the southeast corner, not so long ago, there was a magic table, where old-time magicians would sit and compare tricks. Guests are said to have included Doug Henning and David Copperfield. Residing on the ceiling above was one sole card, placed there as part of a trick to be performed for the benefit of tourists.
It is also a grazing area for journalists. Richard F. Shepard, a beloved and highly esteemed New York Times reporter and editor, who died in 1998 and is memorialized on the restaurant's walls, presided over regularly scheduled lunches, usually with 10 or more Times colleagues. As was noted in Shepard's Times obituary, To many who dined with him, it was an education in newspapering and the lore of New York and the wider world, delivered up with pastrami and a Jackie Mason-like Borscht Belt humor that did little to conceal Mr. Shepard's erudition. (I was sometimes one of those colleagues, and whenever I visit the Edison I think of Dick, and remember those lunches fondly. Nowadays, another longtime Times reporter, Glenn Collins, continues the tradition.)
Shepard is frequently credited with coming up with the Polish Tea Room nickname - though others, including Azenberg, are also said to have been responsible. The restaurant has been run since its founding in the 1980s by Harry and Frances Edelstein, who survived the Holocaust, married in Warsaw (hence the polish) and immigrated to the United States after World War II.
In addition to Simon, Wilson and, yes, Jackie Mason, others who have broken bread over the years at the Cafe Edison, according to The Times, include Mike Nichols, Matthew Broderick, Tony Roberts, Marsha Mason, Marvin Hamlisch and Linda Lavin. The major Broadway theater owners - the Shuberts and the Nederlanders - have been regular lunch patrons, sitting in a &ampampquotVIP lounge" by the 47th Street windows.