I Remember Leshko's
It was a terrible Lower East Side dive, but it was there forever. Oh Leshko's, Leshko's, where is my youth? It's gone with you.
I was devastated when I saw Leshko's had closed. The windows were boarded up. The place was dead. This was 1999 and you could still smell the 20th century in your nose and feel it under your skin. I didn’t find out until later that they had been on the corner of 7th Street and Avenue A since 1957, a crossroads of place and time charged with history. Beats, hippies, activists, criminals and musicians had swarmed the neighborhood for decades. At some point, they all ended up in Leshko’s.
Everybody ended up in Leshko’s, often at 4 am, for some greasy food after a twisted run. It seemed like it would be there forever. All the legendary places feel that way but, once the spell is broken, they are gone. I had wandered the bleak streets of the old Lower East side for many years in my torn army jacket, running to or from trouble. I had ended up in Leshko’s plenty of times, but it was far from my favorite restaurant.
New York City is rich in eateries. As the Ramones sing, “New York City really has it all.” From every possible ethnicity, region and country on earth, you can find a restaurant in the five boroughs. Last night, I drove through a part of Queens with not one, but many Nepalese restaurants, uncountable food carts and trucks from multiple South American countries, as well as Mexico, Honduras and Venezuela, block after block of Arabic coffee houses, the usual pizza places, diners and Greek joints, as well as a place called “The Boss of The Tacos and Pizza.” This is a meager sampling. New York’s food offerings are so vast and varied that they must be seen to be believed. Or disbelieved, rather, as you walk or drive through block after block of small food places, marveling at all the people who run them. And yet, there was only one Leshko’s.
Leshko's was a dive of a diner on the Northwest corner of Avenue A and 7th Street, once a crossroads of the junkie world in the 1980s, home to young crunchy seasonal panhandlers with pit bulls in the 1990s, and ultimately waves of gentrifiers – finance people, tech people, people who did things online that felt nebulous and nameless. Thank the economic boom and many years of prosperity, but the Lower East Side, known as the "East Village" and now closer to something like "Village Estates East," has disappeared.
When I saw the papered-over windows one day in 1999, I had a faint hope for one of those basic Polish restaurant "renovations," the kind that change the decor a bit and raise the prices a lot. Veselka had already gone from an eclectic joint with a homey little back room to a slick, modern restaurant. I loved the food, but the experience was different. Still, it survived and that counts for a lot. Most of its contemporaries would not survive. KK Polish restaurant lasted a few more years. Neptune hung on until the pandemic. The Neptune was a stalwart of mine for years. My friend Tommy and I would order so much food that one time a waitress – a cranky old woman – took our order and said to us, “This is a joke, right?” Odessa is long gone, and so is the place whose name I cannot remember on 1st Avenue around 6th Street.
Kiev was my favorite restaurant of all time, a Ukrainian diner with fantastic soups, pierogies, and legendary French toast. The kitchen was ruled over by an old woman we called “Mama,” and it was a place where you could see anyone at any time. I was in there once when Joey Ramone came in with his mom. They sat in the back and ate their food. Nobody bothered them. Quentin Crisp was there another night. Kiev was amazingly egalitarian. Or maybe New York was just different then.
Being dysfunctional Kiev, of course, they closed for a month of "major renovations" and changed almost nothing. In fact, the men’s bathroom was rattier than before, except for a new doorknob. Other than that, they had the same cracks in the tiles, the same nasty toilet, and the same dirt on the ceiling. I was relieved. Now, I had the same hope for Leshko's. Not that I ate at Leshko's much. In fact, I ate there about once every two years. The thing is, I did that for decades.
Leshko's greatest strength was its consistency. NOTHING ever changed, year after year. The same obscene vinyl decor. The same bizarre hanging lights. The same pile of stale babka under the plastic cake-holder on the counter. Probably the same bacteria living on the grill for decades, one generation from the same germ family replacing the next. A solid, stable place that somehow remained on that corner while Avenue A went from the crappy main drag of a shitty neighborhood to a golden mile of shopping, neo-yuppies and tourists. I thought: "Maybe they'll raise the prices a bit and we'll be back in business," but I had a funny feeling that would not be the case.
A week or two later, a sign appeared in the window saying, "Closed for Renovation." Ah! My hopes might come true. I waited and watched from 7A–the restaurant across the street–each night as one more letter disappeared from the old Leshko's sign and strange-looking windows went in. Not the kind of windows you see on diners, but I was keeping an open mind. Imagine my betrayal and despair a week or two later when I walked by and noticed people inside. Dim lights, expensive faux retro furnishings, young well-off people mingling with drinks in their hands, people on cell phones–which were rarer in 1999 and a harbinger of gentrifying fuck-ification. Expensively dressed women, no grill in sight, no counter, no babka. It had become my worst nightmare: a chi-chi yuppie eatery with a menu that listed things like "NY Steak Frites" and "Crusted Salmon." Oh Leshko's, Leshko's, where is my youth? It's gone with you.
I called my friend Peggy—from my own flip phone, of course—and told her the news. She gasped and said: "Oh no, it's all over."
"Yes," I responded. It was over. I scowled every night the next week as I walked past. Then, one night, I found myself alone and tired of every place I'd been eating at lately. I thought, "Fuck it" and headed to Leshko's, or should I say the “new Leshko's"? Keep an open mind, I told myself. I went in and an especially gregarious host seated me and took my order. I felt compelled to engage him in a dialogue about the old Leshko's. He had never been there, it turned out. Never even saw it. I went on about how horrible, yet well loved it was, mainly to be friendly with him but also, I suspect, as a form of loss therapy for me.
I had to muddle my way through the grieving process and talking to him seemed like a good idea. It turned out to be as useful as seeking solace from the woman who just dumped you. Bad idea. The more he kept smiling and making superficial platitudes about the old Leshko's, the sadder I got. I told him I missed the babka. "What's babka?" he asked. I tried to explain but found myself at a loss for words. He tried his best to connect to my wavelength, obviously having prepared himself for types like me, as he pointed cheerily to a menu item and said "Look, we still have pierogies." I glanced at the menu and noticed "Mushroom leek pierogis" or something like that - the kind of thing you would never see in any real self-respecting Polish restaurant, where Nouveau California-type cuisine is as alien as seitan sushi.
I asked if the bathroom was still in the same place and, when he said it was, I almost choked up. I told him how the grill man behind the counter at the old Leshko's had to buzz you into the bathroom. It was their 1970s high-tech way of keeping the bums and drug addicts of Tompkins Square Park from sneaking into the toilets. "Oh really?" he said through a toothy grin.
I won't go into detail on the food, except to say it was okay. The tiny five-dollar salad was okay. The globby three-dollar mashed potatoes were okay. The bar-sized coke was okay. I was not okay, though, as I found myself waiting for half an hour on the veggie burger I had ordered. Finally, a waitress asked me if I needed anything else. When I told her I was still waiting for my veggie burger, she apologized and promised it to me "in six minutes." An odd promise, I thought, but I was grateful for such specificity. Alas, she lied. It took twenty minutes, and it was also not okay. Terrible. But then again, I was a connoisseur of veggie burgers at the time.
The waitress was contrite and apologized a few times. Still, she took nothing off the check. The beautiful bartender was talking to beautiful friends about beautiful actors. Beautiful, well-to-do young couples kept sidling in and out of the door. I blurted out to the waitress how much I missed the old Leshko's. "Yes, I heard it was a wonderful place," she said.
"It was a TERRIBLE place," I replied, "but it was always HERE." She cracked a polite smile and signaled some version of sympathy in an abstract sort of way. I finally left, and the young owner/manager type shouted a "good night", then graciously ran out to hand me my forgotten Thinsulate hat. I was beginning to feel old at the age of 40.
I trudged up Avenue A to the alt.dot cafe, one of the last bastions of dirt and grunge, and settled in while the music played and the 20-somethings sat around and wasted away. People were smoking cigarettes on the ratty furniture that had been dragged in off the street. Jesus, I felt more at home here than at "Leshko's." I ordered a chai with soy milk and started talking to the person behind the counter, a pleasant-enough guy whom I had made small talk with for years.
"Have you seen what they've done to Leshko's?"
"What's Leshko's?" he said.
"WHAT'S LESHKO'S??? It's that place down the block…" I found myself sputtering, unable to speak. His cohort behind the counter came to my rescue, explaining to him that Leshko's used to be a diner and that now it was changed.
"Shit," I said, "they've turned it into this chi-chi fucking restaurant."
At this point, an old-timer who had been listening walked up and said, "Yes, Leshko's was a restaurant. There for a long time."
"YES," I was almost screaming. "Leshko's was a terrible place. It was a dive and the food sucked, but it was there forever. It was a fortress of stability on a rapidly-changing block." My god, if I was starting to talk like this, I had better leave, but I was getting too worked up. "The same thing might happen to this place one day, man. You just wait and see."
He looked a little troubled for a second. "Chi-chi? This place? No way."
"Oh yeah, you just wait and see." I was almost gloating at this point. "If it happened to Leshko’s, it could happen to ANYBODY. Oh man, I have to go home and lie down."
And with that I walked out, feeling old again. I waited for the crosstown bus, the M8, formerly known as the M13, and again realized that I had to leave New York. The city I had known was quickly disappearing.
I probably went to Kiev the next night to drown my feelings in pierogies and blintzes. Little did I know that Kiev would suffer a far worse fate in the not-too-distant future. It would shut down, then reopen as the “Café Zoo,” with a sign advertising “the same menu as Kiev had,” but that was a lie, of course. It sucked, it was not the same, it was dead. It eventually became some other joint, but the vortex of my formative years was gone. Nothing like Kiev has come along since and I doubt anything will. When you are in the middle of it, you don’t know it. When it’s over, you can’t go back. If you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, in that moment.
This all happened twenty years ago. I know that is New York's modus-operandi. In fact, it wouldn't be New York City if it didn't change constantly and cannibalize itself, but I can't take it anymore. I need to move someplace where the diners grow old with me.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.”