“We’ll stay open until the last matzo ball is gone,” said the woman on the phone. And she proved true to her word.
A little before 8pm on Sunday evening, the Cafe Edison ran out of matzo balls, and everything else on the menu, and the last customers finished their meals and headed for the doors. The show that ran on Broadway for 34 years had just enjoyed its final performance.
The Cafe Edison, a diner specialising in Jewish and East European food and beloved by theatre types, had since 1980 built a dedicated following. But the owners of the building in which the diner had operated, the Hotel Edison, apparently decided they wanted to increase the returns on this prime piece of property and declined to renew its lease.
“This is my home. I come by here every day,” said Shade Rupe, 46, a writer who was sitting at the counter eating what may have been the last bowl of matzo bowl soup to be served by the establishment. “The human touch is being removed. It’s not just about eating a bowl of matzo ball soup, it’s about eating a bowl of matzo bowl soup in the Cafe Edison.”
The handful of final customers told a similar story; the diner had become the latest victim of globalisation. These days everything was about profits, they mourned. The last few original businesses were being killed off by the chains.
“The same thing happened where I live in Brooklyn,” said Phil Smrek, an actor and writer who was also having a final meal. He said that in 2005, the authorities there had changed local development regulations.
“Now all the mom and pop stores are gone. Those places knew the customers, they didn’t mind if you didn’t have the 75 cents that day for your coffee, they knew if you took your coffee with sugar and cream,” he said. “The new places don’t know any of that. And the coffee doesn’t cost 75 cents, it costs $4.”
The Cafe Edison was opened in 1980 by two survivors of the Holocaust, Polish Jews who emigrated to the US after World War II. Occupying part of the Hotel Edison, itself established in 1931 and where Thomas Edison famously turned on the lights after it opened, the diner was notable for its large vaulted ceilings and ornate columns.
But regulars said the high-end decor was combined with a homely authenticity and welcoming ease. In addition to the famous matzo ball soup, the diner, also known as the Polish Tea Room, offered classic such as gefilte fish and pickled herring.
While the diner drew many actors and directors, everybody was welcome to sit and rub shoulders – celebrities, locals and tourists alike. The playwright and director, Neil Simon, a regular, wrote his comedy 45 Seconds From Broadway, about the diner and its customers.
Many of those regulars signed a petition to try and save the diner, trying to make the hotel owners realise they were about to lose a piece of history. But it was not to be.
The management of the diner hopes to find an alternative location but nothing is certain. “We are going to try and a place to move to,” said manager Conrad Strohl.
The owners of the Hotel Edison did not immediately respond to enquiries. In a statement issued to the US media, the hotel said it was working with the cafe to try and help it find a new location in Times Square.
“We are proud of our 34-year partnership with Cafe Edison. We wish them well in their future endeavours and stand ready to assist in making this transition as easy as possible,” it said.
News of the cafe’s demise was first revealed by Jeremiah Moss, who writes the Vanishing New York blog. “Without legislation to protect our cultural landmarks, we are powerless to preserve them,” he wrote. “They will keep vanishing. Even when we break our necks to save them.”
Mr Moss told The Independent he believed property owners were attracted solely by the rent that could be earned from a national chain restaurant or else a celebrity chef.
"With Cafe Edison, that hotel had something that no other hotel in all of Times Square has - a unique, historical attraction, a piece of the real New York," he added. "Instead of protecting it, they tossed it away. To my mind, it's a short-sighted and stupid business decision."
For now, the situation is nothing less than anxious, not just for the Cafe Edison’s customers, but for its equally-loyal staff.
Luz Taylor, a waitress at the diner for the last eight years, was on duty on Sunday night. She said she felt as if she were losing a member of her family.
“I like the customers here,” she said. “They are coming to the theatre so they eat fast and go. I like that.”