On the northeast corner of West 8th Street and 6th Avenue (as in the opening lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ “Dance (Pt. 1)”), for years and years, there was a trusty old-fashioned neighborhood drugstore, complete with a soda counter, called Whelan Drug. For a long time, Whelan Drug was 8th Street to me. Eventually, like everything on 8th Street, Whelan went out of business. Alas, that was to be my first experience with loss of the seemingly permanent.
Anyway, if memory serves, the store stood vacant for quite a while. And then in came a new tenant. Whelan was a hard act to follow, but its successor was pretty good: the first outpost of the Upper West Side’s hot dog mecca, Gray’s Papaya (excellent photo here). I used to take the subway up to 72nd Street to eat those hot dogs, and now I no longer had to. Yum!
If you’re not from New York, you might know Gray’s anyway as it’s been featured in films and television. For some reason, the only movie example I can think of is a really silly film with Matthew Perry and Selma Hayek called “Fools Rush In.” Perry’s character moves to Vegas and Hayek’s sends him a care package with a bunch of Gray’s dogs topped with sauerkraut. Uh huh, sure; it’s Gray’s, not Katz’s. The latter traditionally let you “send a salami to your boy in the army” (in New York, that rhymes). But Gray’s doesn’t ship; they don’t even deliver. HBO’s “Sex and the City,” had a much more accurate portrayal of Gray’s featuring the 8th Street location in an episode where Carrie hits the place for a snack after a late night out. As usual, Sex and the City got the true NY experience down pat. I miss that show. Macho of me, eh?
But I digress. Gray’s Papaya, as the name would imply, pretends to be famous for its various tropical fruit-derived beverages, but is in fact truly famous for its hot dogs. It’s also infamous for its awkward diction and grammar, with signs asserting that the hot dogs are “better than filet mignon” and a while back assuring its customers that “not all hot dogs are not all alike.” In some languages, double-negatives actually have the same meaning as single negatives. These guys are working hard to get English in that linguistic family.
Anyway, the hot dogs really are terrific. One reason is that they’re grilled and not boiled (unlike the Sabrette stand variety that we used to call “dirty water dogs”); another is, I think, that the hot dogs are seasoned with paprika and a few other ingredients a little more sophisticated than MSG. Another reason the place is so good is that it’s quintessentially New York, in the same way the subway is. That is, people of all economic strata are in there, dining next to each other while standing, sharing the same humongous mustard dispenser, with a couple weeks’ encrusted residue at the end of the spigot. Get the picture? It’s not pretty, but it’s real. I think the grit may be more important than the paprika.
Meanwhile, back uptown, where the world is broken down into West Side and East Side, Papaya King has long been the East Side rival to Gray’s. They make a good dog too, and they’ve been around since 1932, making them quite a bit older than Gray’s. And yes, you can check out the history of the place at www.papayaking.com.
The funny part is that the King, in addition to Gray’s, has extended his empire to the Village! A spanking new Papaya King has opened at the southwest corner of 14th Street and 7th Avenue. I haven’t gone yet, but I will. And last night, I noticed a new Papaya-come-lately called Papaya Dog, on the corner of W 4th Street and 6th Avenue. Not sure I’ll patronize such a derivative competitor.
So what’s with all the hot dog places in the Village? Could it be a response to inflation of the average entrée price in the neighborhood? Could it be all the newcomers to downtown are trying to make the neighborhood more like what they left behind uptown?
Or could it be history repeating itself? Way back, in the 1970’s, on 8th Street, about half a block down and across the street from where Gray’s is now, stood Orange Julius. I know that “Julius” still exists in other cities and towns, but it used to be a New York joint (to me, it's a bit like H&H Bagels leaving town to set up shop in South Bend, Indiana, but again, I digress). The fact is that 8th Street has hot dogs and fruit drinks in its blood, and a revival of the hot dog tradition in the neighborhood is just fine by me. One day, maybe Whelan Drug will make a comeback.