Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Lone Star Cafe

Construction of the new branch of Shrafft's began in 1936 after an old brownstone was demolished.
The Lone Star Cafe in 1978.
Another shot of the new building going up in place of the Lone Star.

The new high-rise going up in July 2011.

An interior shot of the new Shrafft's on at 61 5th Avenue, corner of East 13th Street, in 1938.

A shot of the front entrance in 1938.

The Korean Deli that was the building's last occupant in 2005.

The Lone Star Cafe in the '80s.

The 40-foot-long iguana keeping guard at the Lone Star about 1987.

I was walking around in Greenwich Village the other day and came across the new building going up in place of the former Korean deli on 5th Avenue and 13th Street. In 1936 a brownstone was demolished to make way for a new two-story Schrafft's, probably the most popular chain of diners in the city during the '30s, '40s and '50s. A number of photos from the Metropolitan College of New York show what a beautiful place it was when it was first built. A revolving door led to a cocktail bar to the right and a spiral staircase to the second floor on the left.

Critic Lewis Mumford didn't like the place, though. He hated its "screwy" curved front, calling it "the new cliche and it will soon belong in the done to death department." He went on to say that the building is "a pretty sorry mismatch" with "ill-assorted windows" and a "crazy little balcony".

These pictures were taken in 1938, when the place was still new and fashionable. By 1969, it had become the hang out of staff members from Women's Wear Daily, the New School, and loftmen from 14th Street. According to a 1969 New York Magazine article called "The Little Old Lady Restaurants", Schrafft's would fill up with L.O.L.s (which back then didn't mean "Laugh Out Loud"). In an effort to revamp their not-very-hip image, they hired Andy Warhol to do a commercial about the chain. But it was what it was, and ultimately closed a few years later.

In 1976, it became The Lone Star Cafe, the city's most popular country music concert venue. It hosted a number of musical acts, and particularly featured acts from Texas. Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Kinky Friedman and Billy Joe Shaver all did regular shows there. The Blues Brothers and James Brown also did shows there, with Brown recording a live album there in 1985. The place was also visited by Texas TV personalities such as Larry King, Dan Rather and Linda Ellerbee. My parents went to see rockabilly musician Robert Gordon there when they were dating.

Over the front entrance was draped the line "Too Much Ain't Enough" from Waylon Jennings' song "Old Five And Dimers Like Me", and the building was famous and infamous for the 40-foot long iguana sculpture on it's roof by Bob "Daddy-O" Wade. The place didn't really fit in with its upscale neighborhood, and local residents fought a hard battle get rid of the sculpture, considering it to be an eyesore. Detractors succeeded for a couple of years and it was removed, but in 1983 it was restored and unveiled in a ceremony presided over by Mayor Ed Koch and then-Texas Governor Mark White. My father said that he wanted to take it, but that it probably wouldn't fit in our apartment.

When the Lone Star closed in 1989, the iguana went into storage on the Hudson River docks across from North Moore Street, but ultimately "disappeared". I assume it was stolen. I don't know how they pulled that one off.

Serving as a gallery for street art for a number of years and then a deli, in 2009 it joined the ranks of historic buildings in the city that have been torn down to be replaced by expensive glass boxes. A ten-story luxury apartment building is currently being built in its place. I had been on that corner plenty of times when I worked near there and never even noticed that small building with a lot of history. I try to notice as much of them as I can these days, because they're disappearing one by one.


  1. http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/iquana/

    Went to the lone star a few times in the 80's to see "The Band"

  2. Cool ... and great article. Thanks for the link!

  3. Iguana not stolen, it's at the Fort Worth Zoo...

  4. got a friend a gig there in 78 or 79, she is a Texas singer/songwriter. Hank Williams Jr. played there the next night. A pitcher of beer was about the size of a large mug here in Texas. They didn't serve chicken fried steak, but they did have tortilla chips... good times.

    1. How many times did Hank Williams Jr played at Lonestar Cafe?