Serious Eats Remembers Gray's Papaya

Gray's Papaya

[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

We were heartbroken to learn this week that the West 8th Street Gray's Papaya closed thanks to a $20,000 rent hike. To add insult to injury, the downtown branch of this New York icon is being replaced with an organic juice bar, which says pretty much everything you can say about New York's cutthroat real estate market. The original Upper West Side location remains intact, and owner Nicholas Gray is looking for new Papaya spots, but this closing irreversibly endangers the New York hot dog just that much more.

Here are our thoughts and memories about Gray's:

Jamie Feldmar: I went to undergrad at NYU, and my freshman year dorm was just a few blocks away from Gray's West Village location. One night during the first week of freshman year, I was...shall we say..."not entirely sober" when I had the brilliant decision to wander over to Gray's to sate my raging munchies. Five bucks and two minutes later, I was in hog heaven, and for the remainder of that one magical year, I ate at Gray's at least once a week, sometimes even sober! I'm from Chicago, and Gray's were the first New York-style hotdogs that I truly ever loved, topped with just a bit of their soft, tangy onion goop. RIP, Gray's—you were always there when I needed you most.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: Gray's Papaya is almost synonymous with New York for me. I grew up getting recession specials for lunch (at the time they were $1.45 for two hot dogs and a papaya drink) from the 110th street and Broadway location before it shut down. By the time I graduated high school, the recession special was up to $1.95 and the "Polite New Yorker" button on my backpack was faded to the point that you could no longer read it.

At college, I missed the crisp snap of the slow-griddled natural casing Sabrett more than I missed my mom. Every trip I took home would be marked with a recession special as my first and last meal, though over the course of the ten years I spent in Boston, the price increased from $1.95 to a whopping $4.45. It was, and still is, one of the finest deals in town for a quick and satisfying meal.

I can only say that if word comes out that the final Gray's outpost on 72nd street is going to shut down, I'll personally be out on the street collecting donations to save this most New York of institutions. And dammit, now I want a hot dog.


[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Ed Levine: Back in 2006, I wrote a post contemplating a $210 lunch I was about to have at Per Se, and comparing it to the whopping 77 recession specials I could have had at Gray's for the same price. That's lunch every day for two and a half months! Someone at Per Se must have read the post, because part-way through my five-hour lunch, a waiter brought out a beautiful silver tray with a single grilled hot dog on a buttered homemade brioche hot dog bun along with nine little dishes of hot dog condiments, everything from freshly fried bacon bits to homemade relish to an excellent mustard.

I had Gray's for dinner just a couple nights ago, and even though the recession special is now $4.95, it's worth every penny.

Max Falkowitz: Truth be told, Chicago is where I first fell in love with hot dogs, not New York. But before all that, Gray's taught me a vital hot dog lesson: a great frank doesn't need any freaking ketchup. I'm firmly of the mindset that tubesteak appreciation can only begin once ketchup is out of the picture, and a perfectly snappy Gray's dog with a bit of sauerkraut is enough to make a hot dog lover out of anyone. Gray's Papaya is lunch when we can't afford anything more, salvation when our booze-licked bellies call out for comfort, a living museum to New York and New Yorkishness. For me it was a teacher, one I can't afford to forget.


[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Niki Achitoff-Gray: I grew up a few blocks from the Gray's on 72nd and Broadway. I even enjoyed a period of (admittedly misguided) pride when I learned how to spell my last name, under a vague impression that I was somehow related to this iconic corner of New York culinary history, strangely never questioning what is papaya?

I passed Gray's by on a near-daily basis, tilting my nose up ever so slightly to bask in the mingling odors of meaty smoke and exhaust fumes. Over the years, it became a father-daughter tradition to swing by on Sunday afternoons for a couple of dogs and a piña colada, which we'd tote over to Central Park and devour in the Sheep Meadow. Sometimes we'd order at the take-out window, leaving me secretly dismayed at the lost opportunity to stare, mesmerized, at the rows upon rows of hotdogs; the loud and crowded all caps signage; the bulk squirt jugs of mustard and ketchup and their satisfying plops. Leaning against a rock in the hot sun, I found a serenity in those sticky, condiment-smeared hands and the high-pitched whine of straws scraping along the bottom of those bulky styrofoam cups, searching plaintively for one last sip.

And then there was the first time I saw The Panic in Needle Park—Al Pacino's heroin-induced nods in the traffic island a stone's throw from that very corner—when the towering absence of Gray's threw me into a moment of existential unheimliche. Let's just say that I can't evoke an image of the Upper West Side without reflecting on the hot dogs that made it home.

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