"Okay, so, the guy was like a total loser."
"Way. His Facebook photo is like 20 years old, and he hasn't worked since March."
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"I thought this was the one!"
"Yeah, me too. Not! I'm going to die old and alone."
This was the conversation that took place at the table next to mine when I visited Postino Central (5144 North Central Avenue) last week. And when I say next table, I mean I could have eaten off the plates of the two young guys seated there. But this is not a story about how the two-tops at Postino Central are too close together. I like this popular new bistro just fine. It has a nice wine list, and the Brie-and-apple bruschetta is really tasty. The décor is lovely, even if the complete lack of textiles makes the too-loud disco music seem even louder.
This is a story about how, if there's something I don't like about Postino Central, it's that it's not Katz's Deli. My favorite Manhattan-style diner has gone the way of so many other cool, old landmarks that have vanished in the past several years. In this case, Katz's wasn't knocked down to make way for something new and shiny and "better." What happened is that the owner of Katz's, Howard Welcher, died a year ago this month. His widow, recently recovered from cancer treatments, was unable to keep the family business going. She sold the building, which was originally an insurance sales office erected in the early '60s, to LGO Hospitality LLC. That's the Phoenix-based company that owns, among other things, La Grande Orange Grocery, Chelsea's Kitchen, and Radio Milano restaurants, as well as the original Postino Winebar at 39th Street and Campbell.
LGO gutted the grimy old diner and replaced it with, well, something new and shiny and arguably better. Gone are the faux-wood-paneled walls, slightly sticky banquettes, and chipped Formica tables that made Katz's so dang homey. In their place are tasteful lines, smooth, glossy surfaces, and carefully repurposed bare brick walls. That extremely unusual painting of the cartoon-y surgeon in a Peter Matz-style operating room that hung on Katz's west wall has been traded up for a row of Mayme Kratz knockoffs that I recognize from the original Postino.
I sat facing the spot where that weird painting used to hang, right about where my friends Bob and Mel seemed always to be sitting when I saw them there. Katz's was a good place for bumping into people you knew; it seems like I was never there when Jana Bommersbach wasn't sitting a couple of tables away, or when I didn't spot a local politician or TV anchor munching chopped liver. There was a signed portrait of Ladmo thumb-tacked to an old bulletin board across from the cash register,
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Don't get me wrong. The place is gorgeous, and very true to its original '60s design. Smooth flooring; those rough-hewn industrial brick walls; a soothing color palette; and designer unisex bathrooms. They've knocked a hole in the wall behind where the deli counter used to be. There's seating at the bar, but now instead of blintzes they serve Valpolicella. There's a cozy outdoor seating area that looks like it's been there for years, surrounded by potted succulents and cooled with a mister; this patio bar's wide-open pass-through allows you to see straight through the building and out onto Central Avenue. Unfortunately, the view there is primarily of the Circle K across the street.
Of course, when LGO co-owner Craig DeMarco bought the building last year, there was a lot of talk of creating deli-style menu items to pay tribute to Katz's memory. It's the sort of thing one hears but doesn't believe, and of course it hasn't happened; there's nothing on Postino Central's menu that contains pastrami or that tips its hat to the eggy matzo brei I craved, or the old deli's Fire Hash, a Katz's specialty combining corned beef hash and jalapeños.
So I had a panino, and some pretty amazing potato soup, and an unintentional earful of gossip from a couple of heartbroken young queens. And as I drove home past Central Music, Hinkley's Lighting, Macayo's, and that neat little shop where the rude guy sells vintage lamps — all the places Phoenicians have shopped and dined and quarreled for decades — I couldn't help but wonder: Who's next?