fedora: a west village dining institution

Erin O'Hara Photos by Myrna Suarez, 06/23/2009 

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Whether a regular guest or a first-time diner, everyone gets an equally warm welcome from Fedora Dorato, owner of the West Village restaurant that shares her name. For the past 57 years, her picturesque hideaway has been a place of refuge in this storied New York City neighborhood. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Fedora Restaurant was particularly welcoming to gay men and women at a time when being out in public places was a frowned-upon—if not dangerous—activity, as history has shown. The Stonewall Riots, a violent altercation between police and patrons of a gay bar that triggered the gay rights movement, took place just around the corner from Fedora 40 years ago this week. Today, the little Italian restaurant is still like a home (not far) away from home for a diverse group of locals.

Fedora (pictured) and her late husband, Henry, opened the restaurant in 1952. Before then, it had belonged to Henry’s father and even operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Stepping inside is like entering another, simpler era—one where you can easily imagine your parents on their first date, slurping spaghetti and Chianti before dashing off to the late show at the Village Vanguard. “It looked exactly like this when I walked in here 35 years ago. She hasn’t changed a thing,” says Roger Gallagan, a frequent diner, noting the original pressed-tin ceiling and maroon wainscoting. Rosy lighting casts an old-world glow on the restaurant’s white tablecloths and dark wood bar, while an old phone booth containing—what else?—a rotary phone sits next to the front door. Every inch of the far wall is covered with collected photos—of family, friends and regulars—as well as drawings and autographs, including a napkin signed by Lauren Bacall. The wall acts as a scrapbook, telling stories of the Doratos, the restaurant and the West Village community.

Photo: Myrna Suarez 

If you’ve ever strolled down West 4th Street, you’ve probably noticed Fedora’s iconic neon sign hanging above it, among the trees and brownstones that line this quintessential Village block between West 10th and Charles Streets. Few passersby don’t have a comment about the establishment. (“You’ve never been to Fedora? This place has been here forever!”) And those familiar with the nightspot always have vivid memories. On a recent evening, a man visiting from San Francisco dropped by to say hello before running to catch the Staten Island Ferry, reminiscing that he was eating in the restaurant the night of the Stonewall Riots.

Photo: Myrna Suarez

A magnet on the old-fashioned cash register behind the bar reads: THEY LIED: Hard Work Has Killed Lots of People! “My sister gave that to me,” Fedora says. “It’s true!” It’s a decidedly ironic response coming from the industrious 89-year-old. Not only is Fedora the owner of her namesake restaurant, but she’s also the bartender, accountant and cook (for most of the food, anyway). Italian classics like homemade manicotti and veal Parmesan grace the menu alongside other old-school favorites like calf’s liver and prawns Florentine.

Photo: Myrna Suarez

Every night except Tuesday, the one night the restaurant is closed, Fedora enters the restaurant at 8:30, all dolled up after an early-evening nap in her apartment upstairs. Her debut is greeted by restaurant patrons with a round of applause—sometimes even a standing ovation. This may seem like a curious gesture to first-time visitors, but after you’ve spent a few minutes talking to Fedora, you’ll immediately understand that despite her petite frame, her smile couldn’t be bigger, and she always has a kind word or a fascinating story to share.

Photo: Myrna Suarez
After her entrance, Fedora makes the rounds, visiting and chatting with her guests. “I come a couple of times a week, at least,” Bill Shubick (pictured) says. “It’s just such a comfortable place.” Which is probably why on busy nights, like Fridays, you’ll be lucky to get a table and a chat with Fedora, when the compact space is bustling, as it has been for decades.

Photo: Myrna Suarez

The characters that frequent Fedora Restaurant are no less intriguing and friendly than the hostess herself. “Turkey George,” for example, comes in every Friday. “He calls up and says, ‘Is it turkey tonight?’ And I usually have some turkey, so I say, ‘Yes, it’s turkey tonight,’ even if it’s not,” Fedora says. “Then there’s two people who come in every Saturday. They get steak and french fries, and they never finish the french fries. They say, ‘You can have them, but only if you have a Scotch.’” She drinks one Scotch a week—leading many patrons to wonder if that’s the secret to her longevity.

Photo: Myrna Suarez

While sitting at the bar for a drink or two, you’ll likely notice the little gold man perched above it—a real Oscar, which Fedora received as a birthday present. “My sister worked at Variety for 42 years,” Fedora says, “and one day she said to her boss, ‘I’ve been working here for 42 years and my sister is 80 years old. She deserves an Oscar.’ And he said, ‘You’ve been working here for 42 years and you don’t know how to get one?’” The engraving reads, appropriately, Best Continuing Performance Off-Broadway. “I was so surprised!” Fedora exclaims.
 

Photo: Myrna Suarez
“These restaurants are opening and closing all the time,” Fedora says. But it’s little wonder how this quaint watering hole has weathered the storm and the competition for nearly six decades. In a time when some restaurants seem to change hands every other week, Fedora remains reliable—much like home, it’s always there waiting for you.


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