Save B&H Dairy/A Short History of Diners in Music

East Village restaurant B&H Dairy has been closed for over 3 months at this point. Narrowly escaping the gas explosion that destroyed Pommes Frites on March 26th, B&H Dairy has yet to reopen, and the 73-year old luncheonette is at risk of going out of business.

Though B&H Dairy was unharmed in the explosion, subsequent inspections of the restaurant found it needed a new fire system at a cost of $28,000. A post on the blog EV Grieve outlines the full extent of the red tape the owners are trapped in:

For starters, owners Fawzy Abdelwahed and Ola Smigielsk needed approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (the building is in the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District) to install the new fire suppression system. The LPC approval finally came through last week. And as of Wednesday [July 1st], the DOB had issued the necessary permit for the job. Work starts on Monday. (The contractor needed to be first approved by the FDNY.)

Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York adds in his own article on the diner:

…the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City promised financial assistance to residents and businesses impacted by the Second Avenue explosion, but no funds have made their way to Fawzy and Ola, and no one from the city has been in touch with them.

b&h dairy

So what’s the big deal about this place? It’s the best diner on earth. In its 73 years on Second Avenue, it’s been a home-away-from-home for countless people looking for comfort in a bowl of mushroom barley soup and a few thick slices of house made challah with butter. Little Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence was kind enough to share his memories of B&H with ATYPICALSOUNDS:

I was born and raised in New York City and for 14 years I lived on 7th Street and 1st Avenue with my roommate and drummer Kitty. We spent most of our time on St. Mark’s Place and the surrounding neighborhood and one major staple of that neighborhood was and is B&H Dairy. It is a small, one-counter, old-school establishment with the most famous Challah French Toast in the world.

I’m not a vegetarian and have never been and I tend not to eat at super healthy places, but B&H was different. Kitty and I ate there thousands of times. Sure there are tons of places on the Lower East Side to get a good knish or blintze but B&H has a charm and a quaintness that is packed into the smallest restaurant I have ever frequented.

For years I would write songs all night until six in the morning and inevitably end up around the corner at B&H downing an omelette before I crashed for the day. I’m proud to say that B&H is a very big part of mine and Kitty’s life working and living in New York City. I don’t know much about the current situation that B&H is in as I have not lived in the city since 2005, but I would be very saddened to see another great local L.E.S. establishment lost like so many before.

Jimmy and the rest of Mindless Self Indulgence are getting ready to release Pink, an album of never-released tracks from the band’s early years. Pre-order the album here.

Another East Village native, indie folk musician Jeffrey Lewis, offered his memories as well:

B&H is a mainstay of the neighborhood, and has been for generations. I’ve been going there for years (I grew up a couple blocks away), and despite the small size I often bump into friends or neighborhood familiar faces; bumping into an ex-girlfriend there inspired a song on one of my albums a few years back.

When Lower East Side cultural hero Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs died in 2010, Ratso Sloman catered the local memorial with borscht from B&H, a Tuli favorite. In fact, I may just be the only person who has figured out that the dark, obscure photo of Tuli on the back cover of his 1967 solo album No Deposit/No Return is, if you look closely, a photo of Tuli standing in the doorway of B&H. You can’t see the name, but the door-frame and surrounding details are unmistakable, for those who would know!

Jeffrey Lewis just completed a tour of Europe in support of his recent album, Jeffrey Lewis & the Jrams. Order it here.

What can you do to help B&H Dairy? Donate if you can. If you can’t, Jeremiah Moss has started a Twitter campaign to light a fire under the ass of city officials. And to remind you all of the importance of diners in pop culture, let alone New York City, here is a short list of diners in music.

Suzanne Vega – “Tom’s Diner”

While this pop iconoclast is on every. single. list of food-related songs, it would be wrong to leave out. There is no better place in the world for people watching than your local diner, and this song is a perfectly concise illustration of that. The song’s namesake, Tom’s Restaurant, is located at the corner of Broadway and 112th Street. It’s also known as the exterior for the fictional Monk’s Café on Seinfeld.

Listen: Suzanne Vega – “Tom’s Diner”

King Missile – “Detachable Penis”

Bet you haven’t heard this one since high school. While searching the East Village for his missing phallus, our hero stops for breakfast at the now-gone Kiev Restaurant. Closed in 2000, Kiev was known for its Eastern European fare, including blintzes and mushroom barley soup (much like the menu at B&H Dairy). Kiev was open 24/7 at the corner of Second Avenue and Seventh Street, and must’ve seen some pretty incredible characters in its nearly 30 years in business.

Listen: King Missile – “Detachable Penis”

Rent OST – “La Vie Boheme”

This one isn’t about a diner, so much as it is a celebration of diner culture. In the Rent musical, the characters meet at the Life Café after Maureen’s protest of the eviction of the homeless from a vacant lot. It’s late at night, and Life Café stands out like a warm beacon on a dark city street. They celebrate. The real Life Café was located on Tenth Street and Avenue B. It closed in 2013 after 34 years in business.

Listen: Rent OST – “La Vie Boheme”

The Human League – “Don’t You Want Me”

This classic song about a failing relationship between a cocktail waitress and a jerk is a still a mainstay on dance floors everywhere (or just in Williamsburg). Since its release in 1981, the song has also appeared in commercials for mops, shower heads, cookies, and chicken.

Listen: The Human League – “Don’t You Want Me”

Greta Gertler & The Extroverts – “Veselka”

This polka-infused love letter to Ukrainian diner Veselka is all the more poignant when you learn Gertler originates from Australia, but still has a place she feels at home at the East Village diner. In it, she sings, “I used to go there on my own a lot/or with my best girlfriend/over coffee and pierogi/our hearts began to mend”. Veselka still stands at the same place it’s been since opening in 1954 at the corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street, just over a block from where B&H Dairy remains closed. It’s clear Veselka won’t be going anywhere soon, and B&H Dairy shouldn’t have to either.

Listen: Greta Gertler & The Extroverts – “Veselka”