Before GrubHub, Seamless and Sweetgreen took over New York’s quick-bite market, there were delis, diners and cafeterias. And while a hearty cohort of delis and diners remain on the scene, the city’s automats and cafeterias are long gone — except for in the pages of photographer Marcia Bricker Halperin’s new book Kibbitz and Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow’s Cafeteria, an evocative tribute to the last days of the cafes that served everyone from vaudeville veterans to the city’s once-thriving Garment District factory workers.
Marcia — also known for her work documenting the tenements and street life of 1970s Hell’s Kitchen — has curated hundreds of images from one of New York’s most-beloved lost gems, Dubrow’s Cafeteria, during its last decades of business in the 1970s and 80s. The photographs are archived in her newly released book and an exhibit showing in the Garment District’s Kaufman Arcade Building.
A family-owned franchise, Dubrow’s was first opened in 1929 on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn by Jewish Belarusian immigrants, and locations on Kings Highway and in the Garment District on W38th Street and 7th Avenue later followed. It was the epitome of the working class experience to millions of New Yorkers, including Marcia, an art major at Brooklyn college.
“The biggest joy of putting together this book has been connecting to people from the past,” Marcia told W42ST of the process of reviewing her photographs and journals from the time. Even as she documented the many characters of Dubrow’s, she had a sense that the phenomenon of the tray-and-ticket cafeteria and its attendant clientele wouldn’t last, writing, “I believe I sensed it was a vanishing world on its last legs, and that impelled me to document it.”
The project was somewhat of an accident, Marcia explained. She had been practicing her street photography skills in her home borough of Brooklyn when she began popping into Dubrow’s to warm up. “I was photographing in the tradition of the street photographers, in that you catch a moment on the street, a moment in time,” said Marcia. “I chose outside Dubrow’s as a place to photograph because it was a thriving shopping street, and my reason for going inside was more practical — it’s hard to be a street photographer in February!”
But once inside, she discovered a treasure trove of unique subjects more than willing to be photographed. While Marcia started by shooting candids of the staff and patrons, after regularly returning to the dining room, she began to be recognized. “In 1976, months after my first visit to the cafeteria, I wrote in my journal, ‘I was a celebrity at Dubrow’s,’” wrote Marcia. “It was a naive but true statement.”
“I would say, ‘Can I sit at your table with you?’ Nobody said no,” she recalled – and subjects especially looked forward to receiving draft prints of themselves to take home. “These were ordinary people, and I was giving them this attention with a professional camera,” said Marcia.
In the Garment District, Dubrow’s patrons were often workers at local fabric shops and apparel factories. “Garment District cafeterias like Dubrow’s were purpose-built to feed large numbers of people — the Garment District location served one thousand meals a day,” said Marcia. “They were designed to feed ’em fast, feed ’em well and feed ’em inexpensively, so that people could get back to work in the factories and showrooms to make a thriving Garment District.”
Many of the people Marcia photographed at Dubrow’s were, however, anything but run-of-the-mill. “Most were people I ordinarily would never have had a conversation with over a cup of coffee — ex-vaudeville performers, taxi drivers, Holocaust survivors, ex-prizefighters and bookies,” wrote Marcia, recalling the cafeteria’s Runyonland-esque ambiance of real-life “guys and dolls.”
“It’s funny, because when I took these pictures I was in my early twenties, and now I look at them and realize that these people are my age,” laughed Marcia. “It was the late 1970s but stylistically it was a retro place — people were dressed in their clothes from the 1940s and 1950s — they’re wearing a coat they’ve had for 20 years, and my eye was drawn to all that.”
More New York Nostalgia
Customers waxed nostalgic too, Marcia told us. “There was a lot of talk of the old days — old movie stars, Eddie Fisher and all that,” she said. “There was also some talk about the politics of the day, because everyone was always reading the newspaper,” she added. “There were a lot of comments about how New York was going bankrupt.”
And as the city moved through the financial challenges of the 1970s and 80s, the humble cafeteria became one of the many casualties of a swiftly changing commercial landscape — especially in the Garment District. After serving 50 million meals since its opening in 1952, the Garment District Dubrow’s — the last of the family’s cafeterias standing — closed in 1985 as developers circled the lot for new construction.
Marcia attended the closing night of Dubrow’s and “as it turned out, there was a small group of us there to bid a fond farewell,” she said. “There were a couple of members of the Dubrow family there, and there was Leib Lensky — a vaudeville star and a Yiddish theater performer who apparently ate there every day.” Marcia added, “There also was this woman, Elaine — not the famous Elaine, but this woman who went to closing night at all the famous New York restaurants like Mama Leone’s and places like that.”
Mourners gathered, souvenir trays and kaiser rolls in hand, as they took in the last of a New York institution. “It was interesting that there was a group of us there to wish Dubrow’s farewell,” said Marcia, “but it was a place that had really meant something.”
And while it’s bittersweet to revisit the time capsule of the classic cafeteria, “the city is always changing — we’ve always accepted change,” Marcia said. “I always look forward to new food trucks and food courts and night markets — all of these new ways of distributing food.” Still, as she writes in the pages of Kibbitz and Nosh: “Sometimes I dream about traveling someplace and discovering a uniquely designed cafeteria, created by an immigrant, that is a gathering place for the last remnants of a working-class social and cultural world.”
Kibbitz and Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow’s Cafeteria by Marcia Bricker Halperin, with a foreword by playwright and fellow Brooklynite Donald Marguiles, is available wherever books are sold. Her exhibit is at the Kaufman Arcade Building (139 W35th St b/w Broadway and 7th Ave) now through August 31.