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Putting the Music Club Back in Restaurants
What happened to the concept of dinner and dope music enjoyed together? Blackbird's Upside Pizza Club endeavors to resurrect that forgotten tradition.
Yesterday, we announced our Upside Pizza Club Membership — the first of its kind built on Blackbird’s rails, and perhaps the first of its kind anywhere. In case you missed it, here’s the skinny: by becoming a member, you get one slice of pizza with any topping of your choice per day FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR at the legendary dough slinger’s Nolita location. You also get some pretty cool merch.
We think that’s a sweet deal. But to further sweeten said deal we also threw a secret summer concert series into the mix. Concerts kickoff Tuesday, May 30th and run until June 27th. And though the list of artists is currently hush-hush (did we mention this thing is secret, like super secret?), we will be announcing them — as well as dropping tickets — weekly on our private Discord channel for Upside Pizza Club Members only. Believe us, you’ll want to score a spot to as many of these intimate and groundbreaking events as you can.
The whole concert series, from ideation to securing a roster of artists that we still can’t believe we convinced to perform (let alone inside a pizza shop), came together rather quickly. But the idea itself is rooted in something far more historic. First, we tossed around the phrase pizza parlor, and it was the second word that sparked some inspiration: parlor, as in a room for entertaining guests. That’s what led to us knowing that we had to bring live, bleeding edge music back to some of our favorite restaurants.
Throughout the decades, there have been restaurants where the food and the entertainment defined the era itself, and fans of both — the kind of #iykyk crowd that went for that sort of thing — clamored for reservations and a coveted spot in a banquet, where they might indulge in cuisine and listen to live artists at the same damn time.
When we think of dinner paired with music we don’t often think of the latter being the main event. Perhaps a banging Spotify playlist springs to mind, but — more likely — the type of cruise line and Club Med fare that most discerning diners are keen to avoid. And, in the case of this post, we’re not talking cover bands, muzak, elevator music, jazz brunches, or even the tried and true piano bar either (though, if you are looking for a worthy throwback to the latter, do check out the Nines, or the OG itself, Bemelmans, especially during Café Carlyle, when artists like Hamilton Leithauser, frontman of the recently reunited Walkmen, play live sets). No, what we’re after today is something more rare, at least in these contemporary times. A restaurant where the music is live, original, dare we say zeitgeist-y, and wholly on par with the cuisine being served, if not better.
There was a time in New York City where this type of one-two punch wasn’t completely out of the ordinary. Throughout the decades, there have been restaurants where the food and the entertainment defined the era itself, and fans of both — the kind of #iykyk crowd that went for that sort of thing — clamored for reservations and a coveted spot in a banquet, where they could indulge in cuisine and listen to live artists at the same damn time.
To commemorate those heady days, where one could have their cake and, well, listen to dope music, too, we put together a list of spots that did it best over the years. This is by no means a comprehensive roundup, but rather a plea to bring these types of joints back (ahem, Upside Pizza Club, anyone?). If we’ve missed anything you believe worthy to grace this list, do let us know in the comments below.
We’ll start with the GOAT. Named after the famous beach in Rio, the original Copacabana reigned supreme on East 60th street for over three decades, from its inception in 1940 till the early 1970s. There were showgirls, comic duos, and crooners, all of which paired deliciously with the Chinese menu. Sammy Davis Jr. performed, as did The Temptations, The Supremes, Sam Cook, and Marvin Gaye, while mobsters chilled (remember the tracking shot from Goodfellas?) and Mickey Mantle brawled. No wonder Barry Manilow wrote a song about the place. Whatatown!
The Cotton Club
Though its history is fraught with racism (even more overtly than some other establishments of that era on this list), we’d be remiss not to include Harlem’s Cotton Club, a place once described by Langston Hughes — one of the rare African Americans admitted as a guest — as “a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites." The Cotton Club was indeed where white folk went uptown to indulge in black music, and while the guest policy and imagery (rife with the stereotypical caricatures of that era) were offensive at best, the music itself was nothing short of sublime. Think Duke Ellington, Adelaide Hall, Cab Calloway, and Ethel Waters, to name just a few of the luminaries who graced the place. The menu? Everything from chicken chop suey to club sandwiches to shrimp cocktail.
From the palm fronds to the zebra skin banquettes to the habitués gracing the guest list — names like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, plus power couples like DiMaggio and Monroe, JFK and Jacquie — El Morocco was as over-the-top and celeb stacked as nightlife boîtes come. The menu reflected the times — Dover Sole, Prime Rib with Yorkshire pudding — and when the stars and hangers on (the seating was ranked, natch) finished their meals they got down to Gershwin drummed up by Bill Harrington’s Orchestra.
Another Midtown East bastion of bougie bad behavior, the Stork Club mixed celebs with NYC power players, while the menu was strictly French…that is, if you consider the “famous chicken hamburger, a tasty mixture of ground chicken mixed with salt, pepper, nutmeg, butter, heavy cream, and bread crumbs, served with tomato sauce” as a prime example of classic French cuisine. Hemingway once tried to cash a $100,000 check here, and the music was provided — often enough — by none other than Benny Goodman and his band.
Max’s Kansas City
While the original club kids would define the 1970s by hoovering up a different type of sustenance at Studio 54, New York’s art and glam rock scenes converged over plates of (yes, notoriously mediocre) steak and lobster at Max’s Kansas City, a restaurant and music venue in Gramercy. Once the preferred spot of sculptors, Warhol and his crew put the pop art in Max’s, and with them came the rockers, from The Velvet Underground to Bowie to Iggy Pop (the duo having famously first met there). The New York Dolls played the backroom, as did Lou Reed, Marc Bolan of T. Rex, Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, and Tom Waits. Aerosmith made their New York debut here, Bob Marley opened for Bruce Springsteen…heck, Debbie Harry was a damn waitress at Max’s.
We could wax nostalgic about the amount of, well, wax that was spun at David Mancuso’s Soho loft, arguably the world’s first disco/house music club that kicked off on Valentine’s Day in 1970. Or go on and on about the DJs who were regulars at these early parties, legends like the late Larry Levan (of Paradise Garage fame) and Frankie Knuckles. But it was in the party’s later years that food came into play. Not great food always, mind you, but a potluck dinner held at a Ukrainian social space in the East Village, where for years every possible kind of New Yorker got down to invite-only and vinyl-only sets pumped out of arguably the greatest and most subtle sound system to grace this city. RIP, David Mancuso, you king!
The Rainbow Room
Positioned as the stealth wealth alternative (say what you will about the rooftop restaurant’s rotating dance floor) to the bright lights of places like El Morocco and The Stork Club, The Rainbow Room didn’t always feature live music, but when it did, the joint went big. Over the years and the place’s many iterations, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennet, and Lady Gaga have all performed. Now if that doesn’t make you want to chew your way through a Waldorf salad, what will?
The 1980s seems to be the decade when the dinner club (as in a restaurant featuring the best live music of its era) and the dance club diverged. Places like Paradise Garage, Danceteria, and Palladium popped up, and suddenly you did dining first, dancing second. Of course there are places trying to perhaps bring that tradition back (Brooklyn’s Public Records being one, where you can hit the vegan cafe and later listen to some of the best techno and house DJs in the world), but on the whole it’s a tradition that’s widely disappeared.
Or has it? Join our Upside Pizza Club to find out…
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