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Shootings, Seinfeld, and Sinatra

It was all going down in the Market Diner's heyday, and Asher Zelin has the signed menus to prove it.


The Market Diner by John Baeder

The orange booths, the hanging lights above the counter, the parking lot - all is pretty much as Asher Zelin remembers it from the 1960s. Even the menu looks familiar. "It was all-American diner food" he remembers. "Your pot roasts, your roast beef, your turkey, your stews, your soups, and breakfasts of course."


One of the original owners of the Market Diner chain, he is now approaching his 80s and living in Florida. But his memories of those days are still vivid; the signatures on his souvenir menus a little faded with time. Frank Sinatra. Bette Midler. Diane Keaton. Kate Smith.


The rest of Hell's Kitchen, however, is almost unrecognizable from the days in 1962 when Asher opened what was to become an icon.


"It was certainly different," he says. "The area was nowhere near as residential as it is now. It was strictly all business - warehouses, printing companies, automobile dealerships. The UPS trucks came about a year after we opened up.


"We had a tremendous cab driver audience, because we had a parking lot all around the place and next door also. We had a parking lot attendant so we got a lot of customers that way.”


"Sinatra used to call me at night saying he was coming over with about 30 people at 3am or 4am after the bars closed. Whenever he was in New York he came there."

It attracted actors, actresses, musicians. There's a now infamous Seinfeld episode in which Jerry, Kramer and Newman meet there to talk to a dealer of black-market shower heads so powerful they are only used for circus elephants. "I think the diners really did make history," he says.


There were eight Market Diners in total - the one on 11th Ave was the last to be built; the original was in the Gansevoort Market, hence the name. "Sinatra used to call me at night saying he was coming over with about 30 people at 3am or 4am after the bars closed. Whenever he was in New York he came there.


"It was very lively. Don't forget we were in the middle of Hell's Kitchen, so there was a lot of action. And we knew everyone."


In 1978, the gang were busy dismembering an unfortunate victim in an apartment on 10th Avenue when they took a break to visit the diner for something to eat before dumping the body in the East River.

The diner was a regular hangout for the notorious Westies gang, and in the early 1970s there was a shooting in the parking lot. The trigger was pulled by one Francis (Mickey) Featherstone, who was to become the gang's second-in-command and, eventually, the informer who helped bring the group down in 1988.


In 1978, the gang were busy dismembering an unfortunate victim in an apartment on 10th Avenue when they took a break to visit the diner for something to eat before dumping the body in the East River.


"We knew who the Westies were," says Asher. “They hung out in the bar mostly - We had a big alcohol bar there - and they knew that any trouble in the bar that happened, we'd lose our license. We lose our license, they lose a place to hang out. So any fights that broke out were taken outside, not inside.


"There was very big animosity between the Jersey kids and the New York kids. We were very close to the Lincoln Tunnel so we used to get a lot of Jersey kids because you couldn't drink in Jersey, whereas in New York you could. There would be a lot of fights, a couple of shootings, everything else. But it all happened outside."


The Zelins sold up in 2004 and the new owners closed down in 2006. Then in 2009 it was announced the Market Diner was to reopen. Today it remains one of the few standalone diners left in Manhattan.


"I've got a lot of happy memories" says Asher.


ABOUT THE ARTIST


John Baeder is famed for his detailed, evocative paintings of America's roadside diners, capturing a rapidly disappearing element of US culture and its architectural landscape.


As an art director for New York advertising agencies in the 1960s, he drove around Hell's Kitchen often, not even knowing that's what it was called "I did like the dive bars along 8th Ave to 12th Ave in the 20s to 40s. Now, they're all a goner, like anything of character. If there's any vestige from past, I'm not aware of it."


Perhaps ironically, he wasn't even in the city when he painted the iconic Market Diner on 11th Ave - 43rd St. "I had spent a glorious month in the Bay Area in August, 1975 – it's a long, romanic story - and returned to the city, bummed out, renting a house in Westhampton Beach. I did the painting there around February/March 1976"


The work will form part of his forthcoming book, featuring 282 lush illustrations across 272 pages. John Baeder's Road Well Taken will be published by Vendome Press in the fall of 2015.

www.johnbaeder.com


The story was originally published in the the May 2015 issue of W42ST magazine. The Market Diner closed in 2015. It's been replaced by a luxury building, Oskar, and the area it used to occupy is now a Starbucks. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you subscribe to our daily newsletter at w42st.com



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