BELLA LUNA RESTAURANT RENOVATION REVEALS HIDDEN MURAL WITH FASCINATING BACKSTORY

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A section of the mural at Bella Luna. Photo by Carol Tannenhauser.

By Carol Tannenhauser

Turgut Balikci was the first to see them, peeking out from behind a wood-paneled wall: “little trees,” he said. Balikci had been planning to preserve that wall in an otherwise gut renovation of the new space for his restaurant Bella Luna, which, after 30 years, was moving half a block down Columbus Avenue to West 88th Street. (Why? “The rent.”)

“I saw first the little trees in the back,” Balikci said, “and I thought, ‘Omigod, what’s going on? So, we took all the wood panels down and we were in shock.”

The little trees turned out to be part of a larger landscape, stretching the length of the wall – a mural of faded blues and greens, which Balikci has since had meticulously restored by Mark Rutkoski, a local expert in art research and restoration.

“I love it!” Balikci laughed, sitting beneath it with his daughter, Hannah, 22, in Bella Luna’s new location, which opened on January 26th. “This morning, a lady told me, ‘I heard the restaurant is great, but I’m really interested in the art!”

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Hannah and Turget Balikci.

The mural, which is neither signed nor dated, has sparked interest within the Balikci family as well, especially Hannah. Determined to learn its origin, she researched the history of the building, constructed in 1893. She was aided by a customer who showed her a famous photograph – “Man in Rain” – taken in 1952 by the late Upper West Side photographer Ruth Orkin, showing the building in the background, with the name “Bill Pogue’s Bar,” faintly, but clearly on it.

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The Orkin photograph.

“There’s a guy at the New York Public Library whose whole thing is figuring out the history of buildings,” Hannah said. She discovered that Bill Pogue had come to America from Ireland when he was 18, and owned the bar from 1933 (when Prohibition ended) to 1968. There is no record of who occupied the space between 1968 and 1977. “1977 to 1988 was a gourmet grocery store,” Hannah said. “The owner is the one who put the wood wall up. He saved it.” There followed a series of tenants, ending with a florist aptly named, “The Secret Garden.”

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The wall that was blocking the mural.

Both Balikcis believe, based on informed opinions, that the mural was painted early in Bill Pogue’s tenancy. “Some people think it could have been the WPA during the New Deal,” Hannah said. “The next step is going to the archives in Maryland.” Another next step is contacting the descendants of Bill Pogue. “I’ve actually found his grandkids and great-grandkids on social media. I want to see if they have any family photos of their grandfather’s bar.”

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“We’re going to reach out and invite the grandchildren,” Balikci laughed, “Have a Bill Pogue party!”

“We don’t know who the artist was or what the mural’s of,” Hannah said, “so we, basically, give it up to people to make their own interpretations. It could be Central Park. Some people think the left panel is the Hudson River. Bill Pogue himself was an Irishman and the middle panel kind of looks like the place he’s from in Ireland.”

Turgut Balikci is from Istanbul, Turkey. In 1972, when he was 18, he became the national cycling champion. In 1979, when he was 25, he came to America to race, and never left. (He still cycles in Central Park.) The son and grandson of restaurateurs, he has opened 25 restaurants over the years, including Bodrum, a Mediterranean place on Amsterdam Avenue between 89th and 90th streets, but said, “Bella Luna was always the main one.”

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“We’re your basic, neighborhood Italian, not fancy, good food, simple, classic,” Balikci said. “The menu has been set for so many years. If it works, don’t fix it! And now we have this beautiful, landmark building in good shape. Plumbing, electric, gas, water; we renovated everything.”

“I wanted to do it because of the building and the community, to make it look great and make the real estate improve for everybody.”

“It’s give and take,” Balikci concluded. “The community supports us, business is good, so I’m not going to put high prices. A lot of my clientele are retirees on a budget. They come here three, four times a week – $20 a person – appetizer, main course, dessert – and a $7 glass of wine. I love these older people. When I closed for six months to renovate, every day they asked, ‘When you opening? When you opening?’ I love that!”

Bella Luna’s hours of operation are Sunday – Thursday, lunch 12 p.m. – 4 p.m., dinner 4 p.m. – 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday lunch 12 p.m. – 4 p.m., dinner 4 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.

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By the way, Balikci added, “Right now, Hannah’s helping me with a brunch menu, new ideas. When the outdoor café is approved, probably in May, we’re going to have a nice brunch.”

FOOD, HISTORY, NEWS | 40 comments | permalink
    1. ToddNYC says:

      Looks rather like Belvedere Castle in Central Park, especially the perspective.

    2. NativeUWS says:

      I think the grocery was run by the same family that ran the secret garden – they might know who had the place in the intervening years. . .

    3. UWSSurfer says:

      How beautiful! Thank you for restoring this mural and staying in our neighborhood.

    4. UWSSurfer says:

      I can’t really tell from the photo but the middle panel looks like it could be Ross Castle in Killarney. Killarney has a lot of lakes.

      It is a really pretty area of Ireland.

      http://www.activeme.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Ross-May-Evening3-Copy.jpg

    5. Karen says:

      What a great neighborhood story! Thanks for that.

    6. ny10024 says:

      We missed Bella Luna while it was closed and have been there a couple of times since it reopened. We admired the mural. Very cool to know something of the history.

    7. Kathleen says:

      Great story, I can’t wait to eat there and see the mural! Thank you, WSR.

    8. UWSHebrew says:

      I think this is the first story on WSR that I really liked. I’ve had enough of the crime reportings, openings/closings, and the demonstrations of women in their pink hats. This was a pleasure.

      • sg says:

        Agreed!

      • Cato says:

        Absolutely! Who cares about goings-on in the neighborhood? We don’t need to know any of that! Where’s that hole in the sand — I want to stick my head in it right now!

        (Umm, why do you read this blog if you don’t like its main reason for being??)

    9. Robin says:

      fascinating story!
      thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    10. Risteard says:

      Sometime toward the end of WWII or shortly afterwards, Pogue renovated the building where his bar was located and leased it to the Soviet mission to the UN. Apparently, the apartments or the neighborhood was not to their liking, as they made short work of their lease and were soon gone.
      I do recall the entrance doors to the bldg. were made of bronze and were always locked.

    11. Kathleen17 says:

      Wow what an incredible find. I love hearing the history behind this. I haven’t been to Bella Luna before but now definitely will go. Thanks for sharing WSR and many thanks to Turgut Balikci for keeping, researching and sharing the UWS history!

    12. beth says:

      Great job! It is great to see art being restored and loved.

    13. Lisa says:

      Love that story. Generation after generation of New Yorkers and the places we dwell. Thanks for sharing!

    14. robert david says:

      Great story. And nice to still have family owned / operated places operated by caring people. Will patronize Bella Luna for sure…r

    15. M.Ellen says:

      I used to go to the original Bela Luna, but haven’t been in years. This is such a wonderful story, it has inspired me to go back. Bodrum has been my go-to neighborhood restaurant since it opened. Now I learn that it is the same owner. Wonderful food at Bodrum. May you be in the neighborhood for a long time to come!

    16. Gina says:

      Happy for Mr. Balikci, he seems to be
      good person, keeping the prices in consideration
      to his older clientel. Good thing sometimes happens
      to good people. Well now he maybe sitting
      on. Goldmine. The unraveling of this mystery
      of the painter, can become a heck of a story.
      All I can say it was destiny, the wall was waiting
      For the right person to come along.

    17. JDO says:

      Great story! Just moved out of NYC after living on the UWS for 11 years and this makes me miss the neighborhood even more!!

    18. Violet says:

      WSR, please keep us posted on whatever becomes of this mystery! This was a great article to read, and I can’t wait to hear what they find out.

    19. Lynn Pearl says:

      The mural is such a wonderful story! Just one more reason to love Bella Luna and what this restaurant brings to our neighborhood…

    20. Jane says:

      Great Story! I must go see them and have some good food!

    21. Elaine Richard says:

      The murals are lovely. How wonderful that they were preserved, whether by chance or purposely. Loved the old Bella Luna, but this stylish new version on 88th Street is great. I wish them luck and continued manageable rent. Hope to become a regular!

    22. Carol says:

      Loved your old address. Can’t wait to come to your new digs!!!

    23. Arnold Weintraub says:

      Bella Luna is a great restaurant and was our choice for our son and daughter’s bar and bat mitzvah luncheons over 20 years ago. In fact, our son’s bar mitzvah was the first bar mitzvah party that Bella Luna ever catered. We’re so glad that they are finally open again.

    24. Jimbo says:

      Perhaps try to reach Herbie Grossinger, who used to live in Bergen County NJ. His parents ran Grossingers bakery next door to that store. It also has a lot of such woodwork inside. The bakery was there from the 40s till the 90s. And later he operated the bakery until about 1999. The inside of the store looked unchanged when taken over by a politically connected nonprofit

    25. Faye Newsome says:

      I love this restaurant, both in its old location and in its new one. Great story.

    26. AC says:

      Hoping the WSR follows-up with this interesting find. It appears that this is just the beginning of a fascinating story!

    27. Judith L says:

      As a longtime customer of Bella Luna, it is
      exciting to see that Mr. Balikci and his daughter are keeping this history alive. That makes Bella Luna even more special.

    28. Jessica Nooney says:

      Thanks for all that history I’ve lived on 85th and Columbus for 60 years so I’ve been eating and Bella Luna a lot

    29. RS says:

      Thanks WSR for sharing this story. Used to go to Bella Luna in its old location. Will try the new space. Thanks to the owner for being neighbor friendly and keeping the prices affordable.

    30. Paula Foundeur says:

      Bravo Turgut!
      In a greedy landlord environment capitalizing on our dear upper west side, thank you for preserving history and looking out for the neighborhood people with affordable prices and delicious food. Bella Luna continues to be an upper west side treasure!

    31. Houtay says:

      They’re probably by the Austrian artist who painted the murals that wrapped the walls at P&G for beer. They were all covered by paneling except they walls by the men’s room so most people may not remember them, but they showed a castle on mountains, and similar trees and water, same color scheme.

    32. Iris says:

      “Ate & Ate “was the Bodega before the flower shop. It was owned by the Super of a building across the street.

    33. Jeff Segall says:

      While they were building the restaurant my wife and I dropped in and watched the restorer at his work, and had a nice conversation with him. It’s the main reason they didn’t lease the property on the other side of the wall. That would have meant tearing down the wall itself and, as this article reports, the owners’ interest is to bring back to life this wonderful piece of art.

      We eat there now frequently. It’s one of the best little restaurants on the Upper West Side. Thanks for reporting

    34. joanna cumberland says:

      I came by the other day. I’ll miss the cozyness of the nooks and crannies of the ole place, but open & art is nice! Having lunch there soon.

    35. Paul Clifford says:

      It is a shame that the person who painstakingly restored the mural to it’s original beauty was not mentioned in the article. Mark Rutkoski is an amazing art restorer and our friend and UWS neighbor who singlehandedly brought this mural back to life and preserved a small piece of local history and architecture.