Throwback Thursday: 30 Years of Adventures on the Upper West Side

By Marianne Hettinger

In these challenging times of the pandemic, I reflect back on what life was like for me on the Upper West Side, my favorite place in the world, as a budding actor/dancer/director in the late 1980’s. Born in Germany with a mother of Jewish background, I always felt I had been born into the wrong country. The first movie I got to see was Gene Kelly in “On The Town” at age 5 and I knew: I had to go to this magical place called New York where you can sing and dance. As a teenager I made my dream come true. Not knowing anyone with only $500 in my pocket I came to New York to pursue acting and dancing just like Gene Kelly had done.

I moved into my first UWS apartment in 1988 at the Milburn Hotel, 242 W. 76th Street, 11th floor. My roommates were a black Cuban Shakespearean actor named Ascanio Sharpe and the now-famous actor Jeffrey Wright who taught me slang and would crack up at my European accent. Having come from a very liberal background in Europe, I was sad to see that even in New York there was still some racism present. Even though celebrated on Broadway, my roommate Ascanio wouldn’t get picked up by cabs when he hailed them.

He introduced me to many of his friends in the biz like the late Raul Julia at Wilson’s restaurant at the Lucerne, Gregory Hines at the China Club in the basement of the Beacon Hotel where we danced the night away and where I turned down a modeling contract by John Casablancas, owner of the Elite Model Mgmt, because I wanted to be an artist rather than a model.

Afterwards we would go to Big Nick’s on 76th Street, open 23 hours where we would have greasy omelettes prepared by the owner Big Nick himself.

I studied dance on a scholarship at the famed Steps Dance Studio on Broadway and 74th, 8 hours a day and acting at night. At Steps I would see Bill Murray take a beginner Jazz class, an aging Rudolf Nureyev showing off in ballet class dressed in bright red outfits, robocop actor Peter Weller, Brooke Shields and many others.

Once in a while I remembered to eat and since money was tight, I’d get a bran muffin or bagel at Fairway below which would last me all day. There was a lovely cashier who made it to “Cashier of the month” with the fastest grocery bagging. I was impressed. She is still there today by the way, her name is Winsome.

Marianne Hettinger.

Every day was a new adventure, if I managed to do a triple pirouette on point in front of Barishnikov who used to come to Willie Burmann’s advanced/professional class which I took religiously 3 hours a day for 4 years or climbed a tree in Riverside Park with a famous football player who didn’t know how to get back down.

I would watch sunsets at Riverside Park and read self help books. At the end of the wooden burnt pier was a tent pitched by a homeless guy named Barry, who would push around a stroller with a large Shakespearean book in it, blowing into a straw making shrill noises.

One day I was reading a book with the title “How to find the perfect mate.” I had folded the cover over so no one could see this “embarrassing” title. Barry, came by and asked me straight out: “how to find the perfect mate? You have to read a book to find a boyfriend?” There is no way he could have known the title which I had hidden. I’m convinced to this day that this man had psychic abilities.

A few years later I moved to 71st Street into an old brownstone budding with a crooked staircase in which a friend had built a wooden platform where I could tap dance – I would time it so I wouldn’t bother my downstairs neighbor Ned Eisenberg, a fine Broadway actor, and jumped only during his matinee – and evening performances.

Favorite hangouts were Cafe La Fortuna lined with pictures of opera singers and opera music playing non-stop as you could enjoy a small European slice of cake, Cafe Mozart, on West 70th Street. If someone had a birthday, the wait staff would sing and serve a birthday cake with sparklers on it. One of them would wear a Mozart wig — and the birthday guest could wear the Mozart wig as well. The wait staff then would take a Polaroid picture. Cafe Edgar on 84th Street, named after Edgar Allen Poe, because he lived in that building where he wrote “The Raven.” And the waiters at The Saloon on roller skates!

In 2000 I used to venture uptown to 110th St. and Broadway. There was an Italian restaurant, “Caffe Taci,” with opera singers performing arias as we dined; you had people from the Met, New York State Opera, Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, and a little old Russian lady accompanied them on the piano, her feet never touching the ground. We would all stay till six in the mornings and everybody would be singing under the table at that time.

And David Brenner’s pool hall on Amsterdam with a lounge and fireplace!!

And finally, the Bear Bar on 76th & Broadway with a slightly damaged wooden bear head sticking out from the wall. They had a “bar fly jump.” You would run in a Velcro suit, jump off a trampoline and flip, getting stuck on the wall upside down. I once won and got a bottle of champagne.

Oh, and Allan and Suzi – that vintage store on 80th and Amsterdam where I purchased a crazy designer skirt with mirrors and horse hair. Alan looked a little like Howard Stern who worked out at the same gym as I.

The Lincoln Plaza Cinemas would provide us with interesting indie films, seats that were ridiculously uncomfortable yet so great, and the lox on a piece of sour dough bread for sale at the counter; you had to ask for extra mustard so it wouldn’t taste so dry.

Marianne won a WSR mug for an Encounter she wrote.

Over the years I’ve made two feature films on the UWS inspired by the stories of people I met here. The best thing are the people, my neighbors, from all walks of life, a tolerant colorful mix of ethnicities, orientations, families, artists, intellectuals, business people, kooks and homeless. Joe, who was Mr. Olympia number 18 in the 1950’s, exercises every night in Riverside park, with two shopping bags at 96, his mind sharp as a tack. Steffie, an immigrant from Germany, whose husband died of cancer, plays Frisbee with Emile, a French tourist guide who in the 70’s lived with a tribe of cannibals in Papua, New Guinea, and ran from Tavern on the Green to California and back. Steve, a world famous comedic opera singer would serenade us at the boat basin and Carol Tannenhauser, writer of so many wonderful articles at the Rag, climbed all the stairs to my apartment on a wintry day to hand me a coffee mug for an anecdote I had written.

I now see how lucky I am to have lived here for the past 30 years. I never took one day for granted. To another 30 years at least! Thank you, neighbors!

COLUMNS | 61 comments | permalink
    1. Resident Communist says:

      This was absolutely beautiful.

    2. Jed says:

      Opera night at Caffe Taci was the best. A wonderful neighborhood spot!

    3. AC says:

      Well written , , , Wilson’s and China Club, two of my favorite spots of ALL time in the UWS. Thanks for taking me back down memory lane. 🙂

    4. Nelson says:

      Hey neighbor, you sound like a beautiful person. Thanks for your smiles and happy recollections. I hope many more wonderful times are ahead for you & the UWS. ❤️

    5. Denali Boy says:

      Lovely. Thank you

    6. PTFLynn says:

      You beautifully described why this frequent visitor loves visiting NYC. Thanks.

    7. Vince says:

      Thank you, Marianne, for taking me down memory lane- the article is well written and the abundant memories are a reminder why I love the upper west side . Thanks to the Rag for publishing this fine story. Love the dance picture!

    8. PWS says:

      Beautifully told of greatest of times NYC of preforming Artists. Great reminder of the wonderful things that bring us together.

    9. James Goodman says:

      Although I am new to the neighborhood, after decades in Washington Heights, this sweet, lovely essay captures so much about what I love about the West Side (my sons used to call the top of Washington Heights the “real upper west side”) and New York City more generally. Reading it makes my heart beat faster and my body shiver with the joy of all our city friends, neighbors, and perhaps most of all friendly strangers. I have a sneaking suspicion I know the author from one of my favorite coffee shops. I look forward to seeing her again and telling her how much I appreciated her memoir.

    10. Erika says:

      I hung out on the UWS a lot during the late 80s and moved here in 1993 so this brought back so many memories! Now thinking about Cafe Lalo’s early days, when Ollie’s was on 84th st., Yuki on 91st, when Saigon Grill was the first restaurant that I knew of that kept your phone number for faster ordering…

    11. Nina Tornabene says:

      Thank you for an uplifting story and the memories I have lived her since 1972 and Cafe La Fortunate was the place to go for wonderful coffee before wonderful coffee was a thing.

    12. Michael 85th says:

      I agree with your love of the neighborhood. I moved here in 1994 and have been here ever since, and have also compiled a long list of amazing stories, but I wish I would’ve run into you back in the day. The nightlife of the hood has slowed down, but now drinks on the rooftop terrace have replaced our crazy days:)

    13. ZoomZ says:

      The Allstate Cafe – West End Avenue between B’way & West End. Great food, great regulars, great feel. Too bad it closed after 30+ years.

      • ADB says:

        The best burgers,best eggs Benedict and best fried zucchini on the planet. Brass plaques in the bar for seriuos regulars, and one of the inspirations for Cheers. Went there at least once a week for years, and yes, everbody knew my name. Nothing truly comparable today.

    14. Karoka says:

      Thank you for wonderful writing and sharing some true west side experiences. Wishing you many more

    15. Lady Di says:

      born and raised in nyc. first adult apartment was in 1977 w/2 roomates in a “one bedroom” walk up(now a million dollar “brownstone”) on W 75th between Amsterdam and Columbus. We ate at The Cherry Restaurant – which was really a diner- when we had money. I worked pt at a boutique around the corner, J.L. Leach and we did our laundry at Soap’n Suds also around the corner on Columbus. This was long before the area got gentrified and it was the best. 3 years later we “moved on up” to West 53rd off 8th which was also like the wild west and we spent most nights at, conveniently, Studio 54…such good times and not much money needed…

      • Bärli says:

        Cherry Restaurant on Columbus Ave; a special neighborhood place, where you could be well taken care of even if $$ we’re limited. And the bakery next door where they gave out free cookies to the neighborhood kids — I forget the name. And the gruff bodega owner on the east side of Columbus between 76-77th Streets who wore roller blades? How about the older lady who roamed Columbus with a red wagon loaded with her many small (virtually identical) dogs, all with colorful bows in their hair?

        • Lady Di says:

          another Cherry patron! I just remembered the first sushi restaurant I went to – down the block and around the corner on Amsterdam Avenue – Nishi. At the time, raw fish was a relatively new concept and I was a bit squeamish about it but was won over once I tried it. And of course, how could I forget Ruelles; after my roomies and I went to see “Dressed to Kill” on 57th Street, we were so scared and freaked out we couldn’t go home right away and had to go to Cherry’s first.

        • tanya says:

          Grossingers was the bakery- LaRochelle was on the corner with phone booths in the window & Cherry Restaurant had a pass through to 60 West 76th St. for food

    16. Barbara says says:

      Been here since 1974 from Philadelphia and will always love this city. How about Dobson’s, a great meeting place with a great, cheap brunch, Ernies on Broadway had a popular bar scene, Ruelle’s, the creative looking Ruskay’s on Columbus Ave. about 75th St. and of course Teachers and Teachers Too on Broadway in the 70s where actors went for inexpensive food and you got to see all your actor/singer/dancer friends who were the wait staff when not in a show. Thanks for the lovely article.

    17. Deri says:

      Winsome is the best!

    18. Nic says:

      This is so lovely, really enjoyed reading your story

      • Patty Forbes says:

        We MUST have crossed paths as we hung out in all of the same places 🙂
        Winsome is still the best and classes at Thea Korek’s above Fairway. Wilson’s regular (Hey Debbie & Glen!)and vague memories of the China Club LOL

    19. CityGirl57 says:

      thank you so much for recognizing and celebrating all that is so great about this area! Born and raised here since 1957 it does change and your mention of many businesses that have gone made me so nostalgic . I still love love love it here …so thank you for such upbeat forward thinking encouragement !!

    20. Uws jamie says:

      This was a lovely portrait of the reason so many of us moved here. I felt the same way when I was growing up and always knew I wanted to live here. I’ve been here 30 years too and have watched all of those fabulous places close down and not much has taken their place. We have Dunkin Donuts and 7 eleven now instead of Korean Delis or coffee shops. I can’t decide if I’m getting older or the city is losing its character and charm. I still love the people but those places and people were special. I’m moving back to where I was born in a month or so, I’ll miss all of it but I already have been missing so much more.

    21. ChrisW71 says:

      Loved every word of this. Thanks to the author for writing and West Side Rag for publishing. I’m about a decade behind the author, but remember fondly much of what she writes about–and wish I had gotten to experience the rest!

    22. Brooklyn exile says:

      Lovely and loving. Made me ache for some things I missed because I was otherwise occupied. What a rich place we’re privileged to know.

    23. Jane says:

      What a great article, and what a great place to have been for three decades! I had only one decade, but it was glorious!

    24. adrienne haspel says:

      I loved this story, made me cry. I’ve lived in UWS/Morningside Heights since 1999 (21 years, my god) and – apart from my beloved hometown Budapest – never felt home anywhere else. This year I’ve been working in DC and can’t wait to go back!!! Thank you so much for this, Marianne!

    25. Ulrika says:

      I arrived on the UWS in 1989, and remember Cafe la Fortuna well – such fond memories. Thanks for reminding me, beautiful sentiments 🙏

    26. Wijmlet says:

      Winsome checked us out today at Fairway

    27. Margaret Malone says:

      Loved this! Though my exploits were tamer, I loved many of the same hangouts during my 40 years on the uws. I remember seeing the brilliant Jeffrey Wright around when he played in ‘Angels in America’ on Broadway.

    28. Acme says:

      This is a wonderful recollection of the UWS back in the day. I recall seeing Leonard Bernstein and Tiny Tim walking around on 72, the actor Martin Balsam at a nearby table in some Italian joint whose name escapes me. All of that changed after John Lennon was killed but at the time it was great knowing that ppl who could live anywhere they pleased chose my neighborhood 😉

    29. Leda says:

      Did you find the perfect mate?

      • Marianne says:

        Leda: haha, I found the perfect mate a couple of times but didn’t know it till I found myself 🙂

        • Moosie says:

          Loved your beautifully written memories. You were so adventurous and brave and gained many memories. I was married for over 40 yrs and only learned about myself when my son died. Sometimes a crisis that stops you in ur tracks allows new truths. Hope you write more, best maggi

    30. RJ says:

      Enjoyed this article so much! Lived here in the mid 70s on WEA with my husband since the mid 1970s. Big Nicks was my lunch staple and he knew our kids since they were born. We enjoyed so many of the places you mentioned. Such a wonderful trip down memory lane. Thank You 💕!

    31. Lorene Farnsworth says:

      How wonderful, thank you so much for writing this.

    32. Barbara says:

      Ah, thank you Marianne. That was a wonderful trip down memory lane. I moved to the UWS in 1978. I remember these and more. Tap a Keg, Marvin Gardens, thé bar restaurant on 79 and Columbus (northwest corner). The southwest corner was a revolving door of places. Café la Fortuna was one of my favorites. Great spot for an espresso and biscotti. After 42 years on the UWS, I will never leave, come what may.

    33. grace says:

      Thank you, Marianne. As everyone’s saying, this is so lovely and heartfelt — and moreover it rings so true. I came to NYC (and the UWS) one year after you — 1989 — and am also here still. I was there at every place that you mentioned! And remember Ernie’s, the restaurant on Broadway not far from Bear Bar? I join you in thanking our neighbors. What a treasure it is to live here! New York has been, and IS, everything to me.

    34. Rita Goldstein says:

      So enjoyed this article. Thanks.

    35. Sally Beck says:

      As someone who moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan in late ’76 at 19 years old, and then to the Murray Hill area where I stayed, moving 3 times as I came up in the world, I can so relate to this article! I just have “east side” versions of the stories. A great read!

    36. Lovely recollections. Brought me right back. Thanks for this. Loved reading it…especially during a time when the Upper West is not getting such great play.

    37. Caryn Greenberg says:

      thanks for reminding me of the west side I moved into. Those were the days. I miss Teacher’s Too.

    38. charles becker says:

      I loved that picture of the woman hovering over the NY skyline.

    39. NYYgirl says:

      Loved this, thx so much!! Totally miss Cafe La Fortuna with my Juilliard friends, what an oasis, whether inside with the recordings, or outside with lovely greenery…I still remember how exciting and delicious it was, and also the splurge on my first ever tiramisu 🙂

    40. mh says:

      I loved this. I have lived on the Upper West Side all of my life, remember so many of the things you wrote about so beautifully. I LOVE NY.
      Thank you in particular for mentioning my FAVORITE cashier at Fairway, Winsome.SUCH a lovey person, and her name suits her. I always hope to get her when I am on line to pay! I hope she will see this.

    41. mark futral says:

      The upper west side has always been a place where diversity and a sense of community thrived. Great story and love these throwback memories/articles which you folks at WSR should do more often.

    42. Ellen Pliskin says:

      As soon as I got to Winsome’s name, I too smiled! I hope she gets to see what all of her fans have to say
      Thanks. It was great. And who knew at the time tha we would all miss Big Nick so much!

    43. Robert says:

      I have to say that was the most beautiful, specific, and colorful article I’ve read in a long time. This is your best writing ever! Really well done!!! It brought me to those places because you were so specific! It was personal and made me melancholic. Thanks for sharing!

    44. Jay says:

      Re Caffe Taci, City Opera, not New York State Opera.

      And the little old Russian lady at the piano was Iya, who has passed away.

    45. Margaret says:

      Thank you SO much for the wonderful, wonderful memories! Lived on the west side since 1974 when things were a bit different, but every place you mentioned has a spot in my heart. We moved five years ago but still read the WSR and again thank you for the beautiful memories!

    46. Barbara Buoncristiano says:

      This was just a delight. Thanks for sharing this – made me nostalgic…

    47. Lady Di says:

      omg – totally forgot about the Cherry’s pass through – and of course Grossinger’s! thank you so much

    48. And I saw it all; thank you dear, for letting us in on such a precious, shimmering & deeply felt treat, one that swirled & spun until my eyes fairly brimmed with tears of joy and sadness.

    49. Elizabeth Unger says:

      Thank you for the memories! How many generations of Columbus Avenue we have seen! Mid 80’s walking along Columbus at night…

      Think Big, Charavari (now Citibank on 81st), Ruperts, Lucy’s (with the blue whales in your drink), Fujiyama Mama (fried ice cream with sparklers for your bday) and MEMPHIS!

    50. MLM says:

      Oh, what a wonderful piece! Wilson’s, China Club, CAFE LA FORTUNA!!!!! So many memories, thank you!! And the comments below–even more long-gone places that I loved, like Ernie’s. And Winsome, at Fairway. I’m tearing up.

    51. peggy Salwen says:

      Marianne,
      Thank you for reminding me about the old Upper West Side. It was a joy to walk through the streets with you.