It’s Got The Snap
By Robert Beck
Gray’s Papaya is my favorite hot dog place for several reasons. Foremost is that it’s a dedicated hot dog eatery, not one of those restaurants with a hot dog listed on the menu in case that’s all your kid will eat. No no. Gray’s specializes. It’s all hot dogs. The exception is the egg, cheese, and meat sandwich on the breakfast menu, but you can get one of those with franks on it too. They also do it right. None of this boiled stuff (what my Brooklyn friend calls dirty-water dogs). These are gently cooked to a light, mahogany-brown patina. Delicious.
The store has personality. Give your order to the guy at the big grill, take a couple of steps, and it meets you at the cash register. Done. Sometimes it gets there before you do. I wanted to do a painting of the inside of Gray’s, but there is a logistical problem. Not only do things move quickly in there, but there’s no room, and I never see anyone who looks like they are in charge who I can talk to. Before I can ask somebody about asking somebody, I’m out the other end with my food. I wrote them but didn’t hear back, so I settled for an exterior view.
The dogs at Gray’s aren’t overly large. Unlike hamburger eaters who respond to size, hot dog eaters prefer their excess in multiples. That assures the proper balance of hot dog to roll and allows for one-handed face-stuffing. Proper form is to hold the dog by the end, with the bun-split facing up, or a two-handed cradle if the dog is loaded and both hands are free. Tilting your head sideways is permitted.
According to your correspondent (and many other hot dog lovers), these grilled, natural-casing dogs are the best in New York. At first, I considered the pairing with exotic fruit drinks to be odd, but now I’d rather have that than anything else. Two dogs with mustard and a papaya. It’s what Jambon au beurre is to Paris. Or maybe cheesesteaks to Philly. I take my dogs and plenty of napkins across Amsterdam to Verdi Square and enjoy the small, usually peaceful oasis of trees and benches surrounded by UWS frenzy. I hold one in my lap while I work the other. The casings have that snap. The papaya is sweet against the salt of the meat. I always get mustard in my mustache. That’s what napkins are for.
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The newsstand with the incredibly affable news dealer is not in the painting. Buying candy before the trip home on the M11 bus is part of the activity.
I might have to do one just of him
Yep, the best place in NYC to get a dog. And you decide how much mustard you’re putting on. Only thing is the inflated price. I remember, not that long ago, when it was $2.50 for two dogs and a papaya drink. I remember farther down the road when it was a 50 cents special for 1. Them days are gone, but the great taste stays the same. May you never close shop.
How much are the dogs & juice these days? I think I stopped eating them back in the 75 cent days.
Speaking of ruminating:
I stopped frequenting that famous & well-loved den of delicious fried dogs not because of the taste, which was always dramatically excellent, but because I was trying to update and improve my dietary & nutritional profiles, and Grays, sadly, didn’t make the cut.
That decision was uninformed by any rigorous research but rather based on the hunch that fried & salt laden beef was not a stop on the road to better health.
Was I wrong?
Because I could easily slide back to that pungent den of fried & salt-laden beef with the greatest of gustatory ease & pleasure, though… based on my current health assessments, that decision would present even more problems, such as my inevitable reaction to the reflected image staring back from the full length mirror in my altogether, which would no doubt prove to be even more cringeworthy than it already is, the effects of advancing years being what they are.
You don’t have to eat there every day. or every week. I go a few times a year.
Them dogs are grilled, not fried. Life is short, and if you are of the 75 cents per dog generation, you must be 60 and over. I’m not a doctor (even though I played a few on TV), but I say – go and have a few at Papaya King by all means. Enjoy & cheers
I remember a loaf of bread costing 39 cents … those days are long gone and will never return. Grays is still the best deal in town for a great dog or two! I’d love to buy one of Robert Beck’s paintings .. so representative of the wonderful Upper West Side!!
Yeah. Thirty-five cents for smokes and twenty -five for gas, or was it the other way around. You can probably pay less (shudder) and I’m sure you can pay a lot more, but I think seven bucks for two dogs and a drink—two WORLD CHAMPION dogs—is not only reasonable, it’s compulsory.
Robert Beck’s description is spot-on. Natural casings and two smaller dogs rather than one big one — excellent criteria. And his paintings are good too.
Maybe consider taking a few photos while you are inside, but you’ve probably already thought of that (and probably don’t paint from photos)!
Thanks Florence. A photo tells you what it looks like, but standing there for three hours tells you how it feels.
A paean to Papaya King! Can’t think of anyplace that deserves one more! I’ve been eating their dogs for 40 years and they are still the best.
Do you ever sell any of your wonderful UWS restaurant paintings? This is at least the 2nd one that has made me think: I’d love to own that!
When my office was on 54th Street & I worked real late, I would treat myself to a cab home and stop on my way to get 2 with extra mustard and sauerkraut and whatever the cabbie wanted on his. I was given a surprise 60th birthday party there with a big Sacher torte from Eclairs for dessert.. I go back to the hotdog war with a place
around the corner when the price dropped from a low of 50 cents to 35 cents. The last 20 years have seen more occasional visits but my granddaughter has joined the Gray’s fan club. Bonus: The owner had a big Bill Bradley banner up when he was running for President (maybe he was also a Princeton Man or a Knicks fan). Long Live Gray’s.
Don’t leave out the free sauerkraut — it’s what puts the whole thing right over the top!
I love this. The writing is as evocative as the painting. Really well done!
Good description of difference in hamburger eaters and hotdog eaters. Have walked past Gray’s many times but never stopped there. It’s a sure thing next time I am in NYC
Great artist. Where can I see other works, and maybe purchase?
Wonder if some day the Papaya King will wed the Pastrami Queen just down the block on 72nd street and complete what would likely be an UWS “marriage made in heaven!” Fact is, the King shall always satisfy and the Queen can sometimes disappoint.
A wonderfully written essay and painting about the best hot dog place. Thank you!
You’re welcome, Ellen
While admitting that food critics like Gray’s hot dogs (Eater’s being the most recent), the food stand is unfortunately a day-and-night blight on the neighborhood.
Mr. Beck, I am another fan of your writing and art. And, I too, would love to have one of your paintings on my wall – in the dining room or kitchen or wherever the scene dictates!
As a California transplant with limited UWS connections (so far!) i need to return to your stories (and art) and make a list of must visit spots!
Full disclosure, our place is on the UES, but that’s so we’re 5 minutes from the little grandkids! I do find favorite spots on the UWS, like my vac and sewing machine shop, Crown Services. Now that would be a place your easel would never fit!!!
Thanks for the tip.
Speaking of Grays’s-as-muse, there is a story called “The Hot Dog War’ by Thomas Beller, in the collection called the Seduction Theory, where Gray’s plays a starring role.
You are too hilarious and always the most obscure and understandable ways of seeing things. My 94 year old Mother also loved hotdogs there. Last time she ate one I took a great photo of her sitting on her walker seat inside the crowded place. She was happy as heck!
When I go, I want it to be with that smear of mustard on my face.
Not a hot dog fan, but this makes me want to re-consider. Your painting is simply fantastic.
My brother Leo, who lived in Montreal, always made Gray’s Papaya his first top. whenever he visited. It’s New York to me, he used to say.
He’s not alone
Gray’s is, by far, one of the highlights of the UWS! “Two with” means 2 dogs with kraut! And I add the mustard and a grape drink…a little flavor with lots of water.Then, if there’s room, I stand at the counter looking out the windows watching New Yorkers walking past. A great experience and i love it.
A seven-dollar ticket to one of the greatest shows on earth, meal included.
Your words and painting make me want to walk down to 72nd St. right now. Gray’s has always been a favorite of ours. Thank you for brightening the day.
Where can we see these paintings in person?
I used to go to Gray’s often (usually 2 dogs and a papaya) until one day at least a couple of years ago when the counterman soaked the bun with sauerkraut juice (not my thing) and refused to make good for it. I tried reaching anybody I could of authority there in various ways until I gave up and have been Gray’s dog-free since. Never again!
Your loss for a small and petty thing.
The egg-sausage-cheese sandwiches are stuffed!
I was there when a customer’s order for a Coke elicited a loud response from the counterman about the health benefits of fruit nectar as opposed to soda. “Ask your doctor…”
Born and raised UWS’er who has been eating these dogs my whole life. My mom taught me how to order the perfect dogs. Well done, cold roll, mustard and sauerkraut. Trust me and thank me later. 🙂
Gray’s Papaya is my favorite hot dog place but the buns have taken a quality hit of late.
I’m with you (sans mustache)
Well crafted. Thanks. I don’t even eat hot dogs. But now I want to.
While growing up in the neighborhood in the early 60’s, Gray’s was there serving Papaya juice but my goto place for hot dogs was the Nedick’s directly across Broadway from them.
Wow a Nedick’s! Who knew?! As a kid I’d eat ’em in Paterson… ah the sound that sizzling grill made… man, if you liked a nice greasy burger it was either there or White Castle; Nedick’s with their pickle chips, White Castle for their sliders w/ fried onions… eat ’em by the bagful!
Ah the paradise that existed prior to anybody opening their trap about Health Concerns, Nutrition and all the rest of it…
It was like Eden then; back before the snake… and that apple.
Gray’s Papaya is also great in student days when one may not have a budget for dining out…or much else. I like my dogs with relish, too. Long may Gray’s wave!
Everyone who loves Gray’s Papaya should read Emma Staub’s This Time Tomorrow. The main character eats there all the time. If you haven’t read it, it is a very moving time travel story set on the UWS.
When I’m sitting there looking out I feel like I’m on the Starship Enterprise.
I made an etching of the outside with Sleepy’s and that Depression sign that used to be painted on the side of the building overlooking it. That corner is iconic. It’s like the Statue of Liberty or something…
Can’t help but notice a coupla comments refer to our beloved hot dog place as Papaya King. Most of us use Gray’s Papaya, as their sign says. Anyone know the real difference?
Papaya King is an East Side (oh no, I said it) competitor with it’s own history, and it’s own recipes (although the dogs were and possibly are still made by the same company). Think of them as fraternal twins. Last I heard, the skinny was that their building was going to be torn down. Seems to be a theme. But the references to Papaya King in the comments here either mistakenly calling Gray’s by the wrong name, misread of my column, or erroneously believe they are the same hot dog eateries, which is totally understandable.
Lovely painting, so fine and evocative. Thank you, and thank you for access to your website – I greatly enjoyed seeing so many of your other wonderful paintings. I am more partial to the ones of the city – particularly moved by Sunday Cab and the one of the snowstorm (forgot the title).
Blizzard. I apologize. The website is in dire need of updating, and I tend to favor painting instead. But I plan to create a section where people can see the images I’ve painted for the rag. This weekend I raise the curtain on my new studio on 79th, where people can see them as well. Come say hi.
With you 100% except I still miss the fresh squeezed orange juice. That was the best combination ever. I understand about the price but still wish they would bring it back.
That does sound delicious.
The reason for people sometimes calling this place Papaya King instead of Gray’s Papaya is that way back when (I believe) the man who runs Gray’s was originally a partner with whoever runs Papaya King. When they opened the location on West 72nd Street, I think it was actually called Papaya King. Then the two partners either had a falling out or maybe agreed to go their separate ways (not sure which). After that, the Papaya King owner objected to the West 72nd Street location having the same name as his UES establishment and that’s how the UWS location name came to be changed to Gray’s Papaya. This was the story I was told by my mother, who recalled what was on the West 72nd Street corner BEFORE Gray’s. FYI–for years it was a fairly large newsstand/candy store/smoke shop and then it was an Orange Julius for a time after that.
If any readers here find yourselves watching a rerun of the famous Rhoda TV series episode where Rhoda gets married, there is a scene where she’s running down a NYC street in full wedding dress regalia and you can clearly see the West 72nd Street Papaya store in the background.