Given the staggering amount of silver-scalped bellyaching I’ve been doing about the depunkification of St. Marks, the dueling legacies of Hoboken’s Pier Platters and Manhattan’s since-vanished record shops, and other flagrantly backwards-looking posts, I thought I’d approach my fetishistic penchant for nostalgia through another angle …. through the stomach.
Back in 2013, you might remember a series of tear-moistened entries I posted here documenting the gradual demise of Bleecker Bob’s, arguably Manhattan’s once-preeminent hive of slavish record geekery. That's it at the top of this post circa 1983, courtesy of the New York University Archives. The ad immediately above, meanwhile, comes via Stupefaction, after the shop had moved a few blocks to the south from its original perch just off West 8th Street on MacDougal. Note the tagline of "courteous and well-mannered service."
No, not everyone loved the place — hello, Thurston — for any number of reasons (Bob’s abrasive personality, the high prices, the strange patina of greasy dust that seemed to coat everything in the shop, etc.), but it remained a significant destination — patronized by everyone from the burly gents in Agnostic Front through — legend has it — John Lennon. Below is a shot of me with my little boy in front of the shop a few years back, unintentionally replicating the cover of an Ian Dury and the Blockheads record. For some of us, the shuttering of Bleecker Bob’s was comparably painful to the closing of CBGB or the Cedar Tavern or _______ (insert your favorite lost establishment here).
But, close it did. Originally, the rumor was that it was going to become a Starbuck’s. As it happened, that wasn’t true (but it was by no means a far-fetched concept). Word then came down that it was to become a frozen yogurt emporium, albeit one that was going to attempt to honor the vibe and heritage of the space’s fabled former occupant (i.e. taking a fashionably pre-distressed page from John Varvatos’ expensively bespoke playbook).
For whatever reason, that didn’t come to pass either, and the deceptively named Forever Yogurt divested from the endeavor, leaving an empty, sad and disheveled space where Bleecker Bob’s had been. Bitter words were expressed by concerned parties.
Time passed while the space sat empty, and then about a year ago, a Japanese restaurant named Miyabi that formerly held court across the street decided to make a move. Quietly and suddenly, they crossed over and 118 West 3rd Street officially had a new occupant.
Now, when it comes to Japanese food, I’m pretty provincial, generally choosing to be slavishly loyal to my local establishment, that being University Place’s beloved Japonica (a business that’s gone through a similar series of travails as Bleecker Bob’s). I used to go to this joint over on St. Marks Place, but after they repeatedly kept getting “C” ratings in cleanliness, I decided to cross them off my list.
This all said, my longtime friend, fellow music geek and similarly under-compensated rock-journo type, Steve Holtje, reached out recently, suggesting that it was high time we got together for some proper Japanese food (he being something of a connoisseur of such grub).
You see where this is all going, right?
I suggested that we do just that, and meet up at Miyabi. Since it was a place both Steve and I had spent large amounts of time and money back in the day (although Steve was quick to point out that he much preferred Second Coming Records over on Sullivan Street … now a Thai bistro), I thought we should go check out how the place has transformed.
A quick word about Steve Holtje: Steve and I met back in about 1990, when we were both working at a tiny indie music zine called The New York Review of Records. From there we both went on to write for other periodicals like Creem and the abysmally named HuH? Boasting a soft-spoken wit, a dizzyingly encyclopedic knowledge of music (with a special penchant for crazy-obscure jazz), a stubborn fondness for baseball and an uncanny visual resemblance to fabled Blues Brothers saxophonist Lou “Blue Lou” Marini, Steve has always been a good friend and straight shooter.
Anyway, because I’m obsessively punctual, I arrived a bit early, and loitered outside waiting for Steve to show up. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but Miyabi — at lunch hour on a weekday — actually does a fairly robust bit of business. The lunch crowd was out in force, primarily comprised of office types, start-up jockeys, NYU kids and the odd party of tourists. Bicycle delivery men sprinted this way and that. I’d say there’s a fairly reasonable chance that the restaurant will stay put at this location for some time.
I stood outside, studying the graffiti adorning the surrounding facade. A young, bespectacled hipster-type sauntered up and raised his camera to take a picture of Miyabi’s signage. I was going to engage him on the subject — figuring he, too, wanted to commemorate the lost shop that used to own this corner, until I realized he was taking a picture to get the phone number so he could order some delivery at some later point.
Steve showed up and in we went.
Obviously, the inside of the restaurant looks entirely different from the old record shop (and gone is that signature smell), but the actual layout is still recognizable. Steve and I were seated at a table that would have been just to the left of the cash register (where bins overstuffed with vintage vinyl in grubby plastic sheathes used to beckon curious browsers).
Perhaps I was expecting things to be weirder than they actually turned out to be. After a few moments of soaking it all in, Steve and I ordered, started catching up and shortly got our food.
For what it’s worth, Steve ordered some curious octopus dish and another plate laden with clumps of what I assumed were fish of some variety and some sake. I, meanwhile, took a less adventurous route and ordered the lunch special — a bento box with teriyaki, katsu, a couple of California rolls and some rice, augmenting same with a bottle of Asahi.
We had a fine lunch. I don’t believe either of us were particularly wowed by the fare, but it wasn’t bad. The place did have a small problem with tiny flies (almost the size of fruit flies … annoying but largely inconsequential). That notwithstanding, it was a decent dining experience.
I don’t believe I ever used the men’s room at Bleecker Bob’s (shoppers certainly weren’t encouraged to do so when Bob was at the register, to put it mildly), but Miyabi’s restrooms were clean and devoid of distinction. I kept looking around the place for hints, remnants or ghosts, but nothing really remains.
I’d love to imagine that when the Miyabi staff close up shop, turn off the lights and lock up every night, a faint rumble of distant, barely discernible power chords can be heard emanating from the rear of the restaurant, but that’s just me being sentimental.