What happens when Papaya King leaves?
An editor once told me that she avoids stories about beloved stores and restaurants that bite the dust. I can understand why. You almost know what the writer is going to say, the tearful client quotes, the cliches.
But there’s also a reason why such stories have appeal. They are less about the disappearance and death of a favorite establishment than about memory, life and celebration. When a trusted restaurant goes bankrupt, you remember all the great meals you had there and wonder what, if anything, will fill the void?
I’ve had a lot of experience lately with the phenomenon. I suspect it’s age related. We tend to think that places are more permanent than people. But they are more ephemeral. Few street-level businesses have an eighty-year lifespan. Only a handful of New York’s thousands of restaurants existed before the 20e century.
Their extinction has become so predictable—accelerated by Covid, online shopping, and perhaps the deadliest of all New York City’s sky-high rents—that when I turn the corner of a reliable restaurant or store, I m half-expect to find out it’s closed. My fears are more than occasionally realized.
News of another irreplaceable staple about to shut down came recently. Patch, a hyper local news site, first reported that the future of Papaya King, a hot dog and juice stand that opened on the Upper East Side in the 1940s, is uncertain. . The one-story building at the corner of 86e The street and Third Avenue are expected to be razed to make way for another apartment tower.
Papaya King is not just any hot dog stand. Lamentations in places like The New York Times described it as popularizing the association of franks and tropical juices. This combo has never seemed so wise to me. And until this week, when I paid what I suspect was a ceremonial last visit to the sidewalk stand, I settled for the more conventional combination of a few hot dogs and a coke.
But what set Papaya King apart transcended the food, although the food was pretty good. Based on an alleged special recipe, Papaya King boasted that his franks tasted better than filet mignon. I prefer to avoid this debate. Comparing hot dogs to steak is like comparing apples to oranges. Both have their place. They are both awesome.
That said, the Papaya King franchises felt above the competition. They were a little spicier, a little juicier. Indeed, they were so delicious that adding any toppings seemed like a profanation. I did it anyway. Mustard and sauerkraut. Light. Very light. Smothered onions from time to time. But they more than held up without any condiments.
Another aspect of Papaya King’s appeal is its discomfort. The place is cramped, not wide enough for two customers to pass each other. And there are no tables. You have to eat at the counter, standing up, getting pushed around, other customers reaching for mustard and ketchup.
But the punishment seemed like a concession you were willing to make for a first-class hot dog. Also, Papaya King’s bay windows overlooked the human comedy. 86e street is not one of the most scenic boulevards in Manhattan. But it is a crossroads, dozens or even hundreds of New Yorkers passing in front of the windows of the stand during two francs and a drink.
I sometimes ordered the meal to eat them at home. But it’s not the same thing. They seem to lose some of their flavor, some of their spiciness. What makes them great is the combination of affordable food and entertainment.
This week, against my better judgment, I asked for a little papaya juice with my francs. I was afraid of making a mistake. But Papaya King is famous for its tropical juices – papaya, mango and pina colada. And for reasons of journalistic closure, I felt compelled to try the juice at least once.
It was good, although I still believe nothing goes better with fast food than a coke. You need something bubbly and industrial strength to go with your meal. Fresh juice, to me at least, looks like a standalone treat. The creamy texture and delicate taste also clash with everyone’s hot dog looks.
That’s another thing about Papaya King. Society is increasingly polarized between rich and poor, blue and red states. But the hot dog stand welcomed New Yorkers of all income brackets, from Park Avenue swells to delivery people.
New stores and restaurants are opening as fast as old ones are closing. Some may even be better. But they can never completely replace the old guard. Because what perished with them was not only their food, their merchandise or their style, but also a small part of yourself.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
Opinions expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of that resort or its direction.