A Boring Account Of The Life And Death Of A Restaurant In Sunnyside
Peter Tatara - August 1, 2008
When I moved to Sunnyside, Queens a few years back, there was a new eatery just opening. The Cheesesteak Factory. Read that again. The Cheesesteak Factory. The first dozen times I passed it, I presumed the place was an urban outpost of the Cheesecake Factory, a decadent suburban chain specializing in big plates, bigger bellies, and side orders of heart disease, but I was wrong, and it was instead a trying-to-be-trendy sandwich shop flirting with trademark infringement.
The place had a few computers up front with complimentary internet access, flat screens lining one wall showing a rotation of Superman Returns, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and X-Men: The Last Stand, an open kitchen running the length of the other, and a dessert station overflowing with gelato and -- yes -- cheesecake. And it was pretty good. The sandwiches were warm, crusty, messy, and everything a cheesesteak sandwich -- or eggplant parmesan -- should be. And the pizza was spectacular. Yes, they served pizza, too.
Sunnyside has its share of pizza places, all dedicated in cheap, greasy NYC-style slices. Now, I love New York pizza and personally think Sunnyside's Lentini's is perfection -- the paragon of what New York pizza should be -- but, on occasion, I'm in the mood for a thicker slice, something fat with heaps of fresh toppings, and this is what the Cheesesteak Factory offered, handsome, designer pizza with mountains of exotic ingredients.
The Cheesesteak Factory looked good, had quality food, and there were always people inside, yet one day, it closed down. I don't know why it was, but its lights were off and doors suddenly shuttered. Maybe the Cheesecake Factory finally laid down a legal slapping. Maybe, despite its fresh and filling food, prices were too high. (A medium Cheesesteak Factory pizza was double the price of a large Lentini's pie.). Maybe it just wasn't a fit for the neighborhood. Whatever it was, it caused the Cheesesteak Factory to shut down. For a week. Very, very quickly, the place was back with its staff and menu intact but a hastily-constructed new sign placed over the Cheesesteak Factory name. The Cheesesteak Factory had become Sal's Pizzeria.
I don't really know what to say about Sal's. Something went wrong. The computers and flat screens quickly disappeared, the designer pizzas turned into NYC-style pies (without NYC-style pie prices), and bits and pieces of the rest of the menu gradually vanished. My favorite part of the Cheesesteak-Sal's transition was the duct tape speckled over every mention of "Cheesesteak Factory" and extinct menu item on the oversized menu hung over the restaurant's grill. The changes started coming faster and faster, the restaurant getting cheaper and cheaper, until one day, it was again boarded up. And nothing took its place.
What was the problem? I don't know. I imagine any number of things could have gone wrong behind the scenes and the owners' veins were bled dry. But I know when it all went wrong, and I think I know how it all could have been prevented. The Cheesesteak Factory should never have transformed into a lowest-common-denominator pizza joint. Sandwiches brought bodies into the restaurant and if these was an issue with the name, as I'll blindly presume there was, the restaurant should have reinvented itself as something like The Cheesesake Commune. Put some old USSR flags on the walls, Che T-Shirts across the chest of every employee, and the slogan "It's Revolutionary!" atop the menus, and you've got a place that would have done brisk business -- and stick it to the Cheesecake Factory bastards who put you in this position. Yet while this all appears pretty logical to me, I've been told The Cheesecake Commune's a pretty wretched idea by everyone I've ever mentioned it to, which is why I didn't jump on the abandoned Sal's and erect it myself.
When I go to start a restaurant, I know exactly what the place will be -- The Pasta Butler -- because I know the worlds of formal wear, casual dining, and DIY-menus are screaming to get together.
I enjoyed The Cheesesteak Factory, tried to enjoy Sal's, and have wiped a few sniffles from my nose looking at vacant hole where once both stood. I've pined for something new to open in their place for nearly a year now, and spent endless hours boring my girlfriend with one-ended conversations about what I think should go into the barren space. While I love Sunnyside and the neighborhood is hardly lacking in its dining options, I just hate staring into this monument to the community's inability to bring in new entrepreneurs (although it can't seem to scare new condos away) every day I come home from work.
And last night, I saw something stirring in the bones of Sal's. Work permits, flashes of light, and a new sign rising into the air. Ariba Ariba: Creative Mexican Cuisine. Hmmm. This could be interesting.