Volume 80, Number 9 | July 29 - August 4, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photos by David McCabe (above and below left) and Lincoln Anderson (right)

Fedora Dorato, above, at the bar at her Fedora restaurant last week, before its closing on Sunday. Dorato gave her blessing to restaurateur Gabriel Stulman — below with his fiancée, Gina Falero — who plans to open a new eatery at the W. Fourth St. location.

Fedora was more than just a place to hang your hat

By David McCabe

In the dining room at Fedora around 5:30 one afternoon last week, a few tables were filled, a handful with single diners, a few others with large groups. These were the restaurant’s regulars. They had been coming here, most of them every week, for five, 10, 20, in some cases, even 30 years.

They were there for Ginsberg and Stonewall, Son of Sam and the Bronx fires, AIDS and Reagan, the unification of Berlin and the Contract with America, for the invasions of Kabul and Baghdad, eating their chicken Tetrazzini or lamb chops and sipping their drink of choice, mixed by one of the many bartenders who held court behind the counter at this Greenwich Village landmark since 1952.

But this past Sunday, the restaurant, on W. Fourth St. between W. 10th and Charles Sts., had its final night under the management of Fedora Dorato, the 90-year-old woman for whom the restaurant is named and who has been involved in its operation since she and her husband, Henry, took it over in 1952. Fedora said she is retiring because of her age and back pain that makes it difficult for her to operate the restaurant.

Fedora — who is named not for the hat but for the opera by Umberto Giordano — was born in Florence, Italy, in 1921, and was a childhood friend of the Tucci family, who went on to found Delmonico’s restaurant in New York. She also knew Sirio Maccioni, whose restaurant Le Cirque is a stalwart of the New York City dining world.

The space, however, started serving customers long before 1952. It was opened as a speakeasy in 1919 by Henry’s father, Charles Dorato — for whom Fedora’s son is named. Upon Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, Charles opened a restaurant called Charlie’s Garden at the location.

Fedora met Henry at an ice cream parlor in 1939, and she said they started dating shortly afterward. But their courtship was interrupted when Henry went to fight in World War II in 1942.

According to the younger Charles Dorato, when his father returned from the war, the restaurant was being rented and operated by two men named Bill and Jerry, who named it after themselves. Around that time, on April 1, 1945, Henry and Fedora were married.

After a few years, Bill and Jerry closed, leaving behind the red-and-green sign that still hangs above the restaurant. In 1952, Henry and Fedora opened Fedora restaurant.

While Fedora supported the venture, she wasn’t active in the cooking and prep work until later because she was raising her son, Charles.

According to an article about the restaurant that was published in the “Metropolitan Diary” section of The New York Times, a model named Burke McHugh convinced many of his friends to come to the newly opened restaurant, which greatly increased its popularity.

Fedora also differed from many of the bars and restaurants in the area for one particular reason: They were willing to serve same-sex couples. According to Jim Fouratt, a longtime neighborhood activist who said he had his first date with a man at Fedora, the majority of establishments in the city that served homosexuals were mafia owned and catered only to gay men. Fedora, on the other hand, was one of only two restaurants in the area that allowed same-sex couples, but wasn’t exclusively for gay men.

Fedora said that the police would often come into the restaurant and ask Henry, who would tend bar, whether or not he was serving homosexuals. He would reply, “You want to ask them what they are, you ask — I don’t ask.”

Over the next few decades, Fedora had its ups and downs. During the AIDS crisis, many of the restaurant’s customers died, according to Jonathan Graves, a waiter who worked at the restaurant for 35 years.

In 1997, Henry Dorato died, and Fedora took over cooking for the restaurant and the place’s overall operation.

While Fedora the restaurant was less busy in the decade following Henry’s death, it certainly wasn’t an uneventful period of time for the establishment. George Malmaund, a waiter who came to Fedora from the former Sazarac House restaurant five years ago, recalled that one regular once walked into the restaurant with his dinner companions, sat down, raised his finger to motion to a waiter, and died on the spot.

Throughout all of this time, many regulars continued to frequent Fedora restaurant. Some came once a week, others a few times every week. While many started coming to the restaurant long ago, some new regulars only got interested in recent years. Gene, who only gave her first name, said that she started patronizing Fedora three-and-a-half years ago when she happened upon the bar. She said she appreciates the radio playing classical music, a practice she says she doubts will continue at the restaurant when it is taken over by restaurateur Gabriel Stulman.

Stulman, known for his involvement with the Little Owl, at Bedford and Grove Sts., which opened in 2006 and is owned by chef Joey Campanaro and Mikey Price, now owns Joseph Leonard, which opened less than a year ago, also located on Grove St.

Stulman has said he wants to restore Fedora to what it looked like in the 1930s and ’40s, and that he wants to continue serving many of the regulars who have been coming to Fedora since the ’60s. He told The Villager, “I hope that it’s the kind of place that those regulars feel comfortable at, and I hope that it is a place where our regulars [from Joseph Leonard] feel comfortable.”

The bar, he said, will stay in place, as will some of the photos on the walls.

In an interview, he described his plans for the new menu as “classic American and classic French,” citing dishes such as clams casino and duck confit as inspiration. When asked about prices, he said he hoped to keep the food in the same price range as the food at Joseph Leonard, where the average price of the entrees is $23.50.

Stulman said he doesn’t eat at expensive restaurants, and that he doesn’t want to price anyone out.

“I’ve never built an overly pricey restaurant,” he said. Although he did note that expense is an inherently subjective quality of a restaurant.

Many Fedora regulars, Stulman said, had signed a petition in favor of his application for a liquor license.

“Community work is a core value to our mission statement,” he said.

To many of the longtime diners at Fedora, that sense of community was key to why they loved the restaurant. One regular, Steve, who ate at Fedora every Wednesday and Friday night for the last 30 years, recounted something that Fedora herself used to say: “You’re never alone when you’re here alone.”

Last week Community Board 2 gave its approval for a liquor license at the new restaurant, on the condition that it close at 2 a.m. At the meeting, many neighbors voiced their fears that the place would be noisier and livelier under new ownership than its predecessor. But other Village residents who live near Stulman’s other restaurants and like to dine at them testified that he runs quality establishments that are bona fide restaurants, not late-night venues for revelers. Testifying into the microphone at the meeting, Fedora herself gave her blessing to Stulman’s taking over the space and operating it as a restaurant.

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