The many segments of mahogany paneling that used to line the enormous restaurant now lean against the stripped walls. A sea of little round tables, reminiscent of those in 1950s nightclubs, are clustered together, plain and unappealing without the pristine white tablecloths that once covered them. The floor is covered with white powdery plaster. And, surrounding the entrance door, are the barely discernible imprints of the gold-plated letters that once announced that you had arrived at Harry’s Restaurant.
Actually, for a certain segment of New York City’s political deal-makers, lunch at Harry’s in the Woolworth Building simply announced that you had arrived.
Once the undisputed lunchtime and happy hour spot for local politicos, lobbyists and businessmen, Harry’s has become one of the casualties of developer Steve Witkoff’s grand plans for the Woolworth building, which he purchased in 1998. The new owner reportedly has his eye on technology companies to fill the vacant offices and has designs to replace Harry’s with a “world-class” restaurant.
But gourmands’ gain is New York City government’s loss. Harry’s thrived in the 1990s, serving 400 customers each day in the 10,000-square-foot dining area. “Harry’s was a healthy extension of City Hall,” remembers Council Speaker Peter Vallone. “When I think of Harry’s I think of all the wonderful Council holiday celebrations we held there and the lunches I hosted.” “Anybody who is anybody in that part of town ate there,” agrees Joyce Matz, a longtime player in city politics since her days repping unions and Congressmen.
Mario Cascone, Harry’s owner for the past decade, was convinced he would make a fortune with the restaurant. But when the Woolworth Corporation unloaded the building in 1995 after filing for bankruptcy, his business fell off. Disheartening meetings with Witkoff prompted Cascone to offer the developer the option to buy the restaurant. He refused. Cascone claims after that point Witkoff used scare tactics to push him out–for instance, sending him $200-an-hour bills for air conditioning.
Finally, Cascone was handed an eviction notice when his lease expired in December 1999. He fought the eviction and was able to stay on a few more months, until he closed his restaurant on March 3. “I’m so angry, I can’t wait to get out of here,” he says, his heavy Italian accent laced with frustration.
The unceremonious eviction has left a bitter taste in 66-year-old Cascone’s mouth, coming at the twilight of a long and prosperous career in restaurants. Even when business was at its lowest point at Harry’s, profits still exceeded $1 million.
“I’m angry with the situation, but I’m happy with what I was able to achieve in this country, and with the opportunity this country gave to me,” says Cascone, who moved to the U.S. in 1974. “This sour note does not nullify the good memories,” he adds. “The people are beautiful, and I have a very loyal and dear clientele.” Cascone had planned to pass Harry’s on to his daughter Angelica, but instead he is now helping her open her own restaurant downtown before he retires.
Veteran city councilmember and majority leader Archie Spigner laments the closing of the restaurant, which was his top choice for business lunches. “This is the last City Hall restaurant of any longevity,” says Spigner. “It is, in fact, the end of an era. The City Hall area is diminished by its closing.”