There was a time when East 86th Street from Lexington Avenue to the East River smelled like poppy seeds, chocolate and goulash.
There were no overflowing garbage cans, no vendors assaulting your senses with their wares, and no giant food emporiums. You could stroll down the street peeking into small stores, grab a bit in The Kleine Konditorei without breaking the bank. How about a nice little coffee mit schlag (whipped cream not spritzed from a can), and a puff pastry made with real hard worn hands from the baker in the kitchen? It was a stroll in prewar Vienna and Budapest.
The old brownstones on Second Avenue were not taller than three or four stories and you could see the sky and the moon. You could pop into the Mocca restaurant on Second Avenue in the 80s and eat their delicate weiner schnitzel with cucumber/potato salad and then indulge in the best chestnut torte dessert this side of the Atlantic.
Your waitress was always the little wobbly woman who was close to 100 but she could carry those trays without an accident. Her delicious accent added to the delights of the cuisine. If you wanted class service, you went to Vienna 79 where royalty reigned. White-gloved waiters, stiff damask tablecloths, gold cutlery and a meal fit for the emperor and his wife. You left the restaurant almost expecting a horse-drawn chariot to take you home.
There were arrays of wondrous eating places, like the Budapest, where a meal could run you under $10, the Red Tulip where goulash was served in a tin bucket next to your plate, the Ruc, an ordinary place but what a glorious feast it was during the summer eating in the back garden with colored bulbs dangling overhead and caressing light breezes. But it was a one-way ticket to an arterial collapse if you indulged in their specialty of goose, dumplings and an assortment of Eastern European courses.
If you wanted to stock up foods to take home, you went to Paprika Weiss, the big overflowing store on Second Avenue. The best Hungarian salami cut so thin one could see through it. Every slice was a treat. Their paprika came in different strengths and made cooking a joy. Nowhere has this product been duplicated. My pantry is still stocked with it.
It is said that what goes around comes around. It must be so because I now live in the midst of subway lines in the making, high-rises cropping up, a new bohemian nightlife, international restaurants, happy hour bars and now wafts of cooking and baking.
It is the new Olde Yorkville.