The Fanciest Diner In New York: The Polish Tea Room of Times Square

Some time ago, I was meeting up with some friends to eat in Times Square, and they suggested we go to a diner called Cafe Edison, part of the Hotel Edison on 47th.

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My culinary expectations were pretty low (as you may have heard, Times Square has a couple of “tourist traps”), but my friends assured me that Cafe Edison was for locals. And as we walked in, it very much seemed that way: an unassuming lunch counter with stools, some booths along the wall, some tables in the back.

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But as we sat down, I quickly noticed something: the decor of the diner seemed surprisingly…opulent.

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For example, the column beside our table was covered in extravagant decoration:

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I turned back…

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…and saw that the motif continued around the walls…

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Then I looked up. I have to say, that is quite a ceiling for a hole-in-the-wall diner:

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Obviously, Cafe Edison used to be something else – but what was it? According to my friends, this used to be the Hotel Edison’s ballroom.

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I was pretty floored – it’s not every day you get to eat in a diner built into the ballroom of a hotel founded in 1931. Searching online for more info, it appears that this story is widely held to be true, though no one seems to know any specifics.

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There’s only one problem. The Hotel Edison’s ballroom still exists. Converted into a Broadway theater from 1950 – 1991, it was later restored, and actually looks quite similar to the photograph above taken in the 1940s:

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However, also pictured on the postcard is the hotel’s grand dining room…

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…and I believe we have a match. For comparison, the existing columns are those pictured on the right side above – the room has been cut in half just past the lunch counter:

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Cafe Edison was started by one Harry Edelstein in 1980. It quickly became a beloved hangout for Broadway producers, actors, and playwrights, who jokingly referred to it as the Polish Tea Room, in part due to its opulence (ala the Russian Tea Room), and in part due to its cuisine, a mix of Eastern European Jewish dishes and diner staples.

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I love how much of the original decor has survived, especially the wall molding. Look carefully, and you’ll find all sorts of neat details hidden in odd places:

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The center of the former dining room is now positioned over the lunch counter…

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…which still features the same chandeliers pictured in the old photograph:

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Another neat detail…

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A balcony in one corner:

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The second row of columns are still visible behind the lunch counter, where the dividing wall was installed:

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One of several heavily detailed columns…

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…spiraling down to its base:

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As you enter the Cafe Edison, you first come to an outer room with arched ceilings, which shows the true width of the former dining room.

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If you look closely in the corners…

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…you’ll find some neat murals from the original days of the hotel, now darkened with time (picture below heavily altered!):

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Among the Edison’s many fans is playwright Neil Simon, who set his 2001 play “45 Seconds From Broadway” in a fictional version of Cafe Edison.

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I’m thrilled to discover Cafe Edison, as I finally have a new entry on the short list of go-to Times Square restaurants. I definitely recommend a trip – the matzoh ball soup is said to be one of the best in New York.

Finally, after you finish eating, continue your time traveling back to old Times Square by swinging into the Hotel Edison next door.

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A recent renovation has given it a slightly more modern look…

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But just squint your eyes a bit, and it won’t take long for you to feel like you’re back in the 1930s:

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Be sure and head out via the hotel’s rear hallway:

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This was where Luca Brasi took his last walk in The Godfather:

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-SCOUT

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39 comments

  1. Just a slight addition/correction — Luca Brasi’s walk to be killed is down the Edison’s corridor, but when he turns and goes into the bar,. and is killed, it’s at The Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights. I think one of the killings in the montage at the end of THE GODFATHER was also shot at the Edison, but I can’t confirm it (some of it is the St. Regis, but I don’t think all of it is).

  2. Want to say thank you for your awesome website! I’ve been looking for one for ages and finally! The superb quality of the photos and really interesting captions. Now I’m going to spend the whole day exploring your archives. Thank you! Looking forward for the new posts.

  3. Ate here when we visited in August. Great place to get set up food wise for a day of exploration.

  4. I stayed at the hotel in the 1980’s when the theater was running “Oh Calcutta!” I will have to head over to the cafe next time I am in town. This place looks fabulous.

  5. I love the Edison. Thanks.

    MS

  6. So how was the food

  7. NIce work, again! I’ll add it to my Times Square short-list too. I’ve been meaning to ask if you are familiar at all with Calvary Church and St. George’s Church in the Gramercy Park area. I’m a member of that combined parish. We have some great facilities and are gaining some popularity for both filming and use as a holding area. Please check it out at http://www.calvarystgeorges.org. Edith Wharton and the Roosevelts are former members of Calvary, and JP Morgan and family were longtime members at St. George’s. You would enjoy a tour!

  8. The Hotel Edison 46th Street lobby (the one pictured above as Luca Brasi’s last walk) was also used as an entrance to an apartment building in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. In fact, I was working on 44th Street when they filmed the scenes in front of the Belasco Theatre. The whole block was changed to reflect the time period. My building (at 123 West 44th) had canopies attached to the outside of our windows. Of course, that whole block has been changed quite a bit since then.

  9. oooh how cool! A definite add to the Retro Roadmap places to visit when we’re back up in NYC. Once again my leopardskin pillbox hat goes off to you, Scout. Good work!

  10. Cafe Edison is amazing. I’ve always admired that corridor in the Godfather and had always wondered where it was.

  11. Love that you discovered cafe Edison and the hotel! I stay there every time I come to New York.

  12. What a lovely way to start my day – reading about this gorgeous place. Thank you!

  13. Matzo Ball Soup: The best, ever.
    Miriam

  14. Lovely post. That dining room is too beautiful (not counting the vinyl booths, that is). We were in the lobby recently, too, and worried that the carpet rolls (seen in your pic) will soon mask that killer floor.

  15. Simply awesome. As a part of my job with the Air Force, I occasionally spend a few weeks at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. This usually involves a 3-day weekend, and a trip to NYC is always a possibility. This is a place I would go for lunch…

  16. Very cool. I now have to check it out as I work across the street and often used the hotel to cut through. Now I have a new appreciation!

  17. You must try the blitzes. All are better than amazing. You will cry when your plate is empty and your appetite is filled because you just will want to stay forever and ever to keep enjoying them. Shame on them for making something too good to be true.

  18. Great hotel to stay in the ’70’s. Cheap (Times Square was a bit seedier then), but clean and comfortable. Spent New Year’s Eve there with our 7 year old daughter and watched the chaos in Times Square from the warm comfort of our room. Good memories and thanks for the post

  19. Ah, yes, the Polish Tea Room! I seem to remember it also being called the Wedgewood Room. Anyone else remember that?

  20. Fantastic photos! PLUS… if you want a serious throwback in the Hotel Edison, don’t miss Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks on Monday and Tuesday nights, at Sofia’s (the Hotel Edison’s club). Some of the best 1920s traditional jazz you’ll hear in the country, in a true architectural gem. Time travel is possible! Keep up the wonderful work, Scout!

  21. A fave of ours for a long time. Weekends in tourist season is impossible though. I used to work in the area and had lunch at the counter alongside Jackie Mason!

    • he’s awesome…When the weather is warm you can find him at LEAST twice a week eating outside at the Applejack Diner on Brodway and 55th.

  22. I haven’t been here for years – I’m so very happy to see it still exists untouched. A rarity in Times Square these days. Thanks for posting this!

  23. I have stayed at the Hotel St.James, the once seedy hotel used in the movie BIG, a few blocks away on W. 45th St. I will have to stay here next time in NYC.

  24. Love this place, eat here all the time. The soups are all very good, blintzes too. everything else is fairly standard. I love that they have a section right in the front that is roped off, for ‘VIP’. I’ve seen Neil Simon there quite a few times.

  25. The last reasonably-priced-dining-option-with-atmosphere holdout in the “new” Times Square. Been eating here since the 70s! I agree about the blintzes. I am actually kinda amazed you didn’t know about until now but happy that you have been introduced. And I have no idea who exactly gets to sit in the mysterious roped off section. I have seen so many actors in here (mostly character actors in the “Oh, look, it’s THAT guy!” variety.) PS: Vince Giordano’s Big Band plays in the basement restaurant Sofia’s and is totally worth seeing. The Edison Ballroom still exists and is entered from the street. I have gone to swing dance events there. This is also where the nude comedy revue “Oh, Calcutta!” plays for years and years…

  26. Should have been “played” for years. Trivia: One of the composers for “Oh, Calcutta!” was Peter Schickele (aka “PDQ Bach”).

  27. I travel to NYC a lot for work and have passed by this restaurant on many occasions. Now that you shown off how beautiful it is inside I will have to stop in and have lunch or dinner. Thank you again for such an awesome post. You certainly do a lot of research and your images are great.

  28. I wonder how many times I have been past here and never gone in. Thanks for opening the door. I would be willing to bet that those murals are covered in tar and nicotine like GCT’s ceiling was before the restoration.

  29. Well the movie title certainly implies a dream…

    I’m betting almost everything you see in a Kubrick movie is deliberate.

  30. thanks! i’ve live for years on 54th between B’way and 7th and have a love/hate thing with the places around me for soup. Now that Stage Deli (pricey, but loved their chicken soup) closed I’m feeling a little lost again. And it’s harder and harder to find good Matzoh balls these days…

  31. My wife and I lunch at the Polish Tea Room at every chance. A wondrous representation of a rapidly fading NYC eating experience. Go. Now. While it’s still here. The food and prices are terrific. Always a friendly and attentive staff. Have never had a bad experience. And prepare yourself for the BEST matzoh ball soup in the city. It will haunt you. A large bowlful will set you back less than $5!

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  35. One of my favorite lunch spots for the past 15 years or so. The best matzo ball soup I’ve had, for sure…but I always had to figure a room that looked like this must have had a previous life, and you’ve answered my question for me. Thanks!

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