BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN
East 45th Street and a handful of neighboring blocks between Second and Lexington Avenues once sported more steakhouses than existed in entire American cities.
Served by the slaughterhouses on the East River that were demolished in the 1940s to make way for the United Nations, the restaurateurs of “Steak Row” liked to boast that they “fed more carnivores than Chicago and Omaha put together.”
But tastes, diets and demographics changed. Carbohydrates became a dirty word. Wall Street steak-lovers started to dine elsewhere. Red-meat joints in the area became, well, done. Or at least, medium-rare:
Joe & Rose’s, opened in 1915 at Third Avenue off 46th Street, shut its doors. Crist Cella, opened in 1923 at 160 East 46th Street, closed down. The original Palm, opened in 1926 on Second Avenue off 45th Street, shuttered in 2015, though Palm Too still carries on across the street.
Any steakhouse graveyard would have to include Pen & Pencil, Danny’s Hideaway & His Inferno, The Editorial, and the original Pressbox, all on 45th Street. Then add Scribe’s, Fourth Estate, Late Edition and The Front Page.
The list goes on, the vanished chophouse names paying homage to a largely male clientele that then labored in the newspaper, printing, publishing and advertising trades.
Which makes it all the more extraordinary that one of Steak Row’s most endangered species just won a new lease on life — literally — and will continue serving its high-caloric repasts to loyal chowhounds and connoisseurs, gastronomes and gluttons, until at least 2032.
Sparks Steak House, at 210 East 46th Street, just inked a new 15-year lease for the 22,924-square-foot restaurant space it has occupied since 1977, its landlord confirmed on September 11.
Made world-famous by a spectacular Mafia assassination that took place outside its doors in 1985, the eatery, which was opened by the Cetta family in 1966 at 123 East 18th Street before its migration to midtown, had faced possible closure on August 31.
That was when its below-market lease expired, the family business was suddenly faced with the prospect of a rent hike as steep as 100 percent, and its future looked pretty dire.
In fact, co-owner Michael Cetta filed a so-called WARN Notice on May 26 with the State Department of Labor — which requires businesses to give employees early warnings of closures and layoffs — saying that Sparks was preparing to let 87 unionized workers go due to “possible non-renewal of lease.”
The jobs of waiters and busboys and dishwashers and chefs hung in the balance. Meanwhile, talks between the Cettas and the property’s owner, The Durst Organization — which was founded by Joseph Durst in 1915, the same year as Joe & Rose’s opened — went down to the wire.
Eventually, the parties hammered out a deal that called for a significant rent hike, but not the doubling the family had initially feared, which would have forced it to shutter or relocate.
“We met at the ‘market,’” said Jordan Barowitz, Durst’s principal spokesman, referring to the area’s market rate.
In a statement, Jody Durst, the company’s president, added, “Sparks has been a neighborhood staple since the late 1970s. They are our oldest East Side tenant, and we are thrilled with their success in the competitive restaurant business and pleased they will remain in our portfolio.”
The father-and-son owners, Michael and Steven Cetta, didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Oh, and about that mob rubout: It was a double assassination actually, which federal prosecutors later proved took place on the orders of John Gotti, the late Gambino crime family boss, and for better or worse, it gave Sparks a special kind of cachet for New Yorkers and tourists alike that resonates to this day.
It was broad daylight on December 16, 1985, and Paul Castellano, better known as “Big Paul” and then the Gambino family’s reigning don, was in a Lincoln Town Car being driven to Sparks by his underboss-bodyguard-chauffeur Thomas Bilotti.
As they pulled into a “No Parking” zone in front of the restaurant, four gunmen wearing matching white trench coats and black Russian faux-fur hats pulled semi-automatic handguns from their coat pockets and shot both men in the face and head multiple times.
Gotti was said to have watched the twin executions from down the block, and a few weeks later, he assumed Big Paul’s job duties, his racketeering trial later revealed.
The Cettas have never denied that the episode proved a boost to their business. And inside Sparks, it is still referred to as “The Incident.”