As everyone mourns the passing of Bereket, it’s heartening to see another old-timer celebrating its 25th anniversary — with bells on. On July 19, Paul’s Da Burger Joint will rewind its prices (and music selection) back to 1989, when it opened near the corner of Second Avenue and St. Marks.
For those who’ve never stepped inside this throwback diner (think neon trim, checkered table cloths, wall-to-wall kitsch), Paul’s is the place with the giant hamburger outside. Yup, that place. There used to be accompanying French fries, but those got stolen off the street during business hours. Which tells you how different the East Village was when Paul Koval first opened the place.
“Guys would break into your car and steal your radio and sell it back to you,” remembers Matt Wardrop, who took over the business when his cousin Paul went into semi-retirement in 2007.
Paul got his start at Jackson Hole at the age of 12, says Wardrop. After working his way up from delivery boy to cook to manager, he opened a place of his own. Paul’s Palace, as it was then called, was on the same block as a couple of East Village institutions, Stage and B&H, and right around the corner from then “seedy” St. Marks Place. “He took a chance going into that neighborhood,” Wardrop notes. (Those were the days of GG Allin, after all.)
Paul now lives in Florida (though he still keeps an apartment in the city), but not much has changed about his eponymous restaurant. The beef still comes from a Ukrainian butcher (39-year-old Wardrop is part Irish, part Ukrainian). And Paul’s eccentric sisters, Robin and Marcia, still wait tables. “Robin is a real New Yorker,” says Wardrop. “She’s the kind of woman where if you say something to her that she doesn’t like, or that’s inappropriate, you’re going to hear about it.” Marcia, on the other hand, is a “high-energy neurotic person” whose regulars love her, says Wardrop.
Those regulars are a breed apart from the chowhounds and coolhunters who frequent neighboring restaurants. During a given lunch hour, you’ll see workers from Verizon, ConEd, and the local police- and firehouses tucking into massive burgers and slurping down milkshakes and egg creams. “I guess we got known as the working man’s burger joint,” says Wardrop, noting that his clientele tends to have one thing in common: “a lot of them are good-sized guys, and they want to eat.”
Between the wisecracking regulars and the tourists who’ve read about the place in guidebooks, Paul’s is hanging on, even as Wardrop sees restaurants come and go around him. Though it faces the usual incremental rent increases, the place stays busy enough to pay its bills, Wardrop says, though he admits it can be hard to keep up. Especially since he doesn’t like to raise prices by more than a quarter or 50 cents every few years.
On the occasion of its 25th anniversary, on July 19, Paul’s will roll back those prices back 25 years. It’ll also add some new items to a menu that’s remained fairly static over the years (though Paul’s did add a turkey burger and a vegan burger when those got trendy). Starting at noon, expect free samples of new appetizers like bacon-wrapped jalapeños and dipping sauces, and what Wardrop calls a “healthier option” – fresh carrots that are deep-fried. (Hey, he said healthier, not healthy.)
It remains to be seen whether the new apps will be a hit. “A lot of people barely finish our food,” says Wardrop, “so I don’t know what kind of room they’ll have for appetizers as well.”