Throwback Thursday: A night out in Manhattan…in 1985!

new york 1985

This is entry number five in my “Throwback Thursday” series, celebrating the upcoming weekend by taking you on a you-are-there tour of what it might be like to spend a weekend evening in the Big Apple at various times in its past. The first installment put us down in November 1938, the second in March 1977, the third in August 1922, and the fourth in October 1951. As you can see I’m trying to hit all the decades of the 20th century eventually and tonight it’s the turn of the Eighties. So poof up your bangs, put on some acid-washed jeans and high-top sneakers and get your Michael Jackson cassettes in order, as we’re now traveling three decades back in time. (Damn, has it been that long?)

All shows, addresses, prices, times, etc. in this article are accurate to the exact date.

It is Friday, September 20, 1985. The city is in the midst of what, if this weather keeps up, will be called an Indian summer. Today the high was between 85 and 90°, and it will cool off to a pleasant 63° overnight. There are no clouds or rain in the forecast, so it will be a comfortable evening. The biggest thing in the news today is the terrible earthquake that occurred in Mexico yesterday, which killed thousands. U.S.-Soviet arms talks in Geneva are stalled. The sticky point is President Reagan’s SDI “Strategic Defense Initiative,” known popularly as “Star Wars.” He’s going to discuss that with Soviet leader Gorbachev at his summit in two months’ time. The mayor of New York is Ed Koch, a fiery character who’s always in the news. Last night he addressed the U.N. General Assembly and blasted the Soviets, though what a New York City mayor has to offer foreign policy I don’t quite know.

victors cafe

Victor’s Café, a Cuban restaurant, is still there (this Google Earth view taken in 2014). The restaurant recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Our usual pattern for these weekend evenings is to find a place to go to drinks and/or dinner, then take in a show or movie. The good thing is that Manhattan is absolutely bursting with great restaurants at this time. Sure, they’re a little expensive, but what isn’t downtown? New York has a long tradition of ethnic restaurants, and they’re really spectacular at this time. There’s a place called the Thai Kitchen in Gramercy Park, 210 E 23rd Street, which has a lot of buzz about it. Thai food is pretty new to American palates right now, but it’s supposedly terrific. Or we can get classical Dim Sum–and a lot of other Chinese dishes–at the Chinese Tea Room, 165 West 56th Street. This is just down the street, incidentally, from the much more famous Russian Tea Room which is at 150. At the Chinese Tea Room we can get a dinner for two for $35, which isn’t bad. Ellis Larkin is playing piano there from 9PM to midnight. Or we could check out another Chinese place called Ho Ho, 131 West 50th Street, which is also supposed to have good food; rumor has it they’ve poached noted chefs from various other famous Chinese restaurants in New York but supposedly not their recipes. (Yeah right).

We could also try a great new Spanish restaurant which is called Mesa de Espana. It’s got a lobster special for only $13.95, and a live flamenco guitarist. Actually, we won’t be able to go there, because in reading over my notes for this article I realize only now I forgot to write down the address. Bummer, that one sounded good. But if you like that sort of flavor we could try Victor’s Café 52, which is a Cuban restaurant, at 236 West 52nd Street. They will have live piano and violin music tonight.

Scorsese’s After Hours actually opened in New York City on the night this article profiles. Here’s the trailer.

Now, on to the shows after dinner. Since this is 1985, Broadway is dominated by two of the biggest shows in its entire history: Cats and A Chorus Line, at the Winter Garden and the Shubert Theater, respectively. Because we’ve already been sentenced to hear “Memory” in every other elevator we step on to for the rest of our lives, there’s no need to see Cats, and as I can’t imagine anything more torturously “meta” than a Broadway production about Broadway productions, I’m not keen on A Chorus Line either. However, there are some good shows to see. Lily Tomlin is appearing in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, tonight at 7 and 10 at the Plymouth Theater, 236 West 45th Street. Cleavon Little, most famous for the movie Blazing Saddles, is appearing with Judd Hirsch in the comedy I’m Not Rappaport at the American Place Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Little Shop of Horrors is at the Orpheum, 126 Second Avenue at 8th Street, at 8:00. Or if you want something highbrow, the opera Le Cenerentola is playing at the Lincoln Center at 8:00. Tickets run from $6, presumably for nosebleed seats, to $37.

After the show we could do the traditional thing and get a late-night drink at Sardi’s. That assumes, of course, that we can get a table at Sardi’s. I don’t know if I have that kind of pull. I wrote Zombies of Byzantium, yes, but I’m not a miracle worker!

There are plenty of movies to choose from, several opening tonight. Scorsese’s After Hours opens at the Criterion Center, Broadway & 45th Street. Mishima, directed by Paul Schrader (American Gigolo) is at Cinema I, Third Avenue and 60th Street. Kiss of the Spider Woman, starring William Hurt, opens at Lincoln Plaza I, 63rd and Broadway. Or if you want something less heavy, a British comedy film called Morons from Outer Space is at the 8th Street Playhouse, 52 West 8th Street. Unfortunately Rambo: First Blood Part II, the most popular movie of the summer, is back in a return engagement. Please don’t drag me to that.

seedy 42nd street 1985

Although New York in 1985 was on the verge of a revival, it hadn’t quite happened yet. Here are the seedy storefronts of 42nd street in that year, just before they were demolished.

This is a good time to mention that we should probably take cabs anywhere we go. The subways are still pretty dangerous, as is the city in general. There’s talk of a “renewal” of New York in the works, such as taking out all the seedy clubs on 42nd Street and remodeling, but that hasn’t happened yet and it might not until Mayor Koch gets out of office–if he ever does. Still, crime is a little better in New York than it was a decade ago, but we still have to be careful.

If that scares you, we can stay home and watch TV. The two-hour season premiere of Night Rider comes on Channel 4 tonight! Nothing like a talking Trans-Am for entertainment value. At 8:30 PM, the soap opera Dallas comes on. (Spoiler alert: the whole season is a dream). A terrible monster movie called C.H.U.D. comes on HBO at 8:30, and Cinemax is showing Swing Shift with Goldie Hawn. Frankly, the shows sound better to me. As long as it’s not Cats.

Well, there you have it, a Friday night out in 1985. Hope you enjoyed the excursion. I’m not sure where this series will go next, though by process of elimination you can see I only have so many decades to choose from. Have a great weekend…here in 2015!

The header photo of New York in 1985 is by Flickr user Joseph O. Holmes and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of seedy 42nd Street is public domain.
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12 Comments

  1. It hasn’t been that long since the face of Times Square has changed. Where there was sex shops is now Planet Hollywood or Appleby’s or Red Lobster. It’s still seedy in my opinion in a different way. I intensely dislike that part of Manhattan and avoid it, I do enjoy the occasional Broadway show. Getting a table at Sardi’s is not that difficult, it’s harder to get a table at Carmines or Juniors. I think that part of Manhattan is very popular and is always REALLY crowded there is a lot to do. Amazing really 1985 seems like so long ago and the photo looks like it could be from the 50’s.

  2. Wow. Mesa D’Espana is (was, sadly ) one of my favorite restaurants I’ve ever been to… Of any style. Yup, I remember the guitarist. And descending the stairs into something akin to a giant candlelit wine cellar that smelled of garlic and saffron. I remember the paella being presented in its cooking pan; golden, steaming, and heaped with shellfish. I couldn’t have been more than sixteen at the time but I trace my love affair with Spanish food to that night and still haven’t found a place so inviting, or a paella so delicious.

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