Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The City that Once Was: Ruskay's on Columbus Avenue in New York

When I was studying at Juilliard, I had a job playing solo flute on a balcony at a restaurant on Columbus Avenue called Ruskay's. I played every Monday night from 6:00 to midnight (for the dinner hours), and I had a wonderful time. The restaurant was owned by Richard Ruskay, who also owned the downtown Empire Diner. The food was terrific (in addition to getting paid, I got dinner--I loved the chicken salad with walnuts and tarragon), and the bar area (where I ate) always seemed to attract the same very interesting and intelligent people, and they were always really nice to me. As far as I can recall, the restaurant only had live music, and it had a bohemian kind of energy that made it far more than a place of business.

I believe a friend (who played piano there) suggested I go into Ruskay's and ask if they were interested in having a flutist play. I only recently learned that Michael Parloff had been playing there before he got his job as the principal flutist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and that I must have walked in at the right time. It was 1978, they had been open for two years, and they were indeed looking for a flutist to play during dinner.

I stayed until I left New York in 1980, and learned that Ruskay's had closed in my absence. There are very few remnants of it (and no pictures) on line, so I thought I would post a bit about it, just in case some of my nostalgic friends from those glorious days might be searching.

[2016 Update: I found a postcard from Ruskay's that you can see here.]

13 comments:

untappednewyork.com said...

Thanks for the link to Untapped! I went to Juilliard too, for cello. If you have any other tidbits on Ruskay's, I'll do a write up on it and I can probably dig up some history that's not online. Let me know! :)

Elaine Fine said...

Were you around during the Ruskay's era?

untappednewyork.com said...

I think so, but I don't think I knew about it. I wasn't allowed to do very much exploring by my mom back then :)

George said...

I was just chatting about Ruskay's with a friend ... we remember the the place well...including the constant windexing of the mirrored tables. :) Do you remember who the pianist was? Many thanks for this post. George

Elaine Fine said...

Ah yes, the mirrored tables! There were lots of pianists. As I recall there was usually a different musician for every night of the week, and sometimes there were two per evening. Unfortunately I can't remember any names!

Anonymous said...

I loved Ruskay's for a hearty late night breakfast and super-sized slices of cake. I am sad there are no photos of the place.

Howard Hoffman said...

I was thinking about Ruskay's today and tried to look it up. This post and the New York Magazine blurb are about the only things of substance that came up, but I'm happy to see at least some people keeping he name alive here...even if it is a four year old blog post! Early one Sunday morning - I'm talking around 1:30 - I was having late night coffee and a sandwich with a woman pal also in my business. I looked over her shoulder to see a pretty psyched up group of people pour in and instantly recognized them as the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live. This would have been the last season of the original cast. They made a beeline to the back room of Ruskay's for whatever unspeakable post-show party they had. I regret not trying to crash it. But I'll never forget the vibe that place had.

Toni Silver said...

I adored Ruskay's. Everything about it was right; it was unique, cozy, cool, there were art deco wooden booths and tables, yes, with cobalt blue mirrors. If memory serves, the food was good and they had 1 3-course menu a night which cost $10. I do remember the live music and the vibe and the giant slabs of delicious cake and punky wait staff. Oh, how I long for the days when the UWS was cool and full of artists, musicians, dancers, singers, great old shops and restaurants, old european Jews, Puerto Rican families and us gays. Wish I could find photos. Thanks for writing about it.

md Afternoon said...

Ruskay's, like many places in NYC, was a repository of memories of 3:30 AM breakfasts, huge pieces of delicious cake, served on mirrored tables with small rivers of melted candle wax against a backdrop of shiny black walls. The bar in one storefront and the balcony and tables in the other connected storefront where always buzzing at night. It was truly a night spot for us. We wouldn't dream of going there before 1:00 AM. Walking back to our apt at 64th and Bwy was a bit scary at 4 AM. It was not the gentrified West Side it is today. Like the Automat on 42nd and 3rd and Dunkin Donuts on 58th and 8th, Ruskay's remains a memory treasure I hope I don't forget. Thanks for bringing it back to life. I wish the development of NYC didn't entail the erasure of the places that formed the tapestry of my life from the 70's to the late 80's.

Anonymous said...

The ceilings were high. The food was great - I loved the porkburger and the very fresh salads. Live music every night on the balcony, and very good musicians. I especially remember the singer/pianist Phoebe Legere with her three octave range. The customers all seemed to be in the arts in one way or another, but then, the whole UWS at that time was filled with people in the arts. Ruskay's was one of the great places to go and it was open 24 hours. I don't know what or where the equivalent is in Manhattan today, if the equivalent exists.

Robert Losick said...

I wrote a long heartfelt comment about Ruskay's 10 days ago, but I did not know how to sign in so it was lost. Could you help me with the sign in process, thanks, Robert Losick
rlosick39@comcast.met

Elaine Fine said...

From Robert Losick:

I was so impressed with Ruskay's originally when it was a small, narrow place just serving one meal a night and it was for $6.00 going to $7.00 in a few months. I was so impressed as the meal was explained during the day in the small store front. I could never frequent the great place with only fresh ingredients as I walked by, about 75th St. on Columbus, from 83rd to Lincoln Center where I was the bartender @ O'Neal's for 13 years. I learned so much from Ruskay's and several other restaurants as I eventually fulfilled my aspirations and did get my place at 50 th and Tenth Ave. from 1983 to 97 as Robert's Restaurant. Music is a vital part for me and we had 6 hours daily of live piano Jazz and only fresh ingredients offered at very reasonable prices. Many musicians, stage hands, dancers, actors were regular customers at Lincoln Center and some followed to my place. There were bullets and urine when I took over and then forced out with rising rents and nothing has been there that resembles the lively exchange of creative people, the source of New Yorkness, all gone. Recently in Philadelphia, I met a lamp repairman who really is a classical pianist, share with me that his mom played for the Philamonic and they knew several musicians who were my customers and friends and neighbors from my youth in the suburbs where the percussionist and trumpeter for the Philharmonic lived on my block. I remember when Ruskay's enlarged and had a balcony as I recall, from walking by. I learned that John Lennon was a regular. Around that time I tended bar for a few weeks in the other O'Neal's bar and served the great Zero Mostel one Saturday morn, and one day Jason Robards came by . Ruskay's and the era were special as well as the fresh food and mix of peoples. Thank you very much. Many folks talk about The Empire Diner, but not Ruskay's."

Sydney said...

The pianist was Jon Jarvis, one of the most inventive and creative players ever.