“It’s always traumatic for me as well as the customers” – Nicolas Gray to the New York Times in 2008, explaining why he had to raise the price of the hotdog. It seems like the trauma was just beginning…
For those who don’t already know, there is now one Gray’s Papaya left in the city. Is New York City over authentic hotdogs? It seems like everywhere I turn there is a spin off of a classic. But what happened to the classic itself? I often wonder what happened to the old New York.
Here’s a direct quote from my dad: “Gray’s Papaya is a New York institution that will be sorely missed. Their dogs are better than filet mignon, and they introduced a whole generation to the health benefits of Papaya.”
I grew up in New York City. With a two-dollar allowance, it was difficult to get a good bite that wasn’t a candy bar. Gray’s Papaya offered an unbelievably satisfying dog for no more than $1.50 (the price eventually went up, but it wasn’t over $2 until the ’00s). As a native New Yorker, these hotdogs have given me so many memories. It’s unfortunate that our city can’t appreciate and maintain its landmarks.
Most people don’t know this about me, but I have a special place in my heart for hotdogs. Growing up, I was a very picky eater. I didn’t try a burger until the end of high school. Hotdogs were my best friend. Nothing would put a bigger smile on my face than an amazing Hebrew National dog from the grill. This used to be a year round thing. Then, it became a summer thing. And then, this summer, as I sat at a barbecue eating chicken and corn, I wondered, “WHERE ARE THE FUCKING HOTDOGS?”
This got me to thinking even more. Do people even care about hotdogs at all these days? I mean, seriously, when was the last time you heard someone say they wanted a hotdog? My dad and I are just about the only people I even know who still go to the Hebrew National stands in Central Park. Now, there are five falafel stands for every hotdog stand. There isn’t even a hotdog emoji on the iPhone. Am I going crazy here?
Let’s backtrack. Remember why you loved hotdogs in the first place. Think about why New York was so special when you moved here. Nowadays, anything that isn’t owned by a mega corporation (Equinox, Starbucks, Chase) seems to be slowly awaiting its death. To make matters worse, Liquiteria is moving into the old Gray’s Papaya location on 8th street and Sixth Avenue. Yes, that is a juice bar. What is this, L.A.? And what’s going next, Katz’ deli? (PLEASE GOD NO!!!!)
Hotdogs are serious. They really are no joke. Ghetto Gastro, friends of Mass Appeal who happened to be a quartet of incredible chefs, know it too. Malcom, aka Ice Lord, says, “Hot Dogs are a NYC STAPLE! My first memory of a dog was Gray’s Papaya! Growing up I actually hated dogs. The smell, everything about them. And then one day, I went with my uncle and he was telling me to try it and my moms was telling me to get the caramelized onions on it. At first glance, I wanted to get out of there ASAP but then I tasted it and it was just a revelation. Everything was perfect down to the small details of a lightly warm toasted bun. That joint on 72nd street is the heart for me; a lot of memories. Shit, I even went there the night of my prom! To hear that they’re closing [the West Village location], I’m in shock! But also not surprised, NYC is changing. Just because something is legendary or classic doesn’t mean it will stay around. You have to evolve and adapt, it’s key to survival in these streets.”
Malcolm has a great point. Jon Gray adds, “I used to front like my fam owned the spot since I spell my last name with the G-R-A-Y as well. The hotdogs were cheap and good, but for me it was about the drinks and those exotic flavors. I used to mix the Coconut Champagne with the Banana Daiquiri as a young gunna, later in life I just threw some yak in it and called it a day. Sad that this piece of NYC will soon be a memory.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Not only is Gray’s Papaya amazing and reasonable, but the owner, Nicolas Gray, genuinely cares about his customers. In 2008, Gray introduced the “Recession Special” that included two hotdogs and a soda for $3.50. He clearly works hard to make sure his prices stay low, but with the rise in NYC rent, there’s just nothing he can do. New York Times writer Jake Mooney profiled Gray in a 2008 article. “I’m as suicidal as everybody else,” Gray said. “I’m weeping as I do it,” he continues. “My prices are very low and my rents are very high, so I have a problem.” A problem indeed.
With all these juice bars, salad bars, frozen yogurt places, and gluten free shops, sometimes I wonder who we are all trying to fool. Don’t get me wrong, this heath craze is great for you, but stop pretending to get excited over a Kale salad when we all know the truth. Deep down, you are craving a real New York City hotdog that is 100 percent water and 100 percent amazing. In reality, you aren’t ready to let go of Gray’s Papaya. It’s like that relationship where you didn’t realize what you had until it was gone.