Papaya King, an Upper East Side hot dog pioneer, faces a possible end

The future of Papaya King, an Upper East Side stalwart credited with popularizing New York’s quintessential combination of hot dogs and tropical fruit juices, is uncertain as his building is set to be completed. to be shaved.

Extell Development, which last year bought the land where Papaya King stands for $21 million, filed plans with the city on June 28 to demolish the one-story commercial building. The developer is known for its luxury apartment buildings, including Central Park Tower on Billionaires’ Row in Midtown.

It’s unclear when then a demolition might take place, or when the restaurant might have to vacate the space, at the corner of East 86th Street and Third Avenue. Neither Extell nor the people currently running the restaurant would comment.

The proposed demolition, reported by Patch, came as an unpleasant surprise last week for Papaya King employees and customers.

“When I’m craving something really delicious, something to back me up, I come here,” said Joan Roth, 80, who lives in the restaurant’s Yorkville neighborhood and has been a customer for 57 year. “You go to one place all these years, and you get attached to it.”

Papaya King founder Gus Poulos, a Greek immigrant, started in the 1930s with a Brooklyn juice stand called Hawaiian Tropical Drinks. During a vacation in Florida, he had tasted tropical fruit juices for the first time and had set out to introduce them to the people of the north.

In the late 1940s, he opened Papaya King on the Upper East Side and a few years later added hot dogs, formalizing the marriage of frankfurters and fruit juice that would become a New York staple. He and friend who own Papaya King’s hot dog supplier, Marathon Enterprises, created an exclusive recipe for the restaurant.

The restaurant’s quirky menu has inspired many local imitators with similar names, including Gray’s Papaya, Papaya Heaven, Papaya Paradise and Papaya Place. Papaya King was even hailed on an episode of “Seinfeld.”

In the 1970s, the restaurant waged what The New York Times called a “hot dog price war” with Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, a Coney Island institution, after Nathan’s opened a location next to Papaya King. Both companies continued to lower their prices and Nathan eventually closed.

“And we won,” said Peter Poulos, 83, the son of Mr Poulos, who later took over the business. In the early 2000s, he says, he sold it to an unidentified new owner. Relations between Extell, the former owner of the restaurant and the owner have been linked by litigation since May 2020.

John Pierse, 73, of Yorkville, has been going to Papaya King since he was a child. He always made do with the same order: a regular hot dog (later two hot dogs) and the restaurant’s largest serving of papaya juice.

Papaya King is a “touchstone for people in this neighborhood,” Pierse said. He remembers the risque posters of an ecstatic cow eating papaya and his childhood fascination with the machine that squeezed fresh orange juice. Years later, he introduces his own children to the restaurant, just as his parents introduced him decades earlier.

“It’s just something that’s always been there,” Mr Pierse said, adding he was upset when he heard about the demolition. “You just took comfort in the fact that Papaya King was there.”

Louis Nieves, 60, and his fiancée, Ginette Velez, 58, who once lived in the Bronx but are now in Orlando, Florida, visited Papaya King on a July 4 trip to New York. They remember traveling to the Upper East Side to watch movies, order papaya juice and a hot dog, then board an express train home.

“It’s the end of an era,” Ms. Velez said.

This is not the first time that Papaya King has been threatened with extinction. Mr. Poulos recalled that the former owner had tried in vain to obtain authorization from the city to replace the building with a skyscraper in the early 2000s.

“It’s too valuable of a corner to make it a one-story building,” he said. “It’s like everything else. Everything must end by stopping. »

Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.

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