Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Remembering the Universal Grill (1991-1998)


Any other fans of this gay hot spot of decades gone by? 

The New York Times wrote about the Universal Grill in 1994 noting that Homo Xtra, a New York listings calendar, called it "the gayest restaurant in the entire world." 
Opened in 1991 at 44 Bedford Street near Seventh Avenue South, this tiny, perpetually packed tribute to American comfort food aggressively embraces a gay identity -- although Jack Miller, a co-owner, said: "We didn't set out to do that. It just sort of evolved." Friday is high-heel night at Universal, and the waiters totter around on stilettoes. On Beatnik Night, the beret-topped waiters recite bad poetry along with the specials of the day. Regulars tend to celebrate their birthdays here, since the entire staff will obligingly serenade the birthday person by twirling around with tambourines and singing Abba's "Dancing Queen" or the theme song from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." But for all the joy, Universal Grill is probably the most politically charged of gay restaurants. It has become an informal gathering place for members of Act Up and other organizations. "We donate a tremendous amount of food to various organizations," Mr. Miller said. "The people who run these organizations are our regular customers, so it's our way of saying thank you." 

One of my first -- if not the first -- dates as a New York City resident was at Universal Grill. I forget where I met Jeff -- I still see him around at parties as he is a media big shot -- but it was an old-school kind of thing where he asked for my number and I was thrilled when he left a message on my answering machine. He asked me out to dinner and I was swept away by the big-city gay atmosphere of the joint, which was far livelier than Mary's next door that my date explained was owned by the same restauranteurs as Universal. Although the conversation didn't really go anywhere -- I tried, but I don't think he asked me a single question about myself -- we still wound up back at my place afterward. I'd been in a five-year relationship in D.C. that left me with a broken heart, so I was really out of touch with the dating scene, much less the dating scene in Chelsea (then epicenter of gay life). After a couple minutes looking around my apartment, with the conversation still greatly lacking, Jeff informed me that if we were going to "do this" we'd better do it now as he was allergic to cats and only had a few "good" minutes remaining. (Charmed.) Neither Troy nor I was impressed with this romantic notion -- despite years in West Hollywood and Dupont Circle, I was still an uptight boy from Michizona at heart -- so we sent him packing. (Apparently he's still not known for his tact!) Sadly, the Universal Grill would also get the boot not too long after (for committing "all kinds of violations) ... and today it's known as Daddy-O, which like nearly all of the Village is hopelessly straight. 



6 comments:

Jeffery said...

The young LGBT crowd has to pick another city to make fabulous. New York has priced itself out of the game.

Shawn Cullen said...


Ah, the Universal Grill! Such fun! You'll never know. We took a pair of friends who knew very little about NYC there one lovely spring afternoon for lunch. Lo and behold, it was someone's birthday. Suddenly, the lights went down, the jukebox volume went up, and what seemed like the entire staff poured out of the kitchen, banging tambourines and singing along to the theme song from "The Jeffersons", "Movin On Up!" All the other patrons jumped to their feet and for the next few minutes it was the gayest spot on earth. I smile now just thinking of it.

The food wasn't bad either. Nowadays, we almost never go to NYC.

Raymond Saint-Pierre said...

Memories!

Philip said...

I loved Universal Grill! I remember birthday's to the theme from Maude. Everyone in the house singing at the top of their lungs. So much fun!

wrldtrvlr said...

I threw one of the first parties there for a coworker at Barneys' birthday. We danced on the bar and were completely out of control. I knew Jack from his previous spot, and made Universal our own. What great fun we had.

Louis Monaco said...

SO many AMAZING memories, when first moving to NYC in 1990, pitchers of a new FANCY cocktail, The COSMOPOLITAN, wild & crazy craft paper headers' for birthdays and celebrations! Certainly a lot of memories, quite honestly I can't remember....

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