An art bar that has outlasted many of its clients’ careers
The ground-floor space at 94 Prince Street has housed a bar since the mid-19th century, making it one of New York’s oldest continuously operating places to drink. It became Fanelli Cafe in 1922, having been purchased by the former boxer Michael Fanelli, who was still running it when artists and galleries began moving into the neighborhood in the early ’70s.
“They’d just started calling it SoHo then,” says Betty Cuningham, who as an employee at Reese Palley’s nearby gallery had breakfast and lunch at Fanelli’s nearly every day. The food and coffee were “not particularly good,” but the area didn’t have many other dining options at the time. “And you could sit and talk to Mike,” she adds. When Reese Palley closed in 1972, Fanelli rented Cuningham a space above the bar to start her own gallery
“It was like going home to go in there,” says Cuningham, who recalls seeing, with varying degrees of regularity, Christopher Wilmarth, Harvey Quaytman, David Diao, Alan Shields, Robert Hughes, Michael Goldberg, Lynn Umlauf, Lynda Benglis, Ron Gorchov and Ray Parker in Fanelli’s. “And the press came down; curators came down.”
As SoHo became more and more populated by galleries and artists throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Fanelli’s remained a popular meeting place, and it would outlast other iconic artist hangouts like Max’s Kansas City, which opened in 1965 and closed in 1981. After Fanelli died in the early ’80s, his family sold 94 Prince Street to Hans Noe. “I bought the building and found out that Fanelli’s came with it. They couldn’t sell it, so they just gave it to me,” says Noe, an architect who didn’t know anything about managing a restaurant.
“Two kinds of artists came,” he says. “One was local people, you know, they were not successful artists. Between the bar and drinking beer and making paintings and sculptures, they could barely make a living. Then there were people that moved in and bought lofts.”
Noe’s son Sasha took over Fanelli’s around 2000. “I would make more money if I rented it out as a shoe store,” says Sasha Noe, referring to the offers he frequently receives for the space, but he says he’s committed to keeping the bar open. The artists and galleries left the neighborhood long ago, and the bar is one of the last remaining relics of a different time. He says that while the kitchen has been updated, everything customers see — red-checked tablecloths, a wall of boxing photos, saloon lighting — is the same as it was when he bused tables and washed dishes for his father as a teenager in the early ’80s. Similarly, “the menu has changed less than anywhere else in the world.”