BY Alissa Bennett in Frieze | 24 APR 20

A New York Bistro Beloved by Artists and Writers Closes Its Doors

Alissa Bennett recalls the glamour and ghosts of SoHo’s iconic Lucky Strike

BY Alissa Bennett in Frieze | 24 APR 20

The first time I went to Lucky Strike – which closed permanently on 15 April, amidst the economic impact of COVID-19 – was in the summer of 1996. I had just moved to New York from a small town in Rhode Island after signing with Women Model Management, whose offices were located in a second-floor loft above the Anna Sui boutique in SoHo. During those first weeks in the city, I spent many hours drifting aimlessly through the neighbourhood, hiding my insolvency while browsing at Miu Miu and Helmut Lang and wondering what was going to become of me. One afternoon, while I was walking down West Broadway, a couple approached me and asked if I’d like to have lunch with them. It felt exciting to say yes, follow them over to Grand Street and sit down at a tiny table for a steak that I didn’t eat and several glasses of wine too many. I don’t remember either of them exerting any sexual pressure on me, only that it felt very grown-up to tell lies about myself to chic strangers in this place that so perfectly reflected the New York of my rural New England fantasies. 

By 1999, I’d exhausted my modelling career. I enrolled in college and took a job selling clothes at If Boutique on Grand Street, where my childhood best friend had also secured a position as an assistant bookkeeper. We found the ritual of walking across the street to Lucky Strike after work very glamorous. We would drink overflowing cocktails, talk too loudly and judge the girls who looked more successful than us, but who we speculated were not as fun. ‘I want to give a five-dollar hand job, but I only want to do it once and I only want to do it here,’ my friend told me one night. ‘Help me find a “client”.’ It seemed like a perfectly valid experience to pursue. I remember that we laughed and laughed.

Courtesy: Lucky Strike, New York 

I quickly found someone and asked the bartender if we could move our party over to a table by the window. I excused myself and ran across the street to a bodega to buy a disposable camera while my friend and the man made small talk. When I returned, I enthusiastically snapped away as she jerked off her one and only customer under the table. It was the camera flash that attracted the attention of our waiter (and, apparently, several other patrons). ‘You can’t do this here,’ he said, though he did not seem angry. Once out on the street, our mark asked if the offer was still good. ‘Sure,’ my friend said, ‘but now it’s going to cost you $90.’ I remember with almost-supernatural clarity the way the light looked when he wrote her a personal cheque. 

Lucky Strike was a constant in my life as a New Yorker, a Hall of Bad Behaviour that I never felt ashamed to return to. Almost two decades after my night of proxy pandering, I was back on Grand Street, working for the inimitable José Freire at Team Gallery, again just blocks away from an establishment that, for so long, had felt familiar to me in ways no other place ever has. The artist Sam McKinniss, who I worked with closely at the gallery, was the first person to tell me the news that the restaurant was closing after 31 years. ‘We had very glamorous times at Lucky Strike!’ he said to me. ‘I loved the waiters. I loved how loudly you talked there!!’ I am very sorry that we will never again have an ill-advised midday drink there under the guise of professionalism. I am very sorry that my Lucky Strike stories have now lost their living reference, suddenly relegated to a world of architectural tombstones like so much of bygone New York.

Courtesy: Lucky Strike, New York 

My last memorable night at Lucky Strike was about a year-and-a-half ago, when the artist Leigh Ledare and I brought my young intern for dinner under the condition that he pretend we were his parents for the duration of the meal. We asked him about college and about his love life, we grilled him about his grades and slid gin and tonics over to him, unreprimanded by our waiter though likely not unnoticed. At the end of the night, I pointed to the table at the front of the restaurant where I’d once sat with my adventurous friend and her amateur john. Our young guest took a sip of his drink and sighed the word ‘Mom’ at me, his eyes bleary and face flushed. When we paid our bill and walked out onto Grand Street, I pointed to the storefront that once housed the bodega. ‘That’s where I bought the camera.’ I asked him if he wanted to share a cab home. ‘Fuck it,’ he said, maybe looking at the ghost of me in the window of the restaurant. ‘I’m getting a drink at the bar.’ He went back in. 

Main image: Lucky Strike. Courtesy: Lucky Strike, New York 

Alissa Bennett is a writer. She lives in New York, USA.