The Elephant Turns Fifty
…or Tempest in a Teapot
Our favored brunch spot since they lowered the drawbridge in 1973, Henry and I slip into our regular nook one Sunday after noon. A wave to the cute waiter brings beverages—coffee for me, black, and mimosas for both. Henry, having rolled in from 12 West at dawn and still a wee bit buzzed, lights up and decides on coffee too, along with a second mimosa before she’s even tasted the first. We don’t need menus as it’s always the same: Burger, extra rare, with Horseradish Sour Cream, no buns, and two eggs over…
And that’s the extent of the disco-era restaurant review you’ll get. Still a reliable brunch spot and the menu is recognizable half a century on—if you’ve been, you know—and if you haven’t, it’s Elephant & Castle, the Gray Lady of Greenwich (at Seventh). Fifty years may seem like eternity, but it’s not immortality—so go while you can.
(For a little perspective: you might promenade the entire length of Greenwich Avenue, nearly half a mile from 6th to 8th, and by this mastodon’s memory, E&C ranks the longest surviving street-front business of the stretch—certainly the oldest enduring food establishment.)
Inside, a dozen elephantine teapots are mounted in procession across one wall (the herd purchased, I’m told, by a long-ago manager during a quick decorating dash to Chinatown). One trunk-spouted beast, an austere celadon number surmounted by a creamy-green youth, attracts my interest.
I know this teapot rider, intimately.
I have the same pot, from the same manufacturer, acquired decades ago at a vintage shop. (Elephant trunks, while highly adaptive for their purposes, alas, are not ideally formed for a spout, and thus after a few sloppy pours, mine was put to pasture among the collection of other decoratives on top of the fridge.)
This particular design was turned out by the truckload in Longquan, a city famed for its green ceramics. (They are marked on the bottom with a square emblem, or chop, meaning ‘China Longquan.’ Queerly, an identical version was produced for Pier 1 Imports, and those are stamped “Pier 1”; hence, that pale-emerald elephant now ranges far and wide on Etsy and eBay and wherever dusty detritus is hawked.)
(An apocryphal tangent: the term “celadon,” for the celery-colored ceramic glaze, seemingly derives from the male lover, Céladon, who wore pale green clothes in the noted 17th-century French romance novel L’Astrée.)
Fortuitously, the depiction of a figure atop an elephant serves as a verbal pun in Chinese for good luck: the characters for “elephant rider” (骑象) sounding similar to “auspicious” (吉祥).
And, auspiciously, in its early years Elephant & Castle was a formative gathering place with a certain ambiance for local residents which influenced many kindred menus around town.
Conveniently located in the Village, from the cozy rear bay seating you could gaze up into the windows of St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the restaurant’s founder, Dr. George Schwarz, once worked as an oncologist (while dreaming of a decent place to eat nearby).
A decade after opening, the neighborhood was in flux. Then in 1984, the city’s first AIDS ward was established across the street, on the seventh floor of the Spellman Building (later expanding into the Cronin Building as cases soared), facing 11th St. and overlooking the diners below.
Comfortingly, E&C offered a familiar respite after visiting one’s friends, lovers, or family in the hospital. (Many a tear has tinged those tabletops.)
And it wasn’t just the customers who started getting ill, or showing up visibly diminished. In the pre-treatment years at least a handful of the restaurant’s own staff succumbed to the disease. The world centered on Greenwich Village was falling under a mammoth trampling.
While the horseradish and sour cream burger was assuredly on the menu back then, if you crave one now you’ll need to travel for it. In 1989, as the epidemic rendered profound changes in the neighborhood and decimated customers, E&C opened an outpost in Dublin. There are now 13 locations in Ireland and the UK, serving similarly inspired fare from the seed germinated on Greenwich Ave.
Next time you’re in the front room, take a closer look at that celadon elephant teapot on the shelf—the rider is facing backwards! (The figure sits on the lid, which was inadvertently turned around before the pot was permanently glued to its base—so this small green youth remains eternally peering into the past.)
While I don’t know much about interpreting Chinese lucky signs, I suspect subscribers to superstitious symbolism would blanch at the reversed figure. If only it were possible to go back 40 years and forestall fate with a quick twist, I would.
If only! Instead, I console myself with a cup of tea.
In researching this piece, I became curious about the natural lifespan of elephants—turns out to be a bit less than humans. Depending on species, around 50-70 years is typical (less in captivity). As a metaphor for certain pachyderm political careers, this might be cheering—but as it bodes for the continuity of stalwart neighborhood establishments, sadly noted.