The recent passing of Sheila Lukins, the food icon and Silver Palate founder, was celebrated in our house with sadness and the sharing of fond memories of our first apartment, just off Central Park West in the late 1970s. And while most of the recent press has focused on her undeniable contributions to the American food landscape, I would like to celebrate The Silver Palate’s contribution to design as well.
We were her first customers. Columbus Avenue was just beginning to show signs of coming back to life, shedding its serious grittiness of drugs, homelessness and abandoned buildings. Rents were still cheap, $350 a month for a renovated one-bedroom brownstone apartment, with a fireplace even, half a block off Central Park. Stuff was happening, you could feel it every time you walked down the Avenue, and food was always part of it.
Of course the upper west side was no stranger to food establishments. A favorite for Saturday night was Zabar’s for love & garlic salami, then H&H for warm bagels and a container of cream cheese and chives, finally the Sunday NY Times at the newsstand on 72nd and Broadway then back to the apartment for the night.
The times were changing and one large apartment building at 81st and Columbus reflects the extremes that were taking place. Geraldo Rivera, at the time just a TV reporter for a local channel, spent a week inside masquerading as a homeless person documenting the toxic mixture of rodents, cocaine, mental illness, and crime that wandered the halls. Just 4 years later this same building, now filled with renovated park-view condos, became home to the DDL Foodshow. A huge retail food extravaganza owned by Dino DeLaurentiis, grandfather of Giada.
Every retail store opening brought renewed life into the neighborhood and was a celebrated event. In the summer of 1977 one tiny store front at 74th Street began to catch our attention. We had watched with interest as signs of life began to appear. And we knew this would be no ordinary store, as designers you could sense a difference, the logo on the little red awning, the graphics on the brown paper covering the windows, the obvious detail taken with fixtures and finishes. It was scrumptious, how could the food inside possibly be anything else.
Walking up the avenue late one afternoon we noticed it had opened. In we went, and there was Sheila, alone at the counter and obviously a bit nervous on opening day. She looked up excitedly and said something like, “oh my, welcome, you’re my first customers”, in a way that suggested she herself couldn’t believe someone, finally someone, after all the planning and construction, had actually walked into her store. And the tarragon chicken salad was heavenly.
Everything about the food, the design of the store, even the take out containers felt fresh, new, exciting. I haven’t come up with an image of the original retail packaging yet, but it won awards, sold tons of product, and had a very strong impact on all food packaging that was to come in the next decade. It may look a bit traditional now, and the current packages are, politely, not very inspiring, but that is only because the original look had such a huge influence on much of the upscale food packaging.
Sheila I salute you for the wonderful innovation you brought to American cooking, the new spirit and uniqueness you brought to the design of food packaging, and most of all the memories of west 76th Street.