When Sheldon “Shelly” Fireman opened Redeye Grill across from Carnegie Hall 25 years ago, the term “restauranteur” didn’t exist. But by that point, he’d already gained local celebrity status for Greenwich Village’s all-night Hip Bagel and had the foresight to open Cafe Fiorello near recently completed Lincoln Center. Today, Shelly is the CEO of Fireman Hospitality Group, which operates six restaurants in NYC as well as two on the Potomac River in Maryland. And though he can most definitely be called a restauranteur now, Shelly stands out amongst the myriad food influencers in the city. Though his establishments exude an old-school New York charm and certain nostalgia, he has found the formula to withstand the test of time.
After a 2018 kitchen fire, the iconic Redeye Grill reopened in July. We recently sat down to lunch with Shelly to hear more about his story and take a tour of this classic Midtown restaurant.
Performers on stilts helped celebrate the reopening of Redeye Grill
Shelly got his start in the restaurant business in the 1960s when a friend suggested opening a coffee shop on MacDougal Street. “I said ‘that’s stupid, there are so many coffee shops here,’ so I said let’s make a bagel hip. Let’s put Italian food on bagels and bialys,” Shelly tells us. And so in 1964, the Hip Bagel was born, lasting for nearly 20 years and attracting local artists like Andy Warhol and big-time celebrities like Barbara Streisand.
As Shelly points out, the Village was a haven for artists at the time, which made things fun, but not necessarily lucrative. So when the opportunity came along to open a place uptown, he jumped at it. The next place he worked on was the Tin Lizzie, a steakhouse that he opened with artist Peter Max. The restaurant was on 51st and 7th, downstairs from Time-Life, and gained national fame, becoming one of the highest-earning restaurants in the nation.
Shelly set out on his own in 1974, opening Cafe Fiorello across from Lincoln Center. At the time, he was living in an apartment at the Century on Central Park West. “When you’re from the Bronx and you can get an apartment with a terrace in the Century… Do you know what a move that is?” he says.
Because he was living in the neighborhood, he knew that Lincoln Center would be successful. He begged the landlord of the building at Broadway between 63rd and 64th Streets to rent him one of the ground-floor spaces, despite the owner’s intention to rent to a big company. The residential tower above, One Lincoln Plaza, had also just opened, so Shelly made a deal with the landlord that if he could open his restaurant, he’d also take an apartment. He still lives there today, and Cafe Fiorello is one of the area’s most popular restaurants.
In the mid-’80s, Shelly opened Trattoria Dell’Arte across from Carnegie Hall, enlisting Milton Glaser to design the interiors. While in Italy, he had seen a restaurant with a huge antipasto bar out in the main restaurant. He loved the idea and incorporated it here. It’s now something he includes in many of his restaurants, including Cafe Fiorello.
It was a decade later that Shelly opened Redeye Grill next to Trattoria Dell’Arte. The name was a nod to the typical LA-NYC flight. The aviation theme doesn’t persist today but instead, Redeye Grill mixes old-school restaurant glamour with a more contemporary and comfortable setting. Though 25 years is a long time, Shelly doesn’t think things are that much different than when he first opened Redeye. “It’s the same clientele really, but they dress more casually.”
Aside from the coffered ceilings, oversized round chandeliers, and grand, central bar, it’s the art that makes a statement at Redeye Grill. First is the 88-foot mural, “The History of the World,” by Red Grooms, whom Shelly had previously worked with for his personal art collection. Shelly considers it one of “the great unsung murals of the art world.”
Redeye also hosts an impressive collection of Shelly’s personal art. In addition to being a collector (he has three houses and several storage rooms full of art!), Shelly is an artist himself. He had spent time as a child at the Art Students League, but it wasn’t until he moved to an artists’ community in Tuscany that he really became immersed.
After years of buying art from his friends and visiting the local galleries, it was a lunch with his friend, the artist LeRoy Neiman, that inspired him to learn sculpture. “LeRoy said to me, ‘“When you die, no one will remember this restaurant, but the art will live on.'”
And live on it does in Redeye Grill, from the “Candy Girls” behind the bar to the huge statue of a figure opening a champagne bottle to his iconic “Dancing Shrimp” sculpture, a play on the restaurant’s popular appetizer. On the second floor is a piece called “Dancing with Botero at Half-Price.” Renowned artist Fernando Botero lives near Shelly in Italy where “he’s the star of the town.” Shelly wanted to make a spoof on Botero so used one of his classic dancing women in the sculpture.
It’s not just visual art that informs Shelly’s work; he’s also an avid reader with a book collection of 11,000. Of those, 2,000 are art and design books. When his staff is coming up with concepts and ideas for the restaurants, instead of sending them online, Shelly invites them to utilize his persona library where he regularly flags pages.
In addition, he gets the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Post dropped off every day. One of his favorite spots in all of NYC is Rizzoli bookstore. In fact, after our interview, Shelly was headed there to stock up on “at least 10 books” to take to Italy with him.
The Café & Bar Room
Today, Shelly’s Fireman Hospitality Group owns and operates eight restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C. In the latter city, there is Bond 45 at National Harbor and Fiorella Pizzeria & Italian Kitchen on the Potomac. Here in NYC, there’s Trattoria Dell’Arte, Brooklyn Diner (around the corner from Carnegie Hall on 57th Street), Brooklyn Diner on West 43rd Street, Bond 45 on West 46th Street, Cafe Fiorello, and, of course, Redeye Grill.
At the newly reopened Redeye Grill, Shelly added a casual section called the Café & Bar Room, which serves breakfast starting at 7:30 a.m. and has its own all-day comfort food menu. In the coming months, he plans to open a steakhouse in the rear of the space.
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