The glowing, tropical storefront of the Papaya King juice and hot dog shop near St. Mark’s Place.
Cheese and crackers, milk and Oreos, chicken and waffles––when did papayas and hot dogs become a classic food combination in NYC? Gray’s Papaya and Papaya King, with locations in uptown Manhattan and in Greenwich Village, would make you think so.
Papaya King invented the combination. Their original store opened in 1932 as a tropical juice bar alone, but with an obvious focus on the papaya. Why papaya? A result of founder Gus Poulos’ first vacation to Cuba, where this “Aristocratic Melon of the Tropics” was plentiful.
Gray’s Papaya serving up their famous “Recession Special.”
But few New Yorkers were familiar with tropical fruit or fruit juices in the 1930s, and Poulos had to send his waitresses to the sidewalk in hula skirts to bring attention to his wares. The high concentration of German immigrants in the Upper East Side of the thirties made him reconsider his menu, and Poulos began selling hot dogs––a twist on the German frankfurter––in addition to juice. It was a good decision. By 1937, Poulos had three locations. Their shop at East 86th Street and 3rd Avenue still stands, but the other two locations in Brooklyn and Philadelphia have since closed. Not to worry––there are still two locations in New York City.
The always-crowded Gray’s Papaya location in Greenwich Village on 6th Avenue.
The combination proved popular enough for one Papaya King partner, Paul Gray, to start his own papaya-and-hot-dog store in the mid-seventies: Gray’s Papaya. Gray’s has arguably eclipsed its predecessor in popularity, becoming something of a New York staple in terms of “the city’s best hot dogs.” Recently, the “Recession Special” at Gray’s has proven especially popular––for $4.95, you can get two hot dogs and a drink, which is a significantly better deal than quite a few streetside vendors. It doesn’t hurt that the stand is open 24 hours a day (some circles regard its cheap-but-delicious hot dogs as “drunk food”).
A cozy hot dog-munching area in front of Papaya King––notice the arcade games inside.
There must be something inherently artistic about mixing papaya with the hot dog, because these two stores receive a disproportionate amount of attention in books, movies, and television. Salma Hayek special-orders Gray’s Papaya hot dogs in Nevada for Matthew Perry in Fools Rush In. The teens of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist end up there as well after a long night, and so do the Hardy Boys in Pushed. Ted from How I Met Your Mother has called Papaya King “one of the greatest things about New York City,” and Kramer from Seinfeld has left a long line for movie tickets to get a Papaya King hot dog.
Papaya King’s signs display a certain self-awareness of its place in New York hot dog culture.
The winning combination has led to a series of copycats who follow the hot dog and papaya formula that Papaya King pioneered: Papaya Dog, Chelsea Papaya, Papaya International, 14th Street Papaya, Papaya Express. What do the originals think of the copycats? For Peter Poulous, the son of Papaya King’s founder and its former owner, they give him a headache. “I’ve had people congratulate me for opening on the West Side. I have to tell them I haven’t,” he explained. “These places are giving us a bad name.”
Gray’s Papaya is known for their hot dogs and juice drinks, not necessarily their humility.
Still, given the abundance of copycats and Papaya King and Gray’s Papaya locations uptown and downtown, there’s no excuse not to try this winning combination if you’re wandering around Manhattan in search of a quick lunch (or late-night snack). In fact, Papaya King even has a “mobile unit,” resembling a food truck, that’s available for barbecues. They have a tongue-in-cheek approach to the strange charm of the combination’s popularity: “Papaya and hot dogs,” the side of the mobile unit reads. “It’s a New York thing.”