Tad’s was an inexpensive chain of steakhouses. The last one in New York City closed Sunday, January 5th 2020, after 60 years in business. It was located at 761 7th Ave., adjoining a T.G.I. Friday’s in Times Square. For those who have never been to Tad’s, it’s difficult to explain the appeal. The steaks were rubbery. The décor was bordello-esque—red flocked wallpaper, fake Tiffany lamps. The service was indifferent—you stood on line and ordered your steaks cafeteria style; sometimes they even cooked them to the right level of doneness. But for New Yorkers of a certain age, eating at Tad’s was a rite of passage.
Donald Townsend founded Tad’s in 1957. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he named it after his friend and business partner, Alan Tadeus Kay. At the chain’s peak, there were twenty-eight Tad’s, including eight in New York City, several in Times Square. Now only one remains, in San Francisco, and friends tell me its boarded up and relocating. Townsend sold Tad’s to the Riese Organization in 1988, and died in 2000, age 91.
I used to go to Tad’s all the time in the 1970s, before or after visiting the grindhouses on the Deuce. It was a place a teenager on a budget could afford to eat (relatively) like a king. I still included Tad’s on my walking tours of Gritty Old Times Square for Untapped New York.
I decided to go for one last meal Friday night before it closed. There was already a long line by the time I arrived at 6:30. Around 7:00, the staff locked the front doors, and the cashier irritably announced customers couldn’t leave coats and bags on seats; more customers continued lining up outside, hoping to get in.
“I’ve been coming since before most of these people were born,” an elderly African-American gentlemen informed me, surveying the crowd with a mixture of wonder and annoyance. “I’ve been coming since steaks were a dollar.”
By the time I got to the front of the line, they had run out of my first and second choices, the extra large and regular T-bones, so I settled for the prime rib. With baked potato, garlic bread, tossed salad, and a Budweiser, my bill came to $32.50—a far cry from the $1.09 steak dinner Tad’s started out with, but still a helluva lot cheaper than Peter Luger’s. And for once my prime rib was perfectly cooked—nicely charred on the outside, moist and tender inside.
I dined with Michael Hirsch, the president of the Society of Commercial Archeology. The mission of the SCA is to “recognize the unique historical significance of the 20th-century commercial built environment and cultural landscapes of North America.” In other words, honky-tonks like Tad’s.
Cheap steakhouses are a New York City tradition. As food historian Cindy Lobel wrote in Urban Appetites, so-called “sixpenny restaurants”—the precursors of today’s fast-food restaurants—were common in antebellum New York:
In place of a printed menu, a large white placard, or chalkboard outside the door displayed the meal options and prices—six pence for a small steak, three cents for a cup of coffee—or waiters called them out. After taking orders for standard offerings like roast beef, boiled mutton, lamb, or fish, these servers shouted them to the runners who conveyed them to the kitchen. The runners then delivered the prepared meals in a flash to diners who quickly bolted them down, paid their bill, and left, usually within thirty minutes of their arrival.
Tad’s is gone, as is most of the old Times Square. We won’t see its likes again.