The future of Papaya King, an Upper East Side mainstay that popularized New York’s signature combination of hot dogs and tropical fruit juice drinks, is in doubt as the building is soon to be demolished.
Extell Development, which bought the lot where Papaya King sits for $21 million last year, submitted plans to the city on June 28 to demolish the one-story commercial building. The developer is known for its luxury apartment complexes, including Central Park Tower on Billionaires’ Row in Midtown.
It’s unclear when a demolition could take place, or when the restaurant will have to leave the space, on the corner of East 86th Street and Third Avenue. Neither Extell nor the people currently running the restaurant would comment.
The proposed demolition, reported by Patch, came as an unwelcome surprise to Papaya King employees and customers last week.
“When I feel like something really tasty, something that sustains me, I come here,” says Joan Roth, 80, who lives in the restaurant’s Yorkville borough and has been a patron for 57 years. “You go to a place all these years and you get attached to it.”
The founder of Papaya King, Gus Poulos, a Greek immigrant, started in the 1930s with a juice stand in Brooklyn called Hawaiian Tropical Drinks. While vacationing in Florida, he’d tasted juices made with tropical fruits for the first time, and set out to introduce them to people up north.
In the late 1940s, he opened Papaya King on the Upper East Side, and a few years later added hot dogs — formalizing the marriage of frankfurters and fruit juice that would become a staple of New York. He and the friend of Papaya King’s hot dog supplier, Marathon Enterprises, created an exclusive recipe for the restaurant.
The restaurant’s unusual menu inspired many local imitators with similar names, including Gray’s Papaya, Papaya Heaven, Papaya Paradise, and Papaya Place. Papaya King even got a shout-out on an episode of “Seinfeld.”
In the 1970s, the restaurant waged what DailyExpertNews called a “hot dog price war” with Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, a Coney Island institution, after Nathan opened a location next to Papaya King. Both companies continued to cut prices, and Nathan eventually closed.
“And we won,” said Peter Poulos, 83, the son of Mr Poulos, who later took over the business. In the early 2000s, he said, he sold it to a new owner he wouldn’t identify. Relations between Extell, the restaurant’s former landlord and owner, have been embroiled in a lawsuit since May 2020.
John Pierse, 73, of Yorkville, has been going to Papaya King since he was a baby. He’s always stuck with the same order: a regular hot dog (later two hot dogs) and the restaurant’s largest serving of papaya juice.
Papaya King is a “touchstone for people from that neighborhood,” Pierse said. He remembers the daring posters of an ecstatic cow eating papaya, and his childhood fascination with the machine that squeezes fresh orange juice. Years later, he introduced his own children to the restaurant, just as his parents had initiated him decades earlier.
“It’s just something that’s always been there,” said Mr. Pierse, adding that he was upset when he learned of the demolition. “You just took comfort in the fact that Papaya King was there.”
Louis Nieves, 60, and his fiancée, Ginette Velez, 58, who once lived in the Bronx but now lives in Orlando, Florida, visited Papaya King on a July 4 trip to New York. They remembered traveling to the Upper East Side to watch movies, order papaya juice and a hot dog, and then get on an express train home.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Ms. Velez.
This isn’t the first time Papaya King has been threatened with extinction. Mr Poulos recalls that the previous landlord tried unsuccessfully to get the city permission to replace the building with a high-rise building in the early 2000s.
“It’s too valuable an angle to make it into a one-story building,” he said. “It’s like everything else. Everything must eventually come to an end.”
Sheelagh McNeill research contributed.