The future of Papaya King, an Upper East Side mainstay credited with popularizing New York’s quintessential pairing of hot dogs and tropical fruit juice drinks, is in doubt as its building is set to be razed.
Extell Development, which last year bought the lot where Papaya King sits for $21 million, filed plans with the city on June 28 to demolish the one-story commercial building. The developer is known for its luxury apartment blocks, including Central Park Tower on Billionaires’ Row in Midtown.
It is unclear when then a demolition might take place, or when the restaurant might have to vacate the space, at 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 last week to Papaya King employees and customers.
“When I feel like having something really delicious, something to sustain me, I come here,” said Joan Roth, 80, who lives in the restaurant’s Yorkville neighborhood and has been a patron for 57 years. “You go to a place for all these years, and you become attached to it.”
Papaya King’s founder, Gus Poulos, a Greek immigrant, started out in the 1930s with a Brooklyn juice stand called Hawaiian Tropical Drinks. On Florida vacations, he had 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 New York staple. He and the friend who owned Papaya King’s hot dog supplier, Marathon Enterprises, created an exclusive recipe for the restaurant.
The restaurant’s offbeat 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 The New York Times called a “hot dog price war” with Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, a Coney Island institution, after Nathan’s opened a location next to Papaya King. Both businesses kept lowering prices, and Nathan’s eventually closed.
“And we won,” said Peter Poulos, 83, Mr. Poulos’s son, who later took over the business. In the early 2000s, he said, he sold it to a new owner he would not identify. Relations between Extell, the restaurant’s former landlord and the owner have been tied up in litigation since May 2020.
John Pierse, 73, of Yorkville, has gone to Papaya King since he was an infant. He has always stuck with the same order: a plain 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,” Mr. Pierse said. He recalls the risqué posters of an ecstatic cow eating papaya, and his childhood fascination with the machine that squeezed fresh orange juice. Years later, he introduced his own children to the restaurant, just as his parents initiated him decades earlier.
“It’s just something that’s always been there,” Mr. Pierse said, adding that he was upset when he heard about 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 are now in Orlando, Fla., visited Papaya King during a fourth of July trip to New York. They recalled traveling to the Upper East Side to watch movies, order papaya juice and a hot dog, then getting on an express train headed home.
“It’s the end of an era,” Ms. Veles said.
This isn’t the first time Papaya King has faced extinction. Mr. Poulos recalled that the previous landlord tried unsuccessfully to get the city’s permission to replace the building with a high rise in the early 2000s.
“It’s too valuable of a corner to make it a one-story building,” he said. “It’s like everything else. Everything has to come to an end eventually.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.