The last night of an East Side institution
Restaurant owner Nancy Lee has collected pigs for nearly 30 years. Piggy banks, plastic toy pigs and porcelain figurines, all gifts to the owner of the Chinese restaurant Pig Heaven from loyal customers over the years.
But now it's time for the pigs to move on.
Last week, Nancy's Pig Heaven closed amidst rumors that the landlord plans to level the building and build a high-rise apartment complex.
A handful of other spots occupying the stretch of Second Avenue between 80th and 81st Streets, including neighboring bar Johnny Foxes, also shut down. On July 30, a day before officially closing, the restaurant celebrated its local legacy with a buffet dinner for loyal guests.
Lee started as a hostess and cashier for the restaurant's previous owner, and bought the restaurant in 1987. She's been at the helm of the local favorite ever since, operating a decidedly neighborhood-oriented establishment; the majority of her clientele were regulars.
"They come here, they don't feel they go to a restaurant," she said. "They say, 'I come to my dining room, my family room.'"
On the eve of the restaurant's closing, Lee, 58, played gracious host. Petite and thin, and dressed in a slender, leopard-print dress with matching shoes, Lee's hair was buoyant, her red lipstick impeccable. She wore a constant and possibly practiced smile. A few days earlier, she said her eyes were "swollen from crying."
Lee seated guests and led a young girl who wore a pink dress, sparkly pig ears and had her blond ringlets tied in pigtails, by hand.
By 7:30 p.m., the restaurant was crowded and loud, with an atmosphere reminiscent of a wedding reception. Many guests shared tables with strangers and swapped stories of meals spent in the pink dining room, where wooden cutouts of pigs in profile lined the Pepto-colored walls and hanging ducks and racks of spare ribs were displayed in the exposed kitchen.
When Lee informed tables that dinner was served, the line for the buffet formed and quickly became congested.
"It's so many people," Lee said softly in passing, as if to herself. Meanwhile, the restaurant still sent out delivery orders.
Roger Manny came with his wife from Westchester for a last meal at Pig Heaven. He had been a regular for 11 years, since he saw Lee on a cooking show. He sat at a large round table and entertained fellow diner Cindy Alfieri with stories from his time in the neighborhood.
Alfieri lives on the Upper East Side with her husband and children, and has been faithful to the restaurant for the last decade. She celebrated birthdays in the dining room and brought out-of-town guests in for a meal. Her 10-year-old daughter Julia has her Crayon-colored portrait of pigs hanging on the wall near the restaurant's bathroom, and danced in Lee's most recent Chinese New Year celebration. Lee's own daughter gave her dance lessons.
"She makes her restaurant an extension of our family," Alfieri said.
Lee's customers spoke of dinner at Pig Heaven the same way some might reminisce about regular meals spent at a favorite aunt's home or a friend's dining room table. They don't go to a restaurant. They "go to Nancy's." Some call Lee a friend, and some call themselves her followers.
"That's my personality," Lee said. "I like people."
Pierre Leblache moved to the Upper East Side from his native France in 1987, the same year Lee took over the restaurant.
"It completely transcends the cooking," said Leblache of the restaurant's local appeal. "It's the atmosphere. It's the person. She's a character, and it's like family here." By 8 p.m., the line for the buffet, which included trays of fried dumplings, flaky spring rolls and fluffy chicken fried rice, snaked its way through the pink dining room and was nearly three rows deep. Many guests hadn't yet stood up from their tables. At the front of the restaurant, near the bar, a band started playing, "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)."
Lee's lease expired in February, and since then she has operated on a monthly basis with her landlords. She knew closing the original location of her restaurant was imminent, and has been looking to relocate nearby.
"In the beginning I was thinking, 'Should I just stop right here, or should I keep going?'" Lee said. The encouragement from her clientele urged her to pursue a new space. "[Customers said], 'We would keep coming back, it doesn't matter where you move, we're going to follow you.' That's very touching."
JoAnn Tancer has frequented Pig Heaven since 1987. She lives a few blocks away, and the evening of Lee's last supper was also Tancer's birthday. She was turning 68 and came with 13 guests, including her grandchildren.
For the past several years, Tancer has met a group of about 40 friends for dinner in the pink dining room at Pig Heaven. Lee reserves an L-shaped table for them. Tancer and her husband also order delivery about three times a week (they never order out from another restaurant) and she's on a first-name basis with the wait and delivery staff.
"Most important is Nancy," Tancer said. "She's just become a wonderful friend. We're devastated. Everyone is devastated."
The celebration amongst Lee's followers continued as plates piled high and the band played on. From the street, Pig Heaven glowed like a little Second Avenue oasis squeezed between two vacant storefronts. As customers dined on the restaurant's cozy porch, and as the band played "You've Got a Friend," Pig Heaven looked like the kind of restaurant where diners knew the delivery men by name, asked the servers to sneak them an extra plate of spare ribs, and where passersby across the street saw the crowd spilling out from the restaurant, heard the band and said, "it's Nancy's last night."
Lee said that she's exploring new locations on the Upper East Side, though she could not share more details. She hopes to welcome her followers back to her dining room, wherever that may be, by October. Until then, the hunt for space might keep her busy, but she's not sure what she'll do with her evenings.
"I don't skip a night," said Lee, a tireless host who commuted from her home in Oradell, New Jersey for nightly dinner service. "It just becomes a lifestyle. I would miss this. After [closing], I don't know where to go have dinner."