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January 6th, 2005

A SoHo Diva traces time

by Sara Goff

I walk past the new Bloomingdale’s site on Broadway. Pick up a latte at Starbucks on Spring Street. Notice a couple coming out of SoHo Grand, walking hand in hand, passing kisses back and forth; they’re wearing cowboy boots, jeans and coordinating T-shirts, Everything is Bigger in Texas. In SoHo? I smile; they’re in love.

My destination is Pfiff, a restaurant and bar on the corner of Grand and Thompson. I’m going to meet the owner, Patricia Dillon, a rumored SoHo diva. Yes, I have my suspicions, envisioning Whitney Houston. Mariah Carey. Please. I just need a quote: How have the changes in SoHo changed you? Something like that. I expect we’ll talk about the influx of big business and tourists. Limos and a lifestyle the locals can’t afford. The usual complaints. The million dead-end streets. And David Bowie starts playing in my head, Ch-Ch-changes, turn and face the . . .

I turn on Grand. There’s Felix, out hosing down the sidewalk and what’s left of yesterday’s Sunday brunch; a weekly carnival and a neighborhood casualty as it spills out of the caf? and lasts into the night. It’s mid-morning, Monday, and spring is making its yearly debut, as reliable and varied as love. This year it’s flaunting a breeze, at once invigorating and pushy. Its gutsy shifts in direction become annoying, and I’m relieved to step inside Pfiff.

The name Pfiff means dainty or understated. Stylish. Just a bit. A breezy whistle. A twist. It even sounds light and airy.

The restaurant is deserted and entering is like finding myself in a still-life. She asked me to arrive before the lunch crowd, ad execs and lawyers, the local businesses which have made Pfiff their go-to. The aura here is a confident femininity so rare in SoHo today. Chamomile colored walls and a bit of bare brick. Behind the bar is a shuttered window – weathered, preserved, perfect. The restaurant’s original framework is intact. I wait for Patricia, content taking in the details. The tin ceiling painted white with exposed pipes. But there’s more. There’s something in here that says never mind what’s going on out there. I nail it. Past and present have come together in Pfiff. Old wooden beams and industrial metal columns work with contemporary finishing touches I am rapt in this epiphany at the heart of SoHo when Patricia steps out of the kitchen. She is wearing a lavender knit shawl over jeans and T-shirt. Her wavy brown hair highlights the dark wood floor, and her notable stature is framed by the light coming through the generous windows. Her smile takes over the place.

I immediately like Patricia’s fervent Spanish eyes, the same tan color as her skin. They sparkle and embrace. I have an inkling they can pitch lightening bolts, too. Her sheer will is apparent as she moves toward me fast and with an air of unpredictability like the wind outside. She takes hold of my shoulders and plants her lips on my cheek. “Hello! So nice to meet you!” She pulls out a chair at a window table. I sit. By the look on her face, by just the intensity in her voice, I know she has worked hard to live and run a business in SoHo. And then she proclaims, “Twenty-four years I’ve lived here!” Yes, Patricia Dillon is a SoHo Diva.

She proceeds to dump the 1980’s out on the table – Polaroid’s and party flyers fall over a 5 oz. beer glass holding crayons; the tables are set with paper cloths, an impetus for creativity. We haphazardly pick through the years, Patricia’s years in SoHo. It’s like wandering through a Warhol exhibit with objects and faces from the past exemplifying an era. In Patricia’s photographs, SoHo is artistic expression. Untamed. It’s avant-guard, honest and without shame. It has something to do with the old Aria and Danceteria. With reckless pursuits of self and dreamscape nights. She holds up a snapshot in which she’s wearing a wig and says, “SoHo was the perfect combination of delusion and drive.”

Patricia moved to SoHo in 1980. Maybe, at first, she came here to party, or to grow up or get loud. To hear her own voice, for sure. The people she met, all artists, wanted to be somebody. Not rich, but like rock ‘n rollers – of the art world. “Life was art in SoHo then,” she says. Performance art. Self-expression. Individualism. Patricia fell in love with it.

She pauses a second, thinking back. “So I got married in 1985.” Patricia married sculptor, Josef Zutelgte and two years later they had daughter, Ana. Ana goes to Poly Prep in Brooklyn. Patricia is a proud mother. She points out the light fixtures on the wall which embed Joseph Beuys prints, and the ones hanging from the ceiling as if in midair, and she smiles a young crush. “Those are Josef’s,” she says.

From the beginning, Patricia and Josef dreamt of owning a place that would bring back “home” for their myriad of ex-pat friends in SoHo. They used to get together on Sunday afternoons in anyone’s kitchen, often too small, and whip up a feast of many cultures – largely Pfiff’s menu today. To explain their broad and inclusive concept of home, Patricia shows me a pamphlet from one of Josef’s exhibits in which he is quoted, “When you leave your home, you get closer to home.”

Now Ana is 16 years old and Pfiff is three. Patricia and her family live in the apartment upstairs. Since opening the restaurant, some concessions have been made to go with the changes in SoHo. They’re doing more corporate parties than they ever imagined. It’s business, not a complaint. Patricia does have a gripe, “My street corner sounds like a competition of bands.” The restaurants in SoHo are drawing crowds playing loud music, one louder than the next. Patricia looks out the window, shaking her head, and says, “I once swore, if I have to be noisy, I’d rather be broke!” Now they hire a DJ on the weekends, but only after 11:30 p.m.

On a slightly softer note, when Pfiff first opened there was only one type of drinking glass. “Just one!” And Patricia holds up a typical water glass. “You could drink whatever you wanted from it. But not now. Now drinks have to wear Prada!” She laughs. “And what’s up with the pinky finger?” She pretends she’s sipping wine with her pinky way extended. “Someone’s going to lose an eye! Then what?” Patricia postulates as if SoHo might actually shut down. Now they buy the gamut of glasses. As for that typical water glass, it says nothing for their exceptional drink menu.

The phone rings. A hostess seats men in suits. So mid-town. Patricia wants to get back to business, I can see it in her eyes. She wraps up our talk. “The community feel is still here, you know. It’s here among the shop owners, families and surviving artists . . . it’s here, of course it is. I believe it always will be.” I question solidarity between the restaurants. “We borrow eggs and eat each other’s specials,” she says and a maternal quality comes over Patricia as the seasonal sun shines on her face. “Pfiff is the same restaurant it was when it was only a dream for Josef and me – a home for our friends, old friends and new.”

A couple who became engaged at Pfiff will be married here. On any chance Sunday, good friends will take over the kitchen to make that family-style dinner. “You have to come!” Patricia stands. At the door, she gives me a hearty kiss. “Really, we dish up our mamma’s secrets from big soup kettles. It’s amazing!”

Patricia isn’t worried about SoHo – the changes manifesting not from the sweat of artists, but from the pockets of bankers – not as long as the community stays. She trusts that the locals in SoHo will always take care of one another because time has proven it to her. I’m about to leave when the question dawns on me, So what does this SoHo Diva dream of today? I turn and ask, and she doesn’t hesitate. “A grassy park in SoHo!” She pounds the wall with her fist, and I wave goodbye.

Sara Goff is a fiction writer living in New York City. Her website can be found here

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