Inside Fishs Eddy’s secret tableware museum

“‘You here for the tour?’ ” quips Julie Gaines, the co-founder of the iconic downtown home goods store Fishs Eddy.

Though the shop has long been known for selling quirky kitchen items — including plates and mugs with an illustration of country music legend Dolly Parton that say “Hello Dolly!” — Gaines has something new to show off that, until this month, only lucky eyes could see.

Just one flight of stairs up from the store stands a free-admission, one-room museum that Gaines opened in early June.

Welcome to the Museum of American Restaurant China, which showcases thousands of pieces of vintage restaurant-ware — with piles of dishes on the floor, plates across the walls and rustic-looking shelves stuffed with mugs and creamers.

These items — including bits from New York Central Railroad dining cars — aren’t for sale, but reflect a big part of Fishs Eddy’s identity. Since the 1980s, the store has lured shoppers looking for vintage dishware from diners, corporate dining rooms and hotels.

Gaines has turned her collection of vintage restaurant ware into the Museum of American Restaurant China, which is on display at Fishs Eddy near Union Square.
On Thursdays through Saturdays, head upstairs to see her favorite, and not-for-sale, collection.
Stephen Yang

“I love bringing people up here,” said Gaines, 57, adding that when she previously saw customers rummaging through the vintage section in the back of the store, she’d quietly invite them up to this room for fun.

It’s where Gaines and her then-husband David Lenovitz kept select items from the troves of plates, bowls and sometimes bouillon cups they found over the years in the basements of Bowery restaurant supply stores, and even in upstate New York barns. (They sold the rest.)

Julie Gaines, founder of Fishs Eddy, shows her collection of vintage restaurant ware, which she has turned into the Museum of American Restaurant China.
Gaines is thrilled to show off just how weird, wild and creative restaurantware can be.
Stephen Yang

“ ‘You want to see somethin’?’ It sounds like I’m taking them to a dark place or something, but it’s an a-ha moment — and I’ve gotten letters from people saying, ‘We came to New York and that was the highlight.’ ”

Browsing this collection is a trip through time. Gaines is quick to point out record books from since-shuttered manufacturers, such as Syracuse China, showing illustrations of custom-designed dishes that date back to 1912 — as well as other items peppered across a large dining table, like a bowl used to serve food during the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Shoppers at the store near Union Square.
The store has long been a popular source of vintage, and sometimes inexpensive, vintage restaurantware that Gaines has spent years sourcing.
Stephen Yang

The point of this museum is not just to celebrate good design and functionality of all these sturdy pieces, but also “to share an appreciation for it, because it was a great American industry that’s gone now — if we don’t share it, who will?”

The display also includes small, but meaningful, items from famed New York City spots.

A mould for a ceramic creamer that Gaines has collected over the years.
A mould for a ceramic creamer in Gaines’ vast collection.
Stephen Yang

There are floral-printed mugs and bouillon cups from the glam Hotel Astor in Times Square, which shut in 1967.

There’s also a small white creamer with blue trim that spells out a familiar name: Macy’s. (“That’s from their corporate dining room,” said Gaines.)

I wish I kept more.

Julie Gaines, Fishs Eddy’s co-founder

A white mug with red letters shows the cursive logo of Junior’s — a small vestige from the original 1950s diner in Brooklyn. “I love this,” she said while holding it.

“No one goes to a diner and thinks about the history of the mug they’re drinking out of,” she added.

It could take hours for a visitor to browse through the assortment of the museum, open on Thursdays (2 p.m. to 4 p.m.), Fridays and Saturdays (both days 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.) — but Gaines thinks the space merits more pieces to show.

“I wish I kept more,” she said.

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