CHELSEA — After two decades of muffins, smoothies, coffee, sandwiches served under a rainbow flag, Paradise Cafe shocked its regular customers by announcing it would close on Wednesday night.
The cafe at 139 Eighth Ave. is an institution in the neighborhood, a frequent stop for snacks, coffee and conversation, with its French doors typically open to the street to draw in passersby.
Paradise's closure came as a shock to owner Michael Turowsky too — his landlord, 300 West 17th Street Housing Development Fund Corporation, decided to substantially increase the rent, past what he could afford, he said.
"We got pushed out — double the old rent wasn't going to cut it," said Turowsky, who declined to specify exactly how much his landlord wanted. "I thought it was going to work out and we could stay, but it didn't."
A represent of the co-op that owns the space did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On Monday morning, the rainbow flag was already gone — Turowsky wasn't sure who had taken it — and a steady stream of regulars came in to order their last bits of food (at discounted prices) and reminisce about their favorite moments at the cafe.
Don Newcomb, who lives next door to the cafe and was there on its opening day in 1993, came in to snatch up one last turkey sandwich.
"When I saw the sign outside saying it was closed, I couldn't just walk by. I had to come in and buy food," he said.
Sidling over to Turowsky, he asked for one last favor.
"Don't throw out any leftover brownies," he said. "Just put them in a bag and leave them at my doorstep."
Turowsky first opened Paradise as a place with "good food and good people," serving organic food, smoothies and coffee, with the goal of welcoming in anyone — or almost anyone.
"No [idiots] allowed," Turowksy said. "Just be cool."
Paradise is one of many longtime Chelsea institutions that have shut their doors in recent months. Around the corner, Prince Lumber will give way to an office tower by the end of the year. Up the street, leather bar Rawhide closed in March, also due to a rent increase. On Ninth Avenue, an entire row of stores closed to become a large retail space. In August, longtime gay nightclub Splash will close after 10 days of parties.
"This neighborhood, it used to be a little more funky. Now it's more serious," Turowsky said, lamenting the change the area's seen in recent years.
"I wouldn't know where to start in a serious place like this."
Still, the spot produced plenty of memories — including recently, when a wedding party came to celebrate in the cafe, where the groom had proposed to the other groom months ago.
The cafe has also seen its fair share of celebrities over the years.
"Ethan Hawke used to take up room in the doorway — I couldn't get him to move," Turowsky said.
"Ben Stiller sang 'Happy Birthday' to my wife."
Turowsky said he's on the lookout for a new space to possibly revive Paradise, but he has not found any leads yet.
His team of seven staff still have to strip and empty the space over the next few days, and he plans to sell some of the shop's fixtures.
"There's been an awful lot of famous ass sitting on my bench over the years — I think it could bring in a good price," he said.