Nicholas Gray, the founder of Gray’s Papaya, a storefront hot-dog stand whose culinary eccentricity, competitive prices, clever sloganeering and apparent immutability earned the affection of New Yorkers young and old, rich and poor, died on Friday at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 86.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter Natasha Gray said.
Pastrami on rye and bagels and lox, to name two canonical pairings of New York cuisine, possess a kind of self-evident logic. Papaya juice and hot dogs, the specialty of Gray’s Papaya, seem, conversely, like favorites of separate — perhaps opposing — sociocultural groups.
Yet this odd couple gained Original Ray’s Pizza-like ascendancy in local dining. In addition to Gray’s Papaya on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Papaya King on the Upper East Side — the leading purveyors — New York establishments selling hot dogs and papaya juice have included 14th Street Papaya, Chelsea Papaya, Empire Papaya, Papaya International, Papaya World, Papaya World II, Papaya Heaven and Papaya Paradise.
According to most accounts, the pairing’s origins lie in the 1930s, when Constantine Poulos, a New York deli proprietor partial to tropical vacations, started selling the juice of exotic-seeming fruits. (Some have described the enterprise as New York’s first juice bar.) In later years he added hot dogs to the menu and crowned his Upper East Side storefront Papaya King.