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Don't let the name fool you - Gray's Papaya is as much about nutritious fruit as the Carnegie Deli is about fat-free cheesecake: sure, they supply it, but it's not really the point of going there.

Gray's Papaya is what every New York City hot dog vendor dreams of as he settles in for the night. With three Manhattan locations (72nd and Broadway, 39th street and 8th avenue, 8th street and 6th avenue) they keep a good portion of New York's huddled masses fed (and fed well) for practically nothing.

The HollyEats website (http://www.hollyeats.com/Grays.htm) has this to say about them: "75 cents for a hot dog. Not the greatest hot dog in New York. But definitely the best 75 cent hot dog. Wash it down with a papaya drink. Not the greatest papaya drink in New York. But good enough for washing down 75 cent hot dogs."

Here's the setup: each Gray's has two doors, one to enter, one to exit. The line sometimes stretches out onto the street, but don't let that bother you - with the exception of some natural disaster you'll be out in five minutes, tops.

When you get to the front of the line and are asked what you want (assuming they actually ask - more likely they'll stare at you for about 5 seconds and then take the order of the person behind you) get the "Recession Special." Everyone gets the special. The special is Gray's reason for existance. You get two hot dogs (grilled, not boiled as some people seem to think) on fresh warm buns with your choice of four toppings (or their inherent combinations): sauerkraut, onion sauce, and the ubiquitous ketchup and mustard. You get a drink too; that's a technical term - you don't get juice, you get a drink. Gray's drinks are juice that's been watered down a bit and infused with sugar and other good stuff. They have real juice as well, but it's far more boring and twice the price. I find their orangeade to be a good compliment to the rest of the special.

Total cost: $1.95. They have a sign up in the window that says the mother-of-all-specials will be ending soon. As far as I can tell, that sign has been there since the Reagan Administration. It can be safely ignored if only for the riot that would ensue if such a catastrophe ever came to pass.

Yes, they have other stuff (I hear they do a mean bacon, egg and cheese for breakfast with super-fresh 45-cent coffee, and their fries are good) but they're really for the aforementioned natural disasters.

Ultimately, Gray's is great because they cater to every New Yorker's fantasy: food that's fast, cheap, filling and extremely bad for you (c'mon, admit it - you're suddenly hungry, aren't you?). It's so popular there are copycat hot dog shops all around the island (like Papaya King) trying (unsuccessfully) to cash in. How many restaurants can you say that about?

Oh, one more thing: they're open 24 hours a day, all year round. They're the perfect place to be when you can barely remember where you live.

(June 24, 2003) UPDATE: The price of the recession special has changed - you now get two 'dogs and a drink for $2.45. I'm shakin' in my boots.

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