For every devoted restaurant-goer who likes to keep up with the latest restaurant trend there are probably two others who would prefer an eating place from the past. Despite my fascination with the history of restaurants, it might surprise some readers to learn that as a diner I am not attracted to historic restaurants; I study the past but eat in the present. Journalist and author Christopher Morley, however, might have been the patron saint of those who would gladly flip back the calendar when dining out.
Through the 1920s he gathered together friends who loved to explore the corners, alleys, and waterfronts of Manhattan and environs, especially Hoboken which he christened the “seacoast of Bohemia.” Their whimsical jaunts centered on a leisurely lunch.
The group, whose personnel was always changing, was made up of men who had enough time to join Morley’s Three Hours for Lunch Club. He initiated it in 1920 when he began writing a column for The New York Evening Post called “The Bowling Green” that chronicled his explorations of New York and the escapades of the club. Later the column appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature.
The club was less about food than about male camaraderie, conversation, and humorous one-upmanship. In earlier times, before Prohibition, it might have been a drinking club. The loss of masculine drinking culture and the alleged feminization of restaurants underwrote a lament for a present era supposedly ruined by women lunching on sandwiches and soft drinks at soda fountains. By contrast, Morley & Co. searched out old-fashioned taverns and chop houses.
He wrote in a tribute to McSorley’s Ale House (which did not admit women until 1970), “Atrocious cleanliness and glitter and raw naked marble make the soda fountain a disheartening place to the average male. He likes a dark, low-ceilinged, and not too obtrusively sanitary place to take his ease. At McSorley’s is everything that the innocent fugitive from the world requires.”
Without his male buddies, Morley might have been limited to the company of his wife Helen, whom he called Titania in his columns. Although the pair enjoyed frequent Saturday lunches in the basement of Moretti’s table d’hôte on East 14th Street, he complained publicly, “Anyplace that I think is peculiarly amusing, or quaint, or picturesque, Titania thinks is unhealthy. Sometimes I can see it coming. We are on our way to Mulberry Bend, or the Bowery, or Farrish’s Chop House. I see her brow begin to pucker . . .”
The club, which included Don Marquis, sea captain/writer David William Bone, Sinclair Lewis, and other editors and writers, flourished about the same time as the Round Table whose literary stars met at the Algonquin Hotel. For a time before he founded his own club Morley was part of a group of Vanity Fair writers who congregated at the Café Noir, but he felt edged out because he lacked the Vanity Fair style. “Even Thackeray would have been grayballed,” he wrote later.
A favorite THFL place in lower Manhattan was Ye Olde Chop House on Cedar Street (pictured pre-Prohibition with sawdust floors beloved by CM) where the club named a waitress “the Venus of Mealo.” The cuisine of chop houses, as might be expected, featured grilled meat and homey dishes such as pickled beets, corned beef hash, tapioca pudding, and rhubarb pie. Far from seeking adventure in the culinary department, Morley once ordered swordfish steak, but declared it “too reptilian.”
Other than the musty hangouts of lower Manhattan, Hoboken’s Hofbrau, Meyer’s Restaurant, and the American Hotel were popular with the club. In 1929 Morley and others bought a bankrupt ironworks on River Street in Hoboken to become club headquarters. But it seems the club was waning around this time and it’s not clear how long that experiment continued. Three-Hours-for-Lunch was succeeded by another club, the Baker Street Irregulars, which Morley – a Sherlock Holmes fan – formed at Prohibition’s end.
© Jan Whitaker, 2013