Category Archives: restaurants

Famous in its day: Fera’s

fera'sfrontIn the second half of the 19th century wealthy families patronized Fera’s Confectionery and Restaurant in Boston, which had earned a reputation for high quality pastries and candies throughout the East. The business was established ca. 1855 in the basement of the Temple Club on West Street, and after 1876 was located on Tremont across from the Common and near the Boston Theatre. [The trade card shown front and back in this post is probably from the 1880s.]

At Fera’s, patrons could enjoy dainty luncheons or after-theater suppers or could arrange to have the firm cater their next dinner party, complete with table ornaments. Women shoppers might stop there for lunch or bon bons after a visit to the shopping district where, in 1866 for instance, they could consult a clairvoyant or pick up such things as freckle lotion, a new perfume from Mexico called Opoponax, potted meat, or library slippers. Fera’s was especially popular with female patrons, as was always the case with confectioneries in the days when many other kinds of restaurants were considered off-limits to respectable women. [see 1866 advertisement below]

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Respectability in eating places was not easily achieved then and it’s surprising that Fera’s was able to rescue its reputation from a scandal it was caught up in not long after opening. It was constantly in the newspapers in 1857 because of a sensational divorce case in which a husband alleged that his wife had committed an “adulterous act” in Fera’s. Although the defendant’s lawyer argued that no such occurrence took place since the restaurant was “a wide hall” that was “open all the way through” (i.e., not divided into small private rooms or boxes), the divorce was granted, branding the defendant as an adulteress and leaving in doubt what had occurred where.

Somehow Fera’s survived the scandal, as well as George Fera’s own marital breakup, fires, robberies, changes of address, and a couple of bankruptcies.

At the Tremont address Fera’s was divided into two sections with the restaurant occupying space behind the confectionery and separated by an arched doorway. After redecorating in 1887, the restaurant was painted in cream and gold, with lower walls in marble and upper walls hung with large mirrors. Electric lights were installed, producing a  bright and glittering style that emulated a Paris café.

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Like many Europeans in the culinary trades who came to this country, George Fera had traveled a prestigious career path before arriving on U.S. soil in his early 20s. Born in Lübeck, Germany, he compressed a lifetime into a few years. Starting out at a young age he had trained in confectionery in Paris, succeeding so well that he was appointed confectioner to the Czar of Russia in St. Petersburg, where he remained for a number of years. Upon his arrival in the United States, he went to work at a New Orleans hotel, moving from there to New York City where he was employed by the famed confectioner Henry Maillard. He was said to have made for Maillard’s the first caramels produced in this country.

George Fera retired around 1890 and his two sons, who had been working with him for years, took over. In 1892 Fera’s closed and the furnishings and equipment were auctioned, including in part: “30 marble-top saloon tables, 75 bentwood chairs, 5 nickel plated show cases, one show case with deck, one square [show case] with fancy chocolates, two large mirrors, candy jars, 50 doz. wine, cordial and hot water glasses, decanters, Eper[g]nes punch bowl, triple plated spoons, knives and forks, plated castors, water pitchers and cold water urn, 600 decorated French china plates, platters, compotes, pitchers, cups and saucers, &c., Jap. plates, fine lot candies, French wedding cake ornaments, fruits and marmalades in jars, costume crackers, candy machines, bon bons, ice cream apparatus, &c.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Why the parsley garnish?

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Nothing decorated more restaurant plates in the 20th century than parsley, most of it by all accounts uneaten.

Why use so much of what nobody wanted? The best answer I can come up with is that parsley sprigs were there to fill empty spaces on the plate and to add color to dull looking food.

Parsley was not the only garnish around, but it has probably been the most heavily used over time. It has shared the role of plate greenery with lettuce, especially after WWII when lettuce become readily available, and to a lesser extent with watercress.

Parsley has long been a favorite in butcher shops where it is tucked around steaks and roasts. As early as 1886 restaurants were advised to emulate butchers and decorate food in their show windows with “a big, red porterhouse steak, with an edge of snow-white fat, laid in the center of a wreath of green parsley.” By the early 20th century, almost the entire U.S. parsley crop, more than half of which was grown in Louisiana and New York, went to restaurants and butchers. By 1915 parsley sprigs were a ubiquitous restaurant garnish that many regarded as a nuisance. Diners sometimes suspected that the parsley on their plate had been recycled from a previous customer.

While European chefs use garnishes as edible complements to the main dish, Americans have focused primarily on their visual properties.

parsleyGuidetoConvenienceFoodscvrAround 1970 when convenience foods invaded restaurant kitchens, garnishes took on heightened significance in jazzing up lackluster, monochromatic frozen entrees. In the words of Convenience and Fast Food Handbook (1973),“The emergence of pre-prepared frozen entrees on a broad scale has revived the importance of garnishing and in addition, has led to innovative methods of food handling, preparation and plating. If an organization is to achieve sustained success in this field, emphasis must be placed on garnishing and plating. These are the two essentials that provide the customer with excitement and satisfaction.” [partial book cover shown above, 1969]

Excitement?

parsleyNOThe head of the Southern California Restaurant Association admitted in 1978 that he hated to see all the food used as garnishes go to waste in his restaurant, including “tons” of lettuce. But this was necessary for merchandising, he said: “We have to make food attractive. It’s part of the cost of putting an item on the table.” It was – and is – probably true that an ungarnished plate such as shown here looked unattractive to most Americans.

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So many garnishes decorated food in American restaurants in the 1970s that food maestro James Beard got very grumpy about it, calling it stupid and gauche. He could allow watercress with lamb chops or raw onion rings on a salad, but put a strawberry in the center of his grapefruit half and he was outraged. Next to orange slices and twists, his most detested “tricky” garnishes were tomato roses and flowers. Funny that he didn’t mention radish roses such as the one shown above.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Early vegetarian restaurants

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As early as the 1830s in the U.S., the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity espoused a regimen called “Nature’s Bill of Fare.” It advocated meatless meals that contained no more than three different articles of food, and no desserts, condiments, or beverages except water. Diners were to eat at precisely the same time each day and chew very thoroughly. Needless to say, the “Grahamites” were very much at odds with the majority of Americans who expected to eat meat three times a day.

Some of the followers of Sylvester Graham lived in special boarding houses where no meat was served, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that the first public vegetarian restaurants appeared in this country.

The first was the well-named “Vegetarian Restaurant No. 1” opened on West 23rd Street in New York City in 1895. It was sponsored by the New-York Vegetarian Society, which did not tolerate either taking life for food or drinking alcohol.

One of the co-founders of No. 1 was its manager Louise Volkmann, a remarkable 50-year old German-born woman who was active in the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, and the peace movement, as well as being a music teacher and a volunteer in prisons and hospitals. However, not even such a force of nature as Louise could make the restaurant succeed. It closed due to insufficient patronage in less than a year.

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By 1899 a few more vegetarian restaurants had opened around the country. In Minneapolis a restaurant operated by two partners, Peterson and Mataumura, made the concession of supplementing the menu of Vegetable Turkey and a roast made of crushed nuts with a few meat dishes for non-vegetarians. Detroit and Boston also had restaurants catering to vegetarians, while San Jose actually had two, one of which also accommodated meat eaters. Detroit’s vegetarian café evidently was vegan; its macaroni was served with nut paste rather than cheese and its eggs were made of cereal or nuts and served boiled, curdled, or scrambled with lemon or, presumably fictitious, “cream.” [illustration of Los Angeles’ Vegetarian Cafeteria, ca. 1910]

Many of the early vegetarian restaurants served nut and grain-based food products – Granose, Nuttose, Wheatose, and others made by the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in Michigan. Well-off people, not necessarily all vegetarians, would sign up for a stint at the Sanitarium to improve their health. A vegetarian dinner there in 1900 featured items with remarkably unattractive names such as Gruel, Dry Gluten, and Protose Salad.

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The vegetarian movement and its restaurants got a boost from rising meat prices and stockyard scandals shortly after the 20th century began. A 1904 directory listed 57 vegetarian restaurants nationwide, and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 encouraged more to open. New customers mobbed vegetarian restaurants while eating places of all kinds added meatless dishes such as spaghetti and omelets to their fare, an exercise they would repeat under the austerity measures of World War I. Up to and during the war, vegetarian cafes flourished and chains began to form, such as the Physical Culture Restaurants in New York, with branches in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Chicago. In addition to the Battle Creek connection, a number of pre-WWI vegetarian restaurants were connected to the Seventh-Day Adventist religion.

Often going under names such the Hygienic Restaurant or the Pure Food Restaurant, a typical vegetarian restaurant menu of 1902 or 1903 might have included selections such as these from Chicago’s Mortimer Pure Food restaurant:

Asparagus on toast, 15
Roosevelt [vegetable] cutlet, with mushroom sauce, bread and butter, 20
Poached eggs, with rice and currie sauce, bread and butter, 25
Spinach, with poached eggs on toast, 25
Broiled new potatoes on toast, 20
Spaghetti a la Mortimer, 10
Broiled fresh mushrooms on toast, 25
Baked beans, 10

Burl's1950sLA2How well vegetarian restaurants fared in the 1920s is unclear. The Childs restaurant chain, by then a public corporation, embraced vegetarianism briefly but changed its policy after its stock prices dropped in response. On the other hand, restaurant industry leader Myron Green, a Kansas City cafeteria proprietor, claimed in 1928, somewhat unbelievably, that meat eaters constituted less than 25% of food service patrons. In the early 1920s Los Angeles added two raw food restaurants and a Sephardic Kosher café to its list of meatless eating places. Also in this decade, a chain of vegetarian cafeterias appeared in the South, including one in Knoxville TN. In New York City Herman and Sadie Schildkraut operated a vegetarian hotel in the 1920s and by 1933 were directors of Schildkraut’s Vegetarian Food Emporiums, headquartered at 225 W. 36th.

Although meat rationing during World War II would bring back menus featuring vegetable plates, the vegetarian movement would not experience another boom until the counter-culture-inspired food revolution of the 1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Famous in its day: Blanco’s

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Blanco’s Café was one of San Francisco’s luxury restaurants of the early 20th century. Among the very first restaurants to open after the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906, it made its debut on November 7, 1907 at 859 O’Farrell Street.

It soon became a popular place for banquets, one of which is depicted in the 1915 postcard shown above. Typically such banquets were all male, often being made up of members of professional and cultural societies. Blanco’s was also a favorite after-theater spot for men and women who enjoyed a “cold bot and hot bird” as a light supper of champagne and quail was referred to in those days.

Its owners and managers were mostly old hands in the restaurant business, Italians and Germans led by a Spaniard, Antonio Blanco, who had been born in Malaga. Blanco’s reputation was built upon his pre-fire restaurant, The Poodle Dog, which he re-established a short time after opening Blanco’s. Two of Blanco’s managers had previously been at Delmonico’s restaurant in San Francisco, another victim of the fire.

blanco'sDec1914The city’s newspapers were effusive about Blanco’s when it opened, gushing over its Louis XIV entrance hall, marble pillars, murals, and chandeliers. The café’s first chef came from The Poodle Dog, while the dining room manager had earned his exalted reputation at Tait’s and the St. Francis Hotel. All in all, Blanco’s was “a temple of art and beauty” destined to become the envy of caterers around the world. In 1914 Blanco’s boldly advertised that it was “the finest café in the United States.”

Naturally it classed itself as a French restaurant, French cuisine being synonymous with the good life – and the only kind that could command a high price then.

Blanco’s continued in business until 1933 but not without problems. In 1917 a plan to add two stories to the restaurant was abandoned, perhaps because of the looming nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol. Prohibition in 1919 was indeed a blow to fine dining establishments such as Blanco’s. The restaurant blithely advertised in 1919, “Good-bye to good old wines. Good-bye to good old times. But good eats will remain.” But it was becoming increasingly difficult to operate a high-living restaurant in the style Blanco’s was accustomed to. In 1921 its manager was arrested for not keeping a register of transient guests at Blanco’s Annex, the hotel next door which the restaurant had constructed in 1908 and opened the next year.

Few San Franciscans would have failed to realize the significance of this infraction, even if they did not recall Blanco’s “scandal” of 1912. In July of that year a Sausalito woman hired detectives to shadow her husband who was enjoying a romantic dinner at Blanco’s in the company of another woman. Spotting the detectives but not knowing who was under surveillance, Blanco’s manager went from table to table notifying all the guests of the detectives at work. Numbers of couples made a quick exit from the back door. Needless to say, the privacy curtains on the mezzanine booths shown in the ca. 1915 postcard were more than merely decorative.

Yet, despite all, Blanco’s carried on and was recommended in San Francisco guide books of the 1920s. It is ironic that it made it through Prohibition yet failed just as alcohol was becoming legal once again in 1933.

In 1934 the contents of both the restaurant and hotel were sold off, including fine china, silver-plated cutlery, tapestry panels and hangings, 40 copper stock pots, French furniture, bronze statuary, and 140 Viennese arm chairs.

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In October 1935 the restaurant reopened as The Music Box, a supper club under the direction of stripper and “fan dancer” Sally Rand. It had been partially modernized. Murals were replaced with mirrors and many other decorations by artist Attilio Moretti had been removed. Ruth Thomas, co-author of Eating Around San Francisco (1937), reported that she was given a tour of the Music Box and saw Venetian glass chandeliers and life-sized plaster statues of women in a basement storeroom.

blanco'sGreatAmericanMusicHall

The chandeliers and some of the murals were restored, possibly during the late sixties when the building was occupied by the Charles Restaurant. Today the building still stands and is in use as the Great American Music Hall. [Photo shows the altered restaurant building front, much of it bricked in including the large center window above the door which now supports a sign; the building to the left was Blanco’s Annex hotel.]

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Blue plate specials

blueplateDuring the 1920s and 1930s the blue plate lunch and dinner thrived. The first blue plate special reference I have found is in 1915. A railway running between Bradenton FL and Washington D.C., the Seaboard Air Line Railway, announced that year that they would begin offering a daily special of either meat or fish served on one plate with two vegetables.

The simplicity of the meal, with fewer food items on fewer pieces of china, turned out to be  highly congruent with suggested government cutbacks that arrived with World War I urging restaurants to conserve on all aspects of their operations.

After the war the blue plate special continued to be popular because it was a workable compromise between the needs of a fast-paced urban society and the legions of consumers accustomed to eating a meat-and-potatoes “dinner” at noon. Though resembling a home-style dinner, the blue plate meal was lighter and faster to serve up than its predecessors. Consisting of less food, it required less time for digestion and kept office workers from getting that “siesta” feeling in the afternoon.

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Its billing as “home cooking” communicated that it was not ethnic cuisine as were meals in table d’hote restaurants run by immigrant Americans. Beef and gravy, pork chops, ham, mashed or fried potatoes, carrots, and green beans were typical on blue plates. [June 1, 1930, special at the Merry Eating Luncheonette, Springfield MA]

In previous eras a “regular dinner” or table d’hote restaurant meal would have arrived parceled out on many plates, saucers, and side dishes. Cutting down both on china and dishwashing as well as server time, the blue plate dinner or lunch was usually offered as an economy meal typically costing about 35 to 50 cents, a moderate price in the post-WWI inflationary economy. Blue plate specials were attractive to restaurants because they permitted them to make use of a good buy or get rid of food stocks on the verge of going bad. The tradeoff was that often the diner had little choice regarding the meal’s composition.

blueplatespecialBoston1940Since the meals’ components were cooked prior to lunch and dinner rushes and kept warm on steam tables, they could be served quickly, saving time for patrons and increasing turnover for the establishment. Of course steam tables took their toll. That one-plate specials were not always the finest is suggested by a 1930 guidebook which commends The Alps restaurant in NYC by noting that their blue plate dinners “are more than mere collections of edibles, served en masse.”

One-plate meals continued into the 1940s and after WWII  but the term “blue plate” was beginning to sound old-fashioned and was used mainly in smaller towns. Stodgy one-plate meals became material for humorists. In 1952 columnist Hal Boyle lampooned the blue plate luncheon “engulfed in gravy,” characterizing it as an “all-America culinary nightmare.” “I take it to the hotel I am staying at and use it instead of soap for a shower,” he wrote. “I rub it on my head as a shampoo.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Basic fare: club sandwiches

clubsandwichCOLORAmong sandwiches, the club sandwich stands out by having a strong association with restaurants for more than a century. It was not often eaten at home and probably still isn’t. It is unusual, too, in that it was considered both delicate and hearty, making it a favorite with men and women alike when it became popular in the 1890s.

Its versatility included being appropriate for almost any time of day. It was considered an excellent late-night supper, good with beer, healthful, refreshing in hot weather, and perfect for ladies’ luncheons. The sandwiches appeared widely on menus – in hotel and department store dining rooms, after-theater restaurants, men’s grills, railroad dining cars, and tea rooms.

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The origin of the word club, which still gives it a certain cachet, is a mystery. One account attributes the creation of the sandwich to an engineer who introduced it to his “lunch club” cronies on a day when they were suffering from hangovers, but the occasion seems to have taken place years after the sandwich had achieved recognition.

For instance, at least five year earlier, shortly after the Palm Tea Room opened in New Haven’s Edward Malley store in 1898, an advertisement notified customers that in addition to ham sandwiches and chocolate eclairs, several items “New to New Haven” were available, among them Club Sandwiches at 15 cents each.

clubsandwichADVBatonRouge1914By 1900 the sandwich’s form and composition were largely standardized. It was made with three slices of toasted white bread, spread with mayonnaise, layered with thinly sliced chicken, bacon, tomato, and lettuce, and cut twice diagonally into wedges. Fresh tomatoes were not always available inexpensively year round, so the full-scale club sandwich may have been a seasonal specialty until after WWII. Other variations included ham instead of bacon and turkey instead of chicken; crusts could be trimmed off for a daintier appearance.

clubsandwichADV1934Over time almost anything could be used to fill a club sandwich, but few variations on the classic combination endured. In 1935 Walgreen’s offered one made of liverwurst, perhaps reflecting that it was the Depression.

Club sandwiches recommended themselves to lunch rooms by their good profit margin. The Childs’ restaurants, the largest chain of the early 20th century, found in 1910 that it could prepare a double-decker club for 4.6 cents and sell it for 20 cents. It went for the same price at drug stores which began adding it to their soda fountain menus. Its popularity at soda fountains was also reflected in the creation of an ice cream club sandwich made in a special mold. The trade journal National Druggist reported in 1911 that in terms of sales the novelty was “a wonder.”

The club sandwich was given a reprieve during the government’s food prohibitions of World War I. Initially targeted along with meat pies and liver & bacon because it contained more than one kind of meat, the ban was quickly lifted.

Another obstacle club sandwiches faced seems truly quaint today. Judging from the number of times women sought advice from newspaper etiquette columns on how to eat them in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them found the club sandwich embarrassing to eat in public. Should they pick it up or eat it with a knife and fork? Strangely – and unimaginably – the latter method was advised.

ClubSandwichwoolworth67But it overcame these minor problems. In the 1920s commercial bakers produced a bread specially made for club sandwiches in restaurants. It was a square “cream bread” with a thin crust, meant for toasting, and sized a bit larger than the smallest sandwich loaves.

Though scarcely considered exciting today, the club sandwich has become a menu classic that can be ordered almost anywhere.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Gossip feeds restaurants

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O. O. McIntyre, a popular columnist who authored “New York Day by Day,” advised his readers in 1925 that anyone wishing to open a “swank” New York restaurant and establish a smart reputation from the start should get prominent people and theater stars to patronize it. “The rest,” he wrote, “is up to the cafe’s press agent.” He might have added, “and gossip columnists.”

By revealing glimpses into the lives of the rich and famous, gossip columnists like McIntyre, working with restaurants’ press agents, played a crucial role in the publicity system that made New York’s restaurants and nightclubs household names across the nation. The same was true of Hollywood’s night spots, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. Columnist Leonard Hall wrote in 1937, “As restaurants, Hollywood’s famed eating houses are little more than golden shambles, which exist that stars may see and be seen.”

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Columnists might sometimes focus on a restaurant’s food, decor, or proprietor, but their main subjects were clearly its celebrity customers. Who was s/he with? What was she wearing? Romances brewing? Was anyone getting the cold shoulder, a divorce? Were their stars rising or falling? [Above Dorothy Lamour and Betty Hutton smile wanly for the camera at the Brown Derby]

The main thing, though, was just to get the names before the readers’ eyes. Typically the columns delivered short bursts of mundane info, each bit separated from the next by an ellipsis (. . .). A sample from Lucius Beebe’s “Faces Around Town,” 1938: “Burgess Meredith having early dinner with Frank Shields at Jack and Charlie’s before going to the theater . . . Henry Luce and Claire Luce, ditto, but indicating marital individualism by commanding different entrees – she pompano meuniere, he chateaubriand and German fried potatoes . . .”

Mid-century spots such as the Stork Club, El Morocco, the Colony, and Jack and Charlie’s ‘21′ in NYC; Hollywood’s Brown Derby, Trocadero, and Ciro’s; and Chicago’s Pump Room were a few of the top restaurants and clubs that played the gossip game. Parlaying gossip was standard practice at the glamour palaces, so much so that the elegant and expensive Voisin on Park Avenue, which also refused to advertise, was noted for having NO gossip columnists holding court at its tables.

gossipStorkClubColumnists were influential. Sherman Billingsley, proprietor of the Stork Club, credited Walter Winchell with making his club successful. Winchell, who operated out of the Stork from his own table, enjoyed a privileged position in the gossip business and at the club whose upstairs barber shop was at his disposal. In the 1960s a short blurb by Dorothy Kilgallen put Elaine’s on the map, according to its proprietor, the late Elaine Kaufman.

Restaurants, celebrities, and columnists profited mutually from gossip. In New York the featured subjects were people with power, café society, theater actors, and literary figures; in Hollywood they were film stars needing to propel their careers. Restaurants living up to the boast, “A gossip columnist guaranteed under every table,” were appreciated by show biz figures. Newspapers and fan magazines regularly ran photographs of stars arriving at a posh restaurant or of couples smiling from their tables. When a new restaurant or nightclub opened the owner hired a press agent to round them up. They dropped by, posed with the owner, and circulated, in a constant routine that kept their faces and names before the public and added glitz to the restaurant. El Morocco found the publicity generated by an opening night so valuable that they held one every year.

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Sometimes restaurant owners would even subsidize patrons from film and stage. At Sardi’s, where as late as the 1960s “one well-timed exposure . . . [was] worth more to a burgeoning career than a whole picture series in a fan magazine,” actor Jose Ferrer dined for months on account before attaining success in his role as Cyrano de Bergerac. “Prince” Mike Romanoff, whose own restaurant would one day become a den of celebrity gossip, had enjoyed free meals at Chasen’s in his early days in Hollywood. [Above Ernest Hemingway and his wife Martha]

All the roles were fluid. Hedda Hopper acted before she took up the pen. But perhaps the best role optimization occurred when columnists became celebrities and used their own activities as subject matter. Journalist Christopher Morley wrote about the doings of his lunch clubs while putting the spotlight on NYC restaurants such as Christ Cella’s.

Gossip columnists still operate but their work became less valuable to restaurants and celebrities with the arrival decades ago of newspaper restaurant reviews and television talk shows and, more recently, social media.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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