Tag Archives: 1950s

Don’t play with the candles

nightingalepartialfrontmenu

It’s not often that you run across a menu that tells patrons how to behave, right on the front. It seems to project the message Welcome! . . . or maybe not.

In case you were wondering what “trucking apart” means, I think it refers to flirting with someone other than who you came with.

nightingaleMenufrontdrawingThe menu, which probably dates from the 1950s, is entertaining inside too: Pop Corn as an appetizer, Toast (under Specials, .20), Pickled Egg Salad with Crackers (.50), and Blackberry Wine from Ohio (.30 per glass).

The Nightingale’s finest and most elaborate offering is clearly its Chicken Dinner ($1.25). The potatoes, tomatoes, and biscuits get glowing modifiers while the chicken has none.

Tomato Soup or Tomato Cocktail
French Fried, Golden Brown Potatoes
Sliced Field Ripe Tomatoes
Peas or Beans
Piping Hot Biscuits
Coffee or Tea
Ice Cream

nightingaleclubMarch251940In 1940 Luther L. Dixon, an enterprising factory worker at American Tobacco Co. who made money in real estate, opened a restaurant/club called the Nightingale on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. He had left the business by the mid 1950s, so the owner of the Nightingale with the menu advice, located south of Alexandria, may have been someone else.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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The Swinger

JackLalanneI published a recipe for The Aware Inn’s famed sandwich “The Swinger” some time back. But now I have a new improved version, thanks to Isis Aquarian, one of the members of Jim Baker’s commune when he was a spiritual leader named Father Yod. She was one of his 14 wives, as well as the commune’s historian and archivist. (A 2012 documentary film and book about the Source family commune is available.)

This recipe, which is superior to the one I found earlier, was published in the late fitness teacher Jack LaLanne’s 1962 book Abundant Health and Vitality after 40. Isis was hunting for an authentic recipe for the sandwich and was steered in the right direction by Jack’s son Dan (shown below in a recent photo with Isis). I can see that the proportions make more sense and that the eggs, missing previously, would be needed to hold it all together.

isisANDdanAccording to Isis, Jack LaLanne was not much of a restaurant goer until Jim Baker and his wife opened up The Aware Inn. He became a frequent visitor, along with many other health-conscious Hollywood celebrities such as Ed “Kookie” Byrnes of the TV show Seventy-Seven Sunset Strip.

Jack and Jim had known each other even before Jim moved to California in 1951 and joined the Nature Boys, a group of young men including LaLanne who lived in Topanga Canyon where they slept outdoors, got good tans, and ate an organic diet.

Needless to say, to follow Jim’s recipe correctly the beef used in The Swinger should be from naturally raised cattle and free of hormones and other injected chemicals.

4 lb ground beef
2 whole eggs
1 cup chopped green pepper
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup diced tomatoes
1 cup cheddar cheese
½ cup finely chopped green olives

Jack says in his book to mix and “caress” all the ingredients into large patties. Cook on a grill or broil. Do not use charcoal. He also advises, “Best served rare.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Holiday greetings from Vesuvio Café

XmasVesuvio1956

I wish I could explain the Vesuvio’s holiday cards, but I can’t. Maybe it’s enough to know that the Café was a beatnik gathering spot in San Francisco.

The café was founded in 1949 by Henry Lenoir, who wore a beret and undoubtedly preferred to spell his first name as Henri. I’m guessing he’s the aging cherub on the left on the 1956 postcard above. I couldn’t find much about him other than that he was born in Massachusetts around 1904. The son of a Swiss university professor, he was a college graduate at a time when that was fairly unusual. In 1940, before he opened the café, he worked as a salesman in a San Francisco department store that I like to think was the Emporium. He was an art lover who enjoyed the company of beats and hipsters.

I don’t know if the Vesuvio served much food. It seemed to be more of a drinking than an eating place back in the days when Henry presided behind the bar. A sign in the window advertised “booths for psychiatrists” and a “Gay ‘90s Color Television” flashed old photos of women clad in bloomers. In the late 1950s it was on the North Beach circuit for beatniks who made the rounds from the Vesuvio to the Coexistence Bagel Shop and a nameless bar called “the place.” No doubt they stopped in at the City Lights bookstore too; Henry lived upstairs.

XmasVesuvio1964It was the day of the Hungry I, the Purple Onion, and the Anxious Asp (where the restroom was papered with pages from the Kinsey Report). “The place” and the Coexistence, considered the birthplaces and headquarters of the San Francisco beats, were both gone by early 1961. But, although Henry sold the Vesuvio in 1970, it continues even today. Of course it isn’t the same. Given that Beatnik dens became tourist sites almost overnight, it already wasn’t the same in 1964 when the card with the 5 nude mannequins and one real woman modestly dressed in a long-sleeve leotard was produced.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Charles Sarris

SarrisCandyKitchen1939

It is always a big deal to me when I find a restaurant proprietor’s memoir, all the more so when he or she conducted an “everyday” sort of restaurant. My Ninety-Five Year Journey, privately published by Charles N. Sarris in 1987, was a just such a wonderful, and rare, find.

The book illustrates a fairly typical restaurant career for thousands of Greek-Americans who opened restaurants in small towns which had few eating places in the early decades of the 20th century.

Charles was born in Lesbos, Greece, in 1891. At 19 he lived in dread that any moment he would be conscripted into the Turkish army and, possibly, spend the rest of his life in an occupied country. He decided to leave for the U.S. For the next six years he bounced around Connecticut and Massachusetts, working in Greek-owned confectioneries where he learned to make candy and ice cream. In 1916 he went to work in a new confectionery in Amherst MA, population 5,500. It wasn’t long before Charles and his partners, who included his brother James, took over the confectionery and expanded it into a lunchroom serving basic fare such as hamburgers and ham and eggs.

SarrisCandyKitchen1921ADVThe restaurant was named the College Candy Kitchen [1921 advertisement pictured], obviously aimed at student patrons from Amherst College and the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts). Candy Kitchens run by Greek entrepreneurs could be found throughout the United States in the early 20th century. Coincidentally, another “College Candy Kitchen” did business in Cambridge’s Harvard Square.

One of only three Greeks in Amherst when he arrived, Charles would not feel welcome in his new home for some time. He heard racial and ethnic slurs unfamiliar to him from his previous residency in Andover MA. He observed that many townspeople valued people from France, Germany, or England more highly than those from Italy, Poland, the Middle East, or Greece.

In 1927 he and two other merchants who occupied the three-story building located on Main Street across from Amherst town hall formed Amherst Realty Co. to buy the property. Yet not until 1939, after running a thriving restaurant for 23 years, did Charles finally gain admission into one of the town’s fraternal organizations, the Rotary Club.

SarrisCandyKitchenca1927

The College Candy Kitchen modernized and expanded in the 1920s [1920s Spanish-style interior shown], despite a disastrous fire in 1928 which necessitated moving to a new location for several months. Business slowed drastically but Charles and James got through the Depression ok.

Students, who made up the bulk of customers, balked when the restaurant introduced new foods such as yogurt and melons. Some greeted watermelon with the objection, “Gee, we’re not Alabama Negroes!” Charles reassured them that the menu would always include staples such as boiled dinners, baked beans, and meatloaf. For decades the restaurant continued to produce its own baked goods, ice cream, and, for holidays, candy.

Once again Charles encountered customer resistance when he hired Afro-Americans as staff or served them as patrons. “We had a lot of opposition from the students but we ignored it,” he wrote. Eventually they settled down and got used to it.

According to Charles, the restaurant closed in 1953 due to illness, parking problems, and customers’ demands for alcoholic beverages (which he did not wish to deal in). It was succeeded by the Town House Restaurant. A 1953 bankruptcy auction notice gave a fair idea of the size of the restaurant then. On the auction block were 30 leather upholstered booths, two circular booths, four showcases, a soda fountain with 12 stools, and kitchen, bakery, and ice cream equipment. I can just picture it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Charge it!

DinersClubcard1955The advent of travel and entertainment (T&E) credit cards in the 1950s was instrumental in sparking a renaissance in luxury restaurants that hadn’t been seen since pre-Prohibition days.

Nowhere was the effect felt more strongly than in NYC, birthplace of the Diners’ Club.

On February 8, 1950, Frank McNamara paid for his lunch at a steak house called Major’s Cabin Grill in NYC with a Diners’ Club card numbered 1,000 (i.e., #1). With his little paper card he made the very first charge on a nationwide credit card.

DinersClub1956ADV

The timing of the Diners’ Club launch was perfect. During World War II expense accounts had proliferated as a way companies could use income for entertaining clients rather than hand it to the government as a tax on “excess” profits (profits greater than those before the war). Now, in 1950, the excess profits tax lifted at the end of WWII was only a few months away from reinstatement for the Korean War.

The growth of T&E credit cards went hand in hand with the growth of expense accounts. As one publication put it, credit cards were spinoffs of expense accounts. And, each time the IRS tightened up its requirements for itemizing deductions, more credit card applications came in.

Carteblanche1959Unlike the nationwide bank cards that would eventually swamp T&E cards, the latter required high financial standing, an annual membership fee, and full payment of balances within 30 days. Having one of these cards brought cachet.

Following quickly on the heels of the Diners’ Club launch came many others: Dine ’n Sign, National Credit Card, Your Host, Inc, Duncan Hines’ Signet Club, the American Hotel Association’s Universal Travelcard, Hilton’s Carte Blanche, the Esquire Club, and the Gourmet Guest Club (the last two linked to Esquire and Gourmet magazines). A smaller Diners’ Club continues today, but the only other survivor is American Express, which inaugurated its credit card in 1958, then quickly rose to the top of the T&E field.

Traveling salesmen and men (rarely women) in industries such as public relations, advertising, publishing, manufacturing, and wholesaling were fans of the convenience of charging business meals. And, of course, in the early days of T&E club cards it was a status factor to simply dash off a signature on a slip, particularly if the lunch took place in a top restaurant.

Bizlunch

Expense accounts and credit cards were a boon to restaurants. There were estimates that in the mid-1950s 50% to 80% of meals in high-priced restaurants were “on the company.” Vincent Sardi admitted that a big chunk of his NYC business was made up of men on expense accounts. Peter Canlis, of Seattle’s first-class Canlis Restaurant, said in 1953 that he decided to establish a restaurant there because “a lot of good expense account money wasn’t being spent because there was no place fancy enough to gobble it up – and I was happy to fill the gap.”

But not all restaurateurs were enamored of the cards at first. For one thing, Diners’ charged a 7% fee on transactions. Restaurant owners felt that they spent too long waiting for their payments and that they had to raise prices to make up for the fees, thus punishing cash customers. Some restaurants refused Diners’ Club cards or added surcharges for meals paid with them. The Diners’ Club lowered its transaction fees in 1966.

By 1965 the three biggest T&E cards, Diners’ Club, American Express, and Carte Blanche claimed a total of about 3.15M cardholders, a small fraction of the number of cards starting to be doled out then, often unsolicited, by nationwide bankcards.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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“Distinguished dining” awards

HolidayAward470After World War II American consumers were filled with pent-up demand accrued over years of rationing and deprivation. They wanted to sample the joys of the good life, which included American and world travel, even if only in their imaginations. A sophisticated magazine – Holiday — was created to cater to their aspirations.

HolidayMag1954Holiday’s first issue came out in March 1946. A couple of months later Madison Avenue advertising man Ted Patrick took over as editor. A gourmet and bon vivant, Patrick gravitated toward fine restaurants. In 1952 the magazine began presenting awards to American restaurants that achieved dining distinction, recognizing 49 the first year. Among the winners were Bart’s (Portland OR), Commander’s Palace (New Orleans), Karl Ratzsch’s (Milwaukee), and Win Schuler’s (Marshall MI).

Winners tended to remain on the list, though it was not guaranteed. Win Schuler’s (still in business today) featured steaks, prime rib, and pork chops, and hosted 1,200 patrons a day at its Marshall location [see menu below]. In 1971 it won its 20th Holiday award, no doubt not its last..

Even if, as Harvey Levenstein writes in Paradox of Plenty, Holiday stuck to “safe, sound, and usually American” choices where “the steak, lobster, and roast beef syndrome … reigned supreme,” its recommendations carried weight and raised the seriousness with which many American diners and restaurateurs regarded restaurants.

HolidayWinSchuler'sMenuTo win, a restaurant’s offerings were supposed to compare to French cuisine. It’s hard to see how a steak-and-baked-potato place could do that, but plenty such restaurants won awards. On the other hand, many of the winners were French inflected, particularly in NYC. A quick scan of restaurants included in the 1976 Holiday Magazine Award Cookbook shows that nearly 25% had French names and many more specialized in French dishes.

What some thought was a bias for restaurants in NYC and, to a lesser degree, NY state prevailed until 1968 when California restaurants won as many awards as New York (even though the number of winners in San Francisco still lagged behind NYC, 17 to 25).

HolidayAug1953The overall volume of winners grew over the years, reaching over 200 by the mid-1970s. The numbers reflected the growth in dining out – and maybe the tendency of award programs to expand. In the beginning whole swaths of the country had nary a winner. Winners would boast that they were “the only” restaurant – for example, in Wisconsin, in the South outside of Florida, among Midwestern states, etc. But over time winners could be found in all parts of the country, requiring some adjustment in the meaning of distinction. Statements appeared saying that awards were not given solely to elegant places. As Patrick’s successor Silas Spitzer said, “Elegance has a certain value in making our judgment of restaurants – but it’s not essential.”

I suspect that the significance of the awards was greatest during Patrick’s editorship, which ended with his death in 1964. The magazine fell on hard times in the 1970s and was sold in 1977. Even earlier the awards were losing clout. Among those in the 1976 cookbook were several that had come under harsh criticism. Many specialized in “continental” cuisine which had lost its glamour by this time, or were considered uninspired. In 1974 John Hess wrote that The Bakery in Chicago and Ernie’s in San Francisco were “disappointing.” NYT critic John Canaday declared in 1975 that Le Manoir was the French restaurant where he had the worst meal in the past 20 months, Le Cirque the “worst restaurant in proportion to its popularity,” and the “21″ Club “least worth the trouble.”

The awards, called Travel-Holiday awards after Holiday’s 1977 merger with Travel, continued until 1989.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Flaming swords

When I was researching my last post on knights-and-castles restaurant themes I discovered that this kind of theatrical decor was often complemented by flamboyant food presentation, especially the kind that mixes weaponry and meat. Specifically sticking meat on a sword, setting it aflame, and rushing it toward your guests.

If you like that and had been looking for a fun night out in the vicinity of Reno, Nevada, in 1960, you might have turned up at The Lancer, “home of the flaming sword” and Glen Relfson at the organ. The Lancer’s advertisement showed a knight charging forward on his horse with lance in hand — yet, disappointingly, the food came on an everyday sword. Why not a lance?

I’ve searched U.S. patents and the reason why meat was not served on a lance is because no one thought to invent a lance — or a gun, why not? — that could go on the grill loaded up with shish kebab. But they did invent several very practical-minded swords, either with detachable handles (permitting the handle to stay cool while the skewered meat cooks on the grill), or with the hand protector turned upward to catch dripping grease when the sword is held upright (pictured). As the patentees methodically argued, these features are important to restaurant managers.

Many municipalities have enacted fire regulations that do not permit restaurant employees to carry flaming objects across a room. This has cut down the number of restaurants that offer this service today as compared to the peak in the mid-20th century and through the 1970s.

It’s possible the custom began in restaurants with Russian themes. In the 1930s there was a place in San Francisco called the Moscow Café which had Cossack dancing, entertainment with flaming swords, and a specialty of flaming Beef Stroganoff. (Presumably the sour cream was added after the flames subsided.) Los Angeles’ Bublichki Russian Café also offered beef on flaming swords in the 1950s. And a patent was granted in 1965 for an item called a “shashlik sword.”

How does the flame work? I always wondered. As a patent applicant explained, “this is usually accomplished through igniting, immediately before serving, a piece of cotton which, first dipped in alcohol, is wrapped around the base of the sword near the hilt thereof.” However if you adopted another design you could have a wick holder built into the grease drip cup “so that when the skewer is carried in an upright position with cooked meats or other food articles impaled thereon, the wick, previously soaked with rum or brandy, may be ignited, providing a dramatic torch-like effect as the skewer is carried from the kitchen to the table.” Quite frankly, that would be my preferred sword because I like the way it catches grease and eliminates cotton wads thereon.

You may be thinking that only corny restaurants in mini-malls featured food on swords but you’d be wrong. For instance, the menu at NYC’s Forum of the Twelve Caesars in the early 1960s included, perhaps for lighter appetites, Wild Boar Marinated and Served on the Flaming Short Sword. And, starting in the 1940s, flaming swords were practically synonymous with the fabulously funky Pump Room in Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel. The Pump Room’s manager Ernie Byfield laughingly referred to the action there, consisting of costumed waiters weaving through crowds of guests with “flaming gobbets of lamb,” as being “like Halloween in Hell.” I don’t believe anyone was immolated.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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The (partial) triumph of the doggie bag

I can’t remember when restaurant servers began automatically asking if you wanted to take home food left on your plate but I know it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that food was wrapped up only if patrons asked.

Probably some customers have always smuggled away food from restaurant tables, usually in napkins. Maybe to stop this, the custom of furnishing diners with bags in which to take home leftovers began after the second World War when upward mobility widened the dining public. Doggie bags went into production around the mid 1950s and their use increased tenfold in Chicago in the 1970s, according to a Chicago Tribune story.

But what is interesting is how many people were embarrassed by the practice. Well into the 1970s etiquette columns in newspapers got letters from restaurant patrons asking if it was ok to ask for a doggie bag if they didn’t have a dog. Usually the writer cited a spouse or friend who objected to the custom. A typical query is the one in 1964 from a wife whose husband “looked aghast” when she asked for a bag and told her it was in poor taste to take home table scraps. Nonetheless, with the exception of Elizabeth Post, Emily Post’s granddaughter by marriage, advice columnists invariably approved of doggie bags as sensible if not downright virtuous.

Doggie bags and other containers grew more acceptable in the 1970s – but not in all restaurants. The most expensive and elegant places, such as the Four Seasons and upscale French restaurants, showed a distinct dislike of the custom. Many would only provide a container if asked, and then often fashioned a swan of aluminum foil as if to say, “We don’t make a habit of this – this is just for you.”

There are a number of explanations why taking home leftovers has not always been universally accepted by restaurants or their guests. Some restaurants cite health concerns. French restaurateurs are offended by the idea of someone microwaving their cuisine; they believe food should be eaten just at the moment the chef sends it to the table. Diners who are the least bit intimidated by a restaurant or its servers are unlikely to ask to take food home. I was recently in a restaurant that does not permit guests to place jackets or coats on the back of their chairs. I am certain they would cringe at a request to take away uneaten food (and I’ve never seen it done there). In any event, the small portions served in this and other upscale restaurants does not allow any provision for future meals. Other restaurants handle the matter discreetly. In a power lunch spot in Los Angeles, diners must pick up their leftovers, packed in a tasteful tote bag, at the front desk as they leave. No styrofoam box sitting on tables through the dessert course there!

On a deep socio-psychological level the reasons doggie bags carry a degree of embarrassment and often are not accepted by elite restaurants are the same as why it’s considered poor manners to smack or gobble. Higher status accrues to those who disguise hunger by eating slowly, who appreciate small portions, and whose delicate appetite requires “appetizers” and little dainties with names such as “amuse bouche.” Leaving food on the plate communicates the absence of animal neediness. It is a version of Thorstein Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption” in that it flaunts the diner’s ability to walk away from perfectly good food.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Early chains: John R. Thompson

Although it is largely forgotten today, the Chicago-based John R. Thompson company was one of the largest “one arm” lunchroom chains of the early 20th century. We so strongly associate fast food chains with hamburgers that it may be surprising to learn that Thompson’s popular sandwiches included Cervelat, smoked boiled tongue, cold boiled ham, hot frankfurter, cold corned beef, cold salmon, and Herkimer County cheese, served on “Milwaukee Rye Bread” baked by the chain’s bakery. Thompson was proud that his meals were suited for sedentary office workers of the 1900s and 1910s. A 1911 advertisement claimed that lunch at Thompson’s “won’t leave you logy and lazy and dull this afternoon.”

Thompson, an Illinois farm boy, ran a rural general store as his first business. He sold it in 1891, moved to Chicago, and opened a restaurant on State Street. He proved to be a modernizer in the restaurant business as well as in politics.

He operated his restaurants on a “scientific” basis, stressing cleanliness, nutrition, and quality while keeping prices low. In 1912 he moved the chain’s commissary into a premier new building on North Clark Street (pictured, today). Thompson’s, then with 68 self-service lunchrooms plus a chain of grocery stores, became a public corporation in 1914, after which it expanded outside Chicago and into Canada. By 1921 there were 109 restaurants, 49 of which were in Chicago and 11 in New York (with a commissary in NYC). By the mid-1920s Thompson’s, Childs, and Waldorf Lunch were the big three U.S. chains, small by comparison to McDonald’s but significant nevertheless.

In politics Thompson served as a Republican committeeman and managed the campaign of a “good government” gubernatorial candidate in 1904. A few years later he failed in his own bid to run for mayor, promising he would bring efficiency to government while improving schools and roads. In the 1920s he financed a personal crusade against handguns.

Despite John R. Thompson’s progressive politics, his business would go down in history as one that refused to serve Afro-Americans. Or, as civil rights leader Marvin Caplan put it in 1985, “If the chain is remembered today, it is not for its food, but for its refusal to serve it.” J. R. died in 1927. Where he stood on the question of public accommodations is unclear but the chain faced numerous lawsuits by blacks in the 1930s. However the best known case occurred in 1950 when a group of integrationists led by Mary Church Terrell was refused service in a Washington D.C. Thompson’s. The group was looking for a case that would test the validity of the district’s 19th-century public accommodations laws. After three years in the courts the Thompson case (for which the Washington Restaurant Association raised defense funds) made its way to the Supreme Court which affirmed the so-called “lost” anti-discrimination laws of 1872 and 1873 as valid.

Over the years the Thompson chain absorbed others, including Henrici’s and Raklios. At some point, possibly in the 1950s, the original Thompson’s concept was dropped. By 1956 Thompson’s operated Holloway House and Ontra cafeterias. In 1971, as Green Giant prepared to buy Thompson’s, it had about 100 restaurants, including Red Balloon family restaurants, Henrici’s restaurants, and Little Red Hen Chicken outlets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Restaurant-ing with “royalty”

Perhaps he wasn’t the only “sociopath” ever to become a restaurateur, but Michael Romanoff was very likely the most flamboyant. He was clever, spoke with a British accent, and dressed impeccably. His sense of style never left him. Imprisoned in NYC’s Tombs in the 1920s, he reportedly made quite an impression by strolling in the exercise yard with a walking stick. This story could be false, though, because not only did he twist the facts perpetually but so did some of the journalists who covered his bizarre 30-year career as a con-man.

He came to the attention of the press in 1910 when he presented himself as the grandson of England’s premier Gladstone in order to obtain two cameras on credit. He was unmasked as a former juvenile delinquent named Gilbert E. Gerguson. By the early 1930s he had used at least 17 aliases, including his favorite, Prince Michael Romanoff, younger brother of the former czar of Russia, Nicholas II. Although his “real” name is widely accepted as Harry F. Gerguson, I suspect it was actually Michael Romanoff, from Brooklyn. U.S. immigration authorities, however, were convinced he had been born outside this country and deported him every chance they got, about 10 times.

He claimed to have spent seven years of his life in jail. At times, when not sponging off rich patrons, stowing away on luxury ocean liners, or successfully passing bad checks, he was penniless and went hungry. He may have spent time in a mental hospital and attempted suicide at least once. Although he was sometimes described as a former pants presser, oil field worker, and buttonhole maker, it was not his style to hold a regular job although he once managed a farm in Virginia for over a year, possibly his longest gig.

He never apologized for his lifestyle. Quite the contrary. In 1933 he declared, “For years I have been supplying adventure, by proxy, to those who have desired it. I have given more enjoyment, I think, than I have received.” By then everyone knew he was no prince, but he defended himself by saying, “At least I have the attitude of a prince – I have lived courageously and have, I think, put up the stock of princes.” Well, the stock of princes wasn’t terribly high in the 1930s and, courageous or not, he engaged in some shady activities.

His life improved immensely when he became a frankly fake prince rather than a fraudster trying to pass for Russian royalty. And where better to be what he called a “real phony” than Hollywood? He opened a restaurant there around 1940 which quickly became one of Hollywood’s famous haunts. By then he was 47 or 50 years old, depending upon which birthdate you accept. According to various newspaper stories, the restaurant’s capital was put up by director Darryl Zanuck, writer Robert Benchley, and others. In 1951 it moved to South Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and somewhat later spread into San Francisco and Palm Springs.

The Hollywood Romanoff’s was a celebrity den where Mike entertained his guests — sometimes by snubbing them. How much time he spent supervising staff or bothering himself with mundane chores such as buying provisions or going over the books is unclear, as is the quality of the cuisine. By one account it was so-so but was upgraded to “above-average” in the late 1950s. An undated menu shows numerous dishes with Stroganoff and Romanoff suffixes. He made a good income, but by December 1962 business had fallen off to such a degree that the Beverly Hills Romanoff’s closed. I have not been able to determine the fate of the other two locations.

Mike’s story was clearly movie material, yet it seems that two announced films (“Ellis Island,” “The Incredible Romanoff”) never appeared. He had small parts in numerous films, sometimes playing a butler, aristocrat, or himself as restaurateur. In 1958 Congress voted to grant him permanent resident status and he became a naturalized citizen.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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