Tag Archives: Greenwich Village

The artist dines out

Before World War I artists in NYC were attracted to cheap, unpretentious little ethnic restaurants in the basements of brownstones that dotted unfashionable side streets. Called table d’hôtes, they harked back to the early days of European restaurants when paying guests sat down with the host family at their dining table. With the meal, which typically consisted of spaghetti, salad, and a small portion of meat or fish, came a complimentary carafe of red wine, not always of the best vintage.

Evidently when Charles Green Shaw, the author of the haiku-like poem below, attended such a dinner in Greenwich Village he wasn’t exactly swept off his feet. Rather he displays a comical tongue-in-cheek attitude about the experience. I would guess he wrote the poem about 1915.

Shaw [1892-1974] was an abstract modern artist whose work is in the collections of major museums such as MOMA and the Art Institute of Chicago. He also was a children’s book illustrator, a poet, and an author of essays and novels. He collected theatrical ephemera and was an authority on Lewis Carroll. His papers, which include some of his drawings, are held in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Bohemian Dinner

The ride downtown.
The Washington Square district.
The “bohemian” restaurant.
The descending steps.
The narrow hall-way.
The semi darkness.
The checking the hat.
The head waiter.
The effusive greeting.
The corner table.
The candle light.
The brick walls.
The “artistic atmosphere”.
The man who plays the piano.
The wailing sounds.
The boy fiddler.
The doleful discords.
The other diners.
The curious types.
The long hair.
The low collar.
The flowing tie.
The loose clothes.
The appearance of food.
The groan.
The messy waiter.
The thumb in the soup.
The grated cheese.
The twisted bread.
The veal paté.
The minced macaroni.
The cayenne pepper.
The coughing fit.
The chemical wine.
The garlic salad.
The rum omlette.
The black coffee.
The bénédictine.
The Russian cigarette.
The “boatman’s song”.
The mock applause.
The “temper[a]mental” selection.”
The drowsy feeling.
The snooze.
The sudden awakening.
The appearance of the check.
The dropped jaw.
The emptied pockets.
The last penny.
The bolt for the door.
The hat.
The street.
The lack of car fare.
The long walk up town.
The limping home.
The Bed.

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Romany Marie

Marie Marchand, whose business name was Romany Marie, was taken aback in the 1950s when a Greenwich Village restaurateur declined to host a dinner for Marie’s artist friends on the grounds they would occupy the tables too long. In a 1960 interview recorded in Romany Marie, Queen of Greenwich Village by Robert Schulman, Marie reflected, “It was a little shock to me. Poor dear, she felt she had to have turnover, she was in the restaurant business, not in the venture of maintaining a center for lingering tempo.”

For someone such as Marie who had herself been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, this would seem to be an odd reaction. But hers were odd restaurants – she preferred to call them centers – where patrons were encouraged to linger. If they lacked money for a meal, and they fit her criteria as creative spirits, she let them eat for free. Luckily, she had a brother who helped her out financially because hers was not a lucrative business. On the other hand, she encouraged and helped sustain dozens of artists and creators such as Buckminster Fuller, Burl Ives, Stuart Davis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Sloan (one of the many artists who painted her portrait – pictured).

Marie, who as a teenager came to the US from Romania in 1901, said she patterned her taverns (so-called though she served no alcoholic drinks) after the inn her mother ran for gypsies in the old country. To honor her mother, Marie dressed as a gypsy and usually decorated in rococo style with peasant scarves, batiks, pottery, and her patrons’ paintings. Several of the 11 locations she occupied over the years featured fireplaces, which to the horror of health inspectors she used for broiling steaks.

After working initially in the garment industry Marie brought her mother and sisters to New York. The family lived on the lower East Side near the Ferrer School which offered workers free adult education. She became involved with the school where she met artists and thinkers who later became her patrons and, sometimes, volunteer waiters. In 1914 she opened her first place in the Village’s Sheridan Square. Amenities were sorely lacking, with both stairway and toilet facilities located outdoors. For years she had no electricity, candles furnishing the only lighting.

In 1915 she moved to 20 Christopher Street and it was at this location, the one she occupied the longest, that her name became well known. Another location of renown was 15 Minetta Street, with an interior designed by Buckminster Fuller in the late 1920s. In the 1960 interview Marie quoted Fuller as saying, “I’m going to fix up this place in a Dymaxion way.” He outfitted the restaurant with canvas sling chairs, “aeroplane tables,” and aluminum cone lights. Instead of the darkness her patrons were accustomed to, Fuller lit the place up by painting the walls silver. Sculptor Isamu Noguchi assisted (“Bucky got me to help him with painting the place up solar.”). Everyone disliked the brightness, the tables wobbled when food was placed on them, and the chairs collapsed when sat on. The experiment failed but Marie promised Fuller one free meal a day for the rest of his life, a benefit that carried him through the Depression.

In addition to Romanian dishes such as meat pies and cabbage rolls, Marie specialized in strong coffee which she advertised as Café Noir à la Turque. Her signature dish was ciorbă, a soup of vegetables, meatballs, eggs, lemon juice, and sour cream. Marie’s husband Arnold, a difficult man who was known to deliberately break dishes and otherwise sabotage her efforts, rendered this dish on his phonetic menu as “Tchorbah, peasant soop.” A menu by him also listed “Boylt Beeph wit been’s & hors radish,” “Lone Guy Land Greens,” and “Phroot qop.”

Marie continued in the restaurant business until 1946 when she retired to care for Arnold. Each time Marie moved her restaurant she announced it with a sign which said “The caravan has moved.” Its last move was to 49 Grove Street.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Mary Alletta Crump

Because she ran a tea room, Mary Alletta “Crumpey” Crump (pictured, age 31) actually would not have called herself a restaurateur. She made a distinction between a tea room and a restaurant: the former served light food, mainly lunch and afternoon tea, while a restaurant served heavy food and was open for dinner. Not so The Crumperie. It served sandwiches, salads, soup, and desserts only. At 6 P.M. she and her partner, her mother “Bee,” shut down for the day. (M. Alletta, as she signed herself, advised prospective tea room operators in 1922 that “a mother or older person is a great asset to a young girl who is contemplating the opening of a tea room.”)

The two opened their first Greenwich Village Crumperie in 1917 (pictured), taking over the spot formerly occupied by photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals’ tea room and art gallery. Sharing the other half of the building at 6½ Sheridan Square with The Crumperie was a gift shop known as The Treasure Chest. By the time Crumpey’s mother passed away in 1926, The Crumperie had occupied five locations in the Village, first moving to Sheridan & Grove, then to the basement of 55 Christopher Street, then to 229 West 4th Street, and finally to 104 Washington Street. She would make one more — unsuccessful — attempt at running a Crumperie after her mother’s death, teaming up with Marie Saint Gaudens (niece of sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens), at 13 West 51st Street in 1927. After this she abandoned the tea room business.

She and her mother opened the first Crumperie on a shoe string, spending only $100 for the first month’s rent plus all the furnishings and equipment. Start simple, that was their motto. Crumpey decorated with odds and ends: tables and chairs she painted herself, illustrations from magazines, a discarded old settle, family quilts, and table runners made from dime store toweling. Her mother did the cooking, specializing in crumpets of course, but also offering pea soup, “crumpled” eggs, and peanut butter sandwiches. Beverages included tea, coffee, and chocolate — nothing alcoholic!

The various Greenwich Village Crumperies were gathering places for New York City artists, musicians, literary figures, and actors with the Providence Players. The tea rooms were frequented by singer Enrico Caruso, artist Tony Sarg, and writers Theodore Dreiser, Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Writer and editor Christopher Morley steered his “Three Hours for Lunch” club to the Crumperie, though how they could have stretched out a meal there for that long I don’t know.

During and after her years in the food business, M. Alletta volunteered for war work, entertaining the troops in England with her ukulele playing during WWI (she also sang spirituals and folk songs in the tea room). After 1927 she apparently had a variety of jobs. She had studied at Smith College and trained to become a nurse before opening The Crumperie and may have returned to teaching or nursing. She taught a tea room management class in Brooklyn and worked for a time at the Grenfell Mission in Labrador. In 1958 she made five appearances on the TV quiz show “The $64,000 Question,” winning $16,000 which she used to fund a European trip.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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“Way out” coffeehouses

greenspiderA345What could be more starkly different from the somber coffee shops of today with their earnest and wired denizens than the beatnik coffeehouses of the 1950s? Could Starbucks be anything but square to the beat generation?

The classic coffeehouses of the beatnik era were sites for conversation, poetry readings, folk music, improvisational jazz, stand-up comedy à la Mort Sahl, and experimental theater. In an era driven by the conformist quest for success and button-down normalcy they sheltered misfits, art, and European culture in settings decorated in moody “opium-den style” or stained-glass/marble/wrought iron “junkyard posh” assembled from the detritus of American cities then being dismantled.

Along with beats, coffeehouses were attractive to teens as well as curiosity seekers and wannabees. (See Dupo IL high school coffeehouse photo.) Authorities had an almost obsessive dislike of coffeehouses and their patrons. Even church basement coffeehouses came under attack. A John Birch Society member lectured youths at a YMCA coffeehouse in a Chicago suburb about how dissolute their gathering place was (“You can’t tell the difference between boys and girls”).

dupoIL1962HSAlthough the word beatnik came into usage around 1958 (inspired partly by Sputnik), the phenomenon of dropping out of the “rat race” to lead an existentialist, non-consumerist life was part of the aftermath of World War II akin to the “Lost Generation” after World War I. The first coffeehouses sprang up in Greenwich Village in the late 1940s, but the beats weren’t averse to hanging out in cafeterias either — their “Paris sidewalk restaurant thing of the time.” When coffeehouses began levying cover charges for performances, beatniks tended to drop out of them too.

bizarre1958The heyday of the coffeehouse was the late 1950s into the early 1960s. Few did much cooking so they weren’t restaurants in the true sense, but many of them offered light food such as salami sandwiches (on exotic Italian bread) and cheesecake, along with “Espresso Romano,” the most expensive coffee ever seen in the U.S. up til then. Of course the charge for coffee was more a rent payment than anything else since patrons sat around for hours while consuming very little. Other then-unfamiliar food offerings included cannolis at La Gabbia (The Birdcage) in Queens, Swiss cuisine at Alberto’s in Westwood CA, Irish stew at Coffee ’n’ Confusion in D.C., les fromages at Café Oblique in Chicago, “Suffering Bastard Sundaes” at The Bizarre in Greenwich Village, and snacks such as chocolate-covered ants and caterpillars at the Green Spider in Denver.

Coffeehouses went in for oddball names such as above and also the Hungry I in San Francisco, Cosmo Alley in Hollywood, Fickle Pickle and College of Complexes in Chicago, The Cup of Socrates in Detroit, Café Wha in Greenwich Village, House of Fencing Masters in New Orleans, Laughing Buddha in St. Louis’s Gaslight Square, and Café Mediterraneum in Berkeley.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Don Dickerman

dickermanrev Don Dickerman was obsessed with pirates. He took every opportunity to portray himself as one, beginning with a high school pirate band. As an art student in the teens he dressed in pirate garb for Greenwich Village costume balls. Throughout his life he collected antique pirate maps, cutlasses, blunderbuses, and cannon. His Greenwich Village nightclub restaurant, The Pirates’ Den, where colorfully outfitted servers staged mock battles for guests, became nationally known and made him a minor celebrity.

It might seem that Don’s buccaneering interests were commercially motivated except that he often dressed as a pirate in private life, owned a Long Island house associated with pirate lore, formed a treasure-hunting club, and spent a small fortune collecting pirate relics. He was a staff artist on naturalist William Beebe’s West Indies expedition in 1925, and in 1940 had a small part in Errol Flynn’s pirate movie The Sea Hawk.

piratesdenmenu225Over time he ran five clubs and restaurants in New York City. After failing to make a living as a toy designer and children’s book illustrator, he opened a tea room in the Village primarily as a place to display his hand-painted toys. It became popular, expanded, and around 1917 he transformed it into a make-believe pirates’ lair where guests entered through a dark, moldy basement. Its fame began to grow, particularly after 1921 when Douglas Fairbanks recreated its atmospheric interior for his movie The Nut. He also ran the Blue Horse (pictured), the Heigh-Ho (where Rudy Vallee got his start), Daffydill (financed by Vallee), and the County Fair.

bluehorsephoto226On a Blue Horse menu of the 1920s Don’s mother is listed as manager. Among the dishes featured at this jazz club restaurant were Golden Buck, Chicken a la King, Tomato Wiggle, and Tomato Caprice. Drinks (non-alcoholic) included Pink Goat’s Delight and Blue Horse’s Neck. Ice cream specials also bore whimsical names such as Green Goose Island and Mr. Bogg’s Castle. At The Pirates’ Den a beefsteak dinner cost a hefty $1.25. Also on the menu were chicken salad, sandwiches, hot dogs, and an ice cream concoction called Bozo’s Delight. A critic in 1921 concluded that, based on the sky-high menu tariffs and the “punk food,” customers there really were at the mercy of genuine pirates.

As the Depression deepened business evaporated, leading Don to declare bankruptcy in 1932. A few years later he turned up in Miami, running a new Pirates’ Den, and next in Washington D.C. where he opened another Pirates’ Den on K Street in Georgetown in 1939. In 1940 he opened yet another Pirates’ Den, at 335 N. La Brea in Los Angeles, which was co-owned by Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby among others. In the photograph, Don is shown at the Los Angeles Pirates’ Den with wife #5 (photo courtesy of Don’s granddaughter Kathleen P.).

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

Learn more about Don Dickerman’s life.

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