Tag Archives: liquor

Swingin’ at Maxwell’s Plum

In 1965 impresario Warner LeRoy, son of Hollywood producer Mervyn LeRoy (Wizard of Oz, Mr. Roberts, Quo Vadis), opened Maxwell’s Plum as part of his theater on First Avenue and 64th Street in NYC. Hamburgers and a good wine list made it a hit with the swinging singles who crowded into the café. It was so popular that a few years later he closed the theater and expanded the café, adding a luxurious dining room with a Tiffany glass ceiling that reminded some of Maxim’s in Paris. Patrons could choose to experience Maxwell’s Plum either as a singles’ bar, a boulevard café (pictured), or a grand restaurant which, as a bonus, provided a fine view of the bar scene located on a lower level.

After a 1969 expansion the Plum seated about 250 and produced 1,000 to 1,500 meals a day. It rapidly ascended to the ranks of the city’s biggest grossing restaurants, taking in well over $5 million in the mid 1970s, with a big chunk — more than a third — from alcohol sales.

With offerings ranging from burgers to wild boar, the restaurant enjoyed excellent reviews, winning four stars from NY Times reviewers Craig Claiborne and John Canaday. For a riotously overdecorated Art Nouveau/Deco/Etc. pleasure palace, the Plum provided far better cuisine than it needed to. In the egalitarian spirit of the later 1960s and 1970s, many diners appreciated that its good food was uncoupled from the snobbery then associated with New York’s top restaurants. Canaday hailed the Plum for delivering first-class service “whether you were known or not,” while he stripped stars from La Côte Basque and La Grenouille because of the “disparity in their treatment of favorite (usually fashionable) customers and unknowns.” LeRoy claimed that he didn’t object to patrons looking shaggy, adding, “And if they don’t want to eat fancy food, they can have a hamburger. Whatever.” James Beard declared that he enjoyed hamburgers as much as paté en croute and decided to feature the Plum’s chili recipe for one of his 1973 columns.

LeRoy’s expansions were funded by Hardwicke Companies which ran resorts, wild animal parks, duty-free border shops, and Benihana restaurants. Hardwicke also financed LeRoy’s acquisition of the even-bigger-grossing Tavern on the Green, a failed San Francisco version of Plum (below), and a short-lived 900-seater in DC called Potomac. Hardwicke, under the control of a former Sara Lee exec, came under suspicion for influence buying in its efforts to get a gambling license for its Atlantic City Ritz Hotel. LeRoy broke with Hardwicke in the 1980s, blaming them for the failure of the San Francisco Plum.

New York’s Plum did not survive the 80s. Due to changing tastes and weak reviews that a succession of chefs could not remedy, LeRoy closed it in 1988, announcing that he wasn’t having fun anymore. He sold the First Avenue building for a nifty sum, while Donald Trump plunked down $28K for one of its Tiffany glass windows. At the same auction, the Tribeca Grill acquired the Plum’s large island bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Let’s do brunch – or not?

industrialchafingHaving brunch in restaurants became popular in the 1970s and remains so today. It was not unheard of earlier – a few restaurants offered brunch in the 1930s. The meal itself was older but usually eaten at home. The word evidently was coined by British university students in the 1890s, late sleepers who woke at noon and combined their first two meals. Gossip columnists loved to twitter about Hollywood film stars and socialites who threw intimate brunches for their best chums in the 1920s, giving the informal meal a degree of cachet.

belgianwaffleAs modern as it might seem, brunch shares some aspects in common with the 18th-century Anglo-American tavern spread. Broadly speaking, both feature tables piled with edibles drawn mostly from two major groups: meat/fowl/fish (bacon, sausage, chicken, roast beef, ham, salmon) and pastry. They also share a third essential, the before-noon alcoholic beverage. In the 1770s the drink might be rum or ale, while in the 1970s it would be champagne or mixed drinks such as mimosas and Bloody Marys.

In 1950 a Los Angeles restaurant reviewer observed that most patrons turned down drinks, adding “After all, you got to be pretty far gone to drink before breakfast.” This abstinent attitude seems to have largely vanished by the 1970s. Then champagne, screwdrivers, and mimosas often formed a large part of the advertised brunch attractions. Many restaurants included a drink with the price of the brunch, while others charged extra but poured free refills.

buffettable203Especially popular on Sundays and holidays, brunch often features food that is — or once was — regarded as “special,” such as Canadian bacon, Hollandaise sauce, and Belgian waffles. Nonetheless, despite brunch’s ice sculptures and lavish food presentations, it has its detractors. Some would agree with the California critic who declared that she felt like Oliver Twist standing in line with plate in hand. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain spared no scorn, characterizing brunch as a restaurant’s “old, nasty odds and ends” prepared by its least talented cooks and way overpriced. Hence the Bloody Marys?

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Sweet and sour Polynesian

One remarkable accomplishment of Polynesian restaurants was how they lured the male diner without using steak as bait. Who would have believed mid-century Homo Americanus Modernus could swallow so many sugary rum drinks, pineapple chunks, and sticky sauces?

Another notable coup was that these tropical resorts were so obviously fake it was preposterous to accuse them of it. It is easy to imagine how Vic Bergeron, originator of Trader Vic’s, would have roared with laughter if charged with inauthenticity. (“Jeez, Honey, that was the whole point!”) Guests were well aware that the Tiki gods, fishnets, and outrigger canoes were artfully staged to stimulate escape fantasies, and vaguely conscious that the menu represented a culinary amalgam that never existed in the outside world. Bergeron once stated that the food of Polynesian islanders was “primitive” and “not acceptable to American tastes.” Stephen Crane, mastermind of Kon-Tiki Ports, admitted that many ingredients used in Polynesian dishes – bean sprouts, water chestnuts, tomatoes, and pea pods – didn’t grow on the islands. Who cared?

Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s were the first Polynesian restaurants, beginning in California in 1934 and 1938 respectively. It was quite a while, though, before eating in pseudo-grass-huts became a fad. Around 1957 only about 20 Polynesian restaurants were known. But by 1962, after Hawaiian statehood and the debuts of the movie South Pacific and TV show Hawaiian Eye, the number had grown to 200, according to a National Restaurant Association estimate.

Many were in big hotels where their job was to boost profits. As a Wall Street Journal headline succinctly put it in 1959, “Cocoanut Milk, Idols, Waterfalls Help Hotels Lift Food, Drink Take.” The Polynesian restaurant was about merchandising. Whether it was Bonko Bonko soup at Columbus’s Kahiki, Pineapple Teriyaki Garni at The Lahala House in Corpus Christi, or a take-home scorpion drink bowl (pictured) at Trader Vic’s, the concept was greater than all the inexpensive ingredients combined.

The appeal of exotic drinks held steady longer than the rest of the package. Already by the mid-1960s, American and “continental” standbys were infiltrating menus. Steaks made a comeback and diners could also choose from a broad array of restaurant items not even remotely tropical such as clam chowder, chicken cordon bleu, and hush puppies. In the 1970s more adventurous diners rejected Cantonese, the core of Polynesian cuisine, for spicier Szechuan and Hunan. Decor was seen as a growing problem, too, as the cost of importing tapa cloths and outrigger canoes rose. Restaurateurs searching for a concept were counseled to think about Old English which was easier to accessorize, according to the journal Cooking for Profit, only requiring some paneling and “a few old swords, or other recognizable ‘art objects.’”

By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s critics heaped scorn on things Polynesian, food especially. It seemed hard to believe NY Times critic Craig Claiborne had given it an ounce of credibility in 1958. Actor Yul Brynner sued Trader Vic’s in NY’s Plaza Hotel in 1979 after eating spareribs there and acquiring trichinosis. Ten years later Vic’s was booted out of the Plaza. Vic himself, having died in 1984, was spared the ignominious news. The long-lived Kahiki closed in 2000. Yet, even today Polynesian motifs cast a campy spell.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Drinking rum, eating Cantonese

Will the real Don the Beachcomber please stand up and mix me a Zombie? As is true with so many business histories it’s difficult to lock down the true story. Confusion in the case of Don the Beachcomber mainly arises from a divorce between the principals, Don (or Donn) Beach (born Ernest Beaumont-Gantt) and his one-time wife Cora Irene Sund. Both were involved in the development of the original Don the Beachcomber, begun in 1934 as a bar serving exotic drinks in Hollywood, California. Cora, a Minnesota schoolteacher turned model, arrived on the scene shortly after Don launched his business. She invested in it and became president, while Don acted as general manager. She focused on the food side of things, hiring a Cantonese chef and expanding the bar into a restaurant with “South Seas” cuisine. They married in 1937 and divorced in 1940, the year Cora opened a branch in Chicago. When Don came back from the Air Force after WWII they split up as business partners, she keeping the mainland operations while he concentrated on Hawaii.

According to Vic Bergeron, creator of Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber provided his inspiration for transforming his Oakland CA bar and sandwich spot Hinky Dink’s into a Polynesian restaurant in 1938.

beachcombertrunkDon ran into trouble with the postwar longshoremen’s strike and decided to limit his Honolulu Beachcomber to a drinking spot. By the early 1960s he was also in the restaurant business, operating a South Seas Cabaret Restaurant, a Colonel’s Plantation Steak House, a Colonel’s Coffee House, and at least one restaurant boat. Cora’s popular Chicago Don the Beachcomber was named one of the top 50 US restaurants in 1947. She soon opened another location in Palm Springs and by 1972, when it was acquired by Getty Financial, the chain had 6 or 7 units.

The greatest growth occurred under Getty management, eventually building the chain to a total of 16. An architect gave the Beachcombers a new look. The interior of the new 1973 Dallas Beachcomber, like others to follow, featured a full array of tropical effects such as a bridge over a reflecting pool, a waterfall, rain forest, thatched roofs, palm trees, and outrigger canoes suspended from a firefly-studded ceiling. But the public’s love affair with Polynesian restaurants began to fade and by 1989 only three Don the Beachcombers remained.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Cabarets and lobster palaces

Around 1908 Murray’s Roman Gardens in Times Square, pictured here, was just the place to sample the “high life” after seeing the popular operetta The Merry Widow. Murray’s, which has been called “New York’s first theme restaurant,” demonstrated a kind of decadent Roman-Pompeian-Egyptian-Babylonian grandeur that appealed to tourists. It was one of the so-called lobster palaces that sprang up around the turn of the last century. Other cities had them, but New York led the trend with Murray’s, Bustanoby’s (known for its Forbidden Fruit liqueur), Churchill’s, Faust’s, Martin’s, Maxim’s, Rector’s, Reisenweber’s, Shanley’s and others. After surviving the depression of the 1890s, Americans were ready to drink champagne and order the most expensive dish on the menu, preferably lobster. Restaurants, department stores, and soon movie theaters all styled themselves as palaces outfitted with marble fountains, chandeliers, and velvet draperies. The era’s “luxury for the masses” set a precedent later followed by Las Vegas.

New York’s lobster palaces were in possession of a valuable asset, the all-night liquor license which enabled them to sell drinks round the clock. Anti-liquor forces were determined to clamp down on the partying. One by one cabarets saw their licenses revoked, forcing them to close by 1 a.m. In 1913 the early closing rule was applied across the board — and rightly so, according to New York’s mayor. He asserted, “The people who patronize such places after the regular closing hour of 1 o’clock are not, as a rule, decent people. They are vulgar, roystering, and often openly immodest. They get intoxicated, behave boisterously, and indulge in lascivious dancing in rooms devoted to that use.”

Critics insisted that sophisticates wouldn’t be seen in a warehouse-style palace. Despite their high prices, the food they served was prepared assembly-line fashion hours before the rush. Waiters made a grand table-side show of shaking and pouring drinks which had been premixed before the crowds arrived. Patrons dressed to the nines vied for a table. Critic Julian Street sneered at the whole scene of what he regarded as social pretenders. He commented in 1910, “About the wide doorway of this room stood a knot of twenty or thirty men and women, all in evening dress and eager to get in – a comic sort of bread-line, held back by a plush rope and a young head waiter, who, St. Peter-like, examined the candidates with a critical eye.” To Street, real socialites did not wait in line.

Although they instituted cover charges when national Prohibition began in 1919, lobster palaces could not carry on without the liquor sales which had made up as much as two-thirds of their gross. By 1923 most had closed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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