Tag Archives: NYC restaurants

We never close

allnight758One way of sorting eating places is by the hours they keep. Those that are open 24 hours a day stand out from the crowd by their tirelessness and involvement in sometimes unwanted adventures.

Mostly there are three kinds of customers for all-night restaurants: those who travel at night, those who work at night, and those who play at night.

In pre-Civil War NYC all night eateries were haunts of “b’hoys,” a class of rogue males (sometimes accompanied by their g’hals) prominently made up of firemen and the more prosperous newsboys. They enjoyed oyster cellars, but one of their favorite places in the 1840s was Butter-cake Dick’s, where for a mere 6 cents they could get a generous plate of biscuits with butter and a cup of coffee.

ComicCheatingHusbandThe authors of the many Victorian “lights and shadows” books about urban immorality were quite fascinated by the dubious goings on in all-night supper clubs. No doubt their readers felt a shiver of horrified excitement when they spotted signs along city streets advising “Ladies’ dining parlor, up stairs”’ or “Refreshments at all hours.” Was it or wasn’t it?

One such book was George Ellington’s The Women of New York; Or, the Under-world of the Great City. But even Ellington observed that patrons of private dining rooms in these quasi-bordellos were also there to eat. He reported that patrons could be discovered consuming fish balls or pickled salmon at 3 or 4 a.m.

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People working at night surely outnumbered the pleasure seekers. Thomas Edison recalled that when his machine shop was on Goerck Street in NYC in the 1880s he used to grab a bite at 2 or 3 a.m. at a rough little place: “It was the toughest kind of restaurant ever seen. For the clam chowder they used the same four clams during the whole season, and the average number of flies per pie was seven. This was by actual count.” No doubt many of his fellow diners included some outside the law but also other denizens of the night such as newspaper printers, trolley conductors, bakers, and factory shift workers.

All-night restaurants were not just found in NYC but in all big cities and were often densest in areas near newspapers, city food markets, and ferries. Chicago’s all-night cafes on State Street were often portrayed as unsavory places where police connected with “stool pigeons” enjoying their midnight snack. Upstanding citizens shrank from the mere thought of all-night eateries but in actuality they were probably some of the most democratic places in that they drew characters from all stations of life.

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An all-nighter of renown in the 20th century was Coffee Dan’s, originally in San Francisco, which operated as an eating and entertainment venue, then a speakeasy in the 1920s and early 1930s. Its attitude in the mid-1920s is nicely expressed in the claim, “There will be dancing to the tinkle of a piano; there will be songs and it will never, never close, not even for fire, not even if the supply of ham and eggs is exhausted.” Coffee Dan’s expanded into a small chain and the Hollywood location became something of a gay hangout in the 1950s, a role played by all-night cafeterias such as Stewart’s in NYC’s Greenwich Village.

With so many night shifts for war workers in World War II, the demand for all-night restaurants rose to new heights. A 1948 restaurant sanitation manual noted how difficult it became to clean restaurants during wartime because of the never-ceasing 24-hour influx of customers.

allnight757The only figures I’ve run across concerning all-night restaurants were from the mid-1960s when 10% of eating places fell into that category. Some chain restaurants, especially coffee shops, pancake houses, and places offering breakfast at all hours, are founded on the 24-hour principle. Often they are located near highway exits to capture truck drivers and other nocturnal travelers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

See also:
Toddle House
Cabarets and lobster palaces

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Find of the day: J.B.G.’s French restaurant

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Last weekend I went to an antique paper show sponsored by the Ephemera Society of America where there were books and every sort of printed thing — maps, advertising cards, tickets, menus, postcards, posters, broadsides — for sale. I ended up buying only seven items, but one of them (shown above) was a gem.

I knew as soon as I spotted it that it was a relic of New York City’s old French quarter in which many restaurants flourished in the 19th century. The card probably dates from the latter years of the quarter, about 1904.

J.B.G.’s was operated by Jean Baptiste Guttin, who immigrated to the United States in 1872 and became a citizen in 1892. For many years he worked as a waiter at wine merchant Henri Mouquin’s well-known restaurant on Fulton Street. Then, in 1890, he took over a restaurant formerly run by A. Fourcade on West 25th street. Within a few years he changed the name to J.B.G. and moved down the street a bit.

frenchtabledhoteguttinMay1890Beginning in the 1890s the area from West 23rd to West 28th streets near Sixth avenue was the heart of the French quarter, which was said to be as much or more of a tight-knit community than the Chinese. It had earlier been situated farther downtown, south of Washington Square. By 1895 West 25th was the new restaurant row for French New Yorkers. The restaurants were also patronized by others who lived in the area, as well as adventurous “Bohemian” diners who came to soak up the atmosphere. Of course they also liked getting a six-course meal with red wine and coffee for 50 or 60 cents.

Described in the 1903 guide book Where and How to Dine in New York as “very French,” J.B.G.’s was a truly old-fashioned table d’hôte in that customers had no choice in dishes and didn’t know what they would be eating until it was set down before them.

Jean Baptiste Guttin was successful in the restaurant business. When he died in 1914 he left the then-considerable sum of $4,000 to NYC’s French Hospital as a way of thanking the late chocolate-maker and restaurateur Henry Maillard for advancing him a loan of the same amount “in a moment of difficulty.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Restaurant-ing in Metropolis

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In the depths of the Depression, in 1934, Harper & Bros. published a book of 304 photographs called Metropolis. Most of the photos were by Edward M. Weyer, Jr., an anthropologist who wanted to show how people in greater NYC lived. Captions were supplied by the popular writer Frederick Lewis Allen.

In a 2010 NY Times story the book was described as a “romantic masterpiece of street photography” composed of “moody black-and-white coverage of day-to-day life in New York in the ’30s. Beggars, snow-shoveling squads, schooner crews, railroad commuters, subway crowds, tenement life, tugboats, a sidewalk craps game. . .”

I find it particularly interesting that a major focus of the book was to contrast how different social classes lived, illustrated in part by where they ate lunch.

The central narrative follows employees of a company headed by a Mr. Roberts. He lives in a house on a 4-acre plot in Connecticut, commutes to New York, and employs a house maid whose duties include fixing his wife’s lunch each day. On the day he is being profiled Mr. Roberts eats a $1.00 table d’hôte lunch at his club (equal to $17 today). So frugal, Mr. R.

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Mr. Roberts is visited by a Mr. Smith from out of town (shown above looking out hotel window). Mr. Smith “stands for all those who come to the city from a distance,” whether Los Angeles, Boston, or elsewhere. He is “reasonably well off.” Mr. Smith eats a $1.25 table d’hôte lunch – er, luncheon — in a dining room on a hotel roof (pictured). Prices are high there, making his meal a relative bargain. Had he wanted to splurge he could have ordered a Cocktail (.40), Lobster Thermidor ($1.25), and Cucumber Salad (.45) – total $2.10. I would guess that many visitors to New York tend to spend more on restaurants than natives.

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Mr. Roberts’ secretary, Miss Jordan, lives with her mother and brother in an apartment just off Riverside Drive. With a combined family income of less than $4,000 the three can barely afford their $125/month rent. She goes to lunch at a café (pictured) and orders To-Day’s Luncheon Special which consists of Tomato Juice, Corned Beef Hash with Poached Egg, Ice Cream, and Coffee, all for 40 cents. Frankly, I don’t see how she can afford to do this every day.

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Miss O’Hara and Miss Kalisch transcribe dictation from other executives in the firm and each makes about $22.50 a week. Miss Kalisch lives in Astoria, Queens, and is married. Evidently she is pretending to be single in order to hold her job (her name is really Mrs. Rosenbloom). Miss O’Hara lives with her father in a somewhat decrepit apartment costing almost half her wages. Her father has been out of work for three years. The two women eat lunch at a drugstore counter (pictured) where they order Ham on Rye Sandwiches, Chocolate Cake, and Coffee (.30). I fear Miss O’Hara is living beyond her means if she does this often.

Miss Heilman, a young clerk, makes about $16.50 a week and is subject to occasional layoffs. She lives with her brother, his wife, and their two children in a 3-room apartment in Hoboken NJ, for which they pay $15/month. Like the other “girls” at the bottom of the totem pole she brings a sandwich and eats it in the office.

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Mr. Smith, being on his own, must go out for dinner. Once again he chooses a hotel roof garden (pictured), where about half the guests are also out-of-towners. With a live orchestra and dancing, it is undoubtedly expensive. I’m guessing he went for the Cocktail and Lobster Thermidor this time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Picky eaters: Helen and Warren

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Helen and Warren liked eating in restaurants in the early 20th century when it was a rare experience for most Americans. They kept up with the trends and they tried restaurants of every format. They were affluent New Yorkers, somewhat jaded and always seeking the new thing.

Helen wanted to avoid expense and ostentation but was uncomfortable in offbeat places. Warren was cynical and alternately a cheapskate or big-spender. Both were distrustful. They feared they’d be taken advantage of, and sometimes were.

In the 1920s Helen and Warren were the best known couple in the U.S.A.

But they were fictional. They were the creation of Mabel Herbert Urner who wrote a column about the pair for over thirty years, from 1910 until the early 1940s.  The column was widely syndicated in newspapers from Boston to Los Angeles as well as in Canada and England. Though fiction, the column presents a fascinating subjective view of dining out, particularly in the 1910s and 1920s.

HelenandWarrenLathropandMabelHelen’s and Warren’s experiences likely had some resemblance to Mabel’s own life, particularly when the couple visited restaurants in Paris, London, and other European capitals. After marrying rare book dealer and collector Lathrop Colgate Harper in 1912, Mabel traveled with him around the world. In New York they lived in an apartment at 1 Lexington Avenue across from Gramercy Park from which they surely forayed into restaurants regularly.

Did Mabel and Lathrop, like her famous pair, have a preference for out-of-the-way restaurants such as the French and Italian tables d’hôtes in NYC? One starlit summer night in 1913 Helen dragged Warren to a backyard café run by three sisters. Helen exclaimed “Why, it’s a bit of Paris!” when she stepped into the garden. They were surrounded by writers, artists, and illustrators, including a “queerly dressed” literary woman. (Mabel’s inside joke?) Warren, a successful businessman, scoffed at the artists but even he had to admit afterward, “That [was] the best dinner in New York for the money.” They paid 65 cents each for soup, beef tongue with piquant sauce, squab, and salad, finished with fresh pears, Camembert, and coffee – wine included. The café was clearly modeled on that run by the Petitpas sisters on W. 29th in conjunction with a boarding house where artist John Butler Yeats lived. A dinner with Yeats and friends about this time was memorialized in a painting by John Sloan.

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The Petitpas dinner was one of the couple’s few positive experiences. As much as Helen was drawn to offbeat restaurants, she was often squeamish about unsanitary conditions. She refused to eat ground meat. Usually she wiped her silverware with her napkin. She had problems in a Chinese restaurant, an Italian place, an “anarchist restaurant,” probably Maria’s, as well as at the Pink Parrot in Greenwich Village (probably the Pepper Pot, shown here). When she pushed away her plate there, Warren reprimanded her, saying, “You’re a bum bohemian.”

Helen and Warren visited cafeterias, tea rooms, pre-war cabarets, hotel dining rooms, roadhouses, and shoreline resorts in the NYC metro area. Helen was often embarrassed by Warren’s behavior when he showed off or spent too much money. They bickered. He declared a tea room she liked “a sucker joint.” She was critical of the decor and pomp of expensive restaurants, but her attempts to put a brake on Warren’s spending often backfired.

In 1913 they went to a restaurant in the throes of a waiters’ strike. Somewhat surprisingly, considering the bourgeois lifestyles of both Mabel and Helen, the story presents a case for the strikers. Helen questions their server about the goals of the strike, and he says, “They want decent food, m’am; clean food and a clean place to eat it. They want to be treated like men – not dogs! And they want a living wage.” Warren asks about tips and the waiter replies, “Why does he have to depend on tips thrown at him?”

In many ways Helen’s and Warren’s restaurant adventures and complaints seem relevant today. Has it happened to you that a server tries to remove your meal in progress? Have you been charged extra for bread? Welcome to the 1910s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Mob restaurants

mobstersGalante&CoppolakilledGangster stories run like a red thread through the 20th-century history of American restaurants, from the speakeasies of the 1920s, to the shakedowns and union infiltration of the 1930s, the rackets of the 1940s and 1950s, and the later years of money laundering and loudly proclaimed legitimate business.

But what seems to interest Americans the most are restaurants mobsters are alleged to patronize, and all the more so if there has been a legendary shootout there.

As portrayed in the film Dinner Rush, even rumors that a restaurant is a gangland favorite can boost its popularity immensely. The film was made by Bob Giraldi who’s been inside the restaurant business.

mobsterscolosimo'sOn July 28 a series called Inside the American Mob will begin on the National Geographic channel. My friend and neighbor John Marks, supervising producer, inspired this post when he mentioned the popularity of restaurants where mobsters have been gunned down.

Violence is abundant in restaurant history. Two of the worst mass murders in the United States took place in restaurants, the killing of 23 people at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen TX in 1991 and 21 at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro CA in 1984. Those tragic events did not bring about an influx of patrons wanting to soak up evil ambiance. Quite the contrary. Luby’s remodeled and reopened but never regained the business it once had, closing the Killeen site for good in 2000. McDonald’s razed the blighted unit in San Ysidro, rebuilding nearby.

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On the other hand, when gangsters are shooting victims people are unmoved, evidently figuring they got what was coming to them. The absence of bullet holes and bloodstains disappoints.

Restaurants that are linked to mobsters, such as NYC’s Sparks Steak House, where Paul Castellano was killed as he stepped out of his car, do not always appreciate being included in guide books such as A Goodfellas Guide to New York just because a mobster sometimes ate there. I can’t blame them. Who would want tourists dressed in shorts and tee shirts turning up at your high priced restaurant? The mob is not what it used to be. Yet I have to wonder, is there an American restaurant that can be absolutely certain it has never hosted mobsters?

I’ll also point out that not all mob-connected restaurants are or have been Italian. Also, probably every ethnic group has had its own version of the Mafia at some point.

MobstersCaponeTorioheadquartersCiceroca1939Most major cities in the U.S. have had restaurants that served as gangster hangouts. [pictured: the Cicero IL headquarters of Al Capone, ca. 1939] Chicago’s Colosimo’s was already in the books by 1930, ten years after its owner “Big Jim” Colosimo became one of the first victims of a gangland shooting in a restaurant. As late as 1958 when a new owner of the property announced he would raze the building, the site was overrun with an estimated 1,000 souvenir hunters. In the 1920s and 1930s even “nice” St. Paul MN could boast of four or five nightclub eateries with underworld associations, according to the authors of Minnesota Eats Out. Other mob-connected eating places illustrated in this post are Louigi’s in Las Vegas and Villa Venice outside Wheeling IL.

MobstersLouigi'sNew York City and environs takes the prize for gangland restaurants, among which are restaurants where mobsters, their henchmen, and associates have met a messy end. Few still exist or remain in their original locations. To name some, both present and past: Nuova Villa Tammaro, Coney Island (Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria,1931); Palace Chop House, Newark (Dutch Schultz, 1935); Umberto’s Clam House, Little Italy (Joey Gallo, 1972); Joe & Mary, Brooklyn (pictured at top, Carmine Galante, 1979); Broadway Pub, Manhattan; La Stella, Queens; King Wah, Chinatown; Villa Capri, Long Island; Sparks, Manhattan (Paul Castellano, 1985); Bravo Sergio, Manhattan (Irwin Schiff, 1987).

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Postscript: beefsteak dinners

healysphotoThis year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show, an art exhibit that introduced Americans to modern art, most notably to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase [No. 1]. Last week I received a copy of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art Journal which commemorates the show. To my surprise, the journal contains an article (Meat and Beer, by Darcy Tell) about a beefsteak dinner given by the artists who organized the Armory Show in gratitude to the press whose extensive coverage helped make the show a popular success.

The Armory Show was largely organized by American artists Walt Kuhn, Arthur Davies, and Walter Pach. (Kuhn’s and Pach’s papers are preserved in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

In an earlier post I wrote about beefsteak dens, dungeons, and caves where men put on butchers’ aprons and threw aside the trappings of civilization. Sitting uncomfortably on boxes in dingy cellars, they drank beer and ate steaks without silverware or napkins.

BeefsteakHealy'sADV1916The 1913 Armory Show dinner was held at Healy’s restaurant, on 66th Street in NYC, a popular place for these feasts. It had three rooms dedicated to them: the Dungeon, the Jungle Room, and the Log Cabin Room. The artists and their “friends and enemies from the press,” as they were designated on the menu, gathered in the Log Cabin Room, probably the most civilized space of the three, furnished with long tables and chairs and complete with tablecloths and napkins. While the guests ate, someone read aloud humorous, insiderish (fake) telegrams, even one purporting to be from Gertrude Stein [see link below].

I have to admit I was a tiny bit disappointed to learn that such a (presumably) sophisticated group of men as was represented at this dinner would choose to attend a beefsteak at Healy’s. By 1913, if not long before, beefsteaks were recognized as evenings of orthodox jollity for business men and conventioneers. Yet, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors paid out $234 [at least $5,500 today] for a dinner much like that enjoyed by the Paper Box Makers Association and the League of Associated Hat Men.

And, just like the hat men and box makers, they took away a regulation group photo to show for it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Taste of a decade: 1820s restaurants

Aside from roadside inns, most eating places are found in cities in this decade. With a population slightly over 150,000 New York is more than twice as big as its nearest rivals, Philadelphia and Baltimore, but most cities are considerably smaller. In 1820 only 12 have populations over 10,000, all of them along the East Coast with the exceptions of Albany NY and New Orleans LA.

Yet industrial development is underway. After a financial panic at the decade’s beginning, textile mills in Massachusetts begin large-scale production. The Erie Canal goes into operation with its completion in 1825, spurring commercial development in NYC. With the city’s expansion there is greater distance between work in lower Manhattan and places of residence, bringing more customers to oyster cellars and taverns. But New York still lags behind Boston in its supply of refined French restaurants.

Big hotels begin to be established, most notably Baltimore’s City Hotel (1826), Philadelphia’s United States Hotel (1827), Washington’s National Hotel (1827), and Boston’s Tremont Hotel (1829). In most hotel dining rooms it is still the custom to put all the food – soup, meat, vegetables, puddings — on the table at once. Except for the occasional banquet, menus are not printed. A list of available dishes is chanted by waiters or chalked on a board behind the bar.

Apart from eating in hotels while traveling, “respectable” women stay home. They avoid  public dining spots, especially oyster houses or cellars which are associated with heavy drinking and the burgeoning male “sporting life” of gambling and frequenting prostitutes.

The temperance movement begins. Since there is little separation between eating and drinking places, restaurants are targeted as sites of temptation and moral downfall. Religious publications warn readers that it’s a slippery slope from sipping “innocent soda water” in a pleasure garden to getting drunk in the oyster house or “the common grog shop.”

Highlights

1820 Aiming for well-off gentlemen, Dudley Bradstreet advertises fine venison, “a warm room and the best of wine” at his Phoenix Restorator in Boston.

1821 In summer wealthy New Yorkers vacation in Saratoga Springs and environs where they enjoy Wild Pigeons, Pike, and Bass “taken daily at the foot of the much celebrated Cohoes Falls” at S. Demarest’s Mansion House.

1823 A visiting Frenchman complains he cannot get French cooking in New York’s typical English-style chop houses. He pleads, “Will any body be kind enough to point out a veritable French coffee house or restaurateur in New-York, where ‘haricot mutton,’ ‘coutulettes a la maintenon,’ and sundry other dishes may be procured?”

1824 France’s marquis de Lafayette, friend of the American revolution, pays a return visit to the US and is feted with a dinner at Boston’s Exchange Coffee House which features an astonishing selection of American and French dishes.

1826 A teenager named Hawes Atwood opens an oyster saloon on Boston’s Union Lane which he will operate into the 1890s. (Still in business and now known as Ye Olde Union Oyster House, it is the nation’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation, looking very much the same as in its 1889 illustration above.)

1826 To the delight of a passerby who copies it in his notebook exactly as it appears, a sign at a Philadelphia oyster cellar captures the speed and energy of the spoken bill of fare: “OystersOPENED,ORINSHELLFriedorstuedBEER,PORtE,ALE”

1827 Swiss immigrants Giovanni and Pietro Del Monico arrive in New York and establish a small European-style confectioner’s shop serving pastries, coffee, wine, and liquor at 23 Williams Street.

1828 Black caterer Edward Haines opens a summertime Mead Garden on the corner of Front and Jay streets in Brooklyn NY.

1828 The editor of the Trumpet & Universalist Magazine applauds a Providence RI restaurant keeper who has “substituted at his Restorateur hot coffee in lieu of intoxicating alcohol.” “If a man must drink at 11 o’clock, he writes, “let him drink Hot Coffee.” (By the way, he is referring to 11 A.M.)

1829 Downtown in NYC patrons of the dark and dreary, but cheap, Plate House crowd into box-like seating and wolf down plates of beef and potatoes. Child waiters shout orders to the kitchen followed by the guests’ box numbers (Half plate beef, 4!). [Philadelphia oyster cellar pictured; note curtained booths]

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

Read about other decades: 1810 to 1820; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

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Celebrity restaurants: Evelyn Nesbit’s tea room

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of celebrities have gone into the restaurant business when their careers waned. Their level of direct involvement may be high or low but all these ventures bank on the idea that a famous name will attract customers.

When Evelyn Nesbit opened her NYC tea room in May of 1921 she made sure that her name was prominently displayed. Located on West 52nd street just off Broadway, the sign saying “Evelyn Nesbit’s Specialty Shop” was visible from the theater district’s Great White Way.

She was then in her mid-30s, years away from her peak as a teenage artist’s model [above, age 16], “Gibson Girl,” Floradora showgirl, and millionaire’s wife. Her fame derived not only from her former good looks – from the years her image was displayed everywhere – but also from her involvement in a romantic triangle with prominent architect Stanford White and her insanely jealous husband Harry Thaw. After Thaw shot and killed White in 1906, she became notorious as a witness during the sensational “trial of the century.”

By 1921 she had divorced Thaw, had a son, returned sporadically to the stage, taken up sculpture, published a memoir, and married a second husband from whom she was estranged. Characteristically, she was in debt, owing the equivalent of a year’s income to a dress shop.

Her tea room enjoyed such a short, unsuccessful run that it is hard to learn much about it. Presumably she raised funds from friends to furnish it and pay the $300 monthly rent. She lived in two rooms upstairs. One account described the 100-seat tea room as “super-beautiful” and furnished with rich carpets, Oriental tapestries, and exotic plants, a description at odds with the homey scene in a 1922 photograph shown here.

In several interviews Evelyn made what sound like preposterous claims that she served food available nowhere else. “I am revolutionizing the restaurant business in New York,” she boasted. Her specialties included deep dish apple pie and ice cream which she said she made herself. “I amazed the chef, let me tell you, with what I know about cooking,” she said.

I found it surprising that she claimed to be a good cook; however I did discover that when she left the US for Paris in 1910, surely pregnant with her son, she told friends that she planned to rent a modest apartment on the outskirts of Paris, study sculpture, and do her own cooking.  Although she evidently hired someone else to cook for the tea room she said she furnished the recipes and did all the buying.

Things went wrong fast. During the first six months she (barely) survived three robberies, one kidnap attempt, one suicide attempt, and eviction for nonpayment of rent. On a second try in January of 1922 she was successfully evicted, after which she returned to cabaret dancing. In 1926, while performing at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge, she tried to kill herself again by swallowing Lysol. Her troubled brother took his own life two years later.

But Evelyn achieved happiness in later life and lived on to age 81. She moved to Southern California near her three grandchildren and their father, a pilot for Douglas Aircraft. She returned to her lifelong interest in art, teaching sculpture and ceramics at a community center. Easing her constant need for money, she received a $10,000 bequest when Thaw died in 1947 and was paid more than $50,000 for use of her life story in the 1955 movie “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”

After many years away, she visited New York in 1955, reflecting on the great meals she had eaten during her heyday. Passing the former location of Sherry’s, she recalled “the wonderful terrapin they served.” She expressed surprise that she had managed to stay slim in her youth. “I ate so much in the old days I still wonder why I didn’t get fat,” she said referring to another performer’s, Lillian Russell’s, “upholstered” appearance. Heading off to a restaurant dinner, the ever-unsentimental Evelyn confessed, “You know what I really want to see most in New York? A nice big broiled Maine lobster.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Reuben’s: celebrities and sandwiches

Once upon a time there was a famous NYC restaurant called Reuben’s. Today there is a famous grilled sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on pumpernickel called a Reuben. Wouldn’t it make a nice story if the sandwich came from the restaurant?

The connection has been well researched yet it remains unresolved. For anyone who wants to examine the matter in detail, I recommend Jim Rader’s excellent account. He has the last word, inasmuch as there is one.

Two important points. 1) No one has come up with an early menu from Reuben’s that lists the Reuben sandwich as it is known today. It does appear under the name “Reuben’s Pioneer” on a 1971 menu but by then the sandwich could be found everywhere. 2) Despite being a publicity hound – and despite an Omaha woman winning a national contest for creating the sandwich in 1959 — founder Arnold Reuben never laid claim to it as his restaurant’s creation.

What is certain is that the fame of Reuben’s restaurant and delicatessen was built upon sandwiches — and the celebrity patrons who ate them.

I have seen a menu from Reuben’s said to be from 1922. Under the top heading “Reuben’s Famous Sandwiches” are listed 42 sandwiches. Nine are named after celebrities of stage and screen of that time. What is striking about the named sandwiches is that they cost more than the others. At the low end are ordinary sandwiches priced at 35 cents such as Salami, Corned Beef, and Liver Wurst. The special celebrity sandwiches range from 75 cents to a dollar, amounts that would then buy a whole dinner in many restaurants. The specially named sandwiches probably had more ingredients and may have been larger, but the aura of celebrity around them must have added a few cents too.

Naming sandwiches for celebrities was a publicity gimmick probably thought up by a press agent. The columnist Westbook Pegler claimed that Reuben’s initially acquired fame because of publicity generated by the audacious Harry Reichenbach who encouraged Arnold to sue a well-known New Yorker over the price of a ham in 1920. Thereafter, like Lindy’s and the Stork Club, Reuben’s was constantly in the nationally syndicated gossip columns of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

Arnold Reuben was a German Jew who, with his family, immigrated to the US as a young child around 1886. He helped out by peddling produce, then worked at a delicatessen. In 1908 he opened his own deli, which he later referred to as a “shtoonky little store.” By the end of the teens, he was thriving; he had incorporated his Pure Food Shop at 2102 Broadway and opened an eating place at 622 Madison Avenue which was popular with Broadway performers and stars from Hollywood. (Transitions from food store to restaurant are not uncommon and, as was also the case with Texas butcher shops-to-barbecues, often begins with sandwiches.) In 1928 he had a third restaurant in Philadelphia and was said to be “enormously rich.” Adopting the slogan “From a Sandwich to a National Institution,” he often told a story about the first celebrity sandwich he created – ham, cheese, turkey, cole slaw, and dressing — for a struggling young actress.

He experienced some financial difficulties in 1933 and filed for bankruptcy but only two years later was back on course with a bigger and better restaurant [pictured] to replace the one on Madison Avenue. Of critical importance to his comeback was the end of Prohibition. His opening announcement in the New York Times attested to this with a prominent display of the names of Reuben’s “friends,” seven liquor manufacturers and distributors.

In 1946 he opened a restaurant on West 57th near Carnegie Hall, with a front nearly identical to East 58th Street. Like his others it was open 24 hours. No doubt it, too, had a doorman who greeted patrons with the bywords “Reuben’s, that’s all.” Larger than the East 58th place, it was billed “A City in Itself,” and contained shops for delicatessen, flowers, chocolates, cigars, and theater tickets, as well as a perfume bar and a barber shop. Despite all, it silently disappeared a couple years later.

Arnold retired to Florida in the mid-1960s and sold the business, which he had turned over to his son to manage years earlier. Reuben’s in NYC continued under new ownership at various locations until 2001. A Reuben’s was also opened in Miami in the 1940s but I have not been able to determine its subsequent fate.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Theme restaurants: Russian!

Restaurants and coffee houses run by Russian immigrants appeared in the late 19th century. Their proprietors were Jews living on NYC’s lower East Side as well as others in California and Chicago who were pro-revolution enemies of the Czar. But not until after World War I (and the Russian Revolution), when a very different wave of anti-revolution, pro-Czar Russian immigrants arrived, did explicitly and self-consciously Russian-themed restaurants come into being. They flourished in the 1920s and 1930s.

For many readers New York’s Russian Tea Room will immediately spring to mind. It was established on West 57th Street in 1927 by Jakob Zysman, a Polish immigrant who operated a chocolate factory at the little tea room where ballerinas hung out. The business soon moved across the street where it changed hands and was expanded into a full-fledged restaurant. Over its long history it had many owners, notably including Faith Stewart-Gordon who ran it from 1967 until the end of 1995. After extensive renovations by restaurant impresario Warner LeRoy, it reopened in the fall of 1999. LeRoy died in 2001 and the RTR closed the following year.

But it should be noted that, unlike other Russian restaurants of the interwar period, the RTR was not started by a White Russian nor did it have a specifically Russian emigré clientele for most of its tenure. Reportedly, at one point the Russians who haunted the barroom were discouraged from patronizing the place because of their propensity to linger while they eulogized the olden days. The RTR was mainly famous as a flamboyant celebrity restaurant.

In the 1920s NYC gained a population of White Russians numbering about 6,000, most of them well-educated former members of the intelligentsia or the Imperial Russian Army. Numerous Russian eating places soon cropped up, with names such as The Russian Inn, The Eagle (E 57th), Katinka (W 49th), The Russian Swan, Kavkaz (Bdwy & 53rd), Casino Russe (W 56th), The Russian Sadko (W 57th), The Maisonette Russe (W 52nd), and The Russian Bear (W 57th). On the lower East Side were The Russian Kretchma and the (original) Russian Bear. Striking modernistic wall murals by emigré artists such as Boris Artzybashev, balalaika music, and entertainment by Cossack performers often contributed to the atmosphere of these eating places. As far as I can tell they served both as gathering spots for Russians and as tourist attractions.

Los Angeles also had a White Russian settlement of up to 2,000, with an Orthodox church, art shops, tea rooms, and restaurants. Lured by Hollywood, some Russians from this period acted as extras in movies and a few became studio consultants with expertise on the former glories of the fallen Russian aristocracy. When Theodore Lodijensky, proprietor of NYC’s Russian Eagle, moved westward he consulted on Sternberg’s “Last Command” (1928) — and he opened a West Coast version of The Eagle.

When the RTR began there were also other Russian tea rooms in NYC and around the US, some going by that exact name, some with names such as The Samovar. An importer of artistic wares named Polakoff, a Czarist who used a royal crest in his advertising, ran a Russian Tea Room filled with Russian arts and crafts on Chicago’s South Michigan Blvd. A specialty there was the Petrograd Supreme, a tall sandwich which the eater approached from the appetizer layer on top, working down to the dessert layer at bottom. In the 1930s Valentina Alekseevna Vernon ran a Russian Tea Room in San Francisco. A woman of strong opinions, she found Americans as resistant to some Russian dishes as she was to theirs.“I wouldn’t touch either an ice cream soda or a fruit salad,” she proudly proclaimed. Also in San Francisco was the Moscow Café which opened in 1932 and featured flaming Beef Stroganoff and Cossacks balancing flaming swords. A few Russian restaurants could also be found in Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven CT, and Miami in the 1930s.

The dishes introduced by White Russian restaurants included not only Beef Stroganoff, but also Blini with Caviar and Nesselrode Pudding. Although their menus might list Borscht, Darra Goldstein points out in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink that this humble Ukrainian beet soup was brought by Russian Jews who had immigrated earlier.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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