Tag Archives: restaurant cuisine

With haute cuisine for all: Longchamps

Staked by his brother-in-law, gambler Arnold Rothstein, Henry Lustig expanded from the wholesale produce business into restaurants in 1919. His first location, at 78th and Madison Avenue, was a property that belonged to Arnold. By 1924 he had two more restaurants, one conveniently near Saks Fifth Avenue. An advertisement informed “Madame or Mademoiselle” that at Longchamps they would find light French dishes as well as “soothing quiet, faultless service and a typically ‘Continental’ cuisine” that was above average “yet … not expensive.” While not exactly cheap, Longchamps was considered easily affordable by the middle-class.

The chain continued to grow rapidly after the repeal of Prohibition when it hired top modernist decorators and architects to give it ultra-sophisticated chic. With the assistance of German-born artist and designer Winold Reiss and architects Louis Allen Abramson and Ely Jacques Kahn, New York City gained some of its most glamorous restaurant interiors of the period. Reiss showed considerable talent in disguising irregular spaces with mirrors and murals, multiple levels, dramatic lighting, and flashy staircases that lured people cheerfully downward to dine below ground (see his interior sketch and menu cover below). From 1935 to 1940 Longchamps opened seven new restaurants, including two on Broadway, one at Lexington and 42nd Street, and one in the Empire State Building.

Cocktail bars were no small part of the slick 1930s Longchamps formula. The chain’s ninth unit at Madison and 59th Street, a site vacated by Reuben’s, had a long oval bar stationed above floor level in the middle of the dining room. With 50 bartenders staffing the bar, the restaurant itself seated 950 diners. When it opened in 1935 a Longchamps advertisement immodestly called it “The Outstanding Restaurant Creation of the Century.” Architectural critic Lewis Mumford found its red, black, gold, and yellow color scheme — carried out even on chair backs and table tops — overdone, but he sensed that his was a minority opinion and he was almost certainly right. Among others, it soon became a meeting place for James Beard and his old friends from Oregon.

During the war Longchamps’ did a booming business. Lustig, it turned out, was siphoning off cash as fast as he could and keeping two sets of books, one for him and one for the IRS. Keep in mind that he owned racehorses and had named his restaurants after a famous Paris racetrack. The game was up in 1946 when he was handed a bill for delinquent taxes and fines of more than $10M and sentenced to four years in federal prison. Nine restaurants, along with a good stock of wine (the Times Square unit alone was said to have 120,000 bottles in the cellar), miscellaneous pieces of Manhattan real estate, and the chain’s bakery, catering business, ice cream plant, candy factory, and commissary, then passed into the hands of a syndicate which owned the Exchange Buffet.

In 1952 a Longchamps was opened in Washington, D.C., becoming one of the few downtown restaurants in that city that served Afro-American patrons. About this time another Longchamps opened in the Claridge apartments on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. In 1959 the chain was acquired by Jan Mitchell, owner since 1950 of the old Lüchow’s. He revealed that the chain, which consisted of twelve red and gold restaurants, a poorly trained kitchen staff, and a diminishing patronage, had been losing money for the past five years but that he could revive it as he had done with Lüchow’s. Under his ownership the New York units began offering guests the dietary concoction Metracal in their cocktail lounges, as well as free glasses of wine and corn on the cob with their meal. After a couple of years the chain was in the black.

In 1967 Mitchell sold it to the Riese brothers, who owned the Childs restaurants and were in the process of buying up classic New York restaurants – Cavanagh’s in 1968, Lüchow’s in 1969, and others. In 1969 the old Longchamps were mostly turned into steakhouse theme restaurants. The restaurant at Madison and 59th, though, was renamed the Orangerie, dedicated to “hedonistic New Yorkers,” and given a “festive mood of Monte Carlo.” Its $8.75 prix fixe dinner came with free wine, “Unique La ‘Tall’ Salade,” and after-dinner coffee with Grand Marnier. In 1971 a single Longchamps operated under that name, at Third Avenue and 65th Street, but I doubt it had anything in common with the classic Longchamps of the 1930s. The holding company “Longchamps, Inc.” vanished in 1975.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

4 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

The saga of Alice’s restaurants

alicesbook21A 1965 Thanksgiving dinner at the former church where Alice Brock and her husband Ray lived inspired Arlo Guthrie’s ballad of his arrest and subsequent draft board rejection for illegally disposing of trash. But “Alice’s Restaurant” also created vibrations so strong they imbued Alice’s whole career as a restaurant proprietor. Although she enjoyed a degree of success, her career was also filled with disappointments such as a nationwide chain of Alice’s Restaurants and a TV show (Cookin’ with Alice) that did not materialize.

In April 1966 she opened the first of her three restaurants, The Back Room, in an old luncheonette in Stockbridge which Alice described as “painted two-tone institutional green, and … definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own.” Alice ran it for one year before she “freaked out” and closed it. In her book My Life as a Restaurant, she declares, “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant.” Not so – she would have two more.

After a year as consultant on the Arthur Penn movie built around Guthrie’s song, Alice decided to try again. But now she was a counterculture celebrity, portrayed in the film as a “dope-taking, free-loving woman,” a depiction which she insisted was false but which would bedevil her relations with town authorities whose approval she needed to open or expand a restaurant.

alicejokingcroppedShe would tussle with the town of Stockbridge throughout the four years she operated her second restaurant, “Alice’s.” Located in a semi-ramshackle former liquor store on Route 183, it began in the summer of 1972 as a roadside stand called “Take Out Alice.” Partly because of her celebrity and partly because she provided superior roadside fare – sushi, borscht, salmon mousse, and cream cheese & walnuts on homemade bread – she attracted volumes of summer visitors.

The next year she was granted permission to add a small dining room, but further expansion requests were denied, leading her to move the restaurant to Lenox, near Tanglewood, in 1976. In 1979 she closed Alice at Avaloch, the Lenox restaurant-plus-motel, after difficulties with the property’s sewage system and other adversities, permanently ending her restaurant career.

In interviews and in her two books Alice espoused the value of fresh ingredients, garlic, meals with friends, and an experimental approach to cooking. Her words convey a free-wheeling, irreverent outlook. Some examples:
* On cooking: “Hell, you can make a soufflé in a garbage can lid if you want to.”
* On busy nights: “Oh, if only you could just cry and it would be over, but it won’t be over. Crying will come to nothing but wasted time, and you could cry forever, but this night is existing, the dining room is filling, the orders … are lining up on their clothespins.”
* On her Lenox restaurant: “We still serve everyone from schlumps to snobs.”
* On being a restaurateur: “Crazy, the restaurant has become my life, there is no life outside it, only in relation to it.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

6 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Famous in its day: Maillard’s

maillard5thave206Henri Maillard came to New York City from France in the 1840s bringing with him a bit of Paris represented in the pots and pans and fancy moulds he used as a chocolatier. It wasn’t long before he added a catering department to his confectionery at Broadway and Houston. He let the public know he was ready to produce meringues, Charlotte Russes, jellies and ice creams for balls and parties, as well as provide dinners by reservation on his premises. His fame spread beyond New York, leading him to cater an inaugural ball and grand dinners at the Lincoln White House. In 1878 he took the gold medal at the Paris Universal Exposition at which he exhibited solid chocolate statues and vases weighing from 100 to 180 pounds each and a catalog of 3,000 candies.

maillardmarshmallows209When he died in 1900 at age 84, his estate was valued at $2 million, a vast fortune at that time. His son Henry Maillard Jr. continued the business, moving the fashionable restaurant and candy store in 1908 from the lower level of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, its home since the early 1870s, to more luxurious quarters at Fifth Avenue and 35th street (pictured). By this time Maillard’s had long enjoyed a reputation as the premier restaurant of society women. Billing itself as “An Ideal Luncheon Restaurant for Ladies,” it also offered afternoon tea from 3 to 6 p.m. In 1913 Maillard’s opened a branch in Stern’s Department Store.

maillardext207In 1922 Maillard’s made another move, this time to Madison Avenue at 47th street. At this address it added something new, a dining room for men with its own entrance separate from the larger women’s dining room. It was undoubtedly this location which attracted the patronage of James Beard, who would later write, “In the ‘twenties in New York, you’d have a good cup of Maillard hot chocolate and a chicken sandwich for 75 cents and you thought you were whirling through the world.” In the 1920s there was also a Maillard’s restaurant and store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago where patrons lunched on delicate sandwiches of cream cheese and white cherries.

During the Depression Maillard’s failed. The Chicago location was taken over by the Fred Harvey corporation as its first non-railroad restaurant, while a syndicate took over the New York location and the Maillard’s name. Although Maillard’s candy was produced until the 1960s or later, the restaurant at Madison and 47th, which advertised mundane economy lunches of corned beef, veal cutlets, and chopped ham sandwiches during the 1930s, closed in 1942.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

13 Comments

Filed under food, restaurants

Bar-B-Q, barbecue, barbeque

columbusga1940

Through most of American history the principal reason for barbecues was political campaigning. These outdoor events were characterized by huge crowds who feasted on animals cooked whole, such as pigs, sheep, oxen, and cattle, suspended on poles or laid on grates over charcoal pits dug in the ground. A Democratic Party barbecue in Lexington, Kentucky, in July of 1884 drew 10,000. Eighty-five oxen were roasted along with many sheep, hogs, and chickens. Accompanying dishes included burgoo (stew), “wagon-loads” of bread, and vegetables.

Barbecues were not usually commercial ventures until the 20th century, yet they were not entirely unknown among earlier caterers. A Tea and Coffee House in outlying Boston in 1769 offered to host barbecues for groups, “either Turtle or Pigg.” Also, occasionally in the 19th century a barbecued rabbit or such would show up on a hotel menu, particularly in the South. And toward the end of the 1800s barbecue stands, like hamburger stands, were likely to appear at fairs and other outdoor festivities.

PigSTand#2DallasAlthough barbecue remains a relative rarity in Eastern restaurants up to this day, it began to show up at roadside stands elsewhere in the country not long after the turn of the century. Stands grew popular in the 1920s, probably because they were often located on cheap real estate at the edge of town where they were ideal for a pleasure drive at a time when many Americans were acquiring cars. The Pig Stand, often cited as America’s first curb service drive-in, started in Dallas in 1921 on the Dallas-Fort Worth highway. Memphis also built a strong reputation for barbecue restaurants — Leonard’s began in the 1920s while The Shanty Inn started later but both were known for barbecue cooked in a smoke oven. Yet barbecue was not only a product of the South. Barbecue shacks, shanties, and stands could be found, for instance, in Missouri, Kansas, Arizona, California, and Utah, particularly in the 1930s when the “roadside eats” business lured people looking for ways to make a living. Detroit became a barbecue mecca during World War II when Southern blacks moved North to work in the auto industry.

Despite the success of Pig Stands and Loves’ Wood Pit Barbecue (begun in Los Angeles in 1948), barbecue has not had a strong profile among nationwide restaurant chains. Maybe for this reason, along with regional variations in sauces and cooking methods, it is a favorite with fans of down-home “roadfood.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

Leave a comment

Filed under food, restaurants

Basic fare: hamburgers

The hamburger sandwich got its start in the 1890s, probably in venues such as the night lunch wagons which were forerunners of diners. Before that, hamburger steaks (without bread) were mainly found in eating places patronized by German immigrants. Hamburger or “Hamburg” steaks were typically made of ground beef and minced onion and served with a sauce. They were such a menu staple that around 1900 black waiters in Chicago’s noisy lunch rooms created the hand signal shown here to convey orders to the kitchen. It may be a variation on the signal for “small steak” in which the fingers were raised as if taking an oath.

As a sandwich, the hamburger, of course, was designed to be eaten with the hands. It was a specialty of the horse-pulled lunch wagons which appeared in Chicago at the time of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Lacking inside seating, their customers, often nightshift workers, either took food away to eat elsewhere or consumed it standing in the street. For convenience, lunch wagons prepared every order between bread, whether it was pork chops, pigs’ feet, or eggs.

Although it provided sustenance for many, hamburger was not always considered fit food for discriminating people. It was often made from butchers’ scraps which were dosed with preservatives ranging from sulfites to formaldehyde before grinding. Doctors denounced it and in 1920 the Navy stopped buying it due to food safety concerns. All in all, hamburger’s associations with lowly lunch wagons, immigrants, the working class, spoiled meat and additives — and the smells of grease and onions — stigmatized it.

Yet somehow the hamburger on a bun survived all the attacks against it. By the late 1920s it was hailed as “the most characteristic American dish.” Because it was a thrifty meal, the depression helped build its popularity. When a junior high school cafeteria in Cleveland’s Shaker Heights banned hamburgers in 1936, because “the type of young people in the Shaker Heights school are of a class that should be served a higher type of food,” the action met with negative publicity and charges of elitism.

By the mid-1950s, when suburban hamburger chains began to spread, hamburger was the “king of beef,” making inroads into New England, where roadside stands had long catered to a regional preference for hot dogs, and the South, where barbecue was a favorite. Because ground beef was well-liked, cheap year round, and increasingly available in pre-cooked frozen patties, it became a foundational food for many restaurants.

In marketing the hamburger, proprietors have usually embraced or at least referenced its democratic unpretentiousness. In the 1920s this took the form of calling eateries shacks, hamlets, or, humorously, “castles,” while today it is evident in price appeals and representations of solidarity among diverse populations. Unless they attack on health grounds, critics of the hamburger risk being seen as culinary snobs.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

Leave a comment

Filed under food, restaurants

Mary Elizabeth’s, a New York institution

Mary Elizabeth Evans, for whom the landmark tea room was named, began her career in 1900 at age 15 as a small grocer and candymaker in Syracuse. After one year in business she cleared the then-handsome sum of $1,000 which she contributed to the support of her family while supervising a growing crew of helpers which included her two younger sisters who served as clerks and her brother who made deliveries.

Her family, though in seriously reduced circumstances, had valuable social connections. Her late grandfather had been a judge, her uncle an actor, and her departed father a music professor. That may help explain how she achieved success so rapidly – and why her story garnered so much publicity. By 1904 several elite NYC clubs and hotels sold her candy and soon thereafter it was for sale at summer resorts such as Asbury Park and Newport and in stores as far away as Chicago and Grand Rapids. In 1913 the all-women Mary Elizabeth company, which included her mother and sisters Martha and Fanny, was prosperous enough to sign a 21-year lease totaling nearly $1 million for a prestigious Fifth Avenue address close to Altman’s, Best & Co., Lord & Taylor, and Franklin-Simon’s.

By the early teens the candy store had expanded into a charming tea room with branches in Newport and two in Boston, one on Temple Street and the other in the basement of the Park Street Church near the Boston Common (pictured ca. 1916). Like other popular tea rooms of the era, Mary Elizabeth’s bucked the tide of chain stores and standardized products by emphasizing food preparation from scratch. Known for “real American food served with a deft feminine touch,” Fanny Evans said the tea rooms catered to women’s tastes in “fancy, unusual salads,” “delicious home-made cakes,” and dishes such as “creamed chicken, sweetbreads, croquettes, timbales and patties.” For many decades, the NYC Mary Elizabeth’s was known especially for its crullers (long twisted doughnuts).

Mary Elizabeth distinguished herself as a patriot during the First World War by producing a food-conservation cookbook of meatless, wheatless, and sugarless recipes, and by volunteering to help the Red Cross develop diet kitchens in France. After her marriage to a wealthy Rhode Island businessman in 1920 she apparently played a reduced management role in the business.

In its later years the NYC restaurant passed out of the family’s hands and began to decline, culminating in an ignominious Health Department citation in 1985.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

43 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants

Fast food: one-arm joints

The wooden one-arm chair was a characteristic feature of the “quick lunch” type of eating place which became the popular choice for businessmen around the turn of the last century. The chairs were unattractive and uncomfortable as the cartoon below depicts. But considering that prior to their introduction patrons seeking a speedy lunch often ate while standing at a counter, they offered relative luxury. Solitary seating made sense in a café where businesspeople usually came in alone and spent little more than 10 or 15 minutes at their meal before rushing back to the office or store. (Later, in fact, more attractive one-arm chairs were used in Lord & Taylor Bird Cage restaurants.)

As is true of the fast food restaurants of today, one function of uncomfortable seats in the quick lunch eatery was to discourage lingering. These restaurants were usually shoe-horned into tight quarters in high-traffic, high-rent business centers, so it was paramount that each chair turned customers rapidly. The one-arm chair was patented by a Vermonter named James Whitcomb who designed fixtures for the Baltimore Dairy Lunch and also manufactured portable typewriters.

The core cuisine of the one-arms, and quick lunches in general, consisted of coffee and pie, supplemented by sandwiches and doughnuts. Some of the big one-arm concerns were the Chicago-based companies of John R. Thompson and Charles Weeghman, and the Baltimore Lunch and the Waldorf System, both of which originated in Springfield MA. The companies eventually broadened their menus to include hot dishes, supplying their locations in each city from central commissaries. Though the chains kept prices low, Waldorf prided itself on grating lemons for lemon pies and avoiding manufactured pie fillings, powered milk, dried eggs and other cost-cutting ingredients developed for the military in World War I and widely used by chains in the 1920s.

Under the intense competition of the late 1920s and the depression, the Lunches replaced their one-arm chairs with tables and chairs and abandoned their utilitarian decor in favor of more colorful interiors in hopes of attracting more women.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

15 Comments

Filed under restaurants