Tag Archives: restaurateurs

The Shircliffe menu collection

Arnold ShircliffeAlmostTremontHouseBillofFareArnold Shircliffe spent his life in the catering trade, working in almost every branch of it. He held jobs in railroad dining cars, the Army, hotels, clubs, and restaurants. He began as supervisor of a dining car in 1902, remaining in that occupation for a couple of decades before becoming catering manager of the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. While there he published the Edgewater Beach Hotel Salad Book in 1926. Around 1936 he became manager of the restaurant in Chicago’s Wrigley Building, then known as Grayling’s, a position he held until his death in 1952.

By 1928 he had amassed an impressive collection of cook books that included a first edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in London in 1747. Somewhat later he began to collect menus.

In 1954 Arnold’s son Harold auctioned his father’s collection which by then was vast and focused mainly on antique cook books. It also included what was described in the auction catalog of the Parke-Bernet Galleries in NYC as “the Pride and Joy of His Life,” about 14,000 menus. The catalog has been digitized as part of the Hathi Trust and can be viewed in its entirety.

I have been able to find only two auction records from the sale of the 697 lots in the Shircliffe auction. Mrs. Glasse’s folio-edition book went for $300. The sum is equivalent to several thousand dollars today but it strikes me as very low. Another rarity, William Turner’s A New Boke of the Natures and Properties of All Wines That Are Commonly Used Here in England, published in 1568, brought $500.

GlasseArtofCookery

The menus were grouped in lots numbered 354, 420-422, and 470-473. I find #354 quite fascinating. It is described as a Horn Book Menu made of wood, almost 8 inches tall and 3 inches wide, with a handle and a manuscript menu labeled “The Carte of the Palais Royal Dinner,” presumed to be English from the 19th century. In a 1943 note, Arnold wrote about a horn book he displayed at a culinary exhibit put on by the Societe Culinaire Philanthropique de New York at the Hotel Commodore. He said that horn books were originally worn around children’s waists and used for studying the ABCs, prayers, etc. Then, he wrote, “The model of the horn book or paddle was taken up by the restaurateurs and they used same as a menu – when it was issued to the waiter, his name was placed upon it; this hung from the waiter’s side in many restaurants and the menu was read to the guest. The menu or horn book was charged to the waiter, and when he left the service or was discharged, his name was scratched off and the name of the new waiter placed on same.”

ArnoldShircliffeTheRainbowNYC1838The largest auction lot of menus was #470 which held an estimated 10,000 items, many from 19th-century American hotels. In it was a tavern broadside from 1790 showing the set price for “the best dinner,” but the oldest true bill of fare, from The Rainbow in NYC, was dated 1838.

In another annotation for the exhibition of the Societe Culinaire Philanthropique Arnold explained that the Tremont House in Boston was one of the first to issue written menus. He added, “The earliest hotel menu that I have is dated 1825.” No menu from a date this early appeared in the list of highlighted items in lot #470, however there was a menu from the Tremont House dated August 25, 1844, that was similar to that of May 1844 shown above.

In 1955 Arnold’s son donated 10,000 menus to the New York Historical Society. A short time later the Historical Society put them on display with the bill of fare from The Rainbow included. This leads me to believe that it was lot #470 that Harold Shircliffe donated. The Historical Society’s notes on the Shircliffe Menu Collection say only that “The core of the collection was assembled by Arnold Shircliffe but has been added to since its donation.” I can’t help but wonder if lot #470 had failed to receive any acceptable bids — or any bids at all – and that was the reason for the donation.

The NYHS menu collection is viewable at the Historical Society’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library on a walk-in basis (registration with a photo ID required). An electronic database of what is contained in the collection is available at the library.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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“Hot Cha” and the Kapok Tree

What kind of career might the son of a junk dealer father and a mother who owned a restaurant  end up with?

If he was Richard Baumgardner he would run restaurants raucously decorated with gilded and spray-painted objets d’art — wonderfully kitschy palatial junque bought by the ton in Europe (70 tons of statues in 1966). When his warehouse ran low on statues and urns, he would make plastic replicas with rubber molds.

His customers would find it all enchantingly “different.”

But first, he’d take a detour into the entertainment world as a jazz-era musician and bandleader known as Dick “Hot Cha” Gardner. As an introduction to his restaurant career in 1936, Dick inaugurated the Hot Cha Supper Club in conjunction with his mother Grace’s tea room, the Peter Pan Inn in rural Urbana MD. After she died in the 1940s, Dick took over the Peter Pan and transformed it into a let’s-drive-to-the-country mega-attraction for Washington DC families. In 1958, retired from bandleading, Dick opened his first Kapok Tree Inn in Clearwater FL, on the site of a tree planted in the 1880s.

It’s hard to know how to classify his restaurants. They fall into two of my classifications: 1) the high-volume restaurant, and 2) the curiosity-shop restaurant filled with quaint stuff.

The decor at the Clearwater Kapok Tree was a mix of light fixtures from Paris, chandeliers gathered from the DC Italian Embassy and old theaters in Baltimore and New York City, paneling from a De Medici compound replicated in plastic, and on and on.

Yet for all their madcap faux elegance, Dick’s restaurants followed a rigid formula designed for maximizing profits and minimizing costs. Magically, it worked. Despite ticket windows where customers were required to prepay their dinner tab, a teen-age staff, long waits for tables (in the bar), sticky sweet rum drinks, and limited menus with pedestrian cuisine, customers absolutely adored these zany buses-welcome eateries.

For years diners had just four dinner choices: fried chicken, ham, deep fried shrimp, and steak. When customers sat down at their tables, servers collected their receipts, knowing immediately by the prices what they had ordered. A complete meal included a typical 1950s melange of appetizers which never varied year in and year out, whether in Maryland or Florida — cottage cheese, (sweet) pickled vegetables, muffins, and apple butter. Sides were roast potatoes, peas in mushroom sauce, beets, and hush puppies. Ice cream for dessert and seconds on everything but the entrees. Boxes were provided for leftovers and the complimentary tall cocktail glasses. Few left empty-handed.

The Kapok Tree Inns prospered with the Pinellas County boom of the early 1970s. By 1978, two years after Dick died, there were three Kapok Tree Inns, in Clearwater, Madeira Beach, and Daytona Beach. The first remained the largest, seating at least 1,700. On really busy days upwards of 5,000 meals were served there.

Controlling interest in the Kapok Tree corporation, which also included the Peter Pan Inn and a couple of Baumgardner’s Restaurants in Florida, passed to Dick’s widow, a former waitress at the original Clearwater restaurant, who had largely been running the operation since he had a stroke in 1970. A year after his death, she told a reporter that hers was the most profitable publicly-held restaurant chain in the nation. The Daytona Beach Kapok Tree closed  in 1981, and the Clearwater restaurant closed ten years later.

I wonder what happened to all the wacky furnishings?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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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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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Dario Toffenetti

Who would predict that a boy growing up in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1890s would make his fortune by selling Idaho baked potatoes? But that’s exactly what Dario Louis Toffenetti did. Born in 1889, he came to the U.S. in 1910, allegedly after being recruited to peddle ice cream from a cart in Cincinnati. Disillusioned with that project, he soon traveled westward, selling baked potatoes at a Wisconsin mining camp, then becoming a bus boy at the dining room of Chicago’s Sherman House. In 1914 he opened his first restaurant in Chicago.

He was ambitious and would quickly develop into a canny marketer. In 1916 he enrolled in night school at Northwestern University’s School of Commerce. In 1921 he opened his second restaurant, on S. Clark. At a time when advertising, marketing, and public relations were making giant leaps forward, he was quick to implement the latest tactics. He advertised heavily and “named” the food sold in his restaurants. When he promoted ham, it was not generic ham but “Roast Sugar Cured Ham” from packer Oscar Mayer. (“It’s no wonder these Ham Sandwiches make your mouth water! Oscar Mayer’s ‘Unusually Good’ Approved Hams are used.”) By 1937 he had six restaurants in the Chicago Loop under the name Toffenetti-Triangle.

TriangleAd32According to accounts, “D. L.” wrote his own colorful advertising copy, such as, “These hams are cut from healthy young hogs grown in the sunshine on beautifully rolling Wisconsin farms where corn, barley, milk and acorns are unstintingly fed to them, producing that silken meat so rich in wonderful flavor.” Equally over the top was his copy for Idaho baked potatoes, with references to a “bulging beauty, grown in the ashes of extinct volcanoes, scrubbed and washed, then baked in a whirlwind of tempestuous fire until the shell crackles with brittleness…” Customers who had not previously eaten baked potatoes soon learned to ask for “an Idaho.” Another heavily promoted dish, “Old Fashioned Louisiana Strawberry Shortcake,” was “topped with pure, velvety whipped cream like puffs of snow.”

To build trust with an always-skeptical public, he featured himself in his ads (bald head and all), often adding his signature. In a 1930s Depression advertisement (pictured), he pledged to keep prices low without reducing quality. When Prohibition ended, he announced that he would serve beer, but not “in any fashion that might offend our most fastidious women patrons.”

ToffenettiNYC1942Another factor in his success was winning catering contracts at two world’s fairs, Chicago in 1933 and New York in 1939-40. Following the NY fair he outbid Louis B. Mayer for an immensely valuable piece of Times Square real estate on the corner of 43rd and Broadway. He hired Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a two-story, glass-fronted moderne building (pictured), outfitted with an escalator and a show-off gleaming stainless steel kitchen. The restaurant served 8,500 meals on opening day.

Dario was president of the Chicago Restaurant Association for seven terms (1936-1943). After his death in 1962, the business was conducted by other Toffenetti family members until about 1980. The Times Square restaurant closed in 1968.

Unlike many other immigrant restaurant operators who were characterized (often unfairly) as running “holes in the wall,” Dario Toffenetti was celebrated by the organized restaurant industry as a model progressive restaurateur.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Catering to the rich and famous

colony1945What a pain the rich can be. That’s the message you’ll take away if perchance you pick up The Colony Cookbook by Gene Cavallero Jr. and Ted James, published in 1972. The dedication page is plaintively inscribed by Gene, “To my father and all suffering restaurateurs.” Chapter 3 details what caused the suffering, namely the privileged customers who imposed upon him and his father in so many ways. They stole peppermills, left behind ermine coats, false teeth, and glass eyes, asked for help getting through customs, requested restaurant staff to chauffeur their children – even called for reservations at other restaurants.

The Colony was the kind of place where terrible things could happen such as – oh god! – countesses and rich men’s wives showing up in the same designer gown. Thankfully they were so well bred that instead of pouting or running home to change they bravely stuck out the evening and even managed a smile as they picked at their truffled Salade à l’Italienne and Chicken Gismonda. Over the Colony’s 50 years all the big names from society, politics, entertainment, and royalty patronized it – Kennedy, Onassis, Capote, Dukes and dukes, Roosevelts, Biddles, Lodges, Cabots, and so on. It was referred to as a “boarding house for the rich” because some patrons were there so often. One woman sat in the same banquette and ate the same lunch nearly every day for over 40 years. Yes, she was an heiress. About 85% of the Colony’s customers signed a tab and received a monthly bill.

TheColonyThe Colony opened in 1919, at Madison Ave. and 61st Street. Three years later headwaiters Gene Cavallero Sr. (pictured slicing cheddar for the toffs) and Ernest Cerutti joined with its chef to buy it from its founder, legendary impresario and restaurateur Joe Pani. Pani also ran the Woodmansten Inn on Pelham Parkway where he introduced the world to then-dancer Rudolph Valentino. At the same time Pani managed Castles-by-the-Sea, a Long Island resort featuring the dancing Castles, Irene and Vernon.

According to the official story as told in Gene Cavallero Jr.’s book and just about every other account, the restaurant achieved status shortly after the new owners took over and upgraded it from a drinking hole for “two-bit gamblers.” Then capital-S Society, represented by the W. K. Vanderbilts, latched onto it and made it their headquarters. In fact “the 400″ had already been entertaining there while it was under Pani’s ownership. Gene Jr.’s book implies that Pani did not appreciate fine food but, given that Pani had European restaurant training and his own farm which supplied chickens and vegetables, this may have been an exaggeration. Both Pani and Cavallero claimed to have been the first to serve broccoli to New York’s dining public.

Like so many of its regulars, the Colony had slipped into senescence by the time it closed at the end of 1971. Restaurant critic Gael Greene was shocked to find how “tarnished” it was when she visited it about a year earlier (“how shabby and mundane are the haunts of the very, very rich, and how often undemanding their lamb-chop and tapioca palates”). And yet its faithful clientele didn’t seem to care. Truman Capote cried when it closed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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