Joel Rinaldo’s was one of the all-night eating and drinking places that thrived around Times Square in New York before the First World War. “Refreshery” was an unusual term that probably related more to drinking than to eating since saloon owners often referred to their offerings as “refreshments.”
Exactly when Joel’s opened is unclear but chances are it was in the late 1890s. The real estate parcel at 206 West 41st Street that became Joel’s was part of his father’s estate when he died in 1895.
Looking at these 1910-ish postcards of Joel’s you might be misled into thinking it was an elegant after-theatre spot. It attracted all kinds of late-night visitors but was mainly famous as a hangout for musicians, artists, writers, heavy drinkers, “hop-heads,” and Mexican revolutionaries. In 1910 the restaurant was the headquarters of the Mexican Liberal Party opposed to the presidency of General Porfirio Diaz. The short story writer O. Henry was a regular also, though he may have spent more time drinking in the first-floor bar than eating in the café on the second floor. It is likely that El Refugio, a café described in O. Henry’s short story “The Gold That Glittered,” was based on Joel’s.
One of the most popular dishes at Joel’s was chili con carne, a dish not easily found in New York in the early 20th century. He also served tamales and “frijoles colorado.” In addition to Mexican dishes, Joel concocted a drink that became famous – or, more likely, notorious — called a Blue Moon. Only one to a customer but that was enough reportedly to “keep the patron pleasantly mellow the rest of the evening.”
Joel’s walls were filled with drawings, which can be seen on in the image above. Some were by caricaturist Carlo de Fornaro who spent time in jail after being successfully sued by a Mexican official in NY courts for libelous statements Fornaro made in his book, Diaz, Czar of Mexico. Joel, born in NYC around 1870, also had intellectual ambitions, was attracted to psychology and philosophy, and wrote an obscure treatise against Darwin’s account of evolution called Rinaldo’s Polygeneric Theory.
Joel took a paternalistic role toward many of his patrons, keeping prices low and announcing on a gilt sign that touring actors and musicians (he was near the Metropolitan Opera House) could send him their money and he would keep it safe for them. It is said that many took him up on the offer. Perhaps his motive for keeping a bank was to insure that eventually he would get paid, to offset all the bad checks he took from his erratic patrons.
The interesting thing about bohemian places like Joel’s was how they loosened up a middle class still under the spell of Victorian correctness. After a few hours in a heady atmosphere like this and they’d be talking to strangers (without even being introduced!), singing out loud, and ordering drinks all around.
Joel’s closed in 1925, a casualty of Prohibition.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008