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.”

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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