Swingin’ at Maxwell’s Plum

In 1965 impresario Warner LeRoy, son of Hollywood producer Mervyn LeRoy (Wizard of Oz, Mr. Roberts, Quo Vadis), opened Maxwell’s Plum as part of his theater on First Avenue and 64th Street in NYC. Hamburgers and a good wine list made it a hit with the swinging singles who crowded into the café. It was so popular that a few years later he closed the theater and expanded the café, adding a luxurious dining room with a Tiffany glass ceiling that reminded some of Maxim’s in Paris. Patrons could choose to experience Maxwell’s Plum either as a singles’ bar, a boulevard café (pictured), or a grand restaurant which, as a bonus, provided a fine view of the bar scene located on a lower level.

After a 1969 expansion the Plum seated about 250 and produced 1,000 to 1,500 meals a day. It rapidly ascended to the ranks of the city’s biggest grossing restaurants, taking in well over $5 million in the mid 1970s, with a big chunk — more than a third — from alcohol sales.

With offerings ranging from burgers to wild boar, the restaurant enjoyed excellent reviews, winning four stars from NY Times reviewers Craig Claiborne and John Canaday. For a riotously overdecorated Art Nouveau/Deco/Etc. pleasure palace, the Plum provided far better cuisine than it needed to. In the egalitarian spirit of the later 1960s and 1970s, many diners appreciated that its good food was uncoupled from the snobbery then associated with New York’s top restaurants. Canaday hailed the Plum for delivering first-class service “whether you were known or not,” while he stripped stars from La Côte Basque and La Grenouille because of the “disparity in their treatment of favorite (usually fashionable) customers and unknowns.” LeRoy claimed that he didn’t object to patrons looking shaggy, adding, “And if they don’t want to eat fancy food, they can have a hamburger. Whatever.” James Beard declared that he enjoyed hamburgers as much as paté en croute and decided to feature the Plum’s chili recipe for one of his 1973 columns.

LeRoy’s expansions were funded by Hardwicke Companies which ran resorts, wild animal parks, duty-free border shops, and Benihana restaurants. Hardwicke also financed LeRoy’s acquisition of the even-bigger-grossing Tavern on the Green, a failed San Francisco version of Plum (below), and a short-lived 900-seater in DC called Potomac. Hardwicke, under the control of a former Sara Lee exec, came under suspicion for influence buying in its efforts to get a gambling license for its Atlantic City Ritz Hotel. LeRoy broke with Hardwicke in the 1980s, blaming them for the failure of the San Francisco Plum.

New York’s Plum did not survive the 80s. Due to changing tastes and weak reviews that a succession of chefs could not remedy, LeRoy closed it in 1988, announcing that he wasn’t having fun anymore. He sold the First Avenue building for a nifty sum, while Donald Trump plunked down $28K for one of its Tiffany glass windows. At the same auction, the Tribeca Grill acquired the Plum’s large island bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

35 Comments

Filed under Offbeat places, proprietors & careers

35 responses to “Swingin’ at Maxwell’s Plum

  1. Pingback: The Death of Flair: As Friday’s Goes Minimalist, What Happens to the Antiques? | Collectors Weekly

  2. While on furlough from Pan Am Airlines, I worked as a café waitress and for a time upstairs in the offices for math both plum for years. Robin Collins was one of the managers there, as well as many other impressionable coworkers such as FiFi, Mall, and so many others with whom I worked. The furlough with Pan Am lasted for quite a while, so I worked at the restaurant for about a year and a half. I learned to make some wonderful dishes there especially under chef Daniel Fouche.
    I would occasionally make suggestions to the kitchen about new ideas for dishes up the restaurant. For example, I suggested many times and requested that they prepare the old dishes with chicken instead of deal. They were love to do this but with sometimes acquiesce, and these included recipes for chicken pic atty, marsala, etc.at the time (1980 to 81) this was considered sacrilegious. I like to think that I’m going to be early pioneers who made the suggestion. I also made suggestions for a couple of cocktails at the bar. Unfortunately, I recently threw out all my photos from that era of dress up at Halloween etc. We held my brother’s engagement party in the back room and the waiters captains and staff helped to make it the most memorable occasion which my family still talks about.
    I also appreciated working with the expediter named Rocky, who is now a podiatrist I fully in New York. I think his last name was Positano. I still have my introductory guidebook for new employees! I still make the hot chicken salad and do remember celebrity guests such as Ethel Merman, Rock Hudson and many others. I was known for slipping on black ice repeatedly during the wintertime and others at the restaurant would watch me as I walked down first toward 64th from my apartment being that I am from California and never could get the hang of walking on my icy sidewalks. I have many fond memories of my former coworkers and excellent Caesar salad I learned to prepare along with many other wonderful dishes which I learned to make during my time there.

  3. Kathy Kelly

    I was 17 and working in Hastings on Hudson as a nanny the summer of ’71. Just a young Minnesota girl with HUGE dreams. Maxwell’s Plum was one of the first spots I made it a point to go on my first “day off” and I have never forgotten it. Went for happy hour and free hors d’oeuvres. I had never been to a bar before and did not want to look conspicuously ignorant so ordered something I heard my dad order: bourbon and water. It was tolerable and allowed me the luxury of just taking it all in! Of course I went back time and again never once being carded. Thank you Mr. Leroy and team!

    • Thank you for the delightful memory.

    • typo…Robin Hollis. Maitre d’s Kazem, Werner and I, Paula K. ShimatsuU. fave bartender, Adam. Other Cafe waitstaff, Jeff, Laura, Marcy, JLil. Back Room, Neal. that is all i remember,
      My favorite customer was despised by the others. They detested waiting on him because he would only tip one dollar. I volunteered to wait on him and his guest. After awhile he finally explained, He was one of the Pullman porters, “George,” who only ever got a dollar. Because I treated them as other guests, kindly, professionally, he wanted me to know it was the only time he had ever tipped more than one dollar. This is still a favorte and meaningful memory for me, especially after just having seen “100 Georges.”

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  5. Frank Sweeney

    Maxwell’s… Brings back memories. My name’s Frank Sweeney. I was the “night manager” there, oh, about ’65,or ’66. The day manager, the brains behind running the store’s finances, was Dick Aimsberry, a former R.A. food and beverage guy. My title was actually Night Manager, which meant I wore a suit, and generally was just a presence of authority there. I took the job after working as a waiter at the Village Gate, and although I was only looking for another waiter’s position, my interview turned into something different. The manager at that time was a big handsome guy named Ron Randell, if I remember correctly. As it turned out, in my favor, he was off to South America to open a restaurant for someone with a lot of money. His proposal was “Frank, you’re the right guy to take over as manager here, but, if I don’t succeed in South America, I’m going to take my job back. So, I became the new manager at Maxwell’s. I remember what it was like “pre” expansion, when the place was only about thirty feet wide, with all of the tables facing out onto 64th Street. That position, being boss of the most sought after place for NYC singles, was one of the most fun things ever. In the later years, I resigned as manager, and requested a position as bartender, because the bartenders made ten times what I did, has more fun, and drank as much as they wanted. I’ve read all of the posts here, clearly of those who came to Maxwell’s long after me, and can relate to what it was like to work there< although I didn't know any of those posters. I left Maxwell's after there was a fight between myself and a customer with an attitude. I was closing the bar after a long weekend night pouring booze, and this idiot decided it was a good idea to be a "tough guy" despite the fact that there were at least twenty guys still on duty, or just hanging around, that would side with me. In any case, Warner had no choice but to fire me, under pressure from the guy who started the ruckus. Seems he was a spoiled kid from the suburbs, like Greenwich, CT, and had more money than brains. I remember the guys I worked with, and had a lot of good times, rarely seeing daylight for the entire time I was there. I'm 66 now, and still tell others with pride "I managed Maxwell's — and they were some of my life's best years." To all of you who frequented the place, and lived the life of a NY Single, I thank you for providing me with the venue for one of the best times in my life. I remember Bartenders — Johnny Vacarro, John Reynolds, and Dennis. And I recall waiters — Heinz, Joe Martin, Carlos, and dozens of others — names I can't recall these days. Maxwell's may be long gone, But it will never be gone for me. Thanks for the memories.

  6. Anonymous

    Does anyone remember the daquaris? My favorite place to go on a Friday or Sunday night. (1969-70). Also loved Mike Malkin’s, Friday’s, and the Sugarman. But MP had the best drinks and ambiance.

  7. Róisín

    Friends own a pub and we brainstormed what they could do to increase profit. I lived in New York in the early ’80s and just LOVED Maxwell’s Plum — I suggested a MP style brunch on sat and sun!! They’re costing it with a view to running with it. I’ve loads of fab photos from the wonderful M’sP……X

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  9. Snootlaroon

    I never worked there but I went there many, many times and each time it just got better. I started going there as a child and thought it was the most beautiful place I was ever in!!! The people were great & the food was great too. I also went there for my graduation in 1981 from Wagner junior high school my mom took me and 3 friends and my friends grandmother. We had the best time. This article brought me back to such great memories!! THANK YOU!!

  10. Please facebook me–chuck brotstein, I bartended at Maxwells Plum from 1986-to the ugly end. One of my best bartending jobs, along with my days at Regines as well.

  11. Will no one pay homage to the original Maxwell’s Plum? It was a tiny strip bar on the Northwest corner of 64th & 1st Ave; no food, just throngs of horny singles every weekend from every corner of greater NY, NJ, LI and CT. It was where Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow met in the 1969 Movie “John and Mary”. I remember because the film company took over Maxwell’s for a few days and I was like a fish out of water.
    As I recall, the movie theater next door went out of business and Maxwell’s expanded into the iconic and outrageous gathering place that we all remember with such fondness.
    Sunday morning brunch about noon, a Bloody Mary, Eggs Benedict, fresh strawberries for desert, the New York Times and First Avenue; it’s where this Iowa native learned to be a New Yorker.

    • Hi Walter —

      Actually, it was the York Theater, where my father, Warner LeRoy, produced plays. The theater came with a sidewalk cafe, and you’re right, it was expanded into the larger, well-known Maxwell’s when dad broke through the wall. He owned both properties.

      The sidewalk cafe always had food, but a somewhat limited menu (I have one of the originals). The menu expanded when the space did.

      Glad to hear your fond (horny) memories!!! 🙂

      Bridget LeRoy

  12. Thanks, I was missing my Dad today. You never know what you’ll find on google! Great blog, by the way.
    Best,
    Bridget Warner LeRoy

    • Thanks! And you might like to know this is one of the most popular of all my posts.

    • Balbina

      We bought the ceilings.

    • Hi
      I was a Waiter then Captain at Maxwell’s in the late ’70s. I remember your Dad coming in, looking around, and sighing that the interiors were “never finished.” I went on to the Tavern for a short while.

      Do you by any chance know the names of the Maitre D’s at Maxwell’s during my time? I think one was Austrian perhaps another decidedly British.

      When Captain one of “my” waiters was Arnold Wilkerson who left and founded the famous Little Pie Company and the equally famous sour-cream apple walnut pie. He used to introduce me as his “boss” at Maxwell’s. We both live on 43rd Street and I see him almost every day.

      I remember a barkeep called Adam Honigman. I remember hearing that Donald trump bought the Tiffany ceiling. I am now a member of The Players in Gramercy Park. Louis Comfort Tiffany was a member 100 years before I was Captain at Maxwell’s.

      All best to you and your family. Working at The Plum is one of my most treasured memories.
      John Camera

  13. tooslow

    i worked at maxwell’s as an assistant bookkeeper, with lydia brady, sometime in the very late sixties, i should say… i parked my motorcycle on the sidewalk. part of my job was putting off suppliers (“yes, we’ll send out a check”), which i hated… but they carte blanche fed me lunch at maxwell’s; dear god… the food was astounding. Warner gave me his film developing room to use; that was very nice. thank you… and thanks for the memories.

  14. Gary Wright

    Thanks for this article. I have lived on 64th/First Ave. since 1983 & miss the glamour of what MP brought to my corner. Cool knowing that it had previously been a Cinema. It’s now just a boring Duane Reade on the ground floor of a high rise apt. complex. Before that, in its spot was a 2 story Blockbuster. I am not a bar goer but ate there a few times including my 1st steak tartare.

  15. I BARTENDED FROM 1986-1988, AND LOVED EVERY MOMENT OF IT. I WORKED WITH GREAT PEOPLE. PLEASE BE IN TOUCH.
    THANX

  16. Crandal

    Thanks Mike,
    It’s funny I’ve found some of those on the net said: “Close, but that’s not it. ” But I live in hope. Thanks for replying.
    Cheers.
    Crandal.

  17. Crandal

    One of my favorite dishes ever was at Maxwell’s Plum – It was Eggs Portugese and no one seems to remember it . If you do please let me know – Thanks.

    • mike

      Crandal,
      I do remember the Eggs Portugese which I had and loved at the San Francisco branch. As you have probably found out there is no other restaurant with that on the menu. There is salvation if you know your way around the internet and the kitchen. There are recipes and with some keen substitutions like peppridge farms frozen patty shell, knorr sauce mix and canned tomatoes you like myself can enjoy an old favorite!! Good Luck!!

  18. John Kulikowski

    I worked as a waiter at Maxwell’s Plum from 1982-1985, Drew was not a bartender, but rather, the Maitre D’ of “the back room” as different from the Cafe. In reality they had the exact same menu.
    i have many fond memories.

  19. ems

    I believe Drew Nieporent was a bar tender at Maxwell’s Plum, so it makes sense he would buy the bar.

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