Reuben’s: celebrities and sandwiches

Once upon a time there was a famous NYC restaurant called Reuben’s. Today there is a famous grilled sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on pumpernickel called a Reuben. Wouldn’t it make a nice story if the sandwich came from the restaurant?

The connection has been well researched yet it remains unresolved. For anyone who wants to examine the matter in detail, I recommend Jim Rader’s excellent account. He has the last word, inasmuch as there is one.

Two important points. 1) No one has come up with an early menu from Reuben’s that lists the Reuben sandwich as it is known today. It does appear under the name “Reuben’s Pioneer” on a 1971 menu but by then the sandwich could be found everywhere. 2) Despite being a publicity hound – and despite an Omaha woman winning a national contest for creating the sandwich in 1959 — founder Arnold Reuben never laid claim to it as his restaurant’s creation.

What is certain is that the fame of Reuben’s restaurant and delicatessen was built upon sandwiches — and the celebrity patrons who ate them.

I have seen a menu from Reuben’s said to be from 1922. Under the top heading “Reuben’s Famous Sandwiches” are listed 42 sandwiches. Nine are named after celebrities of stage and screen of that time. What is striking about the named sandwiches is that they cost more than the others. At the low end are ordinary sandwiches priced at 35 cents such as Salami, Corned Beef, and Liver Wurst. The special celebrity sandwiches range from 75 cents to a dollar, amounts that would then buy a whole dinner in many restaurants. The specially named sandwiches probably had more ingredients and may have been larger, but the aura of celebrity around them must have added a few cents too.

Naming sandwiches for celebrities was a publicity gimmick probably thought up by a press agent. The columnist Westbook Pegler claimed that Reuben’s initially acquired fame because of publicity generated by the audacious Harry Reichenbach who encouraged Arnold to sue a well-known New Yorker over the price of a ham in 1920. Thereafter, like Lindy’s and the Stork Club, Reuben’s was constantly in the nationally syndicated gossip columns of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

Arnold Reuben was a German Jew who, with his family, immigrated to the US as a young child around 1886. He helped out by peddling produce, then worked at a delicatessen. In 1908 he opened his own deli, which he later referred to as a “shtoonky little store.” By the end of the teens, he was thriving; he had incorporated his Pure Food Shop at 2102 Broadway and opened an eating place at 622 Madison Avenue which was popular with Broadway performers and stars from Hollywood. (Transitions from food store to restaurant are not uncommon and, as was also the case with Texas butcher shops-to-barbecues, often begins with sandwiches.) In 1928 he had a third restaurant in Philadelphia and was said to be “enormously rich.” Adopting the slogan “From a Sandwich to a National Institution,” he often told a story about the first celebrity sandwich he created – ham, cheese, turkey, cole slaw, and dressing — for a struggling young actress.

He experienced some financial difficulties in 1933 and filed for bankruptcy but only two years later was back on course with a bigger and better restaurant [pictured] to replace the one on Madison Avenue. Of critical importance to his comeback was the end of Prohibition. His opening announcement in the New York Times attested to this with a prominent display of the names of Reuben’s “friends,” seven liquor manufacturers and distributors.

In 1946 he opened a restaurant on West 57th near Carnegie Hall, with a front nearly identical to East 58th Street. Like his others it was open 24 hours. No doubt it, too, had a doorman who greeted patrons with the bywords “Reuben’s, that’s all.” Larger than the East 58th place, it was billed “A City in Itself,” and contained shops for delicatessen, flowers, chocolates, cigars, and theater tickets, as well as a perfume bar and a barber shop. Despite all, it silently disappeared a couple years later.

Arnold retired to Florida in the mid-1960s and sold the business, which he had turned over to his son to manage years earlier. Reuben’s in NYC continued under new ownership at various locations until 2001. A Reuben’s was also opened in Miami in the 1940s but I have not been able to determine its subsequent fate.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

4 Comments

Filed under food, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

4 responses to “Reuben’s: celebrities and sandwiches

  1. Anonymous

    I lived across the street from Reuben’s Restaurant on 58th St. I ate there often. (1937-55, or so).
    I only heard about Reuben’s Sandwich afterwards, so I doubt that there was a direct connection.
    Nevertheless, the ingredients look like one of Reuben’s early sandwiches; so possibly an admirer named the sandwich to gain from the reflected glory.
    The Restaurant was “the place to be” at midnight any night after theater.

  2. Sean, good story! But a different Reuben? I think Arnold’s off the hook since he didn’t go into business until a year after your great grandfather died.

  3. spectacularlyd

    My great grandfather, James Jefferson Kelly, was a butcher hailed as “The King of Steaks” in the late 1800s. As my grandmother Marie told it, when JJK died a lot of people didn’t make good on their debts. They lived well, with an ice cream factory as well as a large butcher shop in their place in the Rockaways. And a pony. Anyway, one of the men who the family felt cheated them was a tennant in the butcher’s building, a Mr. Reuben, who yes, we were told, invented the sandwich. So growing up we were always reminded that Reuben sandwiches are pretty much the key to the lost riches that could have been ours. (The King of Steaks Steak Sauce story is on SpecD).

  4. Henry Voigt

    Very interesting post Jan. It never ceases to amaze me how easily the history of restaurants slips away, even for a famous place like Reuben’s!

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