Dining on a roof

Roof-garden restaurants have had something of a vogue in recent years and may see many more visitors this summer. Their history goes back at least to 1879 when St. Louis restaurant owner Tony Faust created a terrace adorned with boxed shrubs and flowers and lit by gaslights. It was a roof garden of sorts, but on a low roof incapable of giving diners a magnificent view. The terrace remained in operation until at least the mid-1880s, and was commemorated in the ca. 1906 postcard shown here.

In the 1890s, a few places of entertainment in New York City added roof gardens atop tall buildings, primarily as sites for drinking, dancing, and listening to music. The Casino built a garden around 1890, with lanterns, palm trees, and a small stage. Another appeared atop Madison Square Garden [shown here, 1894], then at Koster & Bial’s. These did not serve dinner, but it soon appeared there was a demand for that and it was added to the attractions.

By 1905, New York had dozens of rooftop restaurants during the summer, mostly on hotel roofs. But some restaurants joined in, such as Clyde’s on Broadway and 75th street, famed for its “beefsteak dungeon” which transitioned to the roof in warm weather. Delmonico had a rooftop restaurant in 1920, a few years before it closed for good. Jack Delaney’s ca. 1940 garden appears in a postcard to be rather cramped and lacking a view of the city but it was at least outdoors.

One of the most impressive earlier rooftop restaurants was the one set to open in 1905 on top of New York’s Astor Hotel which was designed to resemble a Tuscan garden. Unlike some others furnished by hotels it was entirely in the open air, with a pergola running down the center that was adorned with moonflowers that only opened after dark.

Other New York hotels that opened roof garden restaurants in the early 1900s included the Hoffman House, The Vendome, the Belle Claire, the Majestic, and the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn. The Waldorf-Astoria had a roof garden but according to a 1905 account only salads and desserts were served there.

Rooftop restaurants in hotels were not limited to New York. They could be found all over the country – at the Grunewald in New Orleans, the St. Anthony in San Antonio, the Hotel Nortonia in Portland OR, the Bingham in Philadelphia, and the McKenzie Hotel which was intended to “boost Bismarck and North Dakota.” Philadelphia had a number of hotel roof gardens, including an unusual-looking one at the Continental Hotel [shown above].

In researching this topic it was often difficult to figure out exactly what was meant by a rooftop restaurant. It might be entirely in the open-air, as was true of the famous Astor roof, or it might be partially or entirely enclosed, occupying part of a roof or the entire roof in which case it was actually the top floor. The Continental’s garden restaurant appeared to be at least partially under a roof, as did the one at Hotel Breakers in Lynn MA shown here.

Most outdoor rooftops opened at the beginning of June, advertising “cool breezes.” Not surprisingly, rooftop restaurants were in vogue mainly before air conditioning came into use in the 1930s. After World War II, when it became more common, it seems the number of open-air rooftops declined.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020


Filed under Offbeat places, outdoor restaurants, restaurant decor

11 responses to “Dining on a roof

  1. On Saturday April 3, 1915, my grandmother, Isabel Wheeler, wrote in her diary about dining in NYC at the Strand Rooftop Garden Restaurant, which she described as “Very interesting.”

  2. Being a history buff, I really like this post. Thanks for not only for the pictures, but also for the wonderful information.

  3. Absolutely fascinating! Love the old postcards.

  4. Anonymous

    London has always had a few roof-top restaurants, mainly in the City (for those who don’t know, London is a city divided into two main parts -Westminster, which is home to Parliament, Buckingham Palace and loads of other places of note, and The City of London, much older, which is a relatively small area, now the financial capital of the country, and has the Tower of London, the Barbican etc etc. Several Michelin starred restaurants have roof garden dining in the City….however there has been a downside. Some young men (as far as I know no young women) who worked in financial services and became worried/depressed whatever — have used these rooftop venues to commit suicide by throwing themselves off the the building. On a brighter note, there is a building in Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea to be specific, which was for many many years a famous department store called Derry & Toms. They developed a huge roof garden and Zoo(!!) and during store opening times you could go there and have a light meal and see the animals. Very popular with grandparents treating their grandchildren. Eventually the store declined and died. It then in the 1970s became Biba which was an iconic fashion store for the bright young things. Biba came and went, but the rooftop gardens and restaurant has continued — not sure who manages it now.

  5. Seth H. Bramson

    For many years, dining on the roof of the famous (in Florida) Burdine’s department store in Miami was one of the city’s great treats for lunch or dinner.

  6. sandra hunter

    Always amazing..Sound very romatic to me!!

  7. Charles A. Dixon

    I always find your post entertaining and informative. Sadly we have seen the decay of being polite. Thank You, for your efforts.

  8. Once again many thanks for an interesting and informative blog. Your research is always impressive as is your writing. I am forwarding a link to a friend who is an avid collector of New York city postcards.

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