Category Archives: elite restaurants

Restaurant wear

dinnerdresses1912

Although affluent women of the upper classes patronized restaurants in the 19th century, they usually did not do so unless they had a male escort, preferably a brother, father, or husband. Respectable women were not supposed to appear too much in public view, and only in select eating places such as the dining rooms of leading hotels.

But as the century ended the situation began to change. Dining and entertaining in restaurants became fashionable and women appeared in public during the daytime without an escort, whether at lunch or afternoon tea. And they wanted to be seen.

The idea that there was a certain type of clothing right for these occasions began to take hold. Around 1900 the terms restaurant wear, restaurant gown, and restaurant frock proliferated in newspaper stories that reported on what stylish women were seen wearing in Paris restaurants.

dinnerdresses1907philinqnov7gownshatswrapsforrestwear-2

It was a sign that restaurant-going had truly arrived. It no longer inevitably carried the stigma of vice and moral peril. Even though the majority of American women, especially those living in small towns and rural areas, might never see the inside of a swank tea room or café, those reading the society pages could imagine all eyes on them as they entered an elegant restaurant dressed in the latest style.

In 1903 women of Tacoma WA who followed their paper’s “Fashion Hints from the Shops” learned that black silk costumes for restaurant going were “quite the thing.” The prettiest gowns had skirts with flouncy semi-trains and a pleated top with velvet bows in front worn with a long fringed silk scarf.

Top tea rooms and restaurants became stages for virtual fashion shows. Clever dressmakers were said to “haunt” tea rooms to get ideas of the latest styles. In New York, Delmonico’s and Sherry’s were prime spots to see the pleats, flounces, laces, scallops, eyelets, and ribbons of the much be-decked outfits of 1905. The wisdom of the day had it that women went to such places not for the food, but to see what other women were wearing.

dinnerdresses1909frockThose traveling in the open autos of 1909 wore heavy, unattractive coats to protect them from road dirt and grime. But the bright side, pointed out the Philadelphia Inquirer, was that the coats were loose enough around the shoulders that “really elaborate costumes may be worn beneath them without harm.” The example, hard to appreciate in the black and white drawing here, was a coral pink restaurant frock with braided trim and crocheted buttons topped with a hat sporting what were mysteriously described as “vivid coral wings.”

Enormous attention was paid to women’s necklines with the new interest in restaurant wear. Time and again readers were warned not to confuse restaurant wear with formal wear. The rules were firm. Formal wear meant revealingly plunging necklines, bare arms, and no hat. Restaurant wear, by contrast, meant a frontal coverup, with a moderate neckline or even a high choker-style collar. The dress must have sleeves and the costume was to be topped off with a hat.

But rules are often broken. According to Julian Street’s 1910 magazine article titled “Lobster Palace Society,” gauche gold-trimmed Babylonian restaurants such as the Café de l’Opera in New York’s Times Square made every effort to seat women with low necklines prominently on the ground floor.

dinnerdresses1922franksederphilThe 1920s featured a new silhouette, as shown in this advertisement for glamorous gowns in 1922 as sold in Philadelphia’s Frank & Seder department store. Hats were getting smaller in the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes replaced with hair ornaments.

dinnerdresses1933repealFar from the Depression dampening the wish to get dressed up and go out on the town, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 introduced a new fashion category, the cocktail dress. Tailored looks prevailed, and in 1938 a fashion columnist chided women who instead chose “luscious, romantic, billowy” frocks to wear to restaurants and nightclubs, sternly telling them that “such fragile, pale bits of formality are not worn!”

dinnerdresses1945cotillionrmhotelpierreThe trend toward simplification and informality continued in the 1940s with a wartime preference for plain, dark dresses as shown here. By the mid-1950s many women reportedly tried to pass off sundresses as appropriate for the cocktail hour (verdict: “Nothing could be more incorrect for after-five-wear.”) while teens couldn’t see why they shouldn’t wear jeans to a restaurant. Not nearly special enough, reasoned the columnist Dorothy Dix. Advice thrown aside, the casual trend continued.

Since the 1970s “restaurant wear” has come to refer mainly to uniforms for restaurant staff.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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“Come as you are”

ComeasyouAreFayettevilleNC

Before restaurants adopted the expression, it was used by churches, with a double meaning that referred both to dress and to the shame of past deeds.

However, in restaurants it simply meant that patrons could wear their everyday casual clothes.

In the hospitality field, the slogan took hold first in the West. In the teens and 1920s, it was commonly used by hotels and resorts. It may seem odd that a resort where people swim, golf, and play tennis would require women to wear dresses and men to wear jackets to dinner, but that was not uncommon in the 1920s, especially in the East. In fact, the custom can still be found today, but it stands as a quaint re-enactment of past times as much as anything.

comeasyouareLeaderMC

The western attitude toward casual dress in hotels, resorts, and restaurants spread slowly and was not without some resistance. Oddly, it met the greatest resistance from a business operating in the West: the Fred Harvey company that ran eating houses for the Santa Fe railroad.

The Harvey company required men to wear jackets in its dining rooms – even before electric fans and regardless of hot weather. If a man refused to wear a jacket, he would be served only at an adjoining lunch counter. In the early 1920s the Harvey company fought an Oklahoma Corporation Commission decision that threw out Harvey’s jacket rule. But Oklahoma’s supreme court ruled in favor of Harvey, declaring that the company had the right to require jackets. “Unlike the lower animals, we all demand the maintenance of some style and fashion in the dining-room,” said the decision.

Full-scale formal dress – white tie and tails for men and women wearing long evening gowns – was never common in this country. Nonetheless etiquette advisors who wrote for women’s magazines liked to suggest the opposite, flattering (and confusing) their readers with rules followed only by the upper, upper reaches of high society. However, even if formal wear was rarely necessary, there was an expectation that diners in a nice restaurant or hotel dining room would at least wear what we now refer to as business attire. The St. Regis Hotel in New York City advertised widely in 1908 that it was a comfortable, homey hotel opposed to snobbish dress rules, yet making it clear that “The wearing of a business suit bars no one from admission or service.”

As widely as she was published and read, etiquette maven Emily Post never seemed to be in tune with most Americans. During the depths of the Depression she continued to insist that women should wear suits, hats, and gloves to a restaurant lunch and dinner dresses in the evening. Even at a summer resort, she declared, women should wear cover-up shoes when dining out. “Bare-toed sandals with evening dresses are too revolting to mention,” she wrote.

comeasyouarePortland1952

Following World War II as young families were established and the suburbs spread, things began to change radically. The restaurant industry realized that finding a babysitter or dressing up the whole family was a barrier to restaurant going for many. Instead families were turning to informal roadside places. “Drive-ins, with their motto of ‘Come as You Are, Eat in Your Car,’ have a siren call for parents with insoluble sitter problems,” observed the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1960.

Chains also got the message. A 1963 Bonanza advertisement proclaimed low-priced steak dinners plus “No tipping – Children ½ price – Come as you are – Western atmosphere.”

comeasyouarelittleblackdressMeanwhile, in the late 1960s, in the midst of the hippie upheaval, Gloria Vanderbilt recommended the “little black dress” as always correct for dining in a fine restaurant. But informality was winning as women wearing pants gained acceptance even in luxury New York City restaurants in the early 1970s, a rule change stimulated no doubt by a damaging recession.

By the late 1970s dress codes had been relaxed to the point that many upscale restaurants were minimally satisfied if their customers at least wore “dressy casual,” which usually meant designer jeans, shirts with collars, and no short-shorts, tank tops, or halter tops. Some chains accepted t-shirts as long as they weren’t white, but everyone agreed that patrons had to wear some kind of shirt and shoes.

Today, as Alison Pearlman has written in her fine book Smart Casual, the bond between fancy formal restaurants and gourmet dining has been loosened further by affluent young professionals in the creative industries. If they wear hoodies and jeans to work they expect to do the same as they sample innovative dishes at a hip restaurant.
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And yet, along with the relentless trend toward casual dress, the tendency to show off in public persists, possibly as strongly as in the late 1890s when women of New York’s “smart set” took to the cafes to display the latest fashions.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Ladies’ restrooms

ladiesroomsignPublic restrooms have been in the news lately because of conflict over transgender rights, but I have been wondering about them for quite a while as part of my project to understand how restaurants developed.

We assume that restaurants will have restrooms for their customers today, but when did they become commonplace? And when did restaurants make an effort to specifically accommodate women with separate toilets? I am still not 100% sure about the answers.

Researching the history of sanitary facilities in restaurants has proved to be very difficult, starting with what terms to search for. Even today both “bathroom” and “restroom” are somehow inadequate. Yet restroom is better to capture the historical fact that those restaurants that had facilities for women usually were outfitted with more than toilets and sinks. They also had space – and many still do – where women could take care of little chores such as repairing their hairdos, or simply rest. [restroom shown below, ca. 1920s]

ladiesroomWV
Prior to the 1860s, most public toilets were outdoors, behind saloons and restaurants, and the same was true of private dwellings. Flush toilets were quite rare in the United States until the 1880s, according to Suellen Hoy’s 1995 book Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness. Outhouses were commonplace  throughout the 19th century and well into the 1930s in homes in rural areas and poor neighborhoods.

The earliest ladies’ restroom I’ve found in a restaurant was in an elegant Chicago hotel. It’s likely that other hotels were similarly equipped, even though hotel bedrooms with private bathrooms were rare.  According to a story in 1864, the Chicago restaurant welcomed women diners and invited them to simply “call in for a rest, without intrusion, or being thought an intruder.” “Every provision has been made for the convenience of ladies,” the story said, “and a toilet-room specially apportioned to their use.” This would have been welcome news to women at a time when public accommodations for them were sorely lacking.
LadiesroomCincinnati1878

The restaurants that had toilets and restrooms for women seem to have been the more substantial ones that enjoyed prominence in their communities, as was often true of restaurants in leading hotels. So it was surprising to discover that an inexpensive lunch room, Cincinnati’s Alderney Dairy, had a toilet room for women in 1878.

Though still rare, the number of ladies’ rooms in restaurants grew in the 1880s with the spread of indoor plumbing and city sewers. According to a story from 1889, restrooms in fashionable restaurants were “sumptuously furnished” with velvet couches, floor to ceiling mirrors, and marble basins. Perfumes, face powders, rouges, lotions, ivory brushes and combs, as well as hat pins were supplied.

Yet, to put the lavish restroom described above into context, the supply of ladies’ rooms in restaurants and offices was still inadequate in the 1890s. In 1891 a restaurant in Portland ME felt justified to advertise that it had “the finest Ladies’ room east of Boston,” a considerable area. Often tall office buildings were constructed with ladies’ rooms only on the top floor. Even though women were increasingly taking jobs as clerical workers in offices, developers did not want to give up income-earning space to facilities for women on each floor. (Men, on the other hand, were supplied with small closets with a urinal-sink on each floor.)

ladiesrestroom1930CharlotteNC

Although the 1890s is often cited as the decade in which indoor plumbing took huge leaps, it is notable that restaurants continued to advertise ladies’ rest rooms throughout the 1920s [above advertisement, 1930]. Although they had become more common during the World War I as more women patronized restaurants, the advertisements seem to suggest that the presence of restrooms still could not be taken for granted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Famous in its day: Blanco’s

blanco'scafePC

Blanco’s Café was one of San Francisco’s luxury restaurants of the early 20th century. Among the very first restaurants to open after the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906, it made its debut on November 7, 1907 at 859 O’Farrell Street.

It soon became a popular place for banquets, one of which is depicted in the 1915 postcard shown above. Typically such banquets were all male, often being made up of members of professional and cultural societies. Blanco’s was also a favorite after-theater spot for men and women who enjoyed a “cold bot and hot bird” as a light supper of champagne and quail was referred to in those days.

Its owners and managers were mostly old hands in the restaurant business, Italians and Germans led by a Spaniard, Antonio Blanco, who had been born in Malaga. Blanco’s reputation was built upon his pre-fire restaurant, The Poodle Dog, which he re-established a short time after opening Blanco’s. Two of Blanco’s managers had previously been at Delmonico’s restaurant in San Francisco, another victim of the fire.

blanco'sDec1914The city’s newspapers were effusive about Blanco’s when it opened, gushing over its Louis XIV entrance hall, marble pillars, murals, and chandeliers. The café’s first chef came from The Poodle Dog, while the dining room manager had earned his exalted reputation at Tait’s and the St. Francis Hotel. All in all, Blanco’s was “a temple of art and beauty” destined to become the envy of caterers around the world. In 1914 Blanco’s boldly advertised that it was “the finest café in the United States.”

Naturally it classed itself as a French restaurant, French cuisine being synonymous with the good life – and the only kind that could command a high price then.

Blanco’s continued in business until 1933 but not without problems. In 1917 a plan to add two stories to the restaurant was abandoned, perhaps because of the looming nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol. Prohibition in 1919 was indeed a blow to fine dining establishments such as Blanco’s. The restaurant blithely advertised in 1919, “Good-bye to good old wines. Good-bye to good old times. But good eats will remain.” But it was becoming increasingly difficult to operate a high-living restaurant in the style Blanco’s was accustomed to. In 1921 its manager was arrested for not keeping a register of transient guests at Blanco’s Annex, the hotel next door which the restaurant had constructed in 1908 and opened the next year.

Few San Franciscans would have failed to realize the significance of this infraction, even if they did not recall Blanco’s “scandal” of 1912. In July of that year a Sausalito woman hired detectives to shadow her husband who was enjoying a romantic dinner at Blanco’s in the company of another woman. Spotting the detectives but not knowing who was under surveillance, Blanco’s manager went from table to table notifying all the guests of the detectives at work. Numbers of couples made a quick exit from the back door. Needless to say, the privacy curtains on the mezzanine booths shown in the ca. 1915 postcard were more than merely decorative.

Yet, despite all, Blanco’s carried on and was recommended in San Francisco guide books of the 1920s. It is ironic that it made it through Prohibition yet failed just as alcohol was becoming legal once again in 1933.

In 1934 the contents of both the restaurant and hotel were sold off, including fine china, silver-plated cutlery, tapestry panels and hangings, 40 copper stock pots, French furniture, bronze statuary, and 140 Viennese arm chairs.

blanco'smusicboxpostcard

In October 1935 the restaurant reopened as The Music Box, a supper club under the direction of stripper and “fan dancer” Sally Rand. It had been partially modernized. Murals were replaced with mirrors and many other decorations by artist Attilio Moretti had been removed. Ruth Thomas, co-author of Eating Around San Francisco (1937), reported that she was given a tour of the Music Box and saw Venetian glass chandeliers and life-sized plaster statues of women in a basement storeroom.

blanco'sGreatAmericanMusicHall

The chandeliers and some of the murals were restored, possibly during the late sixties when the building was occupied by the Charles Restaurant. Today the building still stands and is in use as the Great American Music Hall. [Photo shows the altered restaurant building front, much of it bricked in including the large center window above the door which now supports a sign; the building to the left was Blanco’s Annex hotel.]

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Find of the day: the Redwood Room

RedwoodRoom

Sometimes after a day of largely fruitless hunting in the antiques marketplace – such as a recent trip to the Brimfield flea market – it takes a while to realize I’ve acquired a gem. In this case it is the above postcard of the Redwood Room in San Francisco’s Clift Hotel, ca. 1965.

I bought it because it has features that I like: diners, a chef, paneling, and red carpeting. From looking at thousands of images I’ve learned that the last two signify Beef, Money, and Masculinity. But it wasn’t until I read the back of the card that I realized it was a “find.”

On the back is the printed message: “The Redwood Room is unexcelled for fine dining. With its huge panels of 2000-year-old Redwood and the spacious bar, it conveys a feeling of masculinity that has for years appealed to leading San Francisco executives and their wives.”

Little did the people on the postcard know, but “barbarians” were about to descend on the Redwood Room.

The hotel opened around 1916 and the Redwood Room and the French Room (shown through the doorway) were created during the 1930s. Both served the same food, but the hyper-manly Redwood Room was also outfitted with a long redwood bar not shown on the card.

Craig Claiborne visited the Clift in 1964, and declared it was one of the few U.S. hotels that still maintained a kitchen of “relative eminence.” Its decor, he said, was of “undeniable elegance” and its tuxedoed waiters exhibited “politesse.” The menu specialty, as might be expected from a restaurant that borrowed dinner carts from London’s Simpson’s, was “absolute first rank” roast beef accompanied by Yorkshire pudding ($4.50).

The postcard photograph was taken when the hotel was at its peak, prior to a slump in the early 1970s brought on by a poor economy aggravated by a policy of turning away guests who violated the hotel’s conservative dress and hairstyle code. When Burt Lancaster and his longhaired son were refused admittance to the Redwood Room in 1971, the item made newspapers across the nation.

The Clift’s president, Robert Stewart Odell, created the dress code. When the musical “Hair” opened at the nearby Geary Theatre in 1968, “They came in from the theater, barefoot and bareback. For a time . . . the Redwood Room entrance was the scene of an almost daily confrontation between longhairs and the maitre d’hotel,” said a manager. The hotel posted signs and ran advertisements that advised: “The Clift Hotel caters to a conservative, well-groomed clientele. Registration, dining room and bar service is refused to anyone in extreme or abnormal dress and to men with unconventional hair styling.”

In response to the hotel’s conservatism, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen ridiculed it relentlessly, claiming it maintained “standards set in the Coolidge era as opposed to the Cool era.”

After Odell’s death in 1973, the hotel’s new president (whose hair was longish) welcomed well-dressed stockbrokers, lawyers, and businessmen with hair descending below their collar tops, along with women in pantsuits.

In 1976 the Clift was renamed the Four Seasons-Clift after its acquisition by Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotels, Ltd. After almost two years of remodeling and restoration, the Redwood Room became a bar only rather than a bar and restaurant. Yet it was little changed as that would have brought howls of protest from San Franciscans. A 2001 re-do brought the by-then-shabby Redwood Room bar back into fashionability.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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That night at Maxim’s

A restaurant is an expression of its time and place. Except for fast food franchises which are based on an industrial mode of mass production detached from local particularity. So when a replica of an art nouveau turn-of-the-century culinary haunt of demimonde Paris shows up in the basement of a hotel on Lake Michigan’s gold coast in the mid-20th century – well, it’s a little strange.

In short, was the Paris-based Maxim’s franchise that arrived in Chicago in 1963, with its undulating woodwork, fleur-de-lis lights, red velvet banquettes, Soles Albert, and Poires Helene, the real thing?

I’ve been pondering this question as I’ve pored over the fascinating photograph above, which was taken by prize-winning photographer Gary Settle, probably for The Chicago Daily News.

What was the occasion? It’s not a casual shot. At least two floodlights are in evidence and there is something stagey about the scene. I suspect the couples were asked to leave their coffee and smokes and get up and dance. Unfortunately, in the process two napkins were flung aside in an unsightly manner. Elegance is so hard to achieve.

The Brylcreemed man leaning over the table must be Chef Pierre Orsi who had very recently arrived from Paris to take command of the kitchen. The man seated to the right of him looks as though he could be French, but the other men in the picture, apart from the musicians, appear to be of German ancestry. I wonder if they might be two sets of twins.

Which of the women owns the sable coat and elbow-length black gloves? I believe it is the blissful dancer on the left. She will carry home leftovers in a foil purse-shaped doggie bag — perhaps she is dieting or didn’t love her Calves Liver with Raisin and Grape Sauce so much.

The table has a center lamp with pink silk shades and coffee cups bearing Maxim’s curlicue M logo. A cigarillo rests in one of the souvenir ashtrays, while others have been used by the table’s two Winston smokers who prefer a fliptop box to a soft pack. Did these eight people really polish off four bottles of champagne? Did anyone use the replica antique telephone to check in with their babysitter?

I invite readers to create a scenario. Who are these people and what were they thinking at this moment in September, 1967?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Spectacular failures: Café de l’Opera

In 1910 the media was abuzz with the new Café de l’Opera on Broadway between 41st and 42nd streets in NYC. Its enormous cost and the stunning, over-the-top lavishness of its interior set a new standard for opulence on the glittering White Way. Could anyone have guessed that in a mere four months this splendid “lobster palace” would fail?

Given its fate, how perfect was it that the crowning jewel of the interior decor was a billboard-sized painting of the fall of Babylon installed prominently on a landing of the 22-ft wide staircase?

The after-theater eatery was designed to be the showplace of Times Square. It was financed by a consortium of investors that included architect/decorator Henry Erkins and John Murray, impressario of the almost-as-splendiferous Murray’s Roman Gardens, also designed by Erkins. The team sunk millions into gutting the old Saranac Hotel and turning it into a fantasy Babylonian stage set worthy of the Hippodrome. The bill for interior renovations and decor, under Erkins’ direction with Stern Brothers department store acting as general contractor, came to $1,250,000, a sum that borders on $30 million in today’s dollars.

The silver service alone cost a quarter of a million 1910 dollars, while a huge painting by Georges Rochegrosse cost something like $50,000. Er, or so it was gushingly reported. However another source claimed the painting was a copy, which is probably true. As for many of the imported ancient treasures, they were replicas cast from Middle Eastern artifacts housed in British and French museums. The gleaming black marble covering interior surfaces and pillars on the ground floor and balconies was artificial.

The interior was a startling demonstration of the transformative power of life-size statuary, concealed lighting, mirrored walls, and a million or so sheets of gold leaf. The electrical industry was thrilled with the restaurant’s flair for showcasing what miracles modern lighting could perform. But the architectural community was rather scandalized. They hid their distaste in a haze of apparent flattery, producing choked praise in which adjectives like magnificent served as insults. The “lurid and gorgeous” restaurant was so overwhelming it could “overcome at once the more sober judgment of the critic,” claimed The Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine.

The restaurant’s dining rooms occupied four floors with its main kitchen located above them. Manager Henri Pruger, hired from the Hotel Savoy in London at the princely salary of $50,000 a year, oversaw a staff of 750. Six months after arriving in NYC he headed back home, and one can only wonder how much of his salary he managed to collect. Stern Brothers wasted no time seizing all the furnishings for auction but a goodly number of them apparently were acquired by the new owner, Louis Martin. A restaurant pro, he had formerly presided over the famed Café Martin at Broadway and 26th with his brother J. B.

Martin quickly made changes, moving the kitchen to the basement to solve the problem of food arriving cold at the tables as had happened under the previous management. He installed a bar on the first floor and eliminated the previous regime’s terrifically unpopular formal dress requirement, said to be an English notion. But the jinx was on. If ever a location reeked with bad omens, it was this. On opening night in December 1910 an employee of the Café de l’Opera started an accidental fire in a storeroom causing firemen to parade through the dining room with axes. Well, there was that foreboding fall of Babylon depicting invaders in the banquet hall. But what possessed Louis Martin to create a dining room lighted by a dozen perched owls with electrified eyes the size of silver dollars?

Martin, who ran the restaurant as Café Louis Martin, withdrew from the business in 1913. The new management renamed it the Café de Paris. On the color postcard shown here it is clear that the golden statues on the balcony are gone, replaced by flowers during this incarnation. In 1914 the Café de Paris went bankrupt and in February the restaurant’s “furniture, pictures, ornaments, rugs, carpets, curtains, linen, tableware, kitchenware, and other equipment and furnishings” were auctioned. The building was razed in 1915.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Banqueting at $herry’s*

In 1898 Sherry’s and Delmonico’s faced off on two corners of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. Which would win the favor of New York City’s high society whose core membership was known as the Four Hundred? Even before Sherry’s boldly moved onto Delmonico’s turf it had been successfully poaching “Del’s” clientele. For a time there seemed to be enough elite diners to go around, but the days were numbered for both of New York City’s grand restaurants. Before too long each would suffer from the negative impact of Prohibition and World War I on food and drink and social life. Nonetheless many spectacular balls and dinners were still in store at Sherry’s before its demise.

Louis Sherry began his professional life in restaurants in New Jersey and New York in the 1870s, working as a waiter, then steward and head waiter at establishments such as the Hotel Brunswick. In 1881 he started a confectionery and catering business at Sixth Avenue and 38th Street where he supplied ice cream, cakes, and deluxe dinner party staples such as lobster, salmon, deviled crab, chicken salad, and terrapin. He soon opened a restaurant at the casino at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island. His businesses grew, and he moved to Fifth Avenue at 37th Street, and when that became too small he commissioned Stanford White to design a multi-story restaurant with ballrooms and residential suites opposite Delmonico’s.

Although he has been singled out as one of the few American-born proprietors of a fine NYC restaurant at the turn of the 20th century, it is likely that he was a native of Canada rather than Vermont as is frequently reported. On several passport applications he attests that he was born in Quebec, in 1855.

Sherry was known for getting every detail right, particularly table appointments and decorations which could include everything from asparagus served in a hollowed out block of ice to tabletop forests and lakes (1908 dinner pictured). But from time to time the expense and elaborateness of his dinners prompted critics to call them symptoms of a decadent society. This was especially true of the $250 per person dinner on horseback given by C. G. K. Billings to 36 members of his Equestrian Club in 1903 – and the 1905 dinner for 500 guests costumed as 18th-century French royalty given by James H. Hyde where even the waiters wore powdered wigs.

In 1912 Sherry’s was hit hard by a restaurant workers’ strike which targeted the city’s top eating places. He professed indifference but bitterly cited “Bolshevik waiters” as one of the reasons for closing the restaurant and hotel in 1919 and moving up to 58th Street to continue with catering and confectionery. In 1921 Sherry joined a corporation headed by Lucius Boomer that opened a Sherry’s restaurant and candy shop at 300 Park Avenue. A subsidiary of the corporation owned the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Sherry, who did not seem to be actively involved in these enterprises, died in 1926. Later, under a succession of owners, there were Louis Sherry restaurants in the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic, while ice cream is still (or was until fairly recently?) produced under the Louis Sherry name.

* In The Real New York (1902), Rupert Hughes suggested that because the restaurant was so expensive, its name should be written this way.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Catering to the rich and famous

colony1945What a pain the rich can be. That’s the message you’ll take away if perchance you pick up The Colony Cookbook by Gene Cavallero Jr. and Ted James, published in 1972. The dedication page is plaintively inscribed by Gene, “To my father and all suffering restaurateurs.” Chapter 3 details what caused the suffering, namely the privileged customers who imposed upon him and his father in so many ways. They stole peppermills, left behind ermine coats, false teeth, and glass eyes, asked for help getting through customs, requested restaurant staff to chauffeur their children – even called for reservations at other restaurants.

thecolony876

The Colony was the kind of place where terrible things could happen such as – oh god! – countesses and rich men’s wives showing up in the same designer gown. Thankfully they were so well bred that instead of pouting or running home to change they bravely stuck out the evening and even managed a smile as they picked at their truffled Salade à l’Italienne and Chicken Gismonda. Over the Colony’s 50 years all the big names from society, politics, entertainment, and royalty patronized it – Kennedy, Onassis, Capote, Dukes and dukes, Roosevelts, Biddles, Lodges, Cabots, and so on. It was referred to as a “boarding house for the rich” because some patrons were there so often. One woman sat in the same banquette and ate the same lunch nearly every day for over 40 years. Yes, she was an heiress. About 85% of the Colony’s customers signed a tab and received a monthly bill.

TheColonyThe Colony opened in 1919, at Madison Ave. and 61st Street. Three years later headwaiters Gene Cavallero Sr. (pictured slicing cheddar for the toffs) and Ernest Cerutti joined with its chef to buy it from its founder, legendary impresario and restaurateur Joe Pani. Pani also ran the Woodmansten Inn on Pelham Parkway where he introduced the world to then-dancer Rudolph Valentino. At the same time Pani managed Castles-by-the-Sea, a Long Island resort featuring the dancing Castles, Irene and Vernon.

According to the official story as told in Gene Cavallero Jr.’s book and just about every other account, the restaurant achieved status shortly after the new owners took over and upgraded it from a drinking hole for “two-bit gamblers.” Then capital-S Society, represented by the W. K. Vanderbilts, latched onto it and made it their headquarters. In fact “the 400″ had already been entertaining there while it was under Pani’s ownership. Gene Jr.’s book implies that Pani did not appreciate fine food but, given that Pani had European restaurant training and his own farm which supplied chickens and vegetables, this may have been an exaggeration. Both Pani and Cavallero claimed to have been the first to serve broccoli to New York’s dining public.

Like so many of its regulars, the Colony had slipped into senescence by the time it closed at the end of 1971. Restaurant critic Gael Greene was shocked to find how “tarnished” it was when she visited it about a year earlier (“how shabby and mundane are the haunts of the very, very rich, and how often undemanding their lamb-chop and tapioca palates”). And yet its faithful clientele didn’t seem to care. Truman Capote cried when it closed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Famous in its day: London Chop House

londonchophseEXTThe London Chop House, Detroit’s 21 Club, enjoyed a ranking as one of the country’s top restaurants in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. James Beard named it as one of the ten best restaurants nationwide in 1961, the same year it won a Darnell Survey award as one of America’s Favorites. It won Holiday magazine awards repeatedly. Honors continued throughout the 1970s, and in 1980 it made Playboy’s top 25 list.

tableclothsLondonChopHouse1970s

Established following Repeal in the 1930s by the Gruber brothers, Lester (shown below, 1955) and Sam, it soon became a magnet for business executives, celebs passing through Detroit, and power elites of all stripes. Its attractions were many, including evening entertainment, a fine wine list, and fantastic concoctions from the bar. (Absinthe anyone? See 1945 drinks menu below.) Its chefs, among them Eddie Dobler, “Pancho” Velez, and Jimmy Schmidt, were known for their preparations of freshwater perch and whitefish from Michigan’s lakes and rivers as well, of course, for beef dishes aplenty.

londonchophouseDRINKSThe Grubers were adept at flattering the male ego. When a guest made a reservation, he would arrive to find his table with books of matches and a reserved sign all imprinted with his name, as well as a card with a coin in a slot reimbursing him for his phone call. Alpha types jostled for table #1, while regulars glowed with the knowledge that their suavely jacketed waiter had remembered how many ice cubes they liked in their highballs. To keep up with escalating demand, in 1952 the Grubers opened a second place across the street, the Caucus Club. The 1980s turned out to be a tough decade for the Chop House. Les Gruber sold it in 1982, chef Schmidt left, and the new owner passed away. Despite efforts to keep it afloat, it closed in 1991.

What strikes me from the vantage point of 2009, as I look at recipes and depictions of popular dishes at the Chop House, are both the food shortcuts employed and the richness of the ingredients used, characteristics which mark it as a mid-20th century American restaurant. It was typical of the times, I know, but it still surprises me that a restaurant with sky-high prices (easily running up to $50 a person for food alone in the 1970s) would bake carrots with “maple flavored” syrup, stir onion powder into mashed potatoes, and dissolve chicken bouillon granules into their watercress soup.

As for fat and cholesterol, the phrase “the better to kill you with, my dear” keeps running through my mind. Good thing those power lunchers had strong metabolisms. Either that or they needed to chop wood after a meal if they were to survive too many drinks like “the hummer” (ice cream, Kahlua, white rum), or eat too many Roqueburgers (beef patties containing Roquefort cheese, butter, and cognac) or corned beef hash topped with crumbled bacon and Parmesan cheese.

Still, even if it did shorten the lives of some auto execs I have to salute a restaurant which itself survived for over half a century.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Filed under elite restaurants