Category Archives: night clubs

Restaurant wear

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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.

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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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Spooky restaurants

spookycolumbusohnightclub

Montmartre in Paris was the birthplace of what would come to be known in the U.S. as the theme restaurant. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Parisian entrepreneurs conjured up fantasy atmosphere in strange and unsettling forms. Themes included assassination, imprisonment, death, hell, and that harbinger of bad luck, the black cat.

As much devoted to drinking and entertainment as food, Montmartre’s ghoulish restaurants, cafes, and cabarets inspired Americans to duplicate them. Needless to say, both in France and in America such places were heavily geared to tourists and considerably short of good taste.

One Paris establishment, the Cabaret du Néant, deliberately transgressed the boundaries of decency serving wine in skulls (thankfully artificial), using coffins for tables and x-rays to turn patrons into skeletons, and – worst of all, in 1915 – digging trenches in the backyard so patrons could experience World War I warfare conditions while dining by candlelight.

spookycabaretduneantIn 1896 the Cabaret du Néant, renamed the Restaurant of Death, had been recreated in the Casino in New York’s Central Park, right down to a candelabra made of “skulls and bones.”

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Greenwich Village’s Moulin Rouge used coffins and skulls in its advertising, though whether it carried the theme over to its interior is unknown. It was padlocked in 1924 for serving liquor illegally. Columbus OH had a nightclub known as The Catacombs in the Chittenden Hotel [at top of page] but I was not able to learn anything about it other than that it was doing business in 1941.

spookyblackcatgreenwichvillageOn the whole, black cats and jails gained greater popularity in the U. S., both themes inspired by Montmartre. New York City’s Black Cat had many lives [shown above], being declared dead with regularity and then reappearing. San Francisco also had a Black Cat, opened in 1911, but it sounds as though it was quite tame, filled with ferns and potted palms and an orchestra hidden behind a screen. Perhaps another Black Cat Café in San Francisco, or maybe this one transformed, operated from the 1930s into the 1960s as a center for bohemians and beats as well as a gay clientele.

As sinister animals go, rats and bats were also celebrated. Greenwich Village’s café, The Bat, was said to have a “macabre interior” similar to Paris’s famed Le Rat Mort (The Dead Rat). It’s likely that the advertising of both made them out to be far more sinister than they were.

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As for jail restaurants and cafés, they were fairly numerous in this country. The first, labeled dungeons, opened in New York City and were places where patrons sat on crude boxes in cellars and ate steaks with their hands. They were particularly popular with men’s groups and conventioneers. In the 1920s and 1930s, restaurants and drinking places with jail themes, often with servers dressed as jailers or prisoners, appeared in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and even a small town in Iowa. Strangely, San Francisco’s Dungeon restaurant of the 1920s, complete with cells and wardens, etc., served waffles rather than steak. But then sometimes it’s hard to keep themes on track.

I’ve been working on a future post on truly scary restaurants, ones where outbreaks of food poisoning have occurred.

Meanwhile, whether or not you find a spooky restaurant to hang out in for Halloween, have a good holiday!

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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The Gables

gablesMC

I have a weak spot for corny roadside attractions, such as the scaled down lighthouse in front of The Gables restaurant in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, pictured here on a matchbook cover. The first time I saw it a while ago I wondered why it was there, and what the story was about the little commercial complex that appeared to be a bit down and out at that time.

And now I know – sort of. The lighthouse and its connected cottage were a gas station, while the main building was run as a roadside lunch spot when it began in business. Combination gas station/lunch rooms became commonplace in the 1920s and 1930s when more and more people began taking recreational drives through the countryside.

Exactly when the twin businesses were launched remains a question. My guess is the late 1920s, definitely by 1930, at which time they were operated by Charles M. Savage. He had long been a co-owner/manager of the Hotel Lathrop in South Deerfield, which was sold in 1928.

gablesADVMay31931In 1931 a local builder completed a large building next door, south of The Gables. Oddly enough, it was intended as an indoor golf course, but instead was run as a dance hall by Dennis Shea, owner of the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, and later by a succession of others. Rudy Vallee and other nationally known acts performed there. In the 1950s it became a roller rink and then, in the 1970s, an auction house [pictured below as it looks now]. During its tenure as a dance hall and roller rink it was also known as The Gables, just like the restaurant (to confuse future researchers I’m sure!).

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At the time the matchbook shown above was produced, The Gables restaurant was conducted by William Wade who also ran the Wade Inn on State Street in Northampton MA.

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By 1936, The Gables restaurant had passed into the hands of Edward J. Chicky, also of Northampton. If the illustration in the advertisement from 1939 is accurate, the building had been extended on the left by then. It was now known as The Gables Food Shop, “food shop” being a popular name for a restaurant at the time.

Gables1940s

After Chicky, it was owned by others, including Guido “Guy” Zanone, previously proprietor of the Bernardston Inn, who bought it in 1941 [see above], then Frank and Veronica Shlosser in 1946. The Shlossers built a new, larger restaurant across the street in 1955, advertising in 1956 that it had colonial atmosphere and facilities for 350. It was a popular place for wedding receptions, club lunches, and business organization meetings.

The Gables South Deerfield, MA

The Shlossers continued to run the new place shown above until the early 1970s, when it was sold. It stayed in business as a restaurant and banquet house through most of the 1980s, serving beef, seafood, and chicken parmesan, among other dishes. Today it serves as housing for faculty and staff at Deerfield Academy.

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Recently the original Gables has gone on the market once again. I wish someone would reopen it as a 1940s film-noirish roadhouse.

Thanks to Historic Deerfield librarian David Bosse for helping to clear up an area of confusion in my research.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Find of the day: Wayside Food Shop

WaysideFoodShopCov990The historic Wayside Inn in Sudbury MA, a national landmark operating as an inn and restaurant, was memorialized by Longfellow and became famous throughout the world. Less famous was the other Wayside Inn in business in West Springfield MA from 1932 to 1967.

It was established as the Wayside Food Shop and Terrace Gardens by the head of a wholesale baking company, Colonial Fried Products, that came to Springfield in 1921 as a branch of a Worcester business called Edgerly Crullers.

Brothers Howard S. and Ralph C. Edgerly opened the Wayside Food Shop at 1363 Riverdale Road on a site that was previously occupied by a diner. At the time Riverdale Road had not been developed commercially and was still mainly farmland and residences.

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This past weekend at the Northampton Book and Book Arts Fair held at Smith College I found the impressive 18-page brochure from the Wayside Food Shop whose pages are shown here. It dates from around 1935, about the time the business was awarded a full liquor license.

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WaysideFoodShopCov994

The Wayside was elaborate and designed to host up to 600 people simultaneously in its facsimile Colonial inn (did it serve Colonial doughnuts?). It contained a dining room, an outdoor terrace and garden, a tap room, a dance salon, a banquet room, a soda fountain/bar room, and a club room for card parties.

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Next door, at 1353 Riverdale, was an associated ice cream and sandwich stand in the shape of an ice cream freezer, known as the Algonquin Freezer. In May of 1933 the ice cream stand advertized that its 30-piece Algonquin Boys’ Band would give two evening concerts. It’s not clear whether this was an ongoing feature or a grand opening event.

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The Wayside hosted wedding parties, clubs, and business and alumni groups. The brochure shows an 8-piece orchestra led by Ray Deleporte, whose nightly performances were played on WBZ radio. Alice May was the group’s “radiant songster.” Over the years many orchestras played there. The Wayside also hosted “New York floor shows” that included striptease acts, yet retained its reputation as a place ideal for family Thanksgiving and Sunday dinners.

In 1938, song writer Irving Berlin sued the Wayside Food Shop for copyright violations, asking $250 in damages for each of three of his songs: Goody, Goody; Let Yourself Go; and, Is It True What They Say About Dixie? Not long after this Howard Edgerly, who was not in good health, sold the business.

The business then passed through a number of hands. In 1957 its owner announced that the Wayside would close in early 1958 and be demolished to make way for a motel. Yet, though it did close in January of 1958, it was refurnished and in December it re-opened under new management. It continued in business until April 1967. The building was razed in 1968.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Image gallery: supper clubs

supperclubdine&dance813Supper clubs, night clubs where meals are accompanied by live music and (usually) dancing, began as private clubs rather than as businesses. Groups of people who knew each other, often socialites or theater performers, met regularly for late-night meals and entertainment, at either a single restaurant or at a succession of restaurants. The revelry might last until 2 or 3 A.M. if not later.

By the 1920s the habit had developed into a type of restaurant catering to fun seekers and open not to the select few but to the general public. Perhaps because supper clubs had once been associated in many people’s minds with capital-S Society, these restaurants enjoyed an aura of glamour.

Although a supper club is a night club that serves food, there are many variations. Some were urban, such as NYC’s well-known nightspots El Morocco, the Stork Club, and the Copacabana. But from the 1920s until the decline of supper clubs in the 1970s, many across the U.S. were located on roads outside settled areas. This is particularly true in the upper Midwest. In Wisconsin, where supper clubs have particularly flourished, they have ranged from rustic roadhouses serving barbecue to swanky resort-area clubs.

In movies of the 1930s and 1940s, supper clubs were portrayed as places where big stars and popular bands such as Glenn Miller’s played, but far more common were the sort that hosted local musicians. Still, patrons dressed up and enjoyed a night out, dining and dancing, and maybe a floor show, without spending a fortune. Many a wedding and anniversary party was held at supper clubs across the country.

Despite the low point reached in the 1980s and 1990s, supper clubs showed an ability to incorporate trends such as the Tiki-mania of the 1960s and are reportedly making a comeback, now as retro-deco revivals with gourmet food. This has not always been true. According to menu-planner Lothar Kreck the wise supper club manager of the 1970s saw to it that the menu selections – whether stuffed lobster tails or capons — were prepared in advance of the arrival of guests.

The Gallery

supperclubThePyramid

The winner of the title “Dairy Princess of Dodge County” was announced at a dairy banquet at the Pyramid Supper Club in Beaver Dam WI in June, 1973. The illustration’s proportions would appear to be a tiny bit exaggerated.

SupperClubTesch'sSC,AntigoWI

At the other end of the glamour spectrum was the very modest looking Tesch’s Supper Club in Antigo WI, one of the many mom&pop operations.

supperclubTeaneckNJ

In the 1950s and 1960s The Casa Mana in Teaneck NJ  hosted the Lions Club, United Steel Workers, and Democratic Party functions.

SupperClubSilverDomeWI

The Silver Dome Supper Club and Ballroom featured dining and dancing in two separate buildings.

SupperClubMardiGrasOaklandCA

In Oakland CA, the Mardi Gras Supper Club offered music in a raucous setting.

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El Morocco in NYC was visited by celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and then-husband Joe DiMaggio. Did they stay long enough to get some food on their plates?

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Most supper clubs patrons were not celebrities. In an earlier incarnation Amato’s Supper Club had been the Roseland Ballroom owned by one of Portland Oregon’s leading restaurateurs, Larry Hilaire.

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Menu of the El Tivoli, established in 1929 on a former golf course west of Dallas on the Fort Worth Pike.

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Tiny Tim, famous for his falsetto rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” played this Long Island supper club in 1970, a year before the Mineola NY property was put up for sale.

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The Lotus, a Chinese supper club, was one of the many that did not use supper club in their name, preferring the term Cabaret Restaurant. Chinese and Afro-American supper clubs were numerous in big cities. In his book Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C., John DeFerrari documents both. Club Bali, opened in 1943, featured Sarah Vaughn, Erroll Garner, Dinah Washington, and many other topnotch Black performers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Don’t play with the candles

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It’s not often that you run across a menu that tells patrons how to behave, right on the front. It seems to project the message Welcome! . . . or maybe not.

In case you were wondering what “trucking apart” means, I think it refers to flirting with someone other than who you came with.

nightingaleMenufrontdrawingThe menu, which probably dates from the 1950s, is entertaining inside too: Pop Corn as an appetizer, Toast (under Specials, .20), Pickled Egg Salad with Crackers (.50), and Blackberry Wine from Ohio (.30 per glass).

The Nightingale’s finest and most elaborate offering is clearly its Chicken Dinner ($1.25). The potatoes, tomatoes, and biscuits get glowing modifiers while the chicken has none.

Tomato Soup or Tomato Cocktail
French Fried, Golden Brown Potatoes
Sliced Field Ripe Tomatoes
Peas or Beans
Piping Hot Biscuits
Coffee or Tea
Ice Cream

nightingaleclubMarch251940In 1940 Luther L. Dixon, an enterprising factory worker at American Tobacco Co. who made money in real estate, opened a restaurant/club called the Nightingale on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. He had left the business by the mid 1950s, so the owner of the Nightingale with the menu advice, located south of Alexandria, may have been someone else.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Dining on the border: Tijuana

TijuanaGardenCafe1922Borderlands are fascinating social and cultural mixing bowls. Their restaurants exemplify how variable these places can be. Lacking tradition as well as a local clientele and culture, there is little shaping them other than market forces. In Tijuana prominent historical factors shaping the market were drinkers’ desire for alcohol and restaurant owners’ need to recoup lost business.

The history of restaurants and cafes in Tijuana is marked by all the instability and calamity that the restaurant business is known for – and then some! Partnerships shifted, scandals erupted, and fires swept through the main street, Avenida Revolucion.

When Prohibition became the law in the United States, a number of San Diego restaurant, café, and bar owners – Italians, Jews, Slavs, and others — set up shop a stone’s throw away, in Tijuana, then a village of little more than 1,000 people. American visitors who began to head there did not go to soak up Mexican culture, but to escape restraints [see 1922 advertisement above]. Tourist eating places, all furnishing drinks and often entertainment, had names like Johnny’s Place, Aloha [American teens in Aloha Cafe, 1940s, below] , and Alhambra. Few were run by Mexicans and Mexican food ranked low on the culinary scale.

From the point of view of San Diego’s anti-alcohol, cafeteria-loving reformers, the drinking, gambling, and prostitution that went on in Tijuana made it a hell hole. Tijuana’s reputation, of course, did not stop everyone from going there, even many respectable, well-off San Diegans and Los Angelenos, as well as civic organizations. Determined to limit vice, prohibitionists waged vigorous battle to restrict passage by shortening border crossing hours, finally succeeding in closing the border from 6 pm to 6 am in 1926.

TijuanaAlohaCafeca1949

Despite the curfew, San Diego’s hotel and restaurant industries protested in 1931 that the 6 pm closing “ha[d] not prevented one single person from going to Tijuana,” and had actually reduced their business by 25%. They alleged that visitors went for the whole day or stayed overnight, enabling them to engage in more drinking, gambling, or whatever than previously. Tijuana flourished, opening more cafes, clubs, and hotels.

The better restaurants specialized in “international cuisine” which consisted mainly of steaks and seafood along with Italian, French, German, and Mexican dishes. In this category were restaurants variously operated by Alex and Caesar Cardini of salad fame. Julia Child wrote in her 1975 book From Julia Child’s Kitchen that she remembered going to Caesar’s for lunch in 1925 or 1926 with her parents. They had heard of his special salad and were eager to taste it. “Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, [and] tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl,” she wrote.

The border curfew was relaxed in1932 and lifted entirely in 1933. But if that had an adverse impact on Tijuana tourist trade, it was nothing compared to the blows delivered by the repeal of U.S. Prohibition in 1933 and a Mexican gambling ban in 1935. Tijuana bartenders correctly predicted few bars and cafes would survive. Sure enough, proprietors headed back to the U.S. Caesar Cardini opened a place in San Diego in 1936.

TijuanaGermanrestaurant

The tourist economy waxed and waned thereafter, thanks to such things as the 18-year-old drinking age, the availability of marihuana, and incidents of violence. Mexican cuisine became more popular in Tijuana’s tourist district in the latter 20th century. Richard Nixon, then Vice President of the United States, ordered Mexican dishes and German beer in an informal visit to the Old Heidelberg there in 1960.

Today Tijuana is a large global city, yet Americans tend to stick to the main tourist avenue as of old. There is a diversity of restaurants, many with Hispanic names and owners. Caesar’s has continued, off and on, since the Cardinis departed. Yet, as much as I’d like to believe a recent comment about it on TripAdvisor.com (“nice place to feel the real culture and history of Tijuana”), I have to ask, “Real culture? Real history? What?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Find of the day: the Stork Club

It seems harder all the time to find interesting things at flea markets and vintage paper shows, but I got lucky at Brimfield last week and turned up an unfamiliar Stork Club postcard. What is special is that it dates from before the nightclub/restaurant’s 1934 move to its well known address just off Fifth Avenue on East 53rd Street in NYC.

The postcard shows some of the “Stork’s” entertainers just before the era when its patrons became bigger attractions than its performers. When debutante Brenda Frazier, featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1938, started coming, attention shifted to who was seated at the tables. The early dinner crowd was followed by a late-night set of glamorous publicity seekers, many of them movie stars. Proprietor Sherman Billingsley installed a telephone at the entrance so that the orchestra could strike up an appropriate tune as celebrities were escorted to their tables. [William Boyd, aka Hopalong Cassidy, pictured]

To feed the celebrity mill, newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, always at table no. 50, informed all America of the evening’s highlights the next day. Billingsley had his own radio and TV shows for many years [a 1946 photo shows him interviewing some of the club’s stars]. During its prime in the 1930s and 1940s the Stork Club was the country’s best known nightclub. It’s closest rival was El Morocco. There could never be any doubt about the location of photos taken at the Stork Club thanks to the club’s black and white ashtrays and oversized matchbooks which always appeared prominently.

Nightclubs are a special type of restaurant in which food does not always figure too importantly. But the Stork Club was said to take its menu seriously, for example, flying in fresh crab and pompano from Florida in the 1930s. Unlike others, it opened for lunch. It had a staff of a couple hundred, about 30 of whom worked in the kitchen under longtime French chef Gustave Reynaud. In its best years it reportedly served 1,000 to 3,000 meals a day.

But I am not completely convinced that it was a diner’s mecca. Clearly tastes have changed, yet even by the standards of the day a 1948 menu looks like a real hodgepodge. Some selections are in quasi-French (Calf’s Sweetbreads Under Bell, Eugenie), others are standard American fare (Cold Cuts and Potato Salad). There are a few uninteresting specials stapled to the top (Minute Steak with Baked Potato and Green Salad) and a strange section labeled Chinese Specialties. And, 22 desserts?

Sherman Billingsley, whose background was in Oklahoma bootlegging and Bronx real estate development, began his club career in 1928 or 1929 when he took over management of several NYC speakeasies, one of them named The Stork. He bought out his mob partners, and when prohibition ended went legit. Sherman also ran The Streets of Paris at Coney Island and had interests in other places, while his brother Logan at one point owned a NY restaurant called Madeira House. He and Logan (the latter officially banned from Oklahoma in 1919 as a condition of parole) lived lives of contentiousness and court appearances – perhaps inescapable experiences for bootleggers, developers, and nightclub owners.

The Stork Club fell out of favor in the 1950s, a decade in which Sherman poured hundreds of thousands into defeating unions at his club. His lawyer, the infamous Reds-hunter Roy M. Cohn, told a NY state labor relations committee in 1957 that the Stork Club had been losing money for years. Nevertheless it ranked high as an attraction for out-of-town visitors for some years before its closure in 1965, in dismal condition. One sign it is still remembered is Ralph Blumenthal’s well-researched book, The Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Café Society (2000).

© 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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Subtle savories at Nucleus Nuance

nucleusnuancelogoIf it weren’t for the steady number of souls searching the spheres for Nucleus Nuance, I’d hesitate to touch this subject. After all, it was a clubby hangout that I never experienced personally so I’m at risk of leaving out things that true-blue fans care about. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be much written about the restaurant side of this jazz nightclub, so here goes.

First, why the goofy name? My guess, based on my knowledge of 1960s counterculture, would be it’s not supposed to make sense but, according to Tom Rosenberger who supplied the color photo (with Joni Mitchell’s painting on the wall), the name meant “the center of subtle change.” Regulars shortened it to “the Nucleus” which seems to make a lot of sense for a source of good food and good music.

In 1969 Rudy Marshall, as chef, and Prince Forte, as maitre d’, opened NN at 7267 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, serving “subtle savories for the discerning palate.” According to their own account which appeared on the back of a 1983 menu, a couple of years before moving to this location they had operated a “health-conscious cafeteria” which managed to attract regulars such as Howard Hughes. Throughout its tenure, until it closed ca. 1993, the Nucleus remained committed to organic food.

Marshall, once a cook at the Aware Inn, followed the Inn’s moderate approach to healthy cuisine which permitted meat eating. One of the Nucleus’s specialties, “Ra, The Untouchable” (“Prime ground lean steak, mixed with chopped mushrooms, cheddar cheese, black olives, bell peppers and onions”), was reminiscent of the “Swinger,” a burger served at the Aware Inn during Marshall’s stint in the kitchen. It’s likely that “Ra” was kin to an earlier NN incarnation called the “Evolution Burger.”

nucleusnuance84In 1979 Nucleus acquired new partners, the Venieros, who introduced fine vintage California wines, hooked up the restaurant with the Garlic Festival, and expanded the premises. Evidently, though, it remained unbeautiful. According to the Los Angeles Times in 1976, the dining room was windowless and “The front door leads you down a long corridor that makes you think you’ve walked in the back door by mistake.” In 1988 it sounded pretty much the same. A review by Alan Richman describes the entrance as “a nightmare, a series of twists and turns along a gloomy cinder-block passageway,” adding that the uninviting exterior was “white cinder-block, the front door solid black, the overhead awning worn out.” (He liked the place once he got settled.)

But face it, jazz clubs are supposed to look like that – and, unlike NN, many of them have horrendous food to boot. Appearances aside, with new partners the Nucleus began to build its reputation as a venue which attracted stars such as Herbie Hancock. Joni Mitchell was frequently seen in the audience and commemorated the Nucleus in paintings.

The menu expanded but kept old favorites such as The Ra, Salmon Soufflé, Delectable Duckling (“with our incomparable papaya-cranberry sauce”), Oak Grove Cheese & Walnut Loaf (vegetarian, with curry sauce), and Lady Jana (carob mousse). In the first edition of The Best of Los Angeles (1984), a guide by France’s Gault Millau team, NN was named as the best place in town for salmon soufflé.

See also: “Eating healthy” and Early vegetarian restaurants

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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