Category Archives: popular restaurants

The Lunch Box, a memoir

There is little glamour surrounding the operation of most restaurants. They demand hard work, long hours, and relentless determination. Few stay in business long or bring their owners great riches.

All of these observations apply to the Lunch Box. Except one. The Lunch Box stayed in business for 35 years, becoming a well-loved stopping place along the road in the small Western Massachusetts town of Williamsburg.

But, glamour? As its owner, Anthony “Tommy” Thomas, writes in his recently published book, “the happiest day of owning the Lunch Box was the day that we hooked up to the sewer line.”

After that, he no longer had to worry about overuse of the restrooms.

In 1968 Thomas bought the small roadside restaurant that had begun in 1949 as a hot dog stand. Since then it had been enlarged [see below], never quite meeting the building standards he would have liked.

Thomas, like the owners of so many modest eating places, had been disappointed working for others and was strongly attracted to the risky idea of having his own business. Given the woeful condition of the restaurant, along with considerable misery in the lives of previous owners, the Lunch Box seemed overrun with risk and negative vibes. But that didn’t stop him.

In addition to hooking up to a sewer line, he also discovered in the early years that he needed to install a grease trap. For 35 years he cleaned it himself, an arduous task since it was located in a crawlspace under the building. “I had to crawl under and take the trap apart, take the pieces that needed to be cleaned and drag them outside, clean them and then crawl back under to put the trap back together,” he explained. He also spent many an hour defrosting frozen water pipes.

The small kitchen, with a ceiling “so low that a person six feet tall would have to bend over to use the stove,” was equipped with an “apartment size gas stove.” The original cash register could not ring up an order over $5, and had to be supplement with an adding machine to total checks. Shortage of capital meant that major improvement projects had to be deferred, particularly when it came to solving the building’s heating and cooling problems. “We were always cold on really cold days and hot on the very hot days,” he wrote.

Eventually he was able to rebuild the Box, adding a second story and a peaked roof [see book cover above]. And, he and his wife were able to raise four children, though it must have been tough at times. As he says, “There were years when my tax returns showed hardly any income and I was fortunate that I was in the food business so I could feed my family.”

Thomas took great pride in his other roles, admitting – rather surprisingly — that “The most rewarding in my judgment and the most important aspect of my life outside of my family was my time serving as a firefighter/EMT.” I was surprised that he did not cite the restaurant. He worked as a firefighter and EMT in both Williamsburg, where the Lunch Box was located, and in neighboring Goshen, where he lived. And he served as a Goshen Selectman for years.

He inherited the cafe’s reputation as a “woodchopper’s diner,” but he improved the quality of its comfort food menu by using fresh local produce whenever possible. He took great care in testing brands of coffee before selecting one. He saw to it that soups and pies, previously purchased, were made in house. The Box’s comfort foods, such as shepherd’s pie, macaroni and cheese, and meat loaf, drew locals, public officials, police, truck drivers, woodsmen, and a wide range of others including a few who traveled some distance to eat there regularly.

As is often the case with roadside diners, over the years the Lunch Box became a community hub where business was conducted, friends met up, and local news was exchanged. In a book with plenty of anecdotes, it becomes clear that each day promised new adventures with the Lunch Box right in the middle of it all. [photo: The Lunch Box float in Williamsburg’s 225th anniversary parade]

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Crazy for crepes

The crepes craze, which began in the 1960s, became intense in the 1970s. By the late 1980s it had all but disappeared..

But before crepes achieved popularity, they were almost unknown in the U.S. The exception was Crepes Suzette, thin, delicate pancakes with an orange-butter sauce and liqueurs that were often dramatically lit aflame at the diners’ table. Like Cherries Jubilee, Crepes Suzette usually only appeared on high-priced menus, such as the Hotel Astor [1908 quotation].

Before 1960 even fewer restaurants served savory crepes, and those that did would also seem to have been expensive restaurants. In 1948 the Colony in New York City served Crepes Colony with a seafood filling. And in the late 1950s New York’s Quo Vadis offered Crepes Quo Vadis, filled with curried seafood and glazed with a white sauce, as hors d’oeuvres.

Although few Americans had ever eaten Crepes Suzette, it’s likely that the fame of this prized dish helped pave the way for the creperie craze, with restaurants primarily featuring crepes. Crepes were regarded as an exotic luxury dish that, by some miracle, was affordable to the average consumer, sometimes costing as little as 60 or 75 cents apiece around 1970.

Crepes enjoyed a mystique, offering a link to European culture and a break from the meat and potatoes that dominated most restaurant menus in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At a time when America was seen as the world leader in modern ways of living – including industrially efficient food production — Europe was imagined as a romantically quaint Old World where traditional ways were preserved and many things were still handmade.

American creperies catered to their customers’ wish for a taste of Europe. With country French decor, servers in folk costumes, and names such as Old Brittany French Creperie and Maison des Crepes [pictured at top, Georgetown], diners were imaginatively transported to a delightfully foreign environment quite unlike the brand new shopping malls in which many creperies were located. Another exotic touch employed by quite a few creperies was to use the French circumflex mark in crêpes (which I have not done in this blogpost).

Filled with creamed chicken, ratatouille, or strawberries and whipped cream (etc.), crepes soon became a favorite lunch, dinner, and late-night supper for college students, dating couples, shoppers, and anyone seeking “something different.” Along with crepes, menus typically included a few soups, most likely including French onion soup, a spinach-y salad, and perhaps a carafe of wine.

San Francisco’s Magic Pan Creperie led the trend and, after being acquired by Quaker Oats in 1969, spread to cities across the country, with the chain eventually totaling about 112. The first Magic Pan, a tiny place on Fillmore Street, was opened in 1965 by Paulette and Laszlo Fono, who came to this country in 1956 after the failed anti-Communist uprising in their native Hungary. A few years later they opened another Magic Pan in Ghirardelli Square and Laszlo patented a 10-pan crepe-maker capable of turning out 600 perfectly cooked crepes per hour [pictured here].

As Quaker opened Magic Pans, they invariably received a warm welcome in newspaper food pages. It was as though each chosen city had been “awarded” one of the creperies, usually situated in upscale suburban shopping malls such as St. Louis’s Frontenac Plaza or Hartford’s West Farms Mall. When a Magic Pan opened in Dallas’ North Park shopping center in 1974, it was called “as delightful a restaurant as one is likely to find in Dallas.”

Among Magic Pan amenities (beyond moderate prices), reviewers were pleased by fresh flowers on each table, good service, delicious food, pleasant decor, and late hours. Many of the Magic Pans stayed open as late as midnight – as did many independent crepe restaurants. [Des Moines, 1974]

In hindsight it’s apparent that creperies responded to Americans’ aspirations to broaden their experiences and enjoy what a wider world had to offer. It was a grand adventure for a high school or college French class or club to visit a creperie, watch crepe-making demonstrations, and have lunch. [below: student at the Magic Pan, Tulsa, 1979] But what one Arizona creperie owner called the “highbrow taco” did not appeal to everyone. The operator of a booth selling crepes at Illinois county fairs reported that hardly anyone bought them and that some fairgoers referred to them as creeps or craps.

I would judge that crepes and creperies reached the pinnacle of popularity in 1976, the year that Oster came out with an electric crepe maker for the home. Soon the downward slide began.

Quaker sold the Magic Pans in 1982 after years of declining profits. The new owner declared he would rid the chain of its “old-lady” image, i.e., attract more male customers. Menus were expanded to include heartier meat and pasta dishes.

Even though new creperies continued to open here and there – Baton Rouge got its first one in 1983 – there were signs as early as 1980 that the crepe craze was fading. A visitor to a National Restaurant Association convention that year reported that crepes were “passé” and restaurants were looking instead for new low-cost dishes using minimal amounts of meat or fish. A restaurant reviewer in 1986 dismissed crepes as “forgotten food” served only in conservative restaurant markets. Magic Pans were closing all over, and by the time the 20-year old Magic Pan on Boston’s Newbury Street folded in 1993, very few, if any, remained.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Famous in its day: The Pyramid

I was initially attracted to The Pyramid Supper Club because of its kooky architecture and its surprising location on a rural Wisconsin road next to a cornfield. I admit I thought it was a joke.

As a 1991 advertorial noted, “The Pyramid Supper Club on Highway 33 east of Beaver Dam is surrounded by a bare, flat-land setting much like the original pyramids depicted in the interior wall paintings.”

Flat it is, I thought, but Wisconsin is a long way from ancient Egypt. Like Wild West-theme restaurants in New England and Polynesian restaurants in Arizona, it struck me as absurd.

Not only its location, but dining in a replica of a tomb? With murals depicting slaves at work? “Dine amidst the splendors of The Pharaohs – Have Cocktails in fabulous Egyptian lounges,” read the copy on the back of a postcard. I pictured the wives of Lutheran pastors, 4-H officials, fertilizer dealers, and goose hunters – all of whom gathered there at various times – clinking glasses of Yummy Mummies.

Why did the owners, who helped design the building, want their restaurant to resemble a pyramid? It opened in 1961 as the Tutankhamun Treasures exhibition toured the United States, so that’s one obvious source of inspiration. But I was surprised by the explanation that owners Gini and Dick Beth gave to a reporter, that in addition to “visual appeal” the building style had “no association with any particular food.”

Doesn’t that apply to most buildings that house restaurants? It takes no special architecture to lure lovers of steak and prime rib, the all-American cuisine the restaurant was based on.

I counted at least 27 main dishes on a 1984 Pyramid menu, suggesting that the restaurant must have had a mighty big freezer. Along with beef, chicken, and seafood specials was the puzzler, “Spearamid – on bed of rice.” Slowly it dawned on me that the word rhymed with pyramid, and was their coining. I then discovered it was beef, onion, peppers, and tomatoes grilled on a skewer.

To be fair, not all the Pyramid’s meat was frozen. The restaurant bought locally raised animals that won prizes at fairs. In 1991, for instance, they bought a lamb that won grand champion honors, paying $1,050 for it.

The Pyramid was a popular place, with a staff that was renowned for their friendliness and long tenure. It was heavily patronized by surrounding townspeople and community organizations of all sorts. Counting party rooms, the restaurant seated 500. On Sundays they served up to 300 meals, a number that jumped up as high as 800 during goose hunting season.

As I continued to learn about the Pyramid I realized a restaurant that at first I took as a joke wasn’t that at all. It was a true community institution.

Its originators, the Beths, sold it in 1994, and it subsequently had a couple of owners who ran it under different names. It closed in 2009, looking rather forlorn as shown here on Google Earth.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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High-volume restaurants: Hilltop Steak House

Until I moved to Boston in the 1980s and took a whale watch tour I hadn’t heard the boastful term “biggest grossing” thrown around. In pointing out the highlights of the Boston Harbor, the tour operator singled out several booming enterprises including Anthony’s restaurant. Had we been on a tour of Route 1 north of Boston, I’m sure he would have shouted the praises of the Hilltop Steak House, another mega-volume eatery, where a team of in-house butchers carved up millions of steaks a year, the parking lot held 1,000 cars, and customers waited in long lines outside the door.

I never went there. I was not one of the 2,350,000 or so customers who patronized the Hilltop in 1985, for example, one of a number of years when it ranked as the #1 independent restaurant in the USA from a high-grossing perspective, with over $24 million in annual sales.

Established in 1961 with seating for 125, the Western-themed restaurant continued to grow in subsequent years, with more dining rooms brightened with the standard steakhouse blood red color scheme, seating 1,100 by 1970, with an enlarged parking lot, and a huge 68-foot high lighted cactus sign out front.

Dining rooms were adorned with totem poles, reproductions of Remington and Russell paintings, and life-size Indian figures. The rooms had names meant to conjure up the Wild West such as Sioux City and Kansas City. No doubt the names rang true to diners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts but would have amused residents of those Iowa and Missouri cities which are conspicuously lacking in Western symbology.

Guests appreciated big steaks, low prices, and free parking. Prices were premised on sales volume, rapid table turns, cash-only payment, no reservations, and limited menu choices. Steaks could vary in grade, customers could not send back too-well-done steaks, orders could not be split, and there were no tablecloths. There was only one salad dressing and appetizers and desserts were uninspired – Jello was one of the three desserts on a 1981 menu. “I have nothing against lobster thermidor,” owner Frank Giuffrida told a reporter in 1984, “but don’t come to the Hilltop Steak House and expect to find it.”

The restaurant was prominently visible on Route 1’s tacky, wacky restaurant row where other high-grossing restaurants were also located, making the roadway a New England phenomenon in its own right. The Hilltop’s location was conveniently near the Mystic Bridge, the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels, Logan Airport, the Southeast Expressway, and Routes. 128, 28, 3, and 93. Busses were welcome!

The Hilltop’s founder, Frank Giuffrida, owned the restaurant until 1988, retiring as a rich man despite never having attended high school. In 1940, when Frank was 23, he was a butcher in the family meat market. His parents were born in Italy and had once toiled in a Lawrence MA woolen mill. In the 1950s he owned a tavern-style eatery called the Hilltop Lounge not far from where the steakhouse would be located.

Frank sold the Hilltop corporation in 1988 though he held onto the building and the large plot of land it occupied. The sale came with an agreement that the Giuffrida family would eat at the restaurant for free for the rest of their lives and that they would never have to wait in line for a table.

By the late 1990s restaurant competition on Route 1 had grown fierce. Weylu’s, another Route 1 top-grosser serving as many as 5,000 meals a day at its peak, went into bankruptcy in 1999 and closed. The Hilltop shrank its seating capacity to a mere 850 guests, but carried on until 2013. Both Weylu’s and the Hilltop have been demolished.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Famous in its day: The Bakery

Louis Szathmary’s restaurant, The Bakery, opened in Chicago at a time when restaurant going in that city was not a very exciting proposition. Amidst the steak and potatoes of 1963, its pâté, bouillabaisse, Wiener schnitzel, and Viennese tortes stood out as exotic. Despite its storefront location in a run-down neighborhood – and no decor to speak of — the 25-seat neighborhood restaurant became an instant success. A little more than a year after it opened it was given a distinguished dining award by Holiday magazine. Reservations became hard to get.

The first review of The Bakery described it as a table d’hôte offering a set dinner that began with pâté, possibly followed by celery soup, shredded celery root salad with handmade mayonnaise, and Filet of Pike with Sauce Louis. By 1975 the number of entree choices for the then-$12 five-course dinner had extended to ten, with Beef Wellington and Roast Duckling with Cherry Glaze [pictured] among the most popular. Even as Beef Wellington lost its fashionability in the 1970s and 1980s, it continued as a Bakery mainstay. In 1989, as the restaurant was about to close, Szathmary said that although current food writers made fun of it, “they all raved about it once, and I know 50 percent of our sales after 26 years is still beef Wellington.”

Szathmary, who claimed a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Budapest, had learned to cook in Hungary during WWII when he was conscripted into the Hungarian army. He arrived in the US in 1951, working as a chef in several institutional settings in the Northeast before moving to Chicago in 1960 to join Armour & Co. in product development. As executive chef at Armour he helped launch the company’s Continental Cuisine line of frozen entrees for the home and commercial market that came in polybags that could be immersed in boiling water and served.

Among the first eating places to serve entrees from Armour’s Continental Cuisine and American Fare lines were Holiday Inn motels and the Seagram Tower at Niagara Falls. Dishes available in the two lines included beef burgundy, chuck wagon beef stew, turkey and crabmeat tetrazzini, chow mein, shrimp creole, and barbecued pork fried rice. Only months before opening The Bakery, Chef Louis (as he was popularly known) had been training the staff of a Michigan gas-station-restaurant complex aptly named The American Way how to heat and serve Armour’s bagged entrees.

After he left Armour to concentrate on The Bakery, Chef Louis continued to praise the use of convenience foods in restaurants. He published a column titled “Use Psychology on Your Customers” in a trade magazine in 1965 in which he urged restaurant managers to be honest about the food they served. He conceded that because he knew many of his guests were suspicious of frozen foods, he did not apologize when he took them on a tour of his storage areas. Although he sometimes used frozen foods, he said he always revealed that on his menus. In a July 1968 column for the trade magazine Food Service, he insisted that the restaurant industry should welcome factory-produced food because of the shortage of help at a time when restaurant patronage was on the rise.

That column brought forth a protest from fellow Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang of the elegant Four Seasons in NYC. Lang wrote, “I would very much like to preserve the level of cooking and the niveau [peak] of gastronomy that we practice at the Four Seasons.” To this Chef Louis replied that he was simply trying to be provocative. Not much later he boasted that he had the distinction of being fired as a consultant to Restaurant Associates (owner of the Four Seasons) – as well as caterer to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

With his fingers in many pies, Chef Louis was assisted by his wife Sada and a contingent of relatives, not to mention quite of few of his compatriots from Hungary who served in The Bakery’s kitchen and dining room (one going so far as to grow his own handlebar mustache). No doubt it was his loyal staff who made it possible for him to run a restaurant while producing books and copious newspaper and magazine articles, appearing frequently on TV and radio, teaching and lecturing at colleges, and conducting sideline restaurant consulting and cooking school businesses [shown above training waiters]. Always a showman, the flamboyant Chef Louis gave talks with titles such as “The Naked Ape and the Frying Pan,” and another in which he compared his ex-wives unfavorably to a bottle of Angostura bitters that had lasted longer and never got spoiled.

In addition to The Bakery, he owned or co-owned two other restaurants managed by his wife’s sister and brother-in-law, the Kobatas. The Cave, in Old Town, opened shortly after The Bakery. Its interior of papier mache simulated the walls of a cave covered with prehistoric drawings as researched by Chef Louis. In 1970 he opened Bowl & Roll, another family-wide venture drawing in not only the Kobatas but also the mothers of both Louis and Sada, plus Louis’ brother and sister-in-law. In an opening advertisement Bowl & Roll promised a range of unusual soups such as Hungarian sour cherry soup, Scandinavian fruit soup, and kohlrabi soup.

In the mid-1970s The Bakery’s reputation began to sag somewhat along with “continental cuisine” generally. Critic John Hess, in 1974, questioned the high regard that Holiday magazine bestowed on The Bakery and declared its Beef Wellington “the quintessence of the pretentious gourmet plague.” Patrons sent letters to Chicago newspapers saying the Roast Duckling was as “tough as an auto tire,” and charging that the restaurant’s acclaim was based on “mass hysteria” whipped up by Chef Louis himself. Chicagoans were sharply divided into lovers and haters. For two years in the 1970s readers polled by Chicago Magazine voted The Bakery as one of both the city’s 10 favorite and 10 least favorite restaurants. Still, in 1977 Cornell University named it one of the country’s six great restaurants, and, despite its loudly banging front door, too-brisk service, lack of decor, and awkward layout, its loyal patrons stuck by it and it remained profitable to the end.

At the 1989 closing Chef Louis said that the restaurant business had changed so much he could not have successfully created a restaurant such as The Bakery then, partly because of the public’s growing preference for lighter food. He declared he was proud that he “never served one kiwi fruit.”

Chef Louis stayed busy in retirement and donated his vast cookbook and culinary arts collection to libraries at the University of Iowa and Johnson & Wales University.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Training department store waitresses

It is said that department stores of the 20th century offered “luxury for the masses.” This was nowhere as evident as in the stores’ tea rooms.

A shining example was the tea room at Younkers Department Store in Des Moines, Iowa. Although residents of large coastal cities might imagine that their stores were the most luxurious and elegant, this was not strictly true. Department stores in smaller cities often had much higher status and influence in the eyes of their customers. In the case of Younkers, the flagship store was located near the middle of the state, making the store accessible to the entire population of Iowa. It is hardly surprising that it adopted the motto “Iowa’s Foremost Mercantile Establishment.”

And so the store’s tea room absolutely had to be a superior eating place, one that drew countless individuals, clubs, families, sororities, and professional organizations from every point in the state.

Although a tea room was first opened in 1913 in the original Younkers building, the one familiar to Iowans living today was opened in the mid-1920s after Younkers acquired the neighboring Wilkins Department store and built a narrow 4-story bridge between the two buildings in 1924. The new tea room on the 6th floor of the Wilkins building had ceilings over 18 feet tall, chandeliers, grand columns, and large arched windows. Patrons sat on federal-style urn-back chairs at tables with white tablecloths and stemmed water glasses. In addition to the main tea room seating 350 persons, there were several party and meeting rooms. A lounge outside the main tea room was decorated in Spanish revival style.

Recently I found a Tea Room Waitress Service Manual for Younkers, probably dating from the 1930s. [part of page 1 shown] It reveals the high standard of service expected from the staff, despite the fact that prices were moderate. Though undoubtedly predominantly white and culturally homogeneous, Younkers patrons represented a cross-section of ordinary Iowans. Yet in many ways the tea room aspired to the quality of appointments and service only found in certain expensive restaurants today.

The manual instructs waitresses that they must wear plain black shoes without “fancy stitching” or buckles. Uniforms were colored and came with a white apron, white collar, cuffs, and headband. Perfect alignment was required in all things. When dressing, for example, the “collar must fit in exact V in front, black bow straight at point of V.” The servers were to stand straight, “never . . . with hands on hips.” Light makeup was permitted but no jewelry other than a wedding ring.

Alignment in setting the tables was equally critical. The two creases of a tablecloth had to “come together in center of table.” Knives were to be placed to the right of the plate with the sharp edge facing inward, “one inch from edge of table.” Salt and pepper shakers were to be “placed straight with lines of table.” When doilies were used for parties, servers were to “Be careful to place linen straight, if round doilies, thread of linen should run parallel to edge of table.” The tip of a slice of pie had to point “directly to customer.”

Of course great care was demanded in all things. Finger bowls were to be presented on a saucer. Dishes were to be served holding a folded towel underneath. After filling water glasses before guests arrived for a party, the waitress was instructed to “Check the chairseats for any drops of water.” And of course, “Make as little noise as possible in handling silverware, dishes, and trays at all times.” To insure silence, trays were to be set down upon pads, particularly in the evening.

It is easy to see why so many Iowans were sad to see Younkers flagship store close in 2005.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Dining with Diamond Jim

diamondjimchurchills

In the early 1900s with the growth of Broadway’s fame as a place for flashy people to see and be seen, no one stood out from the crowd like James Buchanan Brady. Known across America for his large collection of diamonds which he boldly wore in public, he inspired others to display trappings of wealth. In the words of Parker Morell, author of a 1934 book about Brady, “Jim was the diamond studded decoy duck that filled the coffers of New York’s merchants.”

Those merchants included not only the jewelers of Maiden Lane, but also the restaurateurs of Broadway. Among his favorites were Rector’s, Churchill’s, Shanley’s, Healy’s, Murray’s Roman Garden, [see below] and others on and off Broadway. In 1917 he gave a talk at a dinner of the New York Society of Restaurateurs where he contrasted Broadway’s restaurants with the downtown places of his much poorer early days where a plate of corned beef and beans cost 10 cents.

diamondjimrectors

Brady was a highly visible regular in restaurants and so-called “lobster palaces.” The proprietor of Rector’s, the reigning palace of lobsterdom, referred to Jim as “our ten best customers” due to his frequent visits coupled with the vast amount of food he was alleged to consume. And of course his presence in hot dining spots attracted celebrity hunters galore.

diamondjimmurrays1908

But did his celebrity also win him a get-out-of-trouble ticket – or did he simply live in a time when being super rich brought immunity from scandal? As “America’s greatest salesman,” James Brady frequently hosted parties of visiting businessmen whose contracts he was courting as a major player in the railroad equipment business. He could spend up to $3,000 (in 1904, equal to $82,000 now) for an evening’s entertainment which might also include the company of well-paid chorus girls or visits to women on the shady side of town. He freely poured wine for his guests, but he did not drink. Orange juice was his preferred accompaniment to meals – at a time when it was not considered a customary beverage.

diamondjimphotoDespite the expensive dinners he gave, he showed a contradictory attitude toward restaurant spending. According to George Rector, Jim swore he would not come back to Rector’s after it levied a 10-cent cover charge. Of course he did return, but why argue over such a minuscule fee? And when he was charged with extravagance, he countered defensively that extravagance meant spending money you didn’t have or wasting it on worthless things. He, on the other hand, spent his well-earned money on simple dinners such as what he called his “one-two-three”: Lynnhaven oysters, terrapin, and canvasback duck. Expensive, yes, but not extravagant “because you get your money’s worth.”

He could be generous. According to gossip columnist O. O. McIntyre, when Brady died in 1917 he had a number of elderly waiters on pensions.

He began acquiring and wearing diamond jewelry in the 1880s when he became a traveling salesman for a railroad equipment company. According to Morell’s book Diamond Jim, it was common then for traveling men to wear diamonds, and to gamble with them too. Brady was able to build a collection by winning at cards and dice. Displaying his collection to business associates and clients proved to be a good way to impress them and make sales. By 1893 he was ordering diamond-crusted pieces and sets that were custom designed exclusively for him. When he attended meetings of railroad directors he often wore his “transportation set” that included cufflinks resembling tank and coal railcars, and shirt studs in the forms of a bicycle, auto, and airplane.

diamondjim1908jpgAccording to some accounts, his jewels may have made him a nationally known celebrity and an effective salesman, but failed to win him acceptance by genteel society. Perhaps he regretted his glittering reputation. Headwaiters bowed down to him but he was sometimes ridiculed in newspapers. The Baltimore Sun ran a story in 1913 titled “Reckless Money Spenders of America in a Delirium of Extravagance Rival Rome’s Profligates” that spotlighted Diamond Jim and implied he bribed railroad purchasing agents.

He faced further unfavorable scrutiny the following year when testimony before the Interstate Commerce Commission revealed that the inexplicably debt-ridden New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Co. had, among other transgressions, bought railcars and equipment from Brady totaling $37 million without competitive bidding. In his ICC testimony Jim freely admitted that he had been very generous to the company’s officials – but simply because they were old friends. He also told the commissioners that he kept no books because “I don’t propose that anybody else shall know how I have built my business.”

Well, at least he could eat. Though it was often recounted that he consumed prodigious quantities of oysters, lobsters, and game, I am skeptical about this since the accounts seemed to be part of legend-making after his death. Nonetheless, his diet, which included half a pound of candy daily after he cut down following a diagnosis of diabetes, seemed to have a disastrous effect on his health. In 1912, and later in his will, he donated a large sum of money to Johns Hopkins Hospital for surgery he said gave him a “new stomach.”

When he died, James Brady’s fortune, including his diamond collection – though quite substantial — turned out to be smaller than expected. Obviously “Diamond Jim” was largely a media creation. The man vanished in 1917, most of the restaurants failed with Prohibition, but the fantastic stories have persisted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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