Tag Archives: 1940s

With haute cuisine for all: Longchamps

Staked by his brother-in-law, gambler Arnold Rothstein, Henry Lustig expanded from the wholesale produce business into restaurants in 1919. His first location, at 78th and Madison Avenue, was a property that belonged to Arnold. By 1924 he had two more restaurants, one conveniently near Saks Fifth Avenue. An advertisement informed “Madame or Mademoiselle” that at Longchamps they would find light French dishes as well as “soothing quiet, faultless service and a typically ‘Continental’ cuisine” that was above average “yet … not expensive.” While not exactly cheap, Longchamps was considered easily affordable by the middle-class.

The chain continued to grow rapidly after the repeal of Prohibition when it hired top modernist decorators and architects to give it ultra-sophisticated chic. With the assistance of German-born artist and designer Winold Reiss and architects Louis Allen Abramson and Ely Jacques Kahn, New York City gained some of its most glamorous restaurant interiors of the period. Reiss showed considerable talent in disguising irregular spaces with mirrors and murals, multiple levels, dramatic lighting, and flashy staircases that lured people cheerfully downward to dine below ground (see his interior sketch and menu cover below). From 1935 to 1940 Longchamps opened seven new restaurants, including two on Broadway, one at Lexington and 42nd Street, and one in the Empire State Building.

Cocktail bars were no small part of the slick 1930s Longchamps formula. The chain’s ninth unit at Madison and 59th Street, a site vacated by Reuben’s, had a long oval bar stationed above floor level in the middle of the dining room. With 50 bartenders staffing the bar, the restaurant itself seated 950 diners. When it opened in 1935 a Longchamps advertisement immodestly called it “The Outstanding Restaurant Creation of the Century.” Architectural critic Lewis Mumford found its red, black, gold, and yellow color scheme — carried out even on chair backs and table tops — overdone, but he sensed that his was a minority opinion and he was almost certainly right. Among others, it soon became a meeting place for James Beard and his old friends from Oregon.

During the war Longchamps’ did a booming business. Lustig, it turned out, was siphoning off cash as fast as he could and keeping two sets of books, one for him and one for the IRS. Keep in mind that he owned racehorses and had named his restaurants after a famous Paris racetrack. The game was up in 1946 when he was handed a bill for delinquent taxes and fines of more than $10M and sentenced to four years in federal prison. Nine restaurants, along with a good stock of wine (the Times Square unit alone was said to have 120,000 bottles in the cellar), miscellaneous pieces of Manhattan real estate, and the chain’s bakery, catering business, ice cream plant, candy factory, and commissary, then passed into the hands of a syndicate which owned the Exchange Buffet.

In 1952 a Longchamps was opened in Washington, D.C., becoming one of the few downtown restaurants in that city that served Afro-American patrons. About this time another Longchamps opened in the Claridge apartments on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. In 1959 the chain was acquired by Jan Mitchell, owner since 1950 of the old Lüchow’s. He revealed that the chain, which consisted of twelve red and gold restaurants, a poorly trained kitchen staff, and a diminishing patronage, had been losing money for the past five years but that he could revive it as he had done with Lüchow’s. Under his ownership the New York units began offering guests the dietary concoction Metracal in their cocktail lounges, as well as free glasses of wine and corn on the cob with their meal. After a couple of years the chain was in the black.

In 1967 Mitchell sold it to the Riese brothers, who owned the Childs restaurants and, with new corporation president Larry Ellman, were in the process of buying up classic New York restaurants – Cavanagh’s in 1968, Lüchow’s in 1969, and others. In 1969 the old Longchamps were mostly turned into steakhouse theme restaurants. The restaurant at Madison and 59th, though, was renamed the Orangerie, dedicated to “hedonistic New Yorkers,” and given a “festive mood of Monte Carlo.” Its $8.75 prix fixe dinner came with free wine, “Unique La ‘Tall’ Salade,” and after-dinner coffee with Grand Marnier. In 1971 a single Longchamps operated under that name, at Third Avenue and 65th Street, but I doubt it had anything in common with the classic Longchamps of the 1930s. The holding company “Longchamps, Inc.” vanished in 1975.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Taste of a decade: 1940s restaurants

DCcafeteria1943During the war (1941-1945) the creation of 17 million new jobs finally pulls the economy out of the Depression. Millions of married women enter the labor force. The demand for restaurant meals escalates, increasing from a pre-war level of 20 million meals served per day to over 60 million. The combination of increased restaurant patronage with labor shortages, government-ordered price freezes, and rationing of basic foods puts restaurants in a squeeze. With gasoline rationing, many roadside cafes and hamburger stands close.

For a time after the war, rationing continues and wholesale prices stay high but patronage falls off as women leave jobs and return to the kitchen. Trained restaurant personnel are in short supply. Restaurants take advantage of food service methods and materials developed for the armed services. The frozen food industry supplies restaurants with fish, French fries, and baked goods. Boil-in bags of pre-cooked entrees become available. Fast food assembly lines and serving techniques used by the military are transferred to commercial establishments.

Highlights

1940 Based on how many restaurant tablecloths have numbers scribbled on them, executives of the National Restaurant Association reason that mealtime deals are being made and that business is finally bouncing back from the Great Depression.

toffenetti3321941 When the restaurant in the French pavilion at the New York World’s Fair closes, its head Henri Soulé decides he will not return to a Paris occupied by Germans. He and ten waiters remain in New York and open Le Pavillon. Columnist Lucius Beebe declares its cuisine “absolutely faultless,” with prices “of positively Cartier proportions.” – Chicago cafeteria operator Dario Toffenetti, who also had a successful run at the Fair, decides to open a cafeteria in Times Square.

1942 According an official of the National Restaurant Association, nearly one tenth of the 1,183,073 employees and proprietors in the U.S. restaurant business are in California.

1943 Decreeing that patrons will not need to turn in ration coupons for restaurant meals, Washington makes a fateful decision that will fill restaurants to the bursting point. In Chicago, restaurants in the “Loop” experience nearly a 25% increase over the year before, while in New York City patronage doubles and earlier seatings must be devised.

1943 Food imports cease and Chinese restaurants cannot get bamboo shoots. They substitute snow peas, now grown in California and Florida. Because of restrictions, restaurants of all kinds leave cakes unfrosted and substitute honey and molasses for sugar. Instead of beef, lamb, and pork, vegetable plates, fish, omelets, spaghetti, and salad bowls fill menus.

1944 In Reno, Nevada, the White House offers a menu with many fish, seafood, and poultry selections, including lobster, crab legs, frog legs, oysters, fried prawns, brook trout, guinea hen, squab, pheasant, sweetbreads, turkey, duckling, and chicken a la king.

schrafftsrockefellerctr19481946 Like health departments all across the country, NYC begins a crack down on unsanitary conditions in restaurants, a problem that worsened with skeleton crews and extended mealtimes during wartime. An official says that of five inspections he witnessed only a Schrafft’s (shown here: Schrafft’s at Rockefeller Center) could be pronounced “sanitary and clean.”

1947 The Raytheon Corporation, maker of radar systems and components for the military, teams with General Electric to introduce the first microwave oven, the Radarange. Not available for home use initially, it is rented to hotels and restaurants for $5 a day.

1947 After numerous Afro-Americans are refused service in Bullocks department store tea room in Los Angeles, a group sponsored by C.O.R.E. stages a sit-in. Later a supportive white veteran publishes a letter to the editor of a paper declaring that since black soldiers regarded it as their duty to protect him from the “enemy abroad” during wartime, he now feels it is his duty “to protect them from the enemy at home.”

1948 An advice column tells girls to let their date handle all restaurant transactions, including complaints or questions about overcharges. “The girl does not intrude or ask, later, who won the argument,” advises the columnist. – In Chicago, a year-long trade school program in professional cooking enrolls veterans to help relieve the city’s acute chef shortage.

howardjohnsons1949 Howard Johnson’s, the country’s largest restaurant chain, reports a record volume of business for the year. HoJos, which has not yet spread farther west than Fort Wayne IN, plans a move into California.

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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