Tag Archives: bohemians

Find of the day: J.B.G.’s French restaurant

FrenchtabledhoteJBG740

Last weekend I went to an antique paper show sponsored by the Ephemera Society of America where there were books and every sort of printed thing — maps, advertising cards, tickets, menus, postcards, posters, broadsides — for sale. I ended up buying only seven items, but one of them (shown above) was a gem.

I knew as soon as I spotted it that it was a relic of New York City’s old French quarter in which many restaurants flourished in the 19th century. The card probably dates from the latter years of the quarter, about 1904.

J.B.G.’s was operated by Jean Baptiste Guttin, who immigrated to the United States in 1872 and became a citizen in 1892. For many years he worked as a waiter at wine merchant Henri Mouquin’s well-known restaurant on Fulton Street. Then, in 1890, he took over a restaurant formerly run by A. Fourcade on West 25th street. Within a few years he changed the name to J.B.G. and moved down the street a bit.

frenchtabledhoteguttinMay1890Beginning in the 1890s the area from West 23rd to West 28th streets near Sixth avenue was the heart of the French quarter, which was said to be as much or more of a tight-knit community than the Chinese. It had earlier been situated farther downtown, south of Washington Square. By 1895 West 25th was the new restaurant row for French New Yorkers. The restaurants were also patronized by others who lived in the area, as well as adventurous “Bohemian” diners who came to soak up the atmosphere. Of course they also liked getting a six-course meal with red wine and coffee for 50 or 60 cents.

Described in the 1903 guide book Where and How to Dine in New York as “very French,” J.B.G.’s was a truly old-fashioned table d’hôte in that customers had no choice in dishes and didn’t know what they would be eating until it was set down before them.

Jean Baptiste Guttin was successful in the restaurant business. When he died in 1914 he left the then-considerable sum of $4,000 to NYC’s French Hospital as a way of thanking the late chocolate-maker and restaurateur Henry Maillard for advancing him a loan of the same amount “in a moment of difficulty.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Taste of a decade: 1850s restaurants

The population was moving west, with about a third living beyond the Appalachians. California had just been admitted as a state. Cities were growing. NYC was the largest, at over half a million, yet it was the only one of the nation’s eight biggest cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants. Slavery continued in the South and threatened to move West.

The smallest of the “big” cities, San Francisco, with a metropolitan area of about 35,000 in 1850, was the decade’s headline grabber. With so many living in tents and hovels, nearly everyone there ate in restaurants most of the time. Cooks came from every part of the world, as did the cuisine.

Boston, third largest with fewer than 137,000 residents, reported that among properties supplied with water there were 65 hotels, 57 saloons, 56 restaurants, 13 oyster shops, and 12 eating houses, along with 9 distilleries and 8 breweries. Beer was, in fact, beginning to supplant hard liquor as the national alcoholic beverage. Some parts of the country were overtaken by temperance sentiment and a few temperance restaurants were initiated.

The old Yankee/English term “eating house” was giving way to the more elegant French term “restaurant.” Because of so many single males in cities, many restaurants were run in conjunction with barber shops, pool halls, and bowling lanes. Those places that accommodated women usually set apart a separate room for them.

American restaurant cuisine was becoming more diverse, yet oysters reigned supreme as everybody’s favorite appetizer, late night snack, and fast food. They were ordered by simply saying, “Give me six.”

Highlights

1850 Residents of San Francisco are delighted when the refined Excelsior opens. Its white tablecloths, someone writes, give the new restaurant “quite a human appearance.” It is outfitted with gold spoons and some of its vegetables come all the way from the Sandwich Islands. – The city also has the first three Chinese restaurants in the U.S., serving “chow-chow and curry dishes” along with more conventional “English” choices.

1851 In Louisville KY, Walker’s City Exchange celebrates the opening of its new five-story restaurant building, fitted out with marble drinking saloon, dining rooms, an oyster stand, and private dining apartments. On the upper floors are tenpins alleys, billiards rooms, and staff dormitories.

1852 Newly arrived in Boston for his U.S. tour, English novelist William Thackeray is treated to a plate of gigantic oysters at Ferdinando Gori’s restaurant in the Tremont House. After downing one, he cast a “comic look of despair” at the other five, admitting he felt as if he had “swallowed a little baby.”

1852 Broadway, the grand avenue of NYC, is home to elaborate Paris-style cafés, including the popular gilt and mirrored ladies’ resort called Taylor’s and several others with names borrowed directly from France such as Tortoni and Rocher de Cancale.

1853 In Philadelphia someone has fitted up a handsome row house with a café and restaurant called Parkinson’s. It has a ladies’ saloon “sumptuously furnished in velvets and frescoes,” a garden, and a confectionery shop. – In San Francisco, M. L. Winn operates a fashionable alcohol-free ladies’ Refreshment Saloon at the corner of Washington & Montgomery (pictured) designed to “sail through the Gulf of Dissipation, Misery and Death.”

1854 Six years after the Declaration of the Rights of Woman at Seneca Falls NY, women’s rights supporter Stephen Pearl Andrews argues for abolishing home kitchens, writing “the large and elegant eating saloon, with cleanliness, order, artistic skill, and abundance, in the preparation of food, is a cheaper arrangement than the meager and ill-conditioned private table.”

1855 George T. Downing, a black caterer from New York, opens the Sea Girt House in Newport RI where he presents an ice cream saloon, private dining rooms, and, behind a lace curtain, a ladies’ café. Specialties prepared by his French and English assistants include New York oysters, confectionery, and cakes.

1856 Baltimore issues 177 licenses to eating places. Since the number of eating places not serving liquor would be minuscule, this is undoubtedly close to the total number of restaurants.

1858 At the Empire State Dining Saloon in San Francisco, a wide choice of baked goods, regionally and nationally, is available with the diner’s California Bacon and Eggs such as Mississippi Hot Corn Bread, Hot English Muffins, Hot American Waffles, Hot Hungarian Rolls, Boston Cream Toast, German Bread, and New York Batter Cakes.

1859 Only a few years old, a café owned by Charles Pfaff is discovered by a loose band of artists and writers which includes Walt Whitman who make it their club. They eat German pancakes and drink Pfaff’s beer from the barrels which line the walls. The word Bohemian has not made it into the dictionaries yet but when it does it will be applied to them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1870 to 1880; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

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Basic fare: spaghetti

spaghettiMeatballs327In the 1890s it was considered daring to go to an Italian restaurant and eat spaghetti. The restaurants were not in affluent neighborhoods and some middle-class people worried (largely needlessly) about how clean they were. Non-drinkers didn’t approve of the “red ink” (wine) that came with the spaghetti. Some women felt it was not ladylike to eat spaghetti in public. Then there was the garlic, which was considered seriously foreign by many Americans. But others, especially offbeat types – artists, musicians, and free spirits known as “bohemians” — loved the whole experience: spaghetti, wine, garlic, low prices, and the friendly atmosphere found in most Italian places. The future of spaghetti belonged to them.

Italian pastas were not really new in this country. Thomas Jefferson brought several cases back from Paris in the 1780s and when he ran out he imported a piece of equipment for making macaroni (as all pastas were known then). Macaroni occasionally shows up on menus before the Civil War. In 1844 the Café Tortoni, a French restaurant in NYC, featured stewed beef with macaroni. Pastas were growing popular enough by 1888 to be manufactured in the United States, made of durum wheat grown in the Dakotas.

spaghettiwaiter04The bohemian fad for spaghetti grew stronger in the early 20th century, particularly in lower Manhattan and San Francisco. Diners flocked to Gonfarone’s in Greenwich Village. Despite its low prices, the restaurant made money because a 50-cent dinner with a complimentary glass of wine cost but pennies to put on the table – about 2 cents for the spaghetti and a few cents for a carafe of the red California claret bought by the barrel, 40 or 50 at a time.

In 1904 short story writer O. Henry swelled the fame of the spaghetti restaurant with “A Philistine in Bohemia.” The story involved a poor, unsophisticated daughter of a rooming house keeper who is taken out to a restaurant called Tonio’s by one of her mother’s boarders. When they arrive at the restaurant he disappears, later to emerge from the kitchen as the chef who is warmly greeted by the regular diners who regard him with awe.

Spaghetti sauces in the early Italian restaurants often were made of a brown sauce mixed with tomato sauce, the whole dish sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The brown sauce was made with thickened beef broth, sauteed mushrooms, and sometimes truffles and chicken livers.

By around 1910 spaghetti had spread to restaurants run by non-Italians. It might appear on menus as “Spaghetti Italienne” or as “authentic Italian” if garlic was used, perhaps a warning to avoiders. On the other hand, bland American-style spaghetti quickly became a regular in cheap cafés and on cafeteria steam tables. In “home-cooking” places, such as Foster’s on South Wabash in Chicago, it joined a melange of 25-cent dishes like ham with macaroni, creamed eggs on toast, corn fitters with maple syrup, clam chowder, and baked beans.

tonysbantaminnCT42Spaghetti, Italian and non, continued as a staple restaurant dish during successive decades, in speakeasies of the 1920s, Depression dives and diners, and a variety of restaurants during the meatless months of World War II. Next came pre-cooked meatballs and prepared sauces in the 1960s and 1970s which meant even virtually kitchenless restaurants could serve spaghetti. Its cheapness and the fact that children like it also made spaghetti a favorite of family restaurants, and the basis of chains such as the Old Spaghetti Factory, the original of which was started in Portland OR by a Greek immigrant in 1969.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Joel’s bohemian refreshery

Joel Rinaldo’s was one of the all-night eating and drinking places that thrived around Times Square in New York before the First World War. “Refreshery” was an unusual term that probably related more to drinking than to eating since saloon owners often referred to their offerings as “refreshments.”

Exactly when Joel’s opened is unclear but chances are it was in the late 1890s. The real estate parcel at 206 West 41st Street that became Joel’s was part of his father’s estate when he died in 1895.

Looking at these 1910-ish postcards of Joel’s you might be misled into thinking it was an elegant after-theatre spot. It attracted all kinds of late-night visitors but was mainly famous as a hangout for musicians, artists, writers, heavy drinkers, “hop-heads,” and Mexican revolutionaries. In 1910 the restaurant was the headquarters of the Mexican Liberal Party opposed to the presidency of General Porfirio Diaz. The short story writer O. Henry was a regular also, though he may have spent more time drinking in the first-floor bar than eating in the café on the second floor. It is likely that El Refugio, a café described in O. Henry’s short story “The Gold That Glittered,” was based on Joel’s.

One of the most popular dishes at Joel’s was chili con carne, a dish not easily found in New York in the early 20th century. He also served tamales and “frijoles colorado.” In addition to Mexican dishes, Joel concocted a drink that became famous – or, more likely, notorious — called a Blue Moon. Only one to a customer but that was enough reportedly to “keep the patron pleasantly mellow the rest of the evening.”

Joel’s walls were filled with drawings, which can be seen on in the image above. Some were by caricaturist Carlo de Fornaro who spent time in jail after being successfully sued by a Mexican official in NY courts for libelous statements Fornaro made in his book, Diaz, Czar of Mexico. Joel, born in NYC around 1870, also had intellectual ambitions, was attracted to psychology and philosophy, and wrote an obscure treatise against Darwin’s account of evolution called Rinaldo’s Polygeneric Theory.

Joel took a paternalistic role toward many of his patrons, keeping prices low and announcing on a gilt sign that touring actors and musicians (he was near the Metropolitan Opera House) could send him their money and he would keep it safe for them. It is said that many took him up on the offer. Perhaps his motive for keeping a bank was to insure that eventually he would get paid, to offset all the bad checks he took from his erratic patrons.

The interesting thing about bohemian places like Joel’s was how they loosened up a middle class still under the spell of Victorian correctness. After a few hours in a heady atmosphere like this and they’d be talking to strangers (without even being introduced!), singing out loud, and ordering drinks all around.

Joel’s closed in 1925, a casualty of Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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