Tag Archives: Broadway restaurants

Anatomy of a restaurateur: George Rector

Although it’s well known that owning and running restaurants is risky, the career of George Rector had more zig zags and dead ends than most.

Beginning well with apprenticeship at top Parisian restaurants and a medal from La Société des Cuisiniers de Paris, he ended his career in the food world promoting industrial food products.

I’ve long been aware of Rector’s restaurants, but I became interested in George’s career recently when I acquired his 1939 cookbook HOME AT THE RANGE WITH GEORGE RECTOR. It is sprinkled with asides such as one that extols the merits of wooden salad bowls that are gently wiped, never washed, after each use.

As the son of a premier restaurateur, Charles Rector, George was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Charles was the originator of highly successful restaurants. Rector’s Oyster House opened in 1884 serving seafood to eager Chicagoans. It was so popular that the restaurant was doubled in size in 1891. Next, Charles operated Rector’s Marine Restaurant at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At the end of the 19th century a Rector’s was established in New York, on Broadway at 44th street, soon becoming one of the city’s top showplace dining venues.

His father sent George to Paris to learn the trade around 1900 and, he writes, to “buy, beg, borrow or steal from Hippolyte Arnion of Café de Paris fame, the recipe for Sauce Mornay.” Upon his return, he worked with his father, introducing French dishes at Rector’s. But in 1909, due to a spat between the two men, George opened a competing Broadway restaurant he named Café Madrid. Shortly later he sold his interest in that restaurant and rejoined his father in a new venture, Hotel Rector, on the site of the former Rector’s, designed by Daniel Burnham and outfitted with luxurious dining rooms.

The hotel failed after three short years, allegedly because of the “bohemian” reputation it had unfairly acquired through its presumed association with a racy play called The Girl from Rector’s. George then joined with a new partner in yet another restaurant called Rector’s, also on Broadway, that closed in 1918 with the stirrings of Prohibition.

The history of all four New York Rector’s has been expertly detailed by Henry Voight, who also provides and interprets menus from the restaurants.

In 1926 George turned up at a fifth Rector’s, this one in Florida. Advertisements for “The Original Rector’s, “Miami’s Restaurant of Distinction,” claimed it was under his personal management. Not for long, though. The following year he returned from a tour of Europe, declaring upon his arrival that he would never open another restaurant. He added that “America is becoming a one-armed lunchroom, a place where people wolf their food.” That year, 1927, he published his first book, THE GIRL FROM RECTOR’S, based upon essays he had written for the magazine Saturday Evening Post.

The book was shortly followed by another, the self-published RECTOR COOK BOOK. A year later, in 1929, he was reported to be director of cuisine for a railroad, as well as a lecturer on food and cooking. In 1931 he told students at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration that because Europeans were no longer coming to the U.S., “The quality of American cooking has declined.”

In 1934 E. P. Dutton & Co. published DINE AT HOME WITH RECTOR, with a subtitle that reminds me of James Beard (as does George’s product touting): “A Book on What Men Like, Why They Like It, And How To Cook It.”

Through the 1930s and through World War II, George worked for a number of advertisers as a traveling lecturer, radio personality, and author of sponsored newspaper food columns such as “Tricks with Chopped Meat” for A&P food stores in 1936. He was a guest of A&P’s radio program Our Daily Food as well as a food tester for the chain. A&P also sponsored his third book A LA RECTOR. In 1937 his smiling face, commonly used in advertising with tag lines such as “Formerly the Proprietor of the World Famous Rector’s,” appeared in an advertisement for Phillips Delicious Soups.

In 1939 he published two books, the one I acquired (sponsored by Gas Exhibits, Inc.) and also DINING IN NEW YORK WITH RECTOR, a restaurant guide occasioned by the New York World’s Fair. About then he took on a new client, Wilson & Co., producer of meat byproducts such as lard and beef extract, and canned meat called MOR.

I’m left wondering how the same man who was quoted in 1929 saying, “It is a pleasure to me to talk to people who appreciate good food and who realize that cooking is one of the fine arts.” could also say that B-V beef extract was “The most useful cooking ingredient I have ever known.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Dining with Diamond Jim

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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.

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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.

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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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