Tag Archives: celebrity restaurants

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Ruby Foo

Is any proof needed that restaurants are show business to a high degree – given that they are enveloped in mystique made up of names, signs, logos, lighting, decor, artistically arranged food, and costumed and scripted personnel?

And sometimes restaurateurs themselves are not the people they appear to be but are creations as carefully crafted as the stars of the entertainment world.

After extensive research I’ve begun to wonder if the public persona of Ruby Foo was largely fictitious.

She is often seen as a rare example of a Chinese woman who defied convention by creating a chain of stylish, nightclub-style Chinese restaurants that appealed to non-Chinese customers. It seems to me that however wealthy she became from the Ruby Foo restaurants, she had a turbulent and difficult life with three marriages and legal troubles that belied her vaunted glamorous life of jewels and furs, shopping in Paris, and flying her own plane.

To begin, note that she was indeed of Chinese ancestry but was born in California as were both her parents, who gave Ruby and her three siblings American first names. This casts doubt upon lore cranked out by gossip columnists who made much of her exotic identity. Their Ruby Foo seemed to have been born in China and had a mother who could not speak a word of English.

Some accounts say she opened her first restaurant in 1923. But she was married to an herbalist and living in Boston’s Back Bay in a house valued at $11,000 [pictured 2018], which was quite a lot at that time. She had a one-year-old and gave birth to her second child that year. Hard to believe that under those circumstances a woman would open a small lunch room for manual workers, as it has been described. I have been unable to find any trace of it.

According to other tales, she opened her first restaurant in 1929, which is more believable, though I think it might have been a bit later. In publicity she is always represented as the sole proprietor, but when her brother George died in the 1960s, the Boston Globe reported that he had opened the “original” Den with Ruby. It could not have been called Ruby Foo’s Den then, because she had not yet divorced her first husband, Dr. Shong, and married Mr. Foo. A story in a New York City paper said that Ruby opened a restaurant in 1930 upon the death of Dr. Shong; actually, he died in 1933, by which time she had remarried. [Ruby Foo’s Den, Boston, ca. 1950]

Her second husband, Tam/Tom Foo, who she married sometime between 1930 and 1932, was a bookkeeper when they married and soon fell into big trouble when he embezzled $20,000 from his employer in 1932. Stories in the Boston Herald said the Chinese community regarded him as a scrupulously honest man who became money hungry when he married Ruby and adopted a more expensive lifestyle. Remarkably, by the time he died at age 47 in 1940 he had redeemed himself in the eyes of the community and was, indeed, an importer.

Around 1941 Ruby married William Wong. Wong sued for divorce in 1948, after being shot in the neck the previous year by Ruby’s son Earl/Earle Shong. Earl’s defense was that he was defending his mother from Wong’s attack on her with a hammer. Earl was acquitted, but later had several run-ins with the police. Wong claimed in his divorce proceedings that Ruby drank heavily and had assaulted him on three occasions, one resulting in a hospital stay. He was granted an uncontested divorce on the grounds of cruel and abusive treatment.

During the 1930s, with the end of Prohibition, Ruby Foo’s Den grew into a popular nightclub and expanded into New York and Miami, each with two locations, plus another at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But it isn’t at all clear to what degree Ruby owned and operated the 11 Ruby Foo’s that existed at one time or another (not only in Boston, New York, and Miami, but also in Providence, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London). She was in poor health in the 1940s, when William Wong managed the Boston restaurant. It’s likely that by the time of her death in 1950 she held a financial stake in four of them and the others were licensed to use the copyrighted name “Ruby Foo’s Den.” A woman named Florence Pike partnered with Ruby to create and run the New York Ruby’s at 240 W. 52nd street near the theaters that was often featured in 1930s gossip columns. [pictured at top, ca. 1940] According to an obituary for Foo, Pike became owner of the restaurants after Ruby’s death.

One role that Ruby did honor as a restaurateur was to visit her restaurants regularly and to give interviews to columnists.

A Ruby-Foo’s Den was recreated in New York’s Times Square in 2000 and closed a few years ago.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Celebrity restaurateurs: Pat Boone

PatBooneDine-O-Mat

Few celebrities become deeply involved in the restaurants that bear their names. That was true of the singer Pat Boone, who was known to visit his namesake restaurants occasionally and to sing and sign autographs at openings. How much good his – or any celebrity’s – connection does for a restaurant is debatable. Neither Pat Boone’s success as a performer nor his pro-family, clean-cut, Christian image saved the ventures he lent his name and money to.

Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mat appears to have barely gotten off the ground despite what publicity referred to as its “space age” design. “This . . . new type of fully automatic roadside restaurant is destined to be an important landmark on highways all over America,” boasted a 1963 advertisement aimed at investors. The initial plan was to build 100 of the restaurants by summer of 1964, but few seem to have been constructed.

PatBooneCountryInn1959An earlier disappointing experiment in restauranting, Pat Boone’s Country Inn, in Denton TX, closed a mere four years after opening in 1958, even though Boone was connected to the town because of attending North Texas State College there.

While the Country Inn was a conventional restaurant, Dine-O-Mats were designed to be “revolutionary.” Perhaps the New Jersey entrepreneurs who cooked up the Dine-O-Mat concept were inspired by Stouffer’s 1961 foray into selling frozen food from vending machines to Ohio turnpike motorists who reheated it in microwave ovens.

Little could Pat Boone and company know when they launched Dine-O-Mats in 1962 that Stouffer’s would announce less than a year later their intention to phase out the roadside restaurants after realizing that travelers only wanted “speed and price.”

Both Stouffer’s highway restaurants and Dine-O-Mats might be called automats. But unlike Horn & Hardart automats, coins put in a slot did not call forth ready-to-eat selections. Dine-O-Mats had only one employee on the premises, an attendant whose job was to keep the machines loaded with frozen food. Rather comically, the postcard above shows customers (and Pat) dressed in their Sunday best, yet they are “dining” in a dismal geodesic-domed hut surrounded by vending machines and two microwaves sunk into an imitation hearth.

Similar to Stouffer’s restaurants, Dine-O-Mats were to be located near “motels, service stations, shopping centers, bowling alleys, country clubs, amusement parks, factories, air and bus terminals and along major highways,” according to a 1962 prospectus. How many were ever built, other than the prototype on Route 46 in Little Ferry NJ, is unclear. There may have been a few additional ones in New Jersey and Georgia.

Since kitchenless Dine-O-Mats relied on cooked food supplied by an offsite commissary, the scheme made sense only if deliveries could reach multiple outlets easily. In 1964 construction was to begin on a unit in Augusta, Georgia, but the project was delayed because of company “reorganization.” It was to be part of a group of Dine-O-Mats in Albany, Macon, and Savannah, but whether any of the Georgia restaurants opened I cannot determine.

PatBooneDunkinDonutsNPlainfieldNJIn 1965, when the Augusta construction was slated to begin, a newspaper report announced, “The Pat Boone Restaurant Corp. has revised all plans and has just now completed reorganization with new, modernized plans for its restaurants.” Though it’s hard to imagine what could be more modern than “space age,” it’s possible the geodesic dome had been scrapped and that the North Plainfield NJ Dunkin Donuts pictured here was once a Dine-O-Mat as some people believe.

The company’s confusing advertisements for prospective investors required differing minimum investment amounts ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 for a “limited (inactive) partnership” in April of 1963, to $15,000 to become an “area controller” in October, then asking $10,000 for an “investment opportunity” in March of 1965. Did anyone ever get the 10% to 13% returns that were estimated?

© 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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Celebrity restaurants: Evelyn Nesbit’s tea room

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of celebrities have gone into the restaurant business when their careers waned. Their level of direct involvement may be high or low but all these ventures bank on the idea that a famous name will attract customers.

When Evelyn Nesbit opened her NYC tea room in May of 1921 she made sure that her name was prominently displayed. Located on West 52nd street just off Broadway, the sign saying “Evelyn Nesbit’s Specialty Shop” was visible from the theater district’s Great White Way.

She was then in her mid-30s, years away from her peak as a teenage artist’s model [above, age 16], “Gibson Girl,” Floradora showgirl, and millionaire’s wife. Her fame derived not only from her former good looks – from the years her image was displayed everywhere – but also from her involvement in a romantic triangle with prominent architect Stanford White and her insanely jealous husband Harry Thaw. After Thaw shot and killed White in 1906, she became notorious as a witness during the sensational “trial of the century.”

By 1921 she had divorced Thaw, had a son, returned sporadically to the stage, taken up sculpture, published a memoir, and married a second husband from whom she was estranged. Characteristically, she was in debt, owing the equivalent of a year’s income to a dress shop.

Her tea room enjoyed such a short, unsuccessful run that it is hard to learn much about it. Presumably she raised funds from friends to furnish it and pay the $300 monthly rent. She lived in two rooms upstairs. One account described the 100-seat tea room as “super-beautiful” and furnished with rich carpets, Oriental tapestries, and exotic plants, a description at odds with the homey scene in a 1922 photograph shown here.

In several interviews Evelyn made what sound like preposterous claims that she served food available nowhere else. “I am revolutionizing the restaurant business in New York,” she boasted. Her specialties included deep dish apple pie and ice cream which she said she made herself. “I amazed the chef, let me tell you, with what I know about cooking,” she said.

I found it surprising that she claimed to be a good cook; however I did discover that when she left the US for Paris in 1910, surely pregnant with her son, she told friends that she planned to rent a modest apartment on the outskirts of Paris, study sculpture, and do her own cooking.  Although she evidently hired someone else to cook for the tea room she said she furnished the recipes and did all the buying.

Things went wrong fast. During the first six months she (barely) survived three robberies, one kidnap attempt, one suicide attempt, and eviction for nonpayment of rent. On a second try in January of 1922 she was successfully evicted, after which she returned to cabaret dancing. In 1926, while performing at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge, she tried to kill herself again by swallowing Lysol. Her troubled brother took his own life two years later.

But Evelyn achieved happiness in later life and lived on to age 81. She moved to Southern California near her three grandchildren and their father, a pilot for Douglas Aircraft. She returned to her lifelong interest in art, teaching sculpture and ceramics at a community center. Easing her constant need for money, she received a $10,000 bequest when Thaw died in 1947 and was paid more than $50,000 for use of her life story in the 1955 movie “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”

After many years away, she visited New York in 1955, reflecting on the great meals she had eaten during her heyday. Passing the former location of Sherry’s, she recalled “the wonderful terrapin they served.” She expressed surprise that she had managed to stay slim in her youth. “I ate so much in the old days I still wonder why I didn’t get fat,” she said referring to another performer’s, Lillian Russell’s, “upholstered” appearance. Heading off to a restaurant dinner, the ever-unsentimental Evelyn confessed, “You know what I really want to see most in New York? A nice big broiled Maine lobster.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Reuben’s: celebrities and sandwiches

Once upon a time there was a famous NYC restaurant called Reuben’s. Today there is a famous grilled sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on pumpernickel called a Reuben. Wouldn’t it make a nice story if the sandwich came from the restaurant?

The connection has been well researched yet it remains unresolved. For anyone who wants to examine the matter in detail, I recommend Jim Rader’s excellent account. He has the last word, inasmuch as there is one.

Two important points. 1) No one has come up with an early menu from Reuben’s that lists the Reuben sandwich as it is known today. It does appear under the name “Reuben’s Pioneer” on a 1971 menu but by then the sandwich could be found everywhere. 2) Despite being a publicity hound – and despite an Omaha woman winning a national contest for creating the sandwich in 1959 — founder Arnold Reuben never laid claim to it as his restaurant’s creation.

What is certain is that the fame of Reuben’s restaurant and delicatessen was built upon sandwiches — and the celebrity patrons who ate them.

I have seen a menu from Reuben’s said to be from 1922. Under the top heading “Reuben’s Famous Sandwiches” are listed 42 sandwiches. Nine are named after celebrities of stage and screen of that time. What is striking about the named sandwiches is that they cost more than the others. At the low end are ordinary sandwiches priced at 35 cents such as Salami, Corned Beef, and Liver Wurst. The special celebrity sandwiches range from 75 cents to a dollar, amounts that would then buy a whole dinner in many restaurants. The specially named sandwiches probably had more ingredients and may have been larger, but the aura of celebrity around them must have added a few cents too.

Naming sandwiches for celebrities was a publicity gimmick probably thought up by a press agent. The columnist Westbook Pegler claimed that Reuben’s initially acquired fame because of publicity generated by the audacious Harry Reichenbach who encouraged Arnold to sue a well-known New Yorker over the price of a ham in 1920. Thereafter, like Lindy’s and the Stork Club, Reuben’s was constantly in the nationally syndicated gossip columns of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

Arnold Reuben was a German Jew who, with his family, immigrated to the US as a young child around 1886. He helped out by peddling produce, then worked at a delicatessen. In 1908 he opened his own deli, which he later referred to as a “shtoonky little store.” By the end of the teens, he was thriving; he had incorporated his Pure Food Shop at 2102 Broadway and opened an eating place at 622 Madison Avenue which was popular with Broadway performers and stars from Hollywood. (Transitions from food store to restaurant are not uncommon and, as was also the case with Texas butcher shops-to-barbecues, often begins with sandwiches.) In 1928 he had a third restaurant in Philadelphia and was said to be “enormously rich.” Adopting the slogan “From a Sandwich to a National Institution,” he often told a story about the first celebrity sandwich he created – ham, cheese, turkey, cole slaw, and dressing — for a struggling young actress.

He experienced some financial difficulties in 1933 and filed for bankruptcy but only two years later was back on course with a bigger and better restaurant [pictured] to replace the one on Madison Avenue. Of critical importance to his comeback was the end of Prohibition. His opening announcement in the New York Times attested to this with a prominent display of the names of Reuben’s “friends,” seven liquor manufacturers and distributors.

In 1946 he opened a restaurant on West 57th near Carnegie Hall, with a front nearly identical to East 58th Street. Like his others it was open 24 hours. No doubt it, too, had a doorman who greeted patrons with the bywords “Reuben’s, that’s all.” Larger than the East 58th place, it was billed “A City in Itself,” and contained shops for delicatessen, flowers, chocolates, cigars, and theater tickets, as well as a perfume bar and a barber shop. Despite all, it silently disappeared a couple years later.

Arnold retired to Florida in the mid-1960s and sold the business, which he had turned over to his son to manage years earlier. Reuben’s in NYC continued under new ownership at various locations until 2001. A Reuben’s was also opened in Miami in the 1940s but I have not been able to determine its subsequent fate.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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