There were certain segments of society that helped to build restaurant culture through their patronage. Bohemians were one. They enjoyed food, drank wine, and were more adventurous in experiencing new dishes. It was said that the average American restaurant was a place “where records in fast eating are the order of the day.” By contrast, bohemians enjoyed gathering with their friends in offbeat cafes and restaurants and lingering, deep in conversation.
They rejected the joyless aspects of American culture and tended to ignore accepted rules of behavior. Nor did they care that conventional people – “the Philistines” – judged them harshly, considering them practically bums.
Most were drawn from occupations in the arts – actors, painters, writers, musicians, and journalists. Men predominated but they were joined by women who dared to flaunt the bounds of ladyhood [example shown here, 1895]. Their most famous “member” was Walt Whitman, who for a time in the late 1850s and early 1860s gathered with friends at Pfaff’s, on Broadway in New York. Run by German immigrant Charles Pfaff, the cellar café served German pancakes, liver and bacon, and untold quantities of Rhine wine and beer.
Apart from the distinctly non-American cuisine furnished in most restaurants favored by bohemians, these places were also free of rigid social rules of etiquette. Proprietors were tolerant, some might break out singing, servers weren’t haughty, and in contrast with bourgeois etiquette it was perfectly acceptable to speak to strangers at a nearby table.
The lifestyle associated with bohemians was first depicted by French writer Henri Murger, whose 1840s Scenes of Bohemian Life (basis for Puccini’s opera La Bohème) launched the use of the word and its mystique. But that way of living undoubtedly existed earlier, even in this country. A NYC saloon opened in 1832 by Ned Windust called The Shakspeare surely qualified. In 1847 it was described as attracting “wits and men about town,” many from the arts. It was known for fine fare.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were other places in New York and elsewhere, the world capital being Paris. Bohemian subculture survived into the 1920s, but in weakened and commercialized form, feeding on past glory. Once it was “discovered”– in the 1880s — it was denounced as a thing of the past: each generation pronounced the next generation’s bohemianism inauthentic.
As someone noticed, whether genuine or fake, bohemians enjoyed out of the way places “where the cooking is in any style but the American.” That preference often led them to French and Italian table d’hotes. In New York City of the 19th century they gravitated to the city’s French section, to the Restaurant du Grand Vatel [shown above] and the Taverne Alsacienne. Although Boston was a city with few bohemians, it had Marliave’s and Arrouët Mieusset Frères, both on Van Rensselaer Place at one point. Italian table d’hotes such as Moretti’s, Gonfarone’s, and Viano’s also thrived in New York. In San Francisco, bohemians patronized Italian restaurants such as Coppa’s, Sanguinetti’s, as well as Matias’ Mexican café. A rare Mexican restaurant in New York, Joel’s, was also popular.
In the early 20th century it’s likely that most major cities had something like a “little bohemia” section attractive to night owls. Among the better known were New York’s Greenwich Village and Chicago’s Towertown. San Francisco had so many bohemian restaurants that an entire book was devoted to describing them in 1914. By the 1920s, it was said that “the prosperous middle classes went bohemian on a bigger and better scale.” As suburbanites sought out offbeat restaurants and cafes it is not surprising that many cafes vying for their trade adopted catchy names such as The Dirty Spoon and Mary’s Little Lamb in San Francisco, The Purple Pup and The Hell Hole in Greenwich Village, or the Den of 40 Thieves in Detroit.
It’s clear in retrospect that the bohemians of the 19th century were apostles of the future. Their wish to enjoy sociable meals in restaurants would gradually become nearly universal as the 20th century continued.
© Jan Whitaker, 2020