Tag Archives: lingering

Good eaters: “bohemians”

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

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Filed under alternative restaurants, ethnic restaurants, Offbeat places, patrons

Find of the day: the Double R Coffee House

It gets harder and harder to turn up anything interesting at flea markets – even on the sprawling fields of Brimfield. But luck was with me this past week when I found the little menu from The Double R Coffee House.

It didn’t look terribly interesting in itself until I remembered that my restaurant collection contained a cartoon-style postcard with the same name that I especially liked.

Turns out that the two Double R Coffee Houses had an interesting history. They were established and funded by sons, daughters, cousins, and others related by blood or marriage to Theodore Roosevelt. The impetus for the coffee houses came from Theodore’s son Kermit, who had spent time in South America and Arab countries. He mentions coffee repeatedly in his book War in the Garden of Eden. The book describes his experiences while serving with the British forces in Iraq and other countries involved in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I.

The initial business incorporation in 1919 was called Café Paulista after a café in Buenos Aires that Kermit had frequented years before. The corporation launched the first coffee house, then located at 108 West 44th Street, calling it The Brazilian Coffee House as inscribed above the door in this 1919 photo.

The coffee house got a fair amount of press due to the Roosevelt connection, but the family did not involve themselves in running it, nor were they known to frequent it. However, in one instance President Roosevelt’s widow did visit the 44th street location. A widely publicized news story in 1923 told of how she had saved two oil paintings of her late husband when a minor fire broke out in the kitchen.

What was truly unusual about the coffee house was not so much its owners or its decor, but how serious it was about coffee. The manager, Brazilian Alfredo Salazar [shown above], declared it was not a restaurant. Although it served light food including empenadas, he insisted the focus was on serving “real” coffee. He declared that Americans, New Yorkers included, did not know how to roast, grind, brew, or for that matter, drink coffee. Coffee that was boiled or percolated and left to sit around for over 30 minutes was equivalent to “tannic acid soup” in his estimation. He advised drinking it black, but allowed that the coffee house would provide cream, milk, and sugar since it was not a “propaganda establishment.”

The coffee house roasted coffee beans on the site and everyone commented on the wonderful aroma this produced.

Shortly after opening, the 44th Street coffee house moved to larger quarters nearby at #112. It was popular from the start, particularly with Brazilians, American business men – and business women — as well as surrounding theater-district performers.

Another characteristic of the coffee house that was appreciated was that patrons could linger as long as they liked, even if they ordered very little. Imprinted stationery was provided along with some reading materials – including an abridged version of the U.S. Constitution — and the place soon extended its hours to 1 a.m.

In February of 1921 the name was changed to Double R Coffee House due to a conflict with another business claiming that name and also because a cousin named Robinson was the corporation’s new president. In May a second coffee house on Lexington was opened with an exhibit of paintings by members of the Art Students League curated by realist painter John Sloan. Because of the art connection, it seems as though this coffee house had a more bohemian aspect. In a letter to Chicago poet and editor of Poetry Magazine Harriet Monroe, poet Wallace Stevens wrote that he had visited the new coffee house in August and “had a dash of maté.”

In 1923 there was talk of opening another Double R on 45th street in Times Square, but I could find no trace of it. Vague ideas about expanding to Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, talked about in 1919, never materialized and in 1928 one or both of the coffee houses were sold to new owners. What happened after that is unknown.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under alternative restaurants, menus, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers