Tag Archives: luxury restaurants

Famous in its day: Blanco’s

blanco'scafePC

Blanco’s Café was one of San Francisco’s luxury restaurants of the early 20th century. Among the very first restaurants to open after the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906, it made its debut on November 7, 1907 at 859 O’Farrell Street.

It soon became a popular place for banquets, one of which is depicted in the 1915 postcard shown above. Typically such banquets were all male, often being made up of members of professional and cultural societies. Blanco’s was also a favorite after-theater spot for men and women who enjoyed a “cold bot and hot bird” as a light supper of champagne and quail was referred to in those days.

Its owners and managers were mostly old hands in the restaurant business, Italians and Germans led by a Spaniard, Antonio Blanco, who had been born in Malaga. Blanco’s reputation was built upon his pre-fire restaurant, The Poodle Dog, which he re-established a short time after opening Blanco’s. Two of Blanco’s managers had previously been at Delmonico’s restaurant in San Francisco, another victim of the fire.

blanco'sDec1914The city’s newspapers were effusive about Blanco’s when it opened, gushing over its Louis XIV entrance hall, marble pillars, murals, and chandeliers. The café’s first chef came from The Poodle Dog, while the dining room manager had earned his exalted reputation at Tait’s and the St. Francis Hotel. All in all, Blanco’s was “a temple of art and beauty” destined to become the envy of caterers around the world. In 1914 Blanco’s boldly advertised that it was “the finest café in the United States.”

Naturally it classed itself as a French restaurant, French cuisine being synonymous with the good life – and the only kind that could command a high price then.

Blanco’s continued in business until 1933 but not without problems. In 1917 a plan to add two stories to the restaurant was abandoned, perhaps because of the looming nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol. Prohibition in 1919 was indeed a blow to fine dining establishments such as Blanco’s. The restaurant blithely advertised in 1919, “Good-bye to good old wines. Good-bye to good old times. But good eats will remain.” But it was becoming increasingly difficult to operate a high-living restaurant in the style Blanco’s was accustomed to. In 1921 its manager was arrested for not keeping a register of transient guests at Blanco’s Annex, the hotel next door which the restaurant had constructed in 1908 and opened the next year.

Few San Franciscans would have failed to realize the significance of this infraction, even if they did not recall Blanco’s “scandal” of 1912. In July of that year a Sausalito woman hired detectives to shadow her husband who was enjoying a romantic dinner at Blanco’s in the company of another woman. Spotting the detectives but not knowing who was under surveillance, Blanco’s manager went from table to table notifying all the guests of the detectives at work. Numbers of couples made a quick exit from the back door. Needless to say, the privacy curtains on the mezzanine booths shown in the ca. 1915 postcard were more than merely decorative.

Yet, despite all, Blanco’s carried on and was recommended in San Francisco guide books of the 1920s. It is ironic that it made it through Prohibition yet failed just as alcohol was becoming legal once again in 1933.

In 1934 the contents of both the restaurant and hotel were sold off, including fine china, silver-plated cutlery, tapestry panels and hangings, 40 copper stock pots, French furniture, bronze statuary, and 140 Viennese arm chairs.

blanco'smusicboxpostcard

In October 1935 the restaurant reopened as The Music Box, a supper club under the direction of stripper and “fan dancer” Sally Rand. It had been partially modernized. Murals were replaced with mirrors and many other decorations by artist Attilio Moretti had been removed. Ruth Thomas, co-author of Eating Around San Francisco (1937), reported that she was given a tour of the Music Box and saw Venetian glass chandeliers and life-sized plaster statues of women in a basement storeroom.

blanco'sGreatAmericanMusicHall

The chandeliers and some of the murals were restored, possibly during the late sixties when the building was occupied by the Charles Restaurant. Today the building still stands and is in use as the Great American Music Hall. [Photo shows the altered restaurant building front, much of it bricked in including the large center window above the door which now supports a sign; the building to the left was Blanco’s Annex hotel.]

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under elite restaurants

Charge it!

DinersClubcard1955The advent of travel and entertainment (T&E) credit cards in the 1950s was instrumental in sparking a renaissance in luxury restaurants that hadn’t been seen since pre-Prohibition days.

Nowhere was the effect felt more strongly than in NYC, birthplace of the Diners’ Club.

On February 8, 1950, Frank McNamara paid for his lunch at a steak house called Major’s Cabin Grill in NYC with a Diners’ Club card numbered 1,000 (i.e., #1). With his little paper card he made the very first charge on a nationwide credit card.

DinersClub1956ADV

The timing of the Diners’ Club launch was perfect. During World War II expense accounts had proliferated as a way companies could use income for entertaining clients rather than hand it to the government as a tax on “excess” profits (profits greater than those before the war). Now, in 1950, the excess profits tax lifted at the end of WWII was only a few months away from reinstatement for the Korean War.

The growth of T&E credit cards went hand in hand with the growth of expense accounts. As one publication put it, credit cards were spinoffs of expense accounts. And, each time the IRS tightened up its requirements for itemizing deductions, more credit card applications came in.

Carteblanche1959Unlike the nationwide bank cards that would eventually swamp T&E cards, the latter required high financial standing, an annual membership fee, and full payment of balances within 30 days. Having one of these cards brought cachet.

Following quickly on the heels of the Diners’ Club launch came many others: Dine ’n Sign, National Credit Card, Your Host, Inc, Duncan Hines’ Signet Club, the American Hotel Association’s Universal Travelcard, Hilton’s Carte Blanche, the Esquire Club, and the Gourmet Guest Club (the last two linked to Esquire and Gourmet magazines). A smaller Diners’ Club continues today, but the only other survivor is American Express, which inaugurated its credit card in 1958, then quickly rose to the top of the T&E field.

Traveling salesmen and men (rarely women) in industries such as public relations, advertising, publishing, manufacturing, and wholesaling were fans of the convenience of charging business meals. And, of course, in the early days of T&E club cards it was a status factor to simply dash off a signature on a slip, particularly if the lunch took place in a top restaurant.

Bizlunch

Expense accounts and credit cards were a boon to restaurants. There were estimates that in the mid-1950s 50% to 80% of meals in high-priced restaurants were “on the company.” Vincent Sardi admitted that a big chunk of his NYC business was made up of men on expense accounts. Peter Canlis, of Seattle’s first-class Canlis Restaurant, said in 1953 that he decided to establish a restaurant there because “a lot of good expense account money wasn’t being spent because there was no place fancy enough to gobble it up – and I was happy to fill the gap.”

But not all restaurateurs were enamored of the cards at first. For one thing, Diners’ charged a 7% fee on transactions. Restaurant owners felt that they spent too long waiting for their payments and that they had to raise prices to make up for the fees, thus punishing cash customers. Some restaurants refused Diners’ Club cards or added surcharges for meals paid with them. The Diners’ Club lowered its transaction fees in 1966.

By 1965 the three biggest T&E cards, Diners’ Club, American Express, and Carte Blanche claimed a total of about 3.15M cardholders, a small fraction of the number of cards starting to be doled out then, often unsolicited, by nationwide bankcards.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

5 Comments

Filed under restaurant customs

Catering to the rich and famous

colony1945What a pain the rich can be. That’s the message you’ll take away if perchance you pick up The Colony Cookbook by Gene Cavallero Jr. and Ted James, published in 1972. The dedication page is plaintively inscribed by Gene, “To my father and all suffering restaurateurs.” Chapter 3 details what caused the suffering, namely the privileged customers who imposed upon him and his father in so many ways. They stole peppermills, left behind ermine coats, false teeth, and glass eyes, asked for help getting through customs, requested restaurant staff to chauffeur their children – even called for reservations at other restaurants.

thecolony876

The Colony was the kind of place where terrible things could happen such as – oh god! – countesses and rich men’s wives showing up in the same designer gown. Thankfully they were so well bred that instead of pouting or running home to change they bravely stuck out the evening and even managed a smile as they picked at their truffled Salade à l’Italienne and Chicken Gismonda. Over the Colony’s 50 years all the big names from society, politics, entertainment, and royalty patronized it – Kennedy, Onassis, Capote, Dukes and dukes, Roosevelts, Biddles, Lodges, Cabots, and so on. It was referred to as a “boarding house for the rich” because some patrons were there so often. One woman sat in the same banquette and ate the same lunch nearly every day for over 40 years. Yes, she was an heiress. About 85% of the Colony’s customers signed a tab and received a monthly bill.

TheColonyThe Colony opened in 1919, at Madison Ave. and 61st Street. Three years later headwaiters Gene Cavallero Sr. (pictured slicing cheddar for the toffs) and Ernest Cerutti joined with its chef to buy it from its founder, legendary impresario and restaurateur Joe Pani. Pani also ran the Woodmansten Inn on Pelham Parkway where he introduced the world to then-dancer Rudolph Valentino. At the same time Pani managed Castles-by-the-Sea, a Long Island resort featuring the dancing Castles, Irene and Vernon.

According to the official story as told in Gene Cavallero Jr.’s book and just about every other account, the restaurant achieved status shortly after the new owners took over and upgraded it from a drinking hole for “two-bit gamblers.” Then capital-S Society, represented by the W. K. Vanderbilts, latched onto it and made it their headquarters. In fact “the 400″ had already been entertaining there while it was under Pani’s ownership. Gene Jr.’s book implies that Pani did not appreciate fine food but, given that Pani had European restaurant training and his own farm which supplied chickens and vegetables, this may have been an exaggeration. Both Pani and Cavallero claimed to have been the first to serve broccoli to New York’s dining public.

Like so many of its regulars, the Colony had slipped into senescence by the time it closed at the end of 1971. Restaurant critic Gael Greene was shocked to find how “tarnished” it was when she visited it about a year earlier (“how shabby and mundane are the haunts of the very, very rich, and how often undemanding their lamb-chop and tapioca palates”). And yet its faithful clientele didn’t seem to care. Truman Capote cried when it closed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

6 Comments

Filed under elite restaurants