Tag Archives: men only

Three hours for lunch

ChristopherMorley1930For every devoted restaurant-goer who likes to keep up with the latest restaurant trend there are probably two others who would prefer an eating place from the past. Despite my fascination with the history of restaurants, it might surprise some readers to learn that as a diner I am not attracted to historic restaurants; I study the past but eat in the present. Journalist and author Christopher Morley, however, might have been the patron saint of those who would gladly flip back the calendar when dining out.

Through the 1920s he gathered together friends who loved to explore the corners, alleys, and waterfronts of Manhattan and environs, especially Hoboken which he christened the “seacoast of Bohemia.” Their whimsical jaunts centered on a leisurely lunch.

The group, whose personnel was always changing, was made up of men who had enough time to join Morley’s Three Hours for Lunch Club. He initiated it in 1920 when he began writing a column for The New York Evening Post called “The Bowling Green” that chronicled his explorations of New York and the escapades of the club. Later the column appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature.

The club was less about food than about male camaraderie, conversation, and humorous one-upmanship. In earlier times, before Prohibition, it might have been a drinking club. The loss of masculine drinking culture and the alleged feminization of restaurants underwrote a lament for a present era supposedly ruined by women lunching on sandwiches and soft drinks at soda fountains. By contrast, Morley & Co. searched out old-fashioned taverns and chop houses.

mcSorley'sHe wrote in a tribute to McSorley’s Ale House (which did not admit women until 1970), “Atrocious cleanliness and glitter and raw naked marble make the soda fountain a disheartening place to the average male. He likes a dark, low-ceilinged, and not too obtrusively sanitary place to take his ease. At McSorley’s is everything that the innocent fugitive from the world requires.”

Without his male buddies, Morley might have been limited to the company of his wife Helen, whom he called Titania in his columns. Although the pair enjoyed frequent Saturday lunches in the basement of Moretti’s table d’hôte on East 14th Street, he complained publicly, “Anyplace that I think is peculiarly amusing, or quaint, or picturesque, Titania thinks is unhealthy. Sometimes I can see it coming. We are on our way to Mulberry Bend, or the Bowery, or Farrish’s Chop House. I see her brow begin to pucker . . .”

The club, which included Don Marquis, sea captain/writer David William Bone, Sinclair Lewis, and other editors and writers, flourished about the same time as the Round Table whose literary stars met at the Algonquin Hotel. For a time before he founded his own club Morley was part of a group of Vanity Fair writers who congregated at the Café Noir, but he felt edged out because he lacked the Vanity Fair style. “Even Thackeray would have been grayballed,” he wrote later.

YeOldeChopHouse423

A favorite THFL place in lower Manhattan was Ye Olde Chop House on Cedar Street (pictured pre-Prohibition with sawdust floors beloved by CM) where the club named a waitress “the Venus of Mealo.” The cuisine of chop houses, as might be expected, featured grilled meat and homey dishes such as pickled beets, corned beef hash, tapioca pudding, and rhubarb pie. Far from seeking adventure in the culinary department, Morley once ordered swordfish steak, but declared it “too reptilian.”

Other than the musty hangouts of lower Manhattan, Hoboken’s Hofbrau, Meyer’s Restaurant, and the American Hotel were popular with the club. In 1929 Morley and others bought a bankrupt ironworks on River Street in Hoboken to become club headquarters. But it seems the club was waning around this time and it’s not clear how long that experiment continued. Three-Hours-for-Lunch was succeeded by another club, the Baker Street Irregulars, which Morley – a Sherlock Holmes fan –  formed at Prohibition’s end.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Famous in its day: Busch’s Grove

Busch’s Grove was a clubby, table-hopping haunt of privileged residents of Ladue, Missouri, and its environs. An unpretentious white frame roadhouse fronting right on a busy thoroughfare, it didn’t look like much from the outside – or the inside for that matter. It didn’t need to show off. This was its charm.

I ate there just once, in the 1970s. I wanted to experience eating in one of the screened-in log huts in the restaurant’s back yard (pictured, courtesy Esley Hamilton). Even then they seemed quaintly out of sync with the times. I have no idea what I ate. What sticks in my mind is the elderly woman alone in the next hut with her dog. I remember a tall, white coated waiter bringing the dog’s dinner, a large serving of prime rib.

Prime rib was what you’d expect at a restaurant as traditional as Busch’s Grove. As were iceberg lettuce, shrimp cocktail, and squishy soft dinner rolls. It was the kind of place where it wasn’t a bad idea to have a few Manhattans or whiskey sours before tackling your meal. Nevertheless, in 1958 Holiday magazine gave the Grove a “Dining Distinction” award.

As for the food revolution of the 1970s, it didn’t happen here. In 1998 a review by Joe and Ann Pollack in their book Beyond Toasted Ravioli made it sound as though the Grove was permanently stuck in the beef & bourbon 1950s. Though ostensibly giving a favorable report, they identified numerous red flags for discriminating diners such as packaged croutons; the strange “viscous texture” of the microwave-heated vichyssoise; garlic powder in salad dressings; vegetable medleys; and potatoes baked in foil. Perhaps the old roadhouse was in decline.

The Pollaks characterized the restaurant’s decor as “Ralph Lauren when Ralph was still selling ties.” “Dowdy” would have been equally apt. But keep in mind that Ladue was (is?) the kind of town where actual living conditions could surprise you: such as the cockroach I once saw crawling on expensive grasscloth wallpaper in one stately mansion, or another estate filled with ancestral oil paintings but lacking air conditioning despite St. Louis’s tropical summers.

Busch’s Grove began its hospitality career in the 1860s as a stage coach stop 10 miles west of downtown St. Louis. It was not known as Busch’s Grove until it was taken over by John Busch in 1891. In the 1920s, when it was run by Busch’s son and a partner, the surrounding community of Ladue had grown into a woodsy enclave of wealthy families attracted in part by a number of country clubs that had located there. The restaurant served as an unofficial annex to the nearby St. Louis Country Club. No doubt patronage also derived from Ladue’s elite prep schools, among them John Burroughs, Country Day, Mary Institute, Chaminade, Villa, and Priory.

Until 1973 the restaurant contained a bar for men only, perhaps explaining its reputation as a hangout for power brokers. When it was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, the researchers interviewed a patron of 30 years who remarked, ‘Some of the biggest early deals in St. Louis County politics and finance were arranged in this restaurant.”

Old patrons mourned when the restaurant closed a few years ago and was razed, along with the log huts.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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