Tag Archives: mobsters

Mob restaurants

mobstersGalante&CoppolakilledGangster stories run like a red thread through the 20th-century history of American restaurants, from the speakeasies of the 1920s, to the shakedowns and union infiltration of the 1930s, the rackets of the 1940s and 1950s, and the later years of money laundering and loudly proclaimed legitimate business.

But what seems to interest Americans the most are restaurants mobsters are alleged to patronize, and all the more so if there has been a legendary shootout there.

As portrayed in the film Dinner Rush, even rumors that a restaurant is a gangland favorite can boost its popularity immensely. The film was made by Bob Giraldi who’s been inside the restaurant business.

mobsterscolosimo'sOn July 28 a series called Inside the American Mob will begin on the National Geographic channel. My friend and neighbor John Marks, supervising producer, inspired this post when he mentioned the popularity of restaurants where mobsters have been gunned down.

Violence is abundant in restaurant history. Two of the worst mass murders in the United States took place in restaurants, the killing of 23 people at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen TX in 1991 and 21 at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro CA in 1984. Those tragic events did not bring about an influx of patrons wanting to soak up evil ambiance. Quite the contrary. Luby’s remodeled and reopened but never regained the business it once had, closing the Killeen site for good in 2000. McDonald’s razed the blighted unit in San Ysidro, rebuilding nearby.

MobsterVillaVeniceGlenviewIL1932

On the other hand, when gangsters are shooting victims people are unmoved, evidently figuring they got what was coming to them. The absence of bullet holes and bloodstains disappoints.

Restaurants that are linked to mobsters, such as NYC’s Sparks Steak House, where Paul Castellano was killed as he stepped out of his car, do not always appreciate being included in guide books such as A Goodfellas Guide to New York just because a mobster sometimes ate there. I can’t blame them. Who would want tourists dressed in shorts and tee shirts turning up at your high priced restaurant? The mob is not what it used to be. Yet I have to wonder, is there an American restaurant that can be absolutely certain it has never hosted mobsters?

I’ll also point out that not all mob-connected restaurants are or have been Italian. Also, probably every ethnic group has had its own version of the Mafia at some point.

MobstersCaponeTorioheadquartersCiceroca1939Most major cities in the U.S. have had restaurants that served as gangster hangouts. [pictured: the Cicero IL headquarters of Al Capone, ca. 1939] Chicago’s Colosimo’s was already in the books by 1930, ten years after its owner “Big Jim” Colosimo became one of the first victims of a gangland shooting in a restaurant. As late as 1958 when a new owner of the property announced he would raze the building, the site was overrun with an estimated 1,000 souvenir hunters. In the 1920s and 1930s even “nice” St. Paul MN could boast of four or five nightclub eateries with underworld associations, according to the authors of Minnesota Eats Out. Other mob-connected eating places illustrated in this post are Louigi’s in Las Vegas and Villa Venice outside Wheeling IL.

MobstersLouigi'sNew York City and environs takes the prize for gangland restaurants, among which are restaurants where mobsters, their henchmen, and associates have met a messy end. Few still exist or remain in their original locations. To name some, both present and past: Nuova Villa Tammaro, Coney Island (Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria,1931); Palace Chop House, Newark (Dutch Schultz, 1935); Umberto’s Clam House, Little Italy (Joey Gallo, 1972); Joe & Mary, Brooklyn (pictured at top, Carmine Galante, 1979); Broadway Pub, Manhattan; La Stella, Queens; King Wah, Chinatown; Villa Capri, Long Island; Sparks, Manhattan (Paul Castellano, 1985); Bravo Sergio, Manhattan (Irwin Schiff, 1987).

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

6 Comments

Filed under patrons

As the restaurant world turned, July 17

5thanniversaryyellowish&white

July 17 being the anniversary of my blog, I’m celebrating. In the beginning I thought a blog would be so easy. I’d browse over my notes, grab a few things, and write a post in half an hour. Hah! That was approximately true of the first few posts — one of which I’ve revised repeatedly and another of which I’ve deleted. In memory of that happy delusion I present a quick rundown of restaurant happenings on random July 17ths.

1890 – Waiters walking off the job close down three more restaurants as they join a St. Louis waiters’ strike. The Waiters’ Union is further heartened when it learns that members of the city’s Typographical Union have pledged not to eat anywhere non-union servers are employed.

July17Clamshellpearl1907 – A Bangor ME restaurant worker grinding clams for chowder runs into a hard substance which turns out to be a pearl. She rejects a local jeweler’s offer of $250 ($5,000 or $6,000 today) saying she will instead send it to New York for appraisal.

1916 – Taylor’s Exchange Restaurant opens in a new building in Charleston SC promising there will be “no odors” since the kitchen is upstairs from the dining room. Taylor signs his advertisement, “I remain, Yours When Hungry.”

1930 – Despite his claims that he does not run a “booze joint” and had no idea liquor was hidden in his lunchroom’s walls, a judge fines the operator of Holyoke MA’s Washington Lunch $150.

1936 – Admitting she only took a restaurant job to escape “that darn farm” in Florida where she grew up, an Atlanta waitress announces she has won a scholarship to Louisiana State and will be quitting to study music there.

July17Sholl'sCafeteriaDC

1950 – Fifteen members of the Washington, D.C. Interracial Workshop are arrested for holding up the line at Sholl’s Cafeteria after Afro-Americans in the group are denied service.

July17Embassymgr1958 – Although she has been threatened with bodily harm, Beverly Sturdevant, a manager of the Embassy Restaurant in Cicero IL, testifies against mobsters inside Local 450 of the Chicago Hotel and Restaurant Employes Union to the US Senate Rackets Investigating Committee.

1962 – “Reverse Freedom Rider” David Harris announces he will open a barbecue and chili restaurant in Hyannis MA, summer home of the Kennedys. Harris arrived a few months earlier with a busload of Afro-Americans sent North by an Arkansas segregationist Citizens’ Council. The action was meant to embarrass President John F. Kennedy, who had recently taken a harder line on segregation.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

7 Comments

Filed under miscellaneous

Famous in its day: Wolfie’s

Wilfred Cohen was an opener. He’d buy or start up a restaurant and once it became a success he would sell it for a nice profit. The former Catskills busboy came to Miami Beach around 1940 and bought Al’s Sandwich Shop on 23rd St. off Collins Ave., selling it after turning it into a popular spot “known coast to coast.”

Overstuffed sandwiches were his ticket. In a short ten years or so he opened and sold not only Al’s but four other restaurants, among them Wolfie’s at Collins and 21st St., which would become a landmark and continue until 2002. Wilfred “Wolfie” Cohen would keep just one of his restaurants, The Rascal House, located on motel row at 172nd St. Wolfie Cohen died in 1986 but his Rascal House survived until 2008.

In the end the original Wolfie’s at 21st Street became known as “the” Wolfie’s, but at one time there were at least two others of significance, a flashier Wolfie’s at Collins and Lincoln Rd. and another in North Miami Beach. Both closed around 1983. Whether Cohen was involved with all three is unclear but I am fairly sure that the Wolfie’s, original included, were backed by financial syndicates. There were also, at various times, Wolfie’s branches or franchises in St. Petersburg, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Gainesville, Cocoa Beach, and Jacksonville. Brooklyn NY’s Wolfie’s, though, was an entirely different operation.

The boom years for Wolfie’s and all of Miami Beach’s deli-style eateries came after World War II when Jewish veterans and retirees, mostly from New York and the Northeast, flowed into Miami Beach by the thousands as permanent residents, snowbirds, and tourists. Then, lines of people often wound around the block waiting to get into Wolfie’s. So closely was Wolfie’s identified with Miami Beach that in 1959 Northeast Airlines chose it to cater meals for Miami-to-NY passengers; Lindy’s supplied delicacies to those flying south.

Wolfie’s was a 24-hour-a-day haven for the elderly living in kitchenless beachfront rooming houses (destined to be restored as art deco boutique hotels in the 1990s). It also attracted politicians looking for the liberal vote and visiting borscht-belt performers such as Milton Berle and Henny Youngman, as well as big and little gangsters and bookies with a yen for chicken livers, pastrami, and cheesecake. In the 1970s mobster Meyer Lansky, pursuing the simple life of a philosophical, Chevrolet-driving, book-borrowing library patron, was often spotted noshing in Wolfie’s.

By the mid-1980s, after the original Pumperniks closed (another Wolfie Cohen 1950s start-up), Wolfie’s was one of few, or perhaps the only, large-scale deli left on the South Beach. Pumperniks’ owner Charles Linksman attributed Wolfie’s survival to its proximity to theaters and boxing ring. That and tourism helped it get through the next decade, but a sense of decline was inescapable. The Beach’s population of Jewish retirees dropped dramatically, due to natural causes as well as a flight northward to Broward and Palm Beach counties to escape a perceived threat of crime and a cultural shift.

In its waning days Wolfie’s still managed to draw foreign and domestic tourists, such as moi, seeking vestiges of the old Miami Beach. I can’t remember what I ordered but I’m certain it wasn’t a Bowl of Sour Cream with Cottage Cheese ($4.75). I wasn’t quite in the “what’s a blintz?” category of so many patrons then, but close.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

175 Comments

Filed under popular restaurants

Linens and things — part II

One trouble with the ideal of snowy white restaurant linens is, of course, laundry that piles up and must be washed. By the late 19th century huge steam laundries in big cities were able to handle up to 100,000 pieces a day. And about the same time a new idea in laundry service came along. Rather than owning linens a restaurant could, in effect, rent them from a service that would bring fresh supplies every time they picked up dirty laundry. Many of the first such businesses called themselves towel services, reflecting that their primary customers were factories using thousands of shop towels. Restaurants and hotels developed as the next customer base.

According to a book called Service Imperative, it was around World War I that the modern linen supply industry developed, with over 900 firms in the US. Most were in New York, followed by Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. At about the same time a national organization of linen supply companies was formed, the forerunner to the Linen Supply Association of America, renamed the Textile Rental Services Association of America in 1979 to better reflect the full range of member services – and to improve the organization’s public image.

It seems to me that the name change was mostly about public relations. While it may have been true that “linen supply” did not reflect all services, the difference between “textile rental” and “linen supply” is a bit subtle. Why the change? On the face of it the words “linen supply” sound completely innocent. Yet by the mid 20th century they had acquired a negative tinge thanks to mob infiltration in the business coupled with widely publicized congressional hearings, particularly the U.S. Senate’s McClellan committee which investigated organized crime in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Linen supply was one of a number of services to restaurants, along with garbage hauling, that attracted the mob in the 1920s and even more so in the 1930s when Prohibition ended and bootlegging profits dwindled. It offered itself as a legitimate business in which it was possible to gain dominance rapidly as well as a way for mobsters who had migrated into narcotics to launder money. In Kansas City, a mob magnet in the 1930s, gangs made handsome profits in linen supply. Running the industry as a monopoly, they reportedly divided up the city, agreed not to compete, and set prices high.

Certainly not all linen supply companies were, or are, mob affiliated or engaged in illegal activities, yet in some places – notably NYC, Chicago, and Detroit — many have been. In 1958 New Jersey linen supply corporations charged with violation of anti-trust laws were said to control 85% of business in that state. Linen supply racketeering continues today. In 2003 the NY Times reported that the president of White Plains Coat & Apron Co., doing business with restaurants in NYC, Westchester, and parts of Connecticut and New Jersey, pled guilty to conspiring to restrain trade over a ten-year period in which sales had totaled better than $500M.

The cost of monopoly linen services does not affect consumers enough that they notice it. Restaurant owners, on the other hand, experience higher operating costs. And, as Patricia Murphy found out long ago, they are likely to be paid a visit by a “plug-ugly” if they try to switch suppliers. “I chased him out the door with a broom,” she said, adding, “I suppose I was too insignificant a client for him to carry out threats of reprisals.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

1 Comment

Filed under restaurant customs