Tag Archives: New York City restaurants

Dining with Diamond Jim

diamondjimchurchills

In the early 1900s with the growth of Broadway’s fame as a place for flashy people to see and be seen, no one stood out from the crowd like James Buchanan Brady. Known across America for his large collection of diamonds which he boldly wore in public, he inspired others to display trappings of wealth. In the words of Parker Morell, author of a 1934 book about Brady, “Jim was the diamond studded decoy duck that filled the coffers of New York’s merchants.”

Those merchants included not only the jewelers of Maiden Lane, but also the restaurateurs of Broadway. Among his favorites were Rector’s, Churchill’s, Shanley’s, Healy’s, Murray’s Roman Garden, [see below] and others on and off Broadway. In 1917 he gave a talk at a dinner of the New York Society of Restaurateurs where he contrasted Broadway’s restaurants with the downtown places of his much poorer early days where a plate of corned beef and beans cost 10 cents.

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Brady was a highly visible regular in restaurants and so-called “lobster palaces.” The proprietor of Rector’s, the reigning palace of lobsterdom, referred to Jim as “our ten best customers” due to his frequent visits coupled with the vast amount of food he was alleged to consume. And of course his presence in hot dining spots attracted celebrity hunters galore.

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But did his celebrity also win him a get-out-of-trouble ticket – or did he simply live in a time when being super rich brought immunity from scandal? As “America’s greatest salesman,” James Brady frequently hosted parties of visiting businessmen whose contracts he was courting as a major player in the railroad equipment business. He could spend up to $3,000 (in 1904, equal to $82,000 now) for an evening’s entertainment which might also include the company of well-paid chorus girls or visits to women on the shady side of town. He freely poured wine for his guests, but he did not drink. Orange juice was his preferred accompaniment to meals – at a time when it was not considered a customary beverage.

diamondjimphotoDespite the expensive dinners he gave, he showed a contradictory attitude toward restaurant spending. According to George Rector, Jim swore he would not come back to Rector’s after it levied a 10-cent cover charge. Of course he did return, but why argue over such a minuscule fee? And when he was charged with extravagance, he countered defensively that extravagance meant spending money you didn’t have or wasting it on worthless things. He, on the other hand, spent his well-earned money on simple dinners such as what he called his “one-two-three”: Lynnhaven oysters, terrapin, and canvasback duck. Expensive, yes, but not extravagant “because you get your money’s worth.”

He could be generous. According to gossip columnist O. O. McIntyre, when Brady died in 1917 he had a number of elderly waiters on pensions.

He began acquiring and wearing diamond jewelry in the 1880s when he became a traveling salesman for a railroad equipment company. According to Morell’s book Diamond Jim, it was common then for traveling men to wear diamonds, and to gamble with them too. Brady was able to build a collection by winning at cards and dice. Displaying his collection to business associates and clients proved to be a good way to impress them and make sales. By 1893 he was ordering diamond-crusted pieces and sets that were custom designed exclusively for him. When he attended meetings of railroad directors he often wore his “transportation set” that included cufflinks resembling tank and coal railcars, and shirt studs in the forms of a bicycle, auto, and airplane.

diamondjim1908jpgAccording to some accounts, his jewels may have made him a nationally known celebrity and an effective salesman, but failed to win him acceptance by genteel society. Perhaps he regretted his glittering reputation. Headwaiters bowed down to him but he was sometimes ridiculed in newspapers. The Baltimore Sun ran a story in 1913 titled “Reckless Money Spenders of America in a Delirium of Extravagance Rival Rome’s Profligates” that spotlighted Diamond Jim and implied he bribed railroad purchasing agents.

He faced further unfavorable scrutiny the following year when testimony before the Interstate Commerce Commission revealed that the inexplicably debt-ridden New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Co. had, among other transgressions, bought railcars and equipment from Brady totaling $37 million without competitive bidding. In his ICC testimony Jim freely admitted that he had been very generous to the company’s officials – but simply because they were old friends. He also told the commissioners that he kept no books because “I don’t propose that anybody else shall know how I have built my business.”

Well, at least he could eat. Though it was often recounted that he consumed prodigious quantities of oysters, lobsters, and game, I am skeptical about this since the accounts seemed to be part of legend-making after his death. Nonetheless, his diet, which included half a pound of candy daily after he cut down following a diagnosis of diabetes, seemed to have a disastrous effect on his health. In 1912, and later in his will, he donated a large sum of money to Johns Hopkins Hospital for surgery he said gave him a “new stomach.”

When he died, James Brady’s fortune, including his diamond collection – though quite substantial — turned out to be smaller than expected. Obviously “Diamond Jim” was largely a media creation. The man vanished in 1917, most of the restaurants failed with Prohibition, but the fantastic stories have persisted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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High-volume restaurants: Crook & Duff (etc.)

crook&nashADV1875Luxury restaurants are more likely to become memorialized by time, but often ordinary restaurants have a history that is equally rich and played a more significant role in the everyday functioning of society.

That was certainly true of a restaurant that opened in New York City’s “Newspaper Row” in 1858 under the name of its two proprietors, Crook & Duff. The popular restaurant persisted until at least 1906 under nine different names and with four different addresses. It was considered not only a fine place to eat — “a marvel of gastronomic entertainment” – but also a depot where ideas were exchanged.

crookNYT1874Proprietor John Crook was already an old hand in the restaurant business by 1858, having learned the business from his uncle who ran an eating stand in Fulton Market. Crook then went into business with a brother, and next ran several places on his own before he and theatrical manager John Duff opened a restaurant in the newly constructed New York Times building on Park Row. [Unfortunately no signs for the restaurant are visible in the 1874 photograph shown above.] It was an excellent location since City Hall, the main Post Office, a new court building, and many newspaper and periodical offices were located close by. Journalists and printers especially, with their odd hours and relative freedom to roam the city, were frequent patrons of eating and drinking places such as Crook & Duff, aka Crook, Fox & Duff; Crook, Fox & Nash; Nash & Fuller; Nash & Crook; Nash & Brush; George S. Brush; Brush & Foy; and Foy & Crook.

The people of prominence who ate at Crook & Duff and its successors were numerous, many of them lawyers, journalists, business men, and political figures. Feminist publishers of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, were frequent patrons in the 1870s – probably eating in a room reserved for ladies (assuming they found  that acceptable). The restaurant was popular with women clerical workers in the 1880s when their numbers were on the increase.

The restaurant remained in the Times building, occupying the basement and much of the first floor for thirty years, while doing business under five different names, the best known and longest lasting being Nash & Crook. In 1888 it moved a short distance to 16 Park Place.

Nash & Crook (etc.) was known for good food, reasonable prices, and fast, expert service. Broiled oysters and corned beef hash were specialties. Fruits and vegetables came from the Oneida Community, a religious commune in upstate New York. The bar did a brisk business in gin slings and brandy smashes, especially during election season.

crook&NashSept51870Serving food from early morning until late at night, the restaurant was a high-volume business, dishing out up to 2,000 mid-day meals daily. In 1870 it claimed to have the largest dining room in the U.S. The lunch counter was 60 feet long. Even so, from noon to 3 p.m. it would often become so crowded that customers would stand and eat from plates in their hands. Many customers were regulars, including men who took all their meals there – and only there – for decades.

Reputedly it was the second restaurant in New York City to hire African-American waiters. During the Civil War draft riots of July 1863 when white mobs attacked Black men, the restaurant sheltered its staff in the basement. Many of the staff from both races were long-term employees. A Black waiter, John Thomas Cooper, worked at the restaurant from 1859 until his death in 1893, becoming a favorite for his sense of humor.

As late as 1927 a letter to the editor of the New York Times mourned the loss of Nash & Crook’s corned-beef hash.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Image gallery: shacks, huts, and shanties

TheHutEvanstonLike stands, shacks most certainly represent a type of eating places whose origins stretch back into antiquity. Their simple structures can be erected hastily for fairs or to capture the pennies of hungry travelers. In an automobile culture they suggest open spaces and open roads.

They convey honest rusticity with uncomplicated, inexpensive fare for ordinary folks rather than elaborate cuisine accompanied by the pomp and ceremony of the palace as enshrined in posh restaurants. The kinds of food sold in shacks, huts, and shanties is likely to be lobster, fried chicken, barbecue, or other casual fare that is eaten with the hands, and quickly.

Shanties1930sFrontLow prices are implied in huts and shacks. The slogan of the Shack in Upper Darby PA was “Where Dining is an Event not an Extravagance,” while New York City’s eighteen Shanties of the 1930s promised “The Country’s Finest Products at the City’s Lowest Prices.” For 15 cents the menu offered orange or tomato juice, buttered toast, and coffee.

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On the other hand, low prices or not, how many people would want to patronize a true shack? The crude Depression-era lunchroom shown above has a tarpaper roof and scanty stock on its display shelves.

Jerry'sShackSLCToday, because such places are harder to find, they project a strong contrast with the manufactured food and decor of chain restaurants. In contrast with artless roadside shanties, McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets are carefully designed, highly managed food selling environments.

ShackNYCAt the same time, restaurants tend to look to the past rather than the future for themes that will attract customers. Shacks and huts are entirely capable of filling that role too, even in New York City, a most unlikely setting. The Shack, in Manhattan, is scarcely convincing. One of Chicago’s leading restaurants of the 1930s was the Chicken Shack, which was furnished with not-a-bit-rustic modernistic chrome tables and chairs. Its proprietor, Ernie Henderson, was invited to demonstrate his chicken frying methods at the 1939 convention of the National Restaurant Association, marking the first time an African-American was given such an opportunity.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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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.

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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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An annotated menu

One of my most-treasured menus is a grubby, dog-earned Afternoon Tea menu from Schrafft’s at 181 Broadway in NYC dated September 3, 1929. What makes it so great is that it was carried off from the restaurant by someone who took detailed notes concerning a number of dishes. Apparently (judging from the notation “Monday & Wednesday”) the “spy” made two visits to the restaurant. The menu has holes along the side as though it was kept in a binder for reference.

I have always imagined that the spy, who must have been accompanied by a few friends, was a rival tea room operator hoping to learn a lesson or two from a successful competitor. The notes really bring the menu to life, and also give a feel for just how scanty tea room dishes could be. I had read that tea rooms were often criticized for their high-priced “bird-like” portions. I see from this menu that there was some truth in the charge.

The prices are indeed high. It is difficult to be confident about today’s equivalents to the prices below, but keep in mind that in 1929 a full dinner could be had at a decent restaurant for 50 cents. So, clearly, the sense in which Schrafft’s was a middle-class restaurant essentially means that it was easily affordable only to the upper middle class and above, though lower-income patrons may have enjoyed an occasional splurge there.

Here are a few of my transcriptions of the difficult-to-read notations, with my punctuation and explanations added:

Cold Fresh Shrimp with Tomato Mayonnaise in Puff Shell – 55 cents
Cut top off a tea [?] puff; put a 40 sc. [presumably refers to scoop size] of tomato mayonnaise inside; put 5 large or 6 small shrimp in the puff; place 3 or 4 nice sprigs of watercress around puff; serve on T. P. [tea plate]; make Bread & Butter sandwich cut in [fourths]

Toasted Mushroom Sandwich, Stuffed Celery, Ice Cream and Cocoanut Crisps, Pot of Tea – 60 cents
Cut crusts off 2 sl. toast and ½ inch off remaining 2 sides; butter and cover with mushrooms, a nice piece of lettuce; cover with another sl. toast same size; spread with mayonnaise; cut in 3 oblong pieces; serve on a doily on a T. P. with 1 stalk of stuffed celery

Egg and Tomato Salad – 50 cents
4 pcs. crisp lett. laid on a salad pl.; 3 ½ slices of tomato, cut crosswise; in center ½ stuffed egg; between each slice of tomato, place a nice spray of watercress

Fruit Salad with Orange Cream Dressing – 65 cents
A small sl. pineapple on 2 sm. lettuce leaves; on 1 side 1 section orange, half on pineapple and half on plate; on other side between orange & grapefruit on a l. l. [lettuce leaf] put 30 sco[o]p of dressing

Cocoanut Crisps – 25 cents
2 ea. on the Tea [see Toasted Mushroom Sandwich above], 4 ea. ala carte

Chicken Salad Club (Sandwich) – 60 cents
Tea plates. 1 sl. toast; 30 scoop of Ch. salad, may[be?] 8 lettuce leaf. Another slice of toast, cut diag. on ea. half; place ½ sl. of bacon, ½ sl. tomato, sweet pickle & toast cover

Fresh Fruit and Pecan Salad – 55 cents
Tea plate. 1 sl. pine[apple]; 2 sec. orange; 2 sec. grapefruit, 8 pecans

Fresh Bartlett Pear and Roquefort Cheese with Special Dressing – 65 cents
Tea plate. 2 halves of pear, 50 sc. of cheese in ea.; sp. dressing, capers, pimiento

Creamed Potatoes with New Lima Beans (Plate) – 45 cents
Tea plate. 1 sp. cr. pot[ato]; 1 sp. of limas; sprig of parsley

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Taking the din out of dining

In the modern world nothing is more expensive than quiet. This certainly holds true for restaurants. The difference between a quiet and a noisy restaurant rests mainly on good padding, both of the room and the patron’s wallet.

But there is also such a thing as too much quiet, such as in a failing restaurant with few patrons. Nobody wants that kind of quiet. Which brings up the point that since the proliferation of theme restaurants in the 1970s, fun has become one of the biggest attractions for restaurant goers. And in most people’s minds fun = noise and crowds.

It seems as though since the 1970s noise has crept up the restaurant ladder, beyond the raucousness of TGI Friday and its kin, so that today even many fairly expensive, white-tablecloth restaurants are so noisy that conversation is difficult. This issue was called to my attention by a friend who asked where she could find a list of restaurants that are free of din. If anyone knows of such a thing, please let me know. With an aging population – older diners, particularly in the 55 to 65 year-old range, make up a sizable market – the noise problem becomes more pressing.

Although the popularity of restaurant-going is comparatively new, complaints about restaurant din are not. In 1848 a satirical essay in that fascinating periodical The Spirit of the Times (“A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature” – and almost everything else) said:

It has been ascertained that a gentleman never enjoys his dinner more than when it is served up in the midst of confusion, excitement, and noise. For this reason, the denizens of New York, observing and sagacious, delight to dine in cellars, and wisely select those which the most boisterous people frequent.

In 1869 another writer observed that at noon in downtown NYC “eating houses are in one continuous roar. The clatter of plates, the slamming of doors, the talking and giving of orders by the customers, the bellowing of waiters, are mingled in a wild chaos.” It would get worse. Restaurants became even noisier when music made its dining room debut, and again during World War II when they were packed to bursting capacity (see image). Cafeterias could be especially deafening.

However, there were some exceptions along the way. The upstanding Craftsman Restaurant in NYC eschewed artificial gaiety. A diner in 1914 wrote (revealing the genteel racism of the period): “About me people were lunching quietly, without haste and without boisterousness. Soft-treading little men of Nippon brought delectable viands on dainty dishes. A stringed orchestra was playing softly . . .”

Tea rooms were also singled out in the teens and 1920s for their peacefulness. Very likely the absence of alcoholic beverages in them played a big role. NYC’s Colonia had “a quiet atmosphere that appeals to the woman of culture,” while in Greenwich Village the women proprietors of The Candlestick provided a luncheon setting “without the annoyance of shrieks, laughter, loud talking and noises that seem to be the necessary accessories of every other similar place in our Village, perhaps in order to create ‘bohemian atmosphere.’” Yet drinking did not inevitably lead to din. Rather surprisingly, the speakeasy restaurant was seen by some as a quiet, relaxing haven where attentive waiters served well-behaved patrons united in a “civilized conspiracy.”

Quiet has also been seen as a necessary condition for a romantic dinner. But let’s note that on such an occasion diners are usually willing to fork out a bit more cash than usual for privacy and a chance to hear the cork pop and the harp being plucked. The question remains: can a restaurant that is thriving be quiet without being expensive?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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