Tag Archives: New York City

Finds of the day: two taverns

Steuben Taverns

Two small finds on a cold, rainy day at the Brimfield flea market. Both are from the 1930s, both are taverns, and both conjure up bygone days. But beyond that, the two – one representing a chain of German-themed restaurants and the other a small-town tea room – have little in common.

Steuben Taverns was a chain of pseudo-Bavarian restaurants located in big cities. The first, on 47th Street, was opened in New York City in 1930 and was the longest survivor of the moderate-priced chain, staying in business until 1971 [the postcard of the interior below is probably of the 47th Street place]. At its peak the chain had about a dozen restaurants, mainly in NYC but also in Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

The business encountered a few bumps along the road. Opening a huge, block-long unit in Times Square in 1934 proved difficult, dragging out to 14 months, because the restaurant was located over the Times Square subway station, which had to be redesigned. Despite selling a lot of beer (Prohibition had just ended) and seating 800 customers, the Times Square Steuben Tavern failed just five years later.

Meanwhile the chain suffered more grief in 1936 during a mobster shakedown that affected a number of high-profile NYC restaurants. As a chain the Taverns allegedly paid a particularly high sum – $17,000 – to ensure that the racket leaders did not carry out their threats to send “union” picketers or set off stench bombs.

Strangely, given its German theme, the Steuben Tavern in Newark evidently entertained many Jewish patrons in the 1930s. On September 14, 1934, with the Nazis in power in Germany, the restaurant took out an advertisement in Newark’s Jewish Chronicle wishing its patrons the best for the Jewish holidays.

White Gate Tavern

It was almost as though the White Gate Tavern was in another country altogether, one without beer, racketeers, or subway stations. It began in business in August of 1932 in the town of Ashburnham, Massachusetts, in a 100-year-old house formerly occupied by a Latin teacher at the town’s private school, Cushing Academy.

Its proprietors were two unmarried middle-aged women, both of whom had worked for the Y.W.C.A. at one point. Ida J. Lyon was from Connecticut and, as a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a bona-fide Yankee. Her partner, Helen G. Cowell, was the daughter of the late but long-time principal of Cushing Academy.

The two women set about having the house remodeled for use as a guest house and tea room. They installed a modern kitchen with electric refrigeration, a convenience undoubtedly not enjoyed by many of the townspeople at that time. They emphasized the house’s old-fashioned Colonial features as they were considered “homey” by their prospective patrons. The dining rooms were decorated in a green and yellow color scheme that was carried over to the dishes and glassware. In 1932 – in the depths of the Depression – they offered special Sunday dinners for $1.00 and $1.50. (By comparison the Steuben Taverns advertised their “famous” 55-cent dinners on the business card from about the same time.)

In the next few years, further improvements were made to the White Gate Tavern. A yarn shop where knitting lessons were given was opened in a finished room in a barn adjoining the house. In 1935 the interior of the house was renovated and the kitchen was enlarged. A so-called Peasant Tea Room was opened in the barn, along with a “Sunbeam Shop,” a gift shop with crafts made by villagers.

The White Gate Tavern probably closed in the late 1930s. I could find no trace of it after 1937 — the local newspaper carried no further notices of its annual opening for the season or the usual lists of guests who stayed there.

The house is still standing and from the outside likely looks much like it did in the 1930s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Girls’ night out

GirlsNightOut

This is one of my favorite photographs, the kind I tend to hoard until the perfect moment. I put it in the same league with the wonderfully evocative photograph in That night at Maxim’s. It seems just right for the first post of a new year.

Once again, I invite readers to imagine what is going on. I know little other than that they are in a restaurant in New York City. Because they are seated  at a banquette, and because the photo was almost certainly taken by a professional photographer, I would guess it is a nightclub restaurant, or certainly a special occasion type of place. Judging from their outfits and the style of the mural behind them, I think it is the late 1940s or early 1950s.

I love how directly they look at the photographer and how contented they are. I think the woman in the middle is the mother of the woman on the left. Perhaps it is her birthday. Could the other be a cousin? She seems to have been interrupted just as she is about to present what looks like a check to the older woman.

They are drinking manhattans or martinis, not paying too much attention to their salads, and totally ignoring the mound of dinner rolls piled so unceremoniously on a too-small plate. The awkward way the rolls are served and the ordinary serviceable restaurant ware (water tumblers, dishes, and salt and pepper shakers) makes me think it is not an elite restaurant. Still, love those butter pats on the tiny plates!

The only objects in the photograph that I cannot identify are two small squares of paper on the table, one in the foreground right and the other just beyond the salad of the woman on the right. Forms to fill out for the photographer?

Thoughts?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Maxim’s three of NYC

As some New Yorkers may recall, their city once boasted a certified branch of the famed Maxim’s de Paris. It opened in 1985 on two floors in the Carlton House on Madison and 61st. After seven years in which it went through many changes, it closed in 1992. It was grand and expensive, but despite its golden name never made it into the highest ranks of NYC restaurants.

The proprietor of an earlier, independent Maxim’s in New York, Julius Keller [pictured below], once wrote that “the American people reveled in anything that savored of a European atmosphere,” but perhaps that was truer in his day than the 1980s. His Maxim’s thrived from 1909 until 1920 when it fell victim to wartime austerity.

It was one of the “lobster palaces” on and near Broadway that appeared before the First World War to cater to fun-seeking after-theater crowds. Typically the palaces adopted French names, poured champagne like water, and featured some form of entertainment as well as premium-priced chicken sandwiches and broiled crustaceans.

Keller, who liked to be called Jules because it was classier, was a Swiss immigrant who landed in New York solo in 1880 at age 16. After working as a waiter in a number of restaurants and hotels, and eventually owning a few, he found a promising location on 38th street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Activity was moving in that direction and he thought he could make a go of it despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars lost by four failed predecessors which included the Café des Ambassadeurs and the Café de France.

At first he operated under the name Café de France. Nobody came. So, being resourceful, he dressed his waiters like servants to Louis XIV, hired an orchestra, and, most importantly, borrowed the name of the famous Paris house of good food and naughty gaiety, Maxim’s. Success followed quickly. Each year on New Years Eve he gave away souvenir plates displaying the words, “Let us go to Maxim’s, where fun & frolic beams,” possibly lyrics from the 1899 French play The Girl from Maxim’s.

His clientele was made up of society figures, financiers, celebrities, and those indispensable “others” with money to spend. Maxim’s courtly tone had a tendency to slip occasionally, as was often the case with lobster palaces. On one occasion in 1911, 250 people coming from the annual automobile show jammed the place, causing quite a fracas when the staff had to forcibly eject them in the wee hours. But Keller drew the line at known criminals. He deliberately discouraged the patronage of gangster friends from the old days – when he had ventured into gambling and, as part of the operation of his Old Heidelberg, prostitution. He wanted Maxim’s to be first-class.

During his years operating Maxim’s Jules was known as “the father of café society,” and for providing male dance partners for lone women patrons in the dance craze of 1914. Among these was his discovery, Rudolph Valentino. He was proud of his restaurant. As he wrote in his 1939 autobiography Inns and Outs, his visit to the original Maxim’s convinced him “that the replica we had put together . . . suffered nothing from comparison.”

Given restaurant-world Francophilia and the fame of the Maxim’s name, it’s to be expected that there were namesakes scattered across the U.S.A. (even in pre-WWI Salt Lake City, a city not generally known for kicking up its heels). And it’s hardly surprising that there was yet another Maxim’s in New York, this one sprouting in the Depression among other Greenwich Village hotspots such as The Black Cat, The Blue Horse, and El Chico. Other than that it acquired new banquettes around 1931, I know absolutely nothing about it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Spectacular failures: Café de l’Opera

In 1910 the media was abuzz with the new Café de l’Opera on Broadway between 41st and 42nd streets in NYC. Its enormous cost and the stunning, over-the-top lavishness of its interior set a new standard for opulence on the glittering White Way. Could anyone have guessed that in a mere four months this splendid “lobster palace” would fail?

Given its fate, how perfect was it that the crowning jewel of the interior decor was a billboard-sized painting of the fall of Babylon installed prominently on a landing of the 22-ft wide staircase?

The after-theater eatery was designed to be the showplace of Times Square. It was financed by a consortium of investors that included architect/decorator Henry Erkins and John Murray, impressario of the almost-as-splendiferous Murray’s Roman Gardens, also designed by Erkins. The team sunk millions into gutting the old Saranac Hotel and turning it into a fantasy Babylonian stage set worthy of the Hippodrome. The bill for interior renovations and decor, under Erkins’ direction with Stern Brothers department store acting as general contractor, came to $1,250,000, a sum that borders on $30 million in today’s dollars.

The silver service alone cost a quarter of a million 1910 dollars, while a huge painting by Georges Rochegrosse cost something like $50,000. Er, or so it was gushingly reported. However another source claimed the painting was a copy, which is probably true. As for many of the imported ancient treasures, they were replicas cast from Middle Eastern artifacts housed in British and French museums. The gleaming black marble covering interior surfaces and pillars on the ground floor and balconies was artificial.

The interior was a startling demonstration of the transformative power of life-size statuary, concealed lighting, mirrored walls, and a million or so sheets of gold leaf. The electrical industry was thrilled with the restaurant’s flair for showcasing what miracles modern lighting could perform. But the architectural community was rather scandalized. They hid their distaste in a haze of apparent flattery, producing choked praise in which adjectives like magnificent served as insults. The “lurid and gorgeous” restaurant was so overwhelming it could “overcome at once the more sober judgment of the critic,” claimed The Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine.

The restaurant’s dining rooms occupied four floors with its main kitchen located above them. Manager Henri Pruger, hired from the Hotel Savoy in London at the princely salary of $50,000 a year, oversaw a staff of 750. Six months after arriving in NYC he headed back home, and one can only wonder how much of his salary he managed to collect. Stern Brothers wasted no time seizing all the furnishings for auction but a goodly number of them apparently were acquired by the new owner, Louis Martin. A restaurant pro, he had formerly presided over the famed Café Martin at Broadway and 26th with his brother J. B.

Martin quickly made changes, moving the kitchen to the basement to solve the problem of food arriving cold at the tables as had happened under the previous management. He installed a bar on the first floor and eliminated the previous regime’s terrifically unpopular formal dress requirement, said to be an English notion. But the jinx was on. If ever a location reeked with bad omens, it was this. On opening night in December 1910 an employee of the Café de l’Opera started an accidental fire in a storeroom causing firemen to parade through the dining room with axes. Well, there was that foreboding fall of Babylon depicting invaders in the banquet hall. But what possessed Louis Martin to create a dining room lighted by a dozen perched owls with electrified eyes the size of silver dollars?

Martin, who ran the restaurant as Café Louis Martin, withdrew from the business in 1913. The new management renamed it the Café de Paris. On the color postcard shown here it is clear that the golden statues on the balcony are gone, replaced by flowers during this incarnation. In 1914 the Café de Paris went bankrupt and in February the restaurant’s “furniture, pictures, ornaments, rugs, carpets, curtains, linen, tableware, kitchenware, and other equipment and furnishings” were auctioned. The building was razed in 1915.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Waitress uniforms: bloomers

The bicycling craze of the mid-1890s brought “wheelwomen” dressed in bloomers into public view. It didn’t take long for enterprising restaurant men to latch onto the sensational pants-like garment as a waitress uniform. It was the middle of a nationwide depression and they hoped that male customers would flock to their establishments and the money would pour in. And this proved true, sort of.

Bloomers were originally a pragmatic garment of the 1850s woman’s rights movement intended to permit women to conduct everyday affairs without dragging 50 pounds of skirts and petticoats over filthy floors and streets. They were designed to do this by raising the skirt hem up to the shoe tops — with long gathered trousers worn underneath to modestly hide the ankles. But because of relentless ridicule, prior to the bicycle craze they had been worn only in private or in exceptional situations: doing gymnastics, while housecleaning, or by Westward-bound women crossing prairies and mountains.

The bloomers worn by female cyclists in the 1890s were more daring than those of the 1850s because they ended just below the knee, revealing stocking-covered calves and ankles. When “waiter girls” (as waitresses were known then) wore them, crowds of men gathered on sidewalks outside restaurants, jostling for a view. Although some restaurant owners claimed that bloomers were more practical than long dresses, it was pretty clear that most were motivated by a wish for publicity.

The bloomer uniform typically consisted of full-cut navy, brown, or black serge pants gathered at waist and knees and worn with a short matching vest (pictured on San Francisco waitresses) or “Zouave” jacket, and a colored blouse with leg o’mutton sleeves. Often the outfit was accessorized with black stockings, patent leather slippers, and caps imprinted with the restaurant’s name.

The first restaurant to adopt the fascinatingly curious uniform, in 1895, was the Bloomer Café in San Francisco. It was rapidly followed by restaurants in St. Louis and NYC. In 1896 and 1897 a few more opened in NYC, in Oakland CA, Chicago, and — gasp! — Boston. The police immediately closed the Chicago café on moral grounds. But they all seem to have been short-lived, usually because the crowds stopped coming once the sensationalism wore off.

Waitresses sometimes balked at bloomers because they feared they would be “on exhibit” and treated crudely by male patrons. Those who did agree to wear them, under threat of losing their jobs, reported that although they missed the “swish” factor of layers of starched skirts, they liked the new style because it enabled them to move quickly without trailing hems to get stepped on or slammed in doors.

Restaurant bloomers were an interesting example of a style crossing under coercion from one social class to another. Bloomers were seen as symbolic of the “new woman” – a decidedly privileged, well-educated, independent-minded daughter of the middle class. The new woman loved riding bicycles and engaging in sports. Working class women, by contrast, did not typically ride bicycles, play tennis or golf, or exercise in gyms. More than one bloomer waitress disclosed upon being interviewed that she had never been on a bicycle.

By 1898 the restaurant bloomer fad was over, but the idea of dressing waitresses in eye-catching costumes was only beginning.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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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

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A chef’s life: Charles Ranhöfer

Or, how Americans got dishes fit to set before a king.

In the middle of the 19th century highly trained European chefs began arriving in the United States. Many were lured to California by the inflated gold mining economy while others stopped on the East coast. Charles Ranhöfer (he soon dropped the umlaut) arrived in 1856, first working for a Russian diplomat in NYC, then for a Washington DC restaurant and a private family in New Orleans. After spending some time in his home country of France in 1860, he returned to New York and in 1862 accepted a position as chef at the “uptown” Delmonico’s on Fifth Avenue near Union Square.

At this time New York City was engorged with wealth from the Civil War. The rich bought up yachts, race horses, fancy carriages, and real estate. It was the perfect time to introduce them to fancy French cuisine. Despite his young age, 26, Ranhofer had extensive experience, having begun his career as a child and running Paris restaurants and the kitchens of European royalty.

The reputation of Delmonico’s as the premier American restaurant, the one most nearly resembling the finest in London and Paris, was built largely during Ranhofer’s reign which lasted from 1862 to his death in 1899, with a brief interruption when he returned to Paris in 1876 around the time Delmonico’s moved from Union Square to Madison Square (shown).

The restaurant’s glory was founded less on regular patronage than on lavish banquets given to honor prominent men. Grand dinners of the 1860s included one given by British railway tycoon Sir Morton Peto and one for President Andrew Johnson and another for Charles Dickens. The Peto dinner, costing $30,000 in 1865 (over $400,000 now), spread Delmonico’s fame across the nation. Another celebrated dinner planned by Ranhofer featured a 30-foot pond set into the banquet table, banked with flowers to protect guests from splashing by four live swans.

Ranhofer’s name became widely known after he published his vast cookbook, The Epicurean, in 1894, divulging how “haute” restaurant cuisine was produced. The cookbook reveals just how many props and quantities of plaster of paris and glue (jelly) are needed to turn out highly decorated French dishes. The illustration of salmon steaks from The Epicurean shown here exhibits salmon coated along the sides with butter paste onto which circles and diamonds cut from truffles have been attached. Truffles also cover the yolks in the boiled egg border. On either side of the salmon dish are decorative spears (hatelets/attelets) of prawns. Ranhofer is also known for inventing baked Alaska – in his recipe ice cream is stuffed inside a hollowed out cone-shaped cake before the meringue is added.

Although his early training was similar to other top chefs, he was atypical in holding one job for over 30 years. Perhaps his percentage share of profits explains his long tenure with Delmonico’s. His base pay was good for its time – $300 ($7,300 today) a month in 1890 – yet not the highest on record. William K. Vanderbilt’s top kitchen man reportedly earned $6,000 a year. However when his share was added, it’s likely Ranhofer’s income exceeded Vanderbilt’s chef’s as well as those of the top men at New York’s Savarin Café and Hoffman House.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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