Tag Archives: New York City

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Mary Alletta Crump

Because she ran a tea room, Mary Alletta “Crumpey” Crump (pictured, age 31) actually would not have called herself a restaurateur. She made a distinction between a tea room and a restaurant: the former served light food, mainly lunch and afternoon tea, while a restaurant served heavy food and was open for dinner. Not so The Crumperie. It served sandwiches, salads, soup, and desserts only. At 6 P.M. she and her partner, her mother “Bee,” shut down for the day. (M. Alletta, as she signed herself, advised prospective tea room operators in 1922 that “a mother or older person is a great asset to a young girl who is contemplating the opening of a tea room.”)

The two opened their first Greenwich Village Crumperie in 1917 (pictured), taking over the spot formerly occupied by photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals’ tea room and art gallery. Sharing the other half of the building at 6½ Sheridan Square with The Crumperie was a gift shop known as The Treasure Chest. By the time Crumpey’s mother passed away in 1926, The Crumperie had occupied five locations in the Village, first moving to Sheridan & Grove, then to the basement of 55 Christopher Street, then to 229 West 4th Street, and finally to 104 Washington Street. She would make one more — unsuccessful — attempt at running a Crumperie after her mother’s death, teaming up with Marie Saint Gaudens (niece of sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens), at 13 West 51st Street in 1927. After this she abandoned the tea room business.

She and her mother opened the first Crumperie on a shoe string, spending only $100 for the first month’s rent plus all the furnishings and equipment. Start simple, that was their motto. Crumpey decorated with odds and ends: tables and chairs she painted herself, illustrations from magazines, a discarded old settle, family quilts, and table runners made from dime store toweling. Her mother did the cooking, specializing in crumpets of course, but also offering pea soup, “crumpled” eggs, and peanut butter sandwiches. Beverages included tea, coffee, and chocolate — nothing alcoholic!

The various Greenwich Village Crumperies were gathering places for New York City artists, musicians, literary figures, and actors with the Providence Players. The tea rooms were frequented by singer Enrico Caruso, artist Tony Sarg, and writers Theodore Dreiser, Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Writer and editor Christopher Morley steered his “Three Hours for Lunch” club to the Crumperie, though how they could have stretched out a meal there for that long I don’t know.

During and after her years in the food business, M. Alletta volunteered for war work, entertaining the troops in England with her ukulele playing during WWI (she also sang spirituals and folk songs in the tea room). After 1927 she apparently had a variety of jobs. She had studied at Smith College and trained to become a nurse before opening The Crumperie and may have returned to teaching or nursing. She taught a tea room management class in Brooklyn and worked for a time at the Grenfell Mission in Labrador. In 1958 she made five appearances on the TV quiz show “The $64,000 Question,” winning $16,000 which she used to fund a European trip.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Between courses: dining with reds

In July of 1928 the Communist Party in the United States opened a public cafeteria on the ground floor of their headquarters in New York City, home also to The Daily Worker. The headquarters, known as the Workers’ Centre, was at 26-28 Union Square East and also contained a cooperative barber shop in which the barbers did not accept tips.

The restaurant was called Proletcos Cooperative Cafeteria. Proletcos was said to be a name created by a garment worker who combined the first two syllables of PROLETarian with the CO of cooperative, then added an S.

It’s not surprising that Communists would select a cafeteria as their preferred format for a restaurant. There is something socialistic about cafeterias, with their self-service and no-tipping customs. They were widely adopted in industrial plants and among working women’s organizations of the 1890s. Two home economists created a chain of cooperative cafeterias in NYC in 1920, called Our Cooperative Cafeterias, which dispersed an annual rebate to customers who were members. Evidently it was unrelated to the Communists’ project. Proletcos, whose prices were about average for a cafeteria, gave a 10% discount to its 600 shareholders. Its workers were guaranteed an 8-hour day and good working conditions.

Proletcos was enlarged in November of 1928 and was able to serve nearly 6,000 meals a day. Artist Hugo Gellert, a lifelong Marxist and co-founder of The New Masses magazine, created a mural for the expanded and refurbished restaurant in which sturdy workers and Communist heros such as Sacco and Vanzetti, John Reed, and Vladimir Lenin, all 10 feet tall, loomed over the dining room (pictured). According to a story in the New Yorker, the cafeteria was quite up to date, with tile floors, brass railings, and modern light fixtures.

The cafeteria had a short life lasting only a couple of years in which it served workers, many of them from the garment district, along with students who liked to hang out, drink coffee, and discuss the issues of the times. It evidently came to an end in 1930 when the CP moved its headquarters from Union Square to East 13th Street.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Banqueting at $herry’s*

In 1898 Sherry’s and Delmonico’s faced off on two corners of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. Which would win the favor of New York City’s high society whose core membership was known as the Four Hundred? Even before Sherry’s boldly moved onto Delmonico’s turf it had been successfully poaching “Del’s” clientele. For a time there seemed to be enough elite diners to go around, but the days were numbered for both of New York City’s grand restaurants. Before too long each would suffer from the negative impact of Prohibition and World War I on food and drink and social life. Nonetheless many spectacular balls and dinners were still in store at Sherry’s before its demise.

Louis Sherry began his professional life in restaurants in New Jersey and New York in the 1870s, working as a waiter, then steward and head waiter at establishments such as the Hotel Brunswick. In 1881 he started a confectionery and catering business at Sixth Avenue and 38th Street where he supplied ice cream, cakes, and deluxe dinner party staples such as lobster, salmon, deviled crab, chicken salad, and terrapin. He soon opened a restaurant at the casino at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island. His businesses grew, and he moved to Fifth Avenue at 37th Street, and when that became too small he commissioned Stanford White to design a multi-story restaurant with ballrooms and residential suites opposite Delmonico’s.

Although he has been singled out as one of the few American-born proprietors of a fine NYC restaurant at the turn of the 20th century, it is likely that he was a native of Canada rather than Vermont as is frequently reported. On several passport applications he attests that he was born in Quebec, in 1855.

Sherry was known for getting every detail right, particularly table appointments and decorations which could include everything from asparagus served in a hollowed out block of ice to tabletop forests and lakes (1908 dinner pictured). But from time to time the expense and elaborateness of his dinners prompted critics to call them symptoms of a decadent society. This was especially true of the $250 per person dinner on horseback given by C. G. K. Billings to 36 members of his Equestrian Club in 1903 – and the 1905 dinner for 500 guests costumed as 18th-century French royalty given by James H. Hyde where even the waiters wore powdered wigs.

In 1912 Sherry’s was hit hard by a restaurant workers’ strike which targeted the city’s top eating places. He professed indifference but bitterly cited “Bolshevik waiters” as one of the reasons for closing the restaurant and hotel in 1919 and moving up to 58th Street to continue with catering and confectionery. In 1921 Sherry joined a corporation headed by Lucius Boomer that opened a Sherry’s restaurant and candy shop at 300 Park Avenue. A subsidiary of the corporation owned the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Sherry, who did not seem to be actively involved in these enterprises, died in 1926. Later, under a succession of owners, there were Louis Sherry restaurants in the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic, while ice cream is still (or was until fairly recently?) produced under the Louis Sherry name.

* In The Real New York (1902), Rupert Hughes suggested that because the restaurant was so expensive, its name should be written this way.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Good eaters: Andy Warhol

He certainly wasn’t from the same category of eaters as James Beard, yet both Beard and Andy Warhol celebrated American cuisine, even in its more humble pancake/sandwich/barbecue forms. Warhol was a typical American eater in many regards. He was conservative about his food, preferred simple dishes, and was happy eating in front of the TV.

As for restaurants, he explained in his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol that he stayed thin by ordering things he disliked in restaurants — even fashionable and expensive ones such as La Grenouille. While his companions ate, he picked at his plate and then had the food wrapped up so he could leave it somewhere for a homeless person to find. He called this the “Andy Warhol New York City Diet.”

He much preferred “good, plain American lunchroom[s] or even the good plain American lunchcounter” to chic eateries. His favorites, already vanished by 1975, were the “old-style” Chock Full O’ Nuts and Schrafft’s. “The days were carefree in the 1940s and 1950s when I could go into a Chocks for my cream cheese sandwich with nuts on date-nut bread and not worry about a thing,” he wrote. He felt that people could not handle many challenges to their food habits without becoming upset. As he put it, “Progress is very important and exciting in everything except food.”

He came close to becoming a restaurateur himself when he announced the coming of the “Andy-Mat,” an unpretentious neighborhood restaurant serving homely comfort food at reasonable prices which was slated to open in fall of 1977 on Madison Avenue at 74th Street in NYC, perhaps launching a chain. (See photo with Warhol and his partners, [standing L to R] architect Araldo Cossutta, developer Geoffrey Leeds, and financier C. Cheever Hardwick III.) Described as “a tinker toy for sophisticates,” Warhol’s concept included pneumatic tubes through which customers’ orders would be whooshed into the kitchen. The meals served in Andy-Mats, in keeping with the times, were to be frozen dinners requiring only reheating.

For some reason — poor location or failure to raise capital or maybe because the whole plan was cooked up over “twelve stingers at El Morocco” — the restaurant did not materialize.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Today’s specials: books on restaurants

Appetite City

As someone who has spent years researching the history of restaurants I can give no higher praise than to say “I couldn’t have done it better myself.” That is my appraisal of William Grimes’ Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/North Point Press), a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of both restaurants and New York City. And, though I might have matched the book’s exhaustive research, I doubt I could have written it so engagingly. I appreciate Grimes’ level gaze and ability to sidestep the hype that has always surrounded New York restaurants, even as far back as 1825 when a journalist insisted that New York rivaled Paris with its “consummate institutions for cultivating the noble science of gastronomy.” Grimes’ response: “New York a rival of Paris? Hardly.” Though its star would rise throughout that century and the next, there were plenty of dips along the way. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the city was depressed and “cultural energy no longer radiated” from it. California restaurants became the locus of culinary innovation. Inevitably, though, many of its leading chefs migrated to New York as almost everyone who wants to make their mark does at some point.

Readers will find everything they are looking for in this book. All the leading restaurants and restaurant types are covered, in text and illustration: from Delmonico’s to the Automat, speakeasies and lobster palaces, beaneries and night clubs, oyster bars and world’s fairs eateries, from the 1820s to the present. I particularly enjoyed the book’s final chapter in which Grimes discusses his five years as a restaurant critic for The New York Times, during a “frenzied restaurant boom fed by a robust economy” (1999-2004) when “the dining scene was a complete free-for-all, as chefs dipped into Pacific Rim and Nuevo Latino with equal enthusiasm…” If I find anything missing in the book it is a characterization of New York restaurants which identifies how they have been, and are, different from those in the rest of the U.S., and the world — perhaps an impossible task, but worth a try. And something that applies to all capital/global cities that I would have liked to see would have been an attempt to separate the local dining spots (where the natives eat) from those that rely heavily on visitors to the city. But these are minor omissions in a valuable and thoroughly enjoyable book.

Republic of Barbecue

The Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket (University of Texas Press) takes us far beyond New York City and its trendiness and glitz. Here we are introduced to more than one expects from a purely local tradition in cooking, eating, and restaurant-ing.

The book is by Professor Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt of the American Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin and 11 graduate students. With cameras and tape recorders the crew explored Central Texas eateries to create an oral history of barbecue and answer the question, “What does barbecue tell us about who we are?” Proprietors tell in 23 first-person narratives how and why they barbecue. These are supplemented by essays by the authors which explore the area’s history as well as subjects such as gender and race.

So the book sprawls, intentionally. As Engelhardt says, the idea is not to solidify Texas barbecue mythology but to find its complexities. Myth would have it that Texas barbecue is about beef and sausage; cowboys; rich and poor sitting side by side; eating off of butcher paper without utensils; slow cooking over mesquite and post oak in brick pits; no sauce; and only bread or crackers as sides. They find all of these things are real, but they also trace historical roots to Southern cotton culture rather than Western cattle culture; find decades of exclusion of blacks and Mexicans as customers; discover pork, chicken, turkey, goat, and mutton alongside beef; and find varied practices such as some barbecuers using sauce, some cooking on rotisserie pits fueled by propane instead of wood pits, and some cooking the meat for only three hours rather than twelve or more.

The book is well illustrated and, though somewhat repetitive and a bit inconclusive, filled with fascinating essays and narratives. I enjoyed reading about what to drink with barbecue – Big Red and Dr. Pepper sodas, and Shiner Bock and Lone Star beers. I appreciated Gavin Benke’s “Authenticity” which explores issues such as the restoration of butcher paper for the feel of the “real barbecue” experience, Eric Covey’s “Keep Your Eye on the Boll,” which examines barbecue in the context of a cotton-growing economy, and Remy Ramirez’s essay on her Mexican-American grandparents. The book is nicely produced and a pleasure to read and a must-have for anyone interested in barbecue or restaurant history and culture.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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With haute cuisine for all: Longchamps

Staked by his brother-in-law, gambler Arnold Rothstein, Henry Lustig expanded from the wholesale produce business into restaurants in 1919. His first location, at 78th and Madison Avenue, was a property that belonged to Arnold. By 1924 he had two more restaurants, one conveniently near Saks Fifth Avenue. An advertisement informed “Madame or Mademoiselle” that at Longchamps they would find light French dishes as well as “soothing quiet, faultless service and a typically ‘Continental’ cuisine” that was above average “yet … not expensive.” While not exactly cheap, Longchamps was considered easily affordable by the middle-class.

The chain continued to grow rapidly after the repeal of Prohibition when it hired top modernist decorators and architects to give it ultra-sophisticated chic. With the assistance of German-born artist and designer Winold Reiss and architects Louis Allen Abramson and Ely Jacques Kahn, New York City gained some of its most glamorous restaurant interiors of the period. Reiss showed considerable talent in disguising irregular spaces with mirrors and murals, multiple levels, dramatic lighting, and flashy staircases that lured people cheerfully downward to dine below ground (see his interior sketch and menu cover below). From 1935 to 1940 Longchamps opened seven new restaurants, including two on Broadway, one at Lexington and 42nd Street, and one in the Empire State Building.

Cocktail bars were no small part of the slick 1930s Longchamps formula. The chain’s ninth unit at Madison and 59th Street, a site vacated by Reuben’s, had a long oval bar stationed above floor level in the middle of the dining room. With 50 bartenders staffing the bar, the restaurant itself seated 950 diners. When it opened in 1935 a Longchamps advertisement immodestly called it “The Outstanding Restaurant Creation of the Century.” Architectural critic Lewis Mumford found its red, black, gold, and yellow color scheme — carried out even on chair backs and table tops — overdone, but he sensed that his was a minority opinion and he was almost certainly right. Among others, it soon became a meeting place for James Beard and his old friends from Oregon.

During the war Longchamps’ did a booming business. Lustig, it turned out, was siphoning off cash as fast as he could and keeping two sets of books, one for him and one for the IRS. Keep in mind that he owned racehorses and had named his restaurants after a famous Paris racetrack. The game was up in 1946 when he was handed a bill for delinquent taxes and fines of more than $10M and sentenced to four years in federal prison. Nine restaurants, along with a good stock of wine (the Times Square unit alone was said to have 120,000 bottles in the cellar), miscellaneous pieces of Manhattan real estate, and the chain’s bakery, catering business, ice cream plant, candy factory, and commissary, then passed into the hands of a syndicate which owned the Exchange Buffet.

In 1952 a Longchamps was opened in Washington, D.C., becoming one of the few downtown restaurants in that city that served Afro-American patrons. About this time another Longchamps opened in the Claridge apartments on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. In 1959 the chain was acquired by Jan Mitchell, owner since 1950 of the old Lüchow’s. He revealed that the chain, which consisted of twelve red and gold restaurants, a poorly trained kitchen staff, and a diminishing patronage, had been losing money for the past five years but that he could revive it as he had done with Lüchow’s. Under his ownership the New York units began offering guests the dietary concoction Metracal in their cocktail lounges, as well as free glasses of wine and corn on the cob with their meal. After a couple of years the chain was in the black.

In 1967 Mitchell sold it to the Riese brothers, who owned the Childs restaurants and, with new corporation president Larry Ellman, were in the process of buying up classic New York restaurants – Cavanagh’s in 1968, Lüchow’s in 1969, and others. In 1969 the old Longchamps were mostly turned into steakhouse theme restaurants. The restaurant at Madison and 59th, though, was renamed the Orangerie, dedicated to “hedonistic New Yorkers,” and given a “festive mood of Monte Carlo.” Its $8.75 prix fixe dinner came with free wine, “Unique La ‘Tall’ Salade,” and after-dinner coffee with Grand Marnier. In 1971 a single Longchamps operated under that name, at Third Avenue and 65th Street, but I doubt it had anything in common with the classic Longchamps of the 1930s. The holding company “Longchamps, Inc.” vanished in 1975.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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High-volume restaurants: Smith & McNell’s

Smith&McNellsAll things considered, the best restaurants that this country has produced probably have been unpretentious, inexpensive, high-volume eateries located close to sources of fresh food. In 19th-century New York City’s Smith & McNell’s, across from the booming Washington Market, was a leading example of the type. Its patronage came largely from dealers, farmers, and customers who worked and shopped at the market. Around 1891 the restaurant reportedly provided more meals than any eating place in the city, as many as 10,000 a day.

Service was so brisk at Smith & McNell’s that its waiters and kitchen workers were held to a high standard. Successful performance there was a job recommendation said to be equal in its own way to having worked at Delmonico’s. Fred Harvey, founder of the famed Santa Fe Railroad system of eating houses, found his first job at Smith & McNell’s shortly after immigrating from England in the early 1850s.

S&MHotel1900There are many discrepancies in accounts of this restaurant’s history but it seems most likely it was established in the late 1840s by Thomas R. McNell and Henry Smith. McNell was an Irish immigrant, born sometime between 1825 and 1830. According to one account he and Smith had been night watchmen before taking over the coffee house run by Frederick Way on Washington Street near the market. Both McNell and Smith became wealthy and McNell acquired a lordly estate in Alpine, New Jersey, as well as a California ranch. He continued working in the business until a ripe old age and died in 1917 a few years after the restaurant (and associated hotel) closed.

SmithMcNell'sca1910

Smith and McNell’s, following the customs of the time, operated 24 hours a day and did a strictly cash business, clearing a daily profit which the partners split after paying the help. Since the market was busiest at night, that was probably the time when most of their clientele piled in for meals of oysters, steaks, eggs, and griddle cakes. Judging from a 1900 menu, prices did not go up much over the decades. A meal of beefsteak pie or baked ham with champagne sauce still cost 15 cents, while an order of mashed potatoes or a chocolate eclair cost 5 cents each. The restaurant, which seated 1,000 and took up the entire first floor of the 400-room hotel, made its own wine. A glass of Concord or Catawba wine sold for 10 cents, a quart for 30 cents.

When the property was sold in 1920 it comprised almost the entire block bounded by Washington, Greenwich, Vesey, and Fulton streets across from Washington Market. The market continued to operate until around 1960 when the site was cleared for the World Trade Center, the acreage of which also encompassed the block once occupied by Smith & McNell’s. It could be argued that some of the restaurants operated by catering maestro Joe Baum in the WTC, such as The Big Kitchen, carried on the tradition of the old marketmen’s eatery.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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The Automat, an East Coast oasis

automatlogoIn the late 19th century owners of large popular-price restaurants began to look for ways to cut costs and eliminate waiters. The times were hospitable to mechanical solutions and in 1902 automatic restaurants opened in Philadelphia (pictured below) and New York. In both cities, a clever coin-operated set-up – and a name – were imported from Germany. There was, however, a striking difference between the two operations. The Philadelphia Automat, run by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, served no alcoholic beverages, while the New York Automat, true to its European origins, did.

automatphil3051The Automat in NYC was owned by James Harcombe, who in the 1890s had acquired Sutherland’s, one of the city’s old landmark restaurants located on Liberty Street. The Harcombe Restaurant Company’s Automat was at 830 Broadway, near Union Square. Reportedly costing more than $75,000 to install, it was a marvel of invention decorated with inlaid mirror, richly colored woods, and German proverbs. It served forth sandwiches and soups, dishes such as fish chowder and lobster Newburg, and ice creams. Beer, cocktails, and cordials flowed from its faucets. A bit too freely. The Automat’s staff had to keep a sharp lookout for young boys dropping coins into the liquor slots.

While the Philadelphia Automat thrived, the New York counterpart ran into financial difficulties shortly after opening, possibly because of a poor location. It advertised in an NYU student magazine in 1904: “Europe’s Unique Electric Self-serving Device for Lunches and Beverages. No Waiting. No Tipping. Open Evenings Until Midnight.” The disappearance of the Harcombe Automat ca. 1910 seemed to fulfill pessimistic views that an automatic restaurant couldn’t succeed in New York, allegedly because machinery would malfunction and customers would cheat by feeding it slugs.

1912bdwyautomatUndeterred by the first Automat’s fate, Horn & Hardart moved into New York in 1912, opening an Automat of their own manufacture at Broadway and 46th Street (pictured). It turned out that New Yorkers did indeed use slugs, especially in 1935 when 219,000 were inserted into H&H slots. But despite this, the automatic restaurant prospered, expanded, and became a New York institution. By 1918 there were nearly 50 Automats in the two major cities, and eventually a few in Boston. Horn & Hardart tried Automats in Chicago in the 1920s but they were a failure. On an inspection tour in Chicago, Joseph Horn noted problems such as weak coffee, “figs not right,” and “lem. meringue very bad.”

Part of the lore of the Automat derives from the unexpected forms of sociability it inspired among strangers. Others found in it a unique entertaining concept. Jack Benny hosted a black tie dinner in a New York Automat for 500 friends in 1960, but he was scarcely the first to come up with the idea. As early as 1903 a Philadelphia hostess rented that city’s Automat for a soirée, hiring a caterer to replace meatloaf and coffee with terrapin and champagne. In 1917 a New York bohemian group calling themselves “The Tramps” took over the Broadway Automat for a dance party, inserting in the food compartments numbered slips corresponding to dance partners. For most customers, though, the Automat meant cheap food and possibly a leisurely place to kill time and watch the parade of humanity.

automatmysteries3041The Automats hit their peak in the mid-20th century. Slugs aside, the Depression years were better for business than the wealthier 1960s and 1970s when some units were converted to Burger Kings. In 1933 H&H hired Francis Bourdon, the French chef at the Sherry Netherland (fellow chefs called him “L’Escoffier des Automats”). In 1969 Philadelphia’s first Automat closed, being declared “a museum piece, inefficient and slow, in a computerized world.” That left two in Philadelphia and eight in NYC. The last New York Automat, at East 42nd and 3rd Ave, closed in 1991.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Good eaters: James Beard

taits302James Beard enjoyed eating out – in fact much of his life revolved around restaurants. When he was a child his mother often took him to places such as the Royal Bakery in his hometown of Portland OR and Tait’s in San Francisco (pictured). Although he was an accomplished cook, cooking teacher, and author of over 20 cookbooks, like many a New Yorker he patronized restaurants frequently, including Maillard’s, Longchamps, and the Automat. At one point, when he had become more prosperous, he ate almost nightly for a solid month at one of his regular haunts, the Coach House near his home in Greenwich Village, where his favorite dishes included corn sticks, black bean soup, and mutton chops. One summer in 1953 he managed a restaurant on Nantucket.

youngjjamesbeardrevHe preferred restaurants that were “homey” and where he was known and liked, such as the Coach House and Quo Vadis. At the latter he became good friends with owners Bruno Caravaggi and Gino Robusti with whom he shared a love of opera. As a young man (pictured, age 19) he prepared for a musical career at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He said that his early performance training helped him with radio and TV appearances.

In 1956 he issued his list of the country’s best restaurants, revealing a fondness for clubby male establishments and for places that were friendly — though usually expensive: Le Pavillon, ‘21,’ Quo Vadis (NYC); Jack’s (SF); Locke-Ober (Boston, pictured); Perino’s, Musso & Frank (Los Angeles); London Chop House (Detroit); and Walker Bros. Pancake House (Portland).locke-ober

Restaurants also figured prominently in his professional life. He served as a consultant for restaurants in NY and Philadelphia, including the Four Seasons. For years he wrote a column on restaurants for the Los Angeles Times in which he touted places as diverse as Quo Vadis and Maxwell’s Plum in NYC and the Skyline Drive-In in Portland OR (“they make a whale of a good hamburger”). Despite occasional harsh opinions expressed about women in his 1950s barbecue cookbook days (“They should never be allowed to mix drinks.”), in later years he hailed Berkeley CA restaurateurs Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Suzy Nelson, co-owner of The Fourth Street Grill.

He advised men on cooking and ways of suavely handling their culinary affairs, being careful, even when promoting French cuisine, to keep a down-to-earth tone. He disavowed the term gourmet, claiming he was definitely not one. In a review of Maxwell’s Plum he declared, “Not being a highbrow about food, I appreciate a really good hamburger or chili as much as a velvety quenelle or a rich pâté en croute.”

In a column he wrote for the National Brewing Company of Baltimore he urged discontented diners to stand up for good food, suggesting, “The only way to combat the stupid treatment of food in many restaurants is to be firm about sending food back to the kitchen whenever it is not right.” If asked how your dinner is, he insisted, do not say (if it was bad), “Oh very good, thank you.” In another piece he chided “mannerless” diners who make multiple reservations with the intention of deciding later which to honor. “When you dine out you have a certain responsibility to the management,” he wrote, explaining that no-shows seriously undermine small restaurants.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Anatomy of a restaurant family: the Downings

bonedturkies18561The Downing family of caterers and restaurateurs, Thomas and his sons George T. and Peter W., were activists in the causes of the abolition of slavery, black suffrage, and black education. They assisted Afro-Americans fleeing slavery before Emancipation as well as those escaping terrorism in the South in the post-Civil War period. Like many free blacks living in cities, they took up the catering trade. Similar to undertaking and barbering, catering was a personal service occupation which offered a degree of opportunity for enterprising people of color.

thomasdowning2Thomas Downing (pictured), the son of freed slaves from Virginia, specialized in oysters. He opened an oyster cellar on Broad Street in New York City in the 1820s, gradually expanding it and earning a fine reputation. Often oyster cellars were “dives” but his was considered first class. He won awards for his pickled oysters which, along with his boned and jellied turkeys, were especially popular at Christmas (see 1856 ad). Over time he owned the Broad Street place and at least one other in NYC and, according to a Rhode Island directory, another in Providence. However, the press seemed always to confuse the various Downings, so it’s possible the latter was under the direction of a son.

Because of the fame of Thomas’s oysters, his wealth (when he died in 1866, his estate was believed to be worth $100,000 – over $100 million today), and his efforts to end slavery, Thomas was regarded as a patriarch of NYC’s black community. When he was ordered off a trolley car in 1855 because of his race, people in the street recognized him and pushed the stopped car forward until the conductor permitted him to continue his ride.

georgetdowningThomas’s place on Broad was patronized by men in political and financial circles and he was rumored to have influential connections. Both his sons, George and Peter, had enough pull to win concessions for restaurants in government buildings. Peter ran an eating place in the Customs House in NYC, while George, a friend of MA Senator Charles Sumner, managed one in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. George (pictured) was also well known as the proprietor of a resort hotel, the Sea Girt House, in Newport, Rhode Island.

Thomas saw to it that his children were well educated. But neither this nor their accomplishments saved them from racial abuse. George was an eloquent writer who often confronted racism in his writings. When he lost his concession in the House restaurant in 1869 he wrote a letter to a newspaper asserting that he had been rejected because he defied the rule against serving black customers in the same dining room with whites. Nor did the family’s achievements prevent Peter’s son, Henry F. Downing, a newspaper editor, playwright, and former consul to Loanda, from being refused service in a New York restaurant in 1895.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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