Tag Archives: New York City

Building a tea room empire

bluewhiteteacupHistorically, few tea rooms have enjoyed financial success. So, while “empire” may be a bit grandiose, it’s hard not be impressed by the tea rooms enterprise Ida Frese and her cousin, Ada Mae Luckey, built in New York City in the early 20th century. Ida and Ada, both from a small town near Toledo OH, struck it rich by winning the patronage of wealthy society women. Over time they owned six eating places: the Colonia Tea Room (their first), the 5th Avenue Tea Room, the Garden Tea Room in the O’Neill-Adams dry goods store, the Woman’s Lunch Club, and two Vanity Fair Tea Rooms.

How they did it is a mystery not fully explained by the reputed deliciousness of their waffles nor the coziness of the Vanity Fair’s fireplace. I have not been able to find anything about their backgrounds that explains what prepared them for business success. Although contemporary publications cited them as the founders of one of NYC’s first tea rooms, it’s not clear exactly when they got their start. In 1900 Ida, 28 years old, was still living with her family in Ohio, however only ten years later she and Ada were well established in New York, running at least four tea rooms.

vanityfair278Clearly they valued a good location. The Vanity Fair at 4 West Fortieth Street began in 1911, bearing a notice on its postcard (pictured) that it was across the street from the “new” public library which also opened in 1911. The tea room’s upstairs ballroom was the site of many a party, such as a Shrove Tuesday celebration in February 1914 attended by 150 masked guests.

fresetearoomsAdding to their financial success were several real estate coups. In 1914 Ida somehow obtained a lease on a coveted Fifth Avenue property. Her feat astonished everyone who followed real estate deals since the owner, a granddaughter of William H. Vanderbilt, had turned down repeated offers from would-be lessees and buyers. The house at #379 was one of the last residences on Fifth Avenue between 34th and 42nd streets which had not been turned into a store or office building. Ida and Ada moved the Colonia, previously on 33rd Street, to this address and rented the remaining space to retail businesses, dubbing the structure the “Women’s Commercial Building.”

In 1920 they constructed a building at 3 East 38th Street, planning to relocate the Vanity Fair Tea Room because they feared – incorrectly as it turned out – that they would lose the lease for the old Vanity Fair on West 40th. Just four years later Ida took an 84-year lease on the five-story office building at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 33rd Street. Eventually she bought this, as well as the Fifth Avenue property which was at some point replaced by a 6-story building. By 1926, in addition to the three pieces of Manhattan real estate, Ida and Ada had also acquired a farm in Connecticut where they grew vegetables and flowers for the tea rooms.

I don’t know the eventual fate of the tea rooms, but Ida and Ada, both in their late 80s, died in Los Angeles in 1959.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Swingin’ at Maxwell’s Plum

In 1965 impresario Warner LeRoy, son of Hollywood producer Mervyn LeRoy (Wizard of Oz, Mr. Roberts, Quo Vadis), opened Maxwell’s Plum as part of his theater on First Avenue and 64th Street in NYC. Hamburgers and a good wine list made it a hit with the swinging singles who crowded into the café. It was so popular that a few years later he closed the theater and expanded the café, adding a luxurious dining room with a Tiffany glass ceiling that reminded some of Maxim’s in Paris. Patrons could choose to experience Maxwell’s Plum either as a singles’ bar, a boulevard café (pictured), or a grand restaurant which, as a bonus, provided a fine view of the bar scene located on a lower level.

After a 1969 expansion the Plum seated about 250 and produced 1,000 to 1,500 meals a day. It rapidly ascended to the ranks of the city’s biggest grossing restaurants, taking in well over $5 million in the mid 1970s, with a big chunk — more than a third — from alcohol sales.

With offerings ranging from burgers to wild boar, the restaurant enjoyed excellent reviews, winning four stars from NY Times reviewers Craig Claiborne and John Canaday. For a riotously overdecorated Art Nouveau/Deco/Etc. pleasure palace, the Plum provided far better cuisine than it needed to. In the egalitarian spirit of the later 1960s and 1970s, many diners appreciated that its good food was uncoupled from the snobbery then associated with New York’s top restaurants. Canaday hailed the Plum for delivering first-class service “whether you were known or not,” while he stripped stars from La Côte Basque and La Grenouille because of the “disparity in their treatment of favorite (usually fashionable) customers and unknowns.” LeRoy claimed that he didn’t object to patrons looking shaggy, adding, “And if they don’t want to eat fancy food, they can have a hamburger. Whatever.” James Beard declared that he enjoyed hamburgers as much as paté en croute and decided to feature the Plum’s chili recipe for one of his 1973 columns.

LeRoy’s expansions were funded by Hardwicke Companies which ran resorts, wild animal parks, duty-free border shops, and Benihana restaurants. Hardwicke also financed LeRoy’s acquisition of the even-bigger-grossing Tavern on the Green, a failed San Francisco version of Plum (below), and a short-lived 900-seater in DC called Potomac. Hardwicke, under the control of a former Sara Lee exec, came under suspicion for influence buying in its efforts to get a gambling license for its Atlantic City Ritz Hotel. LeRoy broke with Hardwicke in the 1980s, blaming them for the failure of the San Francisco Plum.

New York’s Plum did not survive the 80s. Due to changing tastes and weak reviews that a succession of chefs could not remedy, LeRoy closed it in 1988, announcing that he wasn’t having fun anymore. He sold the First Avenue building for a nifty sum, while Donald Trump plunked down $28K for one of its Tiffany glass windows. At the same auction, the Tribeca Grill acquired the Plum’s large island bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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The brotherhood of the beefsteak dungeon

reisenwebers

During the 1880s rustic beefsteak dinners became a popular form of entertainment among wealthy businessmen who formed beefsteak clubs whose traditions they traced back to England and the early Republic. Then, at the dawning of the 20th century, large restaurants and hotels began to create special banquet rooms for these feasts. Known as beefsteak dungeons, dens, caves, or garrets, they hosted groups of men who gathered for a night of boyish fun blissfully free from conventional dining etiquette.

The standard beefsteak dinner at these festivities involved diners donning white butcher’s aprons to eat steaks with their hands while sitting on boxes and barrels in a dark basement contrived to seem menacing. No utensils were furnished, but the thick slices of steak, dipped in melted butter and grilled on a hickory fire, were accompanied by triangles of bread. In the classic version little else was served other than stalks of celery and unlimited mugs of beer (the steaks were unlimited too). However, niceties such as pre-dinner sherry and appetizers did creep in over time, especially on the rare occasions when women were invited.

zangheri1903Among the leading venues for “beefsteaks” in New York City were Healy’s, the Castle Cave Grill Room, and Reisenweber’s garret. It was at Reisenweber’s where 150 or so humorists and cartoonists toasted Mark Twain at a beefsteak dinner in 1908. Apparently the size of the group required using an ordinary, civilized banquet room (pictured at top with their opened menus). Theodore Roosevelt was among the celebrities who “ate with his claws” in a dungeon at NYC’s Zangheri’s (pictured), whose basement rooms were rigged up with papier maché stone walls, built-in beer kegs, mugs, and purported murder weapons.

beefsteakgarret210

Beefsteak dungeons were not only found in New York, but appeared all over the country during the peak fad years before WWI. In Cleveland, the beefsteak dungeon in Finley’s Phalansterie attracted a delegation of Congregationalists from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1907. Later they reported, “It was the most unique environment in which we ever took a meal, and although at first the novel surroundings startled us, the experience was thoroughly enjoyed.” When the Owyhee Hotel opened in Boise, Idaho, in 1910 it was furnished with a dungeon ready to host its first guests who turned out to be a group of ministers. San Francisco had barn-like beefsteak dens about this same time, such as at the Hof Brau and the Bismarck Café (pictured).

As popular as beefsteak dinners were with male college students, fraternal organizations, sports teams, and conventioneers, their appeal dimmed during the war and Prohibition and never fully returned. I can’t help but wonder if the memory of the churchmen’s trip to Cleveland in 1907 somehow explains why Oshkosh was one of the few cities which still had a beefsteak dungeon in 1939, in the Teddy George Grill and Taproom.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Famous in its day: Maillard’s

maillard5thave206Henri Maillard came to New York City from France in the 1840s bringing with him a bit of Paris represented in the pots and pans and fancy moulds he used as a chocolatier. It wasn’t long before he added a catering department to his confectionery at Broadway and Houston. He let the public know he was ready to produce meringues, Charlotte Russes, jellies and ice creams for balls and parties, as well as provide dinners by reservation on his premises. His fame spread beyond New York, leading him to cater an inaugural ball and grand dinners at the Lincoln White House. In 1878 he took the gold medal at the Paris Universal Exposition at which he exhibited solid chocolate statues and vases weighing from 100 to 180 pounds each and a catalog of 3,000 candies.

maillardmarshmallows209When he died in 1900 at age 84, his estate was valued at $2 million, a vast fortune at that time. His son Henry Maillard Jr. continued the business, moving the fashionable restaurant and candy store in 1908 from the lower level of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, its home since the early 1870s, to more luxurious quarters at Fifth Avenue and 35th street (pictured). By this time Maillard’s had long enjoyed a reputation as the premier restaurant of society women. Billing itself as “An Ideal Luncheon Restaurant for Ladies,” it also offered afternoon tea from 3 to 6 p.m. In 1913 Maillard’s opened a branch in Stern’s Department Store.

maillardext207In 1922 Maillard’s made another move, this time to Madison Avenue at 47th street. At this address it added something new, a dining room for men with its own entrance separate from the larger women’s dining room. It was undoubtedly this location which attracted the patronage of James Beard, who would later write, “In the ‘twenties in New York, you’d have a good cup of Maillard hot chocolate and a chicken sandwich for 75 cents and you thought you were whirling through the world.” In the 1920s there was also a Maillard’s restaurant and store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago where patrons lunched on delicate sandwiches of cream cheese and white cherries.

During the Depression Maillard’s failed. The Chicago location was taken over by the Fred Harvey corporation as its first non-railroad restaurant, while a syndicate took over the New York location and the Maillard’s name. Although Maillard’s candy was produced until the 1960s or later, the restaurant at Madison and 47th, which advertised mundane economy lunches of corned beef, veal cutlets, and chopped ham sandwiches during the 1930s, closed in 1942.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Taste of a decade: 1930s restaurants

wonderbar1941Even as the Depression deepens, the number of full-fledged restaurants continues to increase, from 134,293 in 1929 to 169,792 in 1939. Immigration slows in response to restrictive legislation of the late 1920s, reducing the supply of professional waiters and cooks. Female servers make up more than half of waitstaffs. The economical fixed-price meal, which had virtually been replaced by a la carte service, returns to popularity. Promotions such as “all you can eat” and “free coffee refills” are featured. After the repeal of Prohibition nightlife revives. Many diners, accustomed to speakeasies, show a preference for small, intimate restaurants. All-white interiors give way to imaginative decor which mimics ships or European courtyards. Federal financing facilitates modernization, encouraging restaurants to add streamlined fronts and air-conditioning. Deprived of bootlegging revenues, racketeers infiltrate unions and extort restaurants, dispatching picketers and stench bombs to those that don’t play along.

Highlights

veneto351981931 Restaurants drop prices and see patronage rise. In Chicago prices go down by 10% to 12%.

1932 Stores install lunch counters to lure shoppers and capture a piece of the flourishing lunch trade. Architect Ely Jacques Kahn designs a sleek tea room with vermilion-topped tables and green and black terrazzo floors for the Broadmoor Pharmacy on NYC’s Madison Ave. – Chains such as Schrafft’s, Childs, Horn & Hardart, Lofts’, and Bickford’s expand as they take advantage of reduced rents and absorb failed competitors.

1933 Expecting all alcoholic beverages to be legal by the end of the year, liquor suppliers court restaurateurs. In Amherst MA a small lunchroom operator receives complimentary wine and champagne from the S. S. Pierce Company. – The Afro-American proprietor of the Launch Tea Room in Sheepshead Bay decides to cancel plans for wintering in Palm Beach and turn her Long Island tea room into a free dining room for the poor.

1934 In post-Repeal California Ernest Raymond Baumont-Gantt opens Don the Beachcomber, while Victor Bergeron starts Hinky Dinks, forerunner to Trader Vics. In accordance with state law both must include food service with their bar operations. – In NYC, the president of the Downtown Restaurants association acknowledges, “We know now that repeal of prohibition has saved the restaurant business from utter annihilation and saved it just in time.”

1935 The pro-America mood of the 1920s continues, exemplified by a column in a restaurant trade magazine which asserts preposterously that Delmonico’s got its recipes from Southern plantations while in the 1880s French chefs “flocked to this country” to learn American cooking. — Many restaurants remodel their fronts (see above illustration) as towns across the country launch “Modernize Main Street” campaigns backed with federal money.

brassrail371971936 An investigation reveals that Jack Dempsey’s, Lindy’s, The Brass Rail, and numerous cafeterias are among the NYC eating places that have capitulated to shake-downs by mobsters.

1937 The nationwide Childs chain reports that 47% of all alcoholic drinks served in their dining rooms are cocktails, 22% are highballs, 8% are wines (mostly sherry and port), and oldfashioned195the remainder are cordials. Beer is the most popular drink in summer.

1938 The president of the National Restaurant Association warns members that the number of places serving meals has quadrupled in the past 15 years and only the ingenious will survive.

1939 A book on how to run a tea room notes that 30,000 restaurants are managed by women and advises prospective proprietors to make inquiries such as, “Do the racketeers expect you to pay for protection?”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Mary Elizabeth’s, a New York institution

Mary Elizabeth Evans, for whom the landmark tea room was named, began her career in 1900 at age 15 as a small grocer and candymaker in Syracuse. After one year in business she cleared the then-handsome sum of $1,000 which she contributed to the support of her family while supervising a growing crew of helpers which included her two younger sisters who served as clerks and her brother who made deliveries.

Her family, though in seriously reduced circumstances, had valuable social connections. Her late grandfather had been a judge, her uncle an actor, and her departed father a music professor. That may help explain how she achieved success so rapidly – and why her story garnered so much publicity. By 1904 several elite NYC clubs and hotels sold her candy and soon thereafter it was for sale at summer resorts such as Asbury Park and Newport and in stores as far away as Chicago and Grand Rapids. In 1913 the all-women Mary Elizabeth company, which included her mother and sisters Martha and Fanny, was prosperous enough to sign a 21-year lease totaling nearly $1 million for a prestigious Fifth Avenue address close to Altman’s, Best & Co., Lord & Taylor, and Franklin-Simon’s.

By the early teens the candy store had expanded into a charming tea room with branches in Newport and two in Boston, one on Temple Street and the other in the basement of the Park Street Church near the Boston Common (pictured ca. 1916). Like other popular tea rooms of the era, Mary Elizabeth’s bucked the tide of chain stores and standardized products by emphasizing food preparation from scratch. Known for “real American food served with a deft feminine touch,” Fanny Evans said the tea rooms catered to women’s tastes in “fancy, unusual salads,” “delicious home-made cakes,” and dishes such as “creamed chicken, sweetbreads, croquettes, timbales and patties.” For many decades, the NYC Mary Elizabeth’s was known especially for its crullers (long twisted doughnuts).

Mary Elizabeth distinguished herself as a patriot during the First World War by producing a food-conservation cookbook of meatless, wheatless, and sugarless recipes, and by volunteering to help the Red Cross develop diet kitchens in France. After her marriage to a wealthy Rhode Island businessman in 1920 she apparently played a reduced management role in the business.

In its later years the NYC restaurant passed out of the family’s hands and began to decline, culminating in an ignominious Health Department citation in 1985.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Early chains: Vienna Model Bakery & Café

Contemporary bakery restaurant chains such as Au Bon Pain and Panera Bread may have more units but they are scarcely the sensations that Vienna bread cafés were in the 1870s. America was a country that many considered plagued with inferior bread, whether commercial or home baked. The Fleischmann brothers, Charles, Maximillian, and Louis, were determined to improve American bread with their compressed yeast. Although they manufactured it as early as 1872 – as a byproduct of distilled spirits (another Fleischmann enterprise) – its fame was established at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There the crusty Vienna-style bread produced with Fleischmann’s yeast won a prize for excellence and attained international renown. Although the fair’s Vienna Model Bakery café which served this bread was intended mainly to showcase the baked goods that could be made with the company’s yeast, it became a runaway hit in its own right. Some said the bakery café’s fame was as great as the fair itself.

A short time after the Centennial ended, Vienna Model Bakeries and cafés were opened in Philadelphia, New York City, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Chicago, very likely making this the country’s first restaurant chain. The cafés, whose coffee was as prized as their baked goods, were modeled on European coffee houses and furnished guests with comfortable seating and newspapers from all over the world. The St. Louis branch was so popular it had to move to larger quarters within months of opening. In Chicago, as in New York City, the cafes were located close to the cities’ major dry goods firms, Field & Leiter and A. T. Stewart, respectively, thereby attracting women customers as well as men. In the 1880s New Yorkers could enjoy their refreshments outdoors amidst planters of flowers under a large awning stretching in front of the 10th and Broadway café, which also had a full-scale restaurant on the second floor.

Another distinction of the Manhattan Fleischmann’s was its practice of giving away bread to anyone who would wait in line at midnight. Dubbed “the bread line,” it continued until around 1918 when the bakery café closed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Department store restaurants: Wanamaker’s

 

Until very recently I thought John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia had the first in-store restaurant in the U.S. Several scholars have insisted this is true, with the exception of a Macy’s historian who claimed R. H. Macy was first, in May 1878. Wanamaker’s, I’ve discovered, did not install eating facilities until September of 1879 when it enticed a local caterer, Alice Weldon, to run her restaurant inside The Grand Depot, as the store was known then. Weldon, a confectioner born in Ireland, operated a popular oyster-plus-ice-cream café near the store (it sounds like an odd combination but such places were once common). Every day all the shoppers would vacate the store to go eat at Alice’s, so Wanamaker reasoned he had to have her on his side. For about six years she ran the forerunner of The Dairy, an eatery the store created in 1883, one year after installing a soda fountain (another department store first claimed by Wanamaker’s).

The better known restaurant in the Philadelphia store was the Grand Crystal Tea Room which opened on the 8th floor of the new Wanamaker’s completed in 1911. Immense and filled with chandeliers, it was modeled on the tea room in the Philadelphia mansion of Robert Morris, a financier of the American Revolution. Also on the 8th floor, speedily reached by 24 direct-service elevators, were a number of private dining rooms, a men-only tea room, and the store’s ultra-modern kitchens. The Grand Crystal Tea Room survived the demise of Wanamaker’s and the tenure of its successor but finally closed in 1995 and is now a private banquet hall.

The New York City Wanamaker’s, opened in 1896 in the old A. T. Stewart store and closed in 1954, was also well supplied with esteemed eating places. A 1900 menu shows a full complement of delectable lunch choices, including blue points, cream of new asparagus soup, and lamb with mint sauce. The store’s tea room advertised ca. 1908 that its tea was “specially imported,” and prided itself on its “quaint service.” In 1940 the store operated three eating places on the 9th floor: the main restaurant, Green Shutters; a more casual Side Walk Café; and a Men’s Grill decorated with antique French tapestries.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Restaurateurs: Alice Foote MacDougall

Alice, shown in this 1929 book frontispiece at least 20 years younger than her true age at the time, was one of the most carefully crafted restaurant personas of her day. Due to numerous magazine stories spun by her publicity agent, she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38. Even she had to admit (or was this PR also?) that the story was overplayed. “How tired I did get of that woman and those interminable three!” she confessed. Quite honestly, I’ve always felt her much-vaunted opposition to suffrage for women was a publicity stunt too.

She was from a distinguished New York City family. Her great grandfather, Stephen Allen, was mayor of New York City in the 1820s, while her wealthy father Emerson Foote was a charter member of the Union League. Alice, her daughter, and her two sons were listed in the city’s Social Register in 1918. Her career in the coffee wholesaling business began in 1909 with the death of her husband Allan MacDougall. In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S.

She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces, as was clearly the case with the Cortile (shown here).

At Firenze, reputedly used as a movie set, she dressed her black servers like Italian peasants in bright uniforms and head scarves and had them go about filling copper jugs with water from a stone well. Tables were set with imported pottery which she sold as well, along with her Bowling Green Coffee. The Mediterranean village style mimicking courtyard interiors became wildly popular throughout the U.S. in the 1920s and countless women were inspired by MacDougall to open tea and coffee shops of their own. The chain went bankrupt in the depression and new management took over for a time, lowering prices and adding cocktails to the menu.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Lunching in the Bird Cage

Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage restaurant and tea room was opened in the late 1930s. It continued on the fifth floor of the Fifth Avenue New York City store until the 1980s when it was updated and renamed Café American Style. Accommodating only about one hundred persons, the Bird Cage was considerably smaller than the main restaurant in Altman’s which held over two hundred, as well as Abraham & Straus’s in Brooklyn which held over four hundred. Until the mid-1970s the Bird Cage was outfitted with armchairs with trays connected to them. In the early years each tray was supplied with a complimentary cigarette. Diners selected sandwiches, salads, and desserts from rolling carts modeled on Italian racing cars. As Lord & Taylor branches were opened after World War II in locations such as Westchester (shown here, 1948), Millburn NJ, Hartford CT, and Washington DC, they too were furnished with their own Bird Cages.

For many years the Bird Cage staff at the Fifth Avenue store provided refreshments to shoppers who arrived before the store opened each morning. Lord & Taylor president Dorothy Shaver initiated the custom and insisted that the coffee, juice (in summer), or bouillon (when temperatures were frigid) be served in china, not paper, cups.

birdcagemilkbarny1950Other well-loved eateries in the Manhattan store were the men’s Soup Bar on the tenth floor and the children’s Milk Bar (shown, 1950). Scotch broth and deep-dish apple cobbler with rum sauce were specialties at the Soup Bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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