Tag Archives: NYC

Find of the day: the Stork Club

It seems harder all the time to find interesting things at flea markets and vintage paper shows, but I got lucky at Brimfield last week and turned up an unfamiliar Stork Club postcard. What is special is that it dates from before the nightclub/restaurant’s 1934 move to its well known address just off Fifth Avenue on East 53rd Street in NYC.

The postcard shows some of the “Stork’s” entertainers just before the era when its patrons became bigger attractions than its performers. When debutante Brenda Frazier, featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1938, started coming, attention shifted to who was seated at the tables. The early dinner crowd was followed by a late-night set of glamorous publicity seekers, many of them movie stars. Proprietor Sherman Billingsley installed a telephone at the entrance so that the orchestra could strike up an appropriate tune as celebrities were escorted to their tables. [William Boyd, aka Hopalong Cassidy, pictured]

To feed the celebrity mill, newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, always at table no. 50, informed all America of the evening’s highlights the next day. Billingsley had his own radio and TV shows for many years [a 1946 photo shows him interviewing some of the club’s stars]. During its prime in the 1930s and 1940s the Stork Club was the country’s best known nightclub. It’s closest rival was El Morocco. There could never be any doubt about the location of photos taken at the Stork Club thanks to the club’s black and white ashtrays and oversized matchbooks which always appeared prominently.

Nightclubs are a special type of restaurant in which food does not always figure too importantly. But the Stork Club was said to take its menu seriously, for example, flying in fresh crab and pompano from Florida in the 1930s. Unlike others, it opened for lunch. It had a staff of a couple hundred, about 30 of whom worked in the kitchen under longtime French chef Gustave Reynaud. In its best years it reportedly served 1,000 to 3,000 meals a day.

But I am not completely convinced that it was a diner’s mecca. Clearly tastes have changed, yet even by the standards of the day a 1948 menu looks like a real hodgepodge. Some selections are in quasi-French (Calf’s Sweetbreads Under Bell, Eugenie), others are standard American fare (Cold Cuts and Potato Salad). There are a few uninteresting specials stapled to the top (Minute Steak with Baked Potato and Green Salad) and a strange section labeled Chinese Specialties. And, 22 desserts?

Sherman Billingsley, whose background was in Oklahoma bootlegging and Bronx real estate development, began his club career in 1928 or 1929 when he took over management of several NYC speakeasies, one of them named The Stork. He bought out his mob partners, and when prohibition ended went legit. Sherman also ran The Streets of Paris at Coney Island and had interests in other places, while his brother Logan at one point owned a NY restaurant called Madeira House. He and Logan (the latter officially banned from Oklahoma in 1919 as a condition of parole) lived lives of contentiousness and court appearances – perhaps inescapable experiences for bootleggers, developers, and nightclub owners.

The Stork Club fell out of favor in the 1950s, a decade in which Sherman poured hundreds of thousands into defeating unions at his club. His lawyer, the infamous Reds-hunter Roy M. Cohn, told a NY state labor relations committee in 1957 that the Stork Club had been losing money for years. Nevertheless it ranked high as an attraction for out-of-town visitors for some years before its closure in 1965, in dismal condition. One sign it is still remembered is Ralph Blumenthal’s well-researched book, The Stork Club: America’s Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Café Society (2000).

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Conferencing: global gateways

I’m looking forward to being at the Global Gateways and Local Connections conference in New York later this month. The conference is for members of three organizations: the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society; the Society for Anthropology of Food and Nutrition; and the one I belong to which is the Association for the Study of Food and Society.

The conference hosts, New York University and the New School, have helped plan four days packed with fascinating panels as well as tours of markets, food producers, restaurants, and library collections. Not surprisingly given my interests, I’ll be joining a walking tour of the multi-faceted Eataly and another of library culinary collections at NYU and the New York Public Library.

I’m very eager to meet everyone on my panel and to hear their papers. I will talk about “How 20th-century Wars Shaped American Restaurants.” Andrew Haley (author of the James Beard prize winning book on the history of American restaurants, Turning the Tables) will present “From Prune Whip to Mac and Cheese: Children, Diet and the Restaurant in the Mid-20th Century. Nic Mink’s paper is “The Machine in the Culinary Garden: Technological Change and the Transformation of the Quick Service Restaurant Industry.” And Isil Celimli-Inaltong will talk about “The Increasing Significance of the Chef in the Culinary Field.”

Should be great!

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A famous fake

. . . but not quite famous enough because many people still mistake the image shown here, dubbed “America’s first restaurant,” as a reproduction of a genuine Delmonico’s menu from 1834.

It makes me realize how little sense of restaurant history most people have because this “menu” (probably not a menu at all but a newspaper advertisement or handbill) is definitely not from the genuine Delmonico’s, one of the country’s most elegant establishments. In 1831 Delmonico’s expanded from its original status as a confectioner’s shop into a Parisian-styled “Restaurant Francais.” In stark contrast, the “menu” shown above (this particular example was used to promote a modern-day restaurant) originates with one of the lowliest dives in New York City. Plus it’s nearly 50 years later than alleged.

The prices shown are a fraction of what a Delmonico’s meal would have cost. The dishes shown are scarcely French fare. “Hamburger steak” was unknown by that name in the 1830s, first appearing in the 1880s. Although, like all fine restaurants, Delmonico’s could provide a guest with just about anything on demand, items like Pie, Crullers, Mutton Stew, and Pork and Beans would most certainly not have appeared in print. But then restaurants did not used printed menus in 1834.

The true status of the advertisement above was unraveled by Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost in an article called “A Menu and a Mystery” appearing in the Spring 2008 issue of Gastronomica. Recently, after consulting a book in which the fictitiously identified facsimile is treated as a valid Delmonico’s menu, I was inspired to dig up a few additional details.

After exhaustive research, Steinberg and Prost discovered that the likely origin of this advertisement was an establishment at 494 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan run by “R. Barnabo.” His was a place where the poor and down-and-out found cheap offerings, possibly acquired by the proprietor as leftovers from other restaurants and hotels.

The duo also discovered that the typeface on this document was not in use until the 1880s. They determined that this image made its modern debut as a facsimile of a genuine Delmonico’s menu in the 1930s, and was used in advertising campaigns for restaurants in the 1940s. Distributed by wire services, stories about the “legendary” low prices found on “America’s first menu” have cropped up as filler items in countless newspapers from the 1930s until the present. Syndicated columnist Hal Boyle made use of it repeatedly.

And yet nobody, nobody!, ever asked, “Can it be true that America’s finest restaurant served cheap doughnuts and whopping great halves of pies?” And hamburger, a despised food for the poor until mid-20th century? Pigs’ heads?

Here is what I can add to the story of R. Barnabo’s eating place known, perhaps humorously, as “Small Delmonico’s”: First, his name was actually Francisco Bernabo, born in Italy and naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1882. He operated an eating place at 46 Franklin until 1879 when the property was sold and the restaurant was taken over by William S. Pontin. He then moved to 494 Pearl Street where he stayed until 1887 at which time he took a three-year lease at 6 Chatham-Square. He is listed at that address in 1888 but after that I cannot find a trace of him.

Strangely enough, the prices shown on this 1880s “menu” are actually lower than would have been found in a cheap restaurant of the 1830s. They are typical of the “5-cent restaurants” of New York City in the 1880s which were located in Chatham Square where Bernabo moved in 1887. He may have bought food secondhand, but it’s also noteworthy that in the 1880s the bottom ranks of butchers were selling the cheapest cuts of Chicago beef to lowly restaurants for 1 and 2 cents per pound. According to MeasuringWorth.com a 10-cent hamburger steak in 1884 would be about the equivalent of one costing $2.29 today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Conference-ing

Admittedly the “-ing” gimmick doesn’t work so well with that word, but it’s for a good cause. I want to let readers know about a fantastic event taking place in NYC February 18 and 19 that I will be participating in. It is the regional conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), sponsored by The Culinary Trust.

The two days have a lot packed into them: Two plenary addresses to choose from, two receptions, restaurant dinners and lunches (additional charges), and multiple panels organized by thematic track. The four tracks are:

Food Writing (with me on one of the panels)

The Food of New York (me again, talking about NYC’s restaurant history)

School Food

Farm to Table

Read more about the IACP conference. To get more details about each panel, click on the “Register here” button. (You will not be required to register immediately, but I hope you will.)

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