Tag Archives: rooftop restaurants

Dining on a roof

Roof-garden restaurants have had something of a vogue in recent years and may see many more visitors this summer. Their history goes back at least to 1879 when St. Louis restaurant owner Tony Faust created a terrace adorned with boxed shrubs and flowers and lit by gaslights. It was a roof garden of sorts, but on a low roof incapable of giving diners a magnificent view. The terrace remained in operation until at least the mid-1880s, and was commemorated in the ca. 1906 postcard shown here.

In the 1890s, a few places of entertainment in New York City added roof gardens atop tall buildings, primarily as sites for drinking, dancing, and listening to music. The Casino built a garden around 1890, with lanterns, palm trees, and a small stage. Another appeared atop Madison Square Garden [shown here, 1894], then at Koster & Bial’s. These did not serve dinner, but it soon appeared there was a demand for that and it was added to the attractions.

By 1905, New York had dozens of rooftop restaurants during the summer, mostly on hotel roofs. But some restaurants joined in, such as Clyde’s on Broadway and 75th street, famed for its “beefsteak dungeon” which transitioned to the roof in warm weather. Delmonico had a rooftop restaurant in 1920, a few years before it closed for good. Jack Delaney’s ca. 1940 garden appears in a postcard to be rather cramped and lacking a view of the city but it was at least outdoors.

One of the most impressive earlier rooftop restaurants was the one set to open in 1905 on top of New York’s Astor Hotel which was designed to resemble a Tuscan garden. Unlike some others furnished by hotels it was entirely in the open air, with a pergola running down the center that was adorned with moonflowers that only opened after dark.

Other New York hotels that opened roof garden restaurants in the early 1900s included the Hoffman House, The Vendome, the Belle Claire, the Majestic, and the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn. The Waldorf-Astoria had a roof garden but according to a 1905 account only salads and desserts were served there.

Rooftop restaurants in hotels were not limited to New York. They could be found all over the country – at the Grunewald in New Orleans, the St. Anthony in San Antonio, the Hotel Nortonia in Portland OR, the Bingham in Philadelphia, and the McKenzie Hotel which was intended to “boost Bismarck and North Dakota.” Philadelphia had a number of hotel roof gardens, including an unusual-looking one at the Continental Hotel [shown above].

In researching this topic it was often difficult to figure out exactly what was meant by a rooftop restaurant. It might be entirely in the open-air, as was true of the famous Astor roof, or it might be partially or entirely enclosed, occupying part of a roof or the entire roof in which case it was actually the top floor. The Continental’s garden restaurant appeared to be at least partially under a roof, as did the one at Hotel Breakers in Lynn MA shown here.

Most outdoor rooftops opened at the beginning of June, advertising “cool breezes.” Not surprisingly, rooftop restaurants were in vogue mainly before air conditioning came into use in the 1930s. After World War II, when it became more common, it seems the number of open-air rooftops declined.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Famous in its day: Tony Faust’s

By the 1880s Anthony E. Faust had established quite a culinary empire in St. Louis. He ran a Café and Oyster House downtown on Broadway which had a nationwide reputation. Since 1878 it had featured rooftop dining, uncommon in the U.S. then. From his adjoining “Fulton Market” he also retailed and wholesaled “Faust’s Own” oysters and other delicacies such as truffles, soy sauce, and curry powder which he shipped to Southwestern and Western states. His Faust label beer, made for him by the Anheuser brewery, was also sold in the West.

He didn’t start out in the food business but as an ornamental plasterer who immigrated from the Prussian province of Westphalia at age 17. After being accidentally shot while watching a parade, he gave up his trade and decided to open a café in 1865.

Obviously he had a knack for the new business. And it helped that St. Louis was a booming hub of shipping and commerce positioning itself to dominate commerce with the West. His closeness to the Adolphus Busch family of beer fame was undoubtedly another asset. In 1886 Tony opened a second restaurant in a huge new Exposition Building on Olive Street between 13th and 14th which hosted conventions of architects, music teachers, fraternal organizations, and the Democratic National Convention of 1888.

In the late 1880s he razed his restaurant and replaced it with a finer building. With an interior of carved mahogany woodwork, a tapestried ceiling, and an elaborate mosaic tile floor, the restaurant catered to the fashionable after-theater crowd. At some point, perhaps in 1889, a second story was added, eliminating the rooftop garden (above image, ca. 1906).

Success seemed to mean Tony could do as he wished. Caught serving prairie chickens out of season (under the frankly fraudulent name “Virginia owls”), he freely confessed and flippantly said he’d pay the fine or “break rock” if need be. When the Republican National Convention was held in St. Louis in 1896 he claimed his staff would not prepare or serve meals for Afro-American delegates. Even after the convention’s managers offered to hire a space, furnish stoves, and buy provisions to feed the black delegates if Faust would oversee the work, he absolutely refused to do it. Period.

In preparation for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exposition), Faust joined half a dozen of St. Louis’s top restaurateurs in a trust, the St. Louis Catering Company, probably designed to buy in large quantities and possibly to set prices too. Faust went into partnership with New York’s Lüchow’s to create a Tyrolean Alps Restaurant at the Fair which seated 5,000 diners and featured costumed singers (pictured). It represented brewers’ interests as well, leading one observer to joke that the enormous beer hall should have been named “Budweiser Alps.” According to the Fair’s Official Program there was also a Faust restaurant in the Fair’s west pavilion on Art Hill.

At the time Tony Sr. died in 1906 the Faust empire included a second Fulton Market location, and another Faust restaurant in the Delmar Gardens amusement park in University City managed by his son Tony R. Faust. Like many a successful businessman in the Midwest, Tony R. went to NYC to see about opening a branch there. There was a Faust restaurant in NYC’s Columbus Circle in 1908 (pictured), but I am not certain whether this belonged to the St. Louis Fausts. In 1911 Tony Jr. was declared insane. After that his older brother Edward, an executive of Anheuser-Busch who was married to a daughter of Adolphus Busch, took over the restaurants and markets. The downtown restaurants in St. Louis and NYC, and probably the others as well, closed in 1915 and 1916, casualties of looming Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Restaurant-ing al fresco

Today there are many opportunities to eat outdoors, but for much of our history it was fairly uncommon. Partly explained by dust and dirt from unpaved roads, even in the 20th century when this had been overcome there were still few outdoor restaurants, particularly with the spread of air-conditioning after World War II. Though impossible to quantify, it’s possible that dining in open air was more in vogue in the late 18th century than in 1960.

“Pleasure gardens,” as they were called, were enjoyed in 18th-century American cities. Smaller ones were called tea gardens. Patrons, including whole families, were invited to lounge, stroll, and possibly spend the day. They offered a variety of food and drink, but by far the most popular order was ice cream. Many gardens were run by English tavern-keepers or French confectioners. New York’s Vauxhall Gardens, which contained a wax museum, was managed in the 1760s and 1770s by Sam Fraunces of the West Indies, later steward to George Washington. In 1798 a tea garden behind a Philadelphia tavern advertized it was “laid out in grass plats, provided with tables, benches, boxes, bowers, etc. and delightfully shaded by fruit trees.”

Outdoor gardens where patrons consumed mead, lemonade, and light snacks gave way around the Civil War to German beer gardens (Bismarck Gardens, Chicago, pictured) which, like tea gardens, were often situated on the outskirts of cities. They continued until the second decade of the 20th century when burgeoning suburbs wishing to eliminate alcohol purveyors succeeded in closing them down. Prohibition also defeated the dreams of American soldiers returning from WWI who had enjoyed sidewalk cafes in Paris and wanted to reproduce them in their homeland. But would they have caught on in a pragmatic country like America so dedicated to business and industry that sitting at a sidewalk café seemed like decadent loafing?

In truth dining outdoors was enjoyed by Americans mostly when they were in tourist mode, at the seashore or in Europe. Seasonal tea rooms delightfully situated in places such as Marblehead MA (pictured) commonly offered afternoon tea, lunch, and dinner on porches, lawns, and patios. World’s fairs were another place to enjoy Continental ways. Beginning with the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, fairs always included provisions for dining al fresco.

There were a few 20th-century exceptions to the general disinclination to dine outdoors. Rooftop restaurants, usually atop hotels such as the Astor (pictured here), attracted fashionable patrons around 1900 and persisted through the 1920s. New York had more than most cities, but they did flourish elsewhere, such as at San Antonio’s St. Anthony hotel. The title of “first” was claimed by St. Louis restaurateur Tony Faust who added rooftop dining in 1877.

And some odd artistic types — “bohemians” — enjoyed summertime dinners in the backyards of small Italian and French restaurants as early as the 1890s. By 1905, Town & Country magazine declared this habit had attained fad status among adventure seekers.

Louis Sherry claimed to have set up the first sidewalk café in this country, outside his Fifth Avenue restaurant in 1900. He wasn’t actually the first. In 1891 women out shopping in Manhattan liked to “eat al fresco under the vineclad, bush-shaded bower” in front of the Vienna Café. Not too surprisingly, the warmer climates of Florida and California proved most hospitable to sidewalk dining. The custom did not really catch on in a big way across the U.S., though. Those sidewalk cafes that were created in the mid-20th century, such as the St. Moritz Hotel’s Café de la Paix (NYC, pictured), usually advertised their Continental atmosphere, suggesting that eating on sidewalks had not yet earned true American status.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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