Remembrances of Restaurants Past
This light-hearted lyric is well-known to all aficionados of classic American popular music, and most people can imagine a baloney sandwich on a roll eaten on the boardwalk at Coney Island. But exactly what do the lines “And starve together, dear, in Childs” mean?
Interestingly, even a website devoted to lyrics frequently sung by Ella Fitzgerald gets it wrong—they quote “And starve together, dear, in Chiles.”
Sorry, it’s Childs.
And to the native New Yorker Hart, who was writing in his hometown in the 1920s, Childs could mean one thing and one thing only: the popular restaurant chain that offered moderately priced meals at its more than a dozen locations around the city.
But why “starve together, dear” at a popular and inexpensive restaurant chain?
One answer is that the person who sings the lyric is too poor to order much food—this despite the fact that Childs was celebrated for its economical meals. Another speculation guesses that perhaps eating is out of the question because love is in the air. But possibly the true answer is that in the mid-1920s, around the time the lyric was written, William Childs began to impose his vegetarian dietary preferences on his restaurants’ menus and for awhile this generated significant backlash from customers. Maybe the singing suitor just couldn’t deal with all those string beans and rice dishes and chose to starve instead.
In any case, to most New Yorkers in that era, Childs was a reasonably cheap and popular restaurant that traditionally offered a kind of comfort food served by nanny-like waitresses. It was slightly less prestigious and less expensive than that other venerable New York institution, Schrafft’s.
Schrafft’s. Just the name conjures up a host of memories: Irish waitresses dressed like parlor maids in black uniforms brightened with crisp white aprons, collars, and cuffs . . . fabulous chicken pot pie . . . scrumptious but obscenely caloric desserts . . . strong cocktails and boxed candy you could bring home. Schrafft’s was one place where the real Mad Men executives met for drinks and where, without fear of initiating gossip, well-born ladies could have a solitary meal and enjoy their Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, or Sidecars.
In her amusing homage to the chain, When Everybody Ate at Schrafft’s, Joan Kanel Slomanson also notes that the restaurants attracted a variety of celebrities. The book names Harry Truman and his daughter Margaret, Pat Nixon, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Ingrid Bergman, Janet Leigh, and Myrna Loy, as well as commenting that “Patricia Neal proudly reports that the great playwright Eugene O’Neill sipped chocolate soda with her at Schrafft’s.”
Schrafft’s, a wonderful bastion of mid-priced meals with an almost universal appeal ended up surviving for more than 100 years and at one time boasted about 60 locations around the city. An outpost on Madison Avenue and 77th Street even provided the backdrop for the first part of a dramatic Society murder-suicide in 1951. A fifty-year-old Wall Street insurance broker shot his estranged wife there. In the second part of the story he returned to his apartment to shoot himself with the same gun.
For less-expensive alternatives to Childs and Schrafft’s, nostalgic New Yorkers reminiscing about the mid-twentieth century can look back on a host of options.
To begin with, there were the Horn & Hardart Automats.
The first of these technologically-advanced restaurants where you’d deposit nickels into an elaborate multiwindowed structure and be rewarded with the sandwich or piece of cake of your choice was opened on Times Square on July 2, 1912. With the opening, an ad appeared in The New York Times that read “Automat Lunch Room Opens To-Day. New Method of Lunching. Try It! You’ll Like It!”
The ad got it right and before long branches were opening all over town and feeding their faithful beef stew or baked beans or Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes for less than a handful of nickels. I remember one of the last survivors of this chain, located on West 57th Street, just down from Carnegie Hall. The game plan used to be to take a date for an exotic drink at the original Russian Tea Room (impressive but costly on an undergraduate budget) and then to proceed to the Automat for a filling and cheap meal.
In her autobiographical book, I’m All Over That, Oscar-winning actress Shirley MacLaine also reminisces about the Automat and its appeal for the young and impoverished in New York.
“I remember making The Trouble with Harry for Alfred Hitchcock. I had just come out of the chorus of Pajama Game on Broadway and was thin and broke. My diet as a chorus girl was Horn & Hardart’s Automat food. I could live on ten cents a meal. There were lemons and sugar at the tables and water at the fountain. I’d make lemonade. Peanut butter and raisin bread sandwiches were ten cents in the food windows. So I had my peanut butter–raisin bread sandwich and lemonade for two nickels. A good diet, too.”
Less high-tech and only in one location, the Ideal on East 86th Street was another choice for the budget-minded.
With its long counter and cooks who took your order, the robust and plentiful meals served were worth every penny of the modest prices. One posting from 2004 on a website (www.chowhound.chow.com) succinctly sums up the charm:
“I was a regular at the Ideal when I lived in Yorkville. I usually sat at the counter. The great thing was watching the guys cook right in front of me. There were always two big skillets of sautéed potatoes going at once. One they were serving from and another that was cooking. They were the best I have ever had. Something like the French Pommes Anna. I have tried to duplicate them at home but never succeeded. Anybody know the secret?
Favorite story: I always ate at the counter. One day I went in with a lady friend and we ate at a table in back. We were waited on by Elisabeth, who had been taking care of the back tables since long before I started going there. But I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. The next time I saw her was a year later when I went back with the same lady. Coming to the table to take our order Elisabeth said, “Well, and where have you two been all this time?”
The Ideal served filling and tasty German-American fare and the only problem was that in those days, before smoking was forbidden at restaurants, if somebody at the counter was sucking in the Camels your enormous and vegetable-packed omelet ended up not tasting quite as good as it should.
Other economical alternatives for the poor but hungry included Nedick’s, which was known for its signature orange drink and very tasty hot dogs. There were also the lunch counters at the various Woolworth outposts around town. And of course no discussion of economical eating out could be complete without a mention of Chock Full O’ Nuts, that much-loved predecessor of the not-nearly so pleasant Starbucks. Could anything be tastier than their signature cream cheese on date nut bread sandwich?
Still reasonable but somewhat more expensive and genteel (in the manner of Childs and Schrafft’s) were two department store restaurants of excellent quality where everybody’s mother seemed to go at one time or another: The Charleston Garden at B. Altman and Company on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue and the Birdcage, up the block at Lord & Taylor on 38th and Fifth. These were pretty and comfortable places that catered mostly to a female clientele often lunching with their offspring. Similarly, the Women’s Exchange (said to have the “best sandwiches in the world” and to be legendary decorator Billy Baldwin’s favorite eating place) and Mary Elizabeth’s, known for “real American food served with a deft feminine touch.”
Larre’s at 50 West 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was another alternative for those without expense accounts. It was a traditional French place (bigger than but similar to the well-loved Tout Va Bien, which still exists) where you’d run into junior copywriters, retired bankers, and a few of the cocktail-loving ladies who wanted a change from Schrafft’s.
Looking back on the restaurant scene in New York in days past there were, of course, the grand temples of haute cuisine where budget was never mentioned. These have been written of extensively elsewhere but certainly must be mentioned here as well.
The classic 1960 tome, Great Restaurants of America, by Ted Patrick and Silas Spitzer of Holiday magazine sums it up:
“. . . there is one statement that can be made in almost any group of gourmets in the United States, certainly in New York, that never seems to be disputed. That is the statement . . . ‘The Pavillon is the best restaurant in the United States.’ . . . the great and famous of the world, people of wealth and standing, actors, artists and writers, patronize [the] restaurant; but the principal reason why they assemble there is not that they are rich, or famous, or talented, but that their knowledge of food and wine is beyond that of most other people. . . . Le Pavillon is supreme in its food, in the careful selection of its wines, in its elegance and in its service. And perhaps, in fact almost certainly, in its prices.”
Alas, by the time the celebrated food critic of The New York Times, Craig Claiborne, published the 1968 edition of his Guide to Dining Out in New York, things had changed. Henri Soulé, the genius behind the restaurant, had died in 1966 and, according to Claiborne, “the spirit of the place went with him.” The critic continues: “it remains a place of certain elegance and luxury. But however one might devoutly wish it, Le Pavillon does not exist in all it former grandeur.” It closed in 1971.
Opened in 1961, in its own glory days Lutèce was regarded to be almost on a par with Le Pavillon and at one time Julia Child supposedly declared it the best restaurant in the United States. Things changed; Lutèce was eventually sold and altered its menu. It closed in early 2004.
Others in the rarefied pantheon of super deluxe restaurants of the past include La Caravelle at 33 West 55th Street, which Claiborne proclaimed “the finest restaurant in New York” and La Côte Basque at 5 East 55th Street, which he dubbed “the most beautiful restaurant in America” . . . Quo Vadis, 26 East 63rd Street . . . Cafe Chauveron, 139 East 53rd Street (“Don’t be put off by the decor: this is one of New York’s great restaurants”) . . . Passy, 28 East 63rd Street . . . The Brussels, 115 East 54th Street . . . Le Cafe Chambord, 803 Third Avenue . . . and Lafayette, 202 East 50th Street (where they didn’t permit shopping bags in the dining room).
Misters Patrick and Spitzer would certainly add the Colony at 30 East 61st Street to this elegant list, regarding it as the “restaurant of the mellow, old New York society, more than of the brightly polished, freshly varnished cafe society.” My friend Adolfo Garcia, a retired interior designer who actually suggested this article, would agree with this, remembering as he does going there to lunch with his mother on grand occasions. He also remembers that he was, at about age eight, perhaps the most obnoxious child in attendance and the supreme patience of the staff in dealing with him.
Perhaps less haute than the aforementioned but certainly worthy of pleasant reminiscences were a host of other places that were special in one way or another and all provided exceptional meals.
My personal favorites (which I mentioned in an earlier essay on this website) were Parioli Romanissimo on 81st Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, which served up some of the most mouth-wateringly delicious Italian fare I’ve ever sampled in a luxurious and serene setting and the Gibbon at 24 East 80th Street, which managed to combine French and Japanese fare in an innovative and highly successful way.
And looking back on my own life and talking to friends while compiling this list there were dozens and dozens of other places that certainly deserve mention.
When being treated to a matinee or museum visit as a child, the outing frequently would include lunch at the Brass Rail (745 Seventh Avenue), a big, bustling place that was almost synonymous with Times Square in the old days, or Toffenetti Restaurant, another Times Square standby that boasted a 1,000-seat capacity. On the Eater New York website, editor Greg Morabito wrote that for almost thirty years, Toffenetti’s “was one of New York’s strangest and most popular eating establishments.” My recollections don’t explain the “strangest” but it was certainly popular.
In my early days I remember Dad talking about Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street and Toots Shor’s Restaurant at 33 West 52nd Street—both lively men’s club-type of places where you could get good steaks and good drinks. And for special occasions the family would sometimes head out to Patricia Murphy’s Candlelight Restaurant in Yonkers or Jahn’s ice cream parlor in the outer boroughs.
Patricia Murphy’s was a big and beautiful place that was renowned for its popovers. It is also where I was introduced to Shirley Temple cocktails. There existed another branch, in Manhattan, but it never had the style or cachet of the suburban original.
Jahn’s was an old-fashioned ice cream parlor that offered, among other things, a “Kitchen Sink,” which was purported to include all their ice cream flavors and toppings and could feed eight. I seem to remember that if one person could finish it without help, he or she was given a second for free. Ugh. (There is apparently still a Jahn’s in Jackson Heights, Queens—the only survivor of a once-extensive local chain.)
Barbara Bowden looks back fondly on Gay Vienna, a small and intimate restaurant on 86th and Second that served its take on Austrian food and where a zither played “The Third Man Theme.” In the late 1950s, new in town and working at NBC, it was a place for her to go on special dates. And in the same neighborhood was the wonderful and enormous Jaeger House at 85th and Lexington.
George Nelson recalls the Three Crowns, which was at 12 East 54th Street. Some Internet sleuthing discovered this review from an early “Where to Eat in New York”: “They have a wonderful smorgasbord selection and many famous Swedish dishes all year round, but one time of the year that means more to them than almost any other is November 10, Martin Luther’s birthday. Martingras is a signal for goose feast in a grand manner.”
Diana Angulo remembers many places with affection: The Quilted Giraffe, the Running Footman, Orsini’s, and Café des Artisites. Another favorite of hers, La Houppa, was a restaurant at 26 East 64th Street where French Countess Marina de Brantes wished to create on Manhattan’s East Side “a tiny Maxim’s: very chic, very understated, a place where the right mixture of people could enjoy themselves with a sense of security.” Marina was the sister-in-law of then-president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
And photographer Douglas Benezra, after suggesting several names for this list, sent another email: “How could I forget, one of my all time faves: Cafe Nicholson! I knew it when it was on E 57 (late 60s/early 70s). Oh, for a joint like that now!”
Cafe Nicholson was an eccentric and wonderful place that existed in a few locations around town. I remember it best when it was on 59th Street, right at the exit of the 59th Street Bridge. The place was romantic, kooky, and delightful and it was said that the proprietor, Johnny Nicholson, a St. Louis native, sometimes decided on certain nights not to open his place at all if he wasn’t in the mood. I know a few other restaurateurs who envy this whimsical approach.
And no listing of beloved but now-defunct restaurants could be complete without at least a mention of Luchow’s.
Many unsuspecting diners thought Luchow’s was Chinese—undoubtedly because the founder, August Lüchow, removed the umlaut from the restaurant’s name during World War I. However, Jan Mitchell, who bought the restaurant in 1950, restored the missing dots so in later days the misassumption was no longer a problem.
Lüchow’s began life as a humble German tavern way downtown in the 1840s but moved uptown to 14th Street in the 1860s. In 1882, August Lüchow, a waiter, bought it with a loan from the piano maker William Steinway. He expanded the restaurant and began attracting patrons from the nearby Academy of Music and Steinway Hall. He obtained the concession to sell Würzburger beer, and he served authentic German cuisine at a time, well before the World Wars—when German music, philosophy, poetry, and art were all held in particularly high esteem on this side of the Atlantic.
So many places, so many memorable meals.
Mme. Romaine de Lyon, where the omelets were legendary . . . The Belle-Epoque style L’Orangerie on 59th and Madison, dedicated to “Hedonistic New Yorkers” . . . Asti, where the waiters sang opera . . . Mamma Leone’s, where everybody ate too much . . . Mayfair Resturant, which offered ample basics served up by maternal waitresses . . . Billy’s, a longtime First Avenue pub-like meat-and-potatoes place that was club-like and cozy . . . and Gino’s, which didn’t take credit cards and where the pasta was always overcooked but somehow managed to stay alive long past its prime. Perhaps it was the red wallpaper.
Have I missed any? Maybe a second installment should be considered, so suggestions would be appreciated.
Gout? What causes gout?
There are those old-timers that are still around, restaurants from the glory days that have survived, sometimes having reinvented themselves, but still managing to serve up delightful meals to their loyal fans: The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, 21 Club, Barbetta, Le Périgord, Isle of Capri, Sardi’s, La Grenouille, Keens Steakhouse, Sistina, and my personal favorite, Le Veau d’Or.