New York City Nitelife
( Originally Published 1958 )
IN 333 YEARS NEW YORK HASN'T CHANGED SO MUCH AFTER ALL
NEW YORK has been called a great many things...
It has been called hard, heartless, cold, calculating, callous, frantic, frenetic, feckless and fickle. Also superficial, cynical, ruthless and reckless; heedless of the future and indifferent to the past. One unfriendly visitor likened it to "a bad coating on a tongue of rock that sticks out in the Hudson." Another admitted that New York did, indeed, have everything—"everything, that is, except fresh air and good manners." The remark most frequently heard about New York is that "it's a nice place to visit, but—"
Those of us who live by and with New York, to whom the Metropolis gives pleasure as well as a livelihood, do not think of it in any such terms. To us the vast city is the great show window of the nation and its real capital; greatest of the five cosmic cities of the world, outranking London, Paris, Rome and Hong Kong and offering equal thrills.
Indifferent to tradition it is, but mainly because the city is ever on the move, with little time to contemplate its past; there is nothing static about New York. If the tempo seems frantic, it is because long ago New York set a pace for itself from which it has never slowed down. The city is neither cold nor callous; it is pre-occupied. New Yorkers mind their own business and expect you to mind yours. Which may be one reason why New York gets more accomplished and in less time.
It is, granted, a city of violent contrasts, to be compared only by superlatives: the fastest, largest, richest. Certainly New York is the criterion for the best in theatre, music and the other fine arts, including the art of dining out: it is surely the dining-outest spot in the world.
Better to understand the New York of the present, it is well to know something of New York's past. The city began as a group of villages and evolved as a series of neighborhoods sprawled over a vast area in which nearly 9,000,000 humans of assorted races and colors now live as a homogeneous people. Actually, the city is a microcosm of the human race.
To my knowledge the first book written about our seething city is A Brief Description of New York by a chap named Denton (not Danton), published in Lon-don in 1670, when the settlement was not yet 50 years of age. Further research serves to reveal the soundness of the old French adage plus (a change, plus c'est la meme chose—the more things change the more they are the same.
Do we complain of traffic congestion, reckless driving, lack of parking space? In the 1850's, Washington Irving (Father Knickerbocker) was commenting on these very things.... So great was the congestion of horse-drawn vehicles before the automobile came that a bridge was built across lower Broadway to save pedestrians' lives.... An early anti-parking law forbade drivers to sit in their motionless carriages "except on the Broad Way." And the earliest anti-speed law dates from 1652, when New York was still New Amsterdam!
Do we gripe about our streets being constantly torn up? In 1839 the New York MIRROR observed that "the builder is abroad one day and the destroyer the day after. We never expect to see the city finished, but we have the greatest desire to see it fairly commenced."
Do we hear Europeans comment with amaze on our polyglot population? Playwright Israel Zangwill called' New York "the Melting Pot" at the turn of the century, but a French priest beat him to it by 250 years. While passing through Manhattan in 1643, said priest was astounded to observe persons of "eighteen different languages."
Do we complain about the high cost of living, more specifically the high cost of dining out? The late Irving Cobb, writing about our restaurants four decades ago, described New York as the place "where you get more for nothing and less for something" than any city in the world.
Yet England's Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), after a personally conducted tour, found New York a wonderful city, "if you know the right places."
Getting to know the "right places" is the intention of this book.
At last count there were some 22,000 eating places in the Metropolitan area of New York—that is, if we include chili parlors, hamburger joints, gypsy tea rooms and what Lucius Beebe fancifully described as "dead-falls, mantraps, joy parlors, hoisting houses and coney shows." Of these, around 7,000 are rated as better class restaurants and 1,697 of these have cabaret licenses.
It is New York's boast that if a man ate three meals a day, each meal in a different restaurant, it would take him 19 years to complete the cycle, by which time there doubtless would be many more new places and he would have to start all over again. (Fortunately for his digestive tract, no one has been known to try it.)
There are, I am convinced, more good restaurants in New York than in Paris and Rome combined—thanks largely, I hasten to add, to the superior service and cuisine introduced here by French and Italian restaurateurs. Many of the European chefs who came here for the New York World's Fair of 1939–40 remained to make their fortunes and add to our gastronomic de-lights. We will attempt herein to enumerate some of the best of these establishments.
One hazard of compiling a guide to New York's cafe and nitelife is the element of change. No city suffers more from the housewrecker and every year—almost every month—some landmark disappears. The East Side is rapidly becoming a vista of skyscrapers and parking lots; the West Side, including whole segments of Broad-way, resembles a comb with half the teeth missing.
An out-of-town visitor might have difficulty recognizing the city itself, let alone locating a particular restaurant or nite club that he fondly remembers from last year (better phone before you call, else you may find only a hole in the ground where stood your favorite rendezvous!) .
Remember the Rainbow Room, La Rue, Tony's Trouville, the old Brevoort, the Lafayette, Leon 6 Eddie's, Jimmy Kelly's, the Greenwich Village Inn? Or the Paradise, Hollywood, International Casino, French Casino, Casa Mariana, Billy Rose's Diamond Horse-shoe; La Martinique, La Conga, the Havana-Madrid of blessed memory, where the rumba came into its own? Gone with the wind! And the charming little Japanese tea garden, with ducks swimming on miniature ponds, in the court of the Ritz? An office building has replaced the Ritz, and where the tea garden was is now a garage.
But Broadway has an adage, too: for every spot that folds, there's a new one to replace it!
Most of the places mentioned herein are expensive.
With labor costs and food prices steadily rising and the currency in a state of semi-inflation, it could hardly be otherwise. The thing to remember before protesting about prices is this: the better restaurants, with or with-out entertainment, offer a "production." This is what makes the difference between merely eating and "dining out." You can get good food in the Automat; what you are paying for in the deluxe restaurants includes, or should include, atmosphere, elegance, charm and all the style in service that goes with dining in the grande maniere.
(In visiting the more expensive restaurants it might be convenient to have your Diners' Club card with you. Most of the restaurants mentioned herein are members of the club.)
The GRAY LINE NEW YORK TOURS CORP. has a smart entertainment buy which gives a visiting tourist a chance to take in enough of Gotham's nitelife in one evening at a minimum cost. A tour begins at 7 P.M., ends at 2 A.M., and takes in either the COPACABANA or the LATIN QUARTER plus two or three other spots—three floor shows in all. Gray Line customers are always assured of a table, no matter how crowded the place may be. A special boon to unescorted ladies!
Since no first-class restaurant is without a host, manager, front man or maitre d'hotel who should be able to make his paying guests feel like non-paying guests, he will be included, too. As much art goes into his end of the business as the chef's, and apart from his own culinary knowledge he should, to be a complete success, combine some of the qualities of an actor, a diplomat, a clothes horse, a psychoanalyst, a bullfighter and a gentleman bouncer.
The headwaiter who graciously pockets your tip could in many cases buy and sell half his customers: he may have both a superior education, plus a pedigreed family background. And can afford to send his children to better schools. But don't let this deter you—your tips are what make it possible!
If this book dwells at length on the personalities and background of the restaurateurs, it is because it has long been my contention that, by and large, they are more interesting than their customers! A European restaurateur may come from any walk of life but he is trained like any other good professional—from the ground up. He serves his apprenticeship as busboy, waiter, captain, headwaiter and maitre d'hotel, by which time he is eligible to operate his own restaurant. To him there is nothing menial about working in the kitchen, and it is a saying among the knowledgeable restaurateurs that success or failure may lie in what goes into the garbage can.
So saying, this is our own guide book for 1959.