New York City - The Old Time Restaurants
( Originally Published 1959 )
ORDINARIES, coffee houses, taprooms, cafes, pubs, cabarets, speakeasies, or restaurants under whatever name, have been important in New York history from its very beginnings. Their names, locations and individual stories could supply an interesting index to the geographical, political, social and cultural trends of this ever-expanding, ever-changing and always exciting city.
Taverns sprang up on Manhattan Island almost be-fore the Indians moved out. The first of record, the White Horse Tavern, located at what is now No. 1 Broadway, was opened by a former soldier with the Dutch name of Pieter Kochs. While still in service Pieter had been forced to ride through the streets astride a white horse, minus a saddle and with weights fastened to his feet, as punishment for some breach of military discipline. Later, he cashed in on the publicity by naming his tavern after the horse. (Pieter was also involved in an early breach of promise suit in the Court of Burgomeisters and Schepens, but with this difference—he was suing the gal, one Anna Van Vorst.)
No. 1 Broadway had the added distinction of serving for a time as Gen. George Washington's headquarters.
Another tavern, the identity of which has been lost to posterity, was founded in 1642, the same year the name Broadway was first applied to the street. It was reputedly established by the then governor of the province for the selfsame reason that many a restaurant has been founded since, i.e., because the owner got tired of entertaining at home (or his wife did), and because it served as a retail outlet for his liquor interests. But these restaurants were not enduring.
Fraunces' Tavern, of course, is New York's most famous restaurant that has survived from the Colonial period and is a beloved landmark. Located in what was the elegant town house of the wealty and historically important Delaney family at Broad and Pearl Sts., built in 1719, it was opened as a restaurant by Samuel Fraunces, a West Indian of French and Negro descent, in 1763. Its original name, the Queens Head Tavern, was changed when British royalty became unpopular in New York.
Though not of record, George Washington apparently was Fraunces' financial backer. Samuel served as Washington's steward and Sam's daughter, Phoebe, as the General's housekeeper. Through her friendship for Thomas Hickey, one of Washington's bodyguards, Phoebe learned of a plot to set fire to the city and murder Washington by feeding him a dish of poisoned peas. This was in June, 1776. Phoebe told her father, he told Washington, and the conspirators were exposed. Hickey, who was involved in the plot, was hanged.
Washington and his aides enjoyed a mild form of gambling called "loo" at Fraunces' and the so-called Long Room became the scene of his farewell address to his officers at the Revolutionary War's end. The room was also used for fashionable balls, concerts and "polite and rational amusements," so we might strain a point and describe FRAUNCES' TAVERN as New York's first supper club.
The building itself is a gem of Engish Georgian and Colonial Dutch architecture. It was superbly restored around 1906 by the Sons of the Revolution, who still occupy a part of it as their headquarters. The third story houses a small but important museum.
The Tavern is worth a visit purely for historical reaons, but it also contains a good and reasonably priced restaurant where the specialite de la maison is, appropriately, baked creamed chicken a la Washington. The restaurant keeps museum hours, open for lunch and to 4 P.M., but closed Sundays.
(George Washington figures largely in New York's history. While still a general, he gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence to New York citizens. As every schoolboy knows, he took the oath of office as our first President where the U.S. Sub-Treasury now stands. The first Executive Mansion (where the Custom House is) was designed for his occupanty, though he never lived there. He did live for nearly a year on Cherry St. The Father of our Country was at one time head of the city's Fire Department, also a frequent patron of the John Street Theatre. "Hail Columbia," written in his honor and named the President's March, was introduced there by its composer in 1787.)
Ye Olde Chop House is actually New York's oldest restaurant, though it no longer occupies the original building, where it began as Old Tom's Chop House in 1800. That building, a block away from the present location at 118 Cedar St., was recently razed to make way for a new YMCA building. The new Cedar St. restaurant contains the same priceless pictures, pewter-ware and other antique memorabilia but the atmosphere isn't quite the same. Harry Kramer has managed YE OLDE CHOP HOUSE for a half century—he is now 85—and claims to be the dean of New York's active restaurateurs. The restaurant still is a popular place for luncheon, mostly with Wall St. businessmen.
Sweet's, at 2 Fulton St., claims the distinction of being New York's oldest fish house. The restaurant opened when James K. Polk was President (circa 1845) and neither the facade of the building nor the interior decor has been changed since. It is open for lunch and early dinner, with a very active bar going all day, patrons being mostly from the Wall St. sector. The kitchen closes at 8 P.M.
Emil's Olde Town Restaurant, 218 Pearl St., is another famous old-world type restaurant, filled with atmosphere and nostalgic charm. As with SWEET'S, EMIL's closes early, since the bulk of its trade centers on customers from Wall St. and City Hall. Visiting Senators and Congressmen frequent EMIL's and businessmen who can take two hours out for a leisurely lunch. The restaurant is noted for mammoth-size portions.
McSorley's Old Ale House, at 15 E. 7th St., is almost as ancient, though not in the same class. It was founded in 1854 by John McSorley, a native of Ireland, who established the motto "Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies." Legend has it that the only female to crash MCSORLEY'S as a customer was Maggie Cline of "Throw Him Down McCloskey" fame, disguised as a man. So strictly has the "no females" rule been en-forced, that a New York gentleman attempting to take refuge there during one of the 1950 hurricanes was refused admittance because he was escorting a lady! Patrons of MCSORLEY'S have ranged from day laborers to leading politicians. Artists have found the atmosphere congenial and a famous painting by John Sloan of Mc-SORLEY'S now hangs in the Art Museum in Detroit.
August Luchow refused to cater to the hip flask set and his nephew-in-law, Victor Eckstein, who took over after Luchow died in 1923, also held out against this form of lawbreaking. Customers did with near-beer or did without. As a reward, Lucnow's was the first restaurant to get a legal liquor license after repeal. In May, 1933, a thousand thirsty New Yorkers converged on E. 14th St. and consumed a thousand seidels of real beer in celebration. It was, incidentally, the restaurant's 51st birthday. LUdlow's first opened its doors in May, 1882, when 14th St. was the center of New York's restaurant and entertainment life.
In 1950 Victor Eckstein, aged 70, decided to retire but was determined to hold on until he could find the right man to carry on the Luchow tradition. He found him in Jan Mitchell, then co-owner of a cafe in Washington, D.C., known as Olmstead's. What Eckstein didn't know at the time was that Mitchell had had his eye on LUdlow's for at least ten years, hoping eventually to buy it.
Jan Mitchell is a native of Sweden who got his surname from an English great-grandfather, a sea captain who settled in Scandinavia. He had visited Lucnow's on his first trip to America as a cadet on a Swedish training ship and never forgot it. Mitchell got his early restaurant training in both kitchen and dining room at Stockholm's famed Grand Hotel and later majored in hotel and restaurant management at the Universities of Stockholm and Zurich.
Any qualms Eckstein may have felt at turning over LUdlow's to a 33-year-old stranger must have been quickly dispelled. Far from streamlining or modernizing the place (except for air-conditioning), Mitchell adhered even more closely to tradition. He retained the rococo decorations of the 1880's and restored to the menu many oldtime German dishes that New Yorkers enjoyed in the gaslit era—the wienerschnitzels, sauerbratens, schlemmerschnitte, etc.—as well as many oldtime brands of German beer. At one time the enormous consumption of Wurtzburger beer at LucHow's inspired a Broadway song hit, "Down Where the Wurtzburger Flows." And when the City of Wiirzburg, Germany, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the introduction of Wurtzburger in America in 1937, Vic-tor Eckstein was its guest of honor. A souvenir of Eck-stein's visit is the large oil painting of the bridge spanning the River Main which still hangs in the restaurant. The bridge itself was destroyed during an air raid of World War II.
Mitchell revised the pre-Prohibition week-long galas: The Venison Festival, Goose Feast, Bock Beer Festival, May Wine Festival and the Mid-Summer Forest Festival, with appropriate menus and souvenirs for guests. Also the charming custom of installing a 24-foot Christmas tree in the main room of LucHow's during the holiday season.
Although members of the original Vienna Artists Quartet, introduced at LucHow's by Victor Herbert in 1902, have died off, the type of music hasn't changed. It was in an upstairs room that Herbert, outraged that he was paid no royalties for the playing of his compositions in uptown cabarets, organized the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), now one of the most powerful associations in show business.
Luchow's is one of the few living links with New York's romantic past. It is steeped in tradition and its walls packed with history. More glamorous and famous people have passed through its doors, possibly, than any restaurant in Manhattan, past or present, since the days of Lillian Russell, for whom one of the rooms is named. Sprawling through the entire block, from 14th to 13th Sts., its seven public dining rooms and two private rooms upstairs make it the city's largest restaurant.
Ernest Seuter, Lucnow's maitre d'hotel for more than a half century, died in 1956. At last count there were still three members of his former staff who had served 30 years or more, and twelve who had served more than 20. It was Seuter's boast that many of his "over 40" customers were children of the children he had once waited on.
It is not unusual to find three generations of New Yorkers dining at one table and a fifth generation of the Steinway family is a frequent visitor. It was the original Steinway, of the piano company, who loaned August Luchow the money to take over the restaurant from Baron von Mehlbach, for whom Luchow had worked as a waiter.
Sunday nite at Lucnow's is again "the thing to do" for New Yorkers, both uptown cafe society and the oldtime residents who hark back to the good old days when 14th St. was the Rialto of the town. At these Sunday nite galas, Mitchell is usually on hand personally to act as host—slim, blond, suave and impeccably dressed.
Mitchell is now president of the 14th St. Association, which is endeavoring to restore that sector of New York to its former economic importance.
Janssen's, next to LucHow's, was the most celebrated name among New York's once numerous rathskellers, hofbraus, etc. It was immortalized by a slogan accidentally created by a busboy—"Janssen Wants to See You." The founder was August Janssen, native of Emden, Germany, who arrived on these shores at the age of 20, after considerable travel in Europe and South America. Janssen served his apprenticeship as a waiter at the Hotel Brunswick, Hoffman House and one of the several Delmonico's.
Janssen opened his first tavern, the Hofbrau House, on Broadway and 30th St. in 1898. It was patterned after the world-famous Hofbrau Haus in Munich. The huge kitchen, presided over by Mrs. Janssen, could serve 3,000 dinners a day. Located in the heart of the then theatrical district, some of its familiars included Victor Herbert who did much of his composing in an upstairs room; poet Richard Le Gallienne (Eva's father); Sidney Drew, uncle of the Barrymores; and Joe Weber, of Weber & Fields. The Lotos Club staged an historic dinner there in honor of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), and Anne Nichols used an upstairs room—much later—to rehearse "Abie's Irish Rose." Like many another restaurateur, Janssen became involved in theatricals and, in partnership with Oliver Morosco, lost a small fortune.
Janssen expanded his restaurants to include Boston, New Haven and Philadelphia and opened several branches in New York. At his 52nd St. spot he experimented with entertainment and introduced a then unknown bandleader, Tommy Dorsey. World War I virtually sounded the death knell for things Teutonic and brought an end to the vogue for German beer gardens. Prohibition did the rest. One by one the JANSSEN'S branches closed, leaving only the one on Lexington Ave. at 44th St., which survives. August Janssen died in 1939, leaving a supervisory interest to his widow. August Janssen, Jr., is also deceased. The other son, Werner, went in for symphony orchestra conducting.
JANSSEN'S is at present under the direction of Tony Mele, an Italian who recently lost his own two restaurant operations, Theodore's and Le Ruban Bleu, when the block on E. 54th St. was razed.
The German-American Rathskeller, on Third Ave. at 17th St., is another German souvenir even older than LUdlow's, dating from 1879. Its original owner was Carl Goerwitz, who named it Scheffel Hall, after the German poet Joseph Viktor von Scheffel, whose romantic "The Trumpeter of Sackingen" inspired the paintings which line the walls. Housed in its own quaint four-story building, it is a museum as it stands and must have been pretty magnificent in its heyday.
Many famous writers came there especially for its Pilsener beer, among them James Huneker, H. G. Bunner, Bayard Taylor, and Brander Matthews. O. Henry dubbed the place the "Rheinschloss" and wrote several of his best stories in the old taproom.
Today the former Scheffel Hall is known as JOE KING'S GERMAN-AMERICAN RATHSKELLER. JOG, a young Irishman who started there as a bouncer in 1930, be-came co-owner with Jack Lichtenberg in 1941. Joe, a product of New York's Hell's Kitchen, has been, at one time or another, a prize fighter, lumberjack, sailor, fight manager and captain in the Army Air Force in World War II—the only Air Force captain, he claims, to attain that rank minus the benefits of a high school education. His partner, Jack Lichtenberg, was formerly the world's weight-lifting champion and has competed on the U.S. team in the Olympics.
Away back, the GERMAN-AMERICAN RATHSKELLER became a hangout for collegiates, who liked to quaff beer and sing—a tradition possibly inspired by the Old Heidelberg motif—and now on weekends the venerable walls ring with laughter and college songs. In the speak-easy days only the lower floor, formerly a basement bowling alley, was used. It is still the popular gathering place, the upstairs, street-level taproom used only for special parties. Recently, New York cafe society discovered the place and started entertaining there.
The G-A opens at 4 P.M., serves dinner and supper only, and is one of the few New York restaurants consistently open on Sundays.
Klube's, 156 E. 23rd St., is still another oldtime German restaurant, housed in a building that is 116 years old. At the time of its 95th anniversary, in 1956, there had always been an eating place at that address for 75 years. Originally, it was Klube & Klinger's. Mr. Klinger's sister Agnes married Carl Klube and she is still the food checker there, a position usual in many continental restaurants but rare in New York. Now operated by Carl H. Klube (son of Carl and Agnes).
In 1956 the restaurant reprinted a menu of Nov. 1911, when the restaurant opened. The highest item on the menu was 450, for half a broiled spring chicken on toast, and 29 items added up to less than $7. The prices aren't the same today, but they haven't caught up with the norm for 1959.
Cavanagh's, at 258 W. 23rd St., dates from the horse-car age, 1876, when Old Chelsea (so named by a British skipper) was one of New York's more fashionable quarters. One souvenir of that past is the Grand Opera House diagonally across the street on Eighth Ave., built in 1868 at a cost of a million as Pike's Opera House, and acquired in 1869 by Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, tycoons of the Erie Railroad. The Grand featured dignified drama by Sothern & Marlowe and other theatre greats. Jim Fisk changed the policy to light musical fare, to accommodate his actress girl friend Josie Mansfield, and had a secret tunnel dug from the theatre to her house next door. The Opera House is now the RKO 23rd St. Theatre and a plaque in the lobby tells something of its lurid past.
John J. Cavanagh was an Irishman from Chicopee, Mass., and his first restaurant at the above address consisted of only an oyster bar with 12 tables. Tam-many Hall politicians and prize-ring figures flocked to the place, quickly built it into a flourishing business. An early attempt to introduce entertainment in a restaurant via phonograph records met with disaster when Luisa Tetrazzini, Metropolitan Opera coloratura, created a scene over the "distortions" of her voice.
The present owner and manager of CAVANAGH'S is William K. Malester, who has taken over a number of other New York dining places. The chef, Jack Andrews, still features many of the specialties that made CAVANAGII's famous, such as the special St. Patrick's Day menus, Summer Food Festivals and beefsteak parties where guests don aprons and eat with their fingers. Mr. Cavanagh, aged 92, has long since retired but still maintains an interest in his place. Every year he celebrates his birthday there.