Greenwich Village - Restaurants, And The Magic Door
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
What scenes in fiction cling more persistently in the memory than those that deal with the satisfying of man's appetite? Who ever heard of a dyspeptic hero? Are not your favourites beyond the Magic Door all good trenchermen ?
-ARTHUR BARTLETT MAURICE.
IT was O. Henry, I believe, who spoke of restaurants as " literary landmarks." They are really much more than that—they are signposts, psychical rather than physical, which show the trend of the times--or of the neighbourhood. I suppose nothing in Greenwich Village could be more significantly illuminating than its eating places. There are, of course, many sorts. The Village is neither so unique nor so uniform as to have only one sort of popular board. But in all the typical Greenwich restaurants you will find the same elusive something, the spirit of the picturesque, the untrammelled, the quaint and charming—in short, the different!
The Village is not only a locality, you understand, it is a point of view. It reaches out imperiously and fastens on what it will. The Brevoort basement after ten o'clock at night is the Village. So is the Lafayette on occasion. During the day they are delightful French hostelries catering to all the world who like heavenly things to eat and the right atmosphere in which to eat them. But as the magic hour strikes, presto!—they suffer a sea change and become the quintessence of the Spirit of the Village!
It is 10.20 P.M. at the Brevoort in the restaurant upstairs. All the world and his wife—or his sweetheart—are fully represented. Most of the uptowners—the regulation clientele—are going away, having finished gorging themselves on delectable things; some few of them are lingering, lazily curious; a certain small number are still coming in, moved by that restless Manhattanic spirit that hates to go home in the dark.
Among these is a discontented, well-dressed couple, seen half an hour before completing their dinner a block away at the Lafayette. The head waiter at that restaurant explained them nonchalantly, not to say casually :
" It is the gentleman who married his manicurist. Regard, then—one perceives they are not happy—eh? It is understood that she beats him."
Yonder is a moving-picture star, quite alone, eating a great deal, and looking blissfully content. There is a man who has won a fortune in war-brides—the one at the next table did it with carpets. There is a great lady—a very great lady indeed—who, at this season, should be out of town.
Swiftly moving, deft-handed waiters, the faint perfume of delicate food, the sparkle of light upon rare wine, the complex murmur of a well-filled dining-room. It is so far not strikingly different, in the impression it gives, from uptown restaurants.
But the hands of the clock are pointing to the half-hour after ten.
Hasten, then, to the downstairs cafe,—the two rooms, sunk below the level of Fifth Avenue, yet cool and airy. If you hurry you will be just in time to see the Village come in. For this is their really favourite haunt—their Mecca when their pockets will stand it—the Village Restaurant de Luxe!
Upstairs are exquisite frocks and impeccable evening clothes; good jewels and, incidentally, a good many tired faces—from uptown. Downhere it is different. The crowd is younger, poorer, more strikingly bizarre—immeasurably more interesting. Everyone here does something, or thinks he does—which is just as good;—or pretends to—which is next best. There is a startling number of girls. Girls in smocks of " artistic " shades—bilious yellow-green, or magenta-tending violet; girls with hair that, red, black or blonde, is usually either arranged in a wildly natural bird's-nest mass, or boldly clubbed after the fashion of Joan of Arc and Mrs. Vernon Castle; girls with tense little faces, slender arms and an astonishing capacity as to cigarettes. And men who, for the most part, are too busy with their ideals to cut their hair; men whose collars may be low and rolling, or high and bound with black silk stocks after the style of another day; men who are, variously, affectedly natural or naturally affected, but who are nearly all of them picturesque, and, in spite of their poses, quite in earnest, after their queer fashion. They are all prophets and seers down here; they wear their bizarre hair-cuts and unusual clothes with a certain innocently flaunting air which rather disarms you. Their poses are not merely poses; they are their almost childlike way of showing the prosaic outer world how different they are!
Here they all flock—whenever they have the price. That may be a bit beyond them sometimes, but usually there is someone in the crowd who is " flush," and that means who will pay. For the Villagers are not parsimonious; they stand in no danger of ever making themselves rich and thus acquiring place in the accursed class called the Philistines!
It is beyond question that the French have a genius for hospitality. It must be rooted in their beautiful, national tact, that gracious impulse combining chivalry to women, friendliness to men and courtesy to all which is so characteristic of " the world's sweetheart " France. I have never seen a French restaurant where the most casual visitor was not made personally and charmingly welcome, and I have never seen such typically French restaurants as the Lafayette and the Brevoort. And the Villagers feel it too. From the shabbiest socialist to the most flagrantly painted little artist's model, they drift in thank-fully to that atmosphere of gaiety and sympathy and thoughtful kindliness which is, after all, just--the air of France.
Next let us take a restaurant of quite another type, not far from the Brevoort—all the Village eating places are close together—walk across the square, a block further, and you are there.
It is not many years since Bohemia ate chiefly in the side streets, at restaurants such as Enrico's, Baroni's—there are a dozen such places. They still exist, but the Village is dropping away from them. They are very good and very cheap, and the tourist that is, the uptowner—thinks he is seeing Bohemia when he eats in them, but not many of them remain at all characteristic. Bettolotti's is something of an exception. It is a restaurant of the old style, a survival of the days when all Bohemian restaurants were Italian. La Signora says they have been there, just there on Third Street, for twenty years. If you are a newcomer you will probably eat in the upstairs room, in cool and rather remote grandeur, and the pretty daughter with the wondrous black eyes will serve you the more elaborate of the most extraordinarily named dishes on the menu. But if, by long experience, you know what is pleasant and comfortable you will take a place in the basement cafe. At the clean, bare table, in the shadow of the big, bright, many-bottled bar, you will eat your Risotta alla Milanese, your coteletti di Vitelle, your asparagi—it's probably the only place in the city where they serve asparagus with grated cheese—finally your zambaione,—a heavenly sort of hot " flip," very foamy and seductive and strongly flavoured with Marsarla wine.
If you stand well with the house you may have the honour to be escorted by the Signora herself —handsome, dignified, genial, with a veritable coronal of splendid grey hair—to watch the eternal bowling in the alley back of the restaurant. I have watched them fascinated for long periods and I have never learned what it is they are trying to do with those big " bowling balls." They have no ninepins, so they are not trying to make a ten-strike. Apparently, it is a game however, for now and then a shout of triumph proclaims that someone has won. He orders the drinks and they go at it again.
" But, what is it?" I asked the Signora.
" Eh—oh—just a Giocho di Bocca," she returned vaguely, " a game of bowls—how should I know? "
Beyond the bowling alley is a long, narrow yard with bushes. It would make quite a charming summer garden with little tables for after-dinner coffee. But the Signora says that the Chiesa, there at the back of it, objects. The Chiesa, I think, is the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square. Just why they don't want the Signora to have tables in her own back yard is not clear. She, being a Latin, shrugs her shoulders and makes no comment. Standing in the darkness, there is a real freshness in the air; there is also a delicious, gurgling sound, the music of summer streams.
" How lovely!" you whisper. " What a delightful, rippling sound."
" Yet, it is the ice plant of the big hotel," says La Signora sweetly.
There is, at Bertolotti's one of the queerest little old figures in all that part of the world, the bent and aged Italian known universally as Castagna (Chestnuts), because of the interminable anecdotes he tells over and over again. No one knows his real name, not even the Signor or the Signora. Yet he has worked for them for years. He wants no wages—only a living and a home. In the aforementioned back yard he has built himself a little house about the size of a dog kennel. It is a real house, and like nothing so much as the historic residence of the Three Bears. It has a window, eaves, weather-strips and a clothesline, for he does his own washing. He trots off there very happily when his light work is done, and, when his door is closed, opens it for no one. That scrap of a building is Castagna's castle. One evening I went to call on him, but he had put out his light. In the gleam that came from the bowling alley behind me, some-thing showed softly red and green and white against the wooden door. I put out my hand and touched that world-famous cross. It was about six inches long, and only of paper, but it was the flag of Italy, and it kept watch outside the Casa Castagna. I am certain that he would not sleep well without it.
Probably the most famous Bohemian restaurant in the quarter is the Black Cat. It is not really more typical than the others, —indeed it is rather less so,—but it is extremely striking, and most conspicuous. There is, in the minds of the hyper-critical, the sneaking suspicion that the Black Cat is almost too good to be true; it is too obviously and theatrically lurid with the glow of Montmartre; it is Bohemianism just a shade too much conventionalised. Just the same, it is fascinating. From the moment you pass the outer, polite portals and intermediate anterooms and enter the big, smoke-filled, deafening room at the back, you are enormously interested, excellently entertained. The noise is the thing that impresses you first. In most Village resorts you find quiet the order of the day—or rather night. Even " Polly's," crowded as it is, is not noisy. In the Brevoort there is a steady, low rumble of talk, but not actual noise. At the Black Cat it is one continual and all-pervading roar--a joyous roar, too; these people are having a simply gorgeous time and don't care who knows it. It is a wonder that the high-set rafters do not fall—that the lofty, white-washed walls of brick do not tremble, and that the little black cats set in a rigid conventional design around the whole room do not come to life in horror, and fly spitting up the short stairway and out of the door!
When you go to the Black Cat you would bet-ter check what prejudices you have as to what is formal and fitting, and leave them with your coat at the entrance. Not that it is disreputable—Luigi would pale with the shock of such a thought! It is just—Bohemian! Everyone does exactly what he wishes to do. Sometimes, one person's wishes conflict with someone else's, and then there is a fight, and the police are called, and the rest of the patrons have a beautiful time watching a perfectly good and unexpected free show! As a rule, however, this determination on the part of each one to do what he wants to has no violent results. An incident will show something of the entire liberty allowed in the Black Cat. A man came in with two girls, and, seeing a jolly stag party at another table, decided to join them. He promptly did so, with, as far as could be seen, no word of excuse to his feminine companions. In a moment two young men strolled up to their table and sat down.
" Your friend asked us to come over here and take his place," explained one nonchalantly. " You don't object, ladies? "
The girls received them amiably. Apparently no one thought of such a formality as names or introductions. The original host stayed away for the rest of the evening, but the four new acquaintances seemed to get along quite satisfactorily without him.
A young married woman from uptown came in with her husband and two other men. A good-looking lad, much flushed and a little unsteady, stopped by her chair.
" Say, k-kid," he exclaimed, with a disarming chuckle, " you're the prettiest girl here—and you come here with three p-protectors! Say, it's a shame!"
He lurched cheerfully upon his way and even the slightly conservative husband found a grudging smile wrung out of him.
There is a pianist at the Black Cat—a real pianist, not just a person who plays the piano. She is a striking figure in a quaint, tunic-like dress, greying hair and a keen face, and a personal friend of half the frequenters. She has an uncanny instinct for the psychology of the moment. She knows just when " Columbia " will be the proper thing to play, and when the crowd demands the newest rag-time. She will feel an atmospheric change as unswervingly as any barometer, and switch in a moment from " Good-bye Girls, Good-bye" to the love duet from Faust. She can play Chopin just as well as she can play Sousa, and she will tactfully strike up " It's Always Fair Weather" when she sees a crowd of young fellows sit down at a table; " There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town To-night" to welcome a lad in khaki; and the very latest fox trot for the party of girls and young men from uptown, who look as though they were dying to dance. She plays the " Marseillaise " for Frenchmen, and " Dixie " for visiting Southerners, and " Mississippi" for the frequenters of Manhattan vaudeville shows. And, then, at the right moment, her skilled fingers will drift suddenly into something different, some exquisite, inspired melody—the soul-child of some high immortal—and under the spell the noisy crowd grows still for a moment. For even at the Black Cat they have not forgotten how to dream.
Probably the Black Cat inspired many other Village restaurants—the Purple Pup for in-stance.
The Purple Pup is a queer little place. It is in a most exclusive and aristocratic part of the Square—in the basement of one of the really handsome houses, in fact. It is, so far as is visible to the naked eye, quite well conducted, yet there is something mysterious about it. Doubtless this is deliberately stage-managed and capitalised, but it is effectively done. It is an unexpected sort of place. One evening you go there and find it in full blast; the piano tinkling, many cramped couples dancing in the two tiny rooms, and every table covered with tea cups or lemonade glasses. Another night you may arrive at exactly the same time and there will be only candlelight and a few groups, talking in low tones.
Here, as in all parts of the Village, the man in the rolling collar, and the girl in the smock, will be markedly in evidence. Yes; they really do look like that. Lots of the girls have their hair cut short too.
And " Polly's "!
In many minds, " Polly's " and the Village mean one and the same thing. Certainly no one could intelligently write about the one without due and logical tribute to the other. Polly Holliday's restaurant (The Greenwich Village Inn is its formal name in the telephone book) is not incidental, but institutional. It is fixed, representative and sacred, like Police Headquarters, Trinity Church and the Stock Exchange. It is indispensable and independent. The Village could not get along without it, but the Village no longer talks about it nor advertises it. It is, in fact, so obviously a vital part of Greenwich that often enough a Greenwicher, asked to point out hostelries of peculiar interest, will forget to mention it.
" How about ` Polly's'? " you remind him.
" Oh—but ` Polly's' ! " he protests wonderingly. " Why, it wouldn't be the Village at all without Polly's.' It—why, of course, I never thought anyone had to be told about `Polly's'!"
His attitude will be as disconcerted as though you asked him whether he was in the habit of using air to breathe, or was accustomed to going to bed to sleep.
Polly Holliday used to have her restaurant under the Liberal Club—where the Dutch Oven is now, but now she has her own good-sized place on Fourth Street, and it remains, through fluctuations and fads, the most thoroughly and consistently popular Village eating place extant. It is, outwardly, not original nor superlatively striking in any way. It is a clean, bare place with paper napkins and such waits between courses as are unquestionably conducive to the encouragement of philosophic, idealistic, anarchistic and aesthetic debates. But the food is excellent, when you get it, and the atmosphere both friendly and—let us admit frankly—inspiring. The people are interesting; they discuss interesting things. You are comfortable, and you are exhilarated. You see, quickly enough, why the Village could not possibly get along without its inn; why " Polly's " is so essential a part of its life that half the time it overlooks it. Outsiders always know about " Polly's." But the Villager?
" ` Polly's'? But of course ` Polly's.' "
There it is. Of course " Polly's." " Polly's" is Greenwich Village in little; it is, in a fashion, cosmic and symbolic.
Under the Liberal Club, where " Polly's " used to be located, the " Dutch Oven," with its capacious fireplace and wholesome meals, now holds sway. The prices are reasonable, the food substantial and the atmosphere comfortable, so it is a real haven of good cheer to improvident Villagers.
The Village Kitchen on Greenwich Avenue is another place of the same sort. And Gallup'salmost the first of these " breakfast and lunch " shops—is another. They are not unlike a Childs restaurant, but with the rarefied Village air added. You eat real food in clean surroundings, as you do in Childs', but you do it to an accompaniment that is better than music—a sort of life song, rather stirring and quite touching in its way—the Song of the Village. How can people be both reckless and deeply earnest? But the Villagers are both.
One of the oddest sights on earth is a typical " Breakfast" at " Polly's," the " Kitchen" or the " Dutch Oven," after one of the masked balls for which the Village has recently acquired such a passion. After you have been up all night in some of these mad masquerades—of which more anon—you may not, by Village convention, go home to bed. You must go to breakfast with the rest of the Villagers. And you must be prepared to face the cold, grey dawn of " the morning after" while still in your war paint and draggled finery. It is an awful ordeal. But " it's being done in the Village "!
Quite recently a new sort of eating place has sprung up in Greenwich Village—of so original and novel a character that we must investigate it in at least a few of its manifestations. Speaking for myself, I had never believed that such places could exist within sound of the " L " and a stone's throw from drug stores and offices.
But see what you think of them.