- Historic Sites
The Taste Of Time
All across America there are restaurants that serve up the spirit and conviviality of eras long past
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
In 1919 prohibition became the law all the way across America. Some of the best restaurateurs celebrated by packing up and going back to the old country. Many of their best customers followed, making for a lively expatriate social life in Europe but altogether leaving a vacuum in the American restaurant world. In the previous ninety years the country had come a long way. Americans understood food, enjoyed wine, and supported at least a few restaurants that were the equal of anything in Europe. With Prohibition they lost interest in that balance of alcohol with food that is supposed to make a great meal. “We treated the law as a challenge,” wrote Julian Street, a wine expert, “and drank hard liquor with two hands instead of one.” In New York the old guard, consisting of Delmonico, Sherry’s, and Louis Martin, found that they couldn’t stand up without liquor. Smaller places replaced them. The Colony, which no longer exists, held a high standard before the public; “21,” which is still running and which started as a speakeasy, held a high standard also—behind two thick doors. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but by then the Great Depression had already pulled much of the remaining life out of the restaurant business. Americans seemed to be but minutes from reverting once and for all to boiled meat and bread, when they smelled some delicious things cooking in Flushing Meadows, New York, the location of the 1939 World’s Fair.
The Poles offered zakuski, bigos, and babkas; the Albanians were cooking baluck plake; the Russians had borscht and shashlik; and the Finns were taking orders (placed by pointing, perhaps) for harralihakaaryloita and pappilanhatavara. Three dozen countries sent some of their best chefs to the World’s Fair in
a concerted effort to resuscitate the American market for foreign food products in general and alcoholic beverages in particular. But one restaurant, out of all of them, made Americans remember—remember and yearn. It was the Restaurant Français at the French Pavilion, and it was talked about across the country, even by people who would never go there, just as Delmonico had once exerted such influence in its day. The restaurant was modernistic, in keeping with the overall look of the World’s Fair, set onto five tiers overlooking the Lagoon of Nations. The cuisine was classically French, and it was pricey, though it doesn’t sound like it today, at about three dollars for a full dinner. With only rare exceptions every table at the Pavilion, as it came to be known, was occupied for supper throughout the run of the fair. The French government was not above a little subliminal advertising either. Over the bar was the inscription (in French) “A wineless meal is like a sunless day.” When the World’s Fair finally packed itself up to leave, the Pavilion stayed on as a restaurant of that name in midtown Manhattan, operated by much the same staff as the former Restaurant Français. It was more popular than ever, and it became a training ground for a generation of French chefs in America, including Pierre Franey. Though it has moved, and changed hands, and changed names, the restaurant survives in spirit, in the form of La Caravelle on New York’s East Side.
Way across the Hudson River, in Jersey City, New Jersey, there is another restaurant that was part of that watershed world’s fair, fifty-eight years ago. In its way it was trying to be as influential as the Pavilion. Called the White Manna, it was just a hamburger stand at the fair, located near the Town of Tomorrow. In the Town of Tomorrow, hamburger stands were to be round. The counter at the White Manna is round, so that the cook can stand in the middle and take care of everyone at once. The tiles on the floor follow the counter neatly in their own geometric pattern. The wall makes a concentric circle out of the building itself, and the windows within it are rounded too. For all the thought that went into it, though, it didn’t turn out to be the hamburger stand of tomorrow. As everybody knows, that turned out to be a drive-in, a drive-up, or a drive-through, and the White Manna was not designed to be any of those things. It is tossed off to the side of a highway now; cars whiz by, and a few people come in and sit down at the round counter. The hamburgers are still made according to the pre-war standard: fried up with chopped onions mixed all the way through. They are rather small, and connoisseurs order them up by the lot.
Taken altogether, historic restaurants represent a different cuisine, not one of region, like Chinese food or Italian, but a cuisine of time.
The building and interior are important to this particular cuisine. The menu and recipes are too, but most important of all are the ways of the place. When I worked at my first job, I frequented an old luncheonette where I noticed that they complemented every dish with applesauce. Even things that don’t want applesauce, like egg salad, had to have it, spreading out all over the plate, even touching up against the pickles. One day an old reporter came in while I was there, and I remarked to him on the luncheonette’s silly compulsion to use the applesauce spoon to color in all the empty spaces. “This place started in the Depression,” he responded, as though I could not possibly understand the majesty of a plate completely filled up with food. The N&H Luncheonette, at any rate, never forgot it.