April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
All across America there are restaurants that serve up the spirit and conviviality of eras long past
Mr. Henry Erkins had a flash of inspiration in 1908. He could see every detail of it in his mind. Nevertheless he resisted the temptation to say too much at his first press conference, in case someone stole the idea and opened their own five-thousand-seat waiterless restaurant with ancient Assyrian decorations.
According to Erkins, a well-known architect, the ancient motif was the only one appropriate to a modern restaurant, and his restaurant, planned for Times Square in New York, was certainly going to be mod- ern. Customers would sit down at round tables and order their food by writing on “automatic pads” connected electrically to the kitchen down below. Then for the amazing part. “Not the entire table, but the inner part of the table will be lowered,” Erkins explained, “leaving the rim before the guests.” In the kitchen chefs would be waiting to rush over with the food that had been ordered and to load it into place on the middle of the table, which would then rise, up and up, back to the rest of the table and the guests awaiting. Busboys would stand nearby, ready to handle complaints, but then, what could possibly go wrong?
Henry Erkins’s dream restaurant never did open. “New Yorkers only want to go to places where they can’t get a table,” a Broadway swell declared, on hearing about the five thousand seats.
As a flash of inspiration it was just that: a flash, representing the many hundreds of thousands of lights blinking on and then off throughout the history of restaurants in this country. A restaurant isn’t a castle or a bridge after all; it isn’t planned to last for centuries. It’s of the moment, planned only to pay the bills and perhaps to realize some conceit on the part of the founder. A tiny percentage, however, conceived with more or even a lot less enthusiasm than something waiterless and Assyrian, keep on burning the same steady way from their first day. They make a shaft of light even through generations, and if nothing of importance changes, then that is how it happens that a moment that began in 1810 or 1883, or 1912 or 1939, is still lit today, at a table in a room at one of the few hundred historic restaurants in America.
The country’s first formal restaurant opened on December 13, 1827; on that day two Swiss brothers named Delmonico began to serve light meals in a New York City storefront. It was a modest effort by the standards of the family’s later establishments, but it baffled its initial clientele with a weird new notion: dining out purely for the sake of dining out. People didn’t know quite how to do it at first; they wandered in, read the menu, and wandered out again. As an enticement, the Delmonico restaurant served exquisite French dishes, with fresh vegetables and classic sauces. They were vastly different from the usual fare, judging by the reaction of a woman who had been reared on early-American food. “Vile greasy compounds,” she called them, warning her grandson that he would poison his stomach eating at Delmonico, or Del’s, as the rakes took to calling it.
Delmonico instigated so much change in American dining that the history of restaurants in this country divides across its birthday. Boiled meats and bread made up the unvarying sustenance of the earlier era, and practically all meals were taken at home, to the extent that when in 1750 a New York tavern began to serve an “ordinary,” or a standard lunch, so that businessmen wouldn’t have to go all the way home at lunchtime, it not only was news across town but was attacked as leading inevitably to the dissolution of family life. Whatever it is that restaurants purvey in terms of variety, fantasy, or power, early Americans apparently didn’t require it. Most people simply ate their meals at home or went visiting to have boiled meat and bread at somebody else’s house.
When people were traveling far from home, they might well have to eat out—but only if they couldn’t wangle an invitation along the way. According to custom, invitations for dinner were expected, along class lines, and were freely given, further precluding the need for stylish places to eat. Taverns, or inns, were mainly necessary on stagecoach routes, such as the one from the South Jersey shore to Philadelphia, where the establishment now known as Ye Olde Centerton Inn in Pittsgrove, New Jersey, opened for business. Such places didn’t stage grand openings; they eased into existence, most of them starting as mere warehouses or inventory stations. The Centerton Inn may have begun serving meals as early as 1706; it is definitely known to have been in business by 1731. Depending on which date is right, it is either the oldest or second-oldest continuously operating dining establishment in America, though it has not offered overnight accommodations in many years.
The Centerton Inn is a stout clapboard building, smack at the corner of two state routes. Inside, it re- tains the aura of the early nineteenth century, not that of its earlier, rougher era. A place would not last long today if it were a truly authentic eighteenth-century tavern. “They were mostly log huts, or a frame weatherboarded,” wrote a traveler of the taverns he stopped at in the Carolinas. “As to edibles, whether you called for breakfast, dinner or supper, the reply was one—eggs and bacon. Ten to one you had to cook the meal yourself.” The Centerton Inn is much more hospitable than that these days, with a long menu and a Mediterranean sensibility in the specialty seafood dishes. The Centerton Inn makes its mark most notably in the way that it has reinvented dessert. The three things usually wrong with dessert are that sometimes the portion is too big, sometimes the portion is too little, and most times as soon as the server brings the cheesecake, you realize how badly you wanted pie. At the end of a meal at the Centerton Inn, no one comes by to take a dessert order. Instead the house sends over a tray with about fifteen miniature portions of all different cakes and pastries; those at the table can sample from it at will, no extra charge. To my mind that tray compensates for anything that the Centerton Inn may have put its guests through at mealtimes 250 years ago.
Early America, being America nonetheless, had to have fast food. People who didn’t enjoy good home lives had to eat out; others, who didn’t plan their days very well, found themselves on the street at mealtime. In either case a person could always grab a quick oyster. Oysters were just like hamburgers today: They were cheap, they were readily available, and however lowly, they could be very good. Oystermen had stands at street corners, serving food in a matter of seconds. The oysterman had a big knife, and he would pry open the number of oysters that a customer ordered and slide them across a board. Customers stood around the board, eating and ordering until they were full.
John W. Faidley Seafood, in downtown Baltimore, was started in 1886, but as an oyster stand it is timeless. Far from being quaint, it has all the charm of a busy workroom, and since that is all that it has ever been, tile-lined and noisy, it is charm enough. All the way around the walls of the one large room, workers clean fish, cook it, or weigh it up to sell raw. A blackboard lists the sources of the day’s catch, typically including every body- of water in eastern Maryland bigger than a horse trough. (A historic restaurant ought to be a bastion of local ingredients. My local supermarket at home in upstate New York boasts that its seafood comes from Thailand; I boast that Faidley’s does not.) The specialty at Faidley’s is the All Lump Crab Cake, “All Lump” referring conveniently to both the exact type of crabmeat used and the shape of the thing when it is done, jumbled up with cracker crumbs, mayonnaise, and a little mustard. Broiled or fried, it is a delicacy at ten bucks for a crab cake about the size of a baseball, but no matter about that; you eat it standing up, elbow to elbow with the other gourmets at the high wooden tables crossing the room.
The all lump crab cake is not, however, the most fun you can have at Paidley’s. The life of the place is the oyster stand in the middle of the room, where customers array themselves and their oysters around a square, eating and talking, while the oystermen in the middle keep a sharp eye on the progress of each, the customers and the oysters. It is choreographed with commotion, a big feed that has been going on a lot longer even than Faidley’s.
Faidley’s is part of the Lexington Market, supposed to be the oldest indoor market in the country, having itself started in 1782. It goes without saying that people could always get something to eat at a market, and many early dining spots grew straight out of such places. The Old Homestead in Manhattan started in 1868 in the meat section of the old Washington Market (most of which has since moved to another borough). After handling giant carcasses all night, preparing them for the rest of the city, the butchers and meatmen dropped into the Old Homestead for their steak dinners at breakfast time. Amateurs followed, at normal mealtimes. Like a lot of New York steak houses, the Old Homestead serves enormous portions. Any place can serve a towering beefsteak, but the Old Homestead even has a nice, big, thick, juicy . . . salmon fillet. The roast beef weighs in at about two and a half pounds. It’s a ceremony of abundance, even down to the grating fact that one plate after another goes back to the kitchen laden with a slab of meat out of which a small corner may have been gnawed. The Old Homestead was brightened up in time for its hundredth birthday, and so it has the air of 1868 as ventilated by 1968. The date that matters to me, though, is 1956, when a little party made up of my relatives had tickets to see the opening night of My Fair Lady. Some families hand down tried and true recipes. Mine handed down the Old Homestead (itself named after a hit play) as an opening-night restaurant; it was theirs then.
Durgin-Park also grew out of a market, the Quincy Market, not far from the wharves in Boston. Nobody even knows its real founding date, the date when somebody first looked down from the second story of the gray warehouse at the market and realized that if food were cooked right there, customers would wait in line for it, shifting from one foot to the other on a nondescript staircase, for, say, one or two hundred years. It was early in the nineteenth century. In about 1873 two local merchants, John Durgin and Eldredge Park, bought the market restaurant and renamed it after themselves. Having done that, they both died, and John Chandler took over. He instituted good, plain Yankee cooking, as described by one of his cooks:“We make our food taste like it’s supposed to be.”
The prevailing curse of the historic restaurant, in America or overseas, is that it is presumed, de facto, to be a tourist place. Durgin-Park is the one where I draw the line. Beyond the specific point, by way of example, that it has succulent chicken potpie for only $4.95 and the freshest seafood in the city, the broader point is that Durgin-Park has been a famous place to go for most of this century, without yet taking advantage of the fact and bending its standards. Because of that, a description of it written for The Craftsman magazine in 1910 is still perfectly accurate:
“The plain tables are laid with clean but unpressed cloths and napkins. The prices are those often described as within the scope of the most modest purse, yet not suspiciously cheap, for the food is of the freshest in the market. . . . To begin with, some fresh butter and a long, low, well-browned piece of cornbread are laid at your plate. Then you brood—perhaps gloat would be a better word—over the possibilities of the bill of fare, trying to decide whether you will have broiled live lobster, swordfish or mackerel. The women of the party decided upon swordfish, the solitary man took lobster. The democratic but efficient server had seemed severe at first, but it proved to be only New England concentration for when she deposited the fish she labeled it with relish: ‘Broiled swordfish. Looks good. He’ll wish he’d taken it.’”
That was almost ninety years ago. I go to Durgin-Park a few times a month, and the last time I took her advice and ordered the broiled swordfish. He should have taken it.
In any sense of philosophy or science, there is no such thing as the passage of time in the three rooms that house the Durgin-Park restaurant. It really wouldn’t surprise me if it became a tourist place someday.
The taverns, the oyster stands, and the market restaurants just turned up—developing out of some immediate need—but Delmonico was the first in the new epoch in which restaurants were conceived. Peter and John Delmonico thought everything out carefully and set their twelve tables up in full view of the confections and desserts but out of sight of the kitchen in the back. They printed a menu, listing dishes in both English and French. They trained waiters—some of them minor members of the Delmonico family—to care for diners the way that servants tended their masters. Once the place began to draw crowds, the Delmonicos became the first to discover that the successful restaurateur has powers normally vested in gods over life and tables. However, it was the Delmonicos’ policy to let anyone at all into their restaurant—that is to say, they were not old-fashioned snobs, concerned with origin or religion. They were new-style snobs, in step with the egalitarianism of their age, and they’d give a table to anyone who had lots of money.
A generation after Delmonico opened, lonely outpost that it was, New York City had more than five thousand restaurants. Social life was changed just that quickly. Many reasons have been offered for the success and influence of Delmonico and for the fact that the whole nation seemed to wake up hungry on December 13, 1827—hungry and in no mood to cook. The Industrial Revolution, the influx of immigrants, the growth of the cities, the growth of the leisure class: All of them ring true. But Delmonico was the little straw that got a huge boulder creaking forward, because it was a good idea from the start, from the start until the last of the eleven succeeding Delmonico restaurants closed in 1923.
Delmonico, Sherry’s, Louis Martin, Bustanoby’s, and a few others were the “lobster palaces” that became central to New York’s social life in the Gilded Age. Laden with marble and velvet, potted palms, and string orchestras, they were gorgeous and always tasteful. Unfortunately they also spawned Lobster Palace Society, as it was known, a convivial part of the upper class that prided itself on doing idiotic things. C. K. G. Billings gave a banquet at Sherry’s in 1900 at which the guests sat at their places on Thor- oughbred horses, sipping champagne from the saddlebags through long straws. Fun is fun, but that’s an insult to the horses, not to say to the champagne, if it was any good. And it surely was: On the main floors of the lobster palaces, dining became just another word for showing off, and the reputations of the great restaurants have been connected ever since with pathetic excess, by way of social climbing. One of the few restaurants to survive from the grand day of Delmonico is Antoine’s, in New Orleans, which opened in 1840. Antoine’s was no lobster palace, though; its decor and its atmosphere have always been mellow. It is the cooking, like that of Delmonico, that has always been surpassing. “Imagine,” Will Rogers said of Antoine’s, “a restaurant existing and making a world-wide reputation on just food.” I know how great Antoine’s is, because I have been there only once. I have been there only once almost twenty years ago, and I remember every aspect in detail. They just didn’t serve food like that where I came from. The impression that remains to this day is that they don’t serve food quite like Antoine’s anywhere: a blend of French and Creole, of course, and myriad other regional influences. Mainly it is precocity, though, even at the age of 157: Antoine’s likes to do things its own way, including, for example, its invention of the hollow French fry, or “les pommes de terre soufflées.”
The first great restaurants were French, like Antoine’s and Delmonico. The next wave of restaurants, in cities at least, were ethnic, and the first to hold sway was one rarely seen anymore, the English restaurant. The genre arose in reaction to the very sociability of the prevailing French restaurants, as a writer named Richard Duffy observed for a magazine in 1909, praising English restaurants for “The absence of chattering women, of a clattering orchestra, or garish lights and decorations. . . . Peace and plenty are here.”
“On the table,” he wrote (with a certain resignation that sounds remarkably like relief), “are the half-dozen bottles of condiments which English cooking requires, because their cooks lack imagination and inventiveness.”
Keens Steakhouse—started in 1885 as Keen’s English Chop House—was so ultra-Anglophilic that even the Londoner’s New York thought it a bit aggressive, charging it with “anxious emulation.” Keen’s (as it was soon renamed, for the first owner) grew out of a part of the Lambs, an actors’ club in Manhattan. It had no chattering women (or any women), no orchestra, and subdued lights. For decorations, there were pictures of actors and there were long-stemmed pipes. The idea behind the pipes was that a customer could buy one for a quarter and leave it at the restaurant for his exclusive use. There are seventy-two thousand of them now, many thousands of which line the ceiling in a pleasing way.
One night in 1901 the English actress Lillie Langtry decided she wanted a mutton chop. She didn’t want companionship, she just wanted a muttonchop, and for it she took herself to Keen’s, where she was duly denied her chop or even a table, on the ground that a woman couldn’t dine there without a male escort. Langtry sued and won, because Keen’s had not offered her any seat at all. “Ladies are in Luck!” the restaurant graciously conceded after the verdict. “They can dine at Keen’s.” At most other high-class places of the day, one dining room would be for males only, one would be for females accompanied by a male, and one, perhaps, would allow females even without a male escort.
This system wasn’t merely based on chauvinism or misogyny. As an invention the restaurant proliferated very quickly in the mid-nineteenth century, and it represented dangerous new territory to a society wherein malefemale relations had once been fairly well controlled. Just as millionaires had abused their new toy—practically drowning it in bubbly—people with a mind for intrigue lost no time in exploring its possibilities in their own way. In 1872 a reporter named James McCabe visited restaurants that admitted unescorted men and women; what he found would surprise almost no one of today and almost everyone of 1872. “A quiet but close observer,” he wrote, “will frequently see a nod, or a smile, or a meaning glance pass between the most respectable looking persons of opposite sexes, who are seemingly strangers to each other, and will sometimes see a note slyly sent by a waiter, or dropped adroitly in the hand of the woman as the man passes out, while her face wears the demurest and most rigidly virtuous expression. Such women frequent some of the best known up-town establishments to so great an extent that a lady entering one of them is apt to be insulted in this way by the male habitués of the place. These wretches hold all women to be alike, and act upon this belief.” Many more rules about such behavior have collected since the days of the first restaurants, obviating the segregation; it was a makeshift solution, indefensible, all things considered. But it proved what a powerful thing was the restaurant.
Keens still serves its most famous menu item, that gigantic mutton chop, along with other dishes that show a finer hand in the kitchen than at most chophouses. I dined alone the last time I was there, without faring too much better than Lillie Langtry, if the truth must be known. The waiter, when pressed, brought some food, but nothing else, such as, say, something to drink with it. It wouldn’t occur to me to sue, as Langtry did. If it happens again, though, I am going to ask them to locate my pipe. (I don’t have a pipe.)
St. Elmo, in downtown Indianapolis, is the American version of the chophouse. It’s just a narrow room, with a simple kitchen lining one side, near the entry. If you care to, you can point out the exact steak that you want as you pass the refrigerator case. If you really consider yourself a connoisseur, you can also point out your salad, but anyway, the restaurant has no secrets, because it doesn’t have a back room, other than for storage, and it hasn’t had any since it opened in 1902. The bill of fare could fit on an index card; it is dominated by half a dozen steaks, plain and honest, and the simplest of American dishes. It is a completely authentic old chophouse, no less so because the walls are plastered with pictures of the latest racing cars from the Indianapolis Speedway.
Italian restaurants followed the chophouses, as the restaurant fad of the 1890s. They have remained popular, of course, while German restaurants have flagged since their own heyday at the turn of the century. Milwaukee still has a handful of German restaurants from that time, but then Milwaukee is one of the country’s best cities for ethnic restaurants of all types. Karl Ratzsch’s (pronounced Rosh’s) evolved out of a café that started in 1904, and it still has the friendly personality of a café, even though it grew into the formal dining room that it now occupies. It’s very German, and in the vernacular of restaurants at the turn of the century, that meant it was hospitable and unpressured. I go there only about every other year, yet I have the impression that I’m its best customer. At least, everyone acts that way. Ratzsch’s serves the schnitzels and Sauerbraten popular in German-American cuisine but with enough respect paid to Wisconsin ingredients that you can also have a meal there that could have been served long, long before the first German ever set foot in America: Lake Superior whitefish, for example. Jacob Wirth (1868), a German restaurant in Boston, once summed up its own long history in a pugnacious sort of haiku that appeared on a poster there: “We haven’t changed for the better. We haven’t changed for the worse. We haven’t changed period.” Wirth’s certainly hasn’t; it hasn’t been redecorated since Chester Arthur was President (his is the sole portrait, hanging from a string tacked into the molding, in the large hall that serves as the dining room). While the fringes of the menu may jostle along the latest fads, the core cuisine is as homely as that in a Kneipe, a German pub, where lunch is a couple of wursts on a pile of sauerkraut, with potato salad and dark rye bread on the side. Wirth’s, however, is planted in downtown Boston: Of course you can have corn bread, instead of rye.
Hattie Gray Austin grew up in rural Louisiana without a mother in the 1920s. She was raised largely by her grandparents, and she learned to cook from them. What she learned apparently was to treat good ingredients with a delicate hand. As a teenager Hattie visited her sister in Chicago and stayed on, taking a job as a maid with a rich family that summered in Saratoga Springs, New York. Saving her money and watching her chances, she remained behind in the autumn of 1938 to open a restaurant straight out of her family’s past. Hattie’s Chicken Shack, it was called. There is a photo of her in her apron, standing out in front, and it really wasn’t much more than a shack on the edge of town. But that wasn’t the restaurant. Sometimes a historic restaurant is made of bricks and things; in Hattie’s case it was made of her recipes and her ways. Eventually Hattie’s moved to the middle of Saratoga Springs, but the menu remained the same as ever: chicken that becomes lighter, not heavier, for being fried; steamy biscuits; mashed potatoes with a savory air; succotash; and gumbo. Hattie, who has been widely honored as an African-American businesswoman, has finally retired in her nineties, but she still visits the kitchen, to make sure that the food remains true.
As the idea of dining out spread to the countryside, opening a restaurant became as easy as opening the door. Families—especially those in which a mother was fending by herself—had the option of pushing the furniture around in the front room and simply charging for meals there. The Krebs, which is also in upstate New York, has the feel of just such a place, though it actually started on a slightly firmer basis in 1899, having been opened by a couple named Fred and Cora Krebs to augment a hotel that they operated nearby in the lakeside town of Skaneateles. Mr. Krebs came originally from Germany, but it would be hard to think of a less ethnic restaurant than his; it seems to have pushed straight up out of the ground, to serve American food in an American way.
A stubborn debate in the restaurant world of the nineteenth century was between two ways of serving and selling meals: table d’hôte versus à la carte. The American way was the former, by which you paid for your seat and could thereon eat anything that was brought within reach. However, sophisticated Europeans preferred to pay for their meals morsel by morsel. It was indeed more sophisticated to dine àla carte, since that allowed customers to construct meals according to their own predilections. Antoine’s was a leader in that movement and carries it through even today, to the extent that one chooses a meat entrée at some certain price and then consults the list of sauces, priced sep
arately, to complete the dish.
The Krebs, on the other hand, makes just as good a case for table d’hôte. It is a white clapboard house set in a residential neighborhood, with a porch on the front and along one side. The entry is a front parlor; all the rooms around it were cleared out long ago to make room for tables. Dinner, at thirty-six dollars, is a seven-course affair. Many people don’t eat that way anymore, of course. They are on diets. So the Krebs offers a lighter dinner . . . six courses at thirty-four dollars. Either way, the food never stops arriving—shrimp, stew, salad, relishes, bread (all of it homemade), lobster Newburg—and then the waitresses line up at the table, one behind the other, holding platters of the main dishes and vegetables and sauces. Dessert.
Despite the fact that extra helpings are available, the bounty of table d’hôte lies not in the quantity of the food but in its variety, in having small tastes of all kinds of courses. People rarely eat like that now because àla carte has been instituted in America with each course so large that you really can’t have more than a couple of them. In Italy, for example, it is still the way to make a meal of many small courses, and so the tide apparently has turned since 1899. The Krebs, so homey and American, is also sophisticated and European.
In 1916 prohibition against liquor became the law in Oregon, and a restaurateur named Joseph Musso fled as though from a plague. Prohibition was to grow into an even wider plague against the thriving restaurant business, but at the time Musso thought that he had found someplace to hide from it: Hollywood Boulevard, in the then half-empty town of Hollywood, California. He joined with two partners, one of whom had the first name of Frank, to start another restaurant, the Musso & Frank Grill. Most of the menu was developed by a long-time chef who retired in the 1970s. Today the restaurant stands as a veritable safe house in the midst of trendy California cuisine. There is nary a poppy seed in sight, or a blade of lemongrass. Instead there is beef stroganoff. There are also veal scaloppine, liver and onions, Welsh rarebit, and other dishes long past mere trends. In the 1920s and 1930s Musso & Frank became a favorite of movie stars with its dark dining room and its high, private booths. Charlie Chaplin had a booth reserved every single day at lunchtime. Equally impressive: Greta Garbo was once seen at Musso’s. The restaurant was even more popular among writers during Hollywood’s noontide. Nathanael West and William Faulkner frequented the place, and a separate room in the back eventually became an unofficial club for literary types who felt themselves stranded in the movie world. In that sense Musso’s probably seems like a West Coast version of the Algonquin, in New York. To me, though, Musso & Frank’s was made not by its clientele but by its resolve. It has the same extra dose of earthly gravity as the place called the Knife & Fork in Atlantic City. Both manage to remain steady while all else swirls around them.
Like the town of Hollywood, Atlantic City in this century has enjoyed soaring high points along with some shocking lows. At the end of a long line of casino hotels and sideshows on the Boardwalk, the Knife & Fork occupies a rambling stucco building with leaded-glass windows and a chimney or two. When it opened in 1912, Atlantic City was a swank beach resort, where people went just to relax quietly and maybe have some fresh seafood, and that is still the way at the Knife & Fork. Against the backdrop of Atlantic City, it reminds me of some silent-screen routine, in which a dowdy gentleman sits in his easy chair as his house falls apart around him and is rebuilt, time and again, without affecting him in the least. The Knife & Fork will survive anything, and I hope that Musso’s will too, because it is the last of a slew of restaurants, such as Romanoff’s and the Brown Derby, that Hollywood made nationally famous.
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.