Drinks and then some jazz on 52nd Street

Based on this vintage menu from The Hickory House, I’d guess it was a swinging little place to have cocktails and dinner and then catch a show on West 52nd Street.

That stretch of midtown used to be crowded with jazz clubs in the 1940s and 1950s.

Turns out The Hickory House, opened in 1933, was known for its steaks and jazz lineups.

But The Hickory House couldn’t have been too cool; according to the menu, they had a branch in Miami Beach. 

Still, check out these cheapo drink prices. Post-Prohibition New York City was a hard-drinking town.

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24 Responses to “Drinks and then some jazz on 52nd Street”

  1. DGK Says:

    Little background from 1959 — and a piece from NPR. Man, I’d like to stop in this place tonight. The plaque for Toots Shor’s makes me feel the same way.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15123976

    The Hickory House, at 144 W. 52nd St., claims that if all the jazz musicians launched there were laid end to end the line would reach well toward Basin St., New Orleans, where John Popkin first heard the wail of Louis Prima’s trumpet in 1933 and persuaded Louis to migrate to New York.

    In the 25 years since HICKORY HOUSE opened, jazz buffs who sit around the huge circular music bar—first of its kind, incidentally—have been entertained by Benny Goodman, Eddie Condon, Bix Beiderbecke, Wingy Manone, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, the Tea-gardens (Jack and Charlie), Joe Marsala, Joey Bushkin, Red Norvo, Joe Venuti, Eddie South, John Kirby, Charlie Trombauer, Bobby Hackett and Duke Ellington. And, on the distaff side, Frances Faye, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Toshiko and Hazel Scott, who played her first local engagement at the HICKORY HOUSE and stayed there for two years at $35 a week.

    HICKORY HOUSE also claims to have originated “jam session” and “sitting in”—part of the vocabulary of the cool set. Before union restrictions put an end to such shindigs, it was not unusual on a Sunday afternoon to find Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Good-man or the Dorsey Brothers “sitting in” just for kicks.

    In such company, Frankie Laine was happy to sing just to be heard and even Frank Sinatra wasn’t above raising his voice in song for the fun of it. In 1933 HICKORY HoUsE inaugurated another “first” by introducing jazz on the major networks.

    John Popkin, impresario at the HICKORY HoUsE, has quite a background. Born in Wilno, Lithuania, and originally named Zelig Pupko, he migrated to New York at the age of 12 with other members of his family to join their father, who had preceded them by five years. John became a Postal Telegraph messenger boy and learned English mostly by reading signs. After driving a truck for his father’s fish business, he opened an auction shop on Lispenard St. (site of the present Telephone Co. building) and prospered, so that by the time he was 23 he had made his first million. After that he sold out and took up boxing. (His alibi for quitting was he didn’t want to spoil his looks.)

    At the outbreak of World War I, Popkin was raising ducks in Yardley, Pa. He sold out, joined a committee for Belgian relief in New York. And after the war, just for variety perhaps, went into the perfume business. After 12 years, he was able to buy 23 race horses, one of which (Air Chief) won 27 races.

    During Prohibition, Popkin opened a basement speakeasy in association with Jack Goldman, at 47th St. and Broadway called the “Little Club”—a misnomer since it seated 300. Joe E. Lewis, a Chicago comedian, made his New York debut there. The Little Club (no connection with the present club of that name) served as spawning ground for the talent that was later to appear at HICKORY HOUSE, which Popkin opened, in association with Goldman’s brother Jack, in 1933.

    HICKORY HOUSE seats 380 customers, 60 at the bar, and specializes in sizzling steaks and “cool” music.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks for the great info, DGK.

  3. KvS Says:

    Thank you for your posting, DGK. I would like to the listed roster of artists also German-American jazz pianist Jutta Hipp who had a months-long engagement at the Hickory House in 1956, while Marian McPartland (the Hickory House’s house pianist at the time) was on tour. Jutta Hipp was the first female Caucasian instrumentalist ever signed by the legendary Blue Note record label.

  4. September In The Rain « The Half Empty Glass Says:

    [...] in case you were wondering what a bonded rye would run you at the Hickory House, well, it started at 90 [...]

  5. Gregg Popkin Says:

    Hey where did u find this? The Hickory House was owned by my Great Uncle, John Popkin. It was a very cool place. As a little boy I remember meeting a number of very famous musicians there. I would love to locate a copy of the menu or other items. Can u point me in the right direction?

    • melanie popkin farkas Says:

      just saw this post from you and judy…..-john and julia popkin were my grandparents– my late father howard popkin and my mother arlene (known as the redhead) spent mostof their time there…have some menus and memorabilia—-my mom just told me she has a picture at the hickory house with john and sophie….contact me at facebook–guess we are related….! melanie popkin

      • Judy Popkin Passela Says:

        Hi Melanie
        I remember you….and your parents. My dad was Jack and mom was Lynne…they were very close to your parents. We saw each other as kids many times..even remember Mario the great waiter. So glad your Mom is still around….mine passeed away 12 years ago at age 68..Dad even earlier. I am married and living in FL. on Facebook as Judith Popkin Passela…….

      • Selma Abo Lerner Says:

        To Melanie Popkin Farkas,
        I was so sorry to learn of your father’s passing. Howard and I were friends in the 1930’s and 40’s.and for a while he was my husband’s and my stockbroker. My late father and John Popkin’s older brother Harry were partners in a men’s formal wear company named ABO & POPKIN..My parents and I “lunched” at the HH quite often before I was married .
        Howard was a great guy, You and your mother have my condolences.
        Fondly,
        Selma Abo Lerner
        Selma1818@yahoo.com

  6. [MusiKaos.com] ♪ OTR for Tuesday: Louis Prima 1939 at The Hickory House NYC on CBS Download Says:

    [...] A great band remote broadcast from WJSV Washington -September 22, 1939-a CBS feed of Louis Prima, from The Hickory House in NYC. This one was taken from a series of great OTR on disc: WSJV recorded an ENTIRE brodcast day, from sign on to sign off…simply amazing. I can post it if anyone is interested, it’s great. http://www.megaupload.com/?d=KVGIXYSC A bit on The Hickory House from: http://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2010/03/19/having-a-drink-at-hickory-house-on-52nd-street/ [...]

  7. martin Says:

    My family (owners of a large New Jersey restaurant) would go into New York frequently to see shows and shop and enjoy a few favorite eating places. I can tell you that the Hickory House was one of our most favorite. Knowing my father was also a restauranteur, Mr. Popkin would always sit and chat with us about business and always recognized us when we came in. Years later as a musician, I played with Alex Kallao, a blind piano player who recorded his most famous album “Live” at the Hickory House. By the way, the salt sticks were the greatest!

    • Doug Popkin Says:

      I used to bring my highschool dates to my Uncle John’s Hickory House. I thought I was so cool as my Uncle John would always spend time with me and never charge me a dime. That was’cool’. However, what was really special about the Hickory House was not only the music but the interior design of the place-huge circular bar with musicians playing on the interior, a glass wall that allowed you to watch the incredible steaks being grilled and the crisp white linen table cloths and napkins that were constantly being changed to keep the restaurant look immaculate. Good times.

      Doug Popkin

  8. Judy Popkin Says:

    Just to add, Doug, the glass wall revealed not a grill, but the aging room for the meats….I was five or so and the greatest waiter, Mario, would carry me around on his shoulders and then bring me a huge shrimp cocktail. Of course that treatment was under the watchful eye of Uncle John and my grandfather, Bert; his younger brother. I learned how to enjoy great food and Shirley Temples; not knowing enough, yet, to appreciate the great music. Marian McPartland is still going strong with her “Piano Jazz” on NPR. The restaurant eventally became Joe’s Pier 52, but it was never the same…a classic always remains a classic. Thanks, Uncle John and Aunt Julia, for the wonderful memories we all share.
    Judy Popkin Passela

  9. Bill Crow Says:

    sorry, I posted my Hickory House comment on the Subways Are For Sleeping article by mistake.

  10. buzz nelson Says:

    @Bill Crow – Thanks for your great books and documenting of the jazz life.

  11. greg ragle Says:

    Let me remind the author that Miami Beach could be a classy place in those days – wonderful artists in the many night clubs.

  12. Susan Riley Says:

    My father played with Louis Prima at the Hickory House in the late 30’s. I have some great photos from those days. I was curious who J. Popkin was, sitting with Prima’s arm around him and Buddy Rich looking like a little kid. Amazing what you can find on the internet. I would love to hear the feed of Prima’s band mentioned in a comment. Daddy played bass and it always sounded like the heartbeat of the band to me. Thanks for posting!

  13. Angela Sawyer-Thompson Says:

    I will forward the pic to you.

  14. walter marquart Says:

    When in New York on business I made it my business to visit the Hickory house back in the ’40’s.

  15. TOOTER COSPER Says:

    In 1956 ,I had a friend named “Oogie” that took me to the Hickory House and introduced me to Mary Ann McPartland. I was astounded when she went on break, she just motioned to my friend ( Who I had no idea was a musician) to set in for her on the horseshoe bar.I had just finished playing in a USO Services mans Club down off 5th ave.After we left we were walking and a gentleman in front of us collapsed and “Oogie” caught him and placed him against a wall . The emergency people arrived and we left. The next morning we read that the comedian “Fred Allen” had died from a heart attack walking down 57th ST.

  16. Richey Hope Says:

    In the early ’60’s I used to go from college to NYC to have fun on weekends. I would always go the Hickory House. I found out about the place from the front section of The New Yorker, which always told you who was playing, when, and where. I think drinks were about $1.50 by then. My favorite was Bill Evans—we would sit at the bar and be about 10 feet from him. On night, around midnight, Duke Ellington came in with the singer Odetta to listen and have dinner. Great food there, nice people came there, and very nice employees —treated this college boy and his girl friend just great. NY had a drinking age of 18 then.

  17. spikenyc Says:

    http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/s/k9x21z Nice photo from the 30’s.

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