Archive for the ‘Bars and restaurants’ Category

The Automat is gone—but a faded Automat ad still remains in the Garment District

July 25, 2022

The last Horn & Hardart Automat in New York City, at 200 East 42nd Street, shut down in 1991—its stainless steel vending machines that dispensed everything from hot coffee to meatloaf to pie unceremoniously carted away.

That was 31 years ago. But the ghosts of the 40 to 50 Automats that once fed Gotham still haunt the imaginations of New Yorkers old enough to remember them—as well as those of us who wish we could hop into a time machine and experience these very democratic (and all architecturally different) food establishments.

Automat at 1089 Sixth Avenue, 1939

(Why democratic? Take it from a 1933 rhyme printed in the New York Sun that went like this: said the technocrat/to the plutocrat/to the autocrat/and the Democrat/let’s all go eat at the Automat!)

Macy’s own Automat at 425 Seventh Avenue, 1929

So it’s wonderful to come across a faded ad for a Broadway Automat on the side of a building on West 38th Street, within the borders of the Herald Square shopping district as well as the old Garment District.

This second image of the faded ad (above) comes from Frank Mastropolo, the author of Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York’s Past, which hits Amazon and bookstores today. Mastropolo got access to the roof of the building next door for this amazing shot, which fills in the blanks as to where this Automat was located.

The Automat at 401 Fifth Avenue, 1950s

The ad is in surprisingly good shape, considering it’s been exposed to the elements for four or five decades, at least. Let’s hope it sticks around!

[Second, third, and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collections; fourth image: Frank Mastropolo, Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York’s Past]

A once-elegant Lower East Side house where a gruesome sport played out

July 4, 2022

The Federal-style brick house at 47-49 Madison Street has been battered by the elements for more than two centuries.

But imagine what it must have looked like after it was built in the early 1800s. In post-colonial, population-booming Gotham, it was likely a comfortable home for a single family on a respectable street—formerly part of the Rutgers farm on today’s Lower East Side.

Perhaps the commercial space on the ground floor was part of the original layout, a storefront for a merchant or artisan whose family occupied private quarters on the second and third floors, with bedrooms behind those dormer windows.

But distinguished streets in New York City have a way of becoming disreputable pretty quickly. Already looked down upon because of a typhus outbreak there in 1820, Madison Street (known until 1826 as Bancker Street) “turned less desirable,” states the 2012 guide book, Lower East Side.

Madison Street’s slide continued through the next decades. Not only was it near the rough and ready East River waterfront, where boardinghouses and dive bars for sailors abounded, but it was dangerously close to the Five Points, the notorious slum district a few blocks north.

By the middle of the 19th century, 47-49 Madison’s days as a family home were long over. At that point, the house had transformed into a venue for a kind of gruesome entertainment contemporary New Yorkers generally have a hard time understanding: rat baiting.

Rat-Baiting at “Sportsman’s Amphitheater”

“Rat killing was the premiere gentlemen’s betting sport of the mid-19th century,” stated Atlas Obscura in a 2014 post. “The boys of the Bowery were paid 5-10 cents for each rat collected, and spectators crowded into the hall to bet on how many rats the fighting dogs could kill in a given time span.”

In the early 1850s, the rat pit at 47-49 Madison was called “J. Marriott’s Sportsman’s Hall.” Marriott’s wasn’t the only rat-fighting venue in New York City at the time. Not far away at 273 Water Street, a man named Kit Burns entertained crowds by pitting rats against terriers.

47-49 Madison Street in 1939-1941

“Behind closed doors all over the area, the debauched pastime thrived, with politicians and well-to-do society members coming downtown to gamble amid the saloons and slums of the Five Points,” stated Atlas Obscura.

After Marriott departed, 47-49 Madison Street had a new owner. Harry Jennings was an Englishman who continued staging rat fights for sport. In a 1910 Brooklyn Times Union article recalling Jennings, a man who was his neighbor across Madison Street wrote: “Boys at that time could sell all the rats they could catch….He would put a certain number in the pit, and the dog that could kill the most in a given time was considered the winner.”

Kit Burns’ rat pit on Water Street

“I well remember the racket they used to make—men hollering, dogs barking, and rats squeaking.”

Jennings ended up doing time for robbery. When he came back to New York, the sport of rat-baiting was losing its appeal. He left Madison Street and became a legitimate rat killer, hired by fancy hotels and businesses to catch the innumerable rats that made their homes in high-class hostelries and stores.

“He made lots of money at his queer trade,” wrote The Evening World in an announcement of his death in 1891.

As for 47-49 Madison Street, the little house was occupied by an undertaker. In the 1960s, a discount store called Johns moved in. Today it’s a prayer hall, according to Atlas Obscura.

[Third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; fifth image: Wikipedia]

This magical Coney Island building was home to an early New York restaurant chain

June 27, 2022

It’s a Spanish Colonial–style festival of terra cotta: an imaginative building with a beach-white facade, enormous arched entryways, and colorful images of seashells, fish, seaweed, ships, and Neptune himself looking out over the Coney Island boardwalk.

With such rich ornamentation and design, you’d think the dreamlike structure at West 21st Street served as a movie theater, a casino, perhaps an arcade featuring some of the outrageous exhibits Coney Island was famous for in the early 20th century.

But the building was actually home to a pioneering restaurant called Childs—one of New York’s first restaurant chains and a forerunner of the kind of clean, reliable, and inexpensive eateries found all over the city today. (Here’s an early menu.)

To get a sense of how integral Childs was to Gotham’s restaurant culture, go back to New York City after the Civil War, when dining in a restaurant (rather than cooking meals at home, or eating at a tavern if you were traveling) was something reserved only for the wealthy.

As the Gilded Age progressed, restaurants began opening to middle class and working-class residents as well. These were the army of clerks, shop girls, factory workers, and others who powered the industrialized city. But not all of the new lunch counters and saloons they patronized were inviting, nor were they always sanitary.

Then in 1889, brothers Samuel and William Childs opened the first Childs restaurant downtown on Cortlandt Street. Within a decade, dozens more Childs outlets opened up, all with “white-tiled walls and floors, white marble table-tops, and waitresses dressed in starched white uniforms, to convey a sense of cleanliness,” explains a 2003 Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) report.

The chain was a runaway success and expanded even further. “Originally intended to provide a basic, clean environment for wholesome food and reasonable prices, the company eventually varied its restaurant designs and menus to reflect the unique location of each outlet,” states the LPC report.

This Coney Island boardwalk Childs opened in a prime location in 1923. The site was close to Steeplechase Park, according to Andrew Dolkart’s Guide to New York City Landmarks. Steeplechase closed in the 1960s, but its most iconic ride, the Parachute Jump, still looms large nearby.

Childs vacated Coney Island in the 1950s. The chain gave rise to countless imitators, and eventually the company was sold and stores across the city shut down. The building on the boardwalk became a candy factory, which operated there until the early 2000s.

Since its designation as a historic landmark in 2003, the site has served as a short-lived roller rink, then was transformed back into a restaurant space. It now sits empty. Still, the nautical-themed facade—so appropriate for the boardwalk of the nation’s most fantastical beach resort—continues to dazzle.

Other former Childs outlets can be found throughout the city. One is now a McDonald’s on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street—at least it was last time I looked.

[Fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

What to order from a 1950s Mother’s Day menu from the Gramercy Hotel

May 5, 2022

Vintage menus from New York City hotels reveal a lot about how food choices and dining habits have changed over the years.

Case in point is this Mother’s Day menu from the luxurious Hotel Gramercy Park for May 8, 1955. The menu is for dinner, with dinner starting at noon. It’s a reminder that what we generally call “dinner” today was typically served a lot earlier in the afternoon; this mention of Sunday in New York during the Gilded Age has it that dinner was always served at 1 p.m. A smaller evening meal would be supper.

The menu itself also has a very feminized look to it, with floral images and pink type. In the 1950s, I doubt anyone complained. Today’s customers might take issue with the traditional female feel.

The menu items, though, are quite hearty, with an assortment of old-school appetizers (stuffed celery hearts, seafood cocktail) and 14 entrees (plus a cold buffet) you would expect from a menu in the 1950s. Lobster Newburgh has an old New York backstory, as it supposedly was first served at Gilded Age favorite Delmonico’s in 1876.

The desserts look divine. I wonder how many moms chose the stewed prunes over the layer cake? As for beverages, this might be the oldest mention I’ve seen on a menu of iced coffee.

[Menu: NYPL]

Just how old is the lovely stained glass ceiling at Veniero’s pasticceria?

May 2, 2022

There’s a lot to love about Veniero’s, the cafe and bakery on East 11th Street since 1894. First and foremost are the pastries, but also the tin ceiling, the old-school glass bakery counters, and the wonderful pink and green neon sign on the facade.

But what I noticed for the first time during a recent visit for gelato was the spectacular stained glass panels spanning the length of the ceiling, with their unusual red, gold, and green floral motifs.

I knew they must have been in the cafe for decades, and I wanted to know just how long and where they came from. On one hand, a 1990 New York Times article about bakeries in Manhattan has it that the stained glass was only installed in 1984.

“The only change over the years [at Veniero’s] has been the addition six years ago of an adjoining warm enclave, with a ceiling of stained-glass panels and the original pressed tin,” the article stated.

However, Veniero’s own website suggests the stained glass dates to the 1930s. During the Depression, owner Michael Veniero left the day-to-day management of the store to his cousin Frank.

“Under Frank’s leadership and eventually ownership, Veniero’s evolved into what it is today,” the site says. Frank “filled his new kitchen with Italian bakers and decorated his new cafe with imported Neapolitan glass that still gracefully adorns our ceiling today.”

A peek inside a 1946 Yankees program—and the New York brands that advertised inside

April 25, 2022

I have no idea what a Yankees program looks like today. But I do know what it looked like in 1946, when the Bronx Bombers hosted the Cleveland Indians either in late April/early May, June, or August of that postwar year.

Strangely, the 16-page program doesn’t say when the series takes place. But it mentions the upcoming All-Star Game at Fenway Park, so it must have been before July.

The lineup of legendary players to take the field that day included Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, and Bill DIckey, with Bill Bevens and Spud Chandler listed as pitchers. More interesting to me are the ads throughout the 16-page program—like Ruppert Beer.

The Ruppert ad for this Yorkville-brewed beer isn’t much of a surprise because the Yankees were owned by Jacob Ruppert from 1915 until his death in 1939. A plaque recognizing his devotion to his team stands in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.

I’ve never heard of Major’s Cabin Grill. It’s on 34th Street, a long subway ride from Yankee Stadium, but why not? I like the warning about betting and gambling at the stadium.

I’m glad to see Schrafft’s make an appearance in the program; the restaurant chain famous for its ice cream was highly popular at the time. Apparently the ice cream bars they sold to fans at the stadium were in short supply.

The Hotel New Yorker today may not be a five-star kind of place, but it had a better reputation in the mid-20th century. This is the first time I’ve seen it described as a “home of major-league ball clubs.”

Here’s the actual scorecard, plus some fun ads on the sides—especially for the famous Hotel Astor rooftop. At one time, this was a glamorous place for dining, dancing, and catching a cool breeze in a city without air conditioning.

Step Into the Morningside Heights rowdy resort district dubbed ‘Little Coney Island’

April 18, 2022

Since 1892, West 110th Street has also been known as Cathedral Parkway. It’s a heavenly name for a stretch of Manhattan that had a citywide reputation for vice and sin at the turn of the 20th century.

110th Street station on Ninth Avenue El, 1905

“Little Coney Island,” as this quickly developing enclave of Morningside Heights was dubbed by residents, police, and politicians, consisted of a few blocks of newly opened pleasure gardens set in wood-frame buildings that attracted carousing crowds of fun-seeking men and women.

A “pleasure garden” sounds pretty saucy, but it was simply a venue or “resort” where working class New Yorkers, often immigrants, went to drink, listen to popular ballads, watch vaudeville acts, and otherwise entertain themselves with the same kind of lowbrow attractions found on the Bowery or at Brooklyn’s Coney Island, minus the rides.

In a city of tight quarters and without air conditioning or paid vacations for working people, pleasure gardens were popular. Thanks to its breezy open roof and proximity to the Ninth Avenue El, one of the most frequented at Little Coney Island was the Lion Palace, spun off from the Lion Brewery on 110th Street and Broadway.

Little Coney Island’s dance halls and beer gardens existed in wood buildings like these

“While it’s unclear as to exactly when the Lion opened, by the end of the century the Palace had a summer roof garden and performers were regularly covered in newspaper entertainment listings,” wrote Pam Tice on the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group site in 2016. “It became a popular spot for the nearby Columbia men.”

Soon, saloons, music halls, and casinos sprang up, like Waldron’s Dance Hall at 216 West 110th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, per a 2021 piece by E.L. Danvers on I Love the Upper West Side. The Imperial Garden and Columbus Casino drew hundreds of revelers each night.

Berenice Abbott took this photo of a 110th Street wood house in 1938; it would have been in the center of Little Coney Island

Of course, such a concentration of “entertainment houses” also raised the hackles of neighborhood associations and social reformers. After a fire broke out at Philip Dietrich’s resort in March 1900—during a performance by an act called the Fowler Sisters, who sang the ballad, “Farewell, Love’s Dream Is O’er,”—the crackdown on Little Coney Island seemed inevitable.

First, liquor licenses were turned down. A year later, police raided Waldron’s and a dance hall owned by Herman Wacke on the grounds that it was illegal to dance on Sundays.

“The dance halls that remained open entertained only a few straggling patrons, and these were not allowed to dance,” wrote the New York Times on March 18, 1901. “The musicians sat listlessly around their instruments and watched the police as they sauntered through the rooms.”

A bill passed by the state prohibited the operation of a dance hall serving alcohol within half a mile of a church. The Riverside and Morningside Heights Association petitioned to get rid of Little Coney Island, saying the proprietors violated liquor tax laws and “brought a large number of the worst element of the city to the locality,” per a June 1900 Times writeup.

110th Street and 8th Avenue in 1898, up the street from Little Coney Island

In 1901, a judge deemed a series of law enforcement raids at Little Coney Island to be “police persecution.” But the end was near. Ultimately, Little Coney was a victim of real estate development.

“Here is a section which was notorious a few years ago as New York’s ‘Little Coney Island,'” stated a New York Times story from 1910 about the new apartment residences going up along 110th Street. “Both sides of 110th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, were lined with old wooden houses, groggeries, and summer beer gardens….”

“The cheap resorts managed to exist, however, until the natural order of things the builders saw that the land was better suited to towering edifices of stone and brick, and today but scant evidences remain of the former conditions.”

[Top image: Alamy; second image: Real Estate Record and Guide, 1911, via Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group; third image: MCNY 43.131.1.582; fourth image: New York Times; fifth image: NYPL]

What went on at the Gilded Age ‘Patriarchs balls’ for New York society

February 21, 2022

If the 19th century Gilded Age was still with us, New York society would right now be bracing for the end of the annual winter social season.

Evenings in the boxes at the Academy of Music, French dinners at Delmonico’s, costume balls at Knickerbocker mansions—each week between November and the arrival of Lent offered an intoxicating mix of social events for Gotham’s old-money “uppertens” (aka, the richest 10,000 people in the city).

But there was one type of ball that owes its existence to the clubby exclusiveness fostered during this late 19th century era of consumption and corruption: the Patriarchs Balls.

A ticket to a Patriarchs Ball in 1892

Patriarchs Balls grew out of a group called the Society of the Patriarchs, formed in 1872 by Ward McAllister (below)—the Southern-born social arbiter who became Caroline Astor’s sidekick and gatekeeper as she put her imprint on Gilded Age society.

The Patriarch Balls, given several times in a social season at Delmonico’s, had a specific purpose. “Both Astor and McAllister lamented the ‘fragmentation’ of society and hoped to alleviate it by creating a circle of elite New Yorkers at the top of the city’s social hierarchy,” wrote Sven Beckert in his 2003 book, The Monied Metropolis.

Ward McAllister

“For that purpose they appointed 25 ‘patriarchs’—among them Eugene E. Livingston, Royal Phelps, and William C. Schermerhorn—who each could invite five women and four men to the balls and dinners organized by Caroline Astor.”

Those guests who “passed the scrutiny of the Patriarchs gained admission to the Four Hundred, a figure equal to the number of guests who could fit comfortably into [Caroline Astor’s] ballroom, where an annual ball was held on the third Monday in January,” stated William Grimes, author of Appetite City.

Delmonico’s menu for an 1897 Patriarchs Ball

What actually happened at a Patriarchs Ball? Based on the breathless coverage in the many New York newspapers of the Gilded Age, the events sound a lot like any other ball.

“At 11:30 the guests began to arrive, and dancing was begun at once,” wrote the New York Times on February 14, 1888—the last Patriarchs Ball of the social season. “Round dances only were in order in the large ballroom.” Two orchestras provided the music, and the hall and stairway were decorated with vines and palms. Roses, lilies, and tulips filled Delmonico’s dining rooms.

Coverage of a Patriarchs Ball, 1881 New York Times

“At 12:30 supper was served, and was unusually elaborate,” the Times reported. “Terrapin and truffled capons were among the delicacies.”

Patriarchs Balls continued into the 1890s. But as the division between old money and new rich dissolved and a brutal recession hit the city in 1893, the appetite regular New Yorkers had for this kind of frivolity began to wane.

Patriarchs Ball ticket, 1896

The New York Times covered their last Patriarchs Ball in 1896. In 1897, they simply reported in a small article that one Patriarch, a banker named James Kernochan, was run over on his way to a ball that year “by either a vehicle or a car somewhere on 42nd Street.” (Mr. Kernochan, of 824 Fifth Avenue, was left unconscious.)

McAllister’s fall from grace also contributed to the demise of the Patriarchs. After he published something of a tell-all in 1890, and then spoke to the press about exactly who, supposedly, was part of The Four Hundred, Mrs. Astor and her circle shunned him.

[Top image: Alamy; second image: MCNY 83.20.2; third image: LOC; fourth image: NYPL Menu Collection; fifth image: New York Times headline 1881; sixth image: MCNY 40.108.134]

A stunning Christmas feast served to guests at a posh Gilded Age hotel

December 20, 2021

I’m not sure what’s going on with the Hotel Wolcott these days. Prior to 2020, this pink brick and limestone landmark on 31st Street off Fifth Avenue catered to tourists looking for an inexpensive place to bed down in Manhattan. After Covid hit, the Wolcott stopped accepting “transient hotel guests.”

The Wolcott at 31st Street and Fifth Avenue, about 1910

In the Wolcott’s Gilded Age heyday, however, the hotel’s clientele were a lot higher on the social ladder. Opened in 1904 in the hopping theater and shopping district near Herald Square that was fast supplanting the rough and ready Tenderloin, this Beaux-Arts beauty hosted notables like Edith Wharton and Isadora Duncan.

The Wolcott menu front cover

The Wolcott operated on what was known as the “European plan,” which meant that meals were not included in the room price. So when the hotel dining room put together this mind-blowing Christmas dinner menu for December 25, 1905, hotel guests had to pay extra.

What a feast it was! The menu featured more than a hundred options, starting with an array of oysters and clams and then 25 or so relishes (lots of caviar and “chow-chow”), soups (turtle, of course; it’s an old New York favorite), and fish (codfish tongues?) before getting to the official entrees.

If beef, ham, or chicken isn’t your idea of a Christmas dinner main course, the Wolcott offered plenty of game options, like grouse, woodcock, and partridge.

A chef in the Wolcott kitchen, 1917

The vegetable choices were quite extensive, and that list included different varieties of potatoes, including “French fried”—perhaps an early mention of the classic side we’re so used to with a burger today.

The dessert course went old-school with plum pudding. But look at all those ice cream options! Fruit, cheese, and then coffee and tea rounded out the feast. I wonder what “Wolcott special milk” is?

The menu reveals some things about life among the upper classes in Gilded Age New York. Unlike today’s pared-down, curated restaurant menu, variety seems to have been important. French dishes were certainly popular, likely thanks to the influence of Delmonico’s, which by 1905 had moved up to 44th Street and was still a leading option in a city where dining out was becoming more of a regular thing.

How the hotel’s dining staff managed to obtain and store all of these food choices is mind-boggling. Chefs must have been down at the city’s great food markets, like Washington Market, early in the morning, and an army of cooks likely chopping, peeling, and cleaning all day.

One thing remains the same, though: Christmas dinner was meant to be a celebration, just as it is today.

[Top image: MCNY, x2011.34.303; Second image: NYPL

Everything you need to know about the Greenwich Village of 1961 in one map

September 20, 2021

“Geographically speaking, the Village is only a small part of New York City,” so states the copy on the side of this remarkable map of the Greenwich Village of 1961 (click the map to enlarge it), which details the restaurants, bars, cafes, apartment buildings, and other notable spots from Washington Street all the way to Cooper Square.

“Map of the Greenwich Village section of New York City,” by Lawrence Fahey, cartographer

This extraordinary illustrated map, drawn and published by cartographer Lawrence Fahey, seems to be aimed at visitors.

“What is it about the Village that provokes such widespread interest? It stems primarily from the fact that the Village has long been a focus of youthful rebellion and Bohemian life and as such has been the cradle of many innovations in American art, drama, literature, and poetry, the current example of which is ‘Beat’ or ‘Hip’ writing,” the copy reads.

The text on the map reflects its era, containing comments about the relaxed vibe of Village blocks and parks, the shopping options, and why certain adjacent streets were excluded.

“While making the field survey for this map, it was found that the Hudson River waterfront with its wharfs and warehouses lacks the charm of the ‘Old Village’ and the rest of Bohemia,” per the text. “The same is true of the area south of Prince Street where depressing loft buildings and dark streets would hardly appeal to any visitor.”

Ha! By 1971, the warehouses of the far West Village would undergo conversion to housing, the “depressing” streets south of Prince would be rebranded Soho, and the area east of Cooper Square would transform into the East Village.

It’s a fascinating visual trip back to the Village of the early 1960s. West 14th Street was once Little Spain (second image); today, none of these restaurants or shops remain.

The Village Nursing Home (third image) is still a nursing home, not a luxury residence. The Women’s House of Detention boxes in Jefferson Market Courthouse, which hasn’t been repurposed as an NYPL library branch yet.

St. Veronica’s Church on Christopher Street has a school. The Sixth Precinct is still at the end of Charles Street, not in the circa-1970s new precinct house between Perry and Charles Streets. There’s a fair number of gas stations and lots of antique shops. NYU isn’t everywhere.

A surprising number of spots from the Village of 60 years ago are still with us: Caffe Reggio, Julius, Seville, Gene’s, plus Rocco’s and Faicco’s on Bleecker Street. The Waverly still plays movies, but it’s the last Village movie theater left.

[Map: NYPL Digital Collections]