21 January 2009

Meeting Mrs. Foster

It's impossible to know every little chapter in New York history. Hence, readers sometimes inform me of people and places past that I have never heard tell of. Such was the case a year and a half ago when, in response to an item I posted about the Red Hook Ballfield food vendors, a man who called himself Upstate Johnny G asked me out of the blue if I knew anything about a legendary-at-the-time gourmet restaurant on E. 81st Street called Mr. and Mrs. Foster's Place.

I did not.

But others did. Five months later, one Upstate Steve answered Upstate Johnny, saying Mr. and Mrs. Foster's took "no walk-ins. You'd call for a reservation, they'd tell you the menu and you'd order your dinner. When you arrived it was much like have a dinner in someones home. While you did not share tables with other guests there was a certain style that made you feel that way, not the least that Mrs. Foster would come a sit with you awhile to welcome and entertain. The food was fresh, excellent and expensive and a special time was had by all."

Intriguing. But it didn't end there. People keep writing in every few months, with big gaps of time in between comments. Then, on Jan. 18—18 months after the original posting—a Thomas wrote in to say he was the grand-nephew of the restaurant's chef, Pearl Byrd Foster, and that she "was one of the worlds renowned chefs during the 50's and 60's and early 70's—respected worldwide for her culinary genius in the genre of American Cooking. I remember spending summers helping her in the restaurant, meeting famous people (David Frost, Walter Cronkite, Dick Cavett come to mind immediately) dining there...I remember shopping with her in the mornings, for hours she would shop and inspect each item of produce...Mr. and Mrs. Fosters place was a black tie and jacket affair; if you didn't arrive with either she had both for you to wear before you were seated."

Jesus Christ! The woman was a marvel, the restaurant a miracle! How is it all this is new to me?

So I did some more research to garner some harder facts. The restaurant existed only from 1969 to 1980—a relatively short time for it to have become so famous and beloved. Pearl was, indeed, a master of simple American foods, and was a favorite of gourmets. Perhaps her most famous dish was her key lime pie. And, sadly, she died Oct. 12, 1984, soon after she closed the restaurant, after suffering several strokes. Another reader just told me he believed Mr. Foster died only recently.

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