You wouldn't expect a man like Jan Mitchell to still be alive, his business affairs were of such a different era. But the restaurateur died Nov. 28 at his home in Manhattan at the age of 96.
Mitchell was the man who allowed the legendary New York restaurants Lüchow’s and Longchamps to live a few decades longer than they might have. He bought Lüchow’s in 1950, 27 years after the death of its founder, August Lüchow, when the German place had become a shadow of it's once boisterous, gluttonous, life-loving self. "He reinstated classic German dishes that had been dropped from the menu and revived the weeklong bock beer and venison festivals that had brightened the restaurant’s calendar," wrote the Times, and put the umlaut back on top of the “u,” "which Lüchow had dropped in 1917 in response to anti-German sentiment during World War I. The absence of the umlaut had led many new customers to believe that the place was a Chinese restaurant."
He later bought Longchamps, an elegant and cosmopolitan chain of 10 Manhattan restaurants, and two other struggling restaurants: Charles French Restaurant, in Greenwich Village, and the Riverboat, in the Empire State Building, and brought them all back to life.
Unfortunately, Mitchell also eventually sowed the seeds for the destruction of the restaurants he so loved. He sold Lüchow’s in the 1970s, evidently not to the right people, for the quality declined again. A fire in 1985 led to a move uptown to Broadway and 50th; the final end came in 1986. The fate that met Longchamps was worse. Mitchell sold it in 1967 to the Riese organization, great despoiler of the fine names of restaurants past. (That Jan above, with the fair hair, talking to the Longchamps chef and the two villains from Riese. Look how they smile their wide, devils' smiles.)
Irving and Murray Riese were sons of a Russian immigrant and a real American success story. But they cared nothing about restaurants; they just liked money. They were the equivalent of the real estate barons of today who buy properties only to flip them at a profit. They also bought any ashcanned the Childs, Schrafft's, Chock Full O'Nuts and Toots Shor names. Ironically, they eventually bought Lüchow’s from whomever Mitchell sold it to, in 1971. The Rieses viewed these eating establishments and tired and played out. And what sort of restaurant did they replace them with? Roy Rogers, Godfather's Pizza, Nathan's Famous, Dunkin' Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut. You can blame Irving and Murray with the concept of the food court as well.
Mitchell outlived both Murray and Irving Riese. I wonder, as he strolled around the City and saw every last trace of his former empire of fine restaurants disappear, if he ever regretted having met them.
I own the cookbook Mr. Mitchell produced for Lüchow’s in 1962. In the introduction, he wrote:
In buying Lüchow’s it was my object to bring back the splendor of the old days, as well as to preserve what remained of them... One of my rewards has been the heartwarming appreciation of the patrons who have thanked me for preserving one of the few New York landmarks that survive.
But a more personal satisfaction comes especially at Christmas time, when the largest indoor tree in the city towers twenty-five feet or more in the Cafe, a glow with five hundred electric candles and original nineteenth-century toys imported from Germany. The holy village is beneath, with th echurch bells chiming hymns and the Apostles revolving in the tower, all hand-carved by famous woodcarvers in Oberammergau, Bavaria, and the orchestra plays carols while the diners sing...
And when the lights are turned down at six o'clock on Christmas Eve, the orchestra plays "Silent Night," and the tree blazes suddenly with its own special glory, the true reward comes to me.