15 January 2009

Where to Eat in Midtown, Circa 1959

I stumbled up this fascinated news article from 1959 recently. It details the eating and drinking choices around the theatre district, naming many vaunted restaurants of New York history. Fun reading. I have count only five places that still exist: Sardi's, Frankie & Johnnie's, Gallagher's, the Stage Deli and Barbetta. (Note that the Lindy's mentioned has nothing to do with the present incarnation.)

New York City - The Broadway Beat

( Originally Published 1959 )


TOO well known to expand upon—primarily because they are as familiar to the average tourist as his favorite home town haunts�would be:

Lindy's, at Broadway and 51st St., noted for its place in the life of Damon Runyon, whose characters still frequent the spot; its cheesecake; and its very independent waiters who have their own notion of what you should eat and don't hesitate to tell you. No longer an all-night spot, as in the past.

Toots Shor, 51 W. 51st St., where the big, burly owner-host may greet you as a "crum bum," but would give you the heave-ho should you dress like one. (Toots' first experience was as a bouncer.)

Reuben's, at 6 E. 58th St., which originated the "celebrity sandwich" (and many of the sandwiches have outlasted the celebrities for whom they are named).

Bleeck's, also known as the ARTIST & WRITERS' CLUB, at 213 W. 40th St., a former speakeasy glorified in print by Lucius Beebe, Westbrook Pegler and other "celebrity" writers, still a favorite hangout for newspapermen and TV newscasters.

And Max Asnas' Stage Delicatessen, at 834 7th Ave., which, percentagewise, gets more celebrities than any other spot in town. Max serves the thickest sandwiches anywhere�many are a meal in themselves�and he has launched even more "profound" statements than Sam Goldwyn.

Sardi's, at 2 34 W. 44th St., is New York's leading theatrical haunt and practically the second home of every major stage and screen star. The restaurant, now 37 years old, was started by Vincent Sardi, Sr., who retired in 1947, turning over its management to Vin-cent Sardi, Jr.

Mister Sardi, as everyone addresses the senior Sardi, was born in Canelli, Italy, and served the usual apprenticeship as a waiter in London and New York. A friend, Mario Cremona, persuaded Sardi to buy a tiny spot at 246 W. 44th St. because he (Cremona) wanted to expand uptown. So Sardi and his wife Jenny took over the Little Restaurant, as it was known (because of its size and also because it was next door to Winthrop Ames' Little Theatre). But after a time it be-came known as just SARDI'S and after five years it was moved to its present location at 234 W. 44th St.

SARDI'S is adorned with caricatures by Zito of actors and actresses, hundreds of them. In fact, anybody who is anybody in the theatre finds his face, slightly distorted, on the walls, and to be left out is considered something of a snub. Actors foregather there after an opening to read the critics' notices, which are rushed there the moment the morning papers come out.

For several years "Luncheon at Sardi's" was a daily radio feature, and several TV shows have emanated from the upstairs room. The American Theatre Wing some time ago presented one of its Tony Awards with the inscription: "To Vincent Sardi, for providing a transient home and comfort for theatre folks at SARDI'S for 20 years."

Last year, Vincent Sardi, Jr. took over 123 E. 54th St. and opened an East Side SARDI'S where patrons could dine or lunch in a quieter atmosphere than the usual hurly-burly of a theatrical hangout, and also to provide a Sunday nite rendezvous when the West Side

SARDI'S is closed.

Leone's, at 239 W. 48th St. (West of Broadway), is the largest all-Italian restaurant in New York and possibly the largest anywhere. In fact, it now rivals LUCHOW'S in size, with nine rooms, four large dining areas and a capacity of 1,500. The restaurant has a staff of 250, a payroll of $500,000 a year and is said to gross more annually than any other spot in the city. It is by all odds one of the most popular eating establishments in New York, frequently with a waiting line half a block long on 48th St.

LEONE'S began humbly enough as Mother Leone's, in the upstairs back room of the Leone household at z09 W. 38th St. Gene Leone was only 6 when Papa pulled up stakes in Asti, Italy, and brought his wife and four sons to the States. After traveling about the country seeking a good location for a wine shop, he settled right in New York at the above address. Papa loved grand opera, frequently visited the Metropolitan, a block away, and got to know Caruso and other great singers of the day. Opera singers traditionally love good cooking and, from dining as guests at the Leone apartment, became patrons of Mother Leone's first experimental restaurant there, starting with room for only 6 customers.

Gene at 8 served as kitchen helper and waiter, serving dinners that cost in those days 35 cents. That was in 1906. Papa Leone died in 1914 but Mother Leone carried on, with her four boys as helpers, and three years later bought a small piece of property at the present location of LEONE'S. After Mother Leone's death in 1944, Gene bought out the interest of his brothers, who became restaurateurs in California, Florida and Long Island, and today operates his establishment with the aid of his Irish wife and their two sons-in-law, one of whom, Tom Mesereau, is a former all-American football player from West Point.

Gene says his hobbies are flying, farming and horse-raising at his country place, and "feeding his friends."

His personality as a host and his real knowledge of the culinary arts, especially as concerns Italian dishes, would alone explain the success of LEONE'S.

Jim Downey's Steakhouse, at 49th St. and Eighth Ave., located in the heart of the theatrical district, naturally attracts showfolks, so two of the rooms of the restaurant (which seats about 200) are named the Theatrical Lounge and the Backstage Room.

Jim came over from Ireland for the express purpose of some day owning a restaurant. He worked as bar-tender, steward and manager, but after a number of years he found he hadn't saved enough to open a lunch counter. So he went to Belmont, placed his wad on the longest shot of the afternoon, and sat back and prayed. His horse came in and Jim had his restaurant.

His fondness for horse players led him to establish several years ago, as a gag, the Society for the Rehabilitation of Broken-Down Horse Players, and to open a room in his restaurant called the Last Chance Room. Today, more than a million membership cards have been issued to the S.R.B.D.H.P., and the Last Chance Room is papered with a half-million dollars' worth of unsuccessful pari-mutuel tickets.

Jim Downey is still owner, with Jim Downey, Jr., and Archie Downey (his two sons) acting as co-hosts.

The Famous Kitchen, 318 W. 45th St., though not in a class with SARDI'S or DOWNEY'S, draws almost as many theatrical customers and has long been a popular drop-in restaurant for actors employed in the neighborhood theatres. Good Italian dinners and definitely inexpensive.

Joe Marsh's Spindletop, 269 W. 95th St., in the heart of the theatrical district, also draws a first-niter crowd. Operated by Joe Marsh, who for years was associated with Ben Marden's famous Riviera over in New Jersey.

Rattazzi's, 9 E. 48th St., got its name as a result of a contest run by a newspaper advertising man. After rejecting hundreds of suggestions the choice came down to the name of the man who was going to run it—Richard (Dick) Rattazzi (pronounced Rat-tat-zi). It opened under his name in May, 1956, and has flourished since.

Dick comes by his restaurant know-how naturally. He was brought up in the business, introduced to it by his uncle, Steve Rattazzi, former maitre d'hotel at the Ritz Carlton. Dick joined the staff at SARDI's as a bar-tender, became headwaiter, then night manager. During World War II he ran the commissary at the Marine base at Cherry Point, N.C., and after the war returned to SARDI'S. In 1948, he opened CHERIO's on E. 51st St., in partnership with Aldo Ceria, but two years later, after much prodding, he sold out his interest and left-taking along practically the entire staff with him—to open his present spot.

Dick's patrons include celebrities of the radio, TV, theatre and advertising worlds, and perhaps due to their influence, features a king-size cocktail.

Blair House, at 30 West 56th Street, is operated by Nicky Blair, whose earlier career amounts to a saga of the Prohibition days. Nicky began with Tommy Guinan, Texas Guinan's brother, and at one time or an-other was associated with every major speakeasy proprietor in New York. He was the man most responsible for Helen Morgan's night club success. After repeal, Nicky managed two of Broadway's major night clubs, the Hollywood and Paradise, and was affiliated later with Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. He regards Billy Rose as the smartest operator of them all. Nicky says what canceled out these and the other big nite clubs of the post-Prohibition era were the "three T's"—Television, Taxes and Transportation.

BLAIR HOUSE, now in its seventh year, is one of the town's top steak houses, particularly popular with the Broadway crowd.

Gallagher's, at 228 West 52nd St., has been one of the Broadway favorites since its opening in 1933. Operated by Jack Solomon, it was named GALLAGHER'S in honor of Mr. Solomon's late wife, Helen Gallagher, who had previously been married to comedian Ed Gallagher of the famous "Mister Gallagher and Mister Sheen" comedy team. Solomon was a former breeder of Black Angus champion cattle, so steak—charcoal broiled, in view of the customers—is naturally GALLAGHER'S Specialty. The oak-panelled dining rooms are lined with pictures of celebrities of the stage and sports world. For the past 17 years the restaurant has been managed by Dave Levy.

Dinty Moore's, at 216 West 46th St., another Broad-way landmark, was immortalized by the creator of the world famous comic strip, "Bringing Up Father," featuring Jiggs and Maggie. If you remember, Jiggs was constantly sneaking away from home to enjoy the corned beef and cabbage at DINTY MOORE'S.

Michael's Pub, at 3 E. 48th St., takes its name from the operator, Michael Pearman—a Bermuda gentleman whose sole previous restaurant experience was as host for three years at the BARBERRY Room. Up to then he had been associated with the film industry in Europe and Hollywood. The PUB was a success from the day it opened, especially with the Madison Ave. advertising people, and reservations are usually necessary for lunch two or three days in advance. In both atmosphere and cuisine it suggests one of the better London pubs, which, as many travelers can tell you, is much more than a saloon. As in its British counterparts, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is a specialty.

Brown's, at 132 E. 61st St., might be called a splinter of MICHAEL'S PUB, having been opened by Gloria Safier, a highly successful actor's agent who was one of the original backers of MICHAEL'S and still owns a piece of it. BROWN'S, on the site of the recently vacated Le Vouvray, is also suggested by a London pub of that name. Its tasteful decorations are by Irene Sharaff, theatrical designer (The King and I, etc.), who is making her bow in this department.

The Coat of Arms, at 140 E. 53rd St., is also a Johnnycome-lately among the town's restaurants, presided over by another novice, Bob Smith in association with Gus Becker, formerly of the STORK CLUB. Before becoming a restaurant, the building had housed an antique shop and before that, a private carriage house. And before becoming a restaurant man, Bob Smith had also been several other things—law student, film actor for RKO, Army Intelligence officer (he was decorated on the beachhead at Normandy), world track star, and badminton champ at the New York Athletic Club. All this is fitting preparation for becoming an actor of romantic roles, first in Brigadoon and then in Auntie Mame, where Bob impersonated Beauregard Burnside opposite three "Mames," respectively Rosalind Russell, Greer Garson and Beatrice Lillie.

The partnership of Bob and Gus stems from the time Gus took care of Bob at the STORK CLUB when the latter was one of the collegiate "jelly beans" (see F. Scott Fitzgerald for definition of "jelly bean") at the STORK during the 1930's.

The COAT OF ARMS, which adds a little quiet piano music to its attractions, naturally is favored by Bob's associates in the theatre.

Absinthe House, at 130 W. 48th St., gets its name from a famous old New Orleans institution, though there is no connection. It does feature New Orleans decoration and some French Creole dishes. Operated and co-hosted by Marc Reuben and his pretty wife Edith, who strikingly resembles Lauren Bacall. Favorite hangout for showfolks and newspapermen, TV executives, etc. Originally across the street, it became necessary to seek another location, so Marc financed it, as many Broadway shows are financed, with a group of 90 backers, all clients.

Barbetta's, at 321 W. 46th St., one of the larger and more popular Italian restaurants, handy to Madison Square Garden and a favorite of performers when the circus is in town. BARBETTA'S survived the speakeasy period and has been in its present location for 50 years.

Frankie & Johnnie's, at 269 W. 45th St., is a one-flight-up (and watch your head) hangout for the younger theatrical and sporting element. Unless you have a reservation before 6:30 P.M., prepare to wait in line upstairs or along the stair well. Features charcoal-broiled steak and a special coleslaw. FRANKIE & JOHNNIE'S was a former speakeasy.

Patsy & Carl's Theatre Bar, at 263 W. 45th St., a few doors away from FRANKIE & JOHNNIE'S, has for years been called "the poor actor's SARDI'S."

Cafe Brio, at 136 W. 49th St., caters to the family trade, specializing most in Italian food and Italian opera lovers. Inexpensive.

Champlain, at 115 W. 49th St., as French as its name implies and studded with French Tourist Board travel posters to add a touch of Paris. Caters to family trade. Inexpensive.

Du Midi, at 311 W. 48th St., intimate and tiny French restaurant catering to families as well as show-folks, operated by Odette and John Pujol, who also own LES PYRENEES, 234 W. 48th St., which is a larger rendezvous.

Cortile, at 27 W. 43d St. and 36 W. 44th St. Twin-entranced restaurant on the street level of an office building. From a sandwich to a full-course dinner and its moderate prices make a hit with secretaries, sight-seers, shoppers and showgoers.

The Lobster, at 145 West 45th St., is a favorite rendezvous for Broadwayites and other showfolks who like seafood. The original restaurant was opened across the street in 1919 by Simon Linz and Max Fuchs and the present one is operated by their respective sons, Mike Linz and Stan Fuchs. Service at the LOBSTER has been uninterrupted, despite the change in location and de-spite a kitchen fire during which the roof burned off. In its 39-year history, the restaurant expanded from 60 seats to 450.

Last year the co-proprietors, with an assist from Loris Troup, turned out an exceptionally well-written book of seafood recipes under the title The Lobster's Kettle of Fish, published by The Citadel Press.

Maisel's restaurants, named after the States (CALIFORNIAN, FLORIDIAN, GEORGIAN, TEXAN, NEW YORKAN, etc.), are rapidly becoming as popular as Childs was twenty years ago. There are seven Maisel's in New York City, three on Broadway, and there is no end in sight. Budget snacks, quick hamburgers, bargain steaks and such for people in a hurry. A Britisher must have had Maisel's in mind when he observed that whereas in London everything shuts up tighter than a clam around midnight, New Yorkers could always get something to eat.

Horn & Hardart's Automats, 50 of which are scattered throughout the city, should get a passing mention. Quite a few operate on a 24-hour-a-day basis and impress foreign visitors almost more than any form of restaurant operation. There are still nickel slots, though many of them now call for quarters. The AUTOMATS' baked beans are still rated the best.


Anonymous said...

Great piece; thanks for sharing it. The only thing that could improve it would be visuals, photos and/or newsreels of the places discussed, but that might take weeks or months to do.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhh, Noo Yawk....just the way I liked it....

No tourist traps, yuppie dives or corporate chains; just real places run by real people when Times Square and Broadway was a genuine part of NYC culture....