17 January 2012

A Glimpse of Foffe, a "Game" Restaurant

A couple years ago, I posted an item about the history of Cafiero's, an Italian restaurant and political gathering place that used to exist for many decades on President Street near Columbia in Brooklyn. A reader wrote in and said:
Your comment about the waiter telling you what was available that night reminded me of Foffe, the Italian Restaurant that used to be on Montague St. (I think it closed 10 years or more ago.) Anyway, the first time I went in there (about 1986), it looked like a set from The Godfather with plush red banquettes, and only men as waiters in starched white aprons. Really old waiters. I looked at the menu and ordered a steak. He came back from the kitchen a minute later and said, "The steak doesn't look so good tonight. I wouldn't feed it to my wife and I hate her."

It's hard to forget a story like that. I had never heard of Foffe, and no one's mentioned it to me since then. But it stuck in my mind. So when I saw a 1963 menu for Foffe available for purchase on eBay for a pittance, I leaped.

As you can see from the above menu cover, the restaurant was located on the commercial vein of Montague Street, at No. 155. It was not far from Armando's, another old Italian joint which still stands on the street. The building is a brownstone, and James Weir Florist (another old Montague business) works out of the space today. Alfred Foffe (pictured above) was the host. Alfred's brother John—described by the New York Times as a "small, dapper man"—also held sway over the rooms. John was also a landlord, owning nearby 141 Montague. He died in 1967. Alfred passed in 1984.

The history of the joint goes like this, according to the Brooklyn Public Library:

The widowed head of the family, Maria Foffe, brought her brood of nine fatherless Foffes to the United States from Italy around 1915, first opening a restaurant in Bridgeport, Connecticut. After that enterprise failed, the family moved to Brooklyn in 1929. There the floundering Foffes had better luck with the opening of Maison Foffe in 1932, at 155 Montague Street. Alfred ran Maison Foffe with his brother, John, and lived in the apartment above the restaurant with his mother until her death in 1949. The spot started out as a tea room, but expanded to become, according to one Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, "the equivalent of many of the Eastside Manhattan class spots" by 1948. Other Foffe offspring prospered in the restaurant business as well, setting up a satellite kingdom in Bay Ridge with Foffe's Restaurant and the Vanity Fair nightclub and banquet hall. 
Like Cafiero's, Foffe's was a political hive, favored by politicians and judges. Meade H. Esposito, a one-time Brooklyn Democratic leader who was investigated a great many times and indicted in 1987, used to hold court at a table near the front window. He was once taped as having boasted that he had "made" 42 judges. Juries would discuss cases here, and sometimes come to blows.

The menu is a bit spooky, in that it's date Dec. 3, 1963, not long after Kennedy was assassinates. You have to know the Democrats who frequented the place were hard hit by that event.

I've seen my share of old menus by now, and after a while they begin to look the same, and the low prices no longer shock. But Foffe's menu is something different. You can tell a high order of food was served here. You find the usual Italian pasta and meat dishes, but also traditional French (Coq au Vin, Frog's Legs), Spanish (Paella a la Valenciana), Hungarian (Goulash) and German (Vienna Schnitzel) entrees, and Olde New York dishes like Lobster Thermidore and Roast Half Long Island Duckling with black cherries and wild rice. It's a greatest hits of the greatest dishes of the 19th and 20th centuries. The wine list is also remarkably specific for its time, sometimes listed makers and not just grapes.

Foffe's also took reservations for wild game meals "in season." The restaurant was known for this, and quite ahead of the curve of today's mania for local, hand-butchered beasts and fowl. Again, from the BPL:
Decades ahead of the current trends of locally-sourced food and organic meats, Alfred Foffe was serving wild game in his tony Brooklyn Heights restaurant, Maison Foffe. These suspended carcasses signal to those in the know that Foffe is back from his annual hunting trip with a menu of fresh-from-the-wild animals to serve his customers. 
The tradition of the annual venison dinner at Maison Foffe dates back to 1938, when Alfred and John enjoyed an autumnal hunting expedition in Putnam County and brought back enough meat to serve more than 200 "lovers of game." Although the feast was suspended during World War II when Alfred enlisted in the army, the Foffes were again bagging winged and hoofed delicacies for their patrons by 1949. Aside from this special feast, the restaurant maintained an adventurous menu including "Scotch grouse, mallard duck, pheasant, frog legs, pompano, Canadian brook trout, chateaubriand, and the like. Appetizers include such delicacies as eel in wine, and in the dessert field there are crepes suzette and cherries jubilee." 
Below see a picture of "game time" at Foffe's. Think the DOH would allow this today?


Penny Dana said...

I lived in Brooklyn Heights in the late '70s and this article surely took me back! While I don't recall seeing any deer hanging outside, I distinctly remember game birds hanging outside. Thank you so much for this piece.

Nicole Alley said...

I am so happy to find your post and copies of the menu. My family was close friends with Alfred. He and my dad often went hunting together and would then prepare Game Dinners for their friends. These dinners were held upstairs and went late into the night. I have fond memories of being in the restaurant with his cats walking around and visiting the tables. Alfred told the Board of Health "Either I have cats or rats".

Thank you so much for keeping Foffe's alive!

SuKelBur said...

So happy to see the menu and the man I knew as a young girl going to work with her dad on Court Street every Good Friday I can remember and eating lunch at Foffe's.

I spent my 16th birthday there with "Mr. Foffe" ensuring a great time by all.

Thanks for sharing.

Susan Kelly

Paul said...

So glad to find this post. Foffe's was my father's favorite restaurant. He worked at IRS at 210 Livingston for mant years. He introduced my brother and me to Foffe's, and I proposed to my wife there. 51 years later, we are still marrie,though, alas, foffe's is long gone.

Anonymous said...

I worked at Foffe's briefly around 1978 as a coat check girl. I remember Meade Esposito coming in with a gorgeous gal on his arm.
Meade would toss his hat to me and if I caught it , immediately hand me a 5 dollar bill. I met judges and lawyers and innocently tended to the cloakroom while catching soundbites in my ear. I loved the waiters and the wild boar feast with "balls".
Originally, Foffe had seem me street singing on Montague Street per his request, he hired me to sing a few times in the upstairs room then gave me a gig as a coatroom gal.

By the way, I do have 2 oval plates from the restaurant.

Lynn Haney in East Cleveland

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Auntie Lynn: Thanks for your comment. Would you be willing to sell the plates?--Brooks

Unknown said...

So glad to have found this site. My husband and I got engaged at Foffee's back in the fall of 1978 and for the longest time couldn't remember the name of the restaurant! It was definitely Foffee's. We celebrated many special occasions there!