At 99 Years of Age, Off to See Kinky Boots, in Heels

Le Veau D'Or, Manhattan

As I walked the streets of Boerum Hill on a Municipal Art Society tour last weekend, I so wanted to go back in time and see the neighborhood as it was decades ago.

Alas, that’s not possible, but the city offers its share of windows to the past.

Earlier this month, I was privileged to eavesdrop on a live window to the past, a 99-year-old former model dining in a quiet restaurant that once hosted Princess Grace, Orson Welles, Truman Capote and Jackie Onassis.

I could (and will, someday soon) write a lengthy post about the setting, Le Veau d’Or on East 60th Street, a 75-year old French restaurant with a classic table d’hote menu. Its longtime owner, Robert Treboux, passed away last year, but his daughter Catherine continues to run the restaurant.

Two Saturdays ago, I stopped in for lunch. As I enjoyed my mussels soup in a creamy broth, and sautéed monkfish with a side of scalloped potatoes, I listened in on the conversation between Catherine and a 99-year-old customer, who wore a black dress, black earrings and a matching bow in her hair.

She had some trouble hearing and her memory wasn’t perfect, but she enjoyed her meal, walked unassisted and carried on conversation better than most people my age.

“I’ve never seen a 99-year-old who can tie her own shoes,” her caretaker said.

The former fashion model came to New York from London in the 1960s. She addressed Catherine as “darling.”

I would have loved to hear her tell stories about her New York of a half century ago. But I was only privileged to small tidbits. At nearly 100 years of age, she was on her way to see the musical Kinky Boots—wearing heels.

“I do walk in heels. I’ve always done so. And that’s why I can today,” she said as she and her caretaker left the restaurant. “I don’t want a lot of help, because then you become helpless.”

After they left, Catherine and I sat over a cup of coffee and marveled at this woman’s spirit—and her class.

I am returning to Le Veau d’Or this evening for dinner. If one ever wanted a window to New York City’s past, this place is it.

Le Veau d'Or, Manhattan

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Where’s the Chicago Beef, New York?

Windy City Ale House, Bay Ridge

With more than 8 million residents, many of whom hail from all corners of the globe, there’s hardly an ethnic or regional specialty food that you cannot find in New York. From Norwegian to Sri Lankan, from Texas barbecue to Maine lobster rolls, we have it here.

But one thing we don’t have is a Chicago Italian beef sandwich. “You mean like a cheeseteak,” people ask me? No, more like a French dip. A Chicago Italian beef sandwich is thinly sliced roast beef piled onto an Italian roll, and then covered with—or better yet, dipped in au jus—with either sweet peppers, hot peppers or both.

As Carol Mighton Haddix, then food editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote in Saveur magazine in 2007,

The Italian beef sandwich requires two hands, plenty of napkins, and, frequently, a repertoire of minor acrobatics for catching every last drip. The sandwich can be found at “beef stands” all over the city and in the suburbs; Mr. Beef, Johnnie’s Beef and Al’s #1 are three perennial favorites.

No one is quite sure where the Italian beef sandwich got its start. It most likely has its roots in the Depression years, when roast beef was a costly luxury and people looked for ways of making a little go a long way at banquets and weddings. Slicing the meat very thinly and piling it loosely on a roll or plate was a favorite method. In the years following World War II, Chicago-era meatpacking firms such as the Scala Packing Company on the Near North Side, picked up on this trend and began selling presliced roast beef to local restaurants, where early versions of the sandwich were presumably born.

I lived the first seven years of my life in Chicago, and even after my family moved to San Diego, beef sandwiches were always close by. My family owned a pizzeria, where we served thin-crust Chicago pizza (not all Chicago pizza is deep dish!), pasta, cold submarine sandwiches, and hot meatball, sausage and beef sandwiches. But in 2005, my family sold the business, and I moved to New York.

I’ve spotted Big Al’s Chicago Pizza in the Financial District, but from what I see online, it’s not as Chicago as the name of the business implies. The only promising establishment on this list of places to buy Chicago beef is no longer open.

A Chicago native opened up a beef sandwich shop in Linden, N.J., in 2006, but the shop did not last long. I reached out to the former owner last week, after being out of touch for several years, and he said he still makes special order Italian beef for those wanting at least 10 pounds of it—and that he would set some aside for me when he does his next order.

In the meantime, I look forward to my annual December trip to Chicago. My family has adopted a ritual: My aunt picks me up from O’Hare Airport. When I get into her car, we call my great uncle in Franklin Park, and he heads out to pick up several beef sandwiches. We all arrive at his house around the same time, and my feast begins.

I’ve also found Italian beef sandwiches in San Diego. And I’m sure they are available in Los Angeles, Phoenix and probably Florida, all homes to significant numbers of transplanted Chicagoans. But no Italian beef sandwiches in New York.

My eyes lit up when an acquaintance from Chicago, told me about Windy City Ale House in Bay Ridge. Its owners are from Chicago, and they serve Chicago-style hot dogs. “Do they serve beef sandwiches?” I asked. “No, but they said they would soon.”

The ceiling at Windy City Ale House is lined with Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks flags, along with the flag of the city of Chicago. Sports memorabilia and old black-and white images of Chicago fill the walls. The beer taps include several Goose Island brews. A lot of the guys at the bar last Wednesday were decked out in Blackhawk jerseys. And the menu included Vienna beef Chicago hot dogs (which I ordered), but no beef sandwiches.

I asked the owner if they might introduce beef sandwiches to the menu. He said the hot giardiniera peppers were his stumbling block. Unlike the hot peppers you find in Italian delis here, which are packed in water and vinegar, Chicago hot giardiniera are small green hot peppers, packed in a thick, spicy oil. The owner could not have them shipped from Chicago without ordering an impractical bulk amount.

I imagine, too, that the logistics of preparing the beef might also be a stumbling block for him. This is why I can’t make it at home. I can cook a roast and make a good au jus, but I can’t slice the beef that thin without a commercial meat slicer.

While I’ll continue to patronize the Bay Ridge bar, because it’s a little slice of home for me, the beef sandwiches will have to wait until my plane touches down at O’Hare.

Unless someone can tell me that I’ve left a stone unturned?

Windy City Ale House, Brooklyn Windy City Ale House, Brooklyn

Lost Restaurants of NYC: Castleholm on West 57th Street

Castleholm Restaurant, New York

Last month, I coincidentally purchased two postcards from two restaurants, Castleholm and Whyte’s, that happened to share an address, 344 W. 57th St. Last month, I posted about Whyte’s. Below is a short history of Castleholm, which preceded Whyte’s in the same location.

Both Whyte’s and Castleholm occupied the lower level of the Parc Vendome apartments, once the intended site of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. According to a May 27, 1983 article in the New York Times,

In the 1920’s Otto Kahn, the financier and arts patron, owned land west of Eighth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets. He offered the property at cost as a new home for the Metropolitan Opera Company, but the offer was rejected.

The late William Zeckendorf reported this nugget of New York history in his autobiography. He went on to say that he was permitted by Mr. Kahn to act as broker in the sale of the land and that he found as the buyer one of the major builders of the day, Henry Mandell. Thus it came about that Mr. Mandell built the Parc Vendome apartments.

The Parc Vendome apartments were built in 1931. Six years later, on February 23, 1937, the first reference to Castleholm appeared in the Times with the headline “Parc Vendome Space Leased by Cafe Chain.” The announcement read,

 The dining room and bar space, aggregating more than 10,000 square feet in addition to the basement, in the Parc Vendome Apartments, 340 West Fifty-seventh street, has been leased to the Castleholm Restaurant, Inc. It is said to be the first of a chain of restaurants planned by the company. The interests behind the new restaurant are the same as those controlling the Sacher restaurant on Madison Avenue.

Within months of that announcement, Castleholm opened, and thus began a series of occasional announcements in the Times. Among them,

  • a 1937 bar mitzvah
  • a 1937 luncheon hosted by the Broadway Association, celebrating the extension of the 57th Street crosstown bus, which ran from River to River
  • a 1938 May festival to benefit the West 63rd Street Community Home
  • a 1938 dinner to honor the captain of Columbia University’s varsity wrestling team
  • a 1952 luncheon for Hands Across the Sea Scholarship Awards Inc., which provided scholarship money for students of the Virgin Islands.

The restaurant was home to its own orchestra of “soothing melodies,” according to a Feb. 13, 1938, article, “Notes and Reflections on the Nightclubs.”

A new dance retreat for those who prefer soothing melodies to the whicky-whacky-whoo of swingdom may be found at the Castleholm in the Parc Vendome, 344 West Fifty-seventh Street. Ivor Peterson conducts his orchestra in the rendition of his own compositions and the more mellow product of Tin Pan Alley. Mr. Peterson works nightly from 9 P.M. to 1 A.M.

And on Oct. 3, 1943, a true sign of grim times:

With $162,000 already subscribed, residents of the Parc Vendome apartments in west Fifty-seventh Street will hold a party at the Castleholm restaurant in the building tomorrow night to reach their goal of $250,000 in war bonds for the purchase of a bomber which will be named for the building.

Well-known tenants of the Parc Vendome will be on hand to help spur sales. James Montgomery Flagg will draw sketches from life in return for large subscriptions. Octavus Roy Cohen will give autographed copies of his new book, “Sound of Revelry.” Abner Silver, composer, will play his new piece, “Hitler’s Funeral March,” and will present autographed copies to bond buyers. Harry Hershfield will preside.

Alas, the Times archive does not offer much about the food at Castleholm. For more on that, I turned to Dining in New York with Rector, a 1939 guide to Manhattan restaurants. The Castleholm entry tells us the following:

In addition to the smörgåsbord and the Swedish drinks served at the bar, there are music and dancing to serve as an inducement to go to the Castleholm. You should not need much inducement, for it is a mighty nice place. It’s open for midnight supper, too, a la carte—no cover charge, no minimum. Two can spend several enjoyable hours there in the evening for about five dollars. On Saturday nights, a reservation is suggested.

In the late 1950s, Castleholm appears to have closed (though the Times does not report the closing), making way for Whyte’s to move into the space. The restaurant was, however, fondly remembered in a 1983 article about restaurants “gone but not forgotten.”

Scandinavian smorgasbord at the Castleholm on West 57th Street, where in summer meals were served in the big outdoor garden. Iced cracked crab, herring in dill mustard and tiny hot meatballs scented with allspice were among the best choices.

And now, sitting on my desk, is a reminder of this Scandinavian restaurant’s “famous Viking Room and bar.” The postcard I purchased was sent in 1944, from a Bronx resident to her father, a Dr. Dahlstrom, in Michigan. The note: “Dear Dad, Cousin Hannah and I are here eating our smorgasbord. Love, Ida.”

How that postcard made it from Michigan back to New York, to the Antiques Garage Flea Market in Chelsea, I’ll never know. But I doubt Ida, Hannah and Dr. Dahlstrom could ever have imagined that their postcard memory of Castleholm would be inspiring someone 70 years later.

Castleholm Restaurant, New York