The Grand Central Oyster Bar, Through the Years

Grand Central Oyster Bar

Sitting under continuous arches, lined with white tiles and illuminated by nautical-themed chandeliers, the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant is one of my favorite places in New York City. As a kid, I was never a fan of oysters, but I was taught that they should be eaten on New Year’s Eve for good luck in the coming year. So, today, for the second year in a row, I will have lunch at the counter of the Grand Central Oyster Bar.

My favorite description of the Oyster Bar comes from a 2003 New York Times review by William Grimes:

Today, there is really only one restaurant in the city where diners can experience the oyster in its full glory, and that’s the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, a boisterous throwback to the days when stews, chowders and pan roasts reigned supreme…. For a certain kind of dining, nothing can beat it. At least once a month, I sit at the low-slung lunch counters for a half-dozen oysters on the half shell, an oyster pan roast and a cold beer. Everything about the experience — the din and the tumult, the oyster shuckers working double-time, the vaulted tile ceilings — is almost transcendentally New York. Lunch at the Oyster Bar is a sure-fire recipe for human happiness.

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of this restaurant. It’s been in almost continuous operation since Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913. I want to see this restaurant in its early years, and I want to know how the restaurant survived Prohibition, the Great Depression, the decline of passenger rail, and the city’s decline in the 1960s and 1970s.

Unfortunately, a search of newspaper archives does not say much about the restaurant in its early years, but descriptions abound from the 1960s onward.

A 1947 New York Times article about how to cook seafood mentions that diners will wait 20 minutes for a seat at the Oyster Bar. But the 1939 Dining in New York with Rector; a personal guide to good eating reviews dozens of Manhattan restaurants, omitting the Oyster Bar.

The best description of the restaurant in its early years comes from an entry in Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land, a compilation of almost-lost food writing from the Federal Writers’ Project of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. Describing oyster stew, Allan Ross MacDougall writes,

There is one place in New York where this stew is a supreme delight: the Oyster Bar of the Grand Central Terminal, known as a landmark on the epicure’s map. Well-traveled gourmets have been heard to say: “Prunier’s of Paris for Lobster Thermidor; Scott’s of Piccadilly for Devilled Crab; the Grand Central Oyster Bar for Oyster Stew.”

In 1913 when the terminal was opened the oyster bar was a small counter with 3 or 4 seats, set off in a corner of the restaurant. The Oyster Stew served there soon, like the proverbial mouse-trap, brought the world in a well-beaten track to this counter. It was extended and extended again. The number of seats and specially contrived cooking bowls were both augmented. Today, there are 42 seats, which never seem sufficient to accommodate the hungry crowds that in rush hours sometimes stand three deep. Commuters, snatching a hasty snack to tide them over until dinner at home, form a large portion of its regular customers.

Fast forward to 1962, when passenger rail was in decline and the city was entering some of its grittiest years. A brief New York Times review describes an oyster bar seemingly unchanged from MacDougall’s 1930s description—and our Oyster Bar of today:

The chefs here have that blithe and wonderful notion that calories were never invented. The fame of this institution is world wide and is based primarily on rich and buttery seafood stews and pan roasts. Unfortunately, the deep-fried dishes do not come off as well. Seafood stews from $1.75. Cocktails, wine and beer.

Even in 1972, on the eve of the Oyster Bar’s takeover by restaurateur Jerome Brody, the Times gushed about the counter at the oyster bar—though not about the tables:

Before heading downtown, the traditional center of great seafood in New York, stop for the “succulent oysters of the deep” at the Oyster Bar in the lower level of Grand Central Station (MU 9-0776, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday, major credit cards). Please sit at the counter. The tables are dreary. But the counter is the city’s classic oyster bar. Somehow, the oysters taste better here, more marine. Six cost $1.75. And their “famous” oyster stew is a rich dairy broth with more of the celebrated bivalves floating within. At $2.90, this stew is one of the great values, not only in food, but in anything.

In August 1974, the Oyster Bar closed its doors with no notice but a handwritten note on the door. The restaurant’s owner, Union News Company, then part of Ancorp National Services, had filed for bankruptcy reorganization the previous year and had closed about 100 eateries in the last 18 months, according to the Times. The article concluded:

Critics have long regarded the bar, where fine seafood was prepared on full view, as outstanding in the city, while the restaurant proper was mediocre.

Nick Peter, the 76-year-old head cook, who came to work there in 1919, said the bar had never changed. With a sad smile, he gave permission to publish the recipe for its famous oyster stew:

OYSTER PAN ROAST
8 freshly opened oysters
1 pat of butter
1 tablespoon chili sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
A few drops of lemon juice
1/4 cup oyster liquor
Celery salt, a dash of Paprika
4 ounces cream
1 piece of dry toast (if desired)

Place all but the cream in a deep pan and cook briskly for a minute, stirring constantly. Add cream. When it comes to a boil, pour over toast in a soup plate and serve.

Before the end of the year, Jerome Brody had reopened the famed restaurant. Though he sold the restaurant in 1999 and died in 2001, his description of transforming the restaurant remains on the Oyster Bar’s website:

Today’s customer of the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant can hardly imagine that the old Oyster Bar, while its title suggested seafood, was not, in fact, a seafood restaurant. Its oyster stew had become famous, but the rest of the menu could best be described as ‘continental.” Our job of invention would start from scratch—but seafood it would be.

To prepare for the decision, my wife and I toured the best-known seafood restaurants in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and the rest of the metropolitan area, and they were invariably full—even when the cuisine was ordinary. That is what decided me to take a chance—the same kind of chance I had taken with restaurants such as the Forum of The Twelve Caesars, the Rainbow Room, the Four Seasons, and Gallagher’s. And so, in 1974, I entered into a lease with the MTA, and embarked on inventing the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant.

By December 1974, the Times‘ Jane Hewitt gave the restaurant three stars. She began her review,

The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal is back in business, under new management, following a gentle facelift to preserve its style and traditions, which span an incredible 62 years. Several former employees are back behind the bar turning out steaming bowls of creamy, paprika-flecked oyster stew according to the original recipe. And there’s a new open window, with stand-up service counter, on the ramp going down to the lower level where a commuter can down a half-a-dozen freshly shucked Bluepoints before boarding the 5:09.

In 1980, the Times’ Mimi Sheraton gave the Oyster Bar another glowing review, saying that the restaurant “remains the classic setting for clams and oysters on the half shell and the justly famous oyster stew and oyster pan roast. The menu is as distinctive as the handsome, cavernous tiled and wood-paneled setting.”

Sheraton noted that the Oyster Bar served a wide variety of fish and “usually a selection of six to eight types of oysters.” (Today’s menu, in comparison, offers 26 varieties of oysters from the raw bar.) And like food writers from decades earlier and decades later, Sheraton said, “the best place to have these specialties, as well as the creamy oyster or clam stew and the spicy, tomato-based pan roasts is at the oyster bar where you can watch them being prepared.”

In 1981, the Gault Millau Guide to New York, published only in French, gave the Oyster Bar “two toques and 15 points” (out of a possible four toques and 20 points), putting the restaurant on par with Cellar in the Sky, Claude’s, Lavin’s, Raphael and La Tulipe, and just under Lutece and the Four Seasons (three toques and 17 points), and La Cote Basque, the Palace, La Plaisir and the Quilted Giraffe (two toques and 16 points).

In 1985, the Times‘ Bryan Miller gave the restaurant two stars, saying that the Oyster Bar “has upheld its quality over the years, so that it is still one of the best spots in town for uncompromisingly fresh seafood.” His recommendation to diners: “Stay with simple preparations and savor the seafood’s freshness; sauces are not the kitchen’s metier.”

The restaurant suffered a devastating fire in the early morning hours of June 29, 1997, starting from an overheated motor in a kitchen refrigerator.  Ceiling tiles fell, kitchen equipment melted and the sprawling dining room was blackened. The four-alarm fire took two hours to bring under control, and nine firefighters and four civilians suffered minor heat and smoke injuries. Two weeks later, the 60-seat adjacent saloon was back in business, while work continued on the remainder of the restaurant and bar.

Today, on the eve of its 101st birthday, the Oyster Bar now has four satellite operations: two in Tokyo, one at Newark Liberty International Airport (where, coincidentally, Brody and business partner Joe Baum launched their high-end restaurant career with the early 1950s opening of the Newarker) and, most recently, in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Last year in the midst of its centennial celebrations, the Oyster Bar claimed to serve its 10 millionth oyster. Cooks and owners have come and gone, but when it comes to the magnificent architecture, fresh oysters and bustling lunch counter, it seems little has changed in 101 years.

Grand Central Oyster Bar Grand Central Oyster Bar Grand Central Oyster Bar

Lost Restaurants of NYC: The Holland House on Fifth Avenue

Prohibition claimed many victims in New York City, among them the city’s most famous restaurant, Delmonico’s, which closed in 1923, as well as other well-known establishments of the time such as Shanley’s, Murray’s and Moquin.

But among the first to close its doors after the Eighteenth Amendment took effect on Jan. 17, 1920, was the Holland House, located on Fifth Avenue at Thirtieth Street. Opened in 1891, the Holland House closed within a month of Prohibition taking effect.

Having just finished William Grimes’ Appetite City, I am now into Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. Before reading this book, I hadn’t considered how or why Prohibition happened. Okrent tells the story well, describing movements such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, as well as the soon-to-change political realities of the 1910s that allowed such an amendment to pass then.

Okrent calls the Holland House one of the first victims of Prohibition in New York City, “its celebrated Bamboo cocktails (sherry, dry vermouth, orange bitters) gone forever.” A New York Times article quoted the Chicago merchant Marshall Field as saying, “It is the most perfectly operated hotel in the world.”

From reading old newspaper articles, it seems the reason for the closure was up for debate.

A July 21, 1920 article in the Bismarck Daily Tribune suggests that changing times, not Prohibition, led the hotel and restaurant to shut down.

“The bidding power of office seekers and not prohibition has caused many hotels in the vicinity of 42nd street to close recently, according to opinions of real estate men expressed today.

Within a relative short time of one another such old and famous hostelries as the Holland House, Sherry’s and the Fifth Avenue Hotel have closed their doors and more recently the Knickerbocker—a relatively new and imposing structure—abandoned business.

“Prohibition has done this,” cried many “wets,” but now one known hotel woman advanced the theory that the steady march of business toward the newer uptown sections was a paramount consideration of the men who decided to close their hostelries.

“A hotel doesn’t have to run behind to close,” she declared. “If the owner of the property considers it better business policy to erect an office building on the ground, he isn’t likely to let sentiment sway him. prohibition? No! Let’s say business!”

This sounded like “dry” propaganda to me, but a New York Times article from June 9, 1928, seems to back up “changing times” explanation.

“It is an old story, this change and decay and rebirth of hotels in New York. Some die of old age, like the downtown Astor House, or of obsolescence and the changing tides of residence and commerce, like the Buckingham and the Holland House. A few have been carried off, like the Knickerbocker, by the fatal seizures of prohibition; here and there a Windsor, by the hand of the destroyer.

The most interesting piece I came across while reading old articles about the Holland House was a June 3, 1926, New York Times article about former Holland House bartender Harry Craddock, who reached out to his former New York patrons during his Prohibition “exile” in London.

[He] has been mixing cocktails at the Savoy Hotel bar in London since 1920 [and] sent to former patrons in New York a list of 172 items classified as cocktails, coolers, daisies, fizzes, flips, highballs, punches, rickeys, smashes, sours, liqueurs, cordials and frappés which, he wrote, he hoped to be able to serve to his “old friends.”

Craddock, who wrote that he had been “exiled by prohibition,” said he had improved his absence by perfecting cocktails and that he was now able to give his patrons a choice of 280 mixtures. He wrote somewhat sentimentally of “home,” which, of course, was New York. Apparently his long absence has caused him to believe that cocktails could not be procured here, or were not desired, because, he said, he and other bartenders “were ready to come back when wanted.”

The article goes on to list several drinks and their prices, in shillings and pence, and then concludes,

The list was shown to a man swinging a malacca stick and wearing a blue flannel suit, a sailor straw with a blue and white band, a blue necktie and tan shoes at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets yesterday afternoon at 3:30 o’clock.

He scanned it rapidly, handed it back and said: “The prices are just about the same as in New York.”

Craddock never did return to New York, but he became a famous bartender at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel and, in 1930, he wrote The Savoy Cocktail Book. For more on his cocktails, check out this piece on Serious Eats.

Regardless of the cause, the Holland House was converted to office buildings. A recurring New York Tribune advertisement for the Childs restaurant chain suggests that the ground floor of the Holland House was converted to a Childs.

“The Old Holland House,” the advertisement read. “There’s music in the name. The old-timer fairly intones it—closing his eyes the while to picture Eulalia of Spain—now stepping daintily through its hospitable portals—now dining in state in its time-mellowed banquet room.

The ad goes on,

The Old Holland House. Where “Joe” exchanged tips on what to eat for tips on what to buy and sell on Wall Street. Where a famous Western lawyer, after the formation of a great steel company, handed “Tom” and the boys a tip of three hundred dollars.

The Old Holland House. It has not passed. but rather has kept pace with the march of commercial Progress. It is still an eating place de luxe, upholding old traditions of food goodness—old traditions of environment. Only now it is a part of the CHILDS system, with its modern innovations in food and service.

The New Holland House. There’s new magic in the name—the magic of the house of CHILDS. “Joe’s” tips on what to eat are no longer needed. Instead, a perfect galaxy of choice comestibles is spread before the eye. One makes his own selection—the appetite is the guide.

It looks as if, even then, independent New York institutions fell victim to chains.

I’m looking forward to finishing Okrent’s book. Whether or not Prohibition led to the closure of the Holland House, one thing is for certain: Prohibition devastated the New York restaurant scene.

Wrestling with Moses: Anthony Flint’s Account of Jane Jacobs’ Saving Greenwich Village, SoHo

Gowanus Expressway, Brooklyn

Few places in the city are as dark, isolated and ugly as Third Avenue under the Gowanus Expressway in Sunset Park. There are no thriving businesses or pedestrian traffic in the vast highway shadow.

The pre-expressway Third Avenue that Robert Caro describes in The Power Broker bears no resemblance to the space today.

Lining it … were seven movie theaters, dozens of tiny restaurants … and scores of small, friendly “Mama and Papa” stores (the Northland Gift Shop, the Finnish Book Store, a hardware store that looked like a general store out of the Old West, a butcher shop that raffled off twenty-five big turkeys every Christmas) that occupied the ground floor of three- and four-story brickfronts in which Mama and Papa lived upstairs with children.

What many New Yorkers, especially more recent arrivals, may not realize, is that Robert Moses tried to impose a similar highway on to SoHo. He actually tried to impose several  cross-town expressways throughout Manhattan, but the Lower Manhattan Expressway, or LOMEX, nearly became reality.

The details of this plan were omitted from The Power Broker (as were chapters on The Brooklyn Dodgers, the Port Authority and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge) because Caro’s book became too long. But the 2009 book, Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint, fills us in on three Jane Jacobs-Robert Moses fights:

  • The proposed extension of Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park
  • The proposed demolition of 14 blocks of the West Village under the guise of slum clearance to make way for affordable housing projects
  • The proposed LOMEX, which would have connected the Holland Tunnel with the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges

The final struggle is especially compelling. The LOMEX project was touted as a needed economic boost to Lower Manhattan, and politicians were eager to make compromises to make the project happen—especially since the project would be funded almost entirely by the federal government. But Jacobs’ experience taught her that no compromises should be made, that concerned residents should accept nothing less than a full cancellation of the project.

I have read (and highly recommend) The Power Broker, as well as Jane Jacobs’ most well known and influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but Wrestling with Moses fills in a lot of gaps, relating stories that were not covered in The Power Broker.  Flint’s book told me a lot about Jacobs’ life that I would not have otherwise known.

For anyone who has ever enjoyed a walk through Washington Square Park, the West Village or SoHo, this book is a great reminder of the difference that a small group of residents made in preserving vibrant city life for subsequent generations.

Below are some more photos of the Gowanus Expressway over Third Avenue in Brooklyn and the forlorn space below.

Gowanus Expressway, Brooklyn Gowanus Expressway, Brooklyn Gowanus Expressway, Brooklyn

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

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

Lost Restaurants of NYC: Whyte’s on West 57th Street

Whyte's Restaurant

Another trip to the Antiques Garage Flea Market in Chelsea had me browsing through postcards of old New York—this time from a vendor with a smaller, more modern selection (and by that I mean 1960s instead of 1910s). Images of long-shuttered New York restaurants captured my attention, and for $3, I walked away with three postcards:

  • Castleholm Restaurant, 344 W. 57th Street, with a 1944 postmark
  • Whyte’s, 344 W. 57th Street, with a 1963 postmark
  • Stockholm Restaurant, 151 W. 51st Street, with no postmark

No, I didn’t make a typo. I realized when I looked more closely at home that I happened to buy two postcards from two restaurants that occupied the same address during two different decades. Among the three restaurants, Whyte’s was by far the best known.

According to an April 21, 1971, article in the New York Times, Edward E. White opened Whyte’s (with a different spelling to differentiate from the many restaurants operated under the name “White”) at 145 Fulton St., between Broadway and Nassau, in 1908, four years after moving to New York from St. Louis.

Built in a kind of Alpine chalet style, Whyte’s strove to retain an Old-World aura, with its dark paneling, gilt-framed portraits, and long oak bar with well-shined brass spitoons.

The bar was a famous watering spot for downtown executives, with groups of insurance men, stockbrokers and politicians taking what seemed to be the assigned places at the rail.

The restaurant’s specialty of the house was finnan haddie, but some long-time afficionados said that the homemade rum raisin ice cream was Whyte’s chef d’oeuvre.

Women were never much in evidence, but unlike other restaurants of its type, Whyte’s never banned them. “I think it was the bar right out in the dining room that might have discouraged them,” Mr. [George] Macris [the manager] said, adding: “But we had plenty of loyal women customers.”

In 1929, Whyte’s “joined the uptown trend,” according to the Times, moving to 5th Avenue and 43rd Street, in the basement of the new Lefcourt National Building. The Fulton Street location became known as Woolley’s, run by management from the Waldorf-Astoria, then on Fifth Avenue and slated for demolition to make way for the Empire State Building. Several months later, the company operating Woolley’s sold its lease, and the restaurant became known as Willard’s. The new restaurant failed, and Whyte’s moved back to Fulton Street after its uptown venture also failed.

Raymond Hopper, a manager for the Whyte family, took ownership of the restaurant in the 1940s. Around 1954-55 (I can’t find this date in the Times myself; I’m crediting this site with the date), Whyte’s opened a second location at 344 West 57th Street.

The Times doesn’t offer much information about the new location, but a Nov. 15, 1963, directory to dining in the Times gave the Fulton Street location the following review:

There is an engaging, turn-of-the-century charm about Whyte’s, and the fish, particularly the finnan-haddie in heavy cream (listed as à la Whyte), is remarkably good. Dishes other than fish and sea food are not of equal stature. There is an à la carte menu for both lunch and dinner with main courses from about $2.35 to $4.25. Cocktails, wines. Closed Saturday and Sunday.

The Fulton Street location, at that time one of the longest operations under the same management, closed in 1971 after it was “outbid so fantastically” and unable to renew its lease, “an apparent victim of the financial recession.” The Times reported: “The manager said the restaurant’s 150 employes were notified of the closing at 2:30 P.M. on Friday. ‘Some of them cried like babies,’ Mr. Macris said. ‘A few have been here 38 years.'”

The postcard I picked up Sunday depicts the dining room of the West 57th Street location—again, very little information about this location online. The back of the postcard says that Whyte’s is “famous for its Beefeater Martini, charcoal broiled steaks, seafood and curried dishes.  Your host—Ray Hopper.”

Hopper died April 28, 1971, at the age of 63, just 8 days after the Fulton Street location closed its doors. He had also been a food purchasing agent for the Hamburg-American line, owner of Hofbrau Restaurant in Hoboken, and food purchasing consultant to the late Lucius Boomer, head of the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria Corporation, and to the Savarin Restaurant chain, according to his obituary in the Times.

Whyte's Restaurant