1. Divan Parisien Restaurant, 33 East 48th Street — Even to its frequenters, the meaning of “Divan” was unclear. Some said it was French for “meeting place,” others claimed it was Turkish and referred to the furniture of the sultan’s palace. Still others took it to mean, as “divan” means to us, the row of couches that ran along the walls of the palm-punctuated dining room. This postcard picture was taken in the ’40s, but the restaurant lasted well into the ’50s, just north of Grand Central Terminal. Its specialty was chicken Divan: poached chicken breast laid across a bed of broccoli and smothered in a bubbly hot cheese-and-cream sauce. (Blech!)
In the first half of the 20th century, before the age of TV and Twitter, restaurants advertised themselves via postcards, passing them out to patrons and inviting those patrons to mail them to friends. In that way, a whole host of potential diners, from the postman to the relatives and friends of the recipients — who would pass them around, tack them to walls, and collect them — would be introduced to the restaurant. Rather than depicting food, these postcards provided an idealized view of the premises, showing how important décor was, even then. Here are 10 unfamiliar New York restaurants that must have been something of a big deal in their day.
2. Rosoff’s Victory Room, 147 West 43rd Street — The Victory Room was located in Rosoff’s Hotel, owned by one Max Rosoff, who came to New York at the age of 12 as an orphan late in the 19th century. Rosoff initially worked as a salami slicer, but by the age of 19 had founded his own restaurant on Graham Avenue in Williamsburg, and soon owned a series of restaurants in Manhattan. The Victory Room dates to 1918; it closed in 1981. In his 1968 restaurant guidebook, Craig Claiborne gives it no stars, and says rather derisively, “The menu is American, the portions are copious, and the boast of the menu is ‘All you can eat.'”
3. Port Arthur Restaurant, 7 & 9 Mott Street — In the 19th century, the typical Chinatown restaurant was a small teahouse, but by the early 20th century, the fad had caught on, and the restaurants became gigantic. Port Arthur (the meaning of the name remains obscure) was one such, with multiple dining rooms done in ornate fashion. While the menu offered something like standard Chinese-American fare (chow mein, chop suey, egg foo yung, all smothered in duck sauce), these entertainment palaces also presented big bands and dancing, making places like Port Arthur the ultimate New York City nightclubs for a time. Port Arthur Restaurant was still open as late at 1959, mainly hosting banquets for Chinese-Americans. [Update: Sean S. notes that Port Arthur was the former name of Lüshun, a city on the Liaodong Peninsula in northern China.]
4. Iceland Restaurant, 1680 Broadway — Early in the last century, New York was missing restaurants devoted to Ethiopian, Peruvian, and Sichuan fare, but boy did we have a collection of Scandinavian spots! As with many of the places around Times Square, Iceland Restaurant catered to the theater crowd, offering pre-curtain dinners in what it claimed was the largest Scandinavian dining room in the city, including a traditional smorgasbord of bread, cheese, pickled fish, and cold cuts. As with other restaurants in the vicinity, there were nightly floor shows of a standard sort — sequined dancing girls, torch singers, comedians — but no polar bears, icebergs, or trained seals, alas. This postcard — dated 1950 — was part of a promotional gimmick. Note in the upper right-hand corner: “Iceland mails them for you.”
5. Famous Kitchen, 318 West 45th Street — Seen in this 1957 postcard — which shows two views of a dining room outfitted with white-clothed tables and padded dinette chairs — Famous Kitchen offered the dubious combination of Italian and French cuisine, just like the French Culinary Institute does today. In 1948, Lawton Mackall (author of Knife and Fork in New York) wrote, “In the history of the theater, this table d’hote has played a sustaining role.” Twenty years later, Craig Claiborne wryly observed, “The menu is more or less humdrum New York Italian, and so is the kitchen.” One wonders, What happened to the French food?
6. Hofbrau, 207 East 86th Street — Thirty years ago, the Upper East Side’s Yorkville was chockablock with German restaurants, serving such Bavarian standards as wurst mit sauerkraut, sauerbraten, and pounded pork and veal schnitzels, with flagon upon flagon of imported lager. Only one remains today (the Heidelberg on Second Avenue). Named after a famous Munich beer, Hofbrau was fairly typical of Mitteleuropäische dining at the time, in darkened, wood-clad rooms decorated with Teutonic geegaws like lederhosen, Tyrolean hats, and Meerschaum pipes. The postcard announces, rather modestly, “Just a good place to eat,” as if regularly eating German food were a normal part of life in New York.
7. Pink Elephant Dining Room, Hotel Bristol, 129-135 West 48th Street — During the Victorian Age, every city in Europe and America had a hotel called the Bristol, a word that reverberated with the idea of fine lodging and highbrow world traveling. Even today New York has a Bristol Hotel, but it’s not the same one. The back of the card boasts that Viggo Jakobsen was manager of the bar and dining room; if nothing else, it demonstrates the prevalence of Scandinavians in the restaurant industry at the time, which looks to be about 1950. Pink elephants are what one sees during delirium tremens, of course, so that seems like an odd thing to name your refectory, but the popularization of the image in Disney’s Dumbo may have been the more immediate reason for the odd name. Lawton Mackall writes in 1948: “Cozy bar lounge and dining room decorated with amusing junior elephant whimsies. Good American fare at mild prices.”
8. Davy Jones Sea Food House, 1279 Sixth Avenue — No, not Davy Jones of the Monkees. Davy Jones as in Davy Jones’ Locker, the place in the depths where you legendarily go when drowned at sea. Despite the downer name, the postcard makes it look like a decent place for fish and crustaceans, along the lines of the Oyster Bar at Grand Central. In the magazine The Rotarian (1959), critic Fred A. Roozen in his “Gourmet in Gotham” column writes, “It seems that of all the many seafood restaurants, each is more famous than the other. One of the best is Davy Jones Sea Food House …” Craig Claiborne in not so kind: “The broiled fish dishes are smothered in paprika to make up for improper grilling. A waiter denied that the sticky orange stuff over the salad greens was patented glue, while at another table one of his colleagues was explaining to a couple that he didn’t know if the fish was fresh or not and offhand he couldn’t think of anyone who might know.”
9. Toffenetti Restaurant, 43rd Street and Broadway — Dario Louis Toffenetti was born in Austria in 1889 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1910. At first he sold baked potatoes in Wisconsin mining camps, but he eventually moved to Chicago to found a restaurant empire that came to encompass six restaurants. Known for their low prices, they flourished during the Depression. A catering project at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 led to the founding of his Times Square establishment, touted by the postcard shown above. Toffenetti’s greatest contribution to gastronomy was not his restaurants, but the kind of copy he personally pioneered to advertise them. Noting the specific source, he praised his Oscar Mayer hams: “These hams are cut from healthy young hogs grown in the sunshine on beautifully rolling Wisconsin farms where corn, barley, milk and acorns are unstintingly fed to them, producing that silken meat so rich in wonderful flavor.” How bizarrely modern!
10. H.T. Dewey Wine Merchants, 138 Fulton Street — In the first two decades of the 20th century, Hiram Dewey Jr. and his two brothers owned a wine store on Fulton Street in downtown Manhattan. They were the sons of Hiram Sr., who pioneered American winemaking in Sandusky, Ohio. The brothers found the grapes grown in Egg Harbor, New Jersey (that’s just north of Atlantic City), were perfect for their purposes, and fermented and bottled their product right on the premises. The postcard, dated 1906, shows perhaps the earliest New York wine bar, something that was not to become a bona fide restaurant genre for almost a century.
Next: A few more postcards …