In her memoir This Time Together, comedienne Carol Burnett reminisces about the summer of 1959, when the musical comedy Once Upon a Mattress was enjoying a healthy run. “A few of us in the cast decided to splurge on Saturday night after the show and treat ourselves to a sundae at the most expensive ice cream parlor in New York City: Rumpelmayer’s, in the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South,” she recalls. “I was flush with the excitement of being in a hit stage show and raking in $80 a week to boot. I could afford a Rumpelmayer’s treat.1
“Rumpelmayer’s was a pretty posh ice cream parlor. You could spot familiar faces there anytime after the bows had been taken and the lights had dimmed on Broadway for the night. Some folks went to nightclubs and bars, but those who had a sweet tooth and who also wanted to be seen went to Rumpelmayer’s. I remember having peeked in a few months earlier and spotting Marlene Dietrich in a gorgeous gray pantsuit at the counter, elegantly digging a long-handled spoon into a whipped cream goodie.”
However, when Burnett arrived at the stylish café with her friends, the hostess refused to admit her because she was wearing slacks. About to slink out, she suddenly remembered seeing Dietrich sitting at the counter. “She had been in slacks and nobody yelled at her,” thought Burnett, who quickly gained entry by pretending she had a wooden leg.
Rumpelmayer’s first appeared in Baden Baden, Germany around the turn of the last century, and was soon franchised in London, Paris, and various French resorts. In 1930, it expanded to New York, opening a branch on the ground floor of the St. Moritz Hotel. In contrast with the traditional style and quiet tones of the upper-class hotel, German-born designer Winold Reiss decorated the restaurant in bright orange, green, and blue.2 In his book Appetite City, culinary writer William Grimes describes how Reiss, “a wholehearted proponent of Viennese Modernism,” dramatically transformed many of the spaces in which people dined in New York. Beginning in 1920, Reiss created the city’s first Modernist restaurant interior at Crillon, before moving on to other luxury hotels and restaurants. He later imparted his distinctive style on moderately-priced restaurants like Longchamps and Lindy’s.3
Typical of American restaurants at the time, the entrees on the 1935 menu below reflect an unusual juxtaposition of dishes, ranging from chicken chow mein to sliced capon with foie gras. However, what distinguished Rumpelmayer’s was its desserts—the assorted ice creams, sorbets, cakes, and puddings. On this menu, Bavarian strawberry pudding is the special of the day, listed above the usual specialties of the house, each marked with a star.
1. Carol Burnett, This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection (2010).
2. New York Times, 14 December 1930.
3. William Grimes, Appetite City (2009).
4. John Mariani, America Eats Out (1991).
5. Michael and Ariane Batterberry, On the Town in New York (1973).