By the late 1890s, the neighborhood around Madison Square Park was losing some of its luster. After being the center of New York’s social scene for twenty-five years, some of its leading hotels and restaurants began to close, including Delmonico’s which moved there from Union Square in 1876, and now relocated to Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. Despite this notable departure, Madison Square was still a stylish part of town, prompting Jean and Louis Martin to take over Delmonico’s lease on the 26th Street location, well-situated between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. The French-born brothers refurbished the old building, giving it the latest flourishes of Art Nouveau design, and renamed it the Café Martin.
|Café Martin (1903)|
Opening in February 1902, the Café Martin became a gathering spot for the beau monde, referring to that segment of the fashionable elite later called “café society.” It was one the most interesting restaurants of the era, as shown by a chronology of menus covering its ten-year history. Appearing in a variety of formats and styles, these menus show how the cuisine evolved, reflecting the changing tastes of upper-class Americans at a time when the country’s influence in the world was rising. Nevertheless, when the era that spawned luxurious restaurants of this type finally came to an end, it was driven by social forces that could not be forestalled, even by moving further uptown.
The Martin brothers opened their first restaurant in New York in 1883.1 Dated June 25, 1901 (eight months before their move to Madison Square), the menu below lists the French specialties of the Restaurant Martin on the front cover. Although their father ran a restaurant in Aix-les-Bains, there are only a few dishes, such as potatoes Savoyarde, that came from their native Rhône-Alpes region in France.
The daily luncheon menu below appeared in May 1902, three months after the Café Martin opened. This bill of fare seems abbreviated compared to a similar menu from 1903 (illustrated in a previous posting.) At this point, the wine list was not yet printed on the back of the card.
The cover on this fixed price dinner menu from April 1902 was one of a series that expressed the Gallic spirit of its early years.
Displaying a different cover from the same series in 1902, the menu shown below shows that the fixed price dinner was reduced from $2.00 to $1.50 by November of that year.
The illustration on this large, after-theater supper menu from 1903 reinforces the French theme. Sixty-nine different Champagnes listed on the back. Representing an important component of revenue and profit, Champagne was aggressively promoted for late-night suppers and celebrations of all kinds. On some special occasions like New Years Eve, restaurants often displayed “Champagne only” signs to insure its consumption. Everyone got a piece of the action, including the waiters who saved the corks, receiving a kickback from the wine importers for each bottle that they popped. After major holidays, the amount of Champagne sold at leading restaurants and hotels was reported in newspapers.
Two small banquet menus, dated a week apart in January 1906, express the joyful exuberance of high society during “the aughts,” a decade marked by economic growth and prosperity. For luxury restaurants like the Café Martin, the times were particularly good, as the nation rebounded from the severe depression of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, New York was experiencing an infusion of wealth, as scores of newly-minted millionaires moved to the city from all over the country. Eager to have fun after selling their factories to the trusts, this breed of nouveau riche set the tone at many of the high-end restaurants, causing the cuisine at places like the Café Martin to become more anglicized over time.
No holiday went uncelebrated in Manhattan’s finest restaurants, as shown by these menus from Independence Day and Christmas in 1906. Continuing to use more English on its menus, the Café Martin gave the dishes on this July 4th bill of fare patriotic names like chicken gombo à la Dewey, aiguillette of cold salmon à la Washington, and sweetbreads en casse Roosevelt. In order to help keep the price at $1.50, the restaurant always included spaghetti à la Italienne on its fixed price menus, a lost-cost dish listed as one of the two vegetable choices.
The fixed price menu below from 1906 features a comic postcard at the top, along with a notice stating: “Addressed postal cards handed to the Head Waiter, will be stamped and mailed without charge.” In fact, this card could only be addressed, for it was not until 1907 that the U.S. Postmaster General ruled that messages could be written on the back. As a result, printers added a vertical line, creating two separate areas, and almost immediately, daily menus with a detachable postcard came into vogue across the country. Always at the leading edge of fashion, the Café Martin employed this format for one of its menu a year before the fad.
One of the dishes on the charming menu below from 1906 is pêche Melba, a dessert first created by French chef Auguste Escoffier in honor of Nellie Melba, the Australian soprano who was then the most famous diva in the world. The inclusion of an expensive dessert named after a star performer was often a sign that she had recently been in the news. In this case, Melba announced a few days earlier that she was coming to New York to perform at impresario Oscar Hammerstein’s new Manhattan Opera House.2 However, it is the diversity of cuisines that makes this luncheon menu fascinating.
The daily bill of fare comprises the usual French, English, and American dishes, along with a few Germanic foods like herring, pig’s knuckle, and Westphalian ham, but it is the French, Russian, Oriental, and Spanish “specialties” shown on other side that puts this menu in a class by itself. At the time, the United States was emerging as an economic and cultural world power, and as a result, Americans were trying out an ever-widening variety of foreign foods when dining out. The new cosmopolitanism revealed a certain pride in the nation’s growing prestige, but there was also a sense of adventure about it, as members of the middle- and upper-classes ventured to the small ethnic eateries situated in other parts of town. This social trend was no more in evidence than in New York City with its unmatched range of cuisines. It is remarkable that the Café Martin, a large French restaurant employing 450 people, embraced this form of multicultural expression.
Three scans below provide a more detailed look at this example of culinary cosmopolitanism; all that seems to be missing are the Chinese chop suey dishes that were also popular at the time. This complex matrix of ethnic dishes shows all of the daily specials for the week. Accordingly, the specials for that particular day also appear on the front of the menu, accompanied by a brief description. It is interesting that French was included in this group of ethnic foods. Although there was a list of special French dishes on the cover of the Restaurant Martin menu in 1901, the context was now different—French is positioned here as one of many cuisines.
Some of the Russian and Polish dishes reflect a culinary bond between France and Russia going back to the eighteenth century. However, there were other reasons why these dishes may have found their way onto a menu in New York in 1906. At the time, immigration was peaking at record levels, driven in part by the anti-Semitic violence of the Russian pogroms. During the first decade of the twentieth century, more than a million and half people came to the United States from the Russian Empire, many of whom were Jews fleeing religious and political persecution.
The accompaniments listed under Cuisine Russe include zakouski (hors d'oeuvres), selodka pa Rouski (Russian-style herring), and caviar d’Astrakhan, along with a good selection of alcoholic beverages imported by P. A. Smirnoff of Moscow. Below is a brief description of the luncheon and dinner dishes.
- Schaschlik Tatarski – marinated beef on skewers
- Zrazi Moujika – Polish-style beef roulade
- Kotletka Swiniowaïa po Kourlandski – minced pork cutlet, Courland-style, named after the duchy in the Baltic region that now comprises Estonia and Latvia
- Escalops Teliacia po Moskowski – escallops of veal, Moscow-style
- Gaviadina Stroganoff – sautéed pieces of beef served with sour cream. Also known as Beef Stroganoff, this dish was developed in the nineteenth century during the so-called Franco-Russian period in Russian cooking.
- Iasike Voloviè Menschikoff – sliced beef tongue served with small onions and pickles
- Bitokpa Rouski – Russian-style meatballs
- Kourytsa Demidoff – stuffed chicken named after Prince Anatole Demidoff, a flamboyant Russian emigre who lived in Paris during the mid-nineteenth century
- Tzesarska pa Rouski – possibly a Russian-style beef stew, perhaps related to Czarina, a Franco-Russian beef soup flavored with fennel, and garnished with diced vegetables.
- Tsplionock po Polski – young chicken, Polish-style
- Telatsche Groudinka – veal breast braised with vegetables
- Filets of Bass po Polski – fillets of bass, Polish-style
- Kotletka Pojerskaya – minced veal cutlet, named after Pojarski, a cook and innkeeper favored by Tzar Nicholas I.
- Schaschlicks Tatarski – marinated beef on skewers
There are also foods from Austria, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, and Iran that are listed under the “Orientale,” followed by a few Spanish dishes. Although the recipes for moussaka à la Persane and moussaka à la sultan may have been closely related, this array of cuisines represented an ideal—only in America could you find the foods of so many countries on the same menu.
By 1907, the establishment begins to look less refined. “Ready dishes” are marked with a star on the menu below, causing it to somewhat resemble the ones at quick-lunch eateries. The downward drift is also reflected by the notice stating that the restaurant was not responsible for coats and hats that were not checked. The Café Martin leased the lucrative coat checking concession for $2,000 a year, a large sum at the time, but significantly less than that charged by the “lobster palaces” on Times Square. (The concession fees at Murray’s and Rector’s were $4,000 and $6,000, respectively.)
This above menu from 1907 reflected the changing times. On December 30 of that year, the New York Times reported that Jean Martin, the cafe's “eminently respectable” proprietor, was going to allow women to smoke cigarettes in any room of the restaurant. (Rector’s quickly followed suit.) In fact, the waiters had been looking the other way for years, as it became increasingly difficult to keep rich socialites from doing what they wanted. The new custom was related to the universal change in human character that writer Virginia Woolf later described as having occurred “on or about December 1910.” Social developments first appeared at avant-garde establishments like the Café Martin and Rector’s, well ahead of everybody else.3
|New Years Eve at the Café Martin (1906)|
In the early fall of 1909, the City of New York hosted an elaborate 16-day celebration of two historic events—the three hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River and the hundredth anniversary of Robert Fulton’s paddle steamer. The city’s hotels and restaurants were an integral part of the festivities, as evidenced by this booklet with information about the maritime achievements that founded the city and shaped its fortunes. The ten-page souvenir includes the music program and fixed price menu (now $2.00) for September 30th which was deemed Military Parade Day.
The most notable event occurred on the previous day, when inventor Wilbur Wright flew over New York Harbor in his Model A Flyer, much to the amazement of nearly a million people who came to see their first airplane flight. During the five-minute demonstration, Wright flew straight over the ocean liner Lusitania toward the Statue of Liberty, where he rolled his plane to circle the bronze icon before returning back to Governors Island. The sense of drama was heightened by the red canoe attached to the bottom of the biplane, just in case Wright landed in the water.
Even as the Café Martin approached the end of its reign, it advertised itself as “the leading French restaurant in America.” One of the dishes below from February 1910 is called a “celery-fed duckling,” reflecting an ill-fated attempt by farmers on Long Island to replicate the unique taste of the wild Canvasback duck.4 Still, it was not so much the quality of the food as it was the chic style that this restaurant popular. The Café Martin was always au courant when it came to the opera, theater, and other upper-class entertainments. A notice below announces that the restaurant would be serving a late supper all night on Tuesday after the Metropolitan Ball at nearby Madison Square Garden.
One of the ice cream desserts on the above menu is named after the interpretative dancer Maud Allan, three weeks after she made her first appearance in New York, performing before a standing-room-only audience in Carnegie Hall. Maud was the latest sensation, having already achieved fame in Europe for a dance called “A Vision of Salome.”5 Photographs of the dancer give us a hint of what all the fuss was about. Years later, art critic Herbert Read recalled, “Maud Allan was the Marilyn Monroe of my youth.”
In 1910, Louis Martin left the Café Martin to manage the Café de l’Opera, a defunct “lobster palace” on Times Square that failed after only four months. Renaming it Louis Martin, he ran this enormous restaurant for three years before leaving to open another eponymous restaurant at Broadway and 60th Street, near the seedy entertainment district at Columbus Circle. The large menu shown below from November 1913 hearkens back to the bygone era of the Café Martin which closed in May of the previous year. Restaurants catering to cafe society changed when dances like the tango and the apache (pronounced ah-pahsh) came to New York via Paris in 1912, quickly becoming the rage. Patrons were no longer interested in sitting still during dinner, listening to concert music; this menu notes that there was dancing every night of the week. Although nobody realized it at the time, this frenetic period was a prelude of the coming Jazz Age.
Louis Martin closed this short-lived restaurant in the summer of 1914 and returned to France with his wife.6 After the Great War, he opened a restaurant outside Paris. Martin died in 1921, just as Prohibition was taking hold in the United States, about to finish off the last of the great restaurants in America.