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. It moved there from Union Square in 1876, and now relocated again, this time 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 which would later be called “café society.” It was one the most interesting restaurants of the era, as illustrated by the following 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 the 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.
|Banquet at the Café Martin (1904)|
The Martin brothers opened their first restaurant in New York on University Place 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, which originated 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 indicates that the regular price of their 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. In addition, there are sixty-nine different Champagnes listed on the back. An important source of revenue and profit, Champagne was aggressively promoted as an essential component of elegant late-night suppers and celebrations of all kinds. Reinforcing its importance, the amount of Champagne sold at the leading restaurants and hotels was routinely reported in the newspapers after major holidays. In fact, 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.
Two small banquet menus, dated a week apart in January 1906, express the joyful exuberance of high society during “the aughts” of the twentieth century, a period 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 previous decade. In addition, 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 recently-formed trusts. The arrival of this breed of nouveau riche set the tone at many of the new high-end restaurants, perhaps 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. However, it is simply remarkable that the Café Martin, a large French restaurant employing 450 people, embraced this form of American cultural 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 only 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 related to Austria, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, and Iran listed under the “Orientale,” followed by a few Spanish dishes. Although dishes like moussaka à la Persane and moussaka à la sultan were probably close to the same thing, this array of cuisines represented an ideal—only in America could you find the foods from so many nations on one menu.
While the culinary standards remained high, as indicated by the wine list on the 1907 menu below, the food begins look somewhat less refined. “Ready dishes” are marked with a star, giving this menu the look of a quick lunch. In addition, notices now appear stating that the establishment was not responsible for losses or damage to coats and hats not checked. 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 lavish “lobster palaces” on Times Square. (The concession fee at Murray’s and Rector’s was $4,000 and $6,000, respectively.)
This 1907 menu may have simply reflected the changing times. On December 30 of that year, the New York Times reported that Jean Martin, proprietor of the “eminently respectable” Café Martin, was giving the women of New York a holiday gift that would be a milestone in restaurant history. “On New Year’s Eve, ‘all ladies’ may smoke cigarettes in any of the rooms of the restaurant,” Martin was quoted as saying, “and the privilege may become permanent if all goes well.” Rector’s quickly followed suit. In fact, the waiters had been looking the other way for years, having found it increasingly difficult to keep rich socialites from doing what they wanted. The new social customs were related to the universal change in human character that writer Virginia Woolf described as having occurred “on or about December 1910,” the only difference being that such things often happened first at these avant-garde establishments, well ahead of everybody else.3
|New Years Eve at the Café Martin (1906)|
In the early fall of 1909, 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 Café Martin’s souvenir booklet, containing information about the maritime achievements of Hudson and Fulton, whose discoveries founded the city and shaped its fortunes. The ten-page booklet includes the music program and fixed price menu (now up to $2.00) for September 30th which was deemed Military Parade Day.
The most notable event of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration 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 out 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 so that he could circle the bronze icon before returning back to Governors Island. The sense of drama was heightened by the red canoe that Wright attached to the bottom of his biplane, just in case he landed in the water.
Even as it approached the end of its reign, the Café Martin advertised itself as “the leading French restaurant in America.” Among the various ducks on the menu below, there is one called a “celery-fed duckling,” representing an ill-fated attempt by farmers on Long Island to replicate the unique taste of the expensive Canvasback.4 However, it was not so much the quality of its French-American fare, as it was its chic style that made the restaurant so popular. The Café Martin was always au courant when it came to the opera, theater, and other entertainments patronized by upper-class society. This large menu from Sunday, February 13, 1910 has a notice stating that the restaurant would be open all night on the coming Tuesday, serving a late supper for those attending the Metropolitan Ball at nearby Madison Square Garden.
One of the special desserts on this menu is an ice cream creation 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. Now the latest sensation, Allan had already achieved fame in Europe, primarily for a dance she called “A Vision of Salome.”5 Photographs of the dancer provide a hint of what the fuss was all about; years later, art critic Sir Herbert Read recalled, “Maud Allan was the Marilyn Monroe of my youth.”
In 1910, Louis Martin left the Café Martin to manage the defunct Café de l’Opera, an ornate lobster palace on 42nd Street at Times Square that failed after only four months. Renaming it Louis Martin’s, he ran this enormous restaurant for three years before leaving to open another eponymous restaurant at Broadway and 60th Street, an entertainment district near Columbus Circle filled with vaudeville theaters and houses of prostitution. The large menu shown below, dated November 22, 1913, hearkens back to the bygone era of the Café Martin which closed in May of the previous year, when the city’s high-end restaurants were rapidly changing. The reason for the change can be seen on this menu by the announcement “dancing every night,” something never done at the Café Martin. However, when dances like the Tango and the Apache (pronounced a-posh-shay) were introduced in New York, they quickly became the rage; high society was no longer interested in sitting still during dinner, listening to concert music. Although nobody realized it, this period was a prelude of the coming Jazz Age.
Louis Martin closed this little-known restaurant in the summer of 1914 and returned to France with his wife.6 After the Great War, he opened a restaurant outside Paris, but then died in 1921, just as Prohibition was taking hold in the United States, about to finish off the remainder of the great restaurants that once flourished in America.