Rector’s is one of the most important restaurants in American social history. Established on Broadway at the dawn of the twentieth century, it operated at a time of sweeping social change. The transformation was nowhere more evident than in the theater district around Times Square, where over the course of twenty years there were four distinctly-different dining establishments that bore the family name. Opening in succession, they were Rector’s restaurant, the Rector Hotel, George Rector’s restaurant, and finally an eponymous cabaret. Some of these enterprises were successful; others disappeared without hardly leaving a trace. Its story is told through material culture, showing menus from this collection and that of the New York Public Library, along with other ephemera and related artifacts.
As the economic depression faded in the closing years of the nineteenth century, the development of midtown Manhattan went into full swing. In 1899, restaurateur Charles Rector joined the fray, opening a restaurant on West 44th street on a dreary commercial intersection named Long Acre Square. (The new three-story building can be seen in the center-left section of this photograph from 1900; click to enlarge image.)
Rector was betting on the future. Delmonico’s and Sherry’s had already built luxurious restaurants on Fifth Avenue at 44th Street, only two cross-town blocks away. And in other parts of town, the Café Martin moved to Madison Square; the Café des Beaux Arts opened on Bryant Park; and the Waldorf combined with the Astoria to create the largest hotel in the world. What made Rector’s different from these establishments was its location in the soon-to-be-developed theater district, a dynamic environment that would cause it to evolve in unforeseen ways.
The building was originally built for Jack Dunstan, proprietor of an all-night eatery on Sixth Avenue popularly known as “Jack’s.”1 When Dunstan backed out of the deal, the lease was picked up by Charles Rector, a native New Yorker who owned a successful restaurant in Chicago. Extending his well-established brand from the Windy City, Rector hung his winged-griffin logo over the revolving front door—the first such door in New York. The restaurant featured an ornate lobby with a grand staircase; a main dining room richly decorated in gold and green; and less-formal dining areas on the second floor.
Rector recruited culinary talent from the kitchens of Delmonico’s, Sherry’s, and the Waldorf-Astoria where he found his head chef Emil Hederer, convincing him to leave the hotel “by dangling $7000 a year under his capable nose.” Not surprisingly, the menus at Rector’s initially looked much the same as those at the Waldorf-Astoria. Both establishments catered to the burgeoning ranks of the nouveau riche, providing somewhat democratized versions of the socially-exclusive dining rooms of the Gilded Age. The regular bill of fare (in the New York Public Library) from May 1900 offers 358 dishes, including the out-of-season game dishes that are crossed off.
The small card with the daily specials was once fastened on the inside with a ribbon.
The menu below from the same year marks a farewell banquet, then a ritual of fashionable society when one of its members was about to sail to Europe. The cuisine reflects the upper-class norms of the day.
In late November high society made its annual pilgrimage to the horse show at Madison Square Garden. The hotels and restaurants were packed for this week-long event, prompting the New York Times to offer some coyly-worded advice:
“Society always takes luncheon before going to the show. There are—without being invidi0us—five favorite places to lunch, and dine during Horse Week. These places are a bit dissimilar in character, and all so well-established that even a public mention would hardly be considered an advertisement. One is almost bohemia [Café Martin?], and is near the show; another is very quiet and exclusive [Holland House?], has no music and none of the glittering attractions of other places. A third is a world-famous hotel [Waldorf-Astoria] which takes a great part of the Horse Show patronage; and a half mile further up Fifth Avenue are two famous restaurants where there is always sure to be a large fashionable contingent [Sherry’s and Delmonico’s]. There are other and newer places [Rector’s] which come in for some of the Horse Show patronage, and which are well worth a visit.”2
Rector’s sped up its luncheon service so its patrons could get back to the show in a reasonable period of time. This streamlined menu from about 1901 provides the time needed for each entrée. Many of the dishes could be prepped in advance. For example, the chicken hash was made by sautéing diced, pre-boiled chicken in butter with onions. Chopped boiled potatoes and Mexican pimento peppers were added to the mixture before finishing with equal quantities of broth and cream. To serve within the six-minute limit, the hash was simply reheated while stirring in three raw egg yolks.
Lunch typically began at 1:30 p.m. and lasted about an hour. The Times advised that the dishes at such luncheons “must be simple but nourishing…For the hor d’oeurves one should take raw oysters, small and salty…This should be followed by an entrée of some kind, a sweetbread, timbale of chicken, or even fish; but the later would be better if instead of oysters for the first course grapefruit had been served. Then lamb chops, with a puree of chestnut, or a nice Delmonico beefsteak, sirloin with hashed creamed potatoes, or broiled chicken with one or two vegetables, or a small broiled young turkey. This would be followed by a salad, and then some light desert and coffee. White wine or claret or whiskey and water—this at the choice of the guest—may be served during the meal.” (It was considered bad form to drink champagne at informal luncheons.)
Although lunch was served at a gallop, supper progressed at a more leisurely gait. Instead of showing prep times, this late-evening menu features dishes named after well-known thoroughbreds. A notice informs diners that the saddles and other equestrian equipment on display were provided by Martin and Martin on Madison Avenue.
The above cover comically portrays the haughty, old-money aristocrats. Social customs were now beginning to change as newly-minted millionaires moved to New York City after selling their factories to the trusts. In 1902, Rector’s adopted a menu card that better suited the new style.3
This late-supper card is an abbreviated, undated version of the above dinner menu.
Charles Rector’s 24-year-old son George was put in charge of the dining room in 1902, having recently returned from France where he had been sent to learn about food and wine. Nevertheless, the quality of Rector’s cuisine gradually declined over time, mirroring a broader trend in society. One way to gauge this downward drift is to compare its wine lists, beginning with this booklet from the mid-aughts. This extensive list features 449 beverages, including many fine vintages from the Bordeaux wine region that George visited while in France.4
As the entertainment district slowly moved beyond the formalism of the Victorian world, menus began to reflect the Edwardian era, as shown by the design of this one from September 1904. In fact, “sweetbreads, Prince of Wales” was one of the perennial specialties. Pioneering a new style of late-night dining, Rector’s served rich calorific dishes in luxuriously-gilded surroundings. Such places became known as “lobster palaces.” At Rector’s, these crustaceans were prepared as lobster thermidor (another specialty), lobster remoulade, lobster Newburg, and lobster Americaine.
Two weeks earlier, the Astor Hotel opened across the street. It was filled with a wide variety of restaurants. ĽOrangerie, described as a “splendid Italian garden,” was acclaimed to be the largest dining room in the city. There was also a restaurant decorated in the “French classic style,” a large ball room, and a men’s café for business lunches. In the basement, the American Indian Grill Room contained a world-class collection of Native American artifacts. In June 1905, the Belvedere opened on the roof, eleven stories above the sweltering heat on the sidewalk.
The year 1904 marked a turning point for the neighborhood. The New York Times moved into its new headquarters building on 42nd Street, the subway line opened, and the intersection was renamed Times Square. Before long, the first “moving” electrified sign appeared on the side of a building, a technological development that would transform this section of Broadway into the “Great White Way.” Rector’s began to attract a more varied mix of customers like actors, musicians, and impresarios, along with theater-goers who came to gawk at the leading stars of the day. The shift in its customer base soon became evident by a notice on the menu.
In October 1904, Rector’s began serving breakfast at 7:00 AM, as advertised on the dinner menu below. It made this change to hold onto the nighthawks who went over to “Jack’s” (officially, the Manhattan Oyster and Chop House) in the early morning hours for some scrambled eggs and coffee. Situated a cross-town block away on Sixth Avenue, it was the only restaurant in midtown with a license that officially allowed it to stay open all night. According to food writer William Grimes, Jack’s was frequented by “a high-low crowd of politicians, prizefighters, theater stars, newspaper reporters, and, on fall weekends, swarms of Ivy league students in a rambunctious post football mood…”5
The breakfast notice appears again on this menu from November 1904. Burns chophouse, located nearby at 107 West 44th Street, also served breakfast. Burns and Jack's were old-fashioned places with large menus, while Rector’s employed small menu cards better suited for its elegant, late-night suppers. Even though it would have been easy to slip one of these cards into a pocket or purse, regular menus from 1905 onward are surprisingly scarce. The same can be said for menus from the other lobster palaces and cabarets that followed in its wake. Lobster-palace society, as the patrons of these establishments came to be called, seldom saved menus as mementos of their nights on the town.6
The change in American society was no more evident than in the entertainment district where affluent urbanites enjoyed the pleasures of increasing moral tolerance. Rector’s was one of the places where sugar daddies entertained chorus girls, a recurrent theme of the era. The restaurant soon gained a naughty reputation as periodic scandals kept its name in the newspapers. One such incident occurred in 1906 when socialite Harry Thaw shot and killed the famous architect Stanford White in a fit of jealousy. It was later disclosed that White frequently dined at Rector’s with Thaw’s wife Evelyn, a former showgirl.
The menu below (in the New York Public Library) comes from a small dinner party hosted by George Rector in 1907. It reflects his penchant for fine cuisine and free publicity.7 Newspapers across the country denounced this $20-a-plate dinner (about $520 today), calling it part of an “expensive dinner craze.”
One of the guests at this private dinner was James B. Regan, proprietor of the 15-story Knickerbocker Hotel. Situated on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, this stylish hotel was another formidable competitor. Its kitchen was under the direction of Chef Alexandra Gastaud, formerly at the Carlton Hotel in London; and one of its bars featured Maxfield Parrish’s iconic mural “Old King Cole and His Fiddlers Three” (later moved to the St. Regis Hotel.)
The above scene shows Times Square at night in 1907, the year that the lighted-ball drop replaced the traditional fireworks display on New Year’s Eve. George Rector also made history on this occasion by announcing that women would be allowed to smoke in his restaurant for the first time. (The Café Martin made a similar announcement.) Rector’s sold cigarettes on the premises and may have briefly had its own brand; there were many small Turkish and Egyptian cigarette manufacturers in New York that marketed their products under private labels. The one shown below for Rector’s Cigarettes Egyptiennes features the restaurant’s winged-griffin logo.8
Most of Manhattan’s thirty-four theaters would soon be situated around Times Square. One of the major attractions of dining at Rector’s was the opportunity to see, at close range, some of the leading stars. It was there that actresses perfected the art of the grand entrance, gliding down its magnificent staircase for a late-night supper after the performance. The Rector name also began appearing in Broadway productions. In the 1908 play “The Easiest Way,” the heroine grows weary of trying to live a virtuous life, declaring: “I am going to dress up my body and paint my face. Yes, I’m going back to Rector’s to make a hit, and to hell with the rest.” In 1909, a sex farce titled “The Girl from Rector’s” opened at Weber and Fields’ Music Hall and ran for 184 performances.
Capitalizing on the notoriety of his brand, Charles Rector decided to demolish the restaurant and built a hotel in its place. The closure coincided with the end of an era. Within a couple of years, the Café Martin also shuttered its doors. These restaurants epitomized the self-assured decade of American history that some have called the Age of Confidence, when Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts, started digging the Panama Canal, and sent the Great White Fleet around the world.9 The coming years would be decidedly different, marked by fundamental changes in social customs and relationships.
In February 1910, as the last of the rubble from Rector’s old restaurant was being carted away, the Times published this illustration of what Times Square would look like in a year.10 The Rector Hotel figures prominently in the futuristic cityscape. The entertainment district was then undergoing a radical transformation, as old restaurants were expanded and refurbished and even larger ones were being built from scratch. Featuring interiors that were both opulent and imaginative, the new places included Murray’s (1907), Maxim’s (1909), Café Madrid (1909), Café l’Opera (1910)-renamed Louis Martin (1910)- renamed Café de Paris (1913), Reisenweber’s (expanded 1910), Shanley’s (expanded 191o), Churchill’s (expanded 1911), Bustonoby’s (1912), and Healy’s (expanded 1915). Rector’s, which had been the prototype of the lobster-palace style, was long gone before most of these restaurants opened. They were primarily patronized by prosperous New Yorkers who lived in the luxurious apartments of the upper West Side.11 This stratum of society invariably chose places with lavish décor over fine cuisine.
After marrying a showgirl in 1909, George Rector became estranged from his father. George purchased Churchill’s at Broadway and 46th Street, renaming it the Café Madrid. In the spring of 1911, he sold the café and returned to manage the dining room in his father’s hotel.
The wine list below from 1912 has a third fewer items than the earlier one from the restaurant. Yet, there are some interesting additions. This list offers more types of champagne and contains an early mention of Russian vodka.13 Rector’s appears not to have sold many of its most prestigious dinner wines, for it still shows three of the same vintage wines from Bordeaux—the 1893 Beychevelle, 1887 Mouton Rothschild, and 1880 Yquem.
Menus from the hotel are practically nonexistent. The one below from May 1913 (in the New York Public Library) comes from a staid retirement banquet.
Rector’s risqué reputation, which had been an asset for the restaurant, took its toll on hotel bookings. When a hit song called “If a Table at Rector’s could Talk” appeared the Ziegfeld Follies, it reinforced the naughty connotation of the Rector brand. In late May 1913, the Rector Hotel went bankrupt. Having lost most of his fortune, Charles Rector retired and died within a year. The new owners renamed it the Claridge Hotel.
This restaurant did not last long. In April 1913, it was sold to Louis Martin who had recently been managing the Café de Paris on Times Square. In less than a year, Martin closed the place and returned to France, as restaurateurs of the old school faded from the scene.
Although several items on this charming menu from 1913 employ the Rector name, the celery-fed duckling is perhaps the most interesting dish. Farmers on Long Island were then engaged in an ill-fated attempt to replicate the unique taste of the wild Canvasback. The simplified wine list, now incorporated with the menu, does not offer fine vintages from Bordeaux.
The plate below indicates that Rector's may have had its own brand of cigars. Customers were forever slipping plates, silverware, and other knickknacks into their pockets. If they asked, the management gave them these items free of charge. If not, the cost of the pilfered souvenirs was quietly added to the bill.13 Few menus were saved.
When the tango came to New York via Paris in 1912, a dance craze took the city by storm. Cabarets and restaurants introduced a series of late-afternoon dances popularly known as “tango teas.” For the price of a drink or small admission fee, unescorted women danced with partners hired by the management. The daily tea dances (called thé dansants in the 1914 advertisement below) were the rage for several years with unsuspecting parents and working husbands none the wiser.
Future silent-screen idol Rudolph Valentino worked as a dance partner at the city’s tango teas. In 1915, he returned to Rector’s in a vaudeville dance act with Bonnie Glass. The menu below from that year (in the New York Public Library) shows that the fixed price for dinner was $1.25, or about $30 in today’s dollars. The beverage list offers four cocktails—the Westchester, the Bronx, the Ritz, and the Clover Club.
The postcards below show the Main Dining Room and the Ball Room de Luxe, touted as the largest in New York.
There are no red Bordeaux wines on the menu below from about the following year; all the wines are described as “sparkling.”
In late 1916, Earl Fuller’s Jazz Band played at Rector’s a few months before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made its acclaimed debut at Reisenweber’s in January 1917. For the next three years, Fuller made a large number of jazz recordings that popularized national dance trends. Revenues declined sharply during the onset of Prohibition.14 In June 1918, the cabaret dropped the Rector name, before closing on January 1, 1919.
George Rector later recalled: “I speak of the last years of Rector’s with regret. Not that it closed, but because it was ever opened. It was not a restaurant, but a madhouse. We did not delude the public about the name of Rector’s, but we hornswoggled them on every other detail. Some 1,500 people paid a cover charge of one dollar a head for the privilege of parking themselves on our hard chairs. They jammed and fought and tore to get inside. When they got inside, they sat there and wished they were home. They got nothing for their cover charge except noise. The trumpet of the brass-band racket, the saxophone, had just begun to get popular…The class of people who patronized the last Rector’s was absolutely different from anything I had ever met. All they wanted to do is dance…”15, 16
In 1941, a large billboard for Camel cigarettes was mounted on the side of the Claridge Hotel where the original Rector’s had once been located. For twenty-five years, this sign blew smoke rings out over Times Square, as if to commemorate the site where women were first allowed to smoke in public.17
1. Banker Charles T. Barney leased the property until 1906, when Charles Rector purchased the building and land. New York Times, 28 December 1908.
2. New York Times, 13 November 1904.
3. Rector’s in Chicago continued to offer a wide range of dishes on its regular menu.
4. Lloyd Morris, Incredible New York, 1951.
5. William Grimes, Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, 2009.
6. By contrast, menus from the Astor Hotel and the Waldorf-Astoria, which became key venues in the civic life of the city, are relatively ubiquitous in the ephemera market.
7. George Rector generated a lot of hype, providing the press with highly-exaggerated accounts of his restaurant and its clientele, such as the legendary gourmand “Diamond Jim” Brady. David Kamp, New York Times, 30 December 2008.
8. This proof copy is not overprinted with factory number and date, and lacks the blue federal tax stamp typically glued to the box.
9. Henry Allen, What It Felt Like, 1999.
10. “A Glimpse of Times Square in the Year 1911,” New York Times, 27 February 1910.
11. Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930, University of Chicago press, 1981.
12. Julian Street, Welcome to Our City, New York (April 1913)
13. David Wondrich (@DavidWondrich) 24 August 2015, Tweet.
15. George Rectors, The Girl from Rector’s, 1927.
17. The Claridge Hotel appeared in the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy” as the place where Joe Buck (Jon Voight) first lived in New York. The hotel was demolished in 1972.