Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Carlos

New York City, 

The Carlos was an Italian restaurant at 25 West 24th Street in New York. Located a half block from Madison Square, between 5th and 6th Avenues, it was near the Hudson Tube Station where trains arrived from New Jersey. The above postcard from about 1912 points to the station in the distance, promoting the restaurant to Jerseyites by claiming it was “free from mosquitoes.”1 The comic scene is a bit confusing, showing a cityscape on the left and a railroad platform in New Jersey on the right, where swarms of mosquitoes can be seen harassing commuters waiting on the platform. In reality, the Carlos faced the drab façade of a building across the street that hid Stanford White’s love nest. (The famed architect rented the second and third floors for his trysts, fitting the rooms with mirrored walls, a canopy bed, and a red velvet swing.2

Much of what we know about the Carlos and its bohemian spirit comes from the diary of one of its most famous patrons and from postcards. At the beginning of the last century postcards were a new thing, providing an ideal way for a small restaurant featuring a foreign cuisine to advertise its fixed price menu; such places were called “table d’hotes.” The postcard below shows the set menu for Sunday, August 11, 1907.  Italian table d’hotes typically employed this basic format for their fixed price menus which usually included an eponymous pasta dish like the spaghetti a la Carlos offered here. 

Although the above postcard was never mailed, it has a personal note written within the front border. It was not until October 1, 1907 that the Universal Postal Union allowed postal cards of member nations to have written messages on the address side. After the ruling, printers placed a vertical line on the back, ushering in the so-called “Golden Age of Postcards” which lasted until about 1915. The main dining room of the Carlos is shown on the card below. 

Artist John Sloan recorded several visits to the Carlos in his diary.3 As a leading member of the Ashcan School of realist painters, he depicted various aspects of daily life in New York, including scenes in bars and restaurants. His painting titled “Renganeschi’s Saturday Night” shows a comparable eatery on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. After working on the painting “Throbbing Fountain, Night,” Sloan took his wife Dolly to the Carlos on August 29, 1908, making its first appearance in this diary.4 

“Throbbing Fountain, Night” (1908)

The couple returned to the “Carlos table d’hote” for dinner on September 16 of that year, partly to celebrate a commission he received from Scribner’s and partly because Dolly was tired, having put up twenty-two jars of peach jam that day. The restaurant was only a five-minute walk from their apartment at 165 West 23rd Street.

Sloan also went there with friends and colleagues. On January 2, 1909, after spending the afternoon drinking at a hotel bar, he and fellow painter Ernest Lawson went to the Carlos. Afterward, the two artists “toddled” over to Mouquin’s and later to an unnamed Chinese restaurant.5 Meanwhile, Dolly became so worried that she phoned artist Robert Henri in the middle of the night for help. Henri, in turn, called the police station. Sloan finally got home at 3:30 A.M. Later that year, after crossing over from New Jersey on a trip from Philadelphia, Sloan again met Lawson at the “Café Carlos.” 

The postcard below is dated August 8, 1909. It was a Sunday.  The fixed price menu was seventy cents on Saturdays and Sundays, as compared to sixty-five cents on weekdays. Once again, spaghetti a la Carlos is appears as the pasta dish. In addition to a set dinner, the typical Italian d’hote offered a variety of à la carte options, featuring typical American food

The Carlos was also a gathering spot for friends to meet for drinks. In addition to the customary one-dollar pint of Chianti wine, the above card promotes two cocktails. The “Affinity” comprised one-third parts of French vermouth, Italian vermouth, and Scotch whisky, along with two dashes of bitters.6 The “Devil” may have been simply French vermouth with a tenth part bitters made from devil’s club root. Special cocktails then cost about fifteen cents. On August 17, just nine days later, Sloan went to the Carlos to see several colleagues, including Ernest Lawson and cartoonist Rudolph Dirks,  creator of “The Katzenjammer Kids.” Others soon joined them, as Sloan recounted in his diary: 

“Later on, (artist) Arthur G. Dove came in. First I have seen of him since his return from Paris, he has been back for about three weeks. (Artist) Walt Kuhn also joined the party and (Rudolph) Block who is the ‘art’ editor of the (New York) Journal comics. I had three Irish whiskeys and got careless enough to suggest…that we go to (eat) in Koster and Bials cellar—a rather shabby low resort where we had roast beef sandwiches and watched the women.7 A fat one with a lean old fish nibbling at the hook asked the piano player “Professor, can you play us the ‘Glow Worm’?”

1. My thanks to Ephemeral New York for directing me to the blog Stuff Nobody Cares About which kindly granted permission to show this postcard. 
2. In 1901, Stamford White seduced a 16-year-old showgirl named Evelyn Nesbit in his apartment at 22 West 24th Street. Five years later at Madison Square Garden, White was murdered by Nesbit’s then husband, millionaire Harry Thaw, leading to a lurid court case dubbed “The Trial of the Century.” 
 3. John Sloan and Bruce St. John, New York Scene: 1906-1913, p. 242, 247, 277, 328, 332.  The artist refers to the restaurant as Carlos, Carlos', the Cafe Carlos, and the Carlos table d'hote.
4. Sloan painted the fountain in Madison Square Park in 1907 and 1908. The later version shows the multi-tiered water feature that had been removed by the time it was painted. 
5. In February 1909, Sloan noted in his diary: “Felt restless so went to the Chinese restaurant and was glad I did for I saw a strikingly gotten up girl with dashing red feathers in her hat playing with the restaurant’s fat cat. It would be a good thing to paint.”  Completed later that year, “Chinese Restaurant” is one of his most iconic paintings. 
6. The recipe for the Affinity cocktail is shown in Hugo R. Ensslin, Recipes for Mixed Drinks, New York, 1916. My thanks to Gary Gillman for this reference. 
7. “Koster and Bial’s” may refer to a saloon on 24th Street at 6th Avenue, once the annex of a 1200-seat vaudeville theater that closed in 1893. This venue, dubbed “The Corner,”  was long associated with prostitution. 
8. The building that once housed the Carlos is now home to a budget hotel named La Semana.

1 comment:

Jan Whitaker said...

Nice finds and interesting post. Seems funny now that artists were considered "Bohemian" just for going to restaurants like The Carlos.