The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse
While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway…
Walt Whitman went to Pfaff’s almost every night between 1858 and 1862 when working on the early editions of Leaves of Grass.2 He occasionally read one of his latest poems to the writers and artists who regularly assembled in this underground beer hall. The free-spirited and unconventional group was brought together by Henry Clapp, editor of the Saturday Press and a champion of Whitman’s work. Other habitués included actor Edwin Booth, painter Elihu Vedder, psychedelic drug pioneer Fitz Hugh Ludlow, cartoonist Thomas Nast, and humorist Artemus Ward, now regarded as America’s first stand-up comedian. And since Pfaff’s was one of the few saloons that welcomed women, Clapp’s coterie was diverse for its time. Writer Ada Clare was a charter member of this artistic clique as was Adah Isaacs Menken whose “naked lady” routine made her the highest earning actress of the era. Given the importance of Pfaff’s, I was thrilled when a menu recently came to light. My first impression was how different it looked from those that previously catered to the city’s literati. This was truly a German menu, reflecting the arrival of new attitudes and foods from Europe. Interestingly, it marked a pivotal moment in our creative past.
During the Whitman years, Pfaff’s (pronounced fafs) was located at 647 Broadway, just north of Bleecker Street, where it operated in the basement of the fashionable Coleman House.3 Since it had no connection with the hotel, Pfaff’s only entrance was a hatchway in the sidewalk—customers walked down a steep, narrow metal stairway, as if entering a root cellar. The space below was divided into two vaulted rooms, “one of which was occupied by a standby circle of gay men.”4 Whitman divided his time between this room, where he enjoyed the company of those whom he called “my darlings and gossips,” and the long table where the artists and writers sat, nestled in a small area directly under the sidewalk. Although the dim, gaslit rooms were not particularly attractive according to the New York Times, visitors could see “the lions of Bohemia” there. As a result, Pfaff’s became one of the tourist sights of antebellum New York, along with Barnum’s Museum, Tammany Hall, and Covent Garden.5
The menu below from June 12, 1866 features mostly traditional German dishes like Limburger cheese, bacon with sauerkraut, potato dumplings, and pfannekucken, a large pancake that was a house specialty. The spring season is reflected by the added specials, such as fresh asparagus, tomatoes, and strawberries, and by the roast chicken that was served in lieu of prairie chicken, a game dish typically available in the fall. The food was reportedly excellent. Another draw was the lager beer. Lighter than the ales and stouts that once dominated the scene in Manhattan, the lagers at Pfaff’s were served cold, a novelty at the time. There was also a very good selection of wines. Nevertheless, the back page of this menu is blank, perhaps because the wine and beverage list was too extensive to be shown on a single page.
In the mid-1840s, Edgar Allen Poe (the hero of the Pfaff’s set) recited stanzas of “The Raven” to fellow journalists at Welsh’s where the English-based cuisine was advertised with Yankee bombast. As it happens, the previously-posted menu from this eatery comes from February 1847, when Irish and German immigrants began to pour into the United States, fleeing the potato famines and failed revolutions in Europe. Proprietor Charles Ignatius Pfaff came in the early 1850s as part of this diaspora. And while the influx ignited an anti-immigrant backlash, evidenced by the Native American Party which opposed Catholics entering the country, other citizens were less concerned about the new arrivals. In response to inquiries from its readers, the Saturday Press reported that Pfaff’s was “extensively patronized by young literary men, artists, and that large class of people called Germans.” Indeed, these talented bohemians felt very much at home among the Germans at Pfaff’s. In addition to the food and drink, they appreciated the social tolerance of the restaurateur and the gemütlichkeit of his cozy establishment.
Walt Whitman and others in the circle moved away during the Civil War. By mid-1864, the beer hall had relocated a few doors to 653 Broadway where those who remained in New York continued to meet nightly at the long table. However, the times were changing. Only ten days before this menu appeared in 1866, the Saturday Press ceased publication, ending its brief post-war revival. Its editor, Henry Clapp, had been the driving force behind the artistic gatherings at Pfaff’s. The closing of his weekly journal marked the end of the first chapter in the history of American bohemianism.
1. Walt Whitman, “The Two Vaults,” an unfinished poem, c.1861
2. Justin Martin, Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and American’s First Bohemians, 2014
3. Charles Pfaff opened a small eating and drinking house at 685 Broadway in 1858. He moved to 647 Broadway, reopening as Pfaff's Beer Cellar in March 1859. By June 1864, its address was shown as 653 Broadway, where it advertised having a summer garden. In May 1876, it reopened as a restaurant and hotel at 9 W. 24th Street, where it operated until April 1887. http://pfaffs.web.lehigh.edu
4. “Walt Whitman, Bohemian Dandy: The Story of America’s First Gay Bar and Its Creative Coterie,” www.brainpickings.org
5. “How Manhattan Drum-Taps Led,” New York Times, 12 April 2011