Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hot-House Tomatoes

New York City, 

The Café Au Bon Goût on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 30th Street features an enormous buffet that is open 24/7. If you step inside and look straight up, you will see the beautifully molded ceiling that once graced the dining room of the Holland House, one of grandest hotels in New York during the 1890s. Modeled after a celebrated mansion in London, the ten-story building (which now contains offices) was built in the Italian Renaissance style, using white limestone from Indiana. Seven photographs and a menu tell its story.

Known for its aristocratic tone, Holland House was well-positioned in the 12-block stretch of Fifth Avenue that catered to the wealthy families of the Gilded Age. It was developed by two restaurateurs who owned Kinsley’s, one of the best restaurants in Chicago. One of the partners, Swiss-born Gustav Baumann, moved to New York to manage the new establishment. Not surprisingly, he paid careful attention to the food service and design of the dining rooms.  The main room was decorated in Louis Quinz, a French Rococo style also called Louis XV.  When it opened in 1891, the New York Times reported: “The ceiling, in salmon tints and gold, is supported by a row of handsome columns. Electric lights are everywhere, borne by polished brass brackets. In spite of its size—125 by 50 feet—the dining hall seems delightfully cozy.”2 

Situated near the reading room with its massive leather chairs, the Café shown below featured a distinctive row of columns with relief designs made of papier-mâché.

The Gilt Room, an exact reproduction of the famous room in the London mansion, was used for banquets and other social functions. Located in the basement, this room was wainscoted with panels displaying elaborate heraldic devices.

Regarded as one of the marvels of the establishment, the wine vault shown below features an impressive stack of Chateau Lafite 1870, an exquisite vintage from this premier estate in the Médoc.3

Holland House was not immune to the labor strife of the era, when hotels were able to further reduce low pay by assessing routine fines. For example, the penalty for trivial offenses like being five minutes late was 25 cents; someone caught talking during a lull in the service was fined 50 cents. Waiters, who depended mostly on tips, had much of their 83-cents-a-day salary eaten up by such fees. They also complained that they devoted much of their time to answering service bells for which there was no gratuity. In April 1893, the newly-formed International Hotel and Employees’ Society decided to strike first at the Holland House, where forty waiters “flung down their napkins and deserted their posts” just before dinner on a Saturday night.4

The Waldorf Hotel, which opened at 33rd Street at about the same time, also had problems with the new union. A waiter there could be fined a quarter for leaving a horseradish dish on the table for more than five minutes.  In addition, hotel employees had to buy their own uniforms. At the Holland House, the elevator operators and hall boys wore electric blue with red and white cord trimmings; the carriage men wore full English livery. Even the standard dark blue uniforms were relatively expensive, costing cost the equivalent of three weeks’ wages. Responding to union demands, Holland House finally offered its waiters two dollars a day, adding that there would no longer be any “restrictions as to whiskers.”

Holland House operated on the European Plan, meaning that the meals were not included in the cost of the room.5 The daily menus were printed in English on one side and French on the other. This bilingual format, which was then becoming a common practice at luxury establishments, offered diners the benefit of being pretentious without the inconvenience, and possible embarrassment, of struggling with French. 

The prices on the supper menu below are about a third higher than most hotels. Dated July 1, 1897, this  bill of fare features a salad of hot-house tomatoes for fifty cents, twice as much as a salad of field-ripened tomatoes would cost a few weeks later. Despite such luxuries as the Strasbourg fat goose liver with truffles, this menu basically reflects the standard English-oriented cuisine of the times. It was the high prices that mostly differentiated this menu from the others.

Later that year, the 17-story Astoria Hotel opened at 34th Street. For a brief period, there were three luxury hotels operating on this stylish half-mile section of Fifth Avenue, until the Astoria was  connected to the 13-story Waldorf next door. Christened the Waldorf-Astoria, the new hotel, now the largest hotel in the world, was designed to serve the needs of the rapidly-expanding upper class. Among it forty public rooms was the crystalline Palm Garden, densely packed with tropical foliage, where the social custom of having afternoon tea came into vogue. In the late 1890s, the new Waldorf-Astoria and the Holland House reigned as the most fashionable hotels in New York.

1. King’s Handbook of New York City (1892)
2. New York Times, 6 December 1891.
3. The wine estate, awarded First Growth status in the classification of 1855, is located near the village of Pauillac in the Médoc region, northwest of Bordeaux, France. It was purchased by Baron James Mayer Rothschild in 1868, three months before his death. It became the joint property of his three sons and was eventually renamed Château Lafite Rothschild.
4. The union claimed to have 800 members, out of an estimated 3,000 hotel waiters working in New York. New York Times, 17 April 1893.
5. When the hotel opened in 1891, the cost of a room was two dollars a day, and up. Holland House, promotional brochure (1892).

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