Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Café Martin

New York City

By the late 1890s, the neighborhood surrounding Madison Square Park had lost some of its luster. After being the center of New York’s social scene for twenty-five years, its leading hotels and restaurants began to close. Delmonico’s, which had moved there from Union Square in 1876, now relocated 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.

Opening in February 1902, the restaurant was a gathering spot of the beau monde, the fashionable elite that would later be called “café society.” It was one the most interesting restaurants of the era. A chronology of menus covering its ten-year history reveals how the tastes of upper-class Americans changed at the turn of the last century when the country’s global influence was rising. And when the era that spawned such restaurants came to an end, it was driven by social forces that could not be forestalled, even by moving further uptown.

The Martin brothers opened their first restaurant in New York City on University Place in 1883.1 The menu below is dated June 25, 1901, eight months before they moved to Madison Square. The front cover shows the French specialties of the Restaurant Martin. Although their father ran a restaurant in Aix-les-Bains, there are only a few dishes, such as potatoes Savoyarde, from the Rhône-Alpes region of France.


The daily luncheon menu below appeared in May 1902, three months after the Café Martin opened. At this point, the wine list was not yet printed on the back.

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.

By November 1902, the price of the set dinner had been reduced from $2.00 to $1.50.

Sixty-nine Champagnes are offered on the back of this large, after-theater menu from 1903. Champagne was aggressively promoted at late-night suppers and celebrations. On New Year's Eve, restaurants often displayed “Champagne only” signs to insure its consumption. Waiters saved the corks in order to get a kickback from the wine importers for each bottle they sold. After major holidays, the newspapers reported the amount of Champagne sold at the leading restaurants and hotels. 

The two menus below from January 1906 express the joyful exuberance of “the aughts,” a decade marked by economic growth and prosperity.  New York experienced an infusion of wealth during this period when scores of newly-minted millionaires moved to the city after selling their factories to the trusts. Eager to have fun, they set the tone at the high-end restaurants where the cuisine became more anglicized over time.

Manhattan’s finest restaurants had special menus on Independence Day and Christmas, as evidenced by these examples from 1906. The bill of fare on July 4th features dishes with  theme names, such as chicken gombo à la Dewey, aiguillette (thin slices) of cold salmon à la Washington, and sweetbreads en casse Roosevelt. The Café Martin always offered spaghetti à la Italienne on its fixed price menus. 

A comic postcard is attached to this menu from 1906. A notice reads: “Addressed postal cards handed to the headwaiter, will be stamped and mailed without charge.” During the following year, the U.S. Postmaster General ruled that postcards could also contain messages. As a result, printers added a vertical line on the back to create two separate areas. Over the next several years, menus with detachable postcards were popular, especially at resorts. 

One of the desserts shown below is pêche Melba which chef Auguste Escoffier originally created in honor of Australian soprano Nellie Melba.  Desserts named after women who were star performers often appeared shortly after they had been in the news. In this case, Melba had recently announced she was coming to New York to perform at Oscar Hammerstein’s new Manhattan Opera House.2 However, the most fascinating aspect of this luncheon menu from 1906 is the diversity of cuisines.

The front of the menu contains the usual French, English, and American dishes, as well as a few German foods, such as herring, pig’s knuckle, and Westphalian ham. What puts this menu in a class by itself are the Russian, Oriental, and Spanish “specialties” shown on the back. At the time, the United States was emerging as an economic and cultural world power, prompting middle- and upper-class Americans to seek out small foreign eateries. The new cosmopolitanism, which revealed pride in the nation’s growing prestige, was no more in evidence than in New York City. Still, it is remarkable that the Café Martin, a large French restaurant employing 450 people, engaged in this form of multicultural expression.

All that seems to be missing in the detailed scans below are the Chinese chop suey dishes that were then popular. The ethnic dishes are offered as daily specials, each accompanied by a brief description. Although specials were listed on the cover of the menu from the Restaurant Martin in 1901, the context was now different—French is shown here as one of many foreign cuisines. 

The Russian and Polish dishes reflect a culinary bond between France and Russia going back to the eighteenth century. During the first decade of the twentieth century, more than a million and half people immigrated to the United States from the Russian Empire, many of whom were Jews fleeing religious and political persecution.

Below is a brief description of the luncheon and dinner dishes shown under “Cuisine Russe.” The accompaniments include zakouski (hors d'oeuvres), selodka pa Rouski (Russian-style herring), and caviar d’Astrakhan. The alcoholic beverages were imported by P. A. Smirnoff of Moscow. 

  • 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

Dishes from Austria, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, and Iran are shown under “Cuisine Orientale.” There are also a few Spanish specialties. While moussaka à la Persane and moussaka à la sultan may have been close to the same thing, the menu represented a new ideal—only in America could you find the foods from so many countries on the same menu.

By 1907, the “ready dishes” at lunch were marked with a star, perhaps in response to competitive inroads by the quick-lunch eateries. There was also a new notice stating that the restaurant was not responsible for coats and hats that were not checked. The Café Martin leased its lucrative coat checking concession for $2,000 a year, a large sum but significantly less than the amount charged by the “lobster palaces” on Times Square. (The annual concession fees at Murray’s and Rector’s were $4,000 and $6,000, respectively.)

On December 30, 1907, the New York Times reported that the Café Martin was going to allow women to smoke cigarettes in any room of the restaurant on New Year's Eve. Rector’s quickly followed suit. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep rich socialites from doing what they wanted; the waiters had been looking the other way for years. Social developments first appeared at avant-garde establishments like the Café Martin and Rector’s.3 Soon there would be a universal change in human character that writer Virginia Woolf later described as occurring “on or about December 1910.” 

New Years Eve at the Café Martin (1906)

In the early fall of 1909, the city hosted an elaborate 16-day celebration to mark 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. Hotels and restaurants were an integral part of the festivities. This ten-page souvenir booklet includes the music program and the fixed price menu (now back up to $2.00) for September 30th which was deemed Military Parade Day.

On the previous day, inventor Wilbur Wright flew over New York Harbor in his Model A Flyer, much to the amazement of nearly a million people who witnessed an airplane flight for the first time. During the five-minute demonstration, Wright flew over the ocean liner Lusitania to the Statue of Liberty, where he circled the bronze icon before returning to Governors Island. The sense of drama was heightened by the red canoe attached to the biplane in case he landed in the water.

Even as it the approached the end of its reign, the Café Martin advertised itself as “the leading French restaurant in America.” One of the dishes on the menu below from February 1910  is called “celery-fed duckling,” reflecting an ill-fated attempt by Long Island farmers to replicate the unique taste of the wild Canvasback duck.4 The restaurant was au courant when it came to the opera and theater, as evidenced by the notice stating it would be open all night after the Metropolitan Ball at nearby Madison Square Garden.

An ice cream dessert is named after the interpretative dancer Maud Allan. Three weeks earlier, Allan made her first appearance in New York, performing before a standing-room-only audience in Carnegie Hall. She was the latest sensation, having already achieved fame in Europe for a dance called “A Vision of Salome.”5 Years later, art critic Herbert Read recalled, “Maud Allan was the Marilyn Monroe of my youth.”

In 1910, Louis Martin left the Café Martin to manage the enormous Café de l’Opera, a defunct “lobster palace” on Times Square that failed after only four months. He renamed it Louis Martin’s and ran it for three years.

Martin moved again in 1913 and opened an eponymous restaurant at Broadway and 60th Street, near the seedy entertainment district at Columbus Circle. The large menu below from November of that year hearkens back to a bygone era. Restaurants catering to cafe society changed when the tango and other dances came to New York via Paris and quickly became the rage. Patrons were no longer willing to sit still during dinner, listening to concert music. This restaurant offered dancing every night of the week. Although nobody realized it at the time, the frenetic period was a prelude of the coming Jazz Age.

Louis Martin and his wife returned to France in the summer of 1914.6 After the Great War, he opened a restaurant outside Paris. Martin died in 1921, just as Prohibition was about to finish off the great restaurants in America. 

1. Restaurant Martin was situated in the Hotel Martin in the East Village. The Martin brothers sold this hotel to headwaiter Raymond Orteig who renamed it the Hotel Lafayette, becoming a renowned French restaurant in its own right.   
2. Oscar Hammerstein built the Manhattan Opera House on West 34th Street in 1906 to compete with the established Metropolitan Opera. In 1910, the Metropolitan Opera paid Hammerstein $1.2 million to cease producing opera for ten years. He accepted the offer and sold the house to the Shubert brothers for vaudeville shows. 
3. Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, 1924. 
4. The flavor of duck meat is said to be particularly influenced by the bird’s diet. The most prized ducks in North American were the large migratory Canvasbacks that were hunted at the Susquehanna Flats, the twenty-five-thousand-acre water area near Havre de Grace, Maryland, which was once abundant with an aquatic plant known variously as wild celery, water celery, eelgrass, and tapegrass. Attempting to replicate the unique taste of the wild Canvasbacks, duck farmers on Long Island added celery seeds and chopped stalks to the feed a few weeks before sending their ducklings to market. Along the same lines, farmers in France were then experimenting with ginger, wintergreen, and vanilla, although this practice that was never adopted in the United States. Poultry magazine, October 1904.   
5. Maud Allan was deeply traumatized by the loss of her brother who was hanged at San Quentin in 1898 for the murder of two women. In 1900, she published an illustrated sex manual in Germany for women titled Illustriertes Konversations-Lexikon der Frau. Shortly thereafter, she began dancing professionally as a means of self-expression, utilizing her athleticism, musicality, and great imagination. Associating the execution of John the Baptist with that of her brother, Allan infused her dance of Salome with power and passion.  
6. French-born restaurateur Andre Bustanoby began his career at the Restaurant Martin on University Place in 1895, before moving on to Delmonico’s, and eventually joining his brothers Louis and Jacques to open the Cafe des Beaux Arts on 40th Street, near Bryant Park. The Cafe des Beaux Arts closed during the first week of 1912, at which time Louis opened the Taverne Louis in the basement of the Flat Iron Building. By 1915, Andre Bustanoby owned a restaurant at Broadway and 60th Street, perhaps operating in the space previously occupied by Louis Martin.
7. The Cafe Martin closed on May 11, 1912.


ephemeralist said...

Henry, you have an excellent Cafe Martin menu collection. Fascinating as always!

Deana Sidney said...

Oh Henry, you have outdone yourself. I was just reading about the Martin establishments in Henri Charpentier's delightful autobiography. He remembered it fondly and they were most generous to the aspiring restauranteur. This is just a brilliant article. Makes me want to try everything and really puts me in the mind of the times. BRAVO!!!

Sumo Sommelier said...

Amazing work, Henry...thank-you!

Jeanne Schinto said...

truly a multi-media tour de force this time, henry! speechless!

Michael R. Brown said...

The epicurean American feminist Mary MacLane (1881-1929) wrote a great deal about the Cafe Martin - it is probably the most vivid account of it in print. Here are some excerpts, for interested readers, from articles MacLane wrote when she had returned home to Butte, Montana in 1910:

On the corner of Fifth avenue and Twenty-sixth street, close to where the bronze Diana stands, poised against the blue, is the Cafe Martin, where the Dry Martini is more palely golden than anywhere else on the Isle, where the people are more attractive and all the delights more bewitchingly treacherous. It has been the scene of more new and well nigh insane adventures for me - and a million other feminine youths - than probably any cafe could be outside London. It is swagger, extremely French (for America), and cordial in its welcome to unescorted women before the bell tolls six in the evening. The place is so pallidly, prettily decorated, the music is so thin and sensuous, the women such high wrought things. It is consequently crowded with them from lunch-time until then. There are also men to be sure - at about four in the afternoon, when one type of the masculine absinthe-drinker of New York assembles to steep its sodden soul in anise. But the restaurant which looks on the Avenue is mostly filled with women, such a picturesque crowd, with a freedom of mood upon them which is remarkable even in New York. They are nearly all young women - (but New York women are still in the throes of youth at five-and-forty) - there are artists, writers, chorus-girls, vaudeville people, habitues of Bohemia, dilettantes of all sorts - all the loose young feminine fish in New York. It is the one cafe on the Isle wherein the crowd is not specialized - where that most fascinating, most complex, most unexplainable of human beings, the New York young woman, may be seen in the mixed aggregate. In that the Martin is unlike the Knickerbocker, up at Forty-second street, the center of the Rialto and the haunt of the moneyed but unaristocratic theatrical people, or the Cafe des Beaux Arts, frequented chiefly by the high-browed followers of the arts, or Rector’s, beloved of the refined demimondaines, or Churchill’s, loved of the unrefined ones, or Sherry’s, the feeding-place of the swagger, or the Waldorf, where the ungrammatical and heavily upholstered inhabitants of Pittsburgh feel at home, or Maria’s, the resort of the not-too-successful litterateurs, or Jack’s, where the hippodrome ballet nightly grazes. Any or all of those types are to be seen at Martin’s, whereas they would be unlikely to find themselves at any two of the others.

What a picture of youth it is at the Martin, at four in the afternoon! - a picture of tired, tired youth, women like crushed lilies or half-wilted jonquils. They are all in the clutch of the vampire. The mark of the vampire is upon their delicately-rouged and faintly-drooping lips, in the glint of their all-knowing eyes, upon their insolent brows and in the movements of their slender hands. Their hearts and bodies are weary from the ceaseless glitter of the world and from their endless pursuit of Pleasure - a Pleasure like an ignis fatuus that is always a little way beyond, that never, never waits. I have seen it myself around corners, behind doors, at the top of flights of stairs - always beyond, never in my hands or by my side. I have sat, times, in the Martin, with some delectable companion, twirling the stem of my absinthe glass with my thumb and finger and with my chin on my hand, and looked about at the gay-hearted company and wondered if they knew they had never caught up with the ignis fatuus Pleasure, and never would - and if they did that the flavor of the Grape would become wormwood on their lips, and the daylight shadowed, and the music stilled.

Michael R. Brown said...

Here's a bit more from MacLane:

during my last two years in New York, life seethed with women. They were one’s companions in the apartment houses where one lived, at matinees, in tea rooms, at the Cafe Martin, in the shops, on Fifth avenue at the ends of the afternoons, on Broadway always, at the apartments of friends - in all the highways and byways. If you’re an unattached young woman living alone in New York, and markedly a free-lance, you’ll meet up with a million other unattached women. They color up your life and mean adventure - in the day-light and the dark.

The Absinthe Drinker: him, too, I knew in New York. He was good-looking in a pallid sort of way, a slender, tallish young man, a dilettante in letters, and a follower - if that can be called following which bothers not even to note the direction of its leader - of an extremely indifferent, light-hearted, indolently-reckless cult. I was fond of him for two reasons - that the light-hearted and reckless always make an appeal to me, and that I felt my conscience in a perpetual state of assuagement (like the citizens of Butte at their Sunday morning breakfasts) by being myself in a state of but half-approval of his tenets. Every time I held back and took exception to his modes of thought, I reflected, “What a good sort I must be, to disapprove of this.” It’s a pleasant feeling. In the Cafe Martin, Twenty-sixth street and Fifth avenue, at four o’clock, we spent a hundred afternoons, listening to the music, watching the people, desultorily talking, and looking upon the absinthe in its cold, sinister, death-colored seduction. The Drinker drank eight absinthe frappes in the hour, while I ambled through one. “To think,” said I in half-sad protest, “that it’s slowly killing you, that you’ve been slowly dying for two years and are slowly dying now!” And said he quickly, “But, my child, what a sweet, sweet death to die! We are all dying, you know, from one cause or another - we are all, in this orchid-decked room, slowly moving toward our graves. So how much better to go with this exquisite poison in our veins, with the taste of it on our lips, and the flavor of it in our hearts! It brings us the flower of life and the music of the spheres - it would bring them to you if you’d give way to it and take it as I do, with ardor and delight. We would then slowly die together - a primrose death. It softens all the heart-breaks of life. My soul and body are dedicated to it and it, like a Green God of Misericorde, giveth me sundry good gifts in high reward. So drink, my child, drink to the primrose death.” I drank with him that spring too often, to the primrose death, but always under a protest - a protest not strong enough to let me refuse my one thin glass, and so much the less strong to make his number smaller. Presently an invisible grave began to yawn too near his careless feet. He was a charming thing, the Absinthe Drinker, but my friendship with him blew away in the autumn winds like the scattering of dead leaves.

Reynold Weidenaar said...

The Telharmonium, an enormous electric music machine, was installed at Telharmonic Hall at Broadway and 39th St. Its first outside connection, on the line that ran down Broadway to Madison Sq., then north on Fifth Ave., was to the Cafe Martin. The directors of the New York Electric Music Co. held a banquet and demonstration at the Cafe Martin on Nov. 9, 1906. By mid-December music was supplied to diners from 12:30 to 2:00 and between 6:00 and 8:00, in one of the private rooms. The inauguration of public service of the Telharmonium was celebrated with a recital and reception at the central station on Friday, Jan. 11, 1907. The music was played to an audience at Telharmonic Hall and heard simultaneously through receivers at the Cafe Martin and several other locations. --"Magic Music from the Telharmonium", Scarecrow Press, 1995, now public domain and available from Google Books.

P. Gavan said...

Wonderful story! You may be interested in reading about what was happening next door to Cafe Martin during these times -- like the cat colony that occupied the Town Topics office at 208 Fifth Avenue.

Unknown said...

merci pour cet article. En 1910, un cousin est parti de France pour y travailler.

foodieafloat said...

Next to me, as I write here in London, is a peppermill which I have owned for some 50 years. It's a beautiful thing, still used every day. Inscribed upon it are the words 'Café Martin N.Y'. It was once owned by the British Poet Laureate John Masefield. He visited the US several times and possibly worked, in his youth, at the Café Martin. or could have dined there at some point and either stole, or was presented with, the peppermill. When he died in England in 1967 his housekeeper inherited his belongings and the housekeeper's daughter was given the peppermill which she gave to me as I loved it so. I wish i could post a photo of it here but that is not possible. I look at it now and am amazed at its long and venerable history and that it is over 100 years old and still going strong. After reading this article I shall treasure it even more.

José Manuel Araque said...

Fantastic post. In 1910 Martin brought Maurice Mouvet from France to dance at the Restaurant on 41st street, that's the beginning of Tangomania in New York City, which lasted until the onset of the Great War.

Unknown said...


I am currently doing a research on the French association "les Allobroges de New York" that was created n 1901. The Nartin brothers were solid supporters of this association of people comimg from the french Alps and living in the US. After the martin brothers went back to France. I have no more information about this association. I am looking for a few pictures or menus of the Martin Cafe. If you could help. Thanks to contact me

Anonymous said...

I have a set of four luncheon dishes and four soup bowls from the original Café Martin from 1901 they are ironstone. They are decorated with green clover and in script café Martin. It says “Barth and sons New York” on the back. They were retailers in NYC of restaurant China. I was researching the history of café Martin, such great information here. Thank you!