Ever wonder where New York’s foodies ate back in 1910? William Grimes knows. The author of “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York,” took us to the sites of several vanished culinary haunts, giving us a taste of the days when a nickel could buy a meal and an evening in Times Square made the Vegas strip look tame.
First stop: 234 W. 42nd St.
Formerly: Murray’s Roman Gardens
Opened in 1908, MRG was New York’s first themed, Vegas-style restaurant. Its predominantly Roman décor had touches of Assyria, Egypt and China. The Dragon Room attempted to replicate the imperial gardens of China, with an electric rail that delivered food to diners. Toward the end of its life, MRG became a gay bathhouse.
Today it’s: Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum
Our own modern-day equivalents: Lucky Cheng's and Hard Rock Café. Though not as big, they are splashy themed restaurants. Lucky Cheng's was formerly Cave Canem-a nightclub with a Roman bathhouse theme.
Second stop: 44th Street and Broadway
This was once the home of an early 20th century establishment where out-of-town big spenders went to wine and dine Broadway chorus girls. Rector’s had a reputation so risque that it even inspired a song entitled “If the tables at Rector’s could talk,” and a play, “The Girl from Rector’s.” The owner, Charles Rector, however, was serious about dining and even trained his son in France.
Today’s it’s: A nameless office building
Our own modern-day equivalents: Spice Market and Maialino. These are great spots for illicit affairs — Spice Market for its underground club- like atomosphere, and Maialino for its location in a hotel.
Third stop: 1515 Broadway, between 44th and 45th Street
Formerly: Hotel Astor
Until Prohibition put the hotel out of business, New York’s tony set summered here. The roof top garden had acres of greenery, three orchestras, hanging lights, a fountain, waterfalls, and a restaurant serving a cool buffet on a block of ice that weighed nine tons.
Today it’s: A large office/commercial building featuring MTV Studios
Our own modern day equivalents: Hotel Gansevoort, A60 and SoHo House. Famed roof- top spots attract hip New Yorkers on summer nights.
Fourth stop: Between 43rd and 44th Streets, on Broadway
Started by seven Irish brothers, Shanely’s was a combination lobster and steak house. Advertised as the “provider of the inner man,” Shanely’s catered to a “back-slapping” boisterous crowd.
Today it’s: Sephora and Starbucks
Our modern-day equivalents: Smith and Wollensky, Dylan Prime, Porter House, Peter Luger. These are steakhouses geared toward expense-account-wielding members of old boys’ clubs.
Fifth stop: 49th Street and Broadway
Owned and operated by a former police sergeant rumored to have accumulated his wealth through not-so-legal means, Churchill’s was one of the biggest, splashiest dining halls in Times Square. The place, however, seemed to pride itself on providing for the “ordinary New Yorker with ordinary motive.”
Today it’s: Ruby Foo’s Restaurant
Our modern-day equivalent: Peter Luger. The draw is steak, the vibe is casual and the crowds come in droves.
Sixth stop: 24 Pell St.
Formerly: Mon Lay Won
Located near the former Five Points slum (of “Gangs of New York” fame), Mon Lay Won dubbed itself the Chinese Delmonico’s. The restaurant, like other Chinese eating establishments at the turn of the 20th century, served three distinct types of clientele: adventurous American diners who enjoyed eating for a nickel, Chinese laborers who saved their wages for a weekly banquet, and African-American New Yorkers who trekked to Chinatown for the low prices and non-discriminatory service.
Today it's: Vegetarian Dim Sum House
Our modern-day equivalent: Dim Sum Go Go, Joe's Shanghai and Szechuan Gourmet. Chinese spots that that are equally favored by Chinese natives and American diners.
Some more modern-day equivalents....
Here are Grimes’ takes on today’s restaurants that fill the void left by now shuttered haunts:
We used to have... Dorlon’s Oyster Cellar, Fulton Market Downtown
An old-time oyster saloon serving a variety of oysters amid a bustling fish market.
Now we have.... Grand Central Oyster Bar, 89 E. 42nd St., 212-490-6653
While we no longer have the same variety of oysters, the hustle and bustle of a busy oyster bar remains the same.
We used to have... Sutherland’s Chophouse, Financial District
One of the major steakhouses at that time frequented by Wall Street-ers
Now we have... Peter Luger, 178 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-387-7400; Smith and Wollensky, 797 Third Ave., 212-753-1530
Two major steakhouses frequented by expense account holders
We used to have...Lombardi’s Pizza, Nolita
First pizzeria in New York
Now we have... Lombardi’s Pizza (it’s still there), 32 Spring St., 212-941-7994
If Darwinism applied to restaurants, pizzerias would be the fittest of them all.
We used to have... Dennett’s Lunchroom, Financial District
A lunch place serving office workers
Now we have...Coffee Shop 29 Union Sq. West, 212-243-7969
A pseudo lunch place serving the chic and trendy of Union Square.