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Lobster Palace Society

Lobster Palace Society

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Published by Evangeline Holland
The life of the raffish theater crowd of Broadway.
The life of the raffish theater crowd of Broadway.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Evangeline Holland on Jan 10, 2010
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Lobster Palace Society
From the late 1890s through the 1910s, there emerged a spectacular, dazzling nightlifealong Broadway. At that time, Broadway was a two mile stretch of din and dazzle betweenMadison and Longacre Square (renamed Times Square in 1904). One might rub shoulders withsparkling showgirls and squalid prostitutes, cops and confidence artists, panhandlers and thewealthiest men of Wall Street. Nicknamed the “Gay White Way” because of the never-ceasingsplendor of lights from street lamps to marquee boards, the classic way to spend a night onBroadway began with cocktails, then to a show, then to one of the gaudy, extravagant “lobster  palaces.”These “lobster palaces,” defined as “one of the elegant, expensive new restaurants thatemerged in New York City, which specialized in lobsters and attracted the rich and famous,”catered to the theatrical crowds that nightly surged out of limousines, taxis and theatres in searchof dinner or an after-theatre supper. And “lobster palace society,” comprised of playboys, professional beauties, stars such as Lillian Russell, chorus girls, kept women, sportsmen,newspaper men, celebrities of the Bohemia of the arts, and businessmen from the hinterlands.Beginning with the opening of Café Martin in 1899, the lobster palace, and its accompanyingsociety both challenged and changed the components of New York society and its nightlife, proving a worthy ancestor of the “café society” of the 1920s and 1930s.The first official lobster palace was Café Martin, which was opened in 1899 by LouisMartin, who had successfully operated a small hotel on Ninth St that was a favorite of Frenchvisitors. When he learned that Delmonico’s was vacating its site on Twenty-Sixth street to moveuptown, he leased the building and created an intimate restaurant that introduced side-by-side
 
eating known as a
banquette
. This cozy atmosphere was very attractive to men who wished toentertain young women who were not their wives and not surprisingly, Café Martin became therendezvous of the smart set for luncheons and dinners. Another beguiling feature was his diningterrace, which was placed just above the street and covered with a brightly striped awning.Seated behind shrubs, flowering plants, and palms, guests could admire the splendid view of Madison Square without being seen. Martin hired an orchestra for his cafe and allowed womento dine there if escorted, and even served drinks to them (cafes normally operated as masculine preserves).Café Martin was quickly followed by the Café des Beaux Arts, founded by a former employee of Martin, Jacques Bustanoby, and his two brothers. Located a Forty-Second andSixth, Bustanoby’s restaurant was immediately popular with theatergoers and the headliners of the shows. The attraction for the theatre stars were the
 soirees artistique
, which Jacques cajoledthem into performing. Lillian Russell, for example, would enter the restaurant to applause and inthe company of Jesse Lewishon, Diamond Jim Brady and his wife Edna, and producer FlorenzZiegfeld and his wife, Anna Held, and it was in this restaurant that Lillian and Diamond Jim, both famous for their girths and appetites, wagered that if she could match him course for course,he would give her a huge diamond ring the following day. According to Bustanoby, Lillianslipped into the ladies’ room and came out with a heavy bundle under her arm, wrapped in atablecloth. She told the proprietor to keep it for the next day and then returned to the table andate plate-for-plate, beating Jim fair and square.The bundle she handed to Bustanoby was her corset.
 
“Diamond Jim’s” given name was James Buchanan Brady, and though a successfulfinancier, he was most known for his love of the items which gave him his name, and hisastounding appetite. It was not unusual for Brady to eat enough food for ten people at a sitting. Atypical Brady breakfast would be: eggs, pancakes, pork chops, cornbread, fried potatoes, hominy,muffins, and a beefsteak. For refreshment, a gallon of orange juice—or “golden nectar”, as hecalled his favorite drink. Lunch might be two lobsters, deviled crabs, clams, oysters and beef,with a few pies for dessert. The usual evening meal began with an appetizer of two or threedozen oysters, six crabs, and a few servings of green turtle soup, followed by a main course of two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin and a host of vegetables. For dessert, the gourmand enjoyed pastries and a two pound box of candy.Lillian Russell, his longtime amour–though the actual details of their relationship(romantic or platonic?) are murky–”airy, fairy, Lillian, the American Beauty”–after whomAmerica’s favorite rose was named–whose hourglass (while corseted) figure with its ample hipsand very full bosom weighed 200 pounds; she was the Belle Epoque ideal. She was knownequally for her legendary beauty, her voice and stage presence, and her appetite, as it was saidshe ate more than Diamond Jim! Whatever the case was, restaurateurs and maitre d’hotels sighedin ecstasy alike when the two descended upon a lobster palace after a performance, with Rector’s being the ideal place.Rector’s, though making its debut in New York City after the restaurants of Bustanobyand Martin, was the premiere lobster palace. Though sharing fame with such entities asShanley’s and Murray’s Roman Gardens, etc in terms of opulence and grandeur, somethingabout Rector’s placed it ahead of the crowd. It didn’t help either that
everybody
went to Rector’s.

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