The Story of Lobster Palaces and "Lobster Palace Society
A long time ago in the Big Apple during the Gilded Age, there was a restaurant craze that became an integral part of New York’s bustling theater nightlife. “Lobster Palaces”*, as they were called, attracted New York society’s movers and shakers, celebrities from Broadway, chorus girls, and the rich and famous. Between the late 1890’s and the end of World War I, they were the places to go see and to be seen, as eating fresh lobster and rich, high-calorie dishes was becoming increasingly popular with the upper classes. The perception of eating high-society-sounding foods was also a trend followed by middle-class people and tourists.
In the Beginning...
Lobster Palaces emerged at the turn of the century, starting in 1899 with “Café Martin”, regarded as the original and authentic lobster palace opened by small hotel operator Louis Martin. With Martin’s launch of his lobster palace, “lobster palace society”** was soon born.
Lobster palace society wasn’t particularly an exclusive club, but was made up of people from many walks of life: sportsmen, chorus girls, playboys, stars of the Broadway stage like Lillian Russell, celebrities of the Bohemia of the arts, newspaper men, professional beauties (women with exceptionally beautiful faces who were followed and catered to just for their looks alone), “kept” women, and businessmen from the boondocks. It was thought that lobster palace society paved the way for New York’s “café society” that came into prominence in the 20’s and 30’s.
The “Great White Way”: Early Broadway...
Broadway in its early days was given the nickname of the “Gay White Way” (and later the “Great White Way”) because of the almost endless brilliance from street lamps and theater marquees.*** The expanse in and around the theater district (or Broadway), was a stretch of razzle and dazzle extending about 2 miles between Madison Avenue and Longacre Square (which became Times Square in 1904). With the mixing and mingling together of showgirls, cops, ladies of the night, hard-luck hustlers, and wealthy Wall Street barons sharing each others space, lobster palaces began to emerge, one after another.
Late into the evening, limousines and taxis filled with theatergoers would pull up to excessively showy lobster palaces, hungry for dinner or a late-night bite. The theater crowd would typically start their evening with cocktails, then take in a Broadway show, and finally end the evening with a visit to a nearby lobster palace for an after-show dinner. The menus had just about anything a seafood lover could ask for, and at unimaginable prices compared to prices today.****
The Palace Landscape Expands...
After Café Martin established itself, other palaces quickly sprang up around the Broadway theater district. Some ot the newcomers were the Café des Beaux Arts, ironically opened by Jacques Bustanoby (a former employee of Louis Martin) and his two brothers.
Café des Beaux Arts, which opened at Forty-Second and Sixth Street became an instant favorite with the theater crowd and stars of Broadway shows. It was here that famous stage performers like Lillian Russell would walk in after her show with an entourage that included Jesse Lewisohn, Diamond Jim Brady and his wife Edna, plus the famous producer Florenz Ziegfeld and his wife Anna Held. Making an entrance that spurred applause from other diners, performers were often coaxed into doing a little song and dance for the crowd.
Of the notable lobster palaces that populated the theater district were Delmonico’s***** and Sherry’s, Healy’s, Murray’s Roman Garden and Churchill’s, Faust’s, Maxims and Martin’s. Even though other cities had their own lobster palaces, New York’s lobster palaces were held in high esteem by New Yorkers who wanted to be considered A-list, to impress friends and out-of-town guests, and otherwise wine and dine with their contemporaries on champagne and the most expensive food on the menu—which was typically a lobster dish (imagine that the cost of a dish like Lobster à la Newburg was just $1.00 around 1900, compared to what it costs today). The palaces were typically outfitted with the most ostentatious décor: fountains made of marble, sparkling chandeliers, and thick velvet draperies.
Rector’s, the premier lobster palace of the era, was regarded as the most important restaurant on Broadway and on the New York social and theater scene.****** Opened by Charles Rector in 1899 who had also opened a successful seafood restaurant by the same name in Chicago in 1884, the New York restaurant opened during a time of major social change exemplified in part by the changes in English royalty, but also due to big changes in the U.S.
Larger than Life Palace Personalities
Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady were known for their voracious appetites—which was only eclipsed by their girth. Russell weighed over 200 pounds, but had a hourglass figure (in a corset) that accentuated her sufficiently sized hips and very large bosom. With a commanding stage presence, beauty that was second to none at the time, and a magnificent voice, what people were most impressed of was her ability to eat, sometimes more than Brady.
They would often bet each other who could eat the most at a sitting. Jim Brady was without question a robust, affable-looking man with broad Irish features, and who, at about six feet tall probably weighed nearly 400 pounds.
Brady’s appetite was legend, and when it came to eating, a typical lunch for him might consist of two lobsters, deviled crabs, clams, oysters, and beef, plus several pies. Dinner would start with an appetizer of two or three dozen oysters, six crabs, and several servings of green turtle soup. For his entrée, he might enjoy two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, sirloin steak, two helpings of terrapin, and a smattering of vegetables. Dessert would center around pastries and two pounds of candy.******* Whatever restaurant the two appeared at, it was an ecstatic occasion for the restaurateurs and hotel maitre‘d, and commanded the attention of everyone present.
Lobster palaces were always the scene of a social circus, with a mix of well-heeled financial capitalists, chorus girls and dancers, stage actors and actresses, gamblers, confidence men and shady ladies, industrial millionaires, and middle class climbers all vying for their chance to be seen and noticed.
Amidst an amalgam of noisy banter and ostentatiousness, people would stream in and out of the palaces all night into the early dawn. Some lobster palaces incorporated dance floors and chorus line entertainment to dial up the excitement, enlist the services of vaudeville performers, or hire a few singers and dancers to keep the crowd happy. A good time was always to be expected at a lobster palace, and every palace tried to outdo the other to claim customer supremacy.
The Victorian era (a period defined by conservative social behavior during the reign of Queen Victoria) was ending and the Edwardian era (a more lax period under the the reign of King Edward II) was dawning. Technology and industry were rapidly changing the lives of Americans as the modern world was coming into being, and Rector’s was located in an area that would soon be bustling with Broadway theaters, and was poised to play a starring role in the cultivation of New York’s nightlife scene. In essence, Rector’s was the Elaine’s of its day. The place to see and be seen amidst any of the lobster palaces in the theater district.
But, as most trends in life do, the era of lobster palaces came to a close following the end of World War I and the onset of national Prohibition in 1919. And even though they’re gone, their stories live on!