A Brief History of New York's Successful Restaurants
"Yeah," Spike said, standing in the dining room of Fraunces Tavern on Pearl St. in New York. "This place has been in continuous operation since 1762. That's 252 years, if I'm not mistaken." Now 75 years old, Spike Walton had spent almost 60 years working as a Sous Chef in New York's great hotel kitchens. "I've eaten here many times over the years. I've made it my business to eat in all of New York's legendary restaurants."
Spike was taking me on a two week tour of the New York restaurants he considered successful. He defined success as still in business. "Restaurants that get famous for a while but don't last are not successful by New York standards. This place has been here for 250 years. It's the seventh oldest restaurant in the world! Now that's success."
We sat down for lunch and I asked Spike what he thought Frauncey's secret to success was. "No secret," he answered. "They were first. They had no competition. They were the original. Everybody wanted to eat where George Washington took his generals to dinner. All these guys had to do was not to offend the customers over the years. Pretty clear when you think of it like that. Give the people a good reason to come and don't make them mad. It's worked for these guys for 252 years. That's success."
THE BRIDGE CAFE- 1794: "This place started as a brothel," Spike remarked as we sat down to dinner that same night. They put a bar right in this room back in 1847, so even though McSorley's Ale House likes to claim they're the oldest, McSorley's didn't open until 1854. "This joint was on the waterfront back in the day. They filled all this land around us so that's why Water St. isn't on the water anymore. They only called it The Bridge recently. But this same restaurant was here long before they built the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the only Irish saloon ready to service all the waterfront toughs who needed refreshment. As the workers changed over the decades they gave each new breed what they wanted; a hearty lunch served quickly with a little taste of the good stuff. Tradition, convenience, and value;can't beat it for 220 years."
DELMONICO'S - 1837: Spike and I roamed around Delmonico's dining rooms admiring the traditional but comfortable decor. "This is really America's first restaurant. The last two places were meat and potato taverns common to the times, but Delmonico's," Spike intoned with his arms spread to take in the entire room, "this is a restaurant. The great Chef Alessandro Fellippini created exotic recipes like the world famous Delmonico steak in these kitchens. No one else had a trained European chef. This was a first in 1837. The Delmonico brothers even had a 1,000 bottle wine cellar and introduced private dining rooms for their discriminating well-to-do customers. No, this was truly the first restaurant. Delmonico's chefs invented Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, Lobster Newburg and Chicken A la Keene. Imagine operating such a sophisticated restaurant in 1837 and still producing these same signature dishes 177 years later. Talk about creating a distinct concept and staying focused on it.
KEEN'S STEAKHOUSE - 1885: Keen's Steakhouse is located on West 36th St. off 6th Avenue right above Herald Square where Broadway joins 6th Avenue. "You've heard the song, Give My Regards to Broadway...'remember me to Herald Square', I'm sure," Spike began as we turned the corner at 36th street. "Well, back in the day when Keen opened his chophouse, Herald Square was the theater district. The actors, directors, producers, and writers would slip out of the stage doors and head to Keen's to get refreshed between shows. He was the only restaurant near Herald Square, and he served what was considered the best Mutton Chop in the world. If you're the only game in town, and you don't let competition take better care of your guests, you'll succeed like Old Man Keen did and last 129 years."
PETER LUGAR - 1887: Spike just sat smiling and watched me eat my steak at Peter Lugar's on Broadway in Brooklyn. "Well?" he said, still smiling. "Have you ever had a steak like that?"
I chewed on for a minute before answering. "Never," I said. "It's truly the best I have ever had. I'm having trouble figuring out what it is about it. It's tender...it's flavorful...it even smells like steak should smell, I think."
Spike took a sip of his martini and kept nodding his agreement. "I guess we don't have to analyze any further why this place has been here for 127 years."
"There's lots of great steak houses in New York," I said. "What is it about this steak?"
"When the Formans bought old Carl Lugar's cafe back in 1903, Forman himself would head over to the meat market on the Westside and personally select the best aged short loins he could find; prime only, of course. He even trained his wife to carry on the tradition after he died, and she went over to the meat market every day to select her short loins. Then her son was trained and so on. They never lost sight of the single reason people flocked to their restaurant. Hand-picked quality, daily. They knew who they were and they never lost focus on that narrow concept."
Spike and I traveled on to P.J. Clarke's (1884), Katz's Deli (1888), The Palm (1926), and ended up at the Starbuck's on Delancey Street. "What are we doing in Starbuck's?" I asked Spike as he ordered his Latte.
"There's one last famous New York restaurant I wanted to show you. It was America's first successful coffee shop. It used to be called Horn and Hardart. Now it's called Starbuck's."
"Starbuck's used to be Horn and Hardart? Are you kidding? That's ridiculous," I said in my most skeptical tone.
"Back in 1912, Mr. Horn and Mr. Hardart had a little bakery in Philadelphia. They were going nowhere until they introduced the first French-drip coffee to America. Their business took off and they developed the automat concept that lasted for fifty years here in New York. People in the 40's and 50's had no Starbuck's. But they did have Horn and Hardart.
A clear, focused concept fueled by experienced, hard-working owners is the answer to restaurant success. You don't need to go to college to learn that, but you do need to take a tour of New York's successful restaurants with Spike Walton.