AT the turn of the century there were so many Germans living in the neighborhood around Tompkins Square, in an area bounded by Avenues A and B and 7th and 10th Sts., that the community became known as Little Germany. The exodus of Germans from that quarter was indirectly due to one of New York’s most tragic disasters, the burning in the East River of the excursion steamer General Slocum in June 1904, with the loss of 1,031 lives. Most of the victims were neighbors and many attended St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, which had sponsored the picnic. Bitterness and recrimination over placing blame for the disaster, distribution of funds collected for survivors, etc., caused most of the old German families to sell their homes and locate elsewhere. Some went to New Jersey, but the majority moved to uptown Manhattan to what was in early days the village of Yorkville, in the East 80’s. The bierstubes and rathskellers that had made life gay in Little Germany closed temporarily in mourning for the General Slocum victims but eventually shuttered permanently and they, too, moved to other locations, many to Yorkville. And the Magyar cafes that formed a Little Hungary inside Little Germany followed suit.
Two World Wars, in which we found ourselves pitted against Germany, resulted in the closing of most of New York’s authentic German restaurants.
The Viennese Lantern, at 242 E. 79th St., is the brain child of Max Loew and in an older time would have been called a “cafe chantant,” since it specializes in singing shows and orchestral music, usually with a Viennese theme. It is popular with New Yorkers mostly as an after theatre rendezvous.
How the VIENNESE LANTERN came about is one of those odd stories that you occasionally run across in the restaurant business.
Max Loew was born in Vienna in 1902 and, like most of the youths of his acquaintance, bent on becoming an actor. He studied with the great Max Reinhardt, alongside of Oscar Homolka and Joseph Schildkraut, and even got so far as to play Romeo in one of Reinhardt’s productions of Romeo and Juliet. All the more surprising since he decided the theatre wasn’t for him and got a job as waiter and part-time cook at several of Vienna’s fine restaurants.
Max opened two of his own restaurants which were to make history, Der Fiaker and the Dornback, which became a trysting place for the ill-fated Crown Prince 150
Rudolph and his secret love, Maria Vetsera. When the Nazis invaded Austria, Loew fled to Holland and opened a restaurant there, the Nachkars, and when Hitler’s legions moved on the Low Countries, he again fled to France, where he created a replica of a Viennese bone in Lc Fiacre.
Loew came to America in 1940 aboard the USS Champlain, which was evacuating refugees, and worked briefly at the Cafe Vienna as a waiter. Then he took a bus to San Francisco and got a job as cook in a boardinghouse. His good friend Oscar Homolka heard of his plight and in 1941 took him to Hollywood, where he became chef, valet and butler in the home of actor George Stevens. When Stevens went into the Army as a captain, Max took over a supermarket for a friend and operated it until several hold-ups persuaded him to seek a less hazardous occupation. So he went into the ceramics business.
A fortuneteller in a gypsy tearoom changed the course of his life when she told him he was in the wrong business: he should be operating a restaurant, but “in the East.” She vividly described the street, the building as it was and as it would eventually look, and Max was so impressed that he shortly took off for New York. When he reached the corner of Second Ave. and 79th St., he recognized the building described and immediately negiotiated for a lease. The VIENNESE LANTERN was the result. It opened in 1947 and has been highly successful ever since, even expanding to about twice its original size.
Max Loew rather fancies himself as a talent discoverer and has introduced so many foreign artists that his waggish friends call him “the poor man’s Sol Hurok,” whom he does resemble slightly. Actually, he is much nearer Max Gordon, who pioneered the VILLAGE VANGUARD.
The Casanova (Viennese), 1538 Second Ave., diagonally across the street from the VIENNESE LANTERN, 1S anotheL Max Loew enterprise. Small, chic and luxuriously appointed, it suggests CHEZ VITO, but its singers stroll around the room instead of sitting at one table.
The Cafe Grinzing (Hungarian), at 323 E. 79th St., now in its 24th year, is a small Hungarian restaurant which specializes in soft lights, strolling violinists and accordion players who go in for gypsy melodies. Owner Eric Rosen presents four shows nightly, with a 4 A.M. closing.
The GRINZING is best remembered for having been the last place in which the voice of the former great operatic soprano and darling of Broadway, Fritzi Scheff, was heard. Mme. Scheff lived across the street and played many engagements at the GRINZING.
The Chardas (Hungarian), 307 E. 79th St., four years old, is owned and operated by Arthur Nagy and Nicholas Rappy, two native-born Hungarians who boast the CHARDAS is the last authentic major Hungarian cafe in New York. A gypsy ensemble under the direction of Rudy Suranyi supplies entertainment, usually with a couple of girl singers and a cymbalon player or two, which is its real novelty. The maitre d’, Thibor Rokassi, another native Magyar, doubles as a member of the floor show.
House of Vienna (Viennese), at 320 E. 79th St., is a pleasant little place featuring typically Viennese food and typically Viennese entertainment, usually violinists and lyric sopranos rendering shmaltzy music from the never never land of comic opera. It is George Eberhardt’s place and meeting him should be part of the visit. Most of his customers are Europeans, either UN visitors or neighbors from Yorkville.