Waldorf-Astoria – The Waldorf And The Lost Art Of Dining

The old Waldorf and, later, the Waldorf-Astoria, inspired the age of public dining. Public and private dining in the United States has gone through a curious metamorphosis. Once it was whole-hearted, unaffected, massive. Later it was cultured. Now it is summed up in the erroneous interpretation of the word “delicatessen.” Today we are getting back to where we were in the beginning in only one sense—simplicity. But we do not eat so much. Cultured, leisurely dining no longer is an important or vital part of our lives, at least so far as public dining-places are concerned. We do not live to eat. We sometimes eat to live. Sometimes—generally, in fact—we just eat.

There probably are two reasons for this. One is national prohibition. The other is our instinct for speed and what is often mistaken for efficiency. Since this is not a tract for or against prohibition, its influence can be summed up briefly-and with no attitude of partiality. Prohibition has taken away the incentive for leisure at the dinner table. One does not sit long over a demi-tasse; it is apt to become cold. After dinner discussion (once the accepted final course in the meal) has languished and vanished because it lacks fuel.

Of course, it would be the height of ingenuousness to assume that nobody in the United States today dines over a glass of wine or a highball or ends the dinner with a cordial. You can see this sorry imitation of the past in any of the combination speakeasy-dining rooms. But you do not find the art of dining. It is too furtive. The diners do not take their drinks as matter-of-fact or as an enhancing part of the meal. They are too conscious and too determined about the liquid part of the dinner, served in an atmosphere of illicit daring, to be concerned about the quality or the tone of their food. Meals there tend to be secondary.

The unhappy result of all this is reflected in some of our first-class restaurants and hotels, where chefs, maltres d’hotel, managers, and proprietors are making a stand to maintain the old traditions of dining. They respect and obey the law—and at what a price their thinning numbers testify. They are soon to become extinct, it seems. Then we can choose between the speakeasy and the quick lunch!

But equally responsible for the deterioration in the dining art is our insistence upon speed and “efficiency.” We have no time these days to dine. Our luncheons are also “business engagements.” If you happen to be a guest at dinner there always is the ogre of the theatre awaiting you, or other guests will be dropping in, or there is some one who wants to play bridge or backgammon, or to get up, just as a course is served, and dance. Nobody wants to lean back and just talk.

Back in the nineties, and until the beginning of America’s participation in the World War, there were no such impediments to leisurely eating. We used to dine at home or in a favorite restaurant. We had fewer outside attractions to take us away from the table. Dining really was the chief form of social amusement. When people began to “dine out” the big hotels adapted themselves to the new condition. They thought out their meals and hired foreign chefs more extensively than before. Americans began to explore menus with French names more confidently and found that the dishes they signified had as exotic a flavor as the cooks who created them.

And yet, fundamentally, American tastes in food changed little; only the French names changed, perhaps. For instance, early in the present century the Boston Herald decided to find out just what the American dish was, anyhow. The period it selected was well after Americans had become used to the new era in food—the Waldorf era—and when they had a chance to decide upon new dishes and old ones.

Boston was meek enough to select New York chefs as the criterions of America’s gastronomic tastes. William S. Shepard, then maitre d’hotel of the Broadway Central Hotel, expressed the belief that steak was the most popular. John Dunston, proprietor of Jack’s famous restaurant, said that “year in and year out I would say lobster was the favorite dish.” T. J. Shanley, a proprietor of old Shanley’s restaurants, chose “steak as the food eaten more than anything else by New Yorkers.” Oscar disagreed with them all. Said he:

“I think that the most popular dish among New Yorkers, and therefore most middle-class Americans, as well as the rich and the poor, is chicken. They feel that in it they have combined the strength of beef and the delicacy of game. Moreover, it is within the reach of nearly every one. The one other reason that I find for its popularity is the multitude of ways it can be prepared to make an appetizing meal.”

Oscar gave reasons, and his idea of chicken as the nationally preferred dish was approved by the Boston judges.

‘What interests us today is that, whether we select chicken, steak, or lobster, these things still remain the fundamentals, so to speak, of our menus. They may be graced with fancy or plain names, but by any name they remain the same.

Still, there was a time when partridge was a procurable and favorite dish; and the Waldorf frequently served three hundred of these birds in a single day. In addition, the hotel often dispensed in one evening, after the theatre, nearly a thousand lobster Newburghs!

The important change that the Waldorf brought about, however, was in the simplicity of a meal. Meals used to be quite prodigious.

“We used to,” says Oscar, “serve about ten courses: now we serve only five or six. The foods are more simple. Of course, this tendency toward simpler foods necessitates cutting out a great many old-time favorites. For one thing, I notice a growing disposition to abandon oysters. They are not nearly so popular as they used to be. Maybe people are growing tired of them. I do not know.

“Fish still holds its own and there is no reason why it should not, with so many excellent varieties in the market. But it is more simply served and the native flavor is not smothered in sauces, as it frequently was when the guests seemed to demand highly seasoned dressings. You always have the entrees and roast or game, but the roast and game do not always figure on the same menu. One or the other goes, according to the taste of the diners. Usually, it is the game that is neglected.

“The salad course remains, but the salads are simple. Lettuce and Romaine perhaps lead in favor, but with those who are thoroughly up to date even the mixed salads are composed entirely of vegetables. The dressings are no longer mysterious compounds to stimulate the imagination and impair the digestion.”

Perhaps, as Oscar observed in 1900, it might have been the fear of gout or chronic indigestion or just a wholesome respect for the liver—but at any rate, the shadow of the simple life was settling down over the gilded haunts of New York’s bon vivant..

There was one other problem the Waldorf faced—and, unlike some restaurants, recognized—and that was the delicate question of whether food in such a cosmopolitan city as New York really was culinary or racial. Oscar held that food is a racial matter. For instance, ham and eggs was the result of the early conditions in the Re-public, when communities were widely separated and transportation was difficult. The early settlers had to produce their own food. They nearly all raised pigs and chickens. Hence they ate ham and eggs. It became the great American breakfast dish.

This is racial, says Oscar, the same as spaghetti is the favorite food of Italy. Pigs knuckles and sauerkraut is a great German dish, because the Germans raised a great deal of cabbage. They added the pigs knuckles for the meat, as it was the cheapest and most easily procurable meat at hand. Even poached eggs on toast were matters of necessity in various places: people liked them poached, but they found they needed a foundation. Today you might well wonder how people could think of eating poached eggs without a toasty foundation.

Regardless of what the style of food was in New York, Oscar was convinced that, as a rule, New Yorkers ate too much. It was a tribute to the Waldorf-Astoria’s cuisine, as well as to Oscar, that crowds came even more enthusiastically to the hotel in spite of his statement that a man could live on one meal a day.

“In the morning,” he said, “business men get up late and have only time to snatch a hurried bite before going to their offices. Noontime sees them bent over a table; they cram enough food into their stomachs in five minutes to last them until evening. They go to work, then rush back to the hotel and get there only in time to change their clothes, fly into the dining-room and partake of a hearty meal, and then they are off to the theatre. After the theatre they eat again and go to bed.”

That statement, made in 1905, might stand today, except that luncheons are lighter, as are breakfasts.

If Oscar insisted upon simplicity in dining, however, he certainly encountered an extreme case of it in Mr. Horace Fletcher. Mr. Fletcher was an honored guest of the Waldorf who had his own ideas of meals. He was the author of a famous book on nutrition and his philosophy also was that people ate too much. Mr. Fletcher called reporters to his Waldorf-Astoria suite and gave them an illuminating interview. He said people might do well by dining on bread and water—which he admitted was almost exactly what he did in the Waldorf restaurants, for his total daily expenditure for food amounted to only $i.

Nevertheless, Mr. Fletcher, fortunately, was as much an exception as that eminent vegetarian, Mr. George Bernard Shaw, would be in the Waldorf-Astoria today. The hotel’s excellent restaurants were for epicures and, under such- stewards as Von Arnim and the head chef, Xavier Kuesmeier, successor to that famous chef, Emil Redener, their menus were planned with a deft touch and a discriminating knowledge of epicurean values. Kuesmeier, they said, got $10,000 a year for planning meals—but that salary is surpassed by many chefs today. The “art” of supervising meals is now an important career. Kuesmeier deserved his reputed salary.

So great was the pride of these men in their kitchen that they welcomed public inspection. That is one reason why the Waldorf-Astoria was the first hotel in New York to open its kitchen to its patrons. You could go in there and see how everything worked.

One intricate detail only glimpsed by the public in the old Waldorf and the old Waldorf-Astoria is that institution glorified by the Waldorf’s personnel—the public banquet. The banquet is not indigenous to the United States nor to the past one hundred years of civilization. We read of banquets, given by individuals ranging from robber barons to kings. They were the forerunners of the present-day affair. However, not until a few decades ago did clubs, business organizations, or societies gather at a public gastronomic affair, except casually. The old ‘Waldorf recognized the growing popularity of the public banquet and was quick to cater to it. That is why so many famous organizations selected the Waldorf and, later, the Waldorf-Astoria, for its banquets.

Here is how a public dinner was arranged: A committee of arrangements discussed the dinner with Oscar in his small office on the mezzanine floor of the Astoria wing. When the menu had been decided upon Oscar pushed a button. Louis, the head banquet waiter, maitre d’hotel, in fact, of the ballroom floor of the hotel, appeared. They went to the ballroom and there details were gone over once more.

Whether the list of guests to the public dinner numbered five hundred or two thousand, the arrangements were comparatively the same. Decorators would trans-form the grand ballroom into a bower of flowers, tables dotted the formerly empty floor. Men were engaged especially to wait on table. Each table had eight guests. There were between fifteen and thirty men hired just to do the meat-carving and more to handle the dumb-waiters which brought the food from the kitchens in the basement of the hotel to the ballroom floor.

At 7:30 o’clock Oscar, raising his finger, let it be known that the dinner was ready. It was something like the act of an orchestra conductor raising his baton just before the first strains of the overture come from the poised instruments of the musicians. Immediately the doors of the banquet hall opened, in the upper gallery a band began to play, while the diners moved leisurely to their places. The diners had their printed seating lists and they had only to seek the table with their allotted number.

Then, if the diner listened closely enough above the din and hum of voices, he would hear a long, steady buzz. The electrical buzzer was inaugurated for the first time in a hotel by Oscar. Its purpose was to notify the waiters when and what to do at a public dinner. Similarly, it kept the chef and his assistants, in the kitchen far down below in the basement of the hotel, informed of the change of courses.

The moment Oscar pressed the buzzer the men at the ranges became alert. Another buzz and they sprang into action, transferring the food from the ovens to the elevators. Meanwhile, in the banquet-room, waiters appeared simultaneously all over the hall and placed dishes on the table. Each time the buzzer sounded they appeared, either to collect the plates or to bring on the new courses. If the dinner was to be followed by a public entertainment, the buzzer sounded after the final course had been finished by the guests. Then the waiters and other employes of the hotel within a short time cleared it of all the tables. What a few moments before had been a great dining-hall became an auditorium.

The diners, of course, were unaware of all this precision, this well-drilled preparedness. But today public banqueting, with its military exactitude, owes a great deal to the finesse and dexterity with which the Waldorf eliminated confusion during such large affairs.

Besides the great public dinners, there always were the same preparations for smaller functions. These frequently were held in what were known as the original state apartments on the Waldorf side of the “hyphenated” hotel. (Larger state apartments were arranged in the Astoria addition.) Particularly during Horse Show week, or Automobile week, or when publishers and editors held their annual gatherings at the Waldorf-Astoria, the old state apartments were used for dining purposes. In one of the rooms of this apartment was to be found the famous Henri Quatre sets. Among its outstanding features were the painting of Marguerite de Valois, consort of Henry IV, in hunting costume, done by Denman; furniture of the period of Louis XV, and a carved Italian screen, made originally for the Duc d’Aosta, brother of the late King Humbert.

In the state dining-room of this apartment about forty persons were accommodated at a public dinner. An en-chanting feature was the collection of Sevres china, painted by Dessard for Mr. Boldt. They bore the heads of many rulers of European countries—countries that long since have disappeared as political entities or have become democracies.

The most entrancing room of all, I believe, was the Astor dining-room. This was the same dining-room that graced the old Astor mansion. William Waldorf Astor, although not concerned about the destiny of his home, did want the dining-room kept intact and placed in the hotel. It was taken apart piece by piece, marked, and kept until the new hotel was completed. Then it was reassembled in the building. It was a thing of quaint beauty, its ceiling, doors, mantel and wall-panels all having been in carved dark walnut. The room was fitted up with tapestries, paintings, draperies, chandelier and other lamps of hammered brass, with strange exotic designs created in France during the early part of the nineteenth century. These lamps were lighted by oil, then by gas, and today by electricity.

Another feature that few people saw was the china of the hotel, jealously guarded. There were twelve dinner services of elaborate proportions, hidden from the curiosity of visitors in the main pantry and kept, like Brook’s white plates and cups, “clean-gleaming.” These were the work of Sevres, of Wedgwood, of Rookwood, Baccarat and Bohemian, and Favrile, masters in the art of porcelain and glassware creation. Then there was the gold dinner service, used at the dinners for Prince Henry of Prussia, the King and Queen of the Belgians, the Prince of Wales, and General Pershing. Only such important occasions brought them out.

All these things had their attraction for the thousands of visitors to New York, as well as for New Yorkers themselves. Every organization, like every individual, that amounted to anything at all planned to have at least one dinner a year at the Waldorf. The theatrical center continued gradually to shift farther uptown, but the after-theatre supper business of the hotel was not affected. People had an abiding affection for this mother of modern hotels.

Indeed, in the regular dining-rooms the demand for tables became so great that Oscar was forced to invent a plush rope to hang across the doorway and thus keep out surplus guests. This was the first time a hotel ever attempted such a thing, and it took New York a little while to get used to it. At first it was greeted with some indignation, but other hotels picked up the idea. What they had in mind, however, was not the same thing that forced Oscar to adopt the scheme. Their idea was that an ordinary restaurant can become a Paradise when barriers are set up against it. If people found they were being held out, then it followed that they would want to get in all the more. That was natural, because of human nature.

The “plush rope” theory worked wonders in the Waldorf. Scores of more people than the restaurants could hold swarmed into the hotel daily. They tried to gain entrance with magnificent tips. They sought particularly to be given a table in the Palm Room, where the celebrities gathered often. There you were apt to see Lillian Russell, Richard Harding Davis, John Drew, or even Anna Held. Perhaps Maurice Barrymore, father of “the royal family” of the stage, might wander in. There you found what amounts to a vanished race today, the men about town!

There was one person who came to the hotel, however, who didn’t care about the celebrities so much as she did the prestige of dining at the Waldorf. How she got into the Palm Room, in spite of her lack of money or influence, and enjoyed a grand meal, is one of the most charming stories in connection with the hotel’s restaurants.

The name of this lady I do not know, nor could Oscar possibly remember, in spite of his memory for names. She breezed into the hotel, her shawl wrapped tightly about her, her bustling black dress moving furtively through the corridor. People, looking at her, must have smiled, for she belonged to another age, just as those smiling people today belong to another age. She was quite old. She had the most perplexed look on her face. She came up to a tall, well-built, pleasant gentleman, and said:

“Could you tell me where the main dining-room is? I must eat in there ”

“But, madame, it’s crow ”

Yes, she continued, interrupting the pleasant gentle-man, she must go in there. She had arrived in New York only two days ago. She was leaving with her niece on the morrow for their home in Michigan. Her niece was out gallivanting—well, she wanted to eat in the big room . , to eat in the Waldorf was one of her chief ambitions that finally impelled her to come to New York.

“Very well,” said the pleasant gentleman, “I’ll try to get you in.” How much would it cost? After all, she hadn’t too much money. The pleasant gentleman looked at her for some time, studied the anxious, pleading, lined face. “I understand,” he said, “it costs fifty cents. Allow me to bring you to the main dining-room.” Then he led her into the Palm Room. He lifted the plush rope and no one tried to stop him. He marched toward a table and waiters bowed before him. The pleasant gentleman whispered something to the waiters and they hurried away.

The old lady, unaware that this, indeed, was a real triumphal march that many a person. would have paid well to experience, was unconcerned about the looks directed her way by the other diners. She sat at the table. Before she even had a chance to order anything the waiters began to serve her. The courses would have made any gourmand envious. When the meal was over she fumbled in her little black leather portmanteau and brought out a half dollar. This she gave to the waiter and he, accepting it, bowed most graciously. Then she rose, while the eyes of other diners followed her wonderingly. At the entrance, the [pleasant gentleman approached her and escorted her to the door. On the way she expressed her enthusiasm with the meal. It was, she said, the best fifty-cent dinner she ever had tasted.

“And you, sir,” she said, “have been very kind in going out of your way to show an old lady to a table. May I ask your name?”

The pleasant gentleman blushed a little, perhaps, and smiled. “Some call me Oscar,” he said.

The Waldorf-Astoria inaugurated many other things besides the plush rope. One of its most unusual features was an artificial trout stream. Trout were imported and placed in the stream, right in the hotel itself, and there customers were allowed to catch their own fish and have it cooked while they waited! Sometimes Oscar received interesting viands from guests. Many deer shot in the mountains in up-state New York were shipped to him, as well as fish. One day a bison, hide, hair, and all, and weighing just one ton, was sent to the Waldorf-Astoria. As a result bison steak was put on the bill for two days.. It was not necessarily a delicacy, but it was something new and this appealed to jaded appetites.

The art of sophisticated, modern dining, however, was still in its infancy in many respects during the early days of the Waldorf-Astoria. That is one reason why it happened to be a pioneer in giving full recognition to the social rights of women. In that age there was a rule against ladies without escorts dining in a public restaurant. You may rub your eyes, but it was so. For instance, here is a news story that appeared in a morning news-paper on January 5, 1907:

“The Waldorf,” it said, “has posted the following notice: `Ladies without escorts will be served in the restaurants hereafter at any hour.’ This was a triumph for ladies who heretofore had been forbidden to eat in the hotel restaurants without male escorts.

“Oscar, interviewed about it, said: `Yes, we will serve women. What else can you do in a hotel? For that mat-ter, you cannot have a rigid rule that women unattended cannot be served in the dining-room after six o’clock. Of course, we shall continue to be careful. We must use some discretion. But any ladies who come here at any time will be welcome to dine in any of the restaurants.’

Oscar, commenting further on this subject, said: The women are being heard from nowadays. They are found in every business and in some they lead the men. It is enough to say that they have conquered; that they do not need the assistance of the men. Not so many months ago the doors were closed to women at Sherry’s and Delmonico’s. But the bars are down now. There is only one restaurant in New York where women cannot dine with-out an escort after six o’clock; that is the Cafe Martin.’

Another liberal innovation was the decision to allow men to smoke in the presence of ladies in a restaurant. The Waldorf-Astoria was the first hotel to take such unprecedented action. Later, the question came up in all hotels whether women should be allowed to smoke in public. As long ago as 1911 the New York corporation counsel affirmed the right of women to smoke in dining-rooms. Still, there was prejudice against it. Oscar’s own attitude in the matter was summed up in these words : “We do not regulate the public taste. Public taste does and should regulate us.”

Finally, there was the problem of drinking; but this, again, treads too closely toward that delicate problem of prohibition. However, it might not be amiss to mention here that in 1904, when the National Wholesale Liquor Dealers held their annual dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, the diners drank nothing but ice-water.

The chairman called for drinks to parch the throats of the guests. Water immediately was served. The fact spread throughout the hotel and Oscar was so astonished that he rushed upstairs, wondering if the waiters had been unable to carry out the order. When he came into the banquet-hall, he was assured that the guests were drinking nothing but water that night. It was feared that liquor would make the gathering too light-hearted an affair at a time when a serious matter was under discussion!

The subject of the discussion, it seems, was “Sour Mash and Its Problems.”

These glimpses of the hotel’s dining history are by no means intended to set forth the development of our gastronomic tastes. But they do, I trust, have a place in the history of one hotel’s cuisine—a cuisine which was to at-tract famous individuals and famous organizations from all over the globe.

And, because their personalities were a part of the human history of the institution, it is important here to devote our attention to them before continuing with the development of the hotel itself. In point of fact, they had their place in the hotel’s growth. The Waldorf-Astoria was the stage, if only momentarily, for some dramatic moments which, in a few cases, at least, profoundly affected political, economic and social history.