17 March 2009

Food & Drink: Painting the Town Red

By Vicki Gaia

World War II had come to an end, Europe was in shambles, and New York City had become the New World View. Eating out, listening to music, drinking and dancing, theater, movie houses--whatever your pleasure, you could find it in Manhattan.

Good ol' American food could be found at many of the restaurants. The Plaza offered boiled salt mackerel, fried hominy grits, pecan waffles, clam juice, little pig sausage and fried cornmeal mush. You had the modest delis serving Jewish bagels and lox with cream cheese and hot pastrami. If you liked to stroll in Central Park on Sundays, you could dine at the Essex House on summer prune juice, cherrystone clams, Scotch woodcock, sweetbreads, creamed finnan haddie on toast.

Drinking became an obsession after the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933, which was only twelve years before. Every neighborhood had its local saloons, and many trades had their favorite hang outs. Mad men, those advertising gurus, hung out at the East Side piano bars, newspapermen at Bleeck's, next door to the Herald-Tribune. Cedar Tavern on University Place catered to artists, and you could find writers drinking at their favorite bar of the Algonquin Hotel or Costello's on Third Avenue. And for the sailors and seamen, their home away from home was The Horse.

When I think of the forties, I think of cocktails. This weekend I had a bittersweet orange Manhattan at PF Chang's. Served in a wide fluted glass, I sipped the elixir and thought of my mother's generation. The Manhattan was invented at the Manhattan Club, or so it's said. One part vermouth, two parts whiskey, a dash of bitters, stirred with ice and garnished with a cherry. But the cocktail of the forties was the dry martini. Barely touched with vermouth, it was mostly pure gin.

Cafe Society thrived. A mix of theater people, old families, musicians, sportsmen, actors, sprinkling of military men, and a few writers, and of course, the gossip columnists who reported on their comings and goings. The society could be seen listening to jazz at the Cotton Club in Harlem; sipping afternoon tea at the Plaza; dancing at the Starlight Roof on a perfect summer night; dining at Sardi's; or drinking at the El Morocco.

After the war, New York City heralded the new way of life in America. For a few years it held its "... particular mixture of innocence and sophistication, romance and formality, generosity and self-amazement...", quoted from Manhattan '45' by Jan Morris.

Picture of Sardi's taken by Walter Sanders was published in Life Magazine.