Duncan Hines is Yesteryear’s Zagat

I used to start every trip out into America with a stop at the New York Public Library to crib from Duncan Hines’ Adventures in Good Eating, published 50 years earlier. Before he was a cake mix, the guy was a one-man Michelin Guide, a salesman who reviewed restaurants as a sideline while driving the back roads and highways. In a country of franchised sameness, the challenge was to search out any of his choices that might have survived (usually about one to none in any state).

This fall I went back to the library to see how things have held up here on my home island since the 1959 guidebook, published the last year Hines was alive. Some survivors are not surprising, like preserved-in-amber Le Veau d’Or near Bloomingdale’s, and there is ample evidence that steak has always been a prescription for restaurant longevity (can you say Keens?).

But what turns out to be more revealing is how eating out in this borough has evolved since Hines was essentially Zagat. Suffice it to say great throngs of diners are not sitting down to noisette d’agneau a l’estragon in the East 50s and 60s these days. Not just top menus but hot neighborhoods are very, very different.

By the time the 1959 guide was published, Hines was in his late 70s and had turned over supervision of the guidebooks to an associate, but it’s fair to deduce that the bulk of the recommendations reflected his roughly 20 years of fork-in-hand research. And it’s probably not fair to assume that where he loved to eat really represented the choices of an everyman in New York. He was rich, he was famous, he luxuriated in the best hotels. It stands to reason that he would concentrate his raves around what is now the country’s most gilded ZIP Code (back then large cities had only postal zones, not nine-digit codes, and phone numbers were still preceded by exchanges like ELdorado, PLaza and REgent). Today he would be a regular at Daniel and anything else extracting megabucks from platinum diners in 10021.

Hines was Kentucky-born and clearly loyal to American cooking, which was surprisingly similar to what New American chefs “discovered” in the early ’80s (game in season, Southern fried chicken, corn fritters). But here in Manhattan his guide leaned decidedly Continental. French restaurants dominated, like the Colony, at 61st and Fifth, frequented by the city’s “resident and visiting celebrities,” and Passy at 63rd and Fifth, with its “papiettes” de veau maison. And he was of course enamored of Le Pavillon, where the revolutionary Henri Soulé reigned.

But his guide also recommended Italian, Swiss, Belgian, Austrian, German, Danish, Hungarian, Polish and Swedish restaurants. (Spanish? Not so much.) Try to find those cuisines these days.

Exactly three Chinese restaurants were cited, all long gone. And the one Japanese, Miyako on West 56th, needed this postwar reassurance to readers: “Owned and operated by a loyal Japanese-American family who had four sons in our army.”

This was an island apparently starved for Mexican, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Indonesian, Tunisian, Malaysian, Moroccan, Brazilian, Ethiopian, Filipino, Brazilian, Cuban and Caribbean, let alone anything from the Middle East. How did they live without falafel and hummus, let alone sushi on every menu?
Today’s epidemic of celebrity chefs would probably also have been as unimaginable to Hines as crudo before his chicken cacciatore. He mentions one or two, like Marcel Gosselin at L’Armorique on East 54th, but he is much more likely to single out restaurateurs, like “well-known Madame Pagani” at Brussells Restaurant on 54th.

Celebrity clientele was also value-added for out-of-towner Hines. He liked Lindy’s in Times Square for the cheesecake, seafood and coffee but also for the “theatrical celebrities and writers” who patronized it. Jack & Charlie’s 21 was “a must” because “it’s a gathering place of the cream of society.” Gorgeous Luchow’s on what is now the Trader Joe’s block of 14th Street offered German cuisine and the likes of Helen Hayes and Eddie Fisher. Funny to imagine him today, tromping through the Meat District and West Village on a Sex and the City tour, complete with cosmos and cupcakes.

Hines gushed over everything at the Waldorf (the Starlight Room, Peacock Alley and Norse Grille) and at the St. Regis (Oak Room, Maisonette, rooftop bar). Only the scale has changed in hotel dining, though; he could be at Ian Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel tonight, getting dissed at Wakiya. And he was very taken with the just-opened Forum of the Twelve Caesars in Rockefeller Center, not quite a Tao or Buddakan of its time that remains one of the most over-the-top in New York history.

In 10 pages of mini-reviews of roughly 80 restaurants, Hines singles out only seven in the Village, East and West combined. He includes a couple around Wall Street, three in Chinatown and a few in what is now SoHo/Tribeca; otherwise, there is almost nothing farther south than 32nd Street. Today’s tired Restaurant Row, West 46th between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, is described as “out-of-the-way.” The East Side stops at the Metropolitan Museum’s dining room, and in truth Michelin doesn’t go up there much, either. The Upper West Side has nothing above 63rd Street besides Stoddard’s Atop Butler Hall at Columbia University, now the Terrace in the Sky (and then presided over by Mr. Stoddard, “an inventor of national reputation,” responsible for the Ampico Reproducing Piano and the U.S. Pneumatic Mail Tubes and apparently also engaging in the 1950s form of sous vide, because his vegetables were cooked by a new process and “are the most delicious I have ever eaten.” Details are left to the imagination.)

As someone despairing of the chaining of Manhattan, I was oddly encouraged to see the plague has always been upon us. Hines touted three outlets of Stouffer’s, all serving “home-style cooking” from “recipes thoroughly tested in the Cleveland Experimental Kitchen under the supervision of graduate dietitians.” Branches of White Turkey were also scattered around the city, each with “delicious American-style food” such as chicken Maryland and turkey potpie. And a mini-chain called Hutton’s was the Craft of its time, specializing in steak and squab, but at more democratic prices.

Dining as entertainment was also the same as it ever was: At Ye Olde Chop House on Cedar Street, established in 1800, “everything inside and outside has the same uniqueness, the same appearance in the days of wigs and buckles.” The Assembly Steakhouse on East 43rd boasted an open kitchen; L’Aiglon on East 55th offered veal chops cooked tableside (today you’d have to go out for Korean to get searing meat in the dining room). And Hines took quite a shine to a gimmick at Johnny Johnston’s Charcoal Room on East 45th, where “guests may broil [their] own steaks and become members of [a] T-Bone Club which entitles them to a personal chef’s cap which has its own peg on [the] dining room wall.” That almost makes David Burke’s Tropic Zone look restrained.

The guide, copies of which are now housed in a storage center in Princeton and available to anyone who requests one a day or so in advance, would feel like a total relic if not for the few restaurants still listed on menupages.com: Le Veau d’Or; the Palm (now with three locations); Keens Steakhouse; 21; Sardi’s; and the Waverly Inn, recently resuscitated by Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter and his posse. Delmonico’s has shed “Oscar’s” as part of its name, but it survives (and now serves foie gras and steak rather than “curries, Northern Italian dishes, French and American foods”). Two other durables are the Roosevelt Grill, in the hotel of the same name on Madison Avenue, and Marchi’s, an Italian spot in the East 30s that has lasted since 1930 by serving the same five-course dinner every day.

Overall, Hines reveled in a world of filet of sole Nicoise, chateaubriand, souffle aux parfumes, veal scallops Newport and cassoulet Toulousaine. (In a world before Google, proofreading was not easy.)

As Mad Men retro-sophisticated as it sounds, though, New York in the ’50s was also prone to the same kind of silliness that has produced “sushi bistro-grills” today. Among his no-details recommendations is El Borracho on East 55th, which served “Italian-French.” But the name is, of course, Spanish for drunk.

In reviews of roughly 80 restaurants, Hines’ guide singled out only seven in the Village. But it recommended Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Hungarian and Swedish restaurants. Try to find those cuisines these days.

Photo credit: Janet Rhodes