Bullfights depress me. And I don’t believe in capital punishment. Bite for the sake of bite is a cruel indulgence. But I don’t see how I can ignore The Colony Restaurant. “Don’t write about The Colony,” advises a cool confidante, with uncharacteristic humanitarianism. (His usual hobby is throwing Christians to lions and lions to Christians.) “Why kick a dead horse?”
“Colony?” cries my socially savvy expense-account luncher, as if I’d reported seeing a dinosaur on the escalator at Bloomingdale’s. “The Colony is a place to take your maid for lunch.”
Well, it wasn’t his maid, dear heart, it was his housekeeper, Myrtle Bennett, once a Cotton Club great. And everybody does not take his housekeeper to lunch at The Colony. But Truman Capote did and inevitably Women’s Wear immortalized the scene as Truman Capote fed his faithful claque: Lee Radziwill, Saint Subber, the Bennett Cerfs, Eleanor and Frank Perry, the Gilbert Kahns, Cee-Zee Guest. Myrtle’s ex-boss, Kirk Douglas, no grudges nursed, even poured the wine.
The Colony for half a century was the apogee of glamour, the ultimate in elegance, style and exquisite feeding...an international sanctum for disadvantaged royals and fabulous pretenders, for the newly rich and the lately rich and the richly besieged and for nibbling little ladies in flowered hats who parked their corgis and Scotties and Pekes in the ladies’ room. There, Clara knew which boxer had to have chocolate ice cream and which pup must have nothing but breast of chicken Gismonda and she would slip into the kitchen to fetch tidbits for “the little darlings.”
The Colony began in 1920 as a dark, disreputable little bistro... a night people’s hangout for gamblers, courtesans and wayward uppercrust gentlemen with their inamoratas. Gambler Arnold Rothstein, soon to meet a rude and abrupt end, stopped by for sandwiches and ginger ale. He always left a 10-cent tip.
But chef Alfred Hartmann was a wizard. He felt wasted. With the former maître d’hôtel Ernest Cerutti and waiter Gene Cavallero, from Lake Garda, he raised $25,000 and bought out the owner. The trio closed shop for ten days to spruce up the store and modernize the kitchen. They reopened in March, 1922...and for three months The Colony was empty. Their fickle regulars had found another dim hideaway to haunt.
Cavallero must have regretted giving up his hot dog stand in Westchester. Then one day Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt came for lunch. Almost overnight tout New York had discovered The Colony. Horsy folk like the Wideners and the dapper State senator Jimmy Walker. William K. Vanderbilt became a daily faithful. And Reginald Vanderbilt lent cachet to The Colony as a socially proper family retreat by bringing his teenage daughter for the homemade ice cream. One day Miss Vanderbilt brought along a school chum, Gloria Morgan. Daddy was delighted. He married her.
What did The Colony have besides Chef Hartmann’s magic and asparagus at $2.50 a portion? Well, it had the best liquor available during the long dry spell of Prohibition. In 1926 the entrance was shifted round the corner to the more sedate 30 East 61st Street. And air conditioning was installed, possibly the first in any restaurant. But it was shut off every summer Saturday to please Bernard Baruch, whose simple tastes demanded a cup of soup, grilled fish, boiled potato a glass of rye and unchilled air.
The names drew names: The King of Greece and the King of Siam, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, all the poor little rich girls (Doris Duke, Barbara Hutton, Gloria Vanderbilt, et al), Wallis Warfield (first with one husband, then with the other), George S. Kaufman, Governor Roosevelt, Mrs. FDR and the Roosevelt clan, Otto Kahn, Louis B. Mayer, Lord Beaverbrook and the Churchills, Lord Mountbatten, Cole Porter, Pacelli before he became Pope, William Randolph Hearst and Arthur Brisbane, archdukes and archflukes, Lodges, Cabots and Mellons, George Jean Nathan, Elsa Maxwell, Noel Coward, Lady Mendl—the famous Elsie de Wolfe (who would not eat soup because she would not make a lake of her tummy).
During the euphoria of the twenties, one gourmand would customarily eat two pounds of caviar for openers, then a pheasant or two and some venison, all washed down with champagne. He always dined alone: “Who could possibly keep up with me?” Cholly Knickerbocker found The Colony “frightfully inty.” So did Frank Costello, Krueger The Match King and Alfred Lowenstein, the Belgian industrialist who jumped out of an airplane when his financial empire toppled. Russell Ryder demanded roasted swans, tipped each waiter who served him $100 and sent $10 to each dishwasher. When Ryder was convicted in a stock speculation scandal, Cavallero sent exquisite delicacies to the prison until the warden forbade it.
During the crash certain Colony regulars ate on credit.
Upstairs in the rented club room an illustrious coven of habitués played a little friendly poker every Saturday afternoon: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Samuel Goldwyn, New Yorker publisher R. H. Fleischmann, Joe Schenk and Herbert Bayard Swope. George S. Kaufman was the treasurer. Heywood Broun arrived first and left last. When the game broke, they would gather in The Bar for lunch. Eventually they were demanding breakfast at 11 p.m. and dinners at five in the morning. To discourage these liberties, The Colony hiked their rent. So the friendly little poker game moved to the Algonquin in 1932.
“It is harder to get a good table at The Colony than to join the Junior League,” Vogue magazine noted in 1937. It isn’t hard anymore.
Today lunch in The Colony dining room is like lunch at Forest Lawn, except that here the flowers are mostly plastic. A captain picks his nose. A waiter nibbles toast. Gene Cavallero Jr. picks his teeth with a matchbook. Young couples arrive bubbling and cheerful...and soon grow grim and silent in the vast unoccupied spaces of Marienbad in the off-season.
I do not mean to suggest that the Old Guard—especially the Older Guard—have utterly abandoned the tarnished Colony. You may still see the sabled Babe Paley, Billy Baldwin, Kitty Miller, John Ringling North, Sinatra, The Duchess with Mrs. William Woodward, the Bouvier sisters and Aristotle Onasis (who was once arrested on The Colony’s doorstep by a U.S. marshal for alleged commercial skullduggery). The Grande Demoiselle Beth Leary, who ate lunch at The Colony every day since 1925 and had her own sterling silver napkin ring, has taken her favors to L’Aiglon... hurt because Junior did not attend memorial services for her brother. But Leonard Lyons still drops by for a bulletin or two. Cordelia Biddle Robertson is still loyal and parks her pup in the ladies’ room. Doris Lilly brings her Yorkshire, Pazzo, who understands only Italian... “Come sta?” the poor unilingual Pazzo is greeted.
They come with the spirit that sends some of us to high school reunions... out of loyalty, habit and inertia. They are pampered and indulged and lionized. I doubt if they even see the tarnish or the fading tacky unsplendor. It is The Colony. It is theirs.
Doris Lilly comes because “they need me.” She remembers the golden days twenty years ago when glamour girls lunched at a 50 per cent discount. “Serge Obolensky taught me how to eat lunch at The Colony for one dollar,” Doris recalls. “You would order eggs ambassador... a piece of bread with a hole cut out of the middle and an egg in it, a little sauce on top. That was $1.50. It wasn’t even on the menu. Then iced coffee and free cookies. ‘Bring on the free cookies,’ we’d cry. Gene Senior would halve the check. Those free cookies have kept many a glamour girl going till nine o’clock. When we went out at night with Gianni Angelli or Howard Hughes we dragged them to The Colony.” Honeychil’ Wilder was another Colony pet. One day she asked to borrow some jewels from the vitrine in the lobby...“Help yourself,” said her host, unlocking the case. Miss Wilder then left the baubles on her night table and went off for the weekend. Her maid borrowed the gems for a party in Harlem. They were finally returned six days later.
Today there is a book in the vitrine, A Talent for Living, biography of a Colony regular, Henry Sell. Even the lobby of The Colony isn’t safe enough for the Van Clef trinkets. There are magazines to read and a 1940s-shaped settee with a pleasant fall of print draperies and twin alabaster urns lighted from within, filed with artificial flowers. There is also a flag from the Apollo 13 flight, memento of a visit from the astronauts. Did Buzz Aldrin see only the legend? Or is he like me, wide-eyed and tinsel-fantasied Middle American... shocked to discover how shabby and mundane are the haunts of the very, very rich, and how often undemanding their lamb-chop-and-tapioca palates.
There are no stunning appointments here, no aristocratic nuances of service, no exquisite rare spécialités de la maison. The menu’s offerings are fairly straight-arrow and relatively undemanding of the kitchen—saddle of lamb, chicken Pojarsky, sautéed veal cutlets, grilled turkey, grilled kidney, pompano Veronique, frogs’ legs Provençale, grilled swordfish, chicken liver pilaf, roast beef hash with poached egg, fried scallops, tournedos Rossini, sole Anglaise Normande, entrees from $4.25 at lunch, from $6.25 at dinner. The food can be good, with by far the greatest effort reserved for hallowed house traditions—crisp, fresh, homemade potato chips and sublime beignets soufflés ($3.30), light inflated fritters served with creamy sabayon...almost worth the 40-minute wait (the waiter had warned it would take fifteen).
Uneven performance is practically a Manhattan restaurant bylaw these days. At The Colony it goes like this: At dinner, strong, flavorful petite marmite ($2.45) with unattractive chunks of boiled beef, chicken, carrot and celery. A frail, watery onion soup ($2.35). Smoked trout with a tasteless quiver of aspic and bland sauce Raifort ($3.75). Crêpes Colony ($3.75), heavy handed and yet a pleasant contrast of tastes in two sauces, mustard and curry. An emphasis on crabmeat ($4.50), sweet fresh crabmeat, great mounds of it, on heart of artichoke or stuffed into a tomato surprise at lunch ($3.25)...handsomely served, yet dressed with mundane Russian dressing.
Noisettes de veau favorite ($4.95), thick tender veal cutlets sautéed to perfection, equally juicy and flavorful. Supreme of chicken Gismonda ($6) on a bed of buttery spinach laced with sand. Saddle of lamb, beautifully charred on the outside, rose rare within ($6.25), served with a slice of broiled kidney. The supreme of duck, boned and skinned, tender and succulent ($7). But a pitiful orphan baby pheasant on foie gras-padded toast... string dry and watery, as if thawed for the occasion ($7.75).
All the vegetables are overcooked except for the purée of carrots. And that is the charm of the purée...intemperance is masked. Except for the majestic beignets, the desserts are a sorry lot: weary crêpes in an unpleasant suzette bath ($3.75)…another fifteen-minute wait that stretched to half an hour. Lackluster pastry. A pleasant-enough mousse ($2.25) and a most disappointing poire Sicilienne ($3.75). It sounds like a dessert-lover’s dream -- poached pear, marrons, ice cream sauce, shaved chocolate -- but it is sheer overkill. Though a silver tray of complimentary petits fours is drifting cozily about the room, it takes three reminders to get a plate of fourteen cookies. And these are pathetic...they’d never make the first-string cookie team at the Tip Toe Inn.
I never knew The Colony that was. So I cannot measure the fall. But I have been to the wake, and this is how it is today.
Andy the doorman is so tuned in to the limousine arrival, he doesn’t notice our taxi. So you open the door yourself... to a pleasant lobby and segregated cloakrooms: one for ladies, one for gentlemen. The dining room is sedate, well-bred, with bright turquoise slip-covers. The Bar, that blue-and-white-striped circus tent on the left, was once just a bar. That was changed long ago with eleven words. Cavallero senior came in to announce that dinner was served in the dining room. “We’ll dine here, Gene,” said the Duke of Windsor, “the bar has such a gay atmosphere.” That was it...though scattered iconoclasts still prefer the dining room. The most desirable table of all is, of course, the most unpleasant: the big sheltered table opposite the kitchen with its blue louvered screen, favored by Sinatra, Truman Capote and Lee Radziwill, Onassis with Jacqueline.
There is a swordfish over the bar and trailing baskets of plastic geraniums at the windows. The upholstery has a leftover air, and so do the faces. Faces from Southampton in the 1940s...pre-war Princeton haircuts, parted in the middle. Waxworks in the corner...a Vanity Fair face with scarlet cupid’s bow lips, Billie Burke pout, Gertie Lawrence hairdo... eating The Colony’s famous spaghetti ($4.75 at lunch, $5 at dinner-it’s not on the menu). And there is even a sprinkling of sedate under-30s.
The chatter and shriek is uncomfortable... voices strain in conversation to be heard above tented din. Here at the mid-room table, too small for four, too cramped in a narrow aisle, we are bumped and buffeted by the harassed staff, a decimated army. Twice we have to ask to have the wine poured. Our captain, Albert, is an amiable, pleasant fellow, but he is sure the bottle is empty. To his surprise, he finds another seven ounces of Haut-Brion left to pour. It takes three requests for a refill of coffee and that many reminders for the wretched cookies. The wineglasses are small. The vegetables are served in cafeteria-size saucers...even the living, breathing carnation on the table is enhanced with a plastic fern.
The menu is just a folded sheet of paper with borscht spelled, curiously, bortch...a Colony tradition. There is a cover charge, listed discreetly on the menu: B and B et Celeris (90 cents at lunch, $1 at dinner). But there is no sign of celery. And at that price we are paying 15 cents per breadstick and Melba round. Still it must be noticed that the Colony’s wine prices are commendably lower than most and only a scattered few food items have gone up since 1968, and these, very gently. Even so, our dinner for four with two drinks, three courses, vegetables à la carte, coffee, the $19.50 Haut-Brion ’64, tips and tax, came to $113.89. Two lunches for two, again three courses, two drinks, and salad or vegetable, no wine, were $40 and $34.64 with tips.
The junior Cavallero was permitted to buy a half-share in The Colony after a tough apprenticeship washing pots, running hotel switchboards and waiting tables here and abroad...and after a dramatic washout from the Cornell restaurant and hotel school. “I kept saying, ‘Yes, that’s right, but you don’t do it that way,’” Gene Junior confides. “So they flunked me out.” Once day the senior Cavallero announced he was ready to retire. He named the price for his share. “And I’m still paying for it,” Junior says.
The Colony survives as a boarding-house for its faithful. And Colony regulars expect concierge service. They call wanting a room in an overbooked hotel, seats on sold-out flights, tickets to the season’s hit play and pickup service for children en route to camp. They even ask for reservations for dinner at La Côte Basque or La Grenouille for out-of-town guests. “They are both excellent restaurants,” Junior assures the uncertain caller.
But the Grand Eating scene is changing. The offspring of folk who couldn’t dine anywhere less than The Colony are eating fettuccine at Elaine’s and eggs Benedict at Daly’s Dandelion.
Junior mourns these migrations. And he wonders why people seem to think The Colony is old, haughty or exclusive. “We have never thrown anybody down the stairs,” he says, “We wish people wouldn’t be afraid to come.” There is a sanitation worker in Manhasset who comes to The Colony twice a year without fail, Junior boasts, on his wife’s birthday and their anniversary. Only once did he miss. He had broken his leg. And there is a riveter too. So why not you and me?
As a sociological field trip, I recommend The Colony. And for compulsive collectors of celebrity trivia, The Colony remains a working mausoleum for séances with the past. But if you still believe in Escoffier and Baccarat and The Restoration of Conspicuous Opulence, fear for your tender illusions.
The Colony, 30 East 61st Street, TE 8-6660. Noon to eleven
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