If I had a choice of another era in which to be a restaurant critic and food columnist, I would select the Roaring ’20s and sophisticated ’30s. Americans reacted with abandon at the end of World War I. Women bobbed their hair, shortened their hemlines, threw off their corsets, sipped cocktails and smoked in public. Men reacted with a similar joie de vivre. They dressed for dinner, but often followed the example set by the handsome Prince of Wales, who detested white tie and tails. Dinner jackets became all the rage.
Large restaurants and supper clubs featured live music played by full orchestras. Dancing between courses was part of the dining experience. The Roaring ’20s ushered in the era of George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern.
F. Scott Fitzgerald so loved the food, drink, music and culture of the day, he called it "The Jazz Age."
Unfortunately for those who enjoyed this spirited life, the American government instituted the Volstead Act in 1920. This law outlawed the sale of liquor, which led to a rise in crime, bootlegging and the appearance of speakeasies throughout the country. According to historians, bathtub gin did not taste too good. It was not until Dec. 5, 1933, that the Volstead Act was repealed and happy days were here again. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt so enjoyed his nightly martini, he himself mixed a pitcher of them each evening at the cocktail hour.
Upscale restaurants in the ’20s and ’30s served sophisticated fare. In the ’30s, particularly before the Great Depression, a vast array of raw and cooked shellfish was often served as a first course. Oysters and cherrystone clams served on the half-shell, shrimp cocktail, clams casino, oysters Rockefeller, crab cocktail and the like were among the favorites. Soup was sometimes a clear consomm� or vichyssoise. Huge, prime-quality grilled steaks, chops, stuffed breast of capon, for those who preferred poultry; and grilled calves’ liver with saut�ed onions and bacon were a hallmark of sophisticated taste. Lobster or seafood � la Newburg or lobster or seafood Thermidor, shrimp scampi or baked stuffed shrimp and lobster — offered chilled as an appetizer, or steamed or broiled as an entr�e — also pleased the discerning palate.
Potatoes were popular and ran the French gamut from au gratin to Dauphinoise to potatoes Anna. Vegetables, often bathed in rich hollandaise, accompanied the entr�es. Desserts were flaming wonders such as cr�pes Suzette and cherries jubilee, prepared tableside, or baked Alaska.
The one chef who had the most influence on the times was the great Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935). Although he worked in Paris and Nice, it was in London where he reigned as "The Emperor of Chefs." He opened the famed Savoy Hotel, which is still in business. It was not until the death in 1910 of King Edward VII, who reveled in huge, multi-course dinners of rich food — sometimes adding to 20 courses fine wines, port and numerous cigars — that Escoffier realized the perfect meal consisted of streamlined courses.
In American restaurants, patrons enjoyed a four- or five-course dinner in beautiful settings. France still held the highest influence here, although Italian and Chinese restaurants dotted the big cities. The now-shuttered Cathay Tea Garden at 13th and Chestnut, which enjoyed its heyday in the ’30s, served chop suey and, for some reason, loaves of Italian bread. Since Italian cucina also influenced the menus, restaurants often served what was then called continental cuisine. In some respects, the fare found in today’s steakhouses is similar to the fare served in the ’20s and ’30s.
The rebirth of the classic American steakhouse began here in the late 1980s when Morton’s of Chicago came to Center City. Since then, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, the Palm, the Prime Rib, the Capital Grille, Davio’s — which calls itself a Northern Italian steakhouse — Smith & Wollensky, Sullivan’s Steak House, Kansas City Prime and, to some extent, the Saloon, have brought back the era of classic steaks, chops, seafood, hefty drinks and all the trimmings.
I’ve picked these decades for a number of reasons. Staff were top-flight professionals, a rarity these days. The majority of maitre d’s and waiters were European, usually French and Italian, who knew how to take care of their patrons. The professional staff of this era consisted of men who wore beautifully tailored tuxedos.
The atmosphere was also an important part of the dining experience. Beautiful spaces were filled with fresh flowers, uncommonly attractive architecture and men and women who dressed for dinner. I’m not a snob, but I don’t care for a steady diet of our casual age, in which men and women show up in a pretty restaurant wearing shorts or jeans. I would have loved to dress to the nines for dinner wearing a silk gown right out of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie.
But most importantly, the meals would hold no surprises. There would be no weird concoctions such as reduced blueberry vinaigrette served on calves’ liver, no fusion fare that rarely appeals to my taste.
Hotel dining was quite popular in the ’20s and ’30s. The Bellevue Stratford Hotel, the Grande Dame of Broad Street, opened on Sept. 20, 1904. I can only imagine the night of Dec. 6, 1933, the first dinner after the repeal of Prohibition.
In my 1933 fantasy, I am fortunate to be a restaurant critic and food columnist for a newspaper. In those days, newspaper columnists often had radio shows — Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell come to mind. I am talking about the splendid meal and also hosting a live radio broadcast from the Rose Garden Ballroom of the Bellevue Stratford.
My guests that evening are William Powell and Myrna Loy, stars of the soon-to-be- released movie The Thin Man. They were in town to promote the film, and a press agent did his best to ensure lots of publicity. This wisecracking, sophisticated and glamorous couple brought along Skippy the dog, who plays Asta in the movie. Both were enchanted to discover the new name for a martini was a "Nick and Nora." Unlike Neal, the martini-loving Saint Bernard in Topper, Asta had yet to develop a taste for gin and vermouth.
Here are recipes for some of the dishes from my fantasy 1933 dinner served to William Powell, Myrna Loy, Asta and me.
12 plump oysters such as Blue Points
1 (8-ounce) bag baby spinach leaves
1 stick sweet butter
1 cup bread crumbs
If you have asked your fishmonger to open the oysters for you, ask him to pour the liqueur from the oysters into a plastic container for safe-keeping.
Place the oysters in a large baking pan. Remove the stems from the spinach and set aside. Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Lower the heat to medium and add the spinach, tossing it about from time to time. Cook the spinach just enough to wilt it. Do not overcook.
Place a good-sized dollop of the spinach on top of each oyster. Top with a bit of bread crumbs. Run the oysters under the broiler for a few minutes and serve immediately.
Note: Recipe can be easily doubled.
1 stick sweet butter
5 Idaho potatoes
1 quart chicken stock
3 cups half-and-half
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Snipped fresh chives for garnish
Cut off the green leaves of the leeks, split the white part lengthwise and wash well under cold running water to remove any sand. Slice the leeks and set aside. Peel and slice the onion and add to the leeks. Peel and slice the potatoes and set aside.
Melt the butter over medium heat in a 4-quart soup pot. Add the leeks and onion and saut� until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and chicken stock, raise the heat, bring to a boil, lower to a vigorous simmer and cook for about 30 minutes.
Remove the leeks, onion and potatoes with a slotted spoon. Place them in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Puree the vegetables until they form the consistency of baby food. Return the pureed vegetables to the soup pot. Add the half-and-half and heat through. Add salt and pepper, to taste. If you have white pepper, use it here since it is a classic ingredient for the soup. Chill the soup completely.
When ready to serve, ladle soup into chilled bowls and top with fresh snipped chives.
Chicken Cordon Bleu
4 boneless chicken breasts, pounded thin
8 slices boiled ham
8 slices imported Swiss cheese
1 stick sweet butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Imported sweet Hungarian paprika
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Lay a chicken breast flat in front of you. You are going to fill the inside so the plump outer side should be down on the work surface. Take two slices of ham and two slices of Swiss cheese and roll them together. Place the ham and cheese in the center of the chicken breast and roll it up. Continue until all the chicken breasts are stuffed.
Melt the butter over low heat or in the microwave oven. Spoon some melted butter on each chicken breast. Top with salt, pepper and paprika.
Place the chicken breasts in a baking dish and bake for about 45 minutes.
Note from Phyllis: This is a fine example of continental cuisine. Chicken cordon bleu was very popular from the ’30s into the ’60s, after which it disappeared from restaurant menus.
Baked Stuffed Shrimp
16 jumbo shrimp
1 red pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound lump crabmeat
Sprinkling of fine bread crumbs
1 stick sweet butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Preheat the broiler.
Place the shrimp in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and, as soon as the shrimp turn pink, drain in a colander and rinse with cold running water. Peel the shrimp and set aside. Heat the olive oil in a skillet, add the red pepper and saut� for a few minutes. Remove the pepper to a large bowl. Add the crabmeat and bread crumbs and toss carefully so as not to break up the large lumps of meat. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and blend.
Lay a shrimp in front of you. Using a small sharp knife, butterfly each shrimp, taking care not to split it. You are forming a pocket for the crabmeat mixture. Stuff each butterflied shrimp with a bit of crabmeat. Press the sides of each shrimp together to keep the crabmeat inside. Place them in a large baking pan.
Melt the butter over low heat or in the microwave. Spoon some melted butter over each shrimp. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Place the shrimp in the broiler for about five to 10 minutes.
Filet of Sole Veronique
4 filets of sole or fluke flounder
Flour for dredging the fish
2 tablespoons sweet butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
16 to 20 seedless white grapes, cut in half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves for garnish
Wash the fish well and pat dry with paper towels. Place about 1 cup of flour on a plate and dip each filet into the flour, shaking off any excess. Repeat with the remaining fish and set aside.
Heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Raise the heat a little and add the fish. Cook the fish about two to three minutes per side, depending on thickness. Remove the fish to a warm platter and cover with tin foil.
Add the white wine to the skillet and raise the heat to high. Using a heavy plastic or wooden spoon, stir the liquid around, scraping up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the grapes and heat through. Lower the heat to medium, add the fish and coat well with the sauce.
Garnish each filet with some chopped Italian parsley leaves. Serve at once.
Note from Phyllis: This classic French dish was very popular in the ’30s and ’40s, then disappeared. Fortunately for me, I was served filet of sole Veronique at a bar mitzvah 14 years ago. I had forgotten how delicious this easy-to-prepare dish really is.
From Complete Creative Cooking School by Julie Dannenbaum
6 large baking potatoes
2 cups milk
6 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1-1/4 cups grated Swiss cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Peel the potatoes and wash and dry them well. Slice them about 1/8-inch thick. Put the potato slices in a saucepan, cover with milk, bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
Drain the potatoes, reserving the milk. Dry them on paper towels.
In a small bowl, cream 1/4 cup of the butter and beat in the garlic. Set aside.
Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and brush a large au gratin dish or ovenproof baking dish with it.
Arrange half of the potato slices in the dish and sprinkle with nutmeg, pepper and 3/4 cup of the cheese. Place the remaining potato slices on top.
Beat the egg with a fork and mix it into the reserved milk. Pour over the potatoes, dot the tops with the garlic-butter mixture and sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese.
Set the dish in a pan of boiling water and bake for 45 minutes to one hour, or until potatoes are tender
Serves six to eight.
From The All New Purpose Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer and Ethan Becker
1 pound fresh sweet cherries, pitted and halved, or well-drained canned cherries
1/2 cup kirsch or cherry cordial
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup brandy
Vanilla ice cream
Place the cherries in a medium bowl and sprinkle with the kirsch or cherry cordial. Cover and let stand for at least 30 minutes, preferably three hours or more, stirring occasionally. In a chafing dish or heavy skillet, set over medium heat and combine the cherries, the sugar and lemon juice. Boil until the juices are red and syrupy, about five minutes. Add the brandy. Standing back, ignite with a long lighted match. Let the flames die off, then continue to boil until a thick syrupy sauce results.
Serve at once over scoops of vanilla ice cream. You can add a bit more kirsch if you wish.