“Merrie Olde England” in the Streamliner era

A German-American Restaurateur Promotes the English Tavern, 1939

1. General Background

These pages have chronicled off and on the importance, greater in some periods than others, of the English inn or tavern in the American imagination. The Colonial tavern was in the main a duplication of the British original adapted to the new frontier. (If the Dutch bar made any mark in New York or up the Hudson, in time it was effaced by the British takeover of New York).

With political independence and passage of time including arrival of settlers from non-British lands, the cozy English hostelry competed with other forms, alcoholic and non-. There was the German beer hall, notably, but also the saloon, cocktail bar, soda fountain, and coffee shops. Newer forms continually emerged such the beachcomber beer, described in an atmospheric 1940 spread in PM, a newsmagazine-style newspaper in Manhattan.

Despite the competition, up to Prohibition and to some extent after many old ale-houses continued to function, especially in the Northeast. For example, there were The Grapevine in New York, McSorley’s also in New York, and the Bell-in-Hand in Boston, all of which I’ve discussed in earlier posts.

An enhanced form of tavern was the porter-house, chop-house, and finally steak house, or steak and seafood. The English-style bar endured in Keens Steak House, The Old Homestead, Frankie and Johnnie’s, the former Bull & Bear in the now-closed Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Pete’s Tavern, etc., all in New York.

In Ontario from 1934 until ca. 1975 the British pub probably reached its lowest ebb. Post-Prohibition regulation turned the tavern into an unappealing appendage of (mostly) unappealing hotels. Decor was minimal or non-existent: early rec room sums it up. Still, the older associations were sometimes preserved, perhaps in a nicer-than-usual wood paneling scheme, or simply perhaps the name.

The British pub was given a new lease on life in New York, Montreal, Toronto, and other large centres from the 1960s onward. This was reinforced by the Irish pub’s arrival, with no unsettling political implications: to us it was all the “British pub”.

A substantial British and Irish influx to Canada after WW II partly explained this. As well, the classic British pub was showcased to thousands of visitors, millions in total, at international exhibitions and trade fairs between 1939 and 1967; this had a definite influence. The British/Irish pub in Ontario finally replaced to a large extent the old beverage room but still in competition with the cocktail bar (often in a restaurant or hotel), roadhouse bar, and countless less differentiated bars, e.g. the T.G.I.F. or Cheers type.

The craft beer bar took root from the 1980s and has made inroads on the older forms but all still compete for the consumer’s beer and food dollar.

2. The English Tavern Between the Wars

There remain periods in this evolution I haven’t examined, notably 1933-1941 and U.S. Prohibition. Prohibition you say? How could that apply? Well it does because of the speakeasy, the illicit drinking establishment.

Bob Brown’s classic Let There Be Beer!, published in New York in 1932, describes pubby speakeasies, linking matters up from pre-Prohibition times:

Every big city has its distinctive English pubs and chop houses, where ale is served in silver tankards and drawn direct from the wood. Even in prohibition America a great quantity of English beer still seeps in, and Canadian ale is a general favourite with bootleggers and their patrons. Some smart speakeasies are still fitted out in the best public house style of Old London.

Earlier I discussed a charming Tudor hotel built in 1920s Niagara Falls, NY, probably with an eye to post-Prohibition. Home realty developers, before liquor became legal in 1933, designed an “English tavern” basement for the suburban stockbroker belt. See my earlier discussions here, and here, on these matters.

The English tavern resurged after Repeal in 1933 due to this historical background. The revival was assisted by the tavern’s relatively benign image in America, in contrast say to the more purely American but also more clearly distrusted saloon. (And the saloon, in its pre-1920 form, never returned).

And so Repeal spawned many new or refurbished English taverns in New York and other cities. As one example of many, in 1934 The Wave, a newspaper in Rockaway Beach, NY, carried an impressive advertisement for the Town Tavern. It took the format of a personal message from the promoter:

I take this opportunity to explain briefly the character of the Town Tavern soon to be opened in the Hotel Rogers, on the Boulevard at Beach 116th Street.

Its exterior will be the reproduction of a charming Old English Tavern with its colorful roof, peaked gables and little stained glass windows, the whole bathed in the mellow glow of wrought iron lanterns hanging from the eaves overhead. So realistic will be this reproduction that one will almost expect to see the genial landlord standing in the doorway awaiting the arrival of the stage-coach.

Inside, the impression of an Old English tavern will still prevail. The walls will be panelled in walnut and around the entire room will run a wide shelf beautified by interesting objects of art. On the walls above this shelf will hang paintings picturing in brilliant colors the scenes for which Merrie Olde England was famous. From the ceiling will hang great ornamental iron lanterns shedding their soft light on the tables and chairs below—-large, roomy tables covered with snowy white cloths with borders of green and gold, and comfortable chairs with colorful slip-covers snugly fitted over their backs. In keeping with this charming setting, the table service will all be new, the dishes in chaste white with ornamental borders and the silver in tasteful design. In short, the whole atmosphere of the dining room will be one of restful refinement—a place in which to dine—and wine if you wish—-leisurely and In comfort.

And the quality of the foods and beverages served at the Town Tavern will be in keeping with the character of the surroundings—the best foods that the markets provide and the choicest of wines and liquors—such foods and drinks as combine to produce the kind of a meal that one lingers over lovingly and looks back upon with fond recollection.

Similar settings, pre- and during Prohibition, are eulogised by Bob Brown in his book.

Charmingly, the Town Tavern still exists, now called Rogers Irish Pub. A July 27, 2017 story in the Rockaway Times illuminates the history including via the image below.

English strap work and thatched-style roofing way out in Rockaway Beach in 1934 … now that’s cool, or at any time.

3. An Eclectic Food Culture Emerges

As the Depression continued, an urban elite encouraged the revival of gastronomic tradition in general. I canvassed earlier the many food and wine clubs formed, new influential restaurant columns such as G. Selmer Fougner’s, Consumer Reports’ pioneering alcohol beverage ratings, and the world cuisines on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. All gave succour and encouragement to budding, post-Prohibition epicures, the foodies of their time.

And so by the late 1930s a decided culinary diversity characterized the urban hotel and restaurant scene, at least in New York. Fougner could write (1939) of a “week in the life”:

The week’s activities further included the Waldorf-Astoria dinner, previously rehearsed and described in this column, of the Committee of One Hundred of Miami Beach; a happy luncheon in the shadows of the snow-white vats of the Ruppert Brewery, prior to attending the first game of the World Series at the Yankee Stadium; a Society of Restaurateurs dinner at the Belgian Pavilion at the fair [the 1939 New York’s World Fair]; the opening of August Janssen’s new Boar’s Head restaurant in Lexington Avenue; a Viennese “packhuhn” at Park Avenue’s Restaurant Crillon, with one of Otto J. Baumgarten’s few remaining bottles of delightful Austrian wine, reminiscent of the gayety and sparkle which Vienna once knew, and finally a feast of our own household’s special treatment of a five-pound  two-and-one-half-inch flatbone sirloin, with a generous helping of Yvonne’s French-fried potatoes, done as no one else knows how, golden brown and crisp, yet tender … Yes the season is on.

4. War Clouds Bring a new English Tavern to New York

Was there room for the British tavern/chophouse in this newly eclectic food culture, other than a Keens or other “old reliable” as a curio of the past? Yes there was, as you see above, August Janssen, a pioneer of German ethnic cuisine in New York, created in 1939 a new English restaurant in town. Janssen, of all people one might think, who had founded in 1898 the famous Hofbrau-Haus in New York and satellite restaurants in and outside NYC, became a proponent of English tavern cuisine.

At 72 he was still active and late in his career formed the idea to create a temple of English food and drink, called the Boar’s Head. Now, why would a (long-naturalized) German immigrant think to do that, with war afoot in Europe? Well, he was also an excellent businessman. He knew his Hofbrau-Haus had survived WW I, had survived Prohibition, but would it survive the Nazi era and America’s inevitable entry (it came two years later) in another war? Why not hedge your bets, cover both ends so to speak?

I mean this in culinary terms to be sure, not political/cultural. He had to know that renewed anti-German feeling, increased by the brutalities and atrocities of the Nazi regime, might spell the end of his first restaurant (it did not, in the result).

The warmth of feeling for the English tavern reached a zenith in a 1939 column by New York journalist Malcolm Johnson. Johnson, who like Fougner wrote on food for the New York Sun, described Janssen’s new venture and thinking. As quoted, Janssen spoke in dulcet, “society” language but the meaning between the lines was unmistakable, in our view.

“For those of us who are sympathetic with the ample English appetite … I am trying to make the European war less serious for transatlantic travelers by duplicating at the Boars Head just about everything for which they once made pilgrimages to Simpson’s, the Cheshire Cheese or any of those delightful little inns down in the country, where you ate by a roaring fireplace under rafters 500 years old and besides sporting prints and gleaming pewter.”

Janssen died later in 1939 and could not superintend his new creation, but the family carried on both businesses. A Boar’s Head menu survives in the NYPL menu archive from November 1945. It gives a good idea how Janssen sought to emulate the Simpson’s and Cheshire Cheese menus, venerated as he noted by prewar American travellers to London and “the country”.

A not dissimilar approach is shown by this menu of the same year from Frankie and Johnnie. It is noteworthy that both these establishments were founded after Repeal (Frankie and Johnnie had roots in a 20s speakeasy). Neither, in other words, was simply a survival of a 19th century Manhattan imitation of the London chop house as, say, Keens Chophouse was (and is).

For the beers, one may note on these menus Bass Ale, so presumably a post-V-E Day importation unless pre-war stock. Guinness Stout would be ditto. Black Horse Ale on the Boar’s Head menu almost certainly was from Dawes Brewery in Montreal, and both menus featured good American ales and lagers.

And so the robust Anglo-Saxon food and drink tradition, whose continuation was so carefully noted by observers from the 19th century onwards, was given new life by a German-American restaurateur in 1939.

Unlike Fougner who was more the harried chronicler, Johnson was an accomplished writer, a stylist. He proved it later by authoring, in the late 1940s, a multi-part exposé, “Crime on the Waterfront”, which inspired the film On The Waterfront.

These lines from Johnson’s report on the Boar’s Head give the flavour, but read the piece in full.

With this objective in mind, Mr. Janssen has done everything he could, in decor, cuisine and service, to provide a nostalgic spot for lovers of the old-fashioned English inn. Leighton Budd, whose drawings appeared in Punch for many years and who has been associated with Mr. Janssen for ages, has been in charge of the “restoration” of the Boars Head and has painted a four-panel mural depicting a boar hunt and feast in the legendary day of Robin Hood.

Johnson goes on to lyricize Roy Leighton Budd’s wood beams “that might have come over the Channel from Caen” (!), “flints and shepherds’ crooks”, and all the “embellishments” that created wide-screen romance in the American imagination. Oh, he did not forget the “British red” chosen for the waiters’ uniforms.

5. Takeaway

The next time you gaze at a Duke or Royal this or that pub in Toronto, or the equivalent in 200 other cities in North America, consider it is not new, not even in the last generation. It is a contemporary expression of a very old idea, or sentiment, in our folk memory.

Note re images: The first image above was drawn from Derek Flack’s (excellent, recommended) 2017 blogpost, “The Lost Taverns and Bars of Toronto”, see here. The second image was sourced from the news article of the same year identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owner(s), as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


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