To hear it told, the era of Lobster Palaces went on forever, a happy golden time when Broadway was at its finest, the women were more beautiful, the money flowed freely, and a man could get a meal that made him feel like a MAN, goshdarnit!
In truth, it was incredibly fleeting, from about 1895-1920 which made it all the more memorable.
The main draw was that they provided the same food and surrounds as one of the landmark Fifth Avenue restaurants, like Delmonico's and Louis Sherry, that catered to New York's First Families, but were far less choosy as to whom they regarded as customers: in short, they were tourist traps. But what tourist traps! Seating for five thousand people? No waiters, but a cunning system of elevators to bring the dishes up from the kitchens? Paintings copied from the ruins of Pompeii? Stanford White's recreation of a Roman Temple? A ceiling painted and lit to match the one outside? Yes, yes and more yes.
The mainstay of their business was not dinner, but the after-theater crowd, and to this end, they had special licenses to serve liquor all night long. The main menu item was (duh) lobster and shellfish, with a secondary business in steak and game birds (the famous Bird&Bottle). As was customary, side dishes were ordered separately, not as part of a dish, as we do today. However, you could order almost anything, from sweetbreads to milk toast with nary a sneer from the waiter, and often off the menu specials as well. To this end, I think of Dolly Levi ordering a turkey from a similar restaurant in Hello, Dolly!…and getting it! (More prosaically, these were the first American restaurants I know of that pre-cooked most of their food.)
All of this was incredible, decadent…Remember, just a generation before, people lived by candles and lamplight, and went to bed (mostly) when the sun set. The fact that, any moment now, you'd see…Her! and Him! spotlit and walking to their table, to their signature tune, a strolling violinist would play gypsy music just for you and your date, or a magician might produce a rose for milady, only underlined the wonder of it all. This was what the folks from Yonkers were headed for, when they put on their Sunday clothes, and took the train into the city, even if they only took in lunch and a matinee. Simply the fact they'd been there was enough to make them feel like New York's elite….the Royalty of the Republic.
The real king and queen of lobster society were James Buchanan "Diamond Jim" Brady and Lillian Russell, a shady stock speculator and an actress, respectively. While lesser men drank champagne, Jim was dry…but he loved to eat. A typical dinner ran to an appetizer of two or three dozen oysters, six crabs, and a few servings of green turtle soup, followed by a main course of two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin and a host of vegetables. For dessert, the gourmand enjoyed several whole pies (or the contents of the pastry cart) and a two pound box of candy. When snacking, he typically had two or three dozen oysters at a time, downed with orange juice ("my golden nectar") and lemon soda. Lillian was his boon companion, with an appetite to match, who rode a gold-plated bicycle (with mother of pearl handlebars, and spokes decorated with small rubies and sapphires) he'd given her. Though details of her culinary interests seem lost to history, they would often be seen, chowing down pheasant under glass at midnight, with Jim slurping mugs of root beer. George Rector considered Brady "the best twenty-five customers he ever had" and would do anything to make him happy, including sending to Baltimore to get at least a barrel of his favorite oysters every week.
Exactly how far he'd go was illustrated in what was called l'Affaire Marguery. It seems that, either through rumor or experience, Jim had fallen under the spell of a dish from Paris's Cafe Marguery, a specially-sauced fillet of sole, and challenged Mr. Rector to duplicate this dish. Despite the fact that the recipe had been published in France (the restaurant in question was actually quite modest, and the sauce was a fairly typical seafood sauce from Normandy), Sole Marguery had gotten a rep as The Forbidden Dish, its actual concoction performed in a special, locked kitchen by one old master chef, the only one to know the true recipe. He even would go so far, Mr. Brady hinted, as to switch his patronage to another restaurant, if the dish wasn't forthcoming.
Well, now, George wasn't going to stand for that! Sending for his eldest son, a fine strapping lad in law school in Cornell, he sent him off to Paris as a culinary spy with the quasi-Spartan words "Come back with that sauce or in it." According to legend, he applied for a job as a busboy, and in two years, rose in the ranks of the kitchen staff far enough to have his version of Sole Marguery vouched for by a panel of seven master chefs. (Actually, considering the actual size of the restaurant, he probably picked it up fairly quickly, and then stalled. Restaurant kitchens are generally crowded enough not to keep too many secrets for very long.) Coming back, he was met on the dock by his father…and Diamond Jim, who screamed "Do you have the sauce?" Installed in Rector's kitchen, the younger Rector was pleased to hear that their prize customer had eaten nine portions of sole…and said he "would eat a Turkish towel, if you poured that sauce on it!" (In all due respect, replicating peasant cooking can be chancy, considering the fact that you're more than likely dealing with vagaries of nonstandard materials, kitchens, and even cooks…while "the" Marguery recipe calls for pounded shrimp and mussels, the original might have been closer to "pick over the fishing net for shellfish, shuck, pound…Make into sauce with stock made from heads and fins of trash fish…")
By 1912, the winds of change were blowing: Vernon and Irene Castle were making social dancing exciting again, with sensual new dances from exotic places like Argentina and fun moves like the Fox Trot and the Bear Hug. Accordingly, some restaurants cleared out a few tables to make a dance floor. Cabaret acts also became popular, so even more space was cleared out for a small stage. Lobster society was also aging, and the younger set was more interested in the goings-on in Greenwich Village and in Harlem, not in Times Square: the ideal evening out wasn't to sit watching a show and wooing a semi-pro floozy over a multi-course meal, but drinking and dancing all night with your future missus. With the seriousness engendered by the War, and the complete ban on legal liquor during Prohibition, one by one, lobster houses closed. One turned into Hubert's Dime Museum (which was found to contain, on its eventual disbandment in 1965, a small working male brothel). In the Seventies, several steakhouses tried to revive the feeling (in much smaller surrounds), gradually fading into fern bars.
Pity, the Hard Rock Cafe just isn't the same.