New York City Coffee by Erin Meister

New York City Coffee by Erin Meister

Author:Erin Meister
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Arcadia Publishing Inc.
Published: 2017-12-06T05:00:00+00:00

Portrait of Alice Foote MacDougall. Courtesy of Caroline MacDougall.

The Cortille was MacDougall’s courtyard-inspired coffeehouse at 37 West Forty-Third Street in Manhattan. Alice Foote MacDougall’s Cook Book.

The restaurants were as much a contradiction as MacDougall herself and, indeed, as much as New York as well. The decor was porcelain and blue lace, faux-antique and weathered in an attempt to capture Old World charm; the menus, however, served somewhat mishmash tastes. Her first restaurant, the Cortile, advertised very un-Italian sandwiches of tongue and horseradish and corned beef and pickled relish; the Florentine restaurant Firenze featured “Plats du Jour” of seafood Newburg and a variety of French and Swiss cheeses.

Confused or not, New Yorkers loved it. By the time she revealed her fifth location, the Spanish-tinged Sevillia, her name as a brand and the indoor-outdoor aesthetic of her spaces guaranteed success. Sevillia, reported the New Yorker, opened on a Wednesday evening; come Thursday, there was a tremendous wait for a table and a line that didn’t quit. That Saturday alone, more than two thousand people “were fed (body and soul)” in the dining room.123

MacDougall openly reviled the quick-lunch counter with its grubby service (all those thumbs in the malted milk) and unrefined atmosphere, intentionally created environments that radiated peace and elegance and, by nature of New York in the 1920s, didn’t much appeal to men. “Mrs. MacDougall’s coffee houses are thronged with her admirers,” the New Yorker chuckled sarcastically. “They are the paradise of the uptown bridge club, the prosperous Brooklynite, the suburban shopper, the eager sightseer from the hinterland; ladies substantial and ambitious for the better things, whose digestion is aided by a little culture.”124 Perhaps it was the dainty banana-and-mayonnaise sandwiches that put men off the restaurants, but more likely it was that they were arguably designed for women by one of their own.

Until the midtown boom of the early twentieth century, the public food stalls and halls were off-limits to women. The colonial coffeehouses often forbade them outright; the later eating houses with their oyster plates and porky beans were jammed with working men and hardly heard the swish of a petticoat, as it was considered unseemly for women unaccompanied by male escorts to eat in public establishments. Slowly, starting in the 1890s, change began to blossom in the storefronts of the city—inspired less by equal rights for women and more by equal opportunity by vendors, who realized the vast market potential of an underserved population. Ice cream parlors, teahouses and the MacDougall coffee shops captured the female business and the female imagination. Soon enough, lunch counters were co-ed as a matter of course, as more women entered offices as employees, taking their midday meal break like any gent. “It makes food and drink taste better to be served from a beautiful place and an interesting cup,” MacDougall wrote, and it also didn’t hurt business.125 While her first year at the Little Coffee Shop saw gross income of $568, by the mid-1920s, the company was drawing upward of $3 million annually.


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