Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Oscar & Fedora

When I posted this photo in my Faux-Dora post this summer, a couple of readers weighed in on the origins of the sugar bowl marked with the name Oscar's and how it ended up at Fedora's.



Mark said, "The bowls are seconds from Oscar's Salt of the Sea, a wonderful restaurant on Third Avenue and 63rd Street, long gone. Barbra Streisand lived in the tenement above the restaurant before she made it on Broadway. It was a great place, with Irish waitresses in uniform and Oscar himself, dressed all in black, greeting his customers and sharing a drink with them."

But Anonymous disagreed, saying, "The sugar bowls are from Delmonico's as are the plates on the wall. Fedora was Mary Tucci's closest friend since birth...they are both from Montecatini...and both Henry and Fedora worked at Delmonico's. Oscar Tucci owned Delmonico's and the Oscar referred to is him. Mary used to give Fedora the china when Delmonico's changed theirs. You could eat off of Delmonico's plates at Fedora but, alas, most are broken."



A Dorato family member confirmed that the bowl came from Delmonico's, but "Oscar's Salt of the Sea" made me curious. So I hunted around and found an old menu on Ebay, complete with a Trafalgar phone exchange and a drawing of the restaurant beneath the El's shadows.



Aside from the Barbra Streisand lore that Mark shared, there is more history there.

According to Sesame Street Unpaved, "The character of Oscar was inspired by a nasty waiter" from Oscar's. "Jim Henson and Jon Stone were waited on by a man who was so rude and grouchy that he surpassed annoying and started to actually amuse... their waiter forever became immortalized as the world's most famous Grouch."

Some of the original muppet designs are drawn on Oscar's paper placemats.



Oscar's was around a long time (anyone know how long?), and much like Fedora's had become a beloved relic by the 1980s after Oscar Karp retired.

The New York Times in 1982 wrote: "Oscar's handsome, modern dining rooms, with their natural wood paneling and photographs of fishing schooners, still attract older couples who eat lunch out or have an early dinner. They order the $6.95 lunch specials and the dinners from $10.95 to $13.95 or the early-bird specials served from 4 to 6 P.M. for $8.95... Waiters and waitresses are friendly and willing, but they are careless and forgetful."

By 1988, Oscar's had been replaced by Le Laurier, "a posh all-seafood restaurant of burnished teak, polished service and often precious food: this is about as different from Oscar's Salt of the Sea as Donald Trump's yacht is from the Circle Line...It has the same warm, corporate look with a coffered ceiling, inset lights, well-separated tables and soft leather banquettes." New York described Le Laurier as serving haute French cuisine, with a prix fixe of $46--a far cry from Oscar's early birdies.

As far as I can tell, Le Laurier didn't last very long.

Fedora Before:

photo: New York Magazine

Just opened, the new restaurant in the old Fedora space is also posh and burnished, as polished as a yacht, with a long leather banquette--a far cry from what used to be. As for the sugar bowls with Oscar's name on them--is there a vortex where such lost artifacts end up? If we look hard, we might find them there.

Fedora After:

photo: Daniel Krieger for Eater (see more)

12 comments:

EV Grieve said...

Ah... really interesting... Love the Oscar's menu — those drink prices!

Anonymous said...

We used to eat at Oscar's regularly. For quality, value and ambiance it couldn't be beat. Another great place for fish in those days was Sloppy Louies at South Street near the Fulton Fish Market, old time New York waiters, each one a character and the freshest fish.

Goggla said...

Interesting history!

Marty Wombacher said...

Nice post, I agree with EV Grieve, that drink menu made me drool at the prices!

Anonymous said...

My Oscar's story;

My ex-father-in-law passing out when he and his son were "discussing" marrying a shiksa.

Anonymous said...

I designed and manufactured the s/s equipment behind the bar. An Oscars story: after completing the installation Oscar called to let me know that he was loosing liquor at the bar --- he had remained in the restaurant after closing unannounced to the cleaning crew --- he observed the staff pouring themselves drinks.The follow morning I got a phone call from Oscar asking that we manufacture covers for the speed rails (where bottles of liquor at are kept at bartenders knee height).
Within a couple of days we had installed covers for the speed rails so that the bottles could not be taken out of the speed rail to pour liquor.
Well, within two days after installing the covers I got a phone call from an irate Oscar telling me he had again remained after closing to see where the liquor was being lost. You may have guessed it --- it the night cleaning crew who were using soda straws to take the liquor from the secured bottles.We remade the covers to secure the entire bottles.Afterwards Oscar laugh and we cerebrated with drinks.Thom J.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Thom, thank you for sharing the great story!

Anonymous said...

I remember Oscar's Salt of The Sea very well. The food was great, but going there for dinner you could wait a very long time. Oscar (dressed in black) was always out and about stopping at tables randomly sitting and talking and drinking with his patrons. We went often as we loved the "shore dinners" that they offered (chowder,steamers, lobster and homemade cole slaw). My father always got the shrimp in clam sauce (he did not like to hassle with the lobsters). We went on birthdays and our "last meal" before leaving for camp!
In later years I attended a private prep school around the corner from there and would often go for lunch for a bowl of chowder

jane lev said...

I woke up this morning in my home in San Francisco, feeling very nostalgic about my childhood in NYC. In the mid sixties, I would meet my two working parents at Oscars for dinner at least once a week. I would arrive from hanging out after school (Art and Design, 57th and second). Oscar was a force of nature, always dressed in black pants and black shirt (very hip and modern and not what anyone else was wearing) working the crowds, ushering people to the rows of chairs set up to ease their wait. There was a chalk board with the fresh fish of the day, and a bar in the rear, where fish spread and oyster crackers were freely available as you waited. The fish was divine. My favorites were steamers and shrimp newburg(?); my parents more inclined to real fish, just grilled. Oscar always acknowledged the regulars but was very fair and insistent about seating everyone as they came off the list. I think eating here as a child helped form my present restaurant sensibility- always looking for places with great food, personality and warmth. Alas, few and far between.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks Jane for sharing that memory. i love oyster crackers.

jevcat said...

Stumbled across this by accident and was flooded with memories. I went to Hunter College, right near Oscar's, and my family and I went there for "splurge" dinners from time to time. The drinks were strong, the food excellent, the lines were, indeed, long, and Oscar himself, indeed, very much the grouch -- he terrified my kid brother, who didn't really like fish, anyway.

But he was fair. I remember one time enduring a long wait in the midst of which some businessman tried to slip Oscar a twenty to jump the line. Oscar refused in such stentorian tones that everyone in the restaurant heard, and the embarrassed businessman slunk back to a corner of the bar, trying to make himself invisible, while the rest of us glared at him.

I also remember how, when he called the next name on his seating list, Oscar would scratch the name off with such force, he frequently tore the paper. Ah, they don't make 'em like that anymore. Thanks for the memories.

Laura Walker said...

My aunt Jeanne worked and managed Oscar's for many years. I wonder if any of the regulars remember her. I only visited twice, but because of Jeanne and Bobby, I have many vicarious memories of Oscar's.