If These Plates Could Talk

7/18/2011 23:25:01 PM

It was, in a way, my father who started me collecting New York City restaurant plates. After he died, at 95, he was naturally very much in my thoughts and my memories. Among the warmest and earliest of the latter were the Saturdays he would take me into New York City from the Westchester town where we lived. These trips included such enchantments as my being able to sharpen a week's supply of pencils for him in his office (he was an architect), and clacking out long rolls of numeric gibberish on an adding machine. Best, though, was lunch.

Manhattan was full of German restaurants in the mid-1950s (try to find one now), and of these the king was Lüchow's, on 14th Street. Everything in Lüchow's was perfectly calculated to chime with the sensibilities of a 9-year-old boy. Just at the time Walt Disney was refining his theory of the theme park, Lüchow's was a mature one: A great, romantic warren of tall rooms above whose smoke-pickled wainscoting hung paintings of castles brooding on moonlit crags, and beer steins as tall as I was. Despite the expectations set by the furnishings, the food was no disappointment. Here I could get wiener schnitzel, the highest extrapolation of every boy's diner delight, the "breaded veal cutlet."

Even after a dessert that left me half stupefied, I was reluctant to leave. My father would say, "It's time to go, Richard—don't worry, we can always come back."

But of course that wasn't true.

He died in 2000, by which time eBay had already wrapped its imperial tendrils around the world. Although I didn't know much about the auction site then, I knew enough to call it up on my computer and type in "Luchows." And, click, there it was: A dinner plate with elaborate dark-blue decoration around the rim and, at its center, the restaurant's crest, an acorn-shaped device featuring a stein with a knight's-helmet lid, flanked by two deer whose antlers support the legend "Lüchow's." I bid it in at $11.

Any collector will know what happened next. There was another restaurant my father took me to, the Cortile, which ran through a building between 43rd and 44th streets just west of Fifth Avenue. To me it was another theme park. As Robert W. Dana writes in his 1948 book "Where to Eat in New York": "For a moment you think you're in a museum, there are so many copper, brass, wrought-iron, and pottery pieces along the old walls... 'Cortile' means 'courtyard,' so of course there is a courtyard... One side pictures a monastery, with windows protected by iron grilles. An outside stairway with realistic street lamps rises on the side of what is supposed to be a house..." Surprisingly, the specialty served amid this agglomeration of Old World architecture was Southern fried chicken.

"The handsome dishes of the Riker's cafeteria chain (no relation to the prison, although I remember some of its fading branches being pretty grim) are yours for $5 or $10. "

I went back to eBay. No plate immediately this time, but a year later I found one, bearing a brisk drawing of the courtyard, the staircase, its ironwork and some laundry hung here and there for effect.

In the meantime, I had gotten several more Lüchow's plates, and perhaps a dozen from other restaurants I'd gone to with my father. One more place I remember him taking me to when I was small—and I imagine this holds true for everyone my age who set foot in Manhattan as a child—was Horn & Hardart. If the armor and stuffed owls at the German restaurants offered an enticing antiquity, Horn & Hardart was all shining mechanical modernity. You exchanged a dollar or two for nickels at a kiosk in the middle of the tiled floor, and put them into slots in a stainless-steel column of little vaults whose windows showed you pie or a ramekin of baked beans or a ham sandwich. The door would open, and you'd carry your prize to a table. There was a lot of serious crockery involved, nothing came on paper or cardboard, but Horn & Hardart ware is disappointing to the collector I was becoming, because the name of the establishment was almost always exiled to the back of the plate.

I had already forged a haughty fealty to "topmarked" china—that is, the plate or bowl had to show the restaurant's name on the eating surface to meet my standard. I only ever got three Horn & Hardart topmarked pieces; two of them were very early—about 1915—and said merely "Horn and Hardart." One, a butter-pat (a term for a butter dish about 2 inches across) actually has the magic word "Automat" on it. If memory serves—and my wife's certainly does here—I paid $675 for this little clay poker chip.

Most of the plates, though, are nowhere near so expensive. I've always been interested in Coney Island, and Henderson's great music hall and eating complex yielded me up a fine platter for under $100. Many plates go for far less than that. An astonishing offering of the Hofbrau Haus, a German restaurant born on Broadway and 30th well over a century ago, features a beautifully-rendered drawing of the Immigrant Station at Ellis Island; the proprietor, August Janssen, must have commissioned the plate in honor of its opening in 1894. I'm embarrassed to say how much I was willing to pay for this, and how little I actually did. The burly, handsome checkerboard-edged dishes of the Riker's cafeteria chain (no relation to the prison, although I remember some of its fading branches being pretty grim) are yours for $5 or $10.

"You're not getting more, are you?" my wife, Carol, wanted to know a couple of years ago. The question wasn't gratuitous. Almost without realizing it I'd accumulated several hundred, most of the more recent arrivals advertising restaurants I'd never set foot in: The Russian Bear, L'Aiglon, Fan and Bill's, El Morocco, the Press Box, Tofenetti's, Ye Olde Chop House, Jack Dempsey's, the Flatiron, McCarthy's, Toots Shor's, the Colony, more than a century of New York restaurant history emblazoned on commercial china.

Carol's right, of course. It's time to stop. But first I'll say in my defense that I can't imagine collecting something that is at once so resonant and so useful. Most antiques, you have to take care of. These were built for rough-and-tumble, and they're ready for it now. My family eats off them every night. They're dishwasher-safe; I suspect they're hand-grenade safe.

The food we put on these plates, day after day, is sometimes pretty close to what they might have borne before, sometimes not nearly as good. But every mealtime they are there, an unobtrusive, cheering connection with the vanished generations who bequeathed us the city we live in.

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