LUCHOW’S GERMAN RESTAURANT
Luchow’s was established 1882 on 14th street, near Union Square, in New York City. At that time 14th Street, which runs crosstown, was a largely residential neighborhood and the blocks of the street on either side of Union Square were considered the most prestigious real estate in the City. The Academy of Music, then the City’s only opera house, and Tammany Hall, home of the infamous Democratic political machine, both were nearby.
August Luchow immigrated to the United States from Hanover, Germany at the age of 23. He worked as a waiter and bartender at a café and beer garden on 14th Street, a business he was able to purchase by the time he was 26 with the help of a $1,500 loan from William Steinway, the piano magnate, who was a café regular and owned both a showroom and the Steinway concert hall on Union Square. Steinway and his circle of touring or transplanted European musicians became Luchow’s primary clientele, leading a New York Times columnist to write in 1919 that “For a musician not to be seen at Luchow’s argued that he was unknown in the social world of tone.”
In 1885 Gus Luchow became the American agent for Wurzburger, and later Pilsner, beers, introducing imported beers to the United States. The sale of beer soon provided a good part of his bottom line, leading him to purchase an adjacent lot, which put his property all the way through to 13th Street, in order to stable horses and deliver beer City wide.
Eventually, the restaurant building was enlarged to encompass both the beer garden and the stables. It featured ornate, dark paneled rooms, some with 30 foot ceilings, frosted skylights and etched stained glass. German and Dutch old master paintings, dozens of mounted animal heads, beer steins, some monumental in size, and a huge model of the clipper ship Great Republic provided the décor.
Victor Herbert brought an eight piece orchestra from Vienna to perform at Luchow’s, and conducted it himself for four years. There also was a strolling oompah band that played German favorites. Jewelry lover “Diamond” Jim Brady, the founder of a successful automotive and railroad rolling stock manufacturer that later merged with Pullman, was a regular who merited his own room at the restaurant, decorated with Art Nouveau cabinetry and Tiffany glass. Brady’s food consumption was legendary, leading one restauranteur to describe him as “the best 25 customers I ever had.”
The roster of Luchow’s prominent patrons is too long to list. A highly abbreviated version includes John Barrymore, Jack Benny, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, David Bowie, James Cagney, Eddie Cantor, Andrew Carnegie, Enrico Caruso, Marlene Dietrich, W.E.B. DuBois, Antonin Dvorak, Lillian Gish, Oscar Hammerstein, Helen Hayes. O. Henry, Victor Herbert, Frank Loesser, Fredrick Loewe, Anita Loos, Norman Mailer, H.L.Mencken, J.P. Morgan, Anna Pavlova, Cole Porter, Vincent Price, Richard Rogers, Theodore Roosevelt, Lillian Russel, Carl Sandburg, Mack Sennett, Arturo Toscanini and Florenz Ziegfled.
Luchow’s remained in operation for a full century. Gus died in 1921 and the restaurant was continued by family members. It survived Prohibition and Luchow’s received the first New York City cafe liquor license issued after Prohibition was repealed. It also survived anti-German sentiments after the two world wars. But by the 1980s, Union Square had deteriorated; the park was run down and the Opera House and Tammany Hall were demolished to make way for new headquarters for Consolidated Edison, a local utility company. Having lost its clientele the restaurant, now owned by Restaurant Associates, a business that had rescued floundering restaurants before, abandoned the distinguished building and moved to new, more modest quarters in Times Square, hoping to draw patrons from the Theater District. It was able to continue there only a few years longer.
Community efforts to landmark the original building failed and after a fire in 1992, said to have been caused by homeless people squatting in the building, destroyed much of the interior, it was demolished in 1995. Of the many traditional German dishes featured on Luchow’s menu, the veal goulash with sauerkraut included here was a favorite, especially of the famed pianist Rachmaninoff.