From the Twenties through the Sixties, everyone who was anyone went to The Colony Restaurant in New York City to eat, drink –– see and be seen. Critic George Jean Nathan said the Colony was one of “civilization’s last strongholds in the department of cuisine.” Rian James in Dining In New York (1930) said the "Colony is the restaurant of the cosmopolite and the connoisseur; the rendezvous of the social register; the retreat of the Four Hundred." Later, columnist Aileen Mehle (aka Suzy Knickerbocker) declared, “the Colony was The Bastion. Sometimes you’d go for lunch and stay till dinner. It was fun, fun, fun—refined, polished, glamorous, giddy.”
Mrs. Gary Cooper at the Colony, 1944
What began as a speakeasy (with a private second floor that provided wealthy patrons with a safe haven to enjoy their mistresses’ company) became a sophisticated Café Society destination thanks to Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt crashing the naughty party and bringing some light into the room. Soon, it was an international sensation – it even had a Van Cleef and Arpels concession to supply it's customers with baubles to make amends or to celebrate.
Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone at the Colony, 1940
There was a Colony 'crowd' that included Hollywood royalty Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, and Joan Crawford as well as the real deal ––The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were great fans (as were assorted bankers, brokers, wheeler dealers and gangsters and socialites).
As night fell, Café Society had cocktails, ate their dinners and went to nightclubs and theatres. During the day, Café Society women began congregating in a few select restaurants in the afternoons without their husbands. The Colony was at the top of the list.
The ladies even brought their dogs with them when they lunched at the Colony and parked them in a special alcove. Designer Bill Blass said, “you’d see Yorkshires, poodles, dachshunds, boxers, pugs…. It was amazing how they got along—in some respect better than the ladies themselves. With silver bowls of food and water set before their perfumed muzzles, and satin cushions laid beneath their silken paws, “they’d sit there on a banquette, lined up obediently in a row like little soldiers….”
In 2000, Amy Fine Collins wrote a delicious piece about the Colony in Vanity Fair, called The Colony Elite. In it, former fashion editor Babs Simpson remembered, “By 1934, I was already going—I don’t know where else one would go. There weren’t many men at lunch, except some very elegant homosexuals like Fulco di Verdura or Van Day Truex. Husbands either had lunch downtown or at their clubs. The restaurant was very attractive, light, airy, clean, and smart. It was a real window for fashion. Hattie Carnegie’s suits with the little collar were very popular for lunch, with Fulco’s jewelry. And the restaurant was silent—no music, nobody raising their voices. You’d see Kitty Miller, Elsie Woodward, Hattie Carnegie, Carmel Snow—the Colony was very handy to the [Harpers] Bazaar. Gene was very unobtrusive and gave those of us who worked there some kind of discount.”
Capote was one of the most popular men in the Colony crowd. He lunched “with New York’s grandes dames at New York’s grand restaurants, and he cried when The Colony, one of the four or five he considers worth the trouble of lifting fork to face, closed in 1971, depriving him evermore of his special back table under the TV set.”
Jackie O outside the Colony (it was said her marriage to Onassis was brokered at the Colony)
In Fine’s Vanity Fair article, Kitty Carlisle Hart reminisced, “In the old days in New York, your status depended on where you sat in the Colony restaurant. For a long time, when I first came to New York—this was in the 30s—I was shown to the back of the dining room. Then, as I grew in age and stature, I began to move forward until I reached the beginning enclave, where all the bigwigs who were the tops socially sat. The first time I got a table there, I said to my mother, ‘I’ve arrived!’. According to food critic Iles Brody’s calculations, it took being seated three times at one of the best tables to secure your position in café society.”
For seating, there was also the bar area which had been dark and gloomy until a bright, blue and white striped canvas-makeover by decorator Valentino (it was only meant to be a temporary fix and removable if it didn’t work, but it did –– it became a hot destination after the Duke of Windsor decided to remain there, announcing to Colony owner Gene Cavallero, “We’ll dine here, Gene. The bar has such a gay atmosphere!”
Colony owner Gene Cavallero in the kitchen
About the food, Fine quoted Babs Simpson again, “The thing about the Colony was that the food was sophisticated Wasp, and so was the clientele. The famous thing to order there was chicken hash, inside of a box of toasted bread. And soft-shell crabs, the best in town, no bigger than a 50-cent piece, the right size for one mouthful and two delicious cold soups, Senegalese and billi-bi. It was like the food in your own house, if you had a very good chef.”
In 1945, just as the world was belting hallelujahs in every language on the planet to celebrate the end of WWII, Iles Brody brought out a book about NYC’s celebrated Colony Restaurant that included recipes for all the favorites, including that chicken hash in a bread box. It was a bit hard to find in the recipe section because it was listed as “Eggs Encore Colony”. Also, there was no recipe for the hash that went inside the bread box. No matter, for that I used the famous Plaza chicken hash as a base, combining it with a Colony recipe for “Chicken Sauté Archiduc” that has a similar richness (21 Club had a famous hash I’ve written about HERE that could also be used). Rich it is, creamy, decadent, crazy rich. This is the chicken hash you dream of. The irony of the boardinghouse feel of the word ‘hash’ is not lost on the sublime creaminess of this hash. The contrast of the crispy toast box is rather perfect.
If you are not café society when you sit down to enjoy it, you will feel like you are at the Duke’s table at the Colony when you take your first bite.
Eggs Encore Colony
“Take a square loaf of regular (small) sandwich bread, and cut off a piece three and a half inched wide. Trim the crust. Now make an incision in the piece of bread with a very sharp knife, following the shape of the bread, about an inch from the edges. Smear a little olive oil over it, and place the bread-brick into the oven to brown. Remove the part you marked with you knife, make a bed of chicken hash and place poached egg in hollow, sprinkle with grated Parmesan, put back in oven for a minute to form a gratin, serve.”
As you may see, bread is larger these days so 2” is plenty.
Plaza Chicken Hash from Truman Capote
4 c finely diced cooked chicken (white meat only)
1 ½ c heavy cream
1 c cream sauce
2 t salt
1/8 t white pepper
¼ c dry sherry
½ c hollandaise
Mix chicken, cream, cream sauce and seasonings in a heavy skillet. Cook over moderate heat, stirring often for about10 minutes. When moisture is slightly reduced, place skillet in a moderate over (350F) and bake for 30 minutes. Stir in sherry and return to over for 10 minutes. Lightly fold in hollandaise sauce and serve at once.
Chicken Saute Archiduc
Cut a fowl into pieces and brown quickly in butter. Add an onion already cooked in butter and complete the cooking.
Remove the chicken pieces and keep them hot. Add a small glass of brandy to the onion; reduce this sauce, the pour in a little cream and a little velouté. Rub this sauce through a sieve and reduce till it has a stiff consistency. Take from the fire and add 1 ½ oz of butter, the juice of one-quarter lemon, one tablespoon of Madeira wine, heat for a minute and pour over the fowl.
Colony Restaurant Chicken Hash in a Box (my interpretation) for 4
2 c cooked diced chicken (cooked as lightly as possible)
¾ c heavy cream
½ c velouté (*see recipe)
1T Madeira (I used Rare Wine Company’s 1982 Barbeito Bual)
pinch of mace
salt and pepper to taste
2 t to 1T lemon juice (to taste)
1 egg yolk
4 slices of bread, about 2” thick
2 T olive oil
4 poached eggs
2 T grated Parmesan cheese
Put the cream and velouté in the pan. Stir to thicken somewhat. Add the brandy and madeira. Add the chicken and season to taste. Cook at low heat in the sauce. When warmed, add the lemon and egg yolk. Do not over heat or it will curdle. Keep a few tablespoons of sauce to the side.
Heat the oven to 400º. Trim the crust from the bread. Now make an incision in the piece of bread with a very sharp knife, following the shape of the bread, about an inch from the edges. Paint the toasts with olive oil and place the bread-bricks into the oven to brown very lightly (it will brown further under the broiler - it will burn if it is browned too much now). Depending on the type of bread you use, this could take 5 to 10 minutes –– whole grains take much longer than white. Remove the part you marked with your knife –– leave some bread at the bottom so the hash is contained.
Turn on the broiler. Put the hash in the toast hollows, leaving indentations that you fill with poached eggs and spoon the reserved sauce over the eggs. Place on a baking sheet and sprinkle with Parmesan. Brown under the broiler for a few minutes till slightly browned and bubbling and serve.
1 T butter
1 ½ T flour
¾ c stock
Melt the butter and stir in the flour. Cook for a moment then add the stock slowly, stirring all the while. Let it bubble for a few minutes then remove from the heat.
I have just published my first article on chilies for SaudiAramcoWorld with a fun video on merguez in NYC. Do visit, won't you??