New York, New York….It’s a Wonderful Town

Last March, while we were researching and writing The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, we headed to the Big Apple with our sons, Danny and Noah to check out a few Mad Men haunts and to wander the streets of midtown Manhattan around Madison Avenue. We’d been so immersed in the world of 1960s New York, we wanted to see and feel and smell the city where Don Draper and Roger Sterling drank their cocktails and dined with their clients.

Shortly after checking into our hotel room, which offered an expansive view of midtown, we joined the throngs that pulsate through the streets of New York like blood flows through arteries. It was a kick to pass many of the hotels, bars and restaurants featured in Mad Men: the Waldorf-Astoria, the Roosevelt and P.J. Clarke’s among them.

Our first destination: the Grand Central Oyster Bar, located one level down from the street in Grand Central Station at 42nd Street and Park Avenue. To say Grand Central is a train station is like saying St. Peter’s Basilica is a church. Grand Central Station is a spectacular piece of architecture that conjures the golden age of rail travel when the rich and famous and powerful hitched their private coaches to trains bound for Miami, New England, Chicago and points west.

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The Grand Central Oyster Bar

The Oyster Bar, which opened in 1913, is a cavernous, bustling place, a series of domed spaces with a centrally located bar. It has served the freshest oysters in New York to presidents, high rollers such as financier “Diamond Jim” Brady, and weary travelers alike. When Don Draper and Roger Sterling take an extended and well lubricated lunch in season 1, episode 7 (“Red in the Face”), this was their likely destination for they each downed two dozen oysters that day.

Like Don and Roger, we opted to try a selection of fresh oysters our waitress recommended. But we were really there to taste the Oysters Rockefeller, and when this dish arrived, we were surprised at how different the current recipe is from the Oyster Bar’s 1960s recipe. Today the Grand Central Oyster Bar serves Oysters Rockefeller in a bed of creamed spinach and glazed with hollandaise sauce; in the Mad Men era, each oyster was coated with a spinach, shallot, parsley bread crumb topping (with a hint of alcohol) baked and served right in the pan.  This is the recipe we chose for our book because was our goal was to include only recipes authentic to the period.

 New York, New York….It’s a Wonderful Town

The Grand Central Oyster Bar’s modern version of Oysters Rockefeller

Our next stop (the one the steak-loving boys were eagerly anticipating) was Keens Steakhouse, formerly Keens Chophouse, on West 36th Street, the restaurant where Don, Pete Campbell and Pete’s jai alai obsessed friend Horace Cook retire for dinner one night. (Season 3, Episode 4, “The Arrangements.”)

The spacious, high-ceilinged Keens depicted in Mad Men doesn’t resemble the real one, however. (That’s Keens pictured just below the title of our blog.) Keens, founded in 1885 in what was then the Herald Square Theater District, is far more intimate and clubby. Its low ceiling is lined with tens of thousands of clay churchwarden pipes, each numbered and carefully catalogued by a pipe warden so pipe boys would be sure to deliver the right smoking device to each one of the 90,000 members of the Pipe Club, a group that originated at Keens in the early 1900s. In the foyer at Keens there are pipes on display used by such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, General Douglas MacArthur, Will Rogers, and Babe Ruth.

 New York, New York….It’s a Wonderful Town

Danny and Noah outside of Keens

Judy isn’t a steak-eater, but savored the crab cakes. Peter and the boys enjoyed thick, juicy, perfectly prepared sirloins. The main courses were just a bonus; we came for Keens’ legendary Caesar Salad, the recipe for which is unchanged since the 1960s and which Executive Chef Bill Rodgers kindly shared for our book.

Fully sated, our final stop for the evening involved a different kind of mad men (and women): we had tickets to take in a more modern day New York experience: Saturday Night Live (thank you, Tom).

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On the set of Saturday Night Live with Eugene Lee, SNL’s set designer since the show premiered in 1975

Walking back to the hotel at one in the morning, the streets were still very much alive and we reflected on how much New York has changed since we grew up in the city’s suburbs decades ago. The city is safer, cleaner and more electric than ever. But plenty of old New York – the iconic eateries, the classic buildings, and the street characters that are such an integral part of the city’s vibe – remain.



Mad About Playboy

The Playboy Club, a new series debuting on NBC tonight, and Pan Am, which begins airing on ABC this Sunday, both seek to tap into the 1960s nostalgia ignited by the success of Mad Men. Set in Chicago, The Playboy Club is already drawing the ire of feminists on the left and moralists on the right. Since we haven’t seen the show yet, we’ll withhold judgment. We just hope they get the Whiskey Sours right.

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In Season 4, Episode 10 of Mad Men (“Hands and Knees”), the New York Playboy Club features prominently. When Lane Pryce’s cruel, domineering father, Raymond, comes to town, Lane practically begs Don Draper to join them for dinner. It’s clear Lane isn’t itching for alone time with Dad. They go to the Playboy Club, where Lane’s African American girlfriend, Toni Charles, works as a Bunny. Judy, one of the Bunnies, comes to take their order and Lane asks for three Whiskey Sours, but the disagreeable Raymond wants iced bourbon instead. So, make it two Whiskey Sours. Mad About Playboy

In the 1960s, the Playboy brand embodied a cool, modern sophistication. In addition to his “lifestyle” magazine and syndicated television shows—Playboy’s Penthouse (1959-60) and Playboy After Dark (1969-70), which were set as parties featuring Playboy Playmates and celebrities at Hugh Hefner’s penthouse—Hefner owned the famous Playboy Clubs. The very first Playboy Club, the one featured in the new television show, opened in Chicago in 1960, and others soon followed in the United States and elsewhere. The New York club opened in December 1963 on East 59th Street in Manhattan. Membership for men like Lane Pryce was a status symbol. Members were called “keyholders,” supposedly because being a member was the key that opened the door to the pleasures of the Playboy lifestyle.

Former Playboy Bunny Joy Percival (known at the Detroit Playboy Club where she worked in the 1960s as “Bunny Jill”) kindly gave us permission to use a photo (see above) taken of her and actor Hugh O’Brien back in the day in The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook.

We don’t know if Hugh O’Brien was a Whiskey Sour man; we suspect he might have opted for something more masculine like an Old Fashioned. We’re not being sexist here; when you read The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook you’ll discover that cocktails in the 1960s were gendered: women preferred the Mai Tais and Brandy Alexanders while the men gravitated towards whiskey straight up or rye based cocktails such as the Old Fashioned.

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Bunny Jill worked at the Detroit Playboy Club from 1963-1971. (Both photos of “Bunny Jill” courtesy of Joy Percival.)

If you want to know how a Whiskey Sour was made at a Playboy Club, you can find the recipe, borrowed from Playboy’s Host & Bar Book by Thomas Mario (Playboy, 1971), in The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook. In his book, Mario gave this advice: “every prearranged drinking session calls for two kinds of alchemy: The first is mixing potables; the second is mixing people.” We doubt Raymond Pryce mixed well with anyone; he’s about as sour as they come.