The Way They Looked

June 17, 2016

“Can you talk to me about tablecloths?” a reporter asked last week.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“I’m writing the history of tablecloths, and I thought you’d be able to address trends in restaurants.”

Sorry; wrong woman. Tablecloths, it turns out, are one of my blindspots. I must have written about them, but no tablecloth ever left a lasting impression on me.

Still, thinking about the once ubiquitous white tablecloth (or the occasional red checked one) left me considering how much restaurant design has changed in recent years.  A leisurely leaf through this Manhattan Menus Guide (published in 1980, edited by Marjorie Cohen, Carol Stanis, and Jane Warwick), was a reminder of many old favorites.  The menus are fairly predictable (think rosemary chicken, steak bordelaise) ……IMG_5756

….but the pictures of all those empty dining rooms was something of a shock. How different our restaurants once looked!

Here’s The Algonquin; I was twelve by the time I got there, and the Round Table crowd was long gone.  What I remember best is that the waiter served amaretti with my parents’ coffee, and then dramatically set the wrapper on fire and tossed it into the air. It flamed furiously, fizzled quickly, and simply vanished into the aether. I was charmed.


The stark simplicity of Tamura, across from The World Trade Center. (I never had the pleasure).


Lutèce. My mother always longed to go there, and it was one of the first places I took her when I finally had the money.  I can almost picture the lovely Andre Soltner standing at our table, discussing the menu in his endlessly gracious manner. IMG_5750

Tavern on the Green: Another favorite of mom’s. (She could never resist a circus, and in the hands of Warner Le Roy that’s exactly what it was.)IMG_5749


And finally, the pool room of the Four Seasons in the Seagram Building, one of the most famous dining rooms of all time. The Four Seasons is still open, but if you want to check out that superb space this may be your last chance. The restaurant changes hands in five weeks.



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  • Ruth, since I have had a tablecloth on my dining table every day of my adult life, it should come as no surprise that I like a restaurant with tablecloths. Especially for afternoon tea and dinner.

  • Regine Ibold says:

    For home use tablecloths I highly recommend French Rendezvous in Cincinnati, Ohio. You feel as if you’ve set foot in Provence. There are bolts of fabric and washable oilcloths – round, oblong, rectangular.

    Thank you for the lovely nostalgia photos.

  • Greg says:

    Am becoming aware of how old-fashioned I can be, as whenever I pass the dining room of the Santa Barbara Four Seasons hotel the tables look barren without a tablecloth.

  • CarolynS says:

    I too don’t notice tablecloths – until I do. Well curated, they really can set the tone. From a Brooklyn Grange dinner on the roof of the Bklyn Navy Yard to tea at Crumpet & Crown in SF’s Japantown, when you come across a great tablecloth it’s kind of unforgettable.

  • diane says:

    Actually, I think table clothes make a big difference in a restaurant. Any restaurant willing to go the extra mile to clean & press a table cloth scores big points in my book. It’s a lot of work and it speaks volumes of their dedication and desire to please. It can only be a good sign!

  • Lynn says:

    One night the manager of our favorite neighborhood restaurant stopped by to ask how we felt about the tablecloths. Not something we thought about. Now only cloths on the weekends. The laundry bill is something we don’t think about. Tablecloths do help keep the noise level down.

  • Edy Klang says:

    I loved staying with my Mom’s best friend. She always set the table with a tablecloth. At night I would help her set the table for the morning breakfast. It was quite elaborate with a tablecloth, of course, juice & water glasses, coffee cups with saucers, two forks, a salad plate & dinner plate, cloth napkins, etc. Then we’d cover everything with another tablecloth to protect it until the morning breakfast was served. Great memories of childhood.

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