Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Restaurants Have Histories, Just like Families . . .And They Often Intertwine

Yesterday my friend and fellow early baseball aficionado David Lambert from the New England Historic Genealogical Society sent me a note, asking if I could recommend any restaurants in downtown Albany. David will be here guiding the NEHGS group that will be mining the New York State Archives and Library for family treasures later this week.

I sent him a list of six downtown eateries, warning him that because Albany is the state capital, downtown restaurants can be pricey, since their usual customers are lobbyists and legislators, with bulging expense accounts and per diems.

And strangely enough, that got me thinking about restaurants in general and their place in family history.  Only two of those restaurants I recommended were around way back in the 1970s when Mrs. Blogger and I came back to Albany from East Africa. That’s really not surprising since, just like people, restaurants come and go.  And – also just like people – restaurants have histories, and those histories are often intertwined with those of local families.

One of the restaurants I recommended was Jack’s Oyster House on lower State Street.  Everybody who comes to Albany should eat at Jack’s at least once, knowing that they’re joining a long line of politicians, mayors, governors and presidents.  (Is this where Al Smith sat?  Where’s the FDR table?

Jack’s has been run by the Rosenstein family for three generations and I suspect that after its most recent renovation  it looks almost the same as it did 80 years ago, right down to the black and white tile floor.  Today it’s run by Brad Rosenstein, the grandson of the founder.  His granddad Jacob Rosenstein got his start in the food business – at least as the story is told around these here parts – working in the kitchen of another famous Albany landmark.   That landmark was a restaurant called Keeler’s, formerly Keeler’s Hotel and Restaurant.  

The picture above, from the Library of Congress collection, shows Keeler’s circa 1908 – 1910. Keeler’s later moved to State Street, more about which later.

Keeler’s on State Street – both as a business and a building – is gone now, having fallen victim to changing tastes in the late 1960s.  But in its day …

The Keeler’s on State Street was built as a replacement for the original Keeler’s Hotel and Restaurant, which had been destroyed in a great fire in the fall of 1919.  The original Keeler’s – referenced and shown in the streetscape photo above - had been located on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane.

When I was in high school and later, at university, Keeler’s was THE place to eat in downtown Albany. 

With its faux-Tudor wood-carved exterior and its fine wood paneled interior, leather chairs and seemingly endless English prints by W. Dendy Sadler (see left)  on the walls, it exuded that “old English gentleman’s club” atmosphere. There were small private dining rooms that could be gotten for special occasions and, of course, all the waiters were male, with white shirts, black bow ties and trousers and white aprons, for the proper “club” look. 

When the building was demolished to make way for a great steel and glass boxlike bank office building, the paneling inside went to the venerable Fort Orange Club, where today it graces the walls of several public rooms.  The more than 100 Sadler prints that lined Keeler's walls are there as well.

My parents and I went to Keeler’s occasionally for special occasions, once I was old enough to be taken out in public and could eat in a restaurant like a “proper young gentleman.”

While not exactly a family tradition,  Keeler’s was, after all, the restaurant at which they had their wedding breakfast in 1942, so it was a “special” place for those “special” occasions.

Here’s the other “family – Keeler’s” connection:  it was at that original Keeler’s location on Broadway that my grandfather was treated to a “state-like” dinner in his honor in October of 1917, following the World Series.  As you may know if you’ve been reading this blog, my grandfather was a member of the Chicago White Sox and that was the year they beat the New York Giants and won the World Series.

This is how the local newspaper described the event:

Albanians Turn Out En Masse To Honor North End Ball Player

Albany outdid itself last night in welcoming back Mellie Wolfgang, the North End boy, after an absence from the city of six months during which he achieved fame as a member of the Chicago White Sox, winners over the New York Giants in the recent series for the world’s baseball championship.  In the past Albany always has honored her sons, but the demonstration given to Wolfgang last night easily excelled any other welcome received by an Albanian in some time.

Wolfgang, John “Shano” Collins, right fielder on the Chicago team, and roommate of Mellie’s all season, and “Skull” Devine, another Albany boy, were met at the Union depot early in the evening.  They piled into a waiting automobile and rode at the head of a parade arranged in Wolfgang’s honor.  Baseball enthusiasts and friends of Wolfgang marched over the following route: Broadway to Clinton Avenue, to Lark Street, to Washington Avenue, to Eagle Street, to State Street, to Broadway, to Keeler’s hotel, where a banquet was served.

The writer then proceeded to describe the banquet’s speakers and events.  Here’s one:

Mayor Joseph W. Stevens paid a fine tribute to Wolfgang, whom he met for the first time last night.  The mayor said, “I, as mayor of this city, extend a hearty and cordial welcome to Mr. Wolfgang and his friend, Mr. Collins, of the White Sox, and our townsman, Mr. Devine, of the Red Sox.  I give the keys of the city to them, although I think it is hardly necessary, as I do not believe there is a cop in Albany who would dare to catch either one of them.”  In closing the Mayor advised Wolfgang to enter politics, expressing his opinion that Wolfgang would be highly successful if he ran for office.

My favorite part of the story comes close to the end.  The writer continued:

At the beginning of the dinner, Wolfgang was presented with a floral horseshoe and the little North Albany lad hid behind the piece throughout the banquet. Toastmaster Cooke paid his final tribute to Mellie in presenting a diamond fob to him.  The diners yelled for a speech, and Mellie, in his unassuming and modest way, said simply, “I am happy. I’m glad.  I certainly thank you all.  I don’t deserve this.  Thanks.”

It’s hard to imagine any ancestor of mine at a loss for words!


  1. Very timely post since two days ago we stopped in Maine to eat lunch at a place owned by the same family since 1872. I was reading their history off the menu, and googling the genealogy after the meal while everyone else was enjoying the sea views. I know my parents and grandparents ate there. I don't know if my great grandparents or their parents ate there, too, but it would be fun to know.

    1. I agree with you, this is really nice post. As we all know that every object or building has his own history and this is really good story about the history of this restaurant.

      The Miller Haus

  2. Thanks for dropping by and commenting. Restaurants - and the family traditions and milestone events associated with them - often get overlooked by family historians. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, knowing the "family food hangouts" can tell you a lot about the people, their friends and their social milieu. Plus, checking out the ones that are still around can be fun in its own right, as Heather demonstrates above!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Thanks for your posting. I worked at Jack's Oyster House from about 1980-1985 while I was in college (and immediately after, during what would now be called my "gap year") as a bartender, busboy and eventually waiter. My outfit as a waiter was the same as you describe it at Keeler's--white shirt, black bow tie, black jacket, pants and cummerbund, and white apron. At the time we also had all male waiters, many of whom had been there for 20-30 years, and many of whom had also worked at Keeler's before it closed. At the time I worked there, old Jack himself was still working every evening in the kitchen, even though he was well into his 90s. I was fortunate to serve some famous people who were passing through Albany--baseball legend Mickey Mantle, singer Bob Dylan, journalist Andy Rooney, pro wrestler Andre the Giant, and famously mediocre baseball player "Marvelous Marv" Thronberry. At the time I worked there--more than a decade after Keeler's had closed--it was still an almost daily topic of conversation among the waitstaff and many customers. --Bill