Skip to main content

During the 19th century, restaurants began to supplant taverns as the primary venues for dining and social interaction in New York City. By the late 19th century, socializing started to shift away from entertaining at home to restaurants, where both the established blue-bloods of New York Society and newly minted millionaires dined. The rapid turn-over in New York’s economic elite meant that the opportunity to display one’s wealth publicly was critical to affirm one’s status. By the end of the 19thcentury, dining in restaurants was an important way in which New Yorkers displayed their wealth and status; restaurants were where New Yorkers could see and be seen.

In the late 1890s, dining and New York’s night-life shifted from the established restaurants and hotels along Fifth Avenue towards the Great White Way—Broadway—and 42nd Street, the area which would later be known as Times Square. At the turn of the 20th century, a group of restaurants, known as the “Lobster Palaces” emerged. Known for their glitzy, over-the-top interiors and late-night lobster parties, many of these “Lobster Palaces” used the art and architecture of the ancient world to create opulent, immersive dining experiences.

Two establishments stand out for the use of antiquity in their conceptualization and design: Murray’s Roman Gardens (1907) and Louis Martin’s Cafe L’Opera (1910), both of which Henry Erkins designed. This paper examines why and how the art and architecture of Greece, Rome, Egypt and the ancient Near East were used to create interiors that aimed to transport their patrons to the civilizations of old. Murray’s Roman Gardens primarily used Roman-inspired architecture, but also incorporated aspects of Greek and Egyptian décor, art, and architecture. The Cafe L’Opera used the visual and architectural language of the ancient Near East and Egypt for its interiors.

Using an interdisciplinary approach, this paper investigates the décor of these spaces and their conceptualization, as articulated by their architect Henry Erkins, and the critical response to these establishments (through contemporary accounts of the décor and food). These interiors were predicated on the idea that their patrons should experience all of the splendid comforts and extravagant luxuries that the elites of the world’s ancient civilizations had once enjoyed.

The study of these restaurants shed new light on the reception of antiquity. Scholars have often defined the reception of Greece and Rome’s architecture primarily through a civic or public lens in the United States (e.g., the use of classical architecture for banks, courthouses, and civic spaces) and they have not examined these receptions in conjunction with those of the ancient Near East and Egypt. Therefore, these restaurants offer another way to investigate the appropriations of antiquity in turn-of-the-20th-century New York—specifically how the perceived opulence and decadence of antiquity could be reinterpreted. In this paper, the framework of the “neo-antique” is used to consider how aspects of the art and architecture of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Ancient Near East were used together to create a “bricolage” effect, allowing the creation of original and innovative interiors that allowed New Yorkers to feel as if they were dining like the ancients.