Sherry’s Restaurant, New York
Canadian by birth, the thrifty and ambitious Louis Sherry originally opened an ice cream and candy store before giving Delmonico’s a run for their money by opening a salubrious restaurant in 1890 that became one of the most famous culinary landmarks in New York until the advent of prohibition.
Louis Sherry was born in St Alban’s Virginia. His father was a carpenter of French descent and his mother a member of an old Vermont family. Louis spoke fluent French. At an early age he went to Montreal and got a job as a general helper in a hotel and with savings arrived in New York and got a job at the old Brunswick Hotel, at 26th Street and 5th Avenue as a bus boy and then a waiter. His attention to detail and charm made him very popular. He moved to the Hotel Elberon, in New Jersey running the dining room for two summers and in the summer of 1881 he rose to the important post of maître d’hotel. He shrewdly cultivated the acquaintance of the hotel’s rich and prominent New York patrons. Deftly and efficiently he talked to the men he had been serving and began to exercise his remarkable facility for making friends and for holding onto them. He told men like Henry Clews, FR Coudert & William B. Dinsmore of his dream to establish his own enterprise and they all told him they would support it.
At the end of the season, and on these assurances, Sherry had saved $1,300 and with this he returned to New York and opened a small ice cream and confectionary shop at 662 6th Ave on the south side of 38th Street in late 1881. In the basement was his ice cream and pastry shop and a main kitchen, on the ground floor was the confectionery shop and restaurant, and on the third and fourth floors were the confectionery kitchens. Sherry himself lived on the second floor. As business increased over the years he leased the basement of an adjoining building for his widely expanding catering arm.
Sherry’s first large scale enterprise came in 1883 when he gained the contract to furnish refreshments for a gala fair at the new Metropolitan Opera House with a lunch, a table d’hote dinner and a later supper which was a huge success. Next, came a churchly affair for Bishop Potter’s luncheon for 400 and at the end of September 1885 he captured the Badminton Assembly one of the smartest social events of the season. Thereafter he co-ordinated a huge affair at Columbia College, Madison Ave at 49th street on 13 April 1887 for 2,000 people. These contracts set him up as a well-known caterer and his reputation grew year by year and he quickly became a real New York institution.
Sherry’s philosophy was simple ‘I do not let anything go out of my house that was not made in the best possible way, out of the best and most expensive materials on the market’ he also learned that ‘nothing goes further with dainty people than dainty decorations.’ When the Mikado came to New York, Sherry cornered the market with Japanese parasols and ornaments for decorating cream and cakes. Sherry saw that his success could be achieved by stressing the novelties of service. As he became more successful he went to Paris to discover the latest innovations and originated ideas for his growing business.
As New York grew, so grew its ideas of truly elegant entertainment. Outgrowing his original premises, Sherry decided to move his establishment. Although Martin’s and Maison Doree were a thorn in the side of Delmonico’s, Sherry’s now became a major threat when he opened his new restaurant in 1890 at 5th Ave at the corner of 37th street in a building that had been the property of the Goelet family. The building was totally re-modelled with a large and small ballroom and a small restaurant
Magnificent and opulent, one notable feature was the spacious, large 70 square foot ballroom that outshone in splendour, the somewhat tarnished red and gold 50 square foot ballroom of Delminico’s at 26th Street. Sherry’s immediately captured some of the season’s smartest dance affairs and become equal with Delmonico’s in the stakes of the smartest restaurant in New York but, not to be caught out, the latter promptly redecorated their ballroom in an elaborate Louis Quinze style.
Although Delmonico’s had started the trend of staging private functions, Sherry excelled at persuading New York society that it was more distinctive to have private dinners, dances, and other events such as bringing out daughters under his roof rather than in their own palatial dining rooms and ballrooms. He also caught the fancy of women with his introduction of the 5pm tea – at that hour the elite trooped to his dining room to sip tea and gossip. By 1891 Sherry’s was one of the socially select ballrooms that season and became patronised by members of New York’s 400. One interesting event in May 1896 was a Tableaux Vivants given for the benefit of the Mount Vernon Association (which sought to preserve the home of Washington) in the white and gold ballroom with 600 tickets sold and well known society women posing for the tableaux.
However, Delmonico’s and Sherry’s were no longer the only venues favoured by the sophisticated set and the opening of the Waldorf-Astoria in 1893 rivalled both. The night life and high life of New York had steadily been moving northward for sometime and when Delmonico’s moved uptown to 5th Ave and 44th Street in 1897, Sherry followed suit and opened across the street on 10 October 1898 in the south-west corner of 5th Ave and 44th street.
The new twelve storey building was a splendid structure built by Stamford White at a cost of $2,000,000, featuring the usual luxury. There was a large restaurant on the 5th avenue frontage and at the back on 44th street was the men’s grill that became popular as a lunching place and at night it became a popular rendezvous for informal and formal dinners. Upstairs was a splendid ballroom and other private rooms and above the living quarters of many distinguished New Yorkers.
For the next twenty years New York’s great capitals of food and good service existed side by side. One season Sherry’s would be the rage, the next Delmonico’s and then the Waldorf – the pendulum of social popularity swung back and forward. However, Sherry’s program for catering to the ultra fashionable became secure when Mrs Astor decided to give a ball at Sherry’s and it became the scene of many more elaborate dinners, dances, debutante presentations and other functions. In the large ballroom were staged some of the most important public dinners of the period.
For example, in January 1911 there was a fanciful costume ball – one of the largest and smartest semi-public balls ever given – with some of the most prestigious members of New York society in resplendent attire: Mrs Stuyvesant Fish in Louis XV Court dress and Mrs French Vanderbilt as Princess Lamballe maid of honour to Marie Antoinette. Later in December 1911, the first of two regular winter Cinderella dances was staged at Sherry’s. Dinners preceded the dance and a cotillion led by leading society figures started at 9 o’clock.
Then on 17 May 1919 came the end of an era. Sherry announced the closure of his 5th avenue palace. Sherry claimed it was due to prohibition and what he called ‘war-born bolshevism’ of waiters (he felt it was growing difficult to get the right, polite staff) that lowered the quality of service. The contents of the restaurant were auctioned for $291,000 and the Waldorf-Astoria bought his four Lille tapestries for $61,000. The $250,000 stock of wines disposed off to old customers. In retrospect the real cause was not prohibition, nor the bolshevism of waiters. In part it was the passing of the prestige of 5th avenue and in part the fickleness of the fashionable who flocked to new venues on Madison and Park avenues.
But this was not the end of Sherry’s enterprises. He opened a confectionary shop at Park Ave and 58th Street with a syndicate of wealthy men including members of the du Pont Hotel Group with a branch in Paris. This new venue was primarily for catering and the manufacture and sales of candies and pastries
But did have a small restaurant serving light lunches and afternoon teas.
With the construction of the new splendid, Grand Central station a new smart Park Avenue emerged and in late 1921 Sherry opened a new restaurant at 300 Park Ave on two floors of an eighteen storey apartment hotel. There was a large formal restaurant and a small informal one on the ground floor, ballrooms above and then fourteen stories of ninety living apartments. The main restaurant had a collection of Sixteenth century tapestries valued at $200,000.
A little later Louis Sherry Incorporated was formed, a $400,000 corporation to carry out new business in alliance with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel which will put the Sherry Service into the hotel. The Waldorf-Astoria also took over the regular social functions previously held at Sherry’s.
Louis Sherry retired and died at the Hotel Ambassador aged 71 on the 9 June 1926 but his business and legacy carried on. The new Louis Sherry Inc built a new tower on the site of the former Netherland Hotel situated at the northeast corner of 5th avenue and 59th street and the new Sherry-Netherland tower – thirty-nine stories in height, with two restaurants – opened in 1927. Next, a Louis Sherry shop was opened at 35th street and 5th that met the luncheon and tea necessities of downtown shoppers. Another new shop opened at Madison Ave and 62nd street in an impressive two storied building designed in the modern mode of simplicity and charm. The Sherry Table of Delicacies was established here and many unique items were sold such as cavier, olive oil, pate, coffee and foie gras. Although Sherry had opened a Paris shop before he died, a new one opened at the Rond Point on the Champs Elysees.
New York Times
The Story of Louis Sherry and the Business He Built by Edward Hungerford
Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendour by Lately Thomas
Stepping Out by Lewis A. Erenberg
New York Nightlife and the transformation of American Culture 1890-1930
Inns and Outs by Julius Keller