In the 1970s, Jon Bradshaw was the self-stylized Indiana Jones of magazine journalism, a world-weary and charismatic man of letters. Friends with Gore Vidal, Martin Amis, and Christopher Hitchens, Bradshaw lived with Anna Wintour for five years, and produced magazine cover stories and in-depth features until he died, in 1986. His understated prose is droll and smart, as you’ll see in this excerpt from his story on Maxwell’s Plum, a New York restaurant that became something of an institution during the Looking for Mr. Goodbar 70s. —Alex Belth
“Man, you get a lot of freaks in here.”
It is just before midnight on a Friday night and the bar at Maxwell’s Plum is gorged with what Jesse, the head barman, calls the B.B.Q.’s—the shrill and gaudy youth from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. There are more than 150 predators jammed up against the bar, and for the second time that night the traffic controller has been compelled to bolt the restaurant’s front door. The crowd is wild and inconsolable. It is the sort of crowd one used to find at public executions. Jesse is unperturbed. He has seen it all before. Black and bearded, with tinted glasses and a golden hoop in his ear, he looks wonderfully cool.
“Hey, this is nothing, man. This is slow. These cats is foreigners. Most nights this place is tripping with models and stewardesses. Hip chicks. Most nights you get a lot of overseas talent. And a lot of girls from Seattle. Yeah, Seattle. Hey, I’ve seen the second richest woman in the world in here. I know. I’ve been around. I mean, I’ve traveled, man. Come back during the week. We’re having a run on girls from Paris. That’s because of all the bo-tique shows in town.”
In the back room of the restaurant one of the dinner-jacketed captains looks with a kind of fond distaste at the bar-jam. By inclination an actor, he works at Maxwell’s most weekends and refers to himself as Captain Napkin. On weekends he’s a star. The Andrews Sisters won’t set foot in the place unless Captain Napkin is on the floor. “Let me tell you,” he said, nodding at the bar, “these kids are kids. They’re amateurs. No self-respecting hooker would be caught dead in here. This singles thing is a con. I don’t think anybody actually gets laid at the bar. Not laid, honey. What they get is a lot of bump and grind … and a few bruises.” Captain Napkin laughed. “Maybe that’s all they want.”
“Look at them,” he said. “This is the home of the heavy macho look. All these guys come into the bar in the same clothes—the shirt split to the navel, the chest hair parted in the middle, and round their necks they always wear a gold chain with an ivory tooth. You can count on it. It’s very macho, man. Oh, yeah, and the place reeks. Can you smell it?” Captain Napkin lifts his fine nose in the air. “It’s a distillation of eau de Flatbush.”
At midnight the restaurant still swarms with late-night revelers. Even the back room, the classy part of Maxwell’s Plum, is infested with balloons and the remnants of a birthday party who have just ordered two more bottles of Dom Pérignon. Maxwell’s seats 240 people, and today, Friday, has served 1,500 meals. It has been a perfectly average day.
In the nine years since the restaurant opened, it has become one of the city’s four largest-volume producers—the others, in no particular order, being Mamma Leone’s, Lüchow’s, and “21.” Nearly a half a million people a year walk in and out of Maxwell’s Plum. Last year it did a $4.1-million turnover, and it’s doing considerably better in 1975. What began as a joint for junk food and the singles trade has now become an East Side institution—a circus of bearded barmen and balloons, ceramic animals, clowning captains, a sideshow at the bar—and beloved by … well … by people who believe that food need not necessarily be the main event.
A Kind of Theater
Maxwell’s Plum was opened by Warner LeRoy on the night of April 6, 1966. Until then, Warner, the son of Mervyn LeRoy and the great-nephew of Jack Warner, had been a film editor, a stage manager, and a producer and director in the theater. In 1959 he took over the York Theater on First Avenue, producing and directing plays, and in 1964 converted it into the York Cinema, where he ran a series of highly successful film festivals. Next door to the cinema, on the corner of First Avenue and 64th Street, there was a tiny luncheonette.
“In 1965 First Avenue was a bad, bad area. Nobody came to First Avenue. But I bought a long lease on that luncheonette. At the time I didn’t know all these airline stewardesses lived around here. I didn’t know about all those nurses and secretaries. And it was just about the time the Pill was coming into fashion and the women’s-lib movement was getting off the ground. I didn’t know what to call the place. I was looking for names with double meanings. I remember I toyed with ‘The Shanghai Hippopotamus.’ I toyed with ‘The Silver Cherry.’ In the end I decided on ‘Maxwell’s Plum.’ It doesn’t mean anything. It isn’t supposed to mean anything. It’s just a feeling I get. Y’know?
“Anyway, we opened. We didn’t advertise or anything. We still don’t. Oh, we had a sign outside for about a week before, saying ‘Get Ready for Maxwell’s Plum.’ But that was all. I didn’t invite a soul. I wasn’t even going to go, but finally, around eleven, I went down expecting to find about eight people, maybe nine people, who couldn’t get in anywhere else. But it was jammed and there was this crowd outside in the street. I never even went in. Forget it, a mob, I couldn’t believe it. The place was meant to seat 80 people. The kitchen was ten-by-seven. Three cooks and two dishwashers. I thought we’d serve 20 meals a night, 30 tops. Wrong. I was really wrong. For the first two or three years we did about ten lunches a day, but it was always a success at night. Listen, we’ve never had a night that we didn’t sell out at least two sittings. Not once. And that includes recessions, inflations, depressions, that includes blizzards on Christmas Eve. Nothing affects us, not even the weather.”
By 1969 the restaurant was doing so well that LeRoy decided to convert the York Cinema next door into a bigger and better Maxwell’s Plum. Warner LeRoy is an oversized and amiable man of some 250 pounds, a fact he likes to blame on Maxwell’s Plum. But he doesn’t frequent the restaurant as often as he used to.
“All these guys come into the bar in the same clothes—the shirt split to the navel, the chest hair parted in the middle, and round their necks they always wear a gold chain with an ivory tooth.”
Occasionally he’ll come in with his second wife, Kay, a former TWA stewardess whom he met in the original, smaller Maxwell’s, and when he does, it is impossible to miss him sitting in the back room wearing one or another of his favorite outfits—the Moroccan outfit with copper water cups and flashlights and the outsized hat festooned with silver bells, or the Western outfit with sequined lions’ heads on the back, or, more often than not, the black velvet dinner jacket emblazoned with huge, almost luminous, pink, lilac, white, and orange flowers. In his younger days, LeRoy (who is now 40) drove to Maxwell’s in a white pimpmobile splashed with bright red stars—but no more. He has, he feels, settled down.
LeRoy is a man who likes to embellish reality with bizarre effects. To enter Great Adventure or Maxwell’s Plum is somehow to blunder through the Looking Glass; and LeRoy himself bears more than a passing resemblance to Tweedledum. “I tried to create a mood, a spectacle in here,” he says. “I wanted it to be a happening. I’d say we’re successful not only because of the décor but because of the quality of the food and the mix of people. We think of ourselves as a neighborhood restaurant. We draw a lot of people from across the street, but we try and wear as many different hats as possible in order to get the mix. We get the celebrities, the models and stewardesses, the neighbors, the tourists, as well as the singles crowd. Maxwell’s Plum is the melting pot of New York and of those who come to New York.
“From the very beginning the young people came and they were single or posing as single. We’ve never done anything to promote them. Not that we’ve been against them, but we’ve done nothing to promote them either. We have a better-quality singles crowd than we used to have, but it’s a very small part of our business. Hell, we have to have something. The average gross sales per year are about $17,000 per seat in here. That’s a lot of sales. One of the main reasons for our success is that we’re very efficient. This restaurant is well run. You wouldn’t believe the mechanics of this place. I mean its day-to-day management. It doesn’t just happen, y’know. It isn’t an accident. We can’t afford to have accidents. Running Maxwell’s Plum is like running a goddamn hospital.”
The dinner rush at Maxwell’s Plum begins promptly at six o’clock, and as at lunch, the restaurant is practically full some 30 minutes later. Already at 6:30, the heavy jostling for position had begun to occur at the front door. Although many customers book, particularly in the back room, the allocation of tables is a difficult problem at Maxwell’s Plum and has, in the past, required patience and more than a little managerial cunning.
Warner LeRoy assures one that there is no preferential treatment at Maxwell’s Plum. “We try and be democratic,” he says. “No one gets special treatment, and reservations are honored. Because there are no minimums here, you can come in and order a cup of coffee and stay as long as you like. The people at the front desk are fired if we discover them selling tables.” Maxwell’s normally allows ten minutes for customers who have made bookings and are late; after that, unless they telephone or the weather is particularly bad, the table is given away. John Sutcliffe and Werner Mair, Maxwell’s two co-managers, know the regular customers and make an effort to seat them quickly. It is customary for those who haven’t booked to wait for long periods of time.
The back room is the premier part of the restaurant. With 26 tables seating some 90 people, it is run by the six-foot-six-inch Van Ribblett, a 44-year-old former hairdresser and part-time painter. He prefers to be called the director of the back room. He looks on it as a kind of stage and likes to choreograph it accordingly.
“No self-respecting hooker would be caught dead in here. This singles thing is a con. I don’t think anybody actually gets laid at the bar. Not laid, honey. What they get is a lot of bump and grind … and a few bruises.”
“Seating the room is an elaborate chess game,” he says. “We do our best to honor all reservations, but on the other hand, you can’t tell the sister of the Shah of Iran to stand at the bar till you make room for her. You make room for her right away. My customers are a total cross section of humanity and they treat this room as they would their own home. They’re always showing it off to newcomers. They even give them tours, Friday and Saturday nights are a madhouse. The better class in New York don’t go out on those nights.” And neither, presumably, does Van, since those are his nights off.
Warner LeRoy’s assurances to the contrary, there are “good” tables at Maxwell’s Plum—particularly the four tables overlooking the west side of the bar. There is even a list of special customers with three ranks or gradations—PPX, PX, and Forget It. PPX stands for preferred personal extras, and PX for personal extras. The latter is self-evident. The list contains some 450 names, of which 50 PPX names are starred. “It’s your standard everyday name-dropping list of stars,” says Captain Napkin. “That means, when one of the celebs orders his meal, the chef comes in and makes sure all the shrimp are facing north.” Despite the list, Van insists that all his customers are treated with “gentility and good grace.”
By ten o’clock the restaurant is so crowded the traffic controller has locked the front door. It is a common occurrence on Friday nights. “The only time I remember a quiet night in this place,” says Captain Napkin, “was the night they showed Godfather I on television for the first time. All New York was quiet that night. Listen, Maxwell’s is one of the longest-running hit restaurants in town. There are a lot of hit people in the neighborhood and they come in for the mystique of the place, to have a good time or to spot the stars. Some people come in, sit down, and before ordering a drink even, they say, ‘Who’s here tonight?’ You get a rich crowd in here. They can drive you nuts. We’re very polite. You notice I smile a lot? But there’s none of that sycophantic ‘Pardon, monsieur’ stuff. You don’t get a lot of Côte Basque bullshit in here. You get a performance. Being a captain in Maxwell’s Plum means coming in, changing into costume, and going out and performing. It’s a six-hour stand-up comic routine. Let me tell you, honey, even Bob Hope couldn’t hack that.”
The type of clientele changes from meal to meal. The waiters seem to prefer Sunday nights, not only because the kitchen closes at midnight, but because the crowd is nicer, more of a family crowd, and not so loud and vulgar. On weeknights the dress is gaudy, clusters of Gucci, Ricci, and Pucci labels in evidence—a style Captain Napkin calls “East Side plastic.”
“We get the celebrities, the models and stewardesses, the neighbors, the tourists, as well as the singles crowd. Maxwell’s Plum is the melting pot of New York and of those who come to New York.”
“You don’t get what you call a chic crowd in here,” he says. “Very few of your genuine chicees here. The neighborhood is riddled with nurses and stewardesses and hip actor-model types, a lot of nouveaus in the high rises. We get them. This place is outrageous. You get a lot of heavy-duty partying. People sometimes come in here and ask me for a quiet table and I say, ‘Hey, honey, you’re in the wrong restaurant.’ ”
By eleven o’clock the bar is jammed to capacity, and just before midnight the front doors are locked again. The men outnumber the women by three to one. One of them, a sullen youth, stands at the east end of the bar wearing a World War I aviator’s helmet, black goggles pulled down over his eyes, and a long white silk scarf around his neck, He is drinking brandy. Occasionally, he looks hastily over his shoulder into the street as though he had just heard the scramble alarm. “He’s nothing,” says barman Jesse. “You should’ve been here the night the guy who skated from California on roller skates came in here. Skated right up to the bar. First drink he’d had since Sacramento.”
“Outta sight,” said the flier.
“I remember the night a guy gave a chick a hundred dollars to streak. She disrobed and bolted around the bar like a bunny in heat. This is an ‘in’ place. You got to expect that sort of thing. The chicks in here don’t wear bobby sox and chew bubble gum, y’know. They’re sophisticated. A lot of guys come in here whacked out of their heads, man. I mean buzzed. A lot of guys come in here who have their wives stashed somewhere else. Yeah, we get a lot of lonelies.”
The pandemonium at the bar continues. The kitchen has closed at 1:40, but the bar won’t close till three. The four closing waiters have arrived and will stay till the last customer leaves. The night maître d’ will check the locks and the toilet for drunks and sleepers and will leave just as the two stove-cleaners come on duty. The night cashier will have completed a cover check and a menu breakdown, and the night steward, who is in charge of night security, will remain till five. But at the moment all the action is at the bar.
“It’s always the same,” says Jesse. “Monday, you get the out-of-towners; Tuesday, the women who come in after the theater or the cinema; Wednesday, the regulars, the New Yorkers; Thursday, the businessmen, the divorcées, and the wives looking for a little extracurricular activity, though they have to catch the ten o’clock train home to Long Island; and Fridays and Saturdays, the B.B.Q’s.
“We refer to people by what they drink,” he said. “Miss Dewars-and-Water always sits on the south side of the bar and looks off into the distance and don’t say nothing. She always brushes off the first three guys who come up to her, but starts talking after that. Red Wine over there is a divorcée, real nice, a talker, a mover. Rusty Nail down at the end is a hellraiser. Just as soon kick you in the balls as not.”
“Outta sight,” said the flier.
Toward two o’clock the bar is thinning out. Perhaps twenty men hungrily eye the two remaining women. At the north end of the bar, where most of them are gathered, an argument erupts between two of the men. “I’m terribly sorry,” said one of them.
“You’re sorry?” screamed the other. “You piss on my date and you say you’re sorry?”
“Man, you get a lot of freaks in here,” said Jesse.
“Outta sight,” said the flier.