1940s Archive

Along the Boulevards

Originally Published November 1947

To the considered judgment of this department, one of the most fascinating manifestations of the American hotel and restaurant scene has always been the incredible Ernie Byfield, Chicago's caliph of caviar, fabricator of fiery foodstuffs, confidant of celebrities, and overlord of the Ambassador Hotels and their equally legendary restaurants, the Pump Room and the Buttery.

Ernie has not been without his prophets and heralds. He has occupied double-truck layouts in Life magazine, the Pump has for years been a paragrapher's paradise, Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur long ago insinuated plugs for him in the script of The Front Page, and, as this is being written, the incomparable Alva Johnston has recently completed a full-length portrait for the august, if of late somewhat diffused and disorganized, pages of the Saturday Evening Post.

It is hard to determine just when this department's admiration for Byfield had its source and inception. It might have been when we first discovered that he had come by a shipment of tolerably fine Beluga caviar, which through some purely fortuitous circumstance of its handling and salting, had turned a rather startling shade of fumed oak without, in any appreciable way, impairing its flavor or palatable qualities. Instead of returning it to his caviar jobber, Byfield had listed it on the menu at the Pump Room as “Golden Caviar, Formerly a Monopoly of the Russian Czars,” and was serving it with shredded pheasant meat at five dollars a teaspoonful to the enchanted Hollywood trade. Or it may have been when Ethel Barrymore actually took with her, when she checked out of the Ambassador East, a basket of fancy fruit which had been sent her with Byfield's card, an utterly unprecedented action and one which struck the management as verging on the larcenous. “Why,” exclaimed Byfield in tones of outrage, “that basket of fruit would have lasted for at least another dozen important guests with careful handling!”

The important guests at the Ambassador have not always, however, been the most decorous. The late Alexander Woollcott, a zany character whose cut-ups affected various people in various ways, some of them with acute misgivings, made a practice of taking a bite out of each piece of fruit in the management's offering, thus, in theory, rendering it unfit for further circulation. In the early days of the Ambassador, Charlie MacArthur was so favorably disposed toward the design and decoration of one of its intimate, Frenchified elevators, that he was discovered early one morning attempting with the aid of a screw driver to insinuate it from its guides with an eye to taking it home to Nyack. The aforementioned Miss Barrymore was, long ago, presented with an early bottle or two of College Inn Tomato Juice Cocktail, then a Byfield product and new to the market, which, being imperfectly processed, exploded all over her bathroom while she was at the theater. “Send a number of police at once,” she breathed into the telephone upon her return that evening, “there have been several persons slaughtered in my apartment.”

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