By Eric Model
You might not know it today, but once there was a time when it was stylish to travel – especially by air. It was the real deal. Folks dressed up – women wore stockings and heels and men put on jackets. In flight, there were gourmet meals served up on china and with linens.
In fact, there was a time when a trip to an airport itself was a special occasion –- even to those not going away. They went there for fun and a sense of adventure.
Locally, Newark Airport was once one of those places. Part of what made the airport special was a very unique restaurant for its time — The Newarker.
The late Joe Baum, who later became famous for creating the Four Seasons, the Brasserie and Windows on the World restaurants in New York, is largely credited for the success and the enduring legacy of The Newarker.
Baum had initially gotten into the hospitality business in 1949 when he joined the Schine hotel chain, working as the director of its restaurants in Florida. Four years later, he came to Restaurant Associates to open and manage its newest venture, the restaurant at Newark Airport called the Newarker.
To many, it was an odd endeavor, but Baum made the most of it. He hired a classically trained Swiss chef (Albert Stockli) to develop an ambitious menu. He invested in good china and well-designed menus. He also came up with the kind of attention-grabbing features that he would bring to all of his later restaurants.
The Newarker eventually became famous for its generous portions, notably its Absecon oysters, called ”knife and fork oysters” because they were so large that they had to be eaten with a knife and fork. Mr. Baum sold them by the half-dozen, but added a seventh oyster, presented on its own plate. He added a third claw to every order of lobster. He stuck Fourth of July sparklers into birthday cakes, and whenever possible, set dishes afire.
Mimi Sheraton, a former restaurant critic for The New York Times, who worked as a consultant to Mr. Baum on the Four Seasons once described Baum as ”the Cecil B. DeMille of restaurateurs — everything was a big production.”
”The customers like to see things on fire, or accompanied by fiery props, and it doesn’t hurt the food that much,” Baum once explained to an interviewer.
The Newarker lost $25,000 in its first year, but by 1955 the Newarker was serving 1,000 meals a day, and turning a handsome profit.
Baum was said to be a perfectionist, spending countless hours fussing with over every small detail – ranging from the interior design, the silverware and the staff uniforms. Restaurant Associates maintained an extensive culinary library, and Mr. Baum would fly all over the world with his team to do field research when devising a menu.
And it all worked. The Newarker became famous for its elegant dining, grandiose portions, and over-the-top flambé. And, it is was so good that people used to go to the airport just to eat. In fact, the Newarker became a destination restaurant where 90 percent of the customers were non-travelers.
Newark Liberty Airport has nothing like that today, of course. There are eateries, but it’s a very different scene than what was found in the old terminal those days.
There is still a Newarker Restaurant but it’s not to be found on-site at the airport, but rather nearby at the Hilton Hotel.
It’s billed as a “full service restaurant.” We are told that “Menu selections include many popular favorites served in a newly renovated restaurant … where one can enjoy the new Hilton Breakfast Buffet. Breakfast Lunch and Dinner available.”
In the meantime, we hear that the new Jet Blue terminal at over at New York’s Kennedy Airport has been fitted with a variety of eateries beyond the security check area – inspired in large part by the Newarker restaurant of some 50 years earlier.
I don’t doubt that the food might very well be good at both eateries inspired by the original Newarker, but it’s hard to conceive how they might match what made the Newarker of yesteryear so special.
Eric Model explores the “offbeat, off the beaten path overlooked and forgotten” on SIRIUS-XM Radio and at www.journeysinto.com.