Lüchow’s: America’s Most Famous German Restaurant

By on Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Located at 14th Street in New York City, Lüchow's dominated the celeb dining scene from 1882 until the 1970s.

If the atmosphere of a restaurant could be described by one word, the word for Lüchow’s would have to be gemütlichkeit. (Definition: good-natured, jolly, agreeable, cheerful, hearty, comfortable, cozy, snug…Germans are big on adjectives). It was New York’s quintessential German restaurant—the aroma of sweet and sour German cooking, the thin wafts of smoke from rare cigars, the hearty laughter of patrons enjoying themselves, and the music of the Vienna Quartet reached out to embrace all who entered.

Located at 14th Street, facing Irving Place, which was the center for the arts in New York at that time, it was a restaurant devoted to good living, which was just what big, good-natured August Guido Lüchow, who founded the restaurant in 1882 wanted it to be. The food was authentic, the beer, Würzburger, and the wine cellar was stocked with only the finest European wines.

The food was authentic, the beer, Würzburger, and the wine cellar was stocked with only the finest European wines.

Generation after generation of musicians, writers, actors, politicians and financiers—such luminaries as O. Henry, H.L.Mencken, Lillian Russell, Theodore Roosevelt  (yes, that  Theodore Roosevelt who later became President)  as well as  Paderosky, Caruso, Richard Strauss, Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers just to name a few, were regular patrons. The Bohemian Club was organized there in one of the private rooms as was the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

William Steinway, distinguished head of the famous piano company ate lunch there in an upstairs room regularly at noon with senior executives from his firm. The forty-five-cent lunch, which began with 12 oysters, could last as long as three hours.

The main dining room, as well as the private rooms for those who wanted to entertain guests had only one dress code —a guest could not enter “mitaus” a tie. Only fine wines and beer were served there. Those who wished to have hard liquor were served in the Gentlemen’s Grille, a separate room on the same floor.

Good Help


The waiters were men of strong mind and trustworthy. They advised the guests about the food in the kitchen and if something was no longer available, they were not above taking the menu back and striking it out with a pencil before returning it.

Some patrons, like William Steinway, (who had loaned August Lüchow money to buy the restaurant) entertained famous musicians from around the world at elegant dinners in the private rooms. Others, like Diamond Jim Brady had more robust banquets where twenty ladies of the chorus were engaged to be company for his dinner guests.  At the table, each lady would find, tucked in her dinner napkin, $500 plus a piece of diamond jewelry.

Fine Beer, First-Rate Events

In 1885, Lüchow’s became the authorized agent in the United States for Würzburger, a fine amber colored beer from upper Bavaria. It was considered the ultimate accompaniment to such German dishes as pig’s knuckles and sauerkraut, potato dumplings, beefsteak and cheese. When a shipment arrived, the beer had to rest in the cooler for at least three days before it could be served. It was maintained at a cellar temperature of 40 degrees. If a guest wanted beer colder than that, the beer was not chilled further—the mug or seidel in which it was served was chilled!

Throughout the year there were week-long festivals, each with its own traditions.

The Bock Beer festival in March was the herald of spring. For three evenings the German band played old songs and the menu featured traditional foods of the season: bockwurst, liver dumplings, liver sausage, roast ham, pigs’ knuckles and pheasant on wine kraut.

The Goose feast in December was a gourmet’s delight—appetizers, marinated herring, soup made from goose giblets and barley, consommé with dumplings; goose ragout  and potato dumplings, and finally, the roast goose served with stewed apples and cranberries.

A sentimental tribute to the Old Country, the May Wine festival celebrated spring and love. Vine leaves and grapes were draped around the restaurant, the German band played spring music and the traditional dessert—cabinet pudding with May wine sauce was served. It was based on a custom in Rhineland where boys and girls, holding hands, walked from town to town sampling the May wine of the vineyards.

Lüchow’s May Wine

6 bunches of woodruff
½ pound powdered sugar
1 cup cognac
4 quarts Moselle or Rhine wine
ice
2 quarts champagne or charged water
1 cup fresh strawberries

Place herbs in large bowl with sugar, cognac, 1 quart wine.  Cover bowl; let stand overnight. To serve, strain mixture, pour ice in a large punch bowl, and add remaining three quarts Rhine wine. Add champagne or charged water. Float strawberries in bowl. Serves 10 to 15.

Perhaps the most cherished tradition of all was Christmas.

A 25-foot tree was erected in the café trimmed with 500 electric candles, 19th-century German toys, and underneath, a holy village, all hand carved in Oberammergau in Bavaria. The orchestra played Christmas carols and the diners sang along.  At six o’clock on Christmas Eve, the lights were turned down low and the orchestra played Silent Night.

The Christmas menu was always the same—oxtail soup, boiled carp, roast goose with chestnut stuffing, creamed onions, pumpernickel, plum pudding with brandy sauce, and ice cream.

Life After August

When August Lüchow died in 1923, he left a legacy of a restaurant dedicated to authentic German cooking and good living.  Both his successors, a nephew-in-law, Victor Eckstein and a 33-year-old Swedish restaurateur, Jan Mitchell, remained true to its heritage.

Victor Eckstein managed to keep the gemütlickeit during the Prohibition years when the Würzburger could not flow. On the day in May 1933, when Prohibition was lifted, 1,000 people came to Lüchow’s to celebrate. They consumed 1,000 seidels of Würzburger (eight half-barrels).

In 1950, Jan Mitchell persuaded Victor Eckstein to sell Lüchow’s to him with the promise to preserve the atmosphere and traditions of Lüchow’s, which he did. In 1952, he recorded the history of the restaurant he cherished, complete with the original German recipes.  Lüchow’s German Cookbook is now out of print, but well worth searching for at old book sales.

On the day in May 1933, when Prohibition was lifted, 1,000 people came to Lüchow’s to celebrate. They consumed 1,000 seidels of Würzburger (eight half-barrels).

He sold Lüchow’s in 1970, but the restaurant was never the same. Union Square was no longer the heart of the theater district, and by 1980 the area was surrounded by empty buildings. In 1976 Mimi Sheraton, a restaurant critic for The New York Times, visited the restaurant and found the food “dreary.” In 1982 a suspicious fire, which the fire department could never explain, destroyed the building and efforts of preservationists to gain landmark status failed.

Although the new owners moved the restaurant uptown to Broadway near Times Square, the food and the atmosphere were never quite the same.  It closed in 1986.

Editor’s Note: Lüchow’s German Cookbook was not only an invaluable source of information for this article, but many of its recipes are spectacular  and readily adaptable to today’s tastes and ingredients. Click here for Smoked Salmon in Cocotte.

Written by Satenig St. Marie

Satenig St. Marie is a writer and historian based in Connecticut.

60 Comments

  1. Barbara Whitcomb says:

    My great-uncle Manuel Fischbein,
    was cellist at Luchow”s for
    30 years______ during its heyday!

    Fond memories of the marvelous
    stories!
    Was taken there as a toddler but
    was too young to remember!

  2. Leonard Cogar says:

    I found an original copy of the cookbook described in avon, OH a few years ago. In excellent condition, it contains many wonderful recipes & stories of the old world & it’s beer, wine & cooking styles. Definitely a must see, especially for those of us descended from Upper Bavaria. Such a true crime the restaurant couldn’t get historical society protection…

  3. Carol says:

    Does anyone know if there is a listing of the chefs who worked at Luchow’s during the early years?

  4. My husband’s grandfather was chef at Luchow’s during the early years. I’m trying to locate a personnel listing of the chefs to verify the years he was there.

  5. I got to take my dad to the original Lüchow’s, during a Christmas season when it was at its glorious best. I think it may have been the highlight of his visits to New York.

  6. Michelle says:

    We went there with our whole family on New Year’s Eve before the crowds came into the city, my oldest son now 36 helped light the 100 year Christmas Tree.

  7. Bob DeTchon says:

    Christmas was very special at Luchows….each Holiday period Sara (wife) and I would take our 3 little Girls, Dana, Debra and Devon for the Tree and Beauty of the place….Luchows was very special. Bob

  8. Richard says:

    Today is Christmas Day and as I read this article about Lüchow’s I am reminded how ingrained it is in my life.

    My late father, Emil Zahn, was the Executive Chef for Mitchell Enterprises that owned Lüchow’s along with the Longchamps chain, and the Mark Twain’s Riverboat in the Empire State Building, in the late Fifties and Sixties until his retirement in June 1967 which coincides with the selling of the chain, by Jan Mitchell, to the Riese brothers. He did not want to work for them as they wanted to make major changes which he did not approve of, and retired. My father was indeed prophetic as they eventually turned all these legendary New York fine dining establishments into fast food chains (e.g. T.G.I. Friday, Houlihan’s, Bagel Factory, Brew Burger, etc.).

    My father worked long hours, six days a week, taking off only Mondays, and would take the bus and subway from our house on Long Island into the city. He would always wear a suit to work and change into his chef’s uniform at the restaurant. As my father had to work so much, including every holiday, I almost never saw him. So my mother would take me to the restaurant for the special holiday dinners. They really went all out for Christmas – I remember all the decorations, especially the big tree which made for a fantastic festive atmosphere.

    On one weekend day my father took me along to work with him. We took the subway into Manhattan, walked down Fifth Avenue, stopping for an orange drink at Nedicks. When we entered the kitchen of Lüchow’s I was nervous among all the hustle and bustle, but settled down as everyone was so nice to me.

    Recently I found a note from Jan Mitchell, the owner, congratulating my father on the day of my birth. Included is a cancelled bonus check. Thereafter, Mr. Mitchell would always give me an old silver dollar from the 1800′s on my birthdays.

    I have many mementos from both restaurants: beer steins, ashtrays and matchbooks, paperweights, a 14kt gold keychain and whistle, inventory records and food orders, plus many, many menus, some for Mother’s Day, Oktoberfest, Thanksgiving, and especially Christmas. My father would also prepare special event menus for celebrities like Jackie Gleason and Vincent Price, among others. There are also hand-written menu drafts. Recently I watched “On The Town (1949)” and Frank Sinatra suggests to go to Lüchow’s when he and Gene Kelly arrive in NYC.

    I also have a signed copy of the Lüchow’s Cookbook. Although my father provided (maybe not created) many of the recipes in the book, he is only given credit in the book for the improvements he made to the draught beer system (the Zahn system) in the restaurant.

    He was interviewed for articles by the New York newspapers and magazines (I still have several clippings), but I don’t think my father would have thought much of today’s “celebrity” chefs. He was the quintessential professional concerned only about his restaurant and not focused on himself. Attached is a New York Times proof picture of him preparing Kaiserschmarren in the kitchen at Lüchow’s.

    After my father retired in 1967, he moved our family down to Ft. Lauderdale where he spent the remainder of his life. He loved cooking for his family and friends, and going to the beach. Years later when I introduced the parents of my future wife to my father, they explained that they had had their reception dinner at Lüchow’s in the early Sixties. Emil Zahn died in 1992 at the age of 86, and is buried at the Florida National Cemetery http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=126661047

  9. linda says:

    MyOpa was Willie Hellerling a 40+ year chef at Luchows. Such wonderful memories.

  10. Rolf Klippert says:

    Dad’s (Howard W., b1904) absolutely favorite restaurant was Luchow’s. I have uncovered many menus etc. from the 1940′s. (EG., Aug. 13, 1947, Lobster Thermidor, Allumette Potatoes $2.50.) I’d like to find a “home” for these. Please advise any suggestions. Thanks,
    Rolf Klippert, phone 512.494.4323

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