Arnold Reuben (1883-1970) was born in Germany. Jewish to the core, he mixed Yiddish in with his English when speaking. His claim to fame was his sandwiches — many of the iconic American sandwiches were invented at his restaurants, and people still waxed poetic about the quality of the sandwiches long after the restaurants were gone.
The start of the legend
Reuben opened his first New York restaurant in 1908 at 802 Park Avenue. He then moved it to Broadway and 82nd Street, and then in 1916 to Broadway and 73rd Street. In 1917, he also had a sandwich stand in Atlantic City. In 1918, he moved his restaurant to 622 Madison Avenue. It was here in 1919 that mobster and sports writer Arnold Rothstein met with others to conspire to fix the 1919 baseball World Series.
Reuben went on to own two restaurants, Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, and the Turf Restaurant. Each stayed in their locations for decades.
In 1964, he sold his business to a Harry L. Gilman, and retired down to Palm Beach, Florida. He died 31 December 1970, aged 87.
Reuben’s son, Arnold Jr, worked for him from approximately 1930, until the 58th Street restaurant was moved to Madison. He died 30 May 1997 in Seminole, Florida, aged 88.
Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen
This restaurant opened in 1928 at 6 58th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. Reuben had his offices in the Squibb Building on Fifth Avenue, around the corner from the 58th Street restaurant. He lived at 8 East 58th Street by 1938.
Even though Reuben been in business at various locations for years, and at this one for seven years, he decided to have an official opening on 28 March 1935. It was attended by New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and written up in the New York Times.
The restaurant had dark red leather seats, dark walnut panelling, and gold-leaf on the ceiling. The decor featured stuffed fish (fishing was his hobby), and sail boats.
The sign for his restaurant just said “REUBENS.” It was in red neon, five feet high, twenty-five feet long. He had a revolving door with a doorman. As you came in, there was a sandwich counter at the entrance, and to the left there was a small, circular waist-high red, silver and black bar with a bartender. Over this bar he had the words “Friendship Is Life’s Most Wondrous Treasure” and “Gather Ye All Here Who Have Forsaken Gloom.” And the place was popular — even gangsters such as Arnold Rothstein hung out there.
The restaurant was open 24 hours a day. One of the cooks who worked for him in the early days was Alfred Scheuing. The food offered included duck with red cabbage, apple pancakes, chopped-liver, matzo-ball soup, borscht and chow mein. Reuben claimed that he developed and sold the first New York style cheesecake (using Break-stone’s brand cream cheese) while others were still using cottage cheese. His biggest claim to fame, though, was his sandwiches. His schtick became naming sandwiches after celebrities who were regular customers.
Generations of New Yorkers would hang out there after theatre. Popular late night items were the cheesecake, and the 30 cm (12 inch) apple pancakes. They had someone in the kitchen who was specially trained in making the pancakes, in 30 cm (12 inch) cast-iron frying pans that were never washed.
Reuben’s stayed in this location until 1965 or 1966, then moved to 244 Madison Avenue, at the corner of Madison and East 38th Street. This iteration of Reuben’s became a meeting place for magicians. It was closed December 2001, by order of the New York City Department of Health citing “extensive insanitary conditions.” As business had gotten very slow, the owners at the time decided to just let it go.
Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen was not related to the chain of restaurants out of Akron, Ohio now called Reuben’s Deli nor to Reuben’s Delicatessen in Montreal.
Turf Restaurant opened in the Brill Building at West 49th and Broadway in 1942. The Brill building was the centre in New York for many songwriters, and business headquarters for music acts such as The Dorsey Brothers, Guy Lombardo and Duke Ellington. Reuben’s Turf Restaurant became a hangout for song-writers such as Barry Mann, Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, and Phil Spector. When the news hit the restaurant that Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson), Richie Valens and Buddy Holly had just been killed in a plane crash, the restaurant emptied out as songwriters raced to their offices on the floors upstairs, all wanting to be the first to turn out a song about the tragedy.
Sidney Poitier washed dishes there for a short while in 1943.
Literature & Lore
“Thirty-five years ago a young fellow named Arnold Reuben owned a modest little sandwich shop on upper Broadway. Possessed of an exuberant personality, Reuben began to snare in the famous ones of the stage for after-theater eating. Soon Reuben’s became the meeting place of the “greats” and “near-greats” of the amusement world. No everyday sandwich did young Reuben serve. His sandwiches had a touch, a look all their own.
“Move downtown,” his celebrity customers urged. “It’s unhandy coming up here just to get a quick bite.” Reuben moved to the fifties and promptly doubled, tripled, quadrupled his business. Now he opens his new million-dollar restaurant at 212 West 57th Street. This establishment is more than a restaurant, it’s a village of shops. Enter the lobby and look to your left—there’s the men’s grill, the cocktail lounge, and the bar. Ahead is the main dining room. But turn right to visit the flower shop to see the fruit baskets, the bakery, the delicacies. Theater tickets are sold, there’s a novelty counter if you want to pick up a small gift. Maybe you’d like a shave before dinner? There’s a barber shop on the premises, open all hours.
The food department is postwar as a radar range. Here are the finest of the canned and jarred delicacies of the food world….
Take a look behind the scenes. The kitchens are equipped with stainless steel walls, the most modern of stoves, the ultra in refrigeration. Kitchens number four, the cold kitchen, the hot kitchen, the dish-washing department, and a meat preparation center which is a regular meat shop in every detail. Preparation centers are set aside for vegetables, delicatessen foods, dairy products, meats, fish, baked stuffs, vegetables. Each kind of food has its own unit of refrigeration. ” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). Food Flashes Column. Gourmet Magazine. February 1947.
Batterberry, Michael and Ariane. On the Town in New York. New York: Routledge. 1999. Page 263.
Green, Adam. The Magic Basement (Reuben’s). New York: The New Yorker. 27 May 2002.
“Reuben And His Restaurant: The Lore Of A Sandwich”. Interview with Arthur Reuben, conducted by Arnold Manoff on 18 December 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. Retrieved 1 July 2006 from https://www.loc.gov/resource/wpalh2.22030607/?st=gallery. PDF form here: https://memory.loc.gov/mss/wpalh2/22/2203/22030607/22030607.pdf