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Starlight Time

by David Westheimer


The recently refurbished Starlight Roof of the Waldorf-Astoria reopened in April after a long hiatus. In the olden time, circa 1945, when my wife, Dody, and I were honeymooning in New York, the Starlight Roof was one of New Yorks premiere nightclubs. The menus we ordered from may have been the 1940 Supper edition, with a cover drawing by Xavier Cugat, whose night job was leading one of the countrys top Latin dance orchestras. A shrimp cocktail was 75 cents, lobster Newburg was $2 and a cup of Waldorf-Astoria coffee was 40 cents (in 1940 Houston and just about everywhere else a cup of coffee was a nickel). An order of Beluga caviar was $3 but even if it werent so outrageously expensive we wouldnt have ordered it. We didnt like caviar. Call us peasants.

Forty years later, in 1985, when I was in New York for my literary agents 70th birthday party, I dropped by the Waldorf to check out the Starlight Roof. Though it had been recently refurbished and restored to its Art Deco splendor, it no longer served as a dining-dancery to the affluent. So I made do with Peacock Alley, which was still, as it had been 40 years earlier and even before that, a symbol of unstinting elegance.

I produced my 1940 menu for the captain, whose name was Juan, and said I intended to order only items that were still available and compare the prices.

Juan looked at the vintage menu.

"Beluga caviar," he read aloud, "three dollars! Its sixty-five now."

A young waiter, seeing what a good time we seemed to be having, joined us. He couldnt believe how incredibly low the prices were in 1940, which was before he was born.

"They werent low for then." I said.

"People didnt make anything back then," Juan added.

Another young waiter joined our little circle. It was only six oclock, much too unfashionably early for Peacock Alley to be busy, so no one was being neglected. The first young waiter went off with my 1940 menu, which was returned by the assistant manager of the dining room, a tall, handsome young man in evening attire. He asked if he could keep it long enough to have copies made.

With Juans help, I settled on Waldorf salad (not on the menu but available), shrimp curry, and French pastry. Good choice. And the Waldorf-Astoria coffee was a credit to its name.

Other guests, some who may have once ordered from that 1940 menu, began arriving and Juan had less time for me. With a last, reluctant sip of my Waldorf-Astoria coffee, I asked for the check. This was the only part of the evening to which I had not been looking forward with pleasure. And this is how the 1985 prices compared with those of 1940:

  • Waldorf salad — Starlight Roof, $0.40; Peacock Alley, $5.50
  • Shrimp curry — Starlight Roof, $1.50; Peacock Alley, $25.00
  • French pastry — Starlight Roof, $0.25; Peacock Alley. $5.00
  • Waldorf-Astoria coffee — Starlight Roof, $0.40; Peacock Alley, $2.70.
And to a 1985's tab you had to add tax on my check of $3.38. For which in 1940 I could have had Beluga caviar and, for two cents more, a cup of that celebrated coffee.

But you did get a break in 1985. On the Starlight Roof in 1940 they nicked you two bits for bread and butter. At Peacock Alley, it was free.

If I went to Chef de Cuisine Laurent Gras' Peacock Alley today I couldn't duplicate that 1985 menu, but I could get an adventurous three-course dinner for $59. Which would not include Beluga caviar or Lobster Newburg (although lobster cappuccino is available — "lobster broth flavored with chestnuts, shrimp and sautéed lobster"). I don't know if Waldorf-Astoria coffee is included or costs extra. I expect it is more than 40 cents nowadays.


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