Snobbery, steaks, and social climbers: Inside Manhattan’s original power restaurant

At Mortimer's, arch society host Glenn Bernbaum created a star-studded dictatorship — and the greatest show in town...

Culinary historians have long struggled to pinpoint when lunch ceased being something you had and became something you did, but the prevailing school of thought believes it occurred at some point in late-1970s New York, specifically at a restaurant called Mortimer’s. The well-heeled patrons of this legendary Upper East Side spot did not come for the hamburgers and creamed spinach, which critics dismissed as “nursery fare”. And they definitely didn’t come for the décor –– the restaurant’s rock hard chairs and institutional lighting did not scream good times. They just came to be there among other famous diners and bask in the sunshine glow of each other’s celebrity, like the lizards whose erstwhile skin now adorned their stilettos.

It was once said that Studio 54, the raucous nightclub two miles south, was a dictatorship on the door (because it’s bouncer policy was strict) but a democracy on the dancefloor (because they let pretty people of all backgrounds in). Not so at Mortimer’s, which was a dictatorship at every stage of the business. Unless you were Jackie Onassis, Nancy Reagan, Estée Lauder, Greta Garbo, Gloria Vanderbilt, Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon, Andy Warhol, or Mick Jagger, you would never experience the joy of eating chicken paillard among Manhattan’s glitterati.

Crowds gather for Interview magazine editor Bob Colacello's birthday party, 1997

Mortimer’s was so exclusive that the proprietor, a mythical society figure called Glenn Bernbaum, had a list of tactics for keeping out anyone with even the slightest whiff of loser about them. A self-admitted snob, he only gave reservations to his friends. Everyone else had to queue. If you were an unknown, he would look you up and down, pausing to see how expensive your shoes were, before sneering that the restaurant was fully booked, even if there were empty tables. Some customers who came in would get ignored completely and after twenty minutes of waiting would have to leave, hangry and ashamed. Customers who were fortunate enough to get a table — but not blessed enough to know Bernbaum — would get exiled to an area at the back of the restaurant by the kitchen, so remote from the action that the staff called it “Antarctica”.

Long before Patrick Bateman went postal because he couldn’t get a reservation at Dorsia, Mortimer’s was the place to be. For twenty years, from the 70s to the 90s, it boasted a guestlist more exclusive than the Apollo space programme. In Bernbaum’s view, “a good lunch” was not nice food and efficient service but how many of his favourite names showed up. Like Mrs Astor before him and St Peter before her, only Bernbaum had the power to decide who was in and who was out of the inner sanctum.

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