By Caroline Benveniste
I am sorry that I never met George Schwarz. From everything I’ve learned about him, he sounds like someone I would have liked quite a bit. Unfortunately, George died in December 2016. Recently, WestView Publisher George Capsis asked me to write an article about the man who had been a doctor at St. Vincent’s Hospital, and later owned both Elephant & Castle and Keens Steakhouse. This seemed unlikely, so I did some research, and the more I found out, the more unbelievable the story became.
George Schwarz was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1931. During the war, his family left Germany and traveled to France to escape the Nazis. Soon, the situation in France worsened and they were forced to leave there as well. His parents decided that they would have a better chance of surviving if they split up, so George, who was 12, and his two younger siblings went to Switzerland and traveled around for a while with a Christian youth group.
After the war, George came to the U.S. on his own for high school. During the summers, he worked as a waiter at a resort in upstate New York, and during the year, worked as a short-order cook at the counter at Woolworth’s. Eventually, his family also moved to the U.S. and all settled in Western Massachusetts. George attended City College for undergrad and Tufts for medical school; he completed his residency in San Francisco. In New York, he worked at Montefiore in the Bronx and later at St. Vincent’s Hospital where he eventually became Chief of Radiation Oncology.
George liked the West Village but complained that there were no restaurants that served the kind of food he wanted to eat. He befriended the owner of a café located at 68 Greenwich Avenue, and when she decided to sell, George bought it and opened Elephant & Castle in 1973. He chose to call it this because, during a period he had spent at Oxford, he used to see a bus in London headed to Elephant and Castle and liked the way it sounded.
The menu was eclectic and included a mix of dishes that George enjoyed. He was intimately involved in all aspects of the restaurant, from creating the menu, to tasting the dishes, to hiring the staff. George also had a highly refined palate for coffee, long before New York City had any sort of coffee culture. As a result, Elephant & Castle always served lattes and bowls; George tasted the coffee each morning for quality control purposes.
In 1976, George opened a restaurant at the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue called One Fifth where Otto is now located. He and his artist wife, Kiki Kogelnik, decided on a nautical theme. Those who dined there will remember the beautiful wood paneling, ships’ lamps and portholes, as well as the delicious, upscale American food. Keith McNally (of Pastis and Balthazar fame) worked at One Fifth early in his career, starting as an oyster shucker and working his way up to general manager.
George’s next project was Keens Steakhouse. It had been operating continuously since 1885, but it closed in 1978 after falling on hard times. George and his wife obtained an estimate for repairs which came in at $20,000 to $30,000. In reality, a much more extreme renovation was required, and the work took over three years to complete, at a cost of $1.4 million. (Kiki was closely involved in the design work.)
When Kiki was looking for studio space, she and George saw a building in NoHo which was suitable, and they purchased it. George opened Noho Star there in 1985. At the time, NoHo was a much different neighborhood. There was not much around and the streets were deserted in the evenings. Soon after, George opened Temple Bar next door because he believed that there was a lack of elegant bars and lounges in the area.
A SoHo branch of Elephant & Castle closed when its lease expired, but it spawned a Dublin branch. In 1989, the Irish chef at Elephant & Castle returned to Ireland for vacation. When she tried to re-enter the U.S., she was detained with visa issues. This led George to open an Elephant & Castle in Dublin so the chef could continue to work for him.
George continued to be intimately involved in the running of his restaurants while still at St. Vincent’s, and hired talented people to help him. Not surprisingly, George’s employees found him a wonderful person to work for. Bonnie Jenkins, the longtime manager at Keens, became a close friend. Rick Salas, the manager at Elephant & Castle, who has been working there since 1985, reminisced about George’s youthful excitement when he encountered a new dish or ingredient when traveling. George was very focused on the quality of ingredients, leading to blind tastings where he picked out the item he liked best without knowing the price or provenance. Today, there is more of a foodie culture in which seeking the best ingredients is commonplace; back in the 1970s and 1980s it was rarer. George was able to keep his myriad restaurants successful because he knew what would work where.
Mimi Sheraton describes George Schwarz as extraordinary. Despite his initial lack of restaurant experience, Schwarz trusted his own taste and it worked. She ratonrecalls that he always wanted to do right by the customer. For example, he had a strict first-come, first-served policy. So, even if you were eating by yourself, you would be seated at a large table if it was the next to become available. (Many restaurants will seat you only at the bar if you are dining alone.)
One Fifth closed a long time ago—a victim of rising rents and a sign to George that he should not open restaurants in spaces he didn’t own. His four remaining New York restaurants and the Dublin Elephant & Castle are doing well. The West Village Elephant & Castle even withstood the closing of St. Vincent’s. Regulars who started coming there when they were young are still visiting now; Sunday brunch has even become popular with millennials. If you haven’t tried it, Mimi Sheraton suggests that you go and have George’s Chicken Schnitzel, which, she says, is the best in New York.