Once upon a time there was a peasant boy from Lithuania who had a gift for spinning tall tales. He scraped by as a petty criminal and check forger, using a variety of aliases, until his genial character and entertaining stories made him the toast of Hollywood society. Sporting a crew cut and indefinable British accent, he began to claim he was Prince Michael Dimitri Alexandrovich Obolensky-Romanoff, nephew of the last tsar of Russia, and in 1939 the beloved rake was backed by some of Hollywood's finest -- including Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney -- to open a restaurant that would become the supper club of the '40s and '50s.
From 1939 to 1962, Romanoffs on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills was the place to see and be seen. The décor was masculine and clubby with comfortable booths, the dance floor well waxed, the cigarette girls lovely, and the waiters well-trained and Jeeves-like. Here, the impeccable and elegant "Mike" Romanoff, the poor immigrant who had spent his share of time in jail, would send his "imperial greetings" to those sons and daughters of mill workers, circus performers and farmers who had become the suave and sophisticated film industry elite. Mike married a beautiful young woman, owned a large mansion and became part of the self-created Hollywood establishment, even appearing in numerous films as himself.
Romanoff claimed that the secret to his success was hiring a good French chef, and the food at Romanoffs aped the pretensions of fine cooking at the time. The menu included heavy and rich mid-century country club fare like Waldorf salad, tomatoes stuffed with crab, filet mignon, frog legs, eggs Benedict and sausages on toast. Romanoffs was famous for its desserts, treats like strawberries Romanoff and chocolate soufflé. Stiff drinks were probably the most popular items on the menu, with Bogart alone ordering three drinks (two scotch and sodas and a coffee with brandy) every day for lunch.
The Ivy of its day, fans would stand outside to catch a glimpse of stars as they entered the restaurant. It is here that the original "rat pack," which included Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Sid Luft, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn and Frank Sinatra would congregate; where Jayne Mansfield infamously shocked Sophia Loren when her nipple "slipped" out of her dress; where Myrna Loy and her husband celebrated their divorce; and where gossip mavens Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons had their infamous "reconciliation."
Going out to eat in Hollywoodland has always been a pretentious affair. People pretending to be more than they are, pretending they can afford more than they can. At Romanoffs the most celebrated phony of the 20th century played host, but perhaps his true secret was not his pretensions, but his kindness and humanity. He was legendary for his flamboyant generosity. When his friend Walter Wanger shot the man he suspected of sleeping with his wife, Romanoff had his favorite foods delivered to him in his jail cell every day on a silver tray. In the memoir "Bring on the Empty Horses," David Niven recalls a forgotten actor and a downtrodden writer coming into Romanoffs for lunch:
The headwaiter approached and whispered in his [Romanoff's] ear, jerking his head disapprovingly toward the bar.
"Give them my imperial greetings," said Mike without hesitation, "take them to the best table you have, and serve them anything they want; then send the account to the winter palace."
Words spoken like a true Prince.
Romanoffs Style Chocolate Soufflé
6 large egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
4 drops vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 cups egg whites
1/4 tbs salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix egg yolks with sugar and vanilla until smooth. Boil milk and then slowly add yolk and sugar mixture, let boil for two minutes and then whisk. Put mixture into a standing mixer and beat for ten minutes.
In a different pan melt chocolate and then add slowly to the mixture. Whip egg whites with a dash of salt in a separate bowl until they form meringue peaks. Add ½ cup of sugar to the egg whites and then carefully fold them into the chocolate mixture. Spoon into buttered 6 ounce ramekin dishes and bake for 15 minutes. Finish with sprinkling of powdered sugar or whipped cream.
1 pint strawberries, rinsed, hulled and halved
1 tablespoon sugar
Curacao, Cointreau or Grand Marnier, to taste
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 tablespoon orange juice (or up to 2)
whipped cream, sweetened with confectioner's sugar
Combine berries with all ingredients, save the whipped cream. Marinate for two hours at room temperature. Add whipped cream and serve in glassware of your choice.
The Mike Romanoff
2 ounces vodka
1 teaspoon Cointreau
1 teaspoon apricot liqueur
1 ounce lime juice
2 dashes bitters
Mix and enjoy!
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