Appreciating Joe Baum

One of the New York area restaurants of bygone days that I most wish I'd been able to visit wasn't even in New York: It was The Newarker, across the Hudson River in New Jersey, at what was then called simply Newark Airport. In the early 1950s, Jerome Brody, president of the Riker's coffee shop chain, began expanding his business into contract feeding, taking over food service at Mitchell Air Force Base on Long Island and Ohrbach's department store in Manhattan; when he bid for the concession contract at Newark Airport in 1953, he was told that he needed to run the "fine dining" restaurant as well as the casual take-out stands. Brody agreed, bringing in a young hotel-restaurant director named Joe Baum (above right) and giving him free rein.

Improbably, Baum turned the place, dubbed The Newarker, into an over-the-top luxury destination restaurant (at its peak, an estimated 90 percent of the diners were non-travelers, meaning that they had actually made the pilgrimage — some all the way from Manhattan — to eat in a New Jersey airport), installing the finest table linens, buying fine china and crystal, and offering huge portions of what passed in that era for the fanciest of food. (Today's Newarker restaurant, in the Newark Airport Hilton, is no relation.) He found oversize oysters from Abescom Island off the Jersey Shore and put them on the menu as "knife and fork oysters," meaning that you had to cut them up to eat them. He added a third claw to every order of Maine lobster. He served flaming shish kebab and desserts topped with sparklers (he later claimed to have invented this device). "The customers like to see things on fire...," he once told a reporter, "and it doesn't really hurt the food much."

He loved gimmicks, bringing in baby chicks at Easter and once releasing a turkey into the terminal to advertise his Thanksgiving dinner. But he was serious about food, too, and hired a French-trained Swiss chef, Albert Stockli, who could cook up an emincé de veau (shards of veal with shallots in a cream and white wine sauce) as deftly as a steak.

Baum's Newarker reportedly lost $25,000 its first year of operation; by its third year, it was grossing $3 million annually — a fortune in the mid-'50s. Brody renamed Riker's Restaurant Associates, and brought Baum back across the river to work his magic in countless other locations. Baum's most enduring creation was The Four Seasons, but it was but one of scores of imaginative and often very good eating places he launched. (He also opened the spectacular, tragically doomed Windows on the World and other restaurants in the World Trade Center.)  Baum, who died 13 years ago last week, was one of the great originals of the American restaurant business. Author and consultant Rozanne Gold, who worked at what she calls "the University of Baum," penned this evocative tribute to him to mark the anniversary of his demise.