Restaurant owner, saloon keeper, whatever title he went by, Toots Shor was a legend in New York City from the 1940s to the early 1970s. Burly, loud, often obnoxious, he stood over six feet tall and well over 200 pounds. He was a man about town, and he seemed to know everybody and everybody seemed to know him, even coast-to-coast. When he appeared on “What’s My Line?” a popular TV show at the time, the four-person panel had to be blindfolded during the questioning for fear of recognizing him.
Shor was the abrasive businessman with the hard backslap and “million-dollar smile.” Toots Shor’s Restaurant was “thee” place to be and to be seen. Some of his best customers were Jackie Gleason, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Mickey Mantle, and even mobster Frank Costello, due to the fact that Shor had been known to have alleged Mafia connections. Above all else, these people were his friends. Sportswriters and businessmen also came through the doors for their “liquid lunches.” It was predominately a men’s club, where wives and girlfriends were “the missus.”
Born 1903 as Bernard Shor to a Jewish family in Philadelphia, his mother gave him the nickname of “Toots” in his early years. Shor moved to New York City in 1930 where he worked at various Prohibition nightclubs as a doorman/bouncer before opening his own place in 1940 at 51 West 51 Street in Manhattan. Now in charge, he called the shots, ruling the town for the next two decades. His interaction with patrons was the entertainment because he enjoyed insulting his rich and famous customers which were his way of showing that he liked them. He had his own label for people. If he really liked you, you were a “bum” or a “crumb bum.” If he didn’t like you, you were “just a piece of raisin cake.” And there were some people he didn’t like or he ignored them if they were once “in” and now on their way down.
Shor never had to place photos on the walls of the famous people he knew and served because at any given time many of those same ones would be there in person. He also didn’t have any band playing or popular music in the background through loudspeakers hanging off the walls.
The food at Toots Shor’s wasn’t anything spectacular, serving plates such as steaks, chops, and heaping helpings of roast beef slices, garnished with potatoes. It was more known for its heavy drinking, beer and hard stuff, as evidenced by the massive circular bar that measured almost 60 feet in circumference. On occasion, the crowds were four deep entirely around it.
Shor’s favorite saying was, “A bum who ain’t drunk by midnight ain’t trying.”
Many nights, the place was packed, to which Yankee catcher Yogi Berra said more than once: ‘It’s so busy, nobody goes there anymore.” Celebrated author Ernest Hemmingway and Berra were supposed to have met at Shor’s. When Berra when introduced to Hemmingway, the catcher was told Hemmingway was a writer. To which Berra replied,
“Yeah, what paper?”
Shor welcomed the artsy-fartsy and political icons, but he thoroughly loved the athletes, especially the New York Yankees. Joe DiMaggio, as the story goes, always ate there for nothing. But Shor didn’t mind that because once word got out that the Yankee Clipper frequented the Manhattan establishment, others stumbled over each other to head there and be part of the New York in-crowd.
Shor was not impressed with pomp from others. When MGM co-founder and film producer Louis B. Mayer came to the front door for the first time, he was annoyed he had to wait almost a half-hour for a table. Complaining, he said to Shor, “I hope the food will be worth the wait.” Shor replied with a huff, “It’ll be better than some of your crummy movies that I stood in line for.” Another time comedian Charlie Chaplain also had to wait. When he approached Shor about the matter, the owner told him to stay busy by entertaining the others standing in line.
As the years went by, Shor had acquired financial problems--gambling debts as well as being far too kind to customers, allowing a number of them “on-the-house” drinks and meals. In addition, times were changing. His sports crowd--especially baseball--was disappearing. With more night baseball games, sportswriters were forced to work well into the night typing up their stories, therefore spending less time at Shor’s. It got worse when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants left for the West Coast after the 1957 season. Then football and basketball began their popularity that has continued today.
By 1959, he sold his restaurant and it was demolished a year later. In 1961, he opened his second establishment at 33 West 52nd Street, hoping to continue in the same vein as before. Some of his old friends returned, including Mickey Mantle and Jackie Gleason, but not enough of them or not enough new ones. Now there was only one baseball team left in town—the New York Yankees. With more financial problems and debts, Shor closed the doors in 1971, with the IRS hot on his heels. He tried again a year after that in a smaller venue on 54th Street, but that too closed within a year.
Shor ended up selling his name to Riese Corporation (who own Taco Bell and Dunkin Donuts today), who turned around and opened several bars throughout New York City called Toots Shor, but they didn’t pan out either and had to close within a few years.
Toots Shor died broke in 1977 at age 73, a victim of colon cancer. He’ll forever be remembered as one of New York City’s iconic entrepreneurs and a dear friend to many.