One imagines that lots of Dylan Thomas devotees are marking his centenary by making a pilgrimage to the White Horse Tavern, where the dissolute poet famously downed those last fatal eighteen whiskeys. For their sake, we hope the White Horse is not thronged with frat boys, although I guess they have as much right to pay their respects as anyone. More, maybe.
Naturally, any Thomas-themed New York walking tour—and there are several, guided and otherwise—includes the White Horse, the sites of his other watering holes, and perhaps St. Vincent’s hospital, where he died. Personally, I prefer to focus on a happier landmark from Thomas’s New York days: the Little Shrimp. This restaurant—a favorite of the poet’s when he was in residence at the Hotel Chelsea—is where, in 1952, the young, audacious Barbara Cohen and Marianne Rooney approached Thomas about making recordings for their new line of spoken-word records. The result was Caedmon Records—the source of many of Thomas’s iconic recordings—and the classic record A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
It’s no surprise that Dylan and his wife, Caitlin, should have chosen the Little Shrimp for their date with Cohen et al: the restaurant was located in the hotel. It billed itself as “one of America’s Larger and Better Sea Food Houses. Luncheon – Cocktails – Dinner.” The menu included, to modern eyes, a dazzling—if conservative—array of broiled and sauced fare. Meanwhile, the 1949 edition of Lawton Mackall’s Knife and Fork in New York describes the restaurant (in its “Shelly and Finny Fare” chapter) as a
spick-and-span seafoodery, and not so little at that, but far from overwhelming as regards prices, particularly for lunch. Charcoal broiling skill is devoted not only to a fresh-fish repertory but also to steaks and chops. Bar [emphasis mine]. Open seven days a week.
(And, yes, this was a lunch meeting.)
In A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Thomas recalls “hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh,” turkey and flaming puddings. In Under Milk Wood, he describes kipper breakfasts, bubble and squeak, and lamb kidneys, and in his letters home, he reported on the mammoth scale of American steaks. Clearly he was not wholly indifferent to food. But who knows how much Thomas cared (by 1952) about the skill of the broilers or the freshness of the seafood?
It would be nice to be able to memorialize this luncheon, but alas! The Little Shrimp is long gone, along with Captain of the Sea and the Old Salt Clam House. Hotel Chelsea has gone corporate; St. Vincent’s has been transformed into condos; Chumley’s bar has not (yet) recovered from its partial collapse. But all is not lost: El Quijote, the circa-1930 lobster palace in the same building, is still going—well, if not strong, as strong as ever. (And as of June, the new owners have sworn not to change it.) Did Thomas go there? Probably; everyone did. The menu of paellas and old-fashioned tapas doesn’t look like it has changed much, either. Try to sit in one of the banquettes up front—it’s not as fun to be stuck in the Dulcinea or Cervantes rooms. Or, you can just sit at the bar. After all, that’s probably what Thomas did.