When one takes a trip down society’s most exclusive memory lane—veering just off their usual Fifth and Madison Avenues—daydreaming of the days when ladies who lunch ruled the Upper East Side, one inevitably thinks of Mortimer’s: the iconic watering hole for Manhattan’s elite. It was a space that harbored those who exemplified everything that was known as New York’s café society.
Glenn Bernbaum, the owner of the restaurant that littered the social columns, was an icon in his own right. He was known as a curmudgeon of sorts—the Upper East Side’s very own Ebenezer Scrooge. He was hardly subtle about his eatery’s snobbery, but despite his cantankerous nature, the bespectacled Bernbaum was a gatekeeper to a world only available to a select few. Friends of Bernbaum and habitués of Mortimer’s included the likes of Bill Blass, Mick Jagger, Nancy Reagan, Jerry Zipkin, C.Z. and Cornelia Guest, Kenneth Jay Lane and Pat Buckley. And though a restaurant is thought to be a public place, Bernbaum treated Mort’s (as some called it) like a private club, so the seating arrangement for this 19-table restaurant was no easy feat. The window table to the right of the door was famously reserved for royalty, nobility and notable names such as Astor, Vanderbilt, Herrera, Kennedy and Kempner.
In general, older VIPs were seated along the wall, while the younger ones were placed in the middle section. In his signature stance of hands clasped behind his back, Bernbaum was even known to dismiss those who dared to dine who were not of distinguished pedigree or celebrity status. Social unknowns were often ignored or sent away and, if lucky, were exiled to the Siberia of the side room. Bernbaum regularly pointed out that people who had money didn’t like to spend it. Therefore, unlike most restaurants, the food was not the focus of Mort’s, which deliberately offered unambitious comfort food like chicken hash, hamburgers and rice pudding at humble prices. It was not what was being served, but who.
After a remarkable 22-year run, Mortimer’s closed its doors in September 1998 after Bernbaum’s sudden death from liver disease (he insisted it be shut down immediately and permanently). In his will, Bernbaum left most of his multi-million dollar estate to New York-Cornell Hospital for AIDS research and patient care. The rest was said to have been left not to his family, but to his staff. Bernbaum also insisted that there be no funeral or memorial service, stating that he didn’t want friends talking about him once he was gone. Little did he know no one has stopped talking about him—or his society sanctuary— ever since.