Pouring Out a Sangria for the Bethesda Fountain Café

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Central Park’s dining options are a bit limited these days. While creaky favorites like the Boathouse and Tavern on the Green endure, and Le Pain Quotidien opened an outpost near the Sheep Meadow a few years ago, the park’s chief culinary draw remains the hot dog stands. It’s been that way for so long that it’s been mostly forgotten that those weren’t always the only choices. As recently as the mid-1970s, there was a lively restaurant next to Bethesda Fountain. 

During Central Park’s first hundred years, the terrace was a popular dining spot, hosting a succession of snack bars and picnic spaces that culminated with the bistro that occupied the spot from 1966 to 1974. Food and drinks were sold under the portico from the early 1870s until 1911, and tables and umbrellas were installed around the fountain from 1934 to 1956. All of this ran counter to the intentions of the park’s creators. Frederick Law Olmsted complained about the refreshments sold by the fountain in the 1870s, writing, “The arcade of the Terrace was not designed to be used as a shop for the sale of ice cream and soda water.” Olmsted’s partner Calvert Vaux was even blunter—his biographer Francis Kowsky quotes the designer as simply saying, “The idea was stupid.”

But it wasn’t until 1966 that the City decided to install a full restaurant on the premises. The Fountain Café, as it was called, served typical upscale ’60s fare like Beef Bourguignonne, Cold Salmon Steak and Chicken Livers Mousse, along with exotic drinks like Claret Lemonade, Dubonnet and Sangria (referred to frequently as a restaurant speciality).

The restaurant’s opening was just one part of the park’s revitalization during the go-go ’60s, as the previously run-down and fusty space suddenly became fun and hip. Roads were closed to cars, The Delacorte Theater was built and the park held its first popular music concert (Streisand in 1967). Even the Café’s opening was exciting. To quote the Times‘s write-up:

“New York is ‘a fun city,’ the Mayor [John Lindsay] and Park Commissioner Thomas P. F. Hoving jubilantly announced. They promptly tried to prove it by going out onto the lake in an overloaded boat that was rowed at times by Bess Myerson, a former Miss America.

“The Mayor’s boat opened a drenching ‘sea battle’ with news photographers, who were crowded into another boat. Two photographers threatened to sink the Mayor’s boat, but were dissuaded because Miss Myerson—in addition to the Mayor—would get wet.

“Later, when the Mayor and Mr. Hoving were alone in the boat, they gripped the oars like baseball bats and swung them into the water, splashing some of those watching from the shore.

“In mid-voyage, the men scrambled onto a rocky point and Mr. Hoving, peering under the shade of one hand into the distance, said with a grin: ‘I claim this rock for New York City.’”

And the grown-ups weren’t the only ones having fun. Young people flocked to the park for be-ins, love-ins and war protests. “Along with Sheep’s Meadow, Bethesda Terrace was hippie ground zero,” said Central Park Conservancy historian Sara Cedar Miller. No wonder, then, that the Café almost immediately established itself as its own sort of theater, a place where Upper East Siders could gawk at the counterculture as they ate their lobster salads.

As a 1966 “Talk of the Town” item in the New Yorker put it, “This place, it seemed, is like a play within a play within a play. The city itself is an invention of man, who, having contrived it, misses the nature he has displaced and carefully sets about recreating it in the form of a park inside the city. Then he places inside the park a third illusion—a fountain, a terrace, a café. The process carries with it an increasingly rarefied theatricality, so that, on a very clear day between summer and fall, we are given the sight of a Bethesda Angel striding among the healthy.”

For a while, it seemed like the park had permanently changed. “It’s getting so a party doesn’t know where to go to get mugged,” lamented Horace Sutton in The Boston Globe. “Nowadays visitors from out of town venture into the park looking for a homicide, and all they find is a happening.”

But getting mugged wouldn’t be so hard a few years later. Fun City couldn’t last. As its financial straits worsened, the city was forced to make deep cuts everywhere, including to its parks and recreation and police departments. Central Park became a dirty hotbed of crime, and wouldn’t return to its ’60s peak for decades. Sometime in 1974, the city was forced to close the Fountain Café.

But its legacy lives on. In its July 1970 issue, Motorboating magazine said that the restaurant, “claims to serve the best Sangria in the world—and maybe it does.” So today, just in time for July Fourth, AVENUE is proud to republish the restaurant’s celebrated recipe:

“In a 70 oz. Pitcher, put:

24 oz. red Wine (Semi dry)

12 oz. sugar syrup

4 slices of Orange (¼” thick)

4 slices of lemon (¼” thick)

Add ice cubes to almost fill and give it a head of soda.”

Enjoy—and pour some out for the Bethesda Fountain Café!


All photos courtesy of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.


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