Milton Glaser: The Original New York Foodie


            The world has an appetite for Milton Glaser. Perhaps best known as the designer of the ubiquitous “I Love New York” logo and co-founder of New York Magazine, Glaser has had a long and successful career. He is known across the globe and has received countless awards and honors, including becoming the first graphic designer to receive the National Medal of Arts. The thing that most people do not know about Glaser, however, is that a large portion of his work revolves around food. This is because Glaser loves food. In the 2010 documentary To Inform and Delight, friend and diplomat Jivan Tabibian says, “For him, food is nurture… [and] sharing.”  His adventurous spirit and ability to communicate as a graphic designer has led him to make a real impact on the culinary scene here in New York, the town he loves best. So whenever I read my favorite food blog or trek out to Queens for my favorite Malaysian dive restaurant, I am in a way paying homage to the work Glaser has been doing for the past 50 years. He is the original New York foodie.

Glaser exits his studio on his way to lunch. He loves to take a long lunch, and is known for it. He is dressed unassumingly in a simple button-down shirt tucked into khakis. The tennis shoes on his feet match his quick and lively step. He is tall and lean, and his overall appearance is classic, humble, and timeless. Yet his hat, a panama fedora, provides a striking accent, framing his long face; and for the past year or so, he has sported a robust goatee mustache that gives his image an artistic flare. Beneath the facial hair, however, lies a warm and genuine smile. 

His love affair with food started with time spent in Italy. After graduating from the prestigious New York design school Cooper Union, he received a Fulbright Scholarship to study with the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, one of the culinary capitals of the world. “I went to Italy having never left home before… It gave me this sense of continuity of human history, of human experience,” he says. It was here that Glaser was introduced to the world of food, which was something he had not grown up with.

He was born in 1929 in the Bronx to a Jewish immigrant family. “My mother was a terrible cook,” he says, often using her spaghetti recipe as an example; it was boiled, baked, sliced, and fried in chicken fat. In school, Glaser was the class artist, a distinction he developed by the time he was six, drawing pictures of naked girls that he sold for a penny apiece. In an interview for The Good Life Project, he describes his mother as being “relentlessly approving” of his artistic abilities, while his father was worried about Glaser’s ability to earn a living through art. These opposite views instilled in Glaser both a sense of self-assurance and a tenacity for overcoming adversity. He describes it as the perfect mental environment for accomplishing something in life.

After he returned from Italy and worked at the revolutionary graphic design firm Push Pin Studios, Glaser teamed up with fellow designer Jerome Snyder to create The Underground Gourmet, a column that offered guidance for good, cheap eating in New York City. The first book was published in 1966. “It was the first time anyone had ever written about cheap restaurants,” he says. Not only instructive, but, like Glaser, the guide is direct yet charming. The descriptions of the restaurants connect the reader not only to the food, but also to the restaurant’s owners, chefs, and workers.

In this way, the book is half culinary guide, half human-interest piece. For example, the book offers delightful descriptions of the wait staff at Atran restaurant on East 78th Street: “The food is prepared and served cafeteria style by two gracious ladies, Helen Henig and Grances Sperber, who have been with the restaurant for 13 years. Time has not dimmed their pleasant and attentive manner.” While Snyder wrote most of the descriptions, Glaser was the driving force behind the food exploration. Furthermore, for the dim sum restaurant Nom Wah, a place the authors consider to be “the most venerable of Chinese tea parlors,” Glaser provides several simple and charming illustrations with captions describing the menu’s dim sum options. For the average dim sum eater, such as myself, these illustrations appear as a godsend for what can be an overwhelming experience.

Like much of his work, The Underground Gourmet had impact. The first piece they wrote was on a Szechuan restaurant, “And then every other Chinese restaurant was a Szechuan restaurant because it became cool to be Szechuan,” he says. The Underground Gourmet made the cheap, cheesy restaurants of New York look cool. “No one at that time had ever done anything like this,” says Joyce Zonana, a Professor of English with CUNY College in New York. In the New York Times book review in 1968, Craig Claiborne writes, “There are 69 restaurants outlined and it is reasonable to assume that not one-tenth of them would be recognized by the average purchaser.” Glaser and Snyder were pushing people into uncharted territory, but people liked it. “Any restaurant their column mentioned would have a line out the door the following Friday,” says Zonana.  

Glaser is proud of this impact. “I think maybe [The Underground Gourmet] was the best thing I ever did because it began… that shift of the city’s awareness of this incredible reservoir of interesting food,” he says. Glaser had a love of food and a passion for discovery. “There’s nothing like finding things out,” he says.

A few of the restaurants chosen for the book were well known at that time and still are, such as Katz’s and Manganaro’s. Nom Wah is also still open and thriving, and they have hung Glaser’s sketches of their dim sum options on the wall. Sadly however, few of the lesser-known restaurants still exist today. I found one, La Taza de Oro located at 96 Eighth Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets, a Puerto Rican diner that is still serving up delicious food with the same “home-style preparation,” as the book describes it, some 50 years later. Stepping inside feels like traveling back in time. The restaurant is a narrow room with vinyl seats, terrible overhead lighting, and genuine pictures of the owner’s family covering the walls. The menu, mostly in Spanish, has traditional items like Bistec Encebollado, a classic Puerto Rican steak and onions dish.

The restaurant is the type of place where if you are a “regular,” you simply walk inside, sit down, and the staff already knows which meal to serve and how much sugar to  put in the coffee; and there are a lot of “regulars”, mostly older. It is remarkable that a place like this has managed to survive the onslaught of the swanky-chic Chelsea neighborhood. La Taza de Oro is a gem, and being inside, one gets an immediate sense of the authenticity and personality that Glaser and Snyder were searching for.

Glaser’s studio is no different. “I’m always embarrassed when people come, because it doesn’t look like a design office with beautiful furniture and fancy features,” he confesses. Located at 207 East 32nd Street and the home of Milton Glaser Inc., Glaser has occupied the space since 1965. The atmosphere is lively and homey; mismatched furniture is stacked with books and papers, and the laughter from the schoolyard next-door fills the room. Everywhere, one sees examples of his work, from famous posters like the 1975 Bob Dylan poster, to bottle labels, to his recently designed Sprocket watch for the MoMA Design Store. The studio feels cozy. “I’ve never written a memo in my life, because everybody here can hear everything that occurs,” he says. While the tight space may contribute to this, I doubt Glaser would ever write a memo anyway. It seems too impersonal, too indirect, and Glaser is a direct man.

            He can be intimidating. Not only is he famous and successful, but he also speaks with such clarity and purpose that it forces one to always questions one’s own words. When asked about his personal design process, he responds forcefully, “What are they talking about?” deliberately slamming his hand on the table to emphasize each word. “I just do the work,” he says. 

Although he has strong convictions, by the age of five he had already decided that he wanted to be an artist, he has a charming personality. “What becomes clear with Milton,” says Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher at The Nation, “is that there’s a sweetness there.” He possesses the gentle grace of a teacher with a quit wit. He recently designed the logo for “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” a comedy show at the Royal George Theater in New York. He also appeared on the Old Jews Telling Jokes website in 2011, reciting a hilarious rendition of a joke about a magician and a sledgehammer.

About a decade after The Underground Gourmet in 1975, Simon and Schuster published The Underground Gourmet Cookbook. In fact, Glaser had little to do with it, yet his influence through The Underground Gourmet had a direct impact on the book’s content. Joyce Zonana was the cookbook’s editor and writer. “[The Underground Gourmet] created awareness of food and innovation in the culinary scene in New York… I wrote the book absolutely in the spirit of their work,” she says. As New York Times writer Eric Asimov describes the time period, “Those were the culinary innocent times, when dishes like sushi required explanation.” In this way, the cookbook appears revolutionary, offering ethnically adventurous recipes for the home chef.

Here is a recipe from Green Tree, a Hungarian restaurant on the upper west side:

It’s difficult to imagine Rachel Ray submitting this recipe. Other recipes may be more conventional, but are provided with a unique sense of simplicity and directness, characteristics shared by both Glaser and the restaurants themselves. Here is a recipe that uses only eleven words in its directions from Ralph’s, a Sicilian restaurant located in Gramercy Park:

Like The Underground Gourmet, very few of these establishments exist today. This cookbook, however, encapsulates the essence of New York food scene at the time it was created as well as the spirit of Glaser and Snyder. “They were explorers,” says Zonana.

In the mid 1980s, Glaser was approached by Steve Hindley, the co-founder of the now internationally recognized Brooklyn Brewery. The two teamed up, and now Brooklyn Brewery and its logo have become another symbol of identity for New York City. So much so that many people think the design is a reference to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the historical baseball team, even though this is not true. But this misplaced sentimentality speaks volumes to Glaser’s ability to capture the essence of an identity or location within his designs.

Brandon and Ingrid Jacobs are professional designers living and working in New York City. Ingrid is the co-founder of the Manhattan based design firm The Way We See The World, and Brandon is a graphic designer with Logo TV. They love good design, good food, and good beer, so naturally they admire Milton Glaser. Brandon was astonished when he had recently recognized Glaser’s Brooklyn Brewery logo in a scene in Spike Lee’s 1989 classic film Do the Right Thing, “[The design] has longevity,” he says.

 Glaser’s design fits the beer’s personality perfectly. The big, curvaceous letter “B” for Brooklyn mimics the bold flavor of Brooklyn’s beers. Yet, there is a funkiness that exists both in the flavor of the beer and Glaser’s designs that set them apart from other beers on the market. For example, Brooklyn’s India Pale Ale is one of the boldest ales I know of, with incredibly strong, hoppy bitterness. Glaser’s color choices for the label are a pinkish-red and lime green, an excellent way of pronouncing the beer’s eccentricity.

In many ways, Brooklyn Brewery and Glaser have a lot in common. Both are pioneers in their field, Brooklyn having been on the forefront of the American craft brew scene back in the 1980s, and Glaser helping to reinvent graphic design in the 1960s. “They are a good match,” Ingrid says.

This is truer than she may realized. Brooklyn Brewery has grown to be the largest exporter of American craft beer, with annual sales of $50 million. One can see that success throughout the city not only in pubs, but also out on the street as well. As I sit on a subway car writing these exact words down, we approach the West 4th Street stop, and seated directly in front of my window on one of the wooden platform chairs is a man wearing a Brooklyn Brewery T-shirt. I smile.

I get off the train at 57th Street and head towards Carnegie Hall. Directly opposite the historical theater on 7th Avenue is Trattoria dell’Arte, or as many people refer to it, “The Nose” restaurant. This is because hanging in the restaurant’s front window is a large plaster nose. The interior design of the restaurant is, of course, by Glaser. The space is filled with large plaster sculptures of “enlargements of details of the body to signal the idea that this is an art school,” says Glaser. The effect is charming.

“[The restaurant] is very warm and very comfortable,” says restaurant manager Brandon Fay, and “it has staying power.” The restaurant connects people not only to the food inside, but also to each other through its atmosphere. All around one sees elements that speak to Glaser’s wit and charm. The place feels old-fashioned, but in a good way, the kind of environment where one can feel relaxed yet sophisticated. Furthermore, Glaser’s design has the benefit of reaping the rewards of a restaurant with a phenomenal location, good food, and excellent service.

            I ask Glaser if he cooks often at home. “The only time we cook is on the weekend,” he says. On Saturdays, he and his wife Shirley visit the Union Square Farmer’s Market for fresh ingredients. “This simplifies cooking because then you don’t have to cook if you start with extraordinary material,” he says. This view is interesting when applied to Glaser himself. His own “extraordinary material” includes his remarkable talent for drawing, his articulate speech, and his ability to communicate ideas effectively, all of which resonate in his designs. Yet, his greatest asset may be his ability to find everything interesting. “I have never thought that there is anything that is not inspirational… There is nothing that isn’t miraculous,” he says. And even at his age of eighty-four, it seems inconceivable to consider him ever truly slowing down. He is still a force to be reckoned with, and I can’t wait to find out which meal he discovers next.