The Fabric of New York with James Shrum at Blue Ribbon
“I’m not the first person you think of when you think of Blue Ribbon, unless you’re a customer who’s been coming in for a long time and you see my face when you first come in the door.” It’s been 22 years since James Shrum, bartender extraordinaire, helped demolish the walls of what was then the Crystal Room on Sullivan Street in Soho. As one of the foundational members of Blue Ribbon, James, along with owners Eric and Bruce Bromberg and General Manager Sean Sant Amour, opened and closed the Crystal Room in four short months.
In 1987, James followed a woman to New York from Colorado and ended up behind the bar at the American Hotel, where he met Eric Bromberg at his first job as a chef. “It was not an easy crowd at the American Hotel, and for me to be thrown into that with all of these New York luminaries, I had no clue,” he said and laughed like Jeff Bridges. Having previously worked as a bartender, a carpenter, as an actor and model in Japan, James added, “What I knew immediately was two things. Eric was very good at what he did and his food was very good.”
When they closed the Crystal Room, Eric and Bruce decided to go out on their own and keep the space, and they asked James, who’d just finished his studies at Columbia University, to join them. “If I was going to go in that direction, these were the guys I wanted to go with,” he said. Taking to the interior of the Crystal Room with a sledgehammer, they started building the interior themselves, with a core group who came to construct Blue Ribbon. It was the summer of 1992, and “We had to be open for a party on October 16th,” said James. “All of us worked together almost non-stop. It was a labor of love. Bruce and Eric inspired a loyalty. They were both friends and employers. That experience of us working together created the bond that we have.”
On November 3, 1992, the day that Clinton was elected President, Blue Ribbon opened on Sullivan Street, and a core group of people has been there ever since. “I’ve been behind the bar for 22 years, and I’ve been a partner for almost that long,” said James. “When we built the bar, we measured the width of the bar to my hips, literally. Though I could use a little bit more space now,” he added and laughed.
Wanting a restaurant that was open from 4PM to 4AM, the Bromberg brothers desired a place that was accessible to everyone, and was restaurant-industry friendly. Initially opposed to the long hours, James said and chuckled, “Obviously I wasn’t the genius in that group.”
“Guys like Batali started showing up before he was anywhere near as famed as he is now, and he loved it,” said James. “He came in in his orange clogs and he was just as flamboyant then as is his now, probably more so. He came in and saw the menu and the size of the menu and he was astounded. That was the beginning of our having this ridiculously late night place with this quality of food that didn’t take reservations. Obviously if that didn’t work, we were doomed.”
It didn’t take off immediately. It took some time for people to discover. Inspired by the raw bars in Paris, where the brothers could leave their studies at Le Cordon Bleu for oysters and beer, they built one behind the bar at Sullivan Street. “For the first year, the menu was an experiment for them to find what they wanted, and what the customers wanted. They’re very creative guys. They bounced ideas off of each other. They were both deeply concerned with people loving their time at the restaurant. Two or three days after we opened,” continued James, “Eric sat us all down, six to eight people, and said, ‘If there’s anybody here who doesn’t think it’s their job to make people happy, then there’s the door. I’ll still like you, you’ll still be my friend, and you’ll still be welcome here, but our job is to make people happy.’ To this day, I think he set the tone for what he wanted, and what we collectively wanted.”
With Florent then open until 4AM in the Meatpacking District, Blue Ribbon wasn’t the only late night contender, but they had no competition in terms of the dining experience they offered. “What you get when you come in late at night is a wonderful experience of being able to have caviar or a burger. New Orleans Shrimp or oysters. This whole beautiful range of food.” And despite the strict adherence to no reservations, applied to all diners no matter how famed, people are actually grateful for the level playing field.
“We’d have Batali and Bobby Flay and David Burke, all three at the same time, either together or separately, having a great time. I remember once, Charlie Trotter came in. I think he might have done a James Beard event, but it was very early on. They took over the entire banquet and Eric and Bruce cooked everything on the menu. Daniel Boulud used to come in because there was no place, there was nothing like it.”
“I still love what I’m doing there,” he continued. “It’s time for me to not work the hours that I work after 22 years, but I can tell you sincerely, that I have loved going to work almost every day for the last 22 years. It’s never felt like a job to me. I hardly ever see Eric any more, or Bruce. Bruce is in Vegas and Eric is very busy, and in some ways, I’m one of the anchors of the place. The fun for me,” he added, “has been getting to know everyone and talking to people. I’ve worked with a number of oyster shuckers who are extraordinarily popular for a number of reasons. Alonso [Almeida] was a legendary oyster shucker, a guy from Ecuador. Eric surrounded himself with people he wanted to work with and Alonso was one of them. He was hugely popular, made people feel welcome and was a funny guy, a lovely person. He stopped working, and then sadly passed away.” When he did, the Brombergs paid his salary to his widow for a year, and the customers took up a collection.
There are a number of other great memories and souls that have passed James’ path in the past 22 years. Kimball, who just turned 80, has been a regular customer since the first week they opened. Robin Williams came in one cold winter night and stood at the front door opening the curtain and welcoming guests while he waited for a table. “I’ve seen people go from first date to marriage and divorce,” James said, “or from first date to marriage and kids.”
In 1994, James met the Blue Ribbon crew in the south of France, where they then dined at Pierre Gagnaire, while it was still in St Etienne, near Lyon. “I think Pierre Gagnaire is the best chef in the world. Bruce had done a stage with him when he was in culinary school. It was an extraordinary meal, one that you dream about. For haute cuisine, I don’t think I’ll have a better meal.”
Back in the day when they used to close for holidays, Eric closed the restaurant for the 4th of July in 1994 (or 1996, James couldn’t recall), and hosted a party at his place in the Hamptons. “It became this ridiculous thing,” said James. “You had Batali and Burke and the Bromberg brothers. We built an oyster bar. We build a grill and cooked a cow on the spit. We built a stage where five different bands played. “And years later, for James’ 50th birthday party, Eric and Bruce flipped burgers while T. Edward provided the wine for several hundred guests.
“I’ve established friendships and friendly relationships that got me into the fabric of New York,” he said. “It’s a connection in what can be a very anonymous city.”
You’ll still find James behind the bar three days a week, with his cast of loyal regulars who within minutes will become your best friends for the night. But much has changed since the late nights when the dining room sat empty, and Eric and Bruce had jam sessions in the basement. “We had a whole bunch of people who were musically inclined. That was back in the day when you could smoke cigarettes, and at the round table at the front, the whole staff would be eating and drinking, and having a great time. I, of course, was still working behind the bar, but it was a part of the brotherhood. They’d break open beautiful bottles of wine and it really formed a camaraderie,” he said and paused. “Everyone has to grow up and move on and do other things. We wouldn’t have become what we became today if we’d stayed. They had to grow beyond that space. They had big ideas to begin with.”