The Salt

Eat Like A 'Golden Girl': NYC Cafe Feeds Fans With A Heavy Side Of Nostalgia


Rue McClanahan's Orange Poppy Seed Cake
Andrea Lynn for NPR
Rue McClanahan's Orange Poppy Seed Cake

When Golden Girls actress Rue McClanahan, who played the man-hungry Blanche Devereaux, got her first regular paycheck starring as Vivian Harmon on the sitcom Maude, one of her first splurges was a cappuccino machine.

"In the '70s, that was a huge luxury item," explains her BFF Michael J. La Rue. "One morning, Rue was hungover and didn't want to turn the stove on. She put her eggs in the pitcher that she steamed her milk in, and she steamed them with the espresso machine." The steam fluffed them into almost a soufflé consistency in a matter of seconds. "For the rest of her life, she used her cappuccino machines to steam her eggs in the morning."

Now fans can try her "espressed" eggs and celebrate their fandom at Rue La Rue Cafe, the Golden Girls-themed restaurant in Manhattan's Washington Heights. Co-owned by La Rue and McClanahan's son, Mark Bish, this Golden Girls haven combines pop culture and food.

La Rue met McClanahan 17 years ago at a photo shoot for a book about pets that he was producing. Their connection was instantaneous, with much laughing and sharing of stories.

"I remember having a conscious thought as I was leaving: 'Yeah right, like you're going to become friends with Blanche.'" But by the time he returned home, McClanahan had left a message on his answering machine asking for a future outing. "I called everyone I knew, and I played that message for them," La Rue says.

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The friendship also became a professional relationship as La Rue produced her one-woman show, a musical adaptation of her memoir, My First Five Husbands ... And the Ones Who Got Away. They remained close and, after McClanahan's death, he learned she had nominated not her son or husband, but La Rue to take over her business and personal affairs.

"That's when I discovered that my dear friend was not a collector, she was a hoarder," he says. "She saved everything! I found notes that she passed to her girlfriends in grade school in the 1930s."

La Rue and Bish knew McClanahan's possessions needed an outlet for display. Showcasing them in a restaurant was a role the charismatic La Rue — with two decades of restaurant experience under his belt — was meant to play.

"I lost my mother when I was a little boy, and Rue McClanahan came into my life and gave me that one thing that mothers are famous for, which is unconditional love. She thought I was awesome, no matter what," he says. He is returning the love by turning McClanahan's memorabilia into a permanent homage to the star's legacy.

McClanahan's portrayal of Blanche Devereaux earned her a 1987 Emmy, which sat on La Rue's desk for the past six years, but now has a home in the restaurant. The bathroom is tiled to mimic the one on the show, and her character's signature banana-leaf wallpaper also makes an appearance.

In what will be a rotating display, current items include a silver bowl that Aaron and Candy Spelling gave McClanahan after her Love Boat appearance; a Golden Girls script signed and doodled on by the guest-starring 26-year-old George Clooney; hand-painted silk kimono costumes from Golden Girls episodes that La Rue calls "absolute works of art;" and a ring McClanahan wore on stage as Madame Morrible in Broadway's Wicked.

La Rue also inherited McClanahan's recipe books, which hold more than 60 years' worth of contributions from coworkers and friends. Some of these recipes, like Golden Girl co-stars Bea Arthur's pasta salad and Estelle Getty's chocolate chip cookie recipe, are used as a template for Rue La Rue's menu.

Other café dishes riff off show details, like the Stan "The Putz" Turkey Club, Rose's Scandinavian Genügenflürgen cake (which is in the works), and an array of flavored cheesecakes based on each Golden Girl.

There's also McClanahan's signature Orange Poppy Seed Cake. "It's an Oklahoma recipe she made her entire life. It's Duncan Hines yellow cake mix, a package of Jell-O instant pudding, Tropicana orange juice, orange peel and poppy seeds," La Rue says. "Even though it sounds so trashy, it's absolutely delicious."

Want to eat like a Golden Girl? La Rue recommends Sophia's 16-hour lasagna al forno; the Betty White Cake, a yellow cake with cream cheese frosting and coconut flakes; and a cup of Dorothy's No-Nonsense Roast Coffee. "And if you have room, shove a piece of Rue's Poppy Seed Cake in your purse for later," La Rue says.

While Golden Girls first ran on NBC from 1985 to 1992, it's still playing 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, thanks to worldwide syndication and a new streaming deal with Hulu. That's allowed those who fervently watched it the first time around to get re-acquainted, while also earning the show new fans.

The cafe is open for limited hours six days a week in what La Rue calls the "rehearsal" phase. Visitors have boiled down to two types of clients — tourists who want a glance at the memorabilia and locals who return based on the menu.

"Golden Girls is giving us all of the publicity that we need for this place," says La Rue. "Once people come, I think the food is what will bring them back."

Andrea Lynn is a recipe developer, food writer, and a "Golden Girls" superfan based in Queens, New York. She once slept on the sidewalk overnight in hopes of scoring tickets to see Betty White on "Saturday Night Live."

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