Who was the mystery diner?

Jamescover795I am now the happy owner of Rian James’ Dining in New York published in 1930. When I opened it, I discovered a nice surprise: someone had penciled notes next to many of the restaurants described in the book.

This is a big deal to a restaurant historian because it is so hard to find out what consumers thought about restaurants in the past. Today it is easy, but in 1930, for instance, few people recorded their restaurant experiences and opinions in writing, possibly because it seemed trivial.

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As I looked at the comments I wondered who wrote them. Was it the person whose name is inside the cover? And just what is that name? M. Z. Mells? Or, were the notes made by someone other than the book’s owner?

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I puzzled over whether the writer was a man or a woman. There seems to be conflicting “evidence.” I find the handwriting ambiguous. As for content, on the one hand MZM used words such as “delightful” and “yummy,” went to lunch with Mother, Aunt Frances, and Mother’s friend Mrs. Claggett, and enjoyed the Gypsy Tea Shop (“Went here often with Mother – lots of fun”), all suggesting that MZM was female. But, then again, MZM loved the thick lamb chops at Keen’s Chop House, appreciated the Maitre d’ at the Roosevelt Grill, and often went to ice hockey games with Uncle Frank after dining at the Hotel Astor, hinting at maledom.

JamesrooseveltgrillThe surname Mells is uncommon. I found no M. Z. Mells, but did find a few women named Mells in NYC whose first names began with M. The strongest candidate was Mildred Mells. Born in New York City around 1910, in 1930 she worked as a model for a dress manufacturer and lived with her widowed mother and an older sister who was a supervisor for the telephone company. Her age meshed with the book’s publication and with the comment next to Enrico and Paglieri’s: “went there from childhood till 1945.”

JamesDivanParisienMZM added glowing comments, not only about the Roosevelt Grill (above), but also Keen’s (“Loved this place!”), The Lafayette and The Brevoort (both “old N.Y.C. landmarks”), Cavanagh’s (“A favorite place!”), Divan Parisien (“So good!”), and Charles French restaurant (“Excellent food and service”). In MZM’s minus column were The Wivel (“I liked other Swedish restaurants better.”), Luchow’s (“This was a very famous place but I didn’t care much for it or its food.”), and the Brass Rail, which merited the only comment written in the present tense (“don’t like this place”).

The writer couldn’t remember if s/he ever went to the Village Barn or Billy the Oysterman. S/he had eaten at Sardi’s, Zucca’s, Barney Gallant’s, The Commodore Grill, and Feltman’s on Coney Island but had no comments on them. And MZM regretted never making it to The Marguery or The Claremont Inn on Riverside Drive and 126th Street (“Went by this place hundreds of times but never got there. It looked so inviting.”)

I wonder why MZM passed by the Claremont Inn so often. Is that a clue? Now you know almost as much as I do. Any ideas about this little mystery?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Tea at the Mary Louise

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In 1914 the J. W. Robinson department store arrived on West Seventh and Grand, launching a shift in Los Angeles’ shopping district from Broadway. The following year the Brack Shops began leasing specialty shops in an empty loft building nearby. Construction activity boomed as Seventh Street turned into a shopping mecca.

Will and Dolla Harris staked the future of the Mary Louise Tea Room on the prosperity of West Seventh. In 1918 they opened their first tea room on the 12th floor of the Brack Shops. With wide hallways allowing shops to open their doors and let goods spill outside, it resembled a modern-day shopping mall. Shoppers could easily spend the day having their hair done, browsing the latest styles, or enjoying lunch, tea, or a Thursday night chicken dinner at the Mary Louise.

MaryLouiseBarkerBros790Through the 1920s the Mary Louise expanded, opening additional tea rooms on West Seventh — on the mezzanine of the fashionable New York Cloak & Suit House, and on the top floor of the gigantic Barker Brothers home furnishings store [shown here]. In 1922 construction began on what would be the largest of the Mary Louise tea rooms [shown below], a two-story building across from Westlake Park (renamed MacArthur Park in 1942). It opened in 1923 and was soon followed by a Mary Louise in Fullerton, next door to the new Alician Court movie theater owned by Dolla’s brother Charles S. Chapman. The last Mary Louise, whose servers were young Asian-American women dressed in Chinese costumes, opened in 1931 on North Cahuenga in Hollywood.

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Shortly after its debut, the park-side Mary Louise advertised it was “the Center of the City’s Social Life.” Wedding parties and meetings of professional groups were booked regularly. Elaborately decorated on a lavish budget equal to more than half the cost of construction, the capacious building held a large entry hall [shown below] and dining room [shown at top] on the first floor plus an afternoon tea room, a banquet hall, and four smaller dining rooms for private parties on the second. In sync with the fashion of the day, the rooms had themes such as Mah Jong and Italian tea garden.

MaryLouiselobby789As can be seen on postcards from the Mary Louises in Barker Brothers and opposite Westlake Park, the tea rooms were decorated in glamourous movie-set style markedly different than minimalist Eastern tea rooms. Gilded pieces, Oriental rugs, wall tapestries, heavy draperies, and paired ornamental trees abounded.

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The Mary Louise mini-empire was dealt a severe blow just a few months after the Hollywood location opened when Will Harris died suddenly. Three of the tea rooms, including the main one opposite Westlake Park, were quickly sold to the Elite Catering Company owned by the expanding Pig’n Whistle chain. When I acquired the business card shown here opened up, it had Xs penciled over all but the section reading “2 Smart Downtown Tea Rooms,” evidently reflecting the changeover.

Dolla Harris continued to operate the two downtown tea rooms: in Barker Brothers and in the Security Bank Building opposite the Robinson’s store. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, she was forced to reduce prices for lunch and to attract customers with palmists and numerologists. How long she stayed in business is uncertain but I’ve found evidence that there was still a Mary Louise tea room in Barker Brothers in 1952.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Restaurant-ing as a civil right

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Fifty years ago this summer President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title 2 of the Act discrimination by race, color, religion, or national origin was forbidden in eating places as well as hotels, motels, theaters, and stadiums.

Similar laws had been enacted by 18 northern states in the 1880s in response to the creation of “Jim Crow” laws in 20 southern states that had institutionalized segregation; however they were ineffective and rarely enforced. Racial segregation in eating places, affecting not just Blacks, but also Asian- and Mexican-Americans, was the norm in many restaurants throughout the country. Outside the South, Black diners typically were discouraged from patronizing white restaurants by hostile receptions, bad tables, and poor – or no — service.

Although President Johnson said he expected it, many people were surprised that the Civil Rights Act met with such a high degree of acceptance. American society as a whole had become convinced that unequal treatment was in conflict with the principles of democracy and that integration was inevitable. One year after passage of the Civil Rights Act an official at the Justice Department said compliance had exceeded expectations and was a “major national accomplishment.” By the early 1970s desegregation of restaurants and hotels was so uncontroversial that the question was dropped from public polls.

But change is not magical. Enforcement was required. From the start there were persistent violators who attempted to skirt the law by creating fake private clubs or by subjecting Black customers to higher prices, delayed service, and other indignities. While congratulating the nation, the Justice Department also vowed that violators would be prosecuted.

Because private clubs were exempt from the law a number of restaurants tried this route of avoidance. Some became legitimate private clubs but many were clubs in name only.

civilrightsprivateclubcrawfordsvilleThe sham restaurants-turned-clubs were identified by things such as failing to charge dues or having no membership criteria other than race. In the case of Dixie Diners Club of Enterprise MS which claimed to promote fraternity among “connoisseurs of discriminating taste and epicurean pleasures,” a court ruled nothing had changed since its days as plain-old Richberg’s Cafe. “The only material difference between the two is that physically the club is accessible only by the entrance at the door which was formerly for whites only,” it said. The ruling noted that the club held no meetings, established no committees, and served the same food as before. Bonner’s Private Club in Crawfordville GA had previously been known as the Liberty Café, which closed when Afro-Americans tried to integrate it and reopened as a private club.

CivilRightsOllie'sThe justification for federal authority over restaurants and hotels was that they engaged in interstate commerce. So, of course, some restaurants claimed an exemption because theirs were purely local businesses. Ollie McClung, of Ollie’s Barbecue, lost a lawsuit despite his belief his business was local. “We are not located on a highway and don’t cater to out-of-town travelers,” he insisted. But as the Washington Post reported, it was exceedingly difficult for a restaurant to prove it had no interstate ties: “It would have to serve locally grown food, no tea, coffee and probably no beer, and would have to have a prominent sign saying, in effect, ‘No Interstate Travelers Served Here’ with a monitor at the door to make certain no interstate interloper slipped in.”

Another tactic was devised by ardent segregationist Maurice Bessinger who was granted an exemption for his Piggie Park Drive-in chain in South Carolina on the grounds no food was consumed on the premises. The decision was, however, soon reversed and it became clear that drive-ins would not be exempt.

It’s hard to say just how many Afro-Americans actually took advantage of the opportunity to patronize what had been all-white restaurants. It seems there was not a flood of Black diners in the first few years. But the new law was valuable to the middle-class, especially Black travelers who no longer had to rely on guidebooks such as The Negro Motorist Green Book to plot out where they could safely stop to eat or stay overnight. The Green Book became irrelevant, just as its publisher hoped it would.

Despite real advances, white Americans often overestimate the degree to which racism has disappeared. As critical as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in furthering equality, it did not put a complete end to racial discrimination in restaurants. Rather southern restaurants wanting to curb the number of Black diners learned to use tactics long practiced in the North. Nor have chains been free of bias. Cracker Barrel and Denny’s are among large chains hit by discrimination suits in the past couple of decades. And an academic study published in 2012 found that Black patrons continue to experience bad service based on waitstaffs’ belief that they are poor tippers. A study of 200 servers in North Carolina restaurants revealed that 38.5% discriminated against Black customers, sometimes playing a game called “pass the black table.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Once trendy: tomato juice cocktails

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Recently I acquired a 1947 menu from the Algonquin Hotel of “round table” literary fame. I noticed that one of the appetizers was tomato juice and I thought to myself how commonplace a selection that once was and how rarely it is seen today.

No doubt there are restaurants that still have it on the menu – nothing really ever goes away totally. It reminds me strongly of an old standby restaurant in Massachusetts that closed about ten years ago. I was fascinated by the quaint metal contraptions on each table holding little pots of appetizers such as cottage cheese, olives, and pickles. There must have been tomato juice on the menu, too, despite it being decidedly out of style by then.

I was so convinced that tomato juice was hopelessly unimaginative that I was taken by surprise when I did a little research and discovered that it was considered a fashionable snob drink in the 1920s and 1930s. It came into vogue in the 1920s along with other good-for-you foods such as Melba toast, cottage cheese, pineapple, and sauerkraut juice. Women’s magazines touted it as smart, healthful, and perfect for anyone wanting to lose pounds just like a Hollywood movie star.

It is said that a chef at the French Lick resort hotel in Indiana introduced tomato juice to  American diners in 1917. It MIGHT be true that he was first to serve it in a public dining room – it does not seem to appear on American menus prior to World War I. However tomato juice was well known and available in cans in the 19th century so he clearly did not invent it (as is often reported).

A tomato juice cocktail could be made by the addition of tobasco sauce, paprika, sauerkraut juice, clam juice, etc. Mix well, shake until foamy, and pour over crushed ice. Restaurants tried all sorts of combinations. The Wrigley Building Restaurant in Chicago came up with clabbered tomato juice which was tomato juice mixed with a goodly amount of cottage cheese. Denver’s Blue Parrot Inn blended orange and tomato juices, while The Colony in New York mixed clam and tomato.

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Although tomato juice could be found on menus of all kinds of eating places, even Chinese-American restaurants, it tended to be an appetizer favored by those who eat luncheon, not lunch. It was especially popular in restaurants that appealed to women then such as tea rooms, quaint inns, and department store restaurants. [illustration shows portions of menus from China Garden, Filene’s department store, and Willow Tea Cottage]

Arriving on the scene as it did during Prohibition, tomato juice clearly served as a non-alcoholic cocktail. Non-drinkers appreciated it, as did serious imbibers who had overdone things at their neighborhood speakeasy. It was a well known morning-after tonic continuing into the 1950s (and perhaps the present). In 1939 a restaurant in Shawnee OK allegedly served a “hangover breakfast” of tomato juice with hot sauce, soft-boiled egg, whole wheat toast, coffee, and two aspirins.

Tomato juice was so popular by the mid-1930s, both in homes and restaurants, that government scientists were said to be working on disease-resistant tomato varieties that would yield more juice. But by the 1980s it was considered an appetizer totally lacking in sex appeal, analogous to vanilla ice cream as a dessert. But, who knows? It could make a comeback. Tomato and kale juice cocktails?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Famous in its day: Thompson’s Spa

thompson'sSpa782Beverages have played a big role in the operation of restaurants. I even tend to sort them mentally by what kind of drinks they featured. That is, by whether they had a bar or dealt in alcoholic beverages or were based around coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Throughout history many restaurants began as saloons, coffee houses, or soft drink stands.

Thompson’s Spa, a long-gone chain in Boston that grew to about a dozen units in the 1930s, began as a soda fountain – a “spa” — selling non-alcoholic “temperance drinks.” Open year round, it provided both cold and hot drinks such as these from its 1895 menu:Thompsons'SpaTemperanceDrinks1895In case anyone wandered in thinking they were going to get a whiskey, a sign hanging on the wall set them straight: “This is a temperance bar.” Not a big problem since they could duck around the corner and into the alley where the Bell in Hand stood, looking to all appearances like an old London tavern.

Before very long Thompson’s proprietor, Charles Eaton, added sandwiches, doughnuts, and pie to the menu, ALL of which counted as basic foodstuffs – not desserts — to Bostonians then.

thompson'sSpaNewspaperRow1929Eaton was a graduate of MIT who in 1880, after briefly practicing as an architect in his home town of Lowell MA, had invented an electric telephone signaling device that he sold to Bell Telephone. For some odd reason he chucked that career and joined his brother-in-law (named Thompson) in running a wholesale drug store in Boston. Perhaps selling was in his genes; his father had done well peddling snacks to railroad passengers, thereby earning the title “popcorn king of Lowell.” The drug business must have been slow because in 1882 Eaton and Thompson decided to install a soda fountain for non-alcoholic beverages.

The original Thompson’s Spa was located on the corner of Washington and Court streets in Newspaper Row where the city’s newspapers were located and also home to many of their employes. Near Thompson’s was Pi Alley, aka Pie Alley and officially Williams Court, where many printers, compositors, and pressmen lived in rooming houses and, undoubtedly, ate in restaurants. Eating places were accordingly plentiful in the neighborhood, among them Gridley’s Coffee House and Mrs. Atkinson’s.

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Thompson’s kept the appellation “spa” even as it gradually expanded into a regulation restaurant. It added a fuller menu plus much-appreciated amenities such as seats for customers, who had previously had to stand while they ate. Women were finally admitted in 1909. [1933 dinner menu shown]

Although Thompson’s had servers, the spa exhibited some of the earmarks of an automat. Like the early German automat which was primarily a delivery system for beverages, Thompson’s had an elaborate piping system to supply chilled liquids to serving counters. With the decision to add ice cream to the menu in 1915, a new soda fountain was installed that permitted syrups to flow through pipes as well. A bonus was that the soda clerks could prepare an entire ice cream soda or sundae while facing the customers rather than turning their backs.

Thompson'sSpa4GuardsmenBillSamArthurGiffordAfter Eaton’s death in 1917, followed by a bitter battle with his widow, his three sons took over the business and began to expand it beyond the sprawling Washington street edifice it had become. By 1939 it occupied eleven locations in downtown Boston. In addition to soda fountains the Spas had air conditioning, sound proofing, table service, and wall murals. But the company’s finances were not in good shape, due partly to overexpansion during the Depression. In 1946 it was acquired by the Sheraton (hotel) Corporation which daringly installed a cocktail bar at the Washington Street location. In 1949 Sheraton sold the company to New York’s Exchange Buffet Corporation which also failed to make a go of it and began closing units in 1952.

In 1958 the two Spas that remained, one of them on Washington street near the original location, were closed. Former executives and employees tried to carry on at one location for a few years.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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The browning of McDonald’s

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It is always gratifying to find a piece of ephemera that marks a transition. The postcard above is blank on the back, probably to allow McDonald’s franchises to imprint it with their locations as they completed the changeover from the old building style to the new in the 1970s.

The old-style McDonald’s was based on the original design of California architect Stanley Meston who had once worked for Wayne McAllister, noted designer of modernistic 1930s drive-ins. The design was made for the McDonald brothers who in the 1950s had begun to franchise their California drive-in.

When Ray Kroc obtained a franchise from the brothers and spread McDonald’s outside the West and across the nation, he made modifications to Meston’s design, simplifying the arches and adding a glass-enclosed vestibule to the front as shown on the postcard at the top.

picks299The original Meston design was of an exuberant style known as “Googie” that featured eye-catching elements such as swooping roofs, extensive plate glass, neon, and the use of shiny industrial building materials (but sometimes also lava stone as shown in Pick’s). I recommend the books Googie and Googie Redux by Alan Hess, which I have drawn upon for this post, along with Orange Roofs, Golden Arches by Philip Langdon.

McDonald's1998Collectors'ClubIn the 1960s Kroc’s McDonald’s (he had bought out the McDonald brothers in 1961) began to run up against resistance from local zoning boards that wanted something more restrained than the “franchise schlock” look of the golden arches model. In 1968 the corporation went to work on a new design for a brick-faced building with a dark mansard-style roof and indoor seating. “We have taken off the gaudy materials and eliminated the circusy atmosphere,” said a McDonald’s executive in charge of design. The arches, on their way to become an ever-smaller letter M logo, were relegated to the sign. The first mansardized McDonald’s opened in the Chicago suburb of Matteson in 1969.

The little red, white, and yellow stands began to disappear. In 1972 most – about 75% — had been remodeled or replaced, leaving only about 250. By 1980, fewer than 50 remained, out of a total of 5,082 McDonald’s in the U.S. Preservationists in Oregon and Virginia tried to have old-style McDonald’s placed on historic preservation lists on the grounds they were symbols of America; they were turned down. By 1990 only five remained. A McDonald’s in Downey CA which opened in 1953 has been preserved, and this is probably the only example of the original design remaining other than the corporation’s recreation of Kroc’s first unit in Des Plaines IL.

mcdonald'sAberdeenNJca.1983The cultural climate that brought McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants into contention with critics who sought to keep Googie buildings out of their towns and neighborhoods was in stark contrast to the optimistic futurism exhibited at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Philip Langdon has used the term “the browning of America” for the turn away from buildings that were shiny, colorful, and blatantly commercial to ones that were low-slung, dark, and of natural looking materials. He suggested this shift signified a downcast attitude toward America. “The demand for a less garish roadside strip, when combined with other currents in the culture – a growing awareness of the nation’s faults and a fading away of the once-euphoric attitude toward futuristic technology – fostered a more subdued esthetic,” he wrote.

But another interpretation begs to explain the change as a progressive corrective to the post-WWII abandonment of nature, as evidenced in commercial roadside strips, napalm warfare, chem-lab convenience foods, and the widespread despoliation of the environment.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Eating, dining, and snacking at the fair

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Fifty years ago the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was underway, with thousands going through the turnstiles. Sooner or later they had to eat. Some brought a picnic but others patronized the roughly 110 restaurants in operation the first season, up to nearly 200 in 1965.

The Fair was not officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions nor supported by governments (for the most part); it was a commercial enterprise filled with corporate pavilions such as Johnson’s Wax, General Motors, and Travelers Insurance. Most of the restaurants were run by private entrepreneurs who were not necessarily from the country represented by the pavilion. Restaurant Associates, which operated Mamma Leone’s, The Four Seasons, and others in NYC, ran the restaurant in the Indonesian Pavilion and five others. New York’s Sun Luck chain ran the Cathay Chinese Restaurant in the Hong Kong Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairBrassRailsnackbarBiggest of all, the Brass Rail operated six moderate-priced restaurants, each offering a single complete meal for $3. In the International Plaza they ran both a cold Danish buffet and the Garden restaurant offering Southern fried chicken dinners. The company, a subsidiary of Interstate Vending Co. in Chicago, also had 25 freestanding snack bars with balloon-shaped roofs that looked as though they could lift off and float away.

Most of the eating places at the Fair supplied casual food and snacks, whether strawberry and whipped cream filled Bel-gem waffles (the hit of the Fair), Wienerwald hot dogs, or Chicken Delight(s). Providing plentiful fast food was based on the belief that non-New Yorker Americans would accept nothing else. Keep in mind too that it was the mid-1960s before the culinary revolution came along with its hopes of replacing industrially produced convenience food.

There was also no shortage of exotic cocktails served at tiki bars and lounges, and American and imported beers flowing in beer gardens. During groundbreaking for the Schaefer Brewing Company Center, which contained Schaefer’s Restaurant of Tomorrow and a beer garden, Fair president Robert Moses advanced a surprising perspective on the Fair’s theme, Peace through Understanding, by declaring that beer was probably “the thing that holds the world together.”

International edibles ranged from the passably authentic to the thoroughly Americanized. Yet however tame the Fair’s version of world cuisine often was, those fairgoers daring enough to go beyond burgers and dogs found a wide selection of food unknown to most Americans then. Among the many unfamiliar dishes were smoked reindeer at the Swedish Pavilion, spicy Korean spareribs, and stewed meat with peanuts and couscous at the Tree House restaurant in the African Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairChunKingRepresenting American-style Chinese food was the Chun King Inn, whose mission was not so much to run a profitable restaurant as to familarize people with Chun King products sold in supermarkets. It won over the public — who often complained about high restaurant prices at the Fair — by serving full meals consisting of seven items for only 99 cents. The Inn also featured a double-patty Hong Kong Burger with cheese, lettuce, special sauce – and bean sprouts for an Asian touch. Many restaurants did poorly at the Fair, but Chun King’s president reported that the Inn served 5 million customers the first year.

Probably the most successful restaurants were those directed by veterans of earlier Fairs, particularly Seattle’s in 1962 and New York’s in 1939. Repeaters from 1939 included the operator of the Century Grill who had run the Aviation Grill in 1939 and Schaefer Brewing Co.  Seattle businessmen subleased a restaurant in the Fine Arts Pavilion named the Bargreen Buffet to Roy Peterson, proprietor of Seattle restaurants including the Norselander. Another restaurateur from Seattle, William Moultray, did so well with his Polynesian restaurant in 1964 that Fair officials asked him to set up a restaurant complex in another pavilion.

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The Belgian Village [shown above in part] consisted of 100 buildings and 20 eating places, some of them outdoor cafes, but was not completed until the end of 1964. A similar village with some of the same buildings had been at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933.

Although critics were disappointed that there was nothing to equal Henri Soulé’s 1939 French restaurant (origin of NYC’s Le Pavillon), everyone agreed that the restaurants in the Spanish Pavilion came closest. Unlike most, it was officially supported by Spain’s government, headed at that time by dictator Francisco Franco. Two restaurants in the pavilion, the moderately priced Granada and the expensive Toledo, were under the management of Madrid’s Jockey Club which imported its chef and 40 of his assistants. So popular was the pavilion’s outdoor seafood bar, the Marisqueria, that it was enlarged in 1965. It was under the direction of Alberto Heras who opened a Spanish Pavilion restaurant on Park Avenue in NYC in 1966.

1964World'sFairFiveVolcanoesRestHeras was one of several restaurateurs who tried to extend their success beyond the Fair. The Spanish Pavilion building was removed to St. Louis by then-mayor Alfonso Cervantes, where it housed three restaurants that met a rapid demise. The maestro of Wienerwald, Friedrich Jahn, extended the Europe-based chain into this country. It had grown to 880 units by the early 1980s when it failed. The Petersons of the Bargreen Buffet took over management of New York’s venerable Janssen’s restaurant. The Wisconsin Pavilion’s Tad’s Steaks, with its popular $1.19 sirloin steak dinners, became a fixture with bargain-meal hunters in NYC.

Although the Fair fell short of meeting its attendance goal of 70 million, drawing only 52 million fairgoers, it’s likely that millions of them carried away lasting food memories.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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