Truth in Menu

Truthsproutsjimmyjohn'sphoto

Last week my brother found the following curious notice in his local newspaper offering aggrieved consumers a free pickle, cookie, or soda (valued at $1.40). The offer was the result of the settlement of a class action lawsuit by a woman who failed to get sprouts on her sandwich as a Jimmy John’s menu had promised.

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I could not help but appreciate that the claimant was a resident of California, the state that originated Truth in Menu laws (aka Truth in Dining) that demand under penalty of fines that restaurants provide exactly what is stated on their menus.

Menu advertising is covered under a variety of consumer protection laws but many people have felt that restaurants’ misrepresentations deserved more focused attention. Ralph Nader, from a restaurant family himself, may have been the first to call for a Truth in Menu law, in 1972. The first attempt to enact such a law, in the form of a city ordinance, came in San Francisco in 1974 under the sponsorship of then-president of the Board of Supervisors, Diane Feinstein (US Senator, D-CA).

The impetus behind the San Francisco ordinance was to stop restaurants from serving convenience entrees that had been prepared elsewhere, frozen, and reheated in the restaurant, yet were not identified as such and leaving diners to believe they originated in the restaurants’ kitchens. Also at issue were the restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf that purported to serve locally caught fish yet were known to substitute frozen fish shipped in from other states. Restaurant owners such as Tom DiMaggio, brother of baseball’s Joe DiMaggio and owner of DiMaggio’s Restaurant, argued that they had to fall back on frozen fish at times when fresh caught local fish was not available. DiMaggio admitted to serving frozen prawns from Louisiana. Proponents of the Truth in Menu law, however, claimed that some of the Wharf’s restaurants regularly served nothing but frozen fish.

truthlobstersSan Francisco’s Board of Supervisors chose not to pass the ordinance, but Los Angeles took up the cause and became, probably, the leading enforcer of menu honesty. Other states and localities also adopted such laws but their enforcement has tended to be weak. The 1970s was the high point for restaurant inspections and TiM enforcement. Fines were issued for margarine referred to as butter, Maine lobster not from Maine, real maple syrup that wasn’t, frozen entrees touted as home-made, 8 oz prime steaks that weighed less and were lower grade, chicken and veal dishes made of turkey or pork, and fish that wasn’t what its name implied. As “home-made” became “home-baked,” restaurants learned to play it safe with their claims, as the postcard image above shows. Menu printers did a brisk business.

The use of frozen entrees eventually became an accepted practice in many restaurants as consumers happily accepted dishes prepared in a factory and microwaved in the restaurant’s kitchen. Restaurants are not required to acknowledge that they serve frozen entrees (as the Feinstein ordinance would have required), and many customers would not be horrified if this was revealed, feeling that as long as it tastes good and costs less than food made on-site from scratch, that’s fine with them.

Where do things stand today? Restaurant chains are the most likely targets for lawsuits and have been diligent in avoiding false claims. Elite restaurateurs wither at the very notion that they could use convenience foods or mislabel anything. Yet misrepresentations certainly occur, sometimes even among the staunchest supporters of truthfulness.

There’s the meat glue scandal in which chunks of beef were glued and pressed into shape as filet mignon.

But, if there is a single type of food most likely to be misrepresented on menus it is fish. Not too long ago I ordered grouper in Florida at three different restaurants. Each time it was quite different, indicating that at least twice I was served something else. As recent investigations show, fish misidentification is rampant among restaurants, suppliers, and retailers, always involving the substitution of a less expensive fish for a more expensive one.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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“Every luxury the markets afford”

alhambra1847In the 1840s and 1850s, when Russell W. Allen ran restaurants in Richmond VA, newspaper advertising for eating places employed pat phrases such as the one that serves as this post’s title. Allen advertised frequently in the papers and, judging from descriptive blurbs, he attracted affluent men looking for fine liquors and cigars, as well as top quality duck, seafood, oysters, and game.

In 1843 he opened The Alhambra which, like most eating places then also served as a hotel. His aim was to have the foremost eating place in Richmond.

The son of a Providence RI cabinet maker and general in the Revolutionary War, Russell was 24 years old in 1835 when he married. He and Agatha moved to Richmond a few years later. In 1840 he was employed as a decorative painter whose business included hand painting custom window shades. Agatha ran a boarding house for Virginia legislators.

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Although it was open to the public, it would seem as though Russell’s eating saloon developed as an extension of the boarding house. His first advertisements make a direct appeal to legislators whom he offered three meals a day, promising to have on hand fine oysters from nearby rivers and bays “fresh three times a week.” He also imported live lobsters from the North, a practice which he said was highly unusual since most lobsters in Richmond were brought there pre-cooked. [bill of fare, 1844]

The Alhambra was located on the main thoroughfare, 14th street, near the bridge that crossed the James River. Outside was a sign of a deer visible in the day but eclipsed after dark by the standard candlelit red balloon that identified oyster houses. In 1846 the establishment moved two doors closer to the bridge and installed private dining rooms. A new and sensational feature was a fountain with a statue of a Greek goddess bearing a flowing cup, surrounded by swans. The spouting water held aloft a golden ball.

AlhambraCardtoLadies1846After a Richmond newspaper advised that “those who wish to see a pretty fountain should pay one visit at least,” the normally all-male sanctum was besieged by women wanting a peek inside. The result was a ladies’ night advertised in May of 1846 with Agatha Allen on hand to reassure visitors that the goings on would remain cake & lemonade respectable.

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Perhaps due to the death of his father in 1848, Russell sold his business in 1849 and the family moved to New York City, where he also ran an eating place. In 1852 he returned to Richmond, bought out the Rough and Ready on the corner of 12th and Main, renamed it The Arbour, and kept it going until 1858. He tried to equal The Alhambra’s reputation as an epicurean eating place, though I can’t tell how well he succeeded. In 1852 he ran an advertisement for quick eats at reduced prices as shown above. It contains something I’ve never seen before, “domestic pie,” which I’m guessing is another way of saying homemade. Also, sora, a marsh bird.

After he gave up the restaurant and hotel business, Russell Allen returned to his earlier career as a painter and earned the rank of Captain in the Civil War.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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See it, want it: window food displays

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To the degree that restaurants are about theater, food is one of the starring players. Putting it on stage has long been considered a way to sell it.

There are many opportunities to display food, one of them being the simple delivery of an attractive plate to a neighboring table. But there are also buffets, cafeteria shelves, dessert carts, flaming swords, etc., all of which have been featured or will appear as posts on this blog.

There are also several ways to attract potential customers passing along the street. One of the oldest, popular in the 19th century, was to string up game near the front door. Today that would probably be guaranteed to drive people away, but men of the 19th century responded positively. The Shakspeare Saloon in 1847 New York lured judges, lawyers, merchants, and men about town by displaying “a splendid buck, a couple of bear hams, haunches of mutton, . . . fatted capons as large as turkeys, . . . glittering fish and sirloin steaks marbled with fat.”

windowdisplayThe Shakspeare was below street level as were many eateries of the early 19th century. But as more eating places moved above ground, fitted out with windows that grew ever larger as the century proceeded, new display possibilities arose. In 1868 French rotisserie restaurants in San Francisco decorated their windows with marbled beef, vegetables, and live frogs in glass globes, displays that might have resembled the one portrayed in the 1880s trade card shown here. In it a woman gazes at fruit, as was appropriate for her gender. An article advised that women’s restaurants tempted the fair sex by fruit and delicate pastries, while “Meats are never shown, and the suggestion of anything so gross is studiously avoided. This is left to the restaurants patronized by men, who are supposed to find a stronger appeal in more solid and healthier food.”

And so meat and fish were especially popular to put on display. Up until the mid-20th century they might still have been on ice but increasingly they were displayed in refrigerated cases. Ice and refrigeration showed respect for the food, balancing two of restaurants’ prime virtues: a sense of extravagant plenty, communicated by large amounts of fine food, and a sense of order, demonstrated by methods that insured freshness.

Some restaurants placed in their windows food that had been frozen inside a large block of ice. Imagine two shad, each with a lemon in its mouth, that appeared to be swimming toward the bottom of the block, forming a V, with a red lobster between them. Or the 20-pound pig encased in ice by “gourmet artist” and restaurateur George Pundt that made such a hit with people passing the Parlor Restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1897.

windowfoodfakeonionringsAlong with meat, anything that was overlarge or brightly colored might appear in a window. Big yellow squash, pumpkins, melons, decorated cakes. Chicago’s Toffenetti’s piled up its much ballyhooed Idaho potatoes in the 1940s.

Despite the spectacular effects that could be attained with displays, there were also risks involved. As early as 1886 an article noted that “really first-class restaurants” did not engage in window displays. The pots of baked beans found in New York’s Bowery restaurants were proof, as was the “tired display of sliced tomatoes” placed in the smeared window of an eatery whose location was home to one failed business after another. In the 1920s a Niagara Falls cafeteria owner observed that he avoided putting food in windows because picky patrons felt that “sooner or later, they, as patrons of the restaurant, will have to eat that ‘window’ food” and so they tended to shun restaurants with food displays.

windowfoodfakesoupIt’s hard to pinpoint when window food displays began to wane. A Seattle newspaper columnist declared in 1965 that the city’s old-time Olympia Café was the last to feature refrigerated steaks in its windows. I can’t recall seeing real food in restaurant windows for the past several decades. Today food shown in restaurant windows is likely to be artificial. Japan, perhaps the biggest user of window food displays, specializes in making the most realistic and highest quality items. They don’t make me hungry, yet the collector in me wants to acquire the fake food for my collection.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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“Time to sell the doughnuts”

donutsMayflower796Doughnuts are a food that has rarely been taken seriously by the media. After encountering loads of silly stories about doughnut holes and dunking I have decided the reason is that throughout the last century the doughnut industry was amazingly successful in promoting its products, often through humor. Most of what appeared in papers and magazines was the work of publicity agents for the manufacturers of doughnuts, equipment, and mixes.

No doubt people would enjoy doughnuts even without publicity, but the endless promotional events and stories helped make their consumption year-round rather than concentrated in fall and winter.

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Starting in the 1930s the publicity directors of one of the largest producers, The Doughnut Corporation of America, organized dunking contests, created a National Dunking Association, sponsored displays at World’s Fairs [1939 advertisement shown], and planted photos of celebrities eating doughnuts in newspapers and magazines along with cartoon-illustrated stories such as one about a character named “Ima Dunker.”

One of the corporation’s publicity directors claimed that doughnuts were the first food to have a week proclaimed for it. National Doughnut Week began in the 1930s. To the annoyance of some who felt it was frivolous, mayors of cities and towns around the country would receive a kit with a membership card for the National Dunking Association and a bib along with a request to proclaim doughnut week.

The Doughnut Corporation of America grew out of a small baking business in NYC owned by Adolph Levitt. He is often credited with inventing the first automatic doughnut machine in 1920, but in fact there were numerous machines on the market then as well as in earlier years. Doughnut making machines were popular with bakeries and lunch rooms which placed them in their windows so that people on the street could see the (cake) doughnuts being made and feel drawn to buy some. But Levitt was clever and soon his rapidly growing company was supplying the whole country with machines as well as Downyflake doughnut mix, and backing it all up with publicity support.

donuttimessquaremenu1949In 1931 the Doughnut Corporation created a Mayflower Coffee Shop in Times Square. It was followed by one each in Boston and Chicago the next year, and another in Springfield MA in 1934. By 1936 there were 15 around the country, and in 1949 there were 24. The Mayflower Shops menu featured popular dishes such as Hamburgers, Corned Beef Hash, and fountain specialties, but also Waffles (the company made waffle mix too), Pancakes, and of course Donuts (as they came to be spelled). Plain, sugared, and cinnamon donuts cost 5 cents each in 1949, 10 cents for a frosted donut, and a Donut a la Mode came to 15 cents.

donutdownyflakeADV1932The Doughnut Corporation also franchised Downyflake Shops. In 1931 there were 36 in Boston and surrounding towns in eastern Massachusetts, out of a nationwide total of about 400. They appear to have been sandwich shops for the most part, but some may have only sold doughnuts. The Doughnut Corporation also built doughnut plants around the country. A plant in Fort Worth TX in 1932 produced an important doughnut ingredient, dried egg powder, a product which had for decades come exclusively from China.

I am unsure how long the Doughnut Corporation’s restaurants stayed in business, however by the mid-1970s the company, now DCA Food Industries, still produced doughnut making equipment. By then the doughnut-plus-coffee shop business was led by Dunkin Donuts (750 franchises) and Winchell’s Donut House (530 units).

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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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

CivilRightsBlackpatronsUNK

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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