Taste of a decade: 1890s restaurants

1893NYCAs the decade starts there are over 19,000 restaurant keepers, a number overshadowed by more than 71,000 saloon keepers, many of whom also serve food for free or at nominal cost. The institution of the “free lunch” has become so well entrenched that an industry develops to supply saloons with prepared food. As big cities grow, the number of restaurants swells, with most located in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, and the Midwest where young single workers live in rooming houses that do not provide meals. Southern states and the thinly populated West, apart from California, have few restaurants.

Cheap restaurants such as lunch counters, lunch wagons, and ethnic cafés are the leading types, buoyed by the heavy immigration of Southern Europeans, particularly Southern Italians. Chinese restaurants become more common in the East. More unescorted women patronize restaurants, particularly in downtown shopping districts and around office buildings where they work. Bigotry increases and, despite civil rights laws, Afro-Americans face greater rejection by restaurants.

An economic panic in 1893 sends the country into a severe four-year-long Depression. Self-service lunchrooms which operate on the honor system begin to notice that one out of every ten patrons shaves their check. Interest grows in an “automat” from Germany in which food is not accessible until money is deposited in a slot. Rumors spread that one will debut in St. Louis and another in Philadelphia.

1893LadyinRedNear the decade’s end, the “Gay 90s” commence and those who are able and so inclined pursue the good life, which increasingly includes going to restaurants for the evening. It is still considered somewhat disreputable to do this, so some people go out to dinner only when visiting another city.

Highlights

1891 The Vienna Bakery restaurant of Los Angeles creates a stir when it advertises that it never serves “come backs” (food left on other people’s plates). “When a meal is served its remains are thrown away,” it insists. The following week it reaffirms the claim and further boasts, “No Chinaman Handles any of the food cooked at THE VIENNA.”

1893 Chicago is full of horse-drawn lunch wagons which cluster around railroad depots and the entrances to Jackson Park to take advantage of the crowds attending the World’s Columbian Exposition.

delmonicobdwy5th26th921893 A drunken man fires five shots into Delmonico’s in New York City (5th Ave. and 26th St., pictured), later declaring he believes in equality among the classes and wanted to “give the rich people I saw in there enjoying themselves a good scare.”

1894 The Maverick Restaurant opens in Golden, Colorado, for the express purpose of serving 5-cent meals to the vast army of unemployed men who earn credit to pay for the meal of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable by cutting and stacking wood. Unlimited amounts of bread are included but no butter.

1894 In Chicago, jobless men are thankful for free food that saloons provide with the purchase of a beer. One declares, “This free lunch is all that keeps me alive. I have been out of work for three months…. Five cents now buys me a meal and another nickel goes for lodging. That is what I live on and I consider myself lucky.”

Marston's3501895 Competition from cafés and restaurants in Massachusetts has just about wiped out the old boarding houses where renters had all their meals supplied. One reason is that people prefer restaurants because they get to choose what and when they eat. – Boston’s Marston restaurant, established by sea captain Russell Marston in the 1840s, opens a women’s lunch room on Hanover Street.

1896 With the passage of the Raines Law, which permits only hotels to sell liquor on Sunday (the busiest day for many restaurants), some New York restaurants begin to permit prostitutes to ply their trade in upstairs rooms which they have furnished with beds to qualify as hotels. The Maryland Kitchen on 34th Street, known for Southern cooking, and Gonfarone’s Italian restaurant in the Village are two of the many which take this route.

1897 In Michigan and Indiana bills are introduced in the legislature to outlaw French on menus. The Michigan bill is introduced by a legislator who had an embarrassing experience in a Chicago restaurant. Unable to figure out a menu, he ended up with two bowls of soup and some toothpicks.

1897 In the midst of the bicycling craze, two debutantes open a pink and white tea room serving lettuce sandwiches and café frappé to cyclists in Greenwich CT. Meanwhile a black cyclist who stops at Chicago’s Old Vienna café on Cottage Grove orders a lunch that never arrives. When he presses the manager, he is told, “You ought to know we don’t serve n*****s here.”

1898 During the war between the United States and Spain, public opinion against Spain whipped up by “yellow” (nationalist, sensationalist) journalism causes some restaurant keepers to rename “Spanish omelets.” Instead they are listed on menus as “tomato omelets.”

1899 A Chicago newspaper runs a story with a headline that reads: “Swell Gothamites Now Dine in Cafes. Members of New York’s Smart Set, with Some Exceptions, Have Adopted a Bohemian Fad Inaugurated in Paris and London. Society People Now Court Publicity and Love to Exhibit Their Marvelous Toilets [clothes] for the Admiration of the Vulgar. It Is Predicted That This Innovation, of Questionable Taste, Will Spread to Chicago.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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