A persistent theme in 20th-century restaurants, found mainly in names and signs – and thankfully now over – was the coach and four theme. Obviously it is only one of a host of old-time symbols that restaurants have borrowed over the past 100 years. Others include spinning wheels, grist mills, and, oddly enough, brothels, all suggestive of simpler times when things were made by hand and gender roles were clear cut. The names and signs also acted as practical signifiers indicating to prospective patrons that they could expect standard American food to dominate the menu.
Both World War I and World War II stimulated this theme, possibly because Americans were looking for comfort and reassurance. Tea rooms of the First World War era were among the first and the worst offenders when it came to invoking a stable and secure pseudo-past. (When they were in New England, you think, Well, they have a right. Yeah, maybe.) An even stronger wave of nostalgia washed through the nation’s restaurants after the Second World War, replacing the brash modernism of the 1930s with colonial motifs for coffee shops and cafeterias. Never mind that the actual mode of transportation was bringing smog and sprawl to cities nor that convenience food had overtaken restaurant kitchens whose cooks could no more have cooked from scratch at a fireplace than their patrons could have hitched a buggy.
[Left] One of James Beard‘s favorite restaurants was Greenwich Village’s Coach House. It differed from most of its namesakes in having innovative cuisine. [Right] Another Coach House, in Atlanta.
Even drive-ins might invoke olden days of transport, as did the Autoburger with an old-fashioned jalopy on its sign. But most drive-ins, such as LA’s Carpenter’s, acknowledged that their patrons arrived by cars of the latest model.
A transportation motif that didn’t make it onto signs and nameplates was the motorcycle, despite its popularity with many patrons. Needless to say, signs with horses and buggies never pictured African-American passengers.