To get a feel for restaurants in 1936, when drinking had recently been legalized and the Depression had eased up somewhat, I surveyed restaurants and lunch rooms entries in city directories for that year. I chose 25 cities that were among the US’s 100 largest according to the nearest census, 1940. The biggest city represented in the sample was Detroit (1,623,452) and the smallest was Shreveport LA (98,167).
I quickly discovered that people ate out frequently that year. Of the 25 cities, there were 7 that had a ratio of restaurants to population comparable to NYC today. I doubt that many readers can guess what they were. [See answer below.]
The ratio of restaurants to population is a rough guide to how often people eat out that is commonly used. But, judging from the names of eating place types – the Luncheonettes, Dinettes, Grillettes, Kitchenettes, Cabins, Cottages, Huts, Nooks, Stands, Shacks, and Shanties – it would seem that many of the eating places in 1936 were small, so there may have been less restaurant going than in NYC today. On the other hand many of the restaurant goers in NYC are not inhabitants, a situation that probably did not apply much to the cities in my survey.
The ethnicity of proprietors in each city is hard to compare. In some city directories restaurant and lunch room listings are almost entirely proper names while in others they are mostly business names. Nevertheless there are many ethnicities represented, including German, Greek, Armenian, Polish, Irish, Slavic, and Italian. Every city, except Scranton PA and Flint MI, has at least one or more Chinese restaurants. Long Beach CA has 9 Japanese names listed, and in San Antonio TX about 13% of the names are Mexican. Only 6 cities have the word Kosher in restaurant names, though of course that doesn’t necessarily mean there weren’t other kosher restaurants not so designated (obviously there are risks of reading too much into names).
Three cities, Shreveport LA, Charlotte NC, and Jacksonville FL, designate in proper Jim Crow fashion which restaurants are “colored.” After all, if everyone must stay in their place, they need to know where it is. One quarter of Jacksonville’s eating places are by and for African-Americans, including the Pink Tea Room.
Restaurant types suggest not only smallness, but a degree of humbleness, as the types above indicate. Overall the word Restaurant is used far less often than is Café. Other dominant types are Shops (Coffee [Oklahoma City pictured above], Food, Sandwich, Snack, Soda, Tea, and Waffle) and Lunches. Diners are found infrequently, with Newark the biggest exception, having 20 diners and 20 lunch wagons. Drive-ins are mostly in Salt Lake City and Houston.
Every city seems to have places offering hamburgers, chili, spaghetti, barbecue, and waffles, but not once did I find the words pizza or pizzeria. Cheerful and corny names abound. Busy Bees are common but so are Cozy Corners and Friendly Lunches. Every imaginable play on Inn can be found, such as Buzz, Dew Drop, Drag-on, Just Ramble, Step, Squeeze, and Swim. Popular culture and current events are conveyed by the Movieland Luncheonette, the Screenland Café, the Shirley Temple Sandwich Shop, and New Deal and Square Deal Lunches. The need to economize and forge ties as workers is evident in St. Paul’s Co-Operative Café, Newark’s Labor Lyceum Restaurant, Omaha’s Farmers Union Café and Tavern, and in Detroit’s Workingmen’s Co-operative Restaurant, International Co-Operative Restaurant, New System Profit Sharing Cafeteria, and People’s Profit Sharing Cafeteria.
There is considerable evidence of both regional and national chains. White Castle System Inc. is by far the most common, but there are numerous other “White Systems” such as White Tower [Scranton pictured above], White Hut, and White Spot. There are also Dixie Sandwich Systems [St. Louis pictured], Pig Stands, Toddle Houses, units of Childs, John R. Thompson, and the Waldorf System, as well as many other forerunners of today’s fast food chains.
Finally, a few of my favorite names of 1936: Omaha’s Boo Koo Café, Kansas City’s Yours & Mine Café, San Antonio’s Wampus Cat Café, Columbus’s Krome Dome System, Oklahoma’s Joy-Boy Café, Louisville’s Hy Skool Tavern, and Houston’s Robert’s Eatorium.
I am forced to conclude it was not a good year for upscale dining.
© Jan Whitaker, 2012
Note: The cities with a ratio of about 1 restaurant for every 350 people were: Cincinnati OH, Kansas City MO, Houston TX, Columbus OH, San Antonio TX, Oklahoma City OK, and Long Beach CA. The complete list of cities in the sample were, in descending population size: Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Newark, Kansas City, Houston, Louisville, Columbus, St. Paul, San Antonio, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, Grand Rapids, Long Beach, Des Moines, Flint, Salt Lake City, Yonkers, Scranton, Fort Wayne, Erie, Tacoma, Charlotte, and Shreveport.