Public eating places have historically presented an array of dining arrangements, from sharing tables with strangers to occupying highly private dining rooms and many gradations in between. In fact, the development of individual tables – as opposed to sharing the host’s own dining table with his family and other customers – marks the emergence of the “restaurant” in late 18th-century France.
Booths are a dining option that give a measure of privacy within a public room that is often furnished with tables in the open as well. Private dining rooms were found in taverns and coffee houses of the Revolutionary era in America, but there were no booths then. There were, however, boxes. The English, who ran most early eating places in this country, were fond of creating boxes in churches and opera houses that gave their occupants some separateness from others. Boxes, as shown here in a latter-day chop house, were the forerunners of booths.
Boston’s New Porter Cellar advertised in 1796 that it had been renovated and could now accommodate customers with a “range of boxes, of convenient magnitude, into which any party may retire, and detach themselves from the company, as agreeably as in a private apartment.” Sometimes, boxes were ranged around the side of a room, allowing them to be closed off with curtains, as was true at Boston’s Exchange Coffee House in 1809 which was outfitted with “handsome boxes, each containing a mahogany table, seats, and a bell rope; each box … is faced with mahogany, and decorated with scarlet curtains, which screen visitors from observation.”
To critics the curtains went one step too far in providing privacy. What were people doing behind those curtains? Moralists wanted diners, and drinkers, to be in full view of all.
Opposition to curtained booths, booths with high backs, and tables partitioned off with high walls crystallized in the early 20th century when municipal ordinances outlawing them were drafted. In 1904 a judge struck down an ordinance in a Utah town which made it unlawful “to permit, construct or place any screen, door, blind, booth, stall, portiere, curtain or other obstruction to the public view, in any restaurant,” in part because it was aimed prejudicially at Chinese restaurant keepers. But in other cities such as Portland OR and Duluth MN ordinances took effect in the years before WWI.
Boston’s White Slave Commission, dedicated to the eradication of prostitution, recommended an ordinance for that city in 1914 which outlawed any kind of space resembling a private room or area not open to public view anywhere food or liquor was served. Exceptions were made only for spaces holding fewer than two or more than six persons. About the same time Olympia WA restricted the use of curtains in booths, declaring them “unhealthful.” Meanwhile a chief of police in Aberdeen, South Dakota, tried to persuade the city council that booths were the greatest menace to the morals of the town’s youth he knew of.
Other ordinances tried to limit the height of booths, 42 inches being the highest booth tolerable to most reformers. Sometimes restaurants were required to provide lights for each booth and make sure they were turned on when guests were seated.
In places where no liquor was served booths seemed to win easy acceptance. Tea rooms often advertised them and New York’s Tally-Ho boasted that it had rehabilitated stalls in the “Famous Astor Stables” as dining alcoves. The whole issue of booth height seemed to die down while national prohibition was in effect, but with repeal it surfaced once again. In 1933 Lewiston, Maine, decreed (rather generously, actually) that booths could not exceed 54 inches in height.
But the truth was that many restaurant patrons preferred booths over ordinary tables and chairs and they had become so popular during the 1920s that it was impossible to turn back. Michigan had to rescind its 1934 order that booths not exceed 42 inches because restaurant owners claimed it was simply too expensive for them to cut down their existing installations.
Soon restaurants were boldly advertising that they had booths that were “cozy and intimate,” the latter a word that would have once been too daring to proclaim. By the late 1930s restaurant supply catalogs were full of modern-styled booths of chrome and colorful leatherette.
Although there was a 1950s case in which a court upheld an ordinance making booths over 42 inches illegal, the issue disappeared for the most part. But history always has a joker up its sleeve. In 1983 a lesbian couple sued the Papa Choux restaurant in Los Angeles for refusing to seat them in its special curtained booths designed for “romantic evenings.” Although the couple lost their suit initially [see below] they eventually prevailed in the California Supreme Court.
© Jan Whitaker, 2012