B.McD. (Before McDonald’s)

ArmstrongMOcafe

In most towns and cities across the USA the landscape is filled with fast food eateries that belong to chains, McDonald’s obviously being only one. Chain restaurants make up close to half of all restaurants today, and many of them can be classed as fast food places. A large proportion of the meals people eat away from home come from this type of eating place.

Where did people grab a quick bite before the fast food chains came along? What was the ordinary, inexpensive eating place like for so much of the last century, B.McD.?

Let’s peer back into the first half of the 20th century. There were some “quick lunch” chains in existence, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Although high-traffic locations in larger cities were quickly grabbed up by chains such as Baltimore Lunch or John R. Thompson, less desirable sites in cities and on Main Streets in smaller towns were populated with small independent eateries.

ConeyIslandCafecropped

Many, perhaps most, lunch rooms and cafes – not likely to be called restaurants then – occupied storefronts or freestanding one-story buildings of very basic construction. Often they were “mom & pop” operations with one of the pair handling the cooking, the other running the food service side of things. Very likely the proprietors knew most of their customers on at least a first name basis.

LaCrosseWI2

Most lunch rooms shared a basic floor plan in a standard storefront space 18 to 25 feet wide and 75 to 100 feet deep. About 2/3 to 3/4 of the space was devoted to the dining room, the rest making up the kitchen which was hidden behind a wall, partition, or just a curtain.

MagnumOK2

Usually seating would include both a counter and some tables or booths along the side or arranged toward the back. Very narrow storefronts had counter seating only. Shelves behind the counter or glass display cases might hold baked goods, packaged groceries, cigars, or candy. A cash register was often a prominent feature.

BaltimoreCafeoysterHouseAberdeenWA1921

In many cases during Prohibition, a café’s or lunch room’s previous status as a barroom was plainly evident.

AuburnWAcoffeeshop

Decor, such as it was, was frequently provided by posters and stand-up signs advertising national brands, particularly soft drinks.

GreenLeafCafeTX

What was gained and what was lost when the old lunch rooms disappeared? It’s a mixed picture. I doubt that their food was much to brag about. Some were clean, some were dirty. Often their menus were limited — but rarely as limited as the fast food chains. Food was served on dishes, not in paper wrappings. They provided service and often friendliness and a sense of community, though it was sometimes circumscribed by race, gender, and familiarity.

I recall walking into a local café in Hannibal MO about ten years ago. The few customers at the counter all turned to stare openly as we came though the door. The proprietor screeched, “Where are YOU from?” We were horrified when the chili came with a big scoop of sour cream on top. She seemed offended when we failed to order pie. I hate to admit it but, all in all, I would have preferred the anonymity of a chain for lunch that day. On the other hand, if we had gone to a chain I wouldn’t remember being in Hannibal at all.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

11 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

11 responses to “B.McD. (Before McDonald’s)

  1. In the 50′ and 60′s there were fast foods at Woolworths, Newberry’s and Fishman’s. There were counters at most of these chain stores. They all disappeared when the fast food like McDonalds, Wendy’s and Burger King arrived on the scene. K2AFE

  2. There’s a lunch room in Santa Ana California called Pop’s that looks like a cross between the restaurants in the fifth and sixth photos in this post. Owners have changed over the decades, but the layout and decor hasn’t budged since well before WWII. They’re always crowded at lunch, and I suspect at breakfast too. Try the (enormous and flavorful) onion rings.

  3. William Grimes

    I grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and the local drug store, Packett’s had a lunch counter, Ponder’s. This was typical of the period (1950′s-60′s). It had fountain drinks and an array of specialty burgers, advertised by colorful cartoons above the grill, that I recall as being absolutely delicious. The buns came off the grill with a beautiful crunch around the edges.The Mars Burger featured a secret sauce (since there were no McDonald’s in the immediate area, I regard this as a house invention), and there was a double-decker called the Big Ma Moose. In Bethesda, the next town over, a small café called, I think, the J&M, was heavily patronized by black sanitation workers and served up down-home blue-plate stuff, with French fries obviously hand cut, since they were big and misshapen and gorgeous. It was near my high school and I hit it hard. Few spots measure up to these when I cruise the byways of the U.S. today. Wm Grimes

  4. Anonymous

    Loved the photos (Jan’s comments less so), They brought back wonderful memories Wish they had been identified by name & location.

  5. Anyone wishing to experience an old-school lunch room should pay a visit to Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop in New York City, two doors north of 22nd Street on the west side of Fifth Avenue, just across from the Flatiron Building.

    It opened in 1929, and has changed very little in the years since.

  6. Gary Gillman

    Excellent article, and superb, atmospheric images. Similar places do exist still, not nearly as many of course, but they do, and many still look pretty much like you see here. Recently I found one in Maysville, KY, up north in the state on the Ohio River, run by a charming Greek-American couple, now elderly but a wedding photo on the back counter showing them young and handsome gave interesting context. Their Cincinnati-style chill – I had it on the small hot dogs that are traditional with that dish – seemed oddly a propos with its scents of lamb and cinnamon and other Eastern spices. It all connected, for me anyway…

    Whatever happened by the way to jelly omelettes!?

    Gary

    • Thanks, Gary. I don’t know about jelly omelettes, but I know there are still some such places. There are a couple of fairly recent books about independent cafes in Wisconsin and Indiana, some reminiscent of Hannibal. It is required to order pie — but I didn’t know that then, and even if I had . . .

  7. jecathey

    Chili with sour cream is delicious.

    • Anonymous

      Especially if it’s hot & spicy. Jan should have gone will the local flow before being “horrified”. She may have had a eureka moment!

      • I actually love sour cream but it’s not the wisest thing for me to indulge in. The menu didn’t indicate it was a central ingredient in “Texas chili.”

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