My project

lulu7My fascination with restaurants goes back to childhood. I always loved going to them, tasting new food, enjoying their “atmosphere,” and ordering kiddie cocktails. At one point a few years back I was inspired to design rugs with restaurant themes.

For years I’ve collected restaurant ephemera, postcards, photographs, leaflets, business cards, and every kind of printed material you can think of. Eventually that led to wanting to know more about the restaurants in my collection. I live in an area with good college libraries. They include UMass Amherst which, because it began as an agricultural college and has a hospitality program, has some hard-to-find restaurant trade magazines. For over 20 years I’ve researched restaurants in American history, and can say, without bragging, that there are few others in the US who know more about American restaurants of the past two centuries than I do.

When I began the blog in 2008 I imagined it would lead to a book. Now, in 2012, I have my doubts about that. I’ve published three books and I’ve seen how publishing is changing under challenging circumstances. I think the audience for my brand of social history — never huge — is shrinking. Even if I wrote exclusively about sexy celebrities, luxury dinners, and murderous chefs, I doubt I could attract the millions.

So I think I’ll stick to blogging for now, which has many satisfactions in its own right. Over the years I’ve enjoyed corresponding with readers. We restaurant history fans may be a small minority but I’ve been pleased to learn that we’re a smart bunch of folks interested in the telling details of life and times.

Restaurants are deeply revealing of our culture’s humanity (and lack thereof). How did they justify turning away people with the wrong color of skin? They are businesses, yes, but they can’t let business motives crowd out all sense of hospitality. That makes for a lot of interesting dilemmas. They must make a profit yet appear generous. What do they “give away,” what do they charge for? I love how they create a “show.” I laugh at how corny they can be. I like exploring how they are divided into front stage and back stage, the latter so unforgettably illuminated by Anthony Bourdain.

I hope you will enjoy reading my posts and will subscribe to my blog.

Note: Because of the effort I’ve put into researching restaurant history and collecting images, I would be grateful if you would contact me for permission before quoting from my blog. Thanks!

53 responses to “My project

  1. Barbara

    Can you tell me how I might find out about a NY restaurant from the 40’s? I have a pastel portrait of my mother. Under the portrait it is signed “At Denney’s” to the left of the portrait and the artist’s name “Paul/1945.” Are there sources I can look up?

    • I am not familiar with a restaurant of that name, but you could search New York City directories under “Restaurants” for 1945 or years close to that. I also wonder if the portrait could have been done at the Frances Denney cosmetics salon on Fifth Avenue.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you for your suggestion about the telephone directories. I know the 42nd Street Library has a big collection. Thanks also for your suggestion about the cosmetic salon. Good to know.

        Why I’m pretty sure it was a restaurant is that my mother told me that my father called from the restaurant late in the evening asking her to come into the city. My mother had already set her hair in pin curls, for the night, so she put a scarf on her head like a turban and went into Manhattan to meet him.

        Believe me, my father wouldn’t have been caught dead at a cosmetics salon.

      • I just discovered a “Denny’s” [no second E] Restaurant in 1945 at 7 East 30th Street. Guessing that was it.

  2. Anonymous

    Hey there, I’m a student as well, writing a history paper about women and the growth of the restaurant industry, do you mind if I use this quote? (And cite you in my bibliography, of course): “Working mothers and smaller families in the 1960s further enhanced restaurant growth. By the mid-1960s there were 18,000 restaurants in Southern California, where sales had increased almost 100% since the end of WWII, attributed primarily to family dining. In 1976 the National Restaurant Association identified families’ favorite eating spots as family restaurants, fast-food eateries, theme restaurants, cafeterias, and coffee shops. Chains such as Howard Johnson’s, Bonanza, Ponderosa, Pizza Hut, International House of Pancakes, and Denny’s looked forward to a bright future.”

  3. Tina

    Hi there
    My son is doing a major project on the 1940s. He has to compare prices and famous restaurants from that decade. May we quote your stats you have listed? He must provide a bibliography so he will cite your website.

  4. KMK

    I’m writing a book set in the late 1910’s, and your blog has proved to be the easiest part of my research so far. Thank you!

  5. Great project. If I can be of help with Ohio let me know.

  6. Hi, I just came across your website while looking up 1950’s Hollywood restaurants and was wondering if you have ever heard of my father’s restaurant the “Villa Capri,” it was a very famous restaurant 1950-1982. His 1949 pizzeria in the original Farmers Market is still running! My father and uncle’s first LA restaurant “Casa D’Amore,” opened in 1939 and this menu is in Jim Heimann’s Menu Design in America.

    • Yes, “Patsy D’Amore’s Villa Capri,” as it was often referred to, was quite a popular spot with the movie crowd in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I found a book of matches with the slogan, “Dining Favorite of the Hollywood Stars.” Would have been fun to be there in 1955 when James Dean was a patron!

  7. Have you considered doing a blog post on the history of Chinese restaurants in small towns, etc. across North America?

    http://activehistory.ca/2012/11/chop-suey-on-the-prairies/

    Often they were informal community hubs.

  8. Nancy Lowenstein Gramann

    I cheer you on! Rites of passage and milestones in this lifetime were connected to restaurants. How I yearn to recapture even a glimpse of the the awe of being taken at 8 years of age in 1953 to Schrafft’s tea room in Syracuse or KEELERS in Albany ! Tommy Del’s in Syracuse, where my family went in the 50’s to celebrate special occasions KEELERS in Albany shared a very special ‘scent’ of ” fine dining”. I can’t put a finger on it…a combination of the air-conditioning, the table linen, the silverware, the celery and olives served on shaved ice before the meal- what could have created that scent? Trinkaus Manor in Oriskany, NY and Mayfair Farms near Newark, NJ (when it was just a restaurant) have surrendered to the march of Time. I love your project!

  9. Anonymous

    Such a cool project!

    I wonder if you can help though? I’m trying to find photos of restaurant photographers – you know, the men or women who would walk around nice restaurants taking photos of the diners. I can’t seem to find any reference to them and perhaps don’t even know what they were – or are – called. Any ideas?

  10. Hi :),
    I’m doing a senior paper and I was wondering if I sited your information in a MLA citation maker would that be alright? If so, I need your first and last name so that it’s sited correctly. thank you :)

  11. You must check out the NYC Public Library exhibit if you have the chance! Some great info on NYC lunch restaurant history http://eyechow.com/2012/07/25/lunch-hour-nyc-at-the-new-york-public-library/

  12. I think there are 1-2 books and a film about Chinese North American restaurants in small towns ..with the older faux Chinese dishes of chop suey, sweet and sour chicken balls, etc. of the 1930’s to 1960’s. Again this is a niche area. I always find it interesting when we go cycling in different parts of the continent especially in rural areas.

    Best wishes for your specialized blog and happy adventuring/researching.

  13. What a delightful blog! Congrats on the Freshly Press as well!

  14. Amber Weidenhamer

    Dear Jan,

    I stumbled upon your fab blog late last night and haven’t been able to stop reading it for about 24 hours!

    Unlike you, I almost NEVER went to a restaurant as a child…maybe we went out for a hamburger twice a year. It wasn’t until I was an art student that I started to enjoy going to NYC and Philly and seeing what restaurants were really like. It was then also that I started working at an east coast chain of ‘Perkin’s Family Restaurant and Bakery’. I worked the 11p to 7a shift for almost five years. It was a really fun place and almost twenty years later, I am still friends with many former co-workers and regulars.

    Keep the articles coming!

  15. A Miller

    You wrote about Smith & McNell’s in 2009; McNell was my husband’s great-great grandfather. How do I get permission to quote your article for purposes of genealogy reports to share with family? Can you tell me where the image of the restaurant is from, as I am also interested in using that.

    Thanks!

    • Please feel free to share the post as long as you attribute it to me, possibly by linking to my site. You may use the image also. Thanks for asking!

    • Hi Jan… I absolutely love the work you are doing here. I have two questions: 1. Would you like to help on our film about the Restaurant Industry? 2. I think with our film project, it might be possible to bring your book to life if you are interested.

      Keep up the good work.

  16. Vlad Gin

    Hello, my name is Vladimir, thank you for your article about Russian Tea Room. I have about 100 old postcards with Russian restaurants in US
    I ll be happy to share my collection with you and your readers

  17. Mary Banfield

    Hi
    I’m an Australian journalist writing an article about entertainment restaurants. I’ve been searching for someone who is in a position to talk about the history of these venues, and if they are growing in popularity again.

    Would this be an area you would feel comfortable discussing?

    Best regards

    Mary Banfield

  18. Roxanne Wilhelm

    My grandfather, Romeo Santoro, was a chef in Chicago during the 1940’s and 1950’s. I know that he worked at Stone O’Brien’s and Frescatti’s during this time period. I have not been able to find any information on either of these restaurants. I was wondering if you have come across them, or my grandfather, in your research. I would appreciate any info or hints.
    Thank you. Love your blog!
    rmw

    • Regrettably, I can tell you nothing about those restaurants. I’ve never heard of them and after looking around a bit, I could find absolutely nothing. Unless they advertised in newspapers or on postcards or had fires or robberies or were famous, most restaurants disappeared without leaving a trace. I did discover, though, that your grandfather worked around WWII at the Admiral Restaurant at 24 S. Dearborn in Chicago, another establishment about which I have no further information.

  19. Sally

    Dear Ms Whitaker,
    What a great website! I’m looking for more specific menu items for high end establishments in NYC in the 1960s (specifically 64/65) Do you know where/how I could find this information or if you have any menu items from that time? Thank you!

    Sally

    • Sally, I would contact the NY Public Library. Their menu collection is larger than what is represented by the digitized images they’ve made available. Also, there is a great-looking new book which I can’t wait to get my hands on called Menu Design in America: 1850-1895. I would imagine its three authors could be helpful.

  20. Dara

    Hello, my name is Dara and right now i’m working on my diploma project, wich is related to restaurants for healthy eating . I need some history notes and images for it. I found interesting things in your blog, so i would like to quote them in my project. Would you mind?

    P.S.
    Please, excuse my awful English.

  21. David Sacks

    Thanks so much for your site – ran across it searching for history on Busch’s Grove shared that on my FB page, will dig a little deeper when time permits!

  22. Debbie Hedstrom

    I have acquired what I believe could be a print ?for approval possibly for the front of the menus for the Marshall Fields Narcissus Room and the English Room. It was in an envelope with a return address which reads The Meyercord Co,5323 W. Lake St.,Chicago 44, Illinois, World Leader-Design-Manufacturer-Research-Service of Decalcomania. Can I send you a photo and see if you know? Debbie

  23. Phil

    There was a restaurant in NYC in the ’50s named the ‘Sportsman Club’ Their claim to fame was-they could serve you anything you wanted…everything from alligator to giraffe to snake…we used to have a menu that got lost over the years…Have you ever come across this place in your studies?

    • I’m assuming you mean the 1950s. I have found two places with names similar to that. One was the “Sportsmen Restaurant” across from Yankee Stadium on Knightsbridge Road and the other was Major’s Cabin Grill, a steakhouse on 33 West 33rd Street which had a “Sportsman Bar” and was sometimes referred to as the “Sportsman Restaurant.” But I know next to nothing about either one and have seen no mention of exotic steaks, though there were a number of these restaurants around the US. Maybe your menu was for a special occasion dinner?

  24. What a great site! We linked to you from http://historiccookingschool.com

    I had googled ‘Turner in Fairfield Iowa’ and found Fairfield in the section on Jails! We didn’t know about this cafe and are intrigued. Where would I find more info? There was a Turner Hotel in Fairfield Iowa up until 1964.

    “Fairfield, Iowa, enjoyed Turner’s Jail Café where, in 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Turner invited guests to Eat (plate lunches) at the Jail!”

    May I quote you (above) with credit of your choice on the Facebook page FAIRFIELD IOWA HISTORY ?

  25. Dear Ms. Whitaker,
    Thanks you so much for taking the time for all your research! As a mother of three and also working in PR I can’t even imagine how much time you’ve spent creating this amazing site!
    One of my clients is Chumley’s, the old Speakeasy located in the West Village of NYC. Since taking on this new task of handling a restaurant discovering your site has helped me tremendously! I’ve always worked in fashion and after the third child decided only to take on clients that were local entrepreneurs that were taking on big challenges all due to their wild visions!
    So again thank you for helping me, help them!
    Melanie

  26. Collector of old cookbooks and restaurant history of Dallas. Love this blog.

  27. Hello Jan:
    Don Lessor suggested that we get in touch. I enjoyed reviewing your Blog and links. I have a vast collection of menus, cook books and ephemera related to the subject of dining (eating and gluttony included)along with a gadget collection which numbers in the many thousands. Some gadgets date back to the 1700’s. I frequently lecture using these items as fun and exciting thought provoking props. Remembering not all things are as they seem.
    I would enjoy touching base and sharing ideas. I have been published (Ala Carte A Tour Of Dining History,PBC International 1992) I have also collaborated on cookbooks at Mystic Seaport.
    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Lou Greenstein

    • Lou

      As a great grandchild of J R Thompson I would be very interested in any information or images of Thompson menus, newspaper ads or other printed material you would be willing to sell or share scanned images.We have a few newspaper ads and monthly in-house company news brochures. Any help would be most appreciated

      Regards
      Peter Pook….. peterpook@bell.net

  28. Dear Ms Whitaker, as the author of “America Eats Out” (1991), I have very much enjoyed your website and can appreciate the research you have done. As for turning it into a book, I wish I could be of more help. My own book, which at the time was the only one to chronicle American food service from the Pilgrims through the end of the 20th century, did not sell particularly well and never went to paperback–a situation in no way helped by the usual sluggish publisher, whose marketing department my friend Ellen Brown calls “The Dept. of Sales Prevention.” There have been some fast food histories, and “Fast Food Nation” sold very well indeed. But I just don’t know if there is a market for the kind of serious research you have done at a time when food history has gotten more serious but is usually confined to a single subject like “Salt.” But keep up the good work. You are a fount of info! John Mariani

  29. Ruth Elkin

    I love your site, and have copied book titles/authors from it that may help me find information I need. I’m writing because I’m having difficulty finding info about Boston restaurant and cafeteria chains from the late ‘1920s to the ’50s. The reason? I interviewed a 97-year old man (who has since died), who was a Boston restauranteur in that period. I don’t have time frames for his stories; in his late nineties, his mind couldn’t accomplish that. That makes writing his life story for his nieces quite challenging. There are four major phases of his restaurant career: He started out in the kitchen of the Copley Plaza in 1923 and has wonderful stories of what he and the other employees did, some of what they served, what their standards were for food and glassware, how they bootlegged and more. He started his own restaurant in the late ’20s (prix fixe but cheap), opened more in the ’30s (late ’20s?) until he had nine, then took over the failing Walton restaurant/cafeteria chain. I THINK this takeover was in the mid- to late-’30s, but it could have been postwar, for all I know. He mentions that he, the Waldorf chain, the Hayes-Bickford and Albiani groups met every few weeks to fix prices! The last, and I think longest-lasting phase of his career, was (adding to the restaurants) huge food-service operations for clients like Boston University. I don’t feel comfortable mentioning this fellow’s name here because of confidentiality (and the spelling changed at some point, adding to my problem) but would love to get an e-mail from you if you can point me toward any more books, articles or Web sites. Maybe you’ve even heard of him! Thanks a lot, Ruth Elkin

  30. Suzan Schaefer

    I am searching for a menu from a restaurant in the Village in NYC that existed in the 1960’s. It was on the corner of 6th Avenue and west 10th street (just across from the library). It was called something like Arte Sandwiches and had the most wonderful, inventive sandwich menu. Would love to get a hold of one. It’s not in the NYC library collection of menus. Do you know anything about it?

    Thanks. Love your site.

  31. Kevin — Not offhand, but I would suggest looking on e-Bay. Good luck. — Jan

  32. kevin

    Hi There — i am looking for images of old, b&w fotos of italians eating in a large group. The foto(s) would be for personal use. Do you have any or know where I could find them? Many thanks.

  33. HI! love this blog and happened upon it only because as a photo researcher I have come across a marvelous album belonging to the family who owned 9Owls tea room in Pembroke Mass. I have over 600 photos and many are of the people and inside of the restaurant. Your blog is facinating and as the mother of a young woman who opened her first restaurant in Mexico as a single mother and later catered Barbara Streisand and Donna Karan for a week in Cabo I am very proud to say that restaurants are “in our family” until last month when my daughters 3rd succesful restaurant was closed in Eugene Oregon due to the economy. I cannot wait to send her a link to your site. If interested in the 9 owls photos and you might like some, email me and I will send a link to you when they are posted.. all the best.. Marianne

  34. Paul Freedman

    Dear Ms. Whitaker,
    I admire what you’ve done with this fascinating site— congratulations. I’m particularly interested in restaurant menus of the mid-19th century and looking at what kind of food was featured at elegant restaurants particularly hotel restaurants. I have a post on gourmet.com on the oldest menu in the NY Public Library collection (funnily enough entitled by the web-editors “Ladies Who Lunched”) which is from the Ladies’ Ordinary at the hotel. I wonder if you know of collections or other resources that include or describe menus from the 1840s – 1860s? A private collector in Delaware, Mr. Henry Voigt, has a couple of menus from Southern hotel restaurants during the Civil War and its sobering to contrast their meager offerings with the opulence of NYC restaurants at the same time. Have you ever come across menus from such restaurants in the South from this period?

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