Category Archives: history

Eating Chinese

lynn1937KingJoy

While paging through a 1922 Massachusetts business directory I was struck at first by how many Chinese restaurants there were in various towns. But when I went back to the directory to take a closer look I realized there weren’t really so many except, perhaps, in manufacturing towns such as Fall River and Lowell.

I wondered who patronized Chinese restaurants in Massachusetts in the early 20th century – and then I remembered recently buying a diary that mentioned a place called King Joy.

After I managed to identify the family whose doings were chronicled in the diary (not easy!), I discovered a surprising and intriguing little story.

The diary, mostly written in 1935, was about three generations of a family living on the North Shore of Massachusetts. It was kept by the grandmother of the family who I will call Gertrude, age 76. Her husband Arthur was a retired dentist a few years older. They headed a socially prominent family with two homes, one in the affluent community of Hamilton and the other in the nearby resort town of Nahant.

Living with Arthur and Gertrude were their daughter Opal, age 49, and her son Jamie, age 5. Opal’s brother Perry, a 40-year old engineer, and his wife Ellen, also lived in Hamilton.

hotelvendomeThe overwhelming focus of the diary is the health of family members, who seem to be under the weather for much of 1935. There are large stretches of blank pages where nothing is recorded, but restaurants are mentioned six times, all but one of them Chinese. The exception was the time that Gertrude, Opal, and Jamie went to Boston and stayed overnight in the Hotel Vendome, a Back Bay hotel for the gentry that dated to 1871. While grandmother and grandson retired early, Opal had a late-night supper in the hotel’s Nippon Room. Gertrude, a woman of few words who loved to abbreviate, hints in the diary that the purpose of the trip was for Jamie to visit his estranged father.

WsEatChinese

Twice that year Gertrude records that someone, usually Opal and Jamie, went to King Joy in nearby Lynn MA. Another time Opal went to Lynn to bring back chow mein for her father, Arthur, who had fallen down the stairs at home. Once the family went to the Far East Restaurant in Lynn and once they went to the Canton Restaurant in Worcester, riding in Perry’s car.

OWP1904Opal’s liking for what must have been a fairly exotic cuisine to a Massachusetts native in the 1930s might be explained by her world travel as a young woman. In 1904, at age 19 [pictured], she was adopted by a wealthy retired Boston lawyer with real estate holdings. Divorced and thirty years her senior, he was a renowned animal rights advocate, free thinker, and globe-trotter. (Amazingly enough, Opal’s parents reportedly approved of the arrangement.) Shortly after the adoption, Opal and her new father set off for a visit to the World’s Fair in St. Louis followed by a trip to Brazil and winter in Egypt. It was the first of many trips she would take with him.

Opal married around 1921, at age 36, giving birth to Jamie nine years later. Her adopted father gave her his house in the Boston area as a wedding present and some time later moved to Los Angeles.

PGP1934By the time Opal’s paternalistic benefactor died in 1934 at age 77 [pictured], he had crossed the Atlantic 145 times, visited Russia 16 times, Egypt 13 times, and the Arctic 13 times. In his will he left all his money to animal protection and free-thinking societies and just $1 to Opal. She contested the will, probably without success.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Park and eat

parkingJohnson'sHummocksProvidence

People who travel to restaurants by private transportation other than their feet have often had a little problem. They must do something with their horse, carriage, or car. As basic as this situation is, it has bedeviled eating places through the ages.

Into the mid-19th century, eating places which were also overnight accommodations were legally required to take care of their patrons’ means of transport, i.e., horses. In Haverhill MA, innholders, taverners, and common victualers had to follow rules that included hanging a sign, accepting all travelers, and providing feed for horses.

As urban downtowns grew after the Civil War, fed by trolleys powered by horses, steam, and electricity, restaurants developed independently of hotels and boarding houses with no need of facilities for horses. It must have been a relief, especially as land values rose.

parkingNatGoodwinAt first the arrival of cars in the early 20th century might have seemed like a blessing, delivering patrons directly to the front doors of restaurants. But it soon turned into a curse as unprepared cities became gridlocked with traffic that included a mix of autos, streetcars on tracks, and horse-drawn wagons. Denver, for instance, scrambled to solve downtown congestion after the number of cars on its streets doubled from 1912 to 1915.

parkinggridlockLAmid1920s

A common solution — ordinances that prohibited curb parking on busy streets — caused restaurant owners to rise up in protest. Kansas City restaurateurs objected to a ban on parking before 6:30 p.m., saying it would harm their early dinner business. In Portland OR and Omaha NE restaurant owners complained they would lose their breakfast trade if morning parking was severely curtailed as proposed in those cities. The owner of an Omaha chain pointed out that downtown restaurants paid high rents and would desert the city center for less expensive areas if strict parking bans were enacted. Meanwhile, restaurants lucky enough to have parking lots advertised the fact loud and clear.

parkingFlumeTeaHouseNH1933

Restaurants and tea rooms (such as The Flume teahouse, shown here) in outlying areas with plenty of space for parking thrived. Warren’s Dining Car, located outside Worcester MA near the White City amusement park, advertised in 1927 that it had parking for 500 cars.

parkingOtt'sWith all the problems of downtown, it wasn’t long before restaurants began making good on their threats to relocate farther out, often in newer shopping areas on wider streets near residential areas. Anticipating the fast food chains of the 1960s, drive-ins chose to build on spacious lots surrounded by parking space. When Neff’s Drive-In opened in Corpus Christi TX in 1940 it boasted hickory-smoked barbecue served by “15 Beautiful Girls” on a full acre of parking space. Ott’s Drive-In in San Francisco employed four traffic police to direct parking in its 250-car lot.

But it took a high volume of business to warrant such a large parking lot. The director of a restaurant design firm in Los Angeles observed in 1961 how difficult it was to find an affordable parcel of land big enough to accommodate a restaurant and parking for customers. Economically it was unfeasible for any place not open 24 hours, he said.

With 60 million cars on American roads in 1955, valet parking – which originated in venues with distant parking lots such as racetracks and sports stadiums – became common in urban restaurants with an affluent clientele who might otherwise avoid downtown. It brought its own set of problems, though, such as complaints about police taking payoffs in return for allowing attendants to park cars illegally.

parkingthemeknightsir-loinHouseHoustonOne creative solution to the problem of a distant parking lot was demonstrated by the Sir-Loin House, a popular Houston TX steakhouse. Adopting a medieval knighthood theme, parking lot attendants dressed as Robin Hoods and guests were escorted to the restaurant by a knight on a white horse.

Although there are numerous parking garages in most urban areas today, parking still remains an issue for many restaurants and their patrons. The situation has almost certainly assisted the growth of fast food establishments with rapid turnover as well as the rise of premier restaurants in suburbs.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Thanksgiving quiz: dinner times four

TDaymenuBeefIn 1921 a café in Kalamazoo, Michigan, advertised that it would offer a selection of Thanksgiving dinners at different prices. The most expensive was 85 cents, then came a 65-cent dinner, one at 60 cents, and a 50-cent dinner. In today’s dollars, they would range in price from a high of $11.10 to a low of $6.51.

TDaymenuChicken

All dinners began with tomato soup. They featured four types of roast meat: beef, pork, turkey, and chicken, with accompanying dishes that were not fancy. Strangely the menus made no mention of dessert. Perhaps it was not included in the price of the dinner. Since selling alcoholic beverages was illegal in 1921, it’s likely that Thanksgiving diners would have had coffee.

TDaymenuPorkThe name of the restaurant was the Bon Ton. Its proprietors were the Thenos brothers, Nicholas and George, of Greek heritage. The small restaurant advertised that it was “open all hours” and had moderate prices. It employed women as servers. I have not been able to find a photograph of it, but undoubtedly it followed the typical café configuration of its time with a counter running down one side of a narrow storefront space and tables on the other side, with the kitchen at the rear.

tdaymenuTurkey3

 

Can you identify the most expensive dinner? Study the four Thanksgiving menus (which I have re-created using menu blanks) and decide which you think was the 85-cent dinner, which the 65-cent dinner, etc.

Answers in the Comments, on Thanksgiving Day.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Dining sky-side

airportO'Hare

Although a number of superior restaurants have opened in airports in the past several years, their run-of-the-mill food purveyors are often just passable. Customer comments reveal praise for certain restaurants, but opinions overall sound a negative note, rising to weak compliments such as “actually somewhat good” or “standard innocuous restaurant/hotel fare.”

In the beginning, there was no food at all. In the 1920s airports had no restaurant facilities. There were scarcely any commercial flights, facilities consisted mainly of fields and a hangar or two, and the few commercial passengers were lucky if they could get a cup of coffee.

By the mid-1930s more commercial flights were offered and airport conditions improved. The number of passengers multiplied more than 100 times between 1926 and 1935. To win greater traffic, bigger cities vied to create terminal facilities that could match those of their transportation rival, trains. Restaurants figured prominently among the amenities offered.

Most passengers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were businessmen or wealthy travelers who were unwilling to settle for bad food. Even though all air travel was essentially first-class then, passengers frequently rejected what was served on the plane and tried for something better in the terminal. Their demands, combined with the need to put airports in the black financially, brought about efforts to create first-rate airport eating places.

airportburbankskyroom (2)

The earliest image of an airport restaurant I’ve found is that of the Sky Room in Burbank CA’s Union Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport), in 1940, showing tables with white linens, goblets, and boudoir-style table lamps.

Airports were costly for cities and towns to build and run so income from concessions was needed badly. Managers expected income from non-aviation concessions at New York’s Idlewild airport to make up one third of revenues in 1949. Restaurants and coffee shops were the biggest single contributors of concession revenue in most airports.

But restaurants found it hard to operate profitably when serving only “captive customers,” particularly when their numbers were still relatively small. Beyond pleasing airline passengers, the solution for many airports was to reach out to customers living nearby. In 1947 the airport restaurant in Albuquerque NM went so far as to hire a chef who had studied with Escoffier and cooked for US presidents and royal families in Europe. His mission was to make the terminal restaurant one of the nation’s best known restaurants.

The early 1950s saw the debut of what might have been America’s premier airport restaurant, The Newarker in the Newark NJ terminal. With Joe Baum as manager and Albert Stockli as chef, it soon became famous, launching Restaurant Associates which owned many of NYC’s top dining establishments. Duncan Hines lauded The Newarker for its “flaming sword specialties, authentic East Indian curries, [and] regional Swiss specialties.”

airportCleveland1965Seattle1941

Evidently the tactic of pulling in locals worked, partly because even through the 1960s people were thrilled to see planes take off and land. Dining rooms typically overlooked the airfield. In 1953 Fort Worth’s new terminal at Amon Carter Field was touted as “a wonderful, quiet spot to have a leisurely evening meal and then sit on the observation deck and look at the bright lights of booming Dallas nineteen miles away.” Now it may seem an odd idea to go to an airport restaurant to celebrate a birthday or, even stranger, a holiday such as Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, yet these festivities did indeed take place [advertisements: Cleveland, 1965; Seattle, 1941].

airportClevelandshreiberrestaurantSome airport restaurants were operated by local restaurateurs. Among them was Marie Schreiber, who became a restaurant operator for Statler hotels after providing meals in Cleveland’s airport restaurant [pictured] as well as on-board meals for departing United Airlines flights. Food service operations of two Chicago departments stores, Marshall Field and Carson, Pirie & Scott, handled meals at O’Hare for years.

At the same time, chains that ran airport restaurants and prepared meals for service during flights developed rapidly. Some, such as Skychef restaurants, were operated by the airlines (in this case American Airlines), but existing chains such as Dobbs House and railroad caterers Fred Harvey and Interstate Hosts also migrated into airports. Dobbs House units in airports from Wichita to Miami also earned praise from Duncan Hines in 1959 for dishes such as pompano en papillote and Colorado mountain trout.

Southern airports were protest sites because of their discriminatory treatment of Black passengers. Until summer of 1961, Blacks were not served in Interstate Hosts’ main dining room or the coffee shop in New Orleans’ Moisant International airport, but only at the snack bar. After lawsuits, Black customers gained equal patronage at all airport restaurants in recognition that airports, like bus terminal facilities, were fundamental to interstate commerce.

In the 1980s theme restaurants – often flight-themed – began to locate in the vicinity of airports. But that’s a subject for a future post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Habenstein of Hartford

habrenstein's1880stradecardsIn the late 19th century having your party catered by Edward Habenstein was proof that you had arrived socially. The newspapers of Hartford CT and Springfield MA were filled with descriptions of lavish social events that carried the phrase “catered by Habenstein of Hartford.” That said it all.

Edward Habenstein was born in Saxony, Germany, around 1844 and came to the US with his parents when he was young. They settled in Utica NY where, at age 15, he joined a catering business. When he was 18 he went to New York City, moving to Hartford in 1865 and starting his business in 1868.

habenstein's1891Wesleyanpub

Although his was a retail confectionery and bakery selling its own products as well as Whitman’s candies, French candied fruits, and holiday favors, Edward and his wife Adelia specialized in weddings and large affairs given in private homes. By 1880 they also ran a restaurant but, judging from advertisements, catering remained a prominent part of their business. In Massachusetts the company was known simply as “Habenstein, the Connecticut caterer” while in Connecticut newspapers it claimed the title “The State Caterer” as reflected in an 1890 advertisement consisting solely of that line and a Main Street address in Hartford.

habenstein'sEasterEggsIn addition to providing edible refreshments and dinners, Habenstein supplied receptions and parties with “silver of the latest pattern,” decorated French china, awnings, camp chairs, cloth to cover valuable carpets, orchestras, and “first-class” cooks and waiters.

In June of 1886, a Springfield MA alderman opened his house to the city’s elites who danced, spilled out into an enclosed piazza, and enjoyed Habenstein’s refreshments “of all conceivable forms and kinds.” In summer 1895 an even splashier affair was hosted by the Skinner family who owned one of the nation’s largest silk mills in Holyoke MA. Youngest daughter Katherine entertained about 300 guests at a lawn party at their palatial home “Wistariahurst,” whose grounds were lit with clusters of Chinese paper lanterns hung from trees. The younger set danced for hours outdoors on a specially constructed platform illuminated by arc lights while Habenstein served “lunch” in the mansion’s dining room.

habenstein'sdinner

Students at Wesleyan College in Middletown CT also enjoyed Habenstein’s hospitality. In June 1890 the all-male sophomore class boarded a boat on the Connecticut River to travel to the Hartford restaurant. The boat got hung up on a sandbar and, despite its departure at 11 P.M., did not arrive until 2 A.M. Edward was a bit cross, according to an illustrated account in a student magazine, but served the Class of 1892 a delicious “midnight” supper nonetheless. I’m struck how unlike the menu is compared to what 19-year-old students might order today. They might agree with Milton’s epigram but would they quote it atop their menu?

MENU.
“What hath night to do with sleep.
Welcome joy and feast, midnight
Shout and revelry.” – Milton’s Comus.

Little Neck Clams,
Olives               Celery           Radishes
Vermicelli Soup
Salmon, with wine sauce
Currant Jelly
Brown Mashed Potatoes                           Broiled Chicken on Toast
Saratoga Potatoes                  French Peas
Roman Punch
Lobster de Newburg               Chicken Salad
Fruit                         Assorted Cakes
Ice Cream                  Neapolitan Ice
Coffee
Cigars        Cigarettes

Over its more than 50 years in business in Hartford and up and down the Connecticut River valley, Habenstein’s moved about half a dozen times. In 1902, when it was at 805 Main Street, it advertised that it was the best restaurant in Connecticut. Edward died around 1920. Adelia carried on the business for a short time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Image gallery: supper clubs

supperclubdine&dance813Supper clubs, night clubs where meals are accompanied by live music and (usually) dancing, began as private clubs rather than as businesses. Groups of people who knew each other, often socialites or theater performers, met regularly for late-night meals and entertainment, at either a single restaurant or at a succession of restaurants. The revelry might last until 2 or 3 A.M. if not later.

By the 1920s the habit had developed into a type of restaurant catering to fun seekers and open not to the select few but to the general public. Perhaps because supper clubs had once been associated in many people’s minds with capital-S Society, these restaurants enjoyed an aura of glamour.

Although a supper club is a night club that serves food, there are many variations. Some were urban, such as NYC’s well-known nightspots El Morocco, the Stork Club, and the Copacabana. But from the 1920s until the decline of supper clubs in the 1970s, many across the U.S. were located on roads outside settled areas. This is particularly true in the upper Midwest. In Wisconsin, where supper clubs have particularly flourished, they have ranged from rustic roadhouses serving barbecue to swanky resort-area clubs.

In movies of the 1930s and 1940s, supper clubs were portrayed as places where big stars and popular bands such as Glenn Miller’s played, but far more common were the sort that hosted local musicians. Still, patrons dressed up and enjoyed a night out, dining and dancing, and maybe a floor show, without spending a fortune. Many a wedding and anniversary party was held at supper clubs across the country.

Despite the low point reached in the 1980s and 1990s, supper clubs showed an ability to incorporate trends such as the Tiki-mania of the 1960s and are reportedly making a comeback, now as retro-deco revivals with gourmet food. This has not always been true. According to menu-planner Lothar Kreck the wise supper club manager of the 1970s saw to it that the menu selections – whether stuffed lobster tails or capons — were prepared in advance of the arrival of guests.

The Gallery

supperclubThePyramid

The winner of the title “Dairy Princess of Dodge County” was announced at a dairy banquet at the Pyramid Supper Club in Beaver Dam WI in June, 1973. The illustration’s proportions would appear to be a tiny bit exaggerated.

SupperClubTesch'sSC,AntigoWI

At the other end of the glamour spectrum was the very modest looking Tesch’s Supper Club in Antigo WI, one of the many mom&pop operations.

supperclubTeaneckNJ

In the 1950s and 1960s The Casa Mana in Teaneck NJ  hosted the Lions Club, United Steel Workers, and Democratic Party functions.

SupperClubSilverDomeWI

The Silver Dome Supper Club and Ballroom featured dining and dancing in two separate buildings.

SupperClubMardiGrasOaklandCA

In Oakland CA, the Mardi Gras Supper Club offered music in a raucous setting.

supperclubElMorocco

El Morocco in NYC was visited by celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and then-husband Joe DiMaggio. Did they stay long enough to get some food on their plates?

SupperClubAmato'sPortlandORAn

Most supper clubs patrons were not celebrities. In an earlier incarnation Amato’s Supper Club had been the Roseland Ballroom owned by one of Portland Oregon’s leading restaurateurs, Larry Hilaire.

SupperClubDallas

Menu of the El Tivoli, established in 1929 on a former golf course west of Dallas on the Fort Worth Pike.

SupperClubMineolaNY1933An

Tiny Tim, famous for his falsetto rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” played this Long Island supper club in 1970, a year before the Mineola NY property was put up for sale.

supperclubLotus814

The Lotus, a Chinese supper club, was one of the many that did not use supper club in their name, preferring the term Cabaret Restaurant. Chinese and Afro-American supper clubs were numerous in big cities. In his book Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C., John DeFerrari documents both. Club Bali, opened in 1943, featured Sarah Vaughn, Erroll Garner, Dinah Washington, and many other topnotch Black performers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Restaurant cups

PosterofTeaCups

While on a short visit to New York City, I stepped inside Fishs Eddy on Broadway at 19th Street to look at their vintage restaurantware. I was struck by this poster used for decoration in the store. It shows a variety of teacup models, probably from the 1920s.

Then thick, almost unbreakable, cups for coffee and tea were commonly used in popular restaurants that served masses of customers. What struck me about the poster was that some cups were named for actual restaurants. I’m guessing that these were restaurants that had requested a particular, possibly custom, design. I immediately noticed the names Child’s, the leading chain of that era; Lorber, an old Philadelphia restaurant that had been at the 1876 Centennial; and Marston, a sturdy Boston standby. On second glance I noticed Hollenden, a hotel in Cleveland.

logcabininnThe other thing that struck me was the number of designs that scarcely differ from each other. Evidently restaurants and hotel dining rooms had very precise ideas about what they wanted in a cup. The differences appear so slight, as with Sharon vs. Colonnade. I wondered, were customers who drank from the Duquesne equipped with especially big fingers?

EliteGrillcupI tried to match up the poster’s teacups with other restaurant cups – and failed. The Elite Grill and the Log Cabin Inn seem to have handles that are ever so slightly different from each other as well as the illustrated cups.

macdougallpotteryThe other bit of historical minutia that sprang to mind was how Alice Foote MacDougall, proprietor of a 1920s NYC chain of coffee/tea shops that emphasized “atmosphere,” hated the serviceable china found in everyday restaurants and soda fountains of her time. In 1928 she wrote it was “so thick that I felt I needed to build an extension on my lips to drink from it.” To protect her restaurant customers from such an unpleasant experience she imported china from Italy. She also sold it retail from showrooms at her places on West 46th and 47th streets, Firenze and The Piazzetta, respectively.

In fiction of the 1920s and 1930s writers employed thick cups as signifiers of cheap restaurants, usually encountered by a downtrodden hero or lady in distress who has fallen from a higher status. In a similar vein, thick cups took on an aura of humble, bedrock authenticity. The columnist O. O. McIntyre captured this attitude during the Depression when he wrote of midnight lunch wagons: “Here the real life versions of Wallace Beery and Jimmy Cagney eat in shirt sleeves with hats on. Coffee is – as it should be – in thick cups.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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