Category Archives: history

Famous in its day: Thompson’s Spa

thompson'sSpa782Beverages have played a big role in the operation of restaurants. I even tend to sort them mentally by what kind of drinks they featured. That is, by whether they had a bar or dealt in alcoholic beverages or were based around coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Throughout history many restaurants began as saloons, coffee houses, or soft drink stands.

Thompson’s Spa, a long-gone chain in Boston that grew to about a dozen units in the 1930s, began as a soda fountain – a “spa” — selling non-alcoholic “temperance drinks.” Open year round, it provided both cold and hot drinks such as these from its 1895 menu:Thompsons'SpaTemperanceDrinks1895In case anyone wandered in thinking they were going to get a whiskey, a sign hanging on the wall set them straight: “This is a temperance bar.” Not a big problem since they could duck around the corner and into the alley where the Bell in Hand stood, looking to all appearances like an old London tavern.

Before very long Thompson’s proprietor, Charles Eaton, added sandwiches, doughnuts, and pie to the menu, ALL of which counted as basic foodstuffs – not desserts — to Bostonians then.

thompson'sSpaNewspaperRow1929Eaton was a graduate of MIT who in 1880, after briefly practicing as an architect in his home town of Lowell MA, had invented an electric telephone signaling device that he sold to Bell Telephone. For some odd reason he chucked that career and joined his brother-in-law (named Thompson) in running a wholesale drug store in Boston. Perhaps selling was in his genes; his father had done well peddling snacks to railroad passengers, thereby earning the title “popcorn king of Lowell.” The drug business must have been slow because in 1882 Eaton and Thompson decided to install a soda fountain for non-alcoholic beverages.

The original Thompson’s Spa was located on the corner of Washington and Court streets in Newspaper Row where the city’s newspapers were located and also home to many of their employes. Near Thompson’s was Pi Alley, aka Pie Alley and officially Williams Court, where many printers, compositors, and pressmen lived in rooming houses and, undoubtedly, ate in restaurants. Eating places were accordingly plentiful in the neighborhood, among them Gridley’s Coffee House and Mrs. Atkinson’s.

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Thompson’s kept the appellation “spa” even as it gradually expanded into a regulation restaurant. It added a fuller menu plus much-appreciated amenities such as seats for customers, who had previously had to stand while they ate. Women were finally admitted in 1909. [1933 dinner menu shown]

Although Thompson’s had servers, the spa exhibited some of the earmarks of an automat. Like the early German automat which was primarily a delivery system for beverages, Thompson’s had an elaborate piping system to supply chilled liquids to serving counters. With the decision to add ice cream to the menu in 1915, a new soda fountain was installed that permitted syrups to flow through pipes as well. A bonus was that the soda clerks could prepare an entire ice cream soda or sundae while facing the customers rather than turning their backs.

Thompson'sSpa4GuardsmenBillSamArthurGiffordAfter Eaton’s death in 1917, followed by a bitter battle with his widow, his three sons took over the business and began to expand it beyond the sprawling Washington street edifice it had become. By 1939 it occupied eleven locations in downtown Boston. In addition to soda fountains the Spas had air conditioning, sound proofing, table service, and wall murals. But the company’s finances were not in good shape, due partly to overexpansion during the Depression. In 1946 it was acquired by the Sheraton (hotel) Corporation which daringly installed a cocktail bar at the Washington Street location. In 1949 Sheraton sold the company to New York’s Exchange Buffet Corporation which also failed to make a go of it and began closing units in 1952.

In 1958 the two Spas that remained, one of them on Washington street near the original location, were closed. Former executives and employees tried to carry on at one location for a few years.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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The browning of McDonald’s

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It is always gratifying to find a piece of ephemera that marks a transition. The postcard above is blank on the back, probably to allow McDonald’s franchises to imprint it with their locations as they completed the changeover from the old building style to the new in the 1970s.

The old-style McDonald’s was based on the original design of California architect Stanley Meston who had once worked for Wayne McAllister, noted designer of modernistic 1930s drive-ins. The design was made for the McDonald brothers who in the 1950s had begun to franchise their California drive-in.

When Ray Kroc obtained a franchise from the brothers and spread McDonald’s outside the West and across the nation, he made modifications to Meston’s design, simplifying the arches and adding a glass-enclosed vestibule to the front as shown on the postcard at the top.

picks299The original Meston design was of an exuberant style known as “Googie” that featured eye-catching elements such as swooping roofs, extensive plate glass, neon, and the use of shiny industrial building materials (but sometimes also lava stone as shown in Pick’s). I recommend the books Googie and Googie Redux by Alan Hess, which I have drawn upon for this post, along with Orange Roofs, Golden Arches by Philip Langdon.

McDonald's1998Collectors'ClubIn the 1960s Kroc’s McDonald’s (he had bought out the McDonald brothers in 1961) began to run up against resistance from local zoning boards that wanted something more restrained than the “franchise schlock” look of the golden arches model. In 1968 the corporation went to work on a new design for a brick-faced building with a dark mansard-style roof and indoor seating. “We have taken off the gaudy materials and eliminated the circusy atmosphere,” said a McDonald’s executive in charge of design. The arches, on their way to become an ever-smaller letter M logo, were relegated to the sign. The first mansardized McDonald’s opened in the Chicago suburb of Matteson in 1969.

The little red, white, and yellow stands began to disappear. In 1972 most – about 75% — had been remodeled or replaced, leaving only about 250. By 1980, fewer than 50 remained, out of a total of 5,082 McDonald’s in the U.S. Preservationists in Oregon and Virginia tried to have old-style McDonald’s placed on historic preservation lists on the grounds they were symbols of America; they were turned down. By 1990 only five remained. A McDonald’s in Downey CA which opened in 1953 has been preserved, and this is probably the only example of the original design remaining other than the corporation’s recreation of Kroc’s first unit in Des Plaines IL.

mcdonald'sAberdeenNJca.1983The cultural climate that brought McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants into contention with critics who sought to keep Googie buildings out of their towns and neighborhoods was in stark contrast to the optimistic futurism exhibited at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Philip Langdon has used the term “the browning of America” for the turn away from buildings that were shiny, colorful, and blatantly commercial to ones that were low-slung, dark, and of natural looking materials. He suggested this shift signified a downcast attitude toward America. “The demand for a less garish roadside strip, when combined with other currents in the culture – a growing awareness of the nation’s faults and a fading away of the once-euphoric attitude toward futuristic technology – fostered a more subdued esthetic,” he wrote.

But another interpretation begs to explain the change as a progressive corrective to the post-WWII abandonment of nature, as evidenced in commercial roadside strips, napalm warfare, chem-lab convenience foods, and the widespread despoliation of the environment.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Eating, dining, and snacking at the fair

1964World'sFairChunKingphoto

Fifty years ago the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was underway, with thousands going through the turnstiles. Sooner or later they had to eat. Some brought a picnic but others patronized the roughly 110 restaurants in operation the first season, up to nearly 200 in 1965.

The Fair was not officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions nor supported by governments (for the most part); it was a commercial enterprise filled with corporate pavilions such as Johnson’s Wax, General Motors, and Travelers Insurance. Most of the restaurants were run by private entrepreneurs who were not necessarily from the country represented by the pavilion. Restaurant Associates, which operated Mamma Leone’s, The Four Seasons, and others in NYC, ran the restaurant in the Indonesian Pavilion and five others. New York’s Sun Luck chain ran the Cathay Chinese Restaurant in the Hong Kong Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairBrassRailsnackbarBiggest of all, the Brass Rail operated six moderate-priced restaurants, each offering a single complete meal for $3. In the International Plaza they ran both a cold Danish buffet and the Garden restaurant offering Southern fried chicken dinners. The company, a subsidiary of Interstate Vending Co. in Chicago, also had 25 freestanding snack bars with balloon-shaped roofs that looked as though they could lift off and float away.

Most of the eating places at the Fair supplied casual food and snacks, whether strawberry and whipped cream filled Bel-gem waffles (the hit of the Fair), Wienerwald hot dogs, or Chicken Delight(s). Providing plentiful fast food was based on the belief that non-New Yorker Americans would accept nothing else. Keep in mind too that it was the mid-1960s before the culinary revolution came along with its hopes of replacing industrially produced convenience food.

There was also no shortage of exotic cocktails served at tiki bars and lounges, and American and imported beers flowing in beer gardens. During groundbreaking for the Schaefer Brewing Company Center, which contained Schaefer’s Restaurant of Tomorrow and a beer garden, Fair president Robert Moses advanced a surprising perspective on the Fair’s theme, Peace through Understanding, by declaring that beer was probably “the thing that holds the world together.”

International edibles ranged from the passably authentic to the thoroughly Americanized. Yet however tame the Fair’s version of world cuisine often was, those fairgoers daring enough to go beyond burgers and dogs found a wide selection of food unknown to most Americans then. Among the many unfamiliar dishes were smoked reindeer at the Swedish Pavilion, spicy Korean spareribs, and stewed meat with peanuts and couscous at the Tree House restaurant in the African Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairChunKingRepresenting American-style Chinese food was the Chun King Inn, whose mission was not so much to run a profitable restaurant as to familarize people with Chun King products sold in supermarkets. It won over the public — who often complained about high restaurant prices at the Fair — by serving full meals consisting of seven items for only 99 cents. The Inn also featured a double-patty Hong Kong Burger with cheese, lettuce, special sauce – and bean sprouts for an Asian touch. Many restaurants did poorly at the Fair, but Chun King’s president reported that the Inn served 5 million customers the first year.

Probably the most successful restaurants were those directed by veterans of earlier Fairs, particularly Seattle’s in 1962 and New York’s in 1939. Repeaters from 1939 included the operator of the Century Grill who had run the Aviation Grill in 1939 and Schaefer Brewing Co.  Seattle businessmen subleased a restaurant in the Fine Arts Pavilion named the Bargreen Buffet to Roy Peterson, proprietor of Seattle restaurants including the Norselander. Another restaurateur from Seattle, William Moultray, did so well with his Polynesian restaurant in 1964 that Fair officials asked him to set up a restaurant complex in another pavilion.

1965World'sFairBelgianVillage

The Belgian Village [shown above in part] consisted of 100 buildings and 20 eating places, some of them outdoor cafes, but was not completed until the end of 1964. A similar village with some of the same buildings had been at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933.

Although critics were disappointed that there was nothing to equal Henri Soulé’s 1939 French restaurant (origin of NYC’s Le Pavillon), everyone agreed that the restaurants in the Spanish Pavilion came closest. Unlike most, it was officially supported by Spain’s government, headed at that time by dictator Francisco Franco. Two restaurants in the pavilion, the moderately priced Granada and the expensive Toledo, were under the management of Madrid’s Jockey Club which imported its chef and 40 of his assistants. So popular was the pavilion’s outdoor seafood bar, the Marisqueria, that it was enlarged in 1965. It was under the direction of Alberto Heras who opened a Spanish Pavilion restaurant on Park Avenue in NYC in 1966.

1964World'sFairFiveVolcanoesRestHeras was one of several restaurateurs who tried to extend their success beyond the Fair. The Spanish Pavilion building was removed to St. Louis by then-mayor Alfonso Cervantes, where it housed three restaurants that met a rapid demise. The maestro of Wienerwald, Friedrich Jahn, extended the Europe-based chain into this country. It had grown to 880 units by the early 1980s when it failed. The Petersons of the Bargreen Buffet took over management of New York’s venerable Janssen’s restaurant. The Wisconsin Pavilion’s Tad’s Steaks, with its popular $1.19 sirloin steak dinners, became a fixture with bargain-meal hunters in NYC.

Although the Fair fell short of meeting its attendance goal of 70 million, drawing only 52 million fairgoers, it’s likely that millions of them carried away lasting food memories.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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A Valentine with soul (food)

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As we drove by this place in Colorado Springs last month I realized I was looking at a vintage Valentine diner, a prefabricated building type made in Wichita, Kansas. Later I went back and took the photo of it shown here.

One thing about diners, they have so many fans that they have been well documented. On the Valentine diner website, I learned that this was a Little Chef model produced in the late 1950s. This particular Little Chef has had many owners and proprietors since its debut in Colorado Springs.

ValentinelittleChef

In my postcard collection I have another Valentine diner, Paul’s Café in Smith Center KS, operated in the 1950s by Paul Manchester and his wife Gleam. The section on the left appears to be Valentine’s late 1940s-early 1950s Economy Sandwich Shop model which contained a counter with only eight stools. It was evidently expanded with a dining room section, shifting the entrance to the red door in the middle. The awnings probably were not original to the design.

ValentinePaul'sCafe

Subsequently Paul’s Cafe was remodeled in buff brick, losing its smooth, slick metal factory-built look but perhaps becoming more functional.  A similar fate has befallen many a diner.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Down and out in St. Louis

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Restaurants for those short of money are not always hospitable places like those I wrote about in my last post about community restaurants that feed the poor. The photo above looks unfriendly to me. Diners like it are often viewed through a haze of nostalgia that softens the edges – but that’s not how I see it.

I know this place though I’ve never been there, probably never even seen it before. I used to wait for a bus on a desolate corner in St. Louis, the city where I bought this photograph at a yard sale for 5¢. There sat a diner much like this one. My feet and hands might turn to ice from the cold winter wind on that corner but it never would have occurred to me to go inside to warm up. That’s how uninviting it was.

STLBrains25cWmStageIt had no parking lot. Probably, like me then, its patrons didn’t have cars. Assuming there were any patrons, that is. I don’t remember any. The location was a no-man’s land where nobody lived or spent any more time than they had to. Down the street was a place selling Brains, 25¢. A photo of it by William Stage has achieved a measure of fame. As an image I like it, but as a place to eat or hang out, no.

The photograph of the snack shop exudes a Not Welcome feeling. Mean-spirited signs warn “No loitering,” “No shoes, no shirt, no service, ” and “Relish, 10¢ extra.” Did people try to make a free meal out of relish?

All the menu cards posted on the walls are homemade by someone who lacked both lettering skill and a good, dark marking pen. There are other signs of neglect and failure. Stale looking pies, poorly wrapped. Jumbled electrical cords behind the milkshake machine. A sales tax cheat sheet taped on the cash register. A kitchen passthrough no longer in use. Because they fired the cook?

I’m guessing that the photograph dates from the late 1970s. The prices are not especially low for then . . . considering how unwonderful the fare must have been. Three Pieces Chicken, French Fries, Cole Slaw, 2.99. Baconburger, 1.95. As though they couldn’t decide the most basic pricing dilemma: 99¢ or 95¢.

I haven’t been able to learn much about the D&W Snack Shop whose name I guessed despite the Pepsi clock that awkwardly hides part of it. It was a Missouri chain incorporated in the mid-1950s.

I found a nice night scene photo of the exterior of a D&W in South St. Louis on Cherokee and California (in a fascinating blog on bricks). It could even be the same place.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Serving the poor

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Recently, in Colorado Springs, I ate lunch at Seeds, a “community restaurant” devoted to making meals affordable to all. Guests are invited to pay what they can and, if that is nothing, to volunteer for an hour. A few days later, I saw another similar enterprise, Café 180, located on Denver’s outdoor 16th Street Mall.

It might seem like a new phenomenon but it’s more of an old idea with a new twist. Sellers of cooked food ranging from vendors with a cart all the way up to deluxe restaurants have long given away food to the needy.

In 1820 a French restaurateur in the City of Washington (D.C.) informed the public that he would sell the beef left over after being boiled for his special bouillon, while “to persons unable to pay it will be given gratis.”

John W. Farmer, a wealthy plumber, opened a Free Dining Saloon in New York City during the financial panic of 1857. After the first six months he announced he had served nearly 231,000 meals composed of dishes such as soup, corned beef, pork, ham, fish, bread, potatoes, cabbage, and turnips. Though hailed by the poor, especially the Irish, the New York Tribune rebuked him for failing to distinguish the deserving poor from the drunks, reprobates, and other “vile” persons “who prefer the bread of idleness to that of industry.” He carried on for several years, then opened the Farmer Institute, a reading room and lecture hall where speakers promoted an economy based on cooperation. A Cooperative Building Association that was formed as a result was quite successful.

Many free and low-price dining rooms as well as restaurant breadlines have sprung up during panics and depressions (of which there have also been many). Some have been motivated by religion or a social cause. In the 1870s a bad economy combined with the temperance movement helped make Holly Tree Coffee Inns successful. They were designed by Christian groups as alternatives to saloons, pitting “Queen Mocha against King Alcohol.” In addition to serving coffee, the self-supporting coffee houses provided low-priced food for working-class men in Hartford, Chicago, New York City, Washington, Boston, and many smaller New England towns. Quaker Joshua L. Bailey created similar coffee houses in Philadelphia.

The severe depression of the 1870s inspired others to open cheap restaurants. Some had meals for 10 cents, some for 5 cents, and some sold dishes for as low as 1 cent apiece. In New York a restaurant proprietor described only as an “old lady” was popular with newsboys for bargains like “Plate of soup one cent” and “All kinds of meat one cent.” Despite her rock-bottom prices she claimed to make a good profit.

CharityFleischman'sbreadline1913

Louis Fleischmann earned a fine reputation for the breadline he started at his New York Vienna Bakery restaurant during the Depression of the 1890s. He kept it going until his death in 1904, whereupon his son continued it for several years [shown above]. Another New Yorker, the Bowery’s Mike Lyon was also well known for his beneficence. Every morning at 5:00 a.m. he handed out food left from the night before to hundreds of women and children who gathered at his back door.

Physical fitness advocate Bernarr Macfadden also fed New York’s poor, thereby introducing what he claimed was the city’s first vegetarian restaurant in 1902. He recreated a similar penny cafeteria in 1931, selling soup, codfish, beans, prunes, bread, and other dishes for 1 cent each. He charged more for coffee because he didn’t think it was a “vital” food. Similar restaurants could be found then in Detroit and Springfield MA and probably many other cities. Max Rosoff invited the poor to eat for free in his NY Times Square restaurant after 10 pm., while Harry Rapoport, operator of a Jewish dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side was called the “Mayor of Second Avenue” in recognition of his culinary charity, especially after feeding 300 capmakers during a 7-week strike during the 1930s Depression.

charityclifton's30centmealEqually impressive were the efforts of Clifford Clinton who not only ran a penny restaurant for about six months during the Depression but also made low-priced or nearly free meals a standard in his Los Angeles Clifton’s cafeterias. [30-cent meal shown, 1940s] Patrons were instructed they could pay what they wanted. He was patronized largely by the elderly who appreciated getting “A Tra-ful for a Tri-ful” at his odd but cheerfully upbeat cafeterias. Hot cereals ran about 8 cents while an egg was 9 cents. In 1954 he served a whopping 20,000 meals each day in his two cafeterias. During World War II he created a “Meals for Millions” foundation that funded scientists to develop an inexpensive soy-based meal distributed by wartime relief agencies to refugees throughout the world.

BTW, the lunch at Seeds was good as was the service. It’s a popular spot.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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For the record

SamWoRestaurantRecently I read an amusing story about “Edsel Ford Fong,” a legendary waiter at Sam Wo (aka Sam Woh), a former restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, who yelled at guests, ordered them around, and often refused their requests. For this outrageous behavior he earned lasting fame and is still remembered fondly long after his premature death in 1984.

As is usually true of  legends there are a few errors. In this case they encourage a somewhat distorted view of Americans of Chinese descent.

His name was not Edsel Ford Fong. It was Edsel Fung. His army, marriage, and divorce records give his middle initial as Y. The insertion of “Ford” – reproducing the name of Henry Ford’s son — must have been either an irresistible bit of showmanship on his part or someone else’s joke. How Fung became Fong I’m not sure.

According to R. B. Read’s The San Francisco Underground Gourmet, published in 1969, Edsel was commonly known as Eddie in the 1960s, his name not yet ossified into Edsel Ford Fong. Read wrote that the restaurant’s dining room on the second floor “is the province of Eddie, the archetypal Chinese waiter, so famous for his rudeness that he cultivates it. For Eddie, every Caucasian diner is a challenge and he moves in, barking, before you’ve sat down. If you don’t order within two minutes, you get a relentless verbal prodding which reduces many customers to the jellied state Eddie prefers, where they allow him to order for them. He shouts all orders down a dumbwaiter in a voice of heroic size. If Eddie doesn’t like you (he doesn’t like anybody, at least until the fifth visit), you have to ask for tea while awaiting your food.”

As the photograph shown above reveals, the restaurant was quite small despite its three stories. It readily comes to mind that Eddie’s performance tended to speed up diner turnover in this tourist-attraction spot which often had guests waiting to be seated.

Although it’s true that Edsel was a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, he was not a “Chinese waiter” as he is often described. His parents were born in China but he and most of his siblings were born in California. He served in the U.S. Army in World War II.

Often the legends quote his quips and remarks in broken English. Given that he was an American I have no doubt he spoke English like the native he was, not like a 1930s Hollywood character. He was no Charlie Chan, but he may have used broken English as part of his act. He was an actor. In fact, he had a role in the 1981 Chuck Norris movie An Eye for an Eye. It’s quite possible he was one of the legion of Californians who wait tables while trying to make it as an actor.

He may not have gone far in Hollywood but he was a smash hit at Sam Wo’s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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The ups and downs of Frank Flower

frank's15HarrisonEveryone knows that being a restaurant proprietor is chancy. This is amply illustrated in the life of Frank Flower, born in England in 1854, and working as a Boston waiter in 1878. He staked his career as a restaurateur on Harrison Avenue in Boston where he ran a restaurant from about 1880 to 1895, moving twice.

The reason for his failure in 1895 is unknown, but it may have had something to do with shifts in the neighborhood beginning just as he opened at 13-15 Harrison in 1880. That was the year that the first property lease was made to a Chinese person in Boston, on Oxford Place, very near to Frank’s restaurant. Frank had catered to patrons whose tastes ran to fish balls and baked beans. But, little by little by the 1890s Harrison would become a business street in Boston’s Chinatown. Boston’s first Chinese restaurant would open at 36½ Harrison in 1890.

In 1882 Frank advertised that he sold a week’s worth of meal tickets to men ($3) and women ($2.50). He also had rooms for rent, both “box rooms” and “side rooms.” I remember some years ago when I read about single working people who rented small kitchenless rooms in Boston’s South End in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While visiting a friend’s apartment in that area one day, I suddenly realized that her cramped and oddly-shaped three-room apartment was in fact made up of one box room and two side rooms.

frank's21Harrison770By 1884 Frank was doing well enough to buy a nearly new 11-room Queen Anne house in Dorchester. He moved his restaurant to 19-21 Harrison about then. That location soon became problematical when the block was sold off to a developer who planned to raze the buildings and construct a large office building.

That same year, 1890, Frank won the contract to feed 10,000 Civil War veterans coming to Boston for a week-long reunion. In other words, he would need to furnish about 210,000 meals in the space of a week, rather than his usual not-too-shabby 10,500.

Though he claimed he nearly went crazy making all the arrangements, Frank felt confident he could handle the job by feeding 2,000 diners in five shifts for each meal. He contracted with a local baker for bread and the all-important baked beans; bought 3,000 new plates; had all the meat delivered to his door in a refrigerated car by Armour Co. of Chicago; bought four immense boilers that would steam 2,400 eggs at a time; hired 100 waiters; found a professional coffee maker who would turn 9,000 pounds of beans into endless streams of hot coffee; and paid 35 scullions to clean up. When the encampment was over the G.A.R. executive committee commended him on how well he had fed the multitude.

Frank'stradecardmenuEvidently the veterans were pleased with what they were served. Nonetheless, Frank’s menu, repeated each day, gives a fair idea of why Boston restaurants of that time were not known for their fine cuisine.
Breakfast: cold meats, baked beans and brown bread, boiled eggs
Dinner: cold meats, baked beans and brown bread, boiled potatoes
Supper: cold meats and doughnuts

Frank’s Dining Room moved to 79 Harrison in the early 1890s, just about the same time that his original location became a Chinese store. But soon he hit the wall, declaring in 1894 that he was unable to pay his bills. His Dorchester mansion went back on the auction block.

Following his fall, he continued in the restaurant business as manager of Munro’s restaurant on Eliot Street. Always fond of boastful advertising, the irrepressible Frank took out newspaper ads claiming “1000 boarders needed” and “dinner, 20c, the finest on earth.”

In the decades after Frank left Harrison Avenue, Chinese restaurants such as the Chinese Royal and The Red Dragon took over several of his locations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Famous in its day, now infamous: Coon Chicken Inn

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The long-gone Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain claimed in its advertising that it was “nationally famous.” I believe that was a bit of an exaggeration – then – but it might be true now. Its present-day fame, more accurately its notoriety, is based on its objectionable name and use of a grotesque racist image on buildings, delivery trucks, china, glassware, and printed advertising pieces.

To whatever degree it was nationally famous it can only have been for its racist depictions. Certainly it could not have achieved fame for its food. The menu of the Coon Chicken Inn reveals selections only a few degrees more ambitious than the drive-ins of the 1930s. Other than chicken dinners, the menu included chili, burgers, and ice cream desserts.

coonchickeninnphoto1947

Nonetheless, in its time it was a popular chain of four roadhouse restaurants with one each in Salt Lake City (est. 1925), Seattle WA (est. 1929), Portland OR (est. 1930), and Spokane WA. According to one account there were also Coon Chicken Inns in Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco but I’ve been unable to find any trace of them.

In 1930 Seattle’s NAACP protested against the restaurant’s racist imagery. Under threat of prosecution the chain’s owners, Maxon Lester Graham and Adelaide Graham, repainted the grotesque black faces on their restaurants’ entryways blue. They also obliterated the words “Coon Chicken Inn” painted on the figures’ teeth.

coonchickeninnSLCDec291926Having avoided prosecution they changed nothing else, keeping the chain’s name and logo, all of which seemed not to bother the restaurants’ white patrons at all. I would guess most people gave little thought to the large grinning heads, having already accepted the caricatures as merely another instance of the widespread “comical” portrayal of black Americans. They probably also saw them as just another example of an eye-catching building feature employed by roadside restaurants to attract motorists’ attention. Few white people perceived the restaurants as racist.

The Coon Chicken Inns regularly hosted meetings of clubs, civic organizations, and sororities ranging from a Democratic Club to the Junior Hadassah. They were the sites of wedding, anniversary, and birthday parties. In 1942 they were listed in Best Places to Eat, a nationwide guidebook published by the Illinois Auto Club. I can’t help but think that the restaurant in Portland was a peculiarly appropriate location for an Eastern Star group that chose it for their “Poor Taste” party in 1937.

mammy'scupboardLike the word “mammy” and its stereotyped image, “coon chicken” was supposed to communicate that the restaurant specialized in Southern cuisine, in this case fried chicken. Mammy names and images were widely used by restaurants in the early and middle 20th century. The crudely constructed Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez MS was another example of roadside “building as sign.” There was a Mammy’s Shanty in Atlanta, Mammy’s Cafeterias in San Antonio TX, and others in the South. Nor was the East without its Mammys: in Atlantic City was Mammy’s Donut Waffle Shop while Brooklyn had Mammy’s Pantry.

Several good articles have been published analyzing the Coon Chicken Inn’s everyday racism and the white public’s blithe tolerance of it. I recommend Catherine Roth’s essay for the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. Because of the volume and quality of what’s been written I hesitated at first to publish this post. I also hate the thought of increasing the desirability of Coon Chicken Inn advertising artifacts. Although there are good reasons to preserve historic racist ephemera, the extreme popularity of these images is disturbing. So great is the demand for them that the marketplace is flooded with fakes, including newly dreamed-up objects that were never used by the chain. Black faces have made a comeback along with “Coon Chicken Inn” on the teeth.

The Portland and Seattle branches of the Coon Chicken Inn closed in 1949 but the Salt Lake City unit remained in business until 1957.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Nothing but the best, 19th cen.

wanamakerRestaurantTCRestaurant advertising in newspapers of the 19th century tended to be very wordy, often using conventional phrasing such as “best the market provides” and “available on the shortest notice.” Once in a while a stereotyped line drawing of oysters would appear in an advertisement but usually they were all text. (This post is illustrated with business cards of the kind that came into use in the 1870s and 1880s.)

What follow are examples of advertisements that depart from convention and give a glimpse of the sometimes humorous claims and boasts of their times.

Epicurean Wit, 1803
“In choosing an appellation for his Hotel, he has endeavored to attract the notice of gentlemen of elegant leisure, or of delicate health; and he trusts he shall, in pursuance of his Motto [“Tam Epicuro, Quam Momo”] be enabled to combine in his social retreat, all the invitations which the politest palate may require, with all the wit-inspiring ingredients of intellectual festivity.”
– Othello Pollard’s Hotel, Cambridge MA

Indulge Yourself, 1815
“Persons inclined to indulge in the height of European luxury may be accommodated to their wishes. Chicken, Eel, and Game Pies; Puff Pastry, in variety; sweet and savory Jellies; plain and ornamented Omelettes; Creams; Blancmanges; almond, caramel, and gum Paste Ornaments; Italian Sallads; potted and collard Meats; Fish Sauces; cold ornamented Hams, Tongues, Fowls, and savory Cakes.”
– Mrs. Poppleton, Restaurateur, Pastry Cook, and Confectioner, NYC

habensteinHartfordNo Ruffians, 1820
“John Sherlock … respectfully acquaints epicures and connoisseurs that he is constantly receiving a fresh supply of that palatable, salutary and invigorating diet – Oysters, at his residence Washington Street opposite the Union Tavern … where he hopes to receive the resident citizens of this part of the District, or strangers; assuring them, that not only the quality of the Oysters will be attended to, but the cleanliness and neatness of the entertainment – no unpleasant company being admitted to his house.”
– Sherlock’s Oyster House, District of Columbia

Best of Both Worlds, 1822
“Being an entire stranger in Boston, though well known to individuals to whom he can refer, he may have occasion for some indulgence and allowances in little matters, until he can become perfectly acquainted with the local and prevailing taste – But no pains will be spared to gratify all – and to reconcile the fantaisies de Paris with the Boston notions . . .”
– Bertrand LaTouche’s Restaurateur, Boston

Rudolph'sTCNew Murals, 1843
“While his palate is being tickled with a nice piece of delicious salmon, [the diner] may jump off Passaic Falls with Sam Patch, and while his eye gloats upon the juicy quarter of a savory canvas back, he may indulge in a promenade through Broadway, and as he discusses the merits of a cup of coffee, he may stand like Asmodeus upon the summit of the highest shot tower of the Monumental city. It is really a rich arrangement and worth double the price of a dinner to take a peep at it.”
– Ford’s Restaurant, Boston

As Good as Any, 1847
“His motto is ‘Let Brooklyn take care of itself!’ Why go to New York to dine? His table is every day furnished with the same delicacies of equal quality to any in New York, no matter how high the standing of the establishment.”
– Bell’s Refreshment Saloon, Brooklyn

Nick Nacks, 1850
“All the Nick Nacks of the Season, Green Turtle Soup Three Times a Week, Callapee and Calapash, West India fashion.”
– Pic Nic Saloon at the Bowery Reading Room, NYC

Best People, 1852
“Here meet daily the wits, fast men, and bloods of the town, to whose enjoyment it is his pleasure to cater. A Free Lunch is served daily, and every evening may be obtained a Supper, for which is expressly prepared all the delicacies of the season.”
– Charley Abel’s, NYC

henry'sOysterParlorSFA Treat, 1856
“The Dinner at Winn’s, oh my! Another of the Same Sort before I die! Husbands take their Wives, Lovers their Sweethearts, and Old Bachelors themselves, to Winn’s for a Good Breakfast, Dinner or Supper.”
– Winn’s Fountain Head, San Francisco

“Pro-Bono Publico,” 1861
When Fainting with Hunger, how pleasant to meet
With a friend who’ll provide us with something to eat;
Refreshed, with new zeal we life’s journey pursue,
As thousands attest who their meals take of – TRUE.
– Lewis P. True’s Montgomery Dining Saloon, Boston

No Horsemeat, 1869
“One of the most Central, clean and best kept establishments of this sort in the State of Michigan, is the ‘Metropolitan,’ under the First National Bank. It has two heads, (which are better than one, we don’t say which,) and they belong to the brothers HODGE. Bon vivants, get an appetite and give Hodge Brothers a chance to get you up a lunch. They won’t ask you to ‘eat a horse.’ You bet.”
– Metropolitan Restaurant, Bay City, Michigan

1870temperancelunchUnusual Fare, 1869
This café has now become one of the popular institutions of the city. A new Turkish drink, called ‘Salepp,’ will be sold. This is a novelty in this country, and is made from a root grown in Asia Minor. It both healthful and pleasant to the taste. The only pure Mocha coffee in the city is sold here.”
– The Turkish Restaurant, Chicago

Natural Attractions, 1871
“Among the many attractions in Liberty is a natural one in the way of a pair of large Gold Fish, which attracts the attention of many, to look at them. All are invited to step in and look at them. The Subscriber has converted his Ice Cream Saloon into a first class Restaurant and Oyster Room where he will serve up Oysters in many ways, and guarantees satisfaction in every thing sold by him.”
– Pierson’s Restaurant, Liberty, Missouri

Clean and Neat, 1872
“It would take a microscope inspection to discover a spot on any of his immaculate linen. All about the little house, from the quaint French pictures, to the bright and burnished cooking range, is as neat as a pin. All Peter wants is a trial. His motto is Excelsior! And all other caterers must look to their laurels, or he will be perforce the ‘king of the roost.’”
– Peter Loiselles, Galveston, Texas

1883brooksdiningroomDon’t Sneer, 1873
“Hi You Muck-A-Muck And Here’s Your Bill of Fare: Three Kinds of Meat for Dinner; Also for Breakfast and Supper. Ham and Eggs every day, and Fresh Fish, Hot Rolls and Cake in abundance. Plenty of Tea and Coffee every day for Dinner and Hiyou Sike’s Ale on Sunday. Hurry up, and none of your sneering at Cheap Boarding Houses. Now’s the time to get the wrinkles taken our of your bellies, after the hard winter.”
– Thompson’s Two-Bit House, Portland, Oregon

Boston’s Taste, 1884
“After fifteen years of laborious study, Mr. Louis P. Ober believes he has found the pulse of the public taste of Boston. He responds to the long-felt want of a salon where gentlemen will feel at home.”
– Ober’s Restaurant Parisien, Boston

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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