Category Archives: history

Tea at the Mary Louise

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In 1914 the J. W. Robinson department store arrived on West Seventh and Grand, launching a shift in Los Angeles’ shopping district from Broadway. The following year the Brack Shops began leasing specialty shops in an empty loft building nearby. Construction activity boomed as Seventh Street turned into a shopping mecca.

Will and Dolla Harris staked the future of the Mary Louise Tea Room on the prosperity of West Seventh. In 1918 they opened their first tea room on the 12th floor of the Brack Shops. With wide hallways allowing shops to open their doors and let goods spill outside, it resembled a modern-day shopping mall. Shoppers could easily spend the day having their hair done, browsing the latest styles, or enjoying lunch, tea, or a Thursday night chicken dinner at the Mary Louise.

MaryLouiseBarkerBros790Through the 1920s the Mary Louise expanded, opening additional tea rooms on West Seventh — on the mezzanine of the fashionable New York Cloak & Suit House, and on the top floor of the gigantic Barker Brothers home furnishings store [shown here]. In 1922 construction began on what would be the largest of the Mary Louise tea rooms [shown below], a two-story building across from Westlake Park (renamed MacArthur Park in 1942). It opened in 1923 and was soon followed by a Mary Louise in Fullerton, next door to the new Alician Court movie theater owned by Dolla’s brother Charles S. Chapman. The last Mary Louise, whose servers were young Asian-American women dressed in Chinese costumes, opened in 1931 on North Cahuenga in Hollywood.

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Shortly after its debut, the park-side Mary Louise advertised it was “the Center of the City’s Social Life.” Wedding parties and meetings of professional groups were booked regularly. Elaborately decorated on a lavish budget equal to more than half the cost of construction, the capacious building held a large entry hall [shown below] and dining room [shown at top] on the first floor plus an afternoon tea room, a banquet hall, and four smaller dining rooms for private parties on the second. In sync with the fashion of the day, the rooms had themes such as Mah Jong and Italian tea garden.

MaryLouiselobby789As can be seen on postcards from the Mary Louises in Barker Brothers and opposite Westlake Park, the tea rooms were decorated in glamourous movie-set style markedly different than minimalist Eastern tea rooms. Gilded pieces, Oriental rugs, wall tapestries, heavy draperies, and paired ornamental trees abounded.

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The Mary Louise mini-empire was dealt a severe blow just a few months after the Hollywood location opened when Will Harris died suddenly. Three of the tea rooms, including the main one opposite Westlake Park, were quickly sold to the Elite Catering Company owned by the expanding Pig’n Whistle chain. When I acquired the business card shown here opened up, it had Xs penciled over all but the section reading “2 Smart Downtown Tea Rooms,” evidently reflecting the changeover.

Dolla Harris continued to operate the two downtown tea rooms: in Barker Brothers and in the Security Bank Building opposite the Robinson’s store. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, she was forced to reduce prices for lunch and to attract customers with palmists and numerologists. How long she stayed in business is uncertain but I’ve found evidence that there was still a Mary Louise tea room in Barker Brothers in 1952.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Restaurant-ing as a civil right

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Fifty years ago this summer President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title 2 of the Act discrimination by race, color, religion, or national origin was forbidden in eating places as well as hotels, motels, theaters, and stadiums.

Similar laws had been enacted by 18 northern states in the 1880s in response to the creation of “Jim Crow” laws in 20 southern states that had institutionalized segregation; however they were ineffective and rarely enforced. Racial segregation in eating places, affecting not just Blacks, but also Asian- and Mexican-Americans, was the norm in many restaurants throughout the country. Outside the South, Black diners typically were discouraged from patronizing white restaurants by hostile receptions, bad tables, and poor – or no — service.

Although President Johnson said he expected it, many people were surprised that the Civil Rights Act met with such a high degree of acceptance. American society as a whole had become convinced that unequal treatment was in conflict with the principles of democracy and that integration was inevitable. One year after passage of the Civil Rights Act an official at the Justice Department said compliance had exceeded expectations and was a “major national accomplishment.” By the early 1970s desegregation of restaurants and hotels was so uncontroversial that the question was dropped from public polls.

But change is not magical. Enforcement was required. From the start there were persistent violators who attempted to skirt the law by creating fake private clubs or by subjecting Black customers to higher prices, delayed service, and other indignities. While congratulating the nation, the Justice Department also vowed that violators would be prosecuted.

Because private clubs were exempt from the law a number of restaurants tried this route of avoidance. Some became legitimate private clubs but many were clubs in name only.

civilrightsprivateclubcrawfordsvilleThe sham restaurants-turned-clubs were identified by things such as failing to charge dues or having no membership criteria other than race. In the case of Dixie Diners Club of Enterprise MS which claimed to promote fraternity among “connoisseurs of discriminating taste and epicurean pleasures,” a court ruled nothing had changed since its days as plain-old Richberg’s Cafe. “The only material difference between the two is that physically the club is accessible only by the entrance at the door which was formerly for whites only,” it said. The ruling noted that the club held no meetings, established no committees, and served the same food as before. Bonner’s Private Club in Crawfordville GA had previously been known as the Liberty Café, which closed when Afro-Americans tried to integrate it and reopened as a private club.

CivilRightsOllie'sThe justification for federal authority over restaurants and hotels was that they engaged in interstate commerce. So, of course, some restaurants claimed an exemption because theirs were purely local businesses. Ollie McClung, of Ollie’s Barbecue, lost a lawsuit despite his belief his business was local. “We are not located on a highway and don’t cater to out-of-town travelers,” he insisted. But as the Washington Post reported, it was exceedingly difficult for a restaurant to prove it had no interstate ties: “It would have to serve locally grown food, no tea, coffee and probably no beer, and would have to have a prominent sign saying, in effect, ‘No Interstate Travelers Served Here’ with a monitor at the door to make certain no interstate interloper slipped in.”

Another tactic was devised by ardent segregationist Maurice Bessinger who was granted an exemption for his Piggie Park Drive-in chain in South Carolina on the grounds no food was consumed on the premises. The decision was, however, soon reversed and it became clear that drive-ins would not be exempt.

It’s hard to say just how many Afro-Americans actually took advantage of the opportunity to patronize what had been all-white restaurants. It seems there was not a flood of Black diners in the first few years. But the new law was valuable to the middle-class, especially Black travelers who no longer had to rely on guidebooks such as The Negro Motorist Green Book to plot out where they could safely stop to eat or stay overnight. The Green Book became irrelevant, just as its publisher hoped it would.

Despite real advances, white Americans often overestimate the degree to which racism has disappeared. As critical as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in furthering equality, it did not put a complete end to racial discrimination in restaurants. Rather southern restaurants wanting to curb the number of Black diners learned to use tactics long practiced in the North. Nor have chains been free of bias. Cracker Barrel and Denny’s are among large chains hit by discrimination suits in the past couple of decades. And an academic study published in 2012 found that Black patrons continue to experience bad service based on waitstaffs’ belief that they are poor tippers. A study of 200 servers in North Carolina restaurants revealed that 38.5% discriminated against Black customers, sometimes playing a game called “pass the black table.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Once trendy: tomato juice cocktails

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Recently I acquired a 1947 menu from the Algonquin Hotel of “round table” literary fame. I noticed that one of the appetizers was tomato juice and I thought to myself how commonplace a selection that once was and how rarely it is seen today.

No doubt there are restaurants that still have it on the menu – nothing really ever goes away totally. It reminds me strongly of an old standby restaurant in Massachusetts that closed about ten years ago. I was fascinated by the quaint metal contraptions on each table holding little pots of appetizers such as cottage cheese, olives, and pickles. There must have been tomato juice on the menu, too, despite it being decidedly out of style by then.

I was so convinced that tomato juice was hopelessly unimaginative that I was taken by surprise when I did a little research and discovered that it was considered a fashionable snob drink in the 1920s and 1930s. It came into vogue in the 1920s along with other good-for-you foods such as Melba toast, cottage cheese, pineapple, and sauerkraut juice. Women’s magazines touted it as smart, healthful, and perfect for anyone wanting to lose pounds just like a Hollywood movie star.

It is said that a chef at the French Lick resort hotel in Indiana introduced tomato juice to  American diners in 1917. It MIGHT be true that he was first to serve it in a public dining room – it does not seem to appear on American menus prior to World War I. However tomato juice was well known and available in cans in the 19th century so he clearly did not invent it (as is often reported).

A tomato juice cocktail could be made by the addition of tobasco sauce, paprika, sauerkraut juice, clam juice, etc. Mix well, shake until foamy, and pour over crushed ice. Restaurants tried all sorts of combinations. The Wrigley Building Restaurant in Chicago came up with clabbered tomato juice which was tomato juice mixed with a goodly amount of cottage cheese. Denver’s Blue Parrot Inn blended orange and tomato juices, while The Colony in New York mixed clam and tomato.

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Although tomato juice could be found on menus of all kinds of eating places, even Chinese-American restaurants, it tended to be an appetizer favored by those who eat luncheon, not lunch. It was especially popular in restaurants that appealed to women then such as tea rooms, quaint inns, and department store restaurants. [illustration shows portions of menus from China Garden, Filene’s department store, and Willow Tea Cottage]

Arriving on the scene as it did during Prohibition, tomato juice clearly served as a non-alcoholic cocktail. Non-drinkers appreciated it, as did serious imbibers who had overdone things at their neighborhood speakeasy. It was a well known morning-after tonic continuing into the 1950s (and perhaps the present). In 1939 a restaurant in Shawnee OK allegedly served a “hangover breakfast” of tomato juice with hot sauce, soft-boiled egg, whole wheat toast, coffee, and two aspirins.

Tomato juice was so popular by the mid-1930s, both in homes and restaurants, that government scientists were said to be working on disease-resistant tomato varieties that would yield more juice. But by the 1980s it was considered an appetizer totally lacking in sex appeal, analogous to vanilla ice cream as a dessert. But, who knows? It could make a comeback. Tomato and kale juice cocktails?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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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.

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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.

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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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