Category Archives: history

Reservations

reservationsJPGtablejpgRestaurant reservations are mainly a 20th century innovation, and yet for the best of customers tables have always been available, no reservations required. A visitor to a Chicago hotel noted in 1888 that a nearby table had chairs tipped, a sign that it was reserved. A number of business men led by packing house magnate Philip Armour walked in and sat down. “Waiters scurried to serve them, and in a twinkling they were attacking their thick steaks as if the meal were a business problem to be solved immediately,” the onlooker recorded in her diary.

It was a common practice to save tables for prominent business men who gathered at the same table daily. In cities with numbers of German-American settlers, such as St. Louis and Washington D.C., the table was known as a Stammtisch and the diners as Stammgäste. At a restaurant in St. Louis conducted by Detlof von der Lippe, tables in alcoves were reserved for different professions. An inset in the 1906 postcard below shows an alcove named The Grind Stone. In the background is The Roost, reserved for tailors, while lumber men sat in The Hoo-Hoo. Which profession met in The Grind Stone is anyone’s guess.

reservationsLippe's

As late as 1957, Harvey’s and the Occidental restaurants in D.C. kept tables for regular groups, as did others in that city. A table at La Salle Du Bois was reserved on Saturdays for businessman Milton S. Kronheim and his “Saturday 12″ composed of Congressmen, civic leaders, and judges. Richard Nixon, then VP, reserved a table there during the week for cabinet members and White House staff.

Of course luxury restaurants such as the Colony automatically reserved tables for wealthy and celebrity regulars too. For them, as for business groups, the rule was that if the party did not arrive within 15 to 30 minutes of their usual schedule, the table would be given to someone else.

reservationsJPG1913Greensboro

If saving tables for the toffs is a longstanding practice, so is resentment by the public when told no tables are available even as they gaze upon a dining room with empty spaces. The problem intensified as taking reservations became more common in the early 20th century with the spread of telephones in restaurants. [1913 advertisement]

reservationsJPGNewYorker1940Reserved tables have often implied to people without them that they were being snubbed and regarded as inferior. And in the case of Afro-Americans this was literally the case. No matter how well dressed, how well mannered, how able to pay, they were likely to be told no tables were available.

Although many Northern states had enacted civil rights laws in the 1880s when the South was instituting segregationist Jim Crow laws, they were rarely enforced. However, an 1889 case in Michigan stands out because of the appeals court judge’s decision for the plaintiff who had been told he could be seated only at a table in the back reserved for Black patrons at a restaurant in Detroit. Usually things did not work out so well. In the 1920s a Chicago restaurant discontinued taking reservations by telephone after they discovered that a women’s club who had booked tables for 40 was Black. Even the federal Civil Rights Law of 1964 failed to eliminate discrimination. Activist Dick Gregory and others were turned away at an empty restaurant in Tuscaloosa AL in 1965 when the hostess showed them a reservations list with 1,000 names on it.

Whose interests do reservations  primarily serve – the restaurant’s or the guest’s? This is a tricky question, but on balance I’d say restaurants are providing a service that is mostly in the guest’s interests. Although it benefits restaurants to have an idea of how many are coming to dinner, in terms of staffing and provisioning, there are also drawbacks. A popular restaurant may actually lose money by taking reservations because tables are not constantly producing revenue throughout a busy mealtime. With reservations, tables are bound to sit empty between guests. What’s worse, a percentage of reservations will not show up nor call to cancel, despite a restaurant’s telephoned confirmation or penalty charges.

reservationsJPGrestaurantpagersThe no-show problem developed into a major headache for restaurants in the 1980s. Restaurants that normally got a lot of tourists and sporting event fans suffered the most, and some reported they went into the red on nights when up to 30% of reserved tables went unfilled. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that so many popular dinner-house restaurant chains take no reservations on busy nights. As long as there are plenty of guests willing to wait up to an hour and a half, the decision is 100% rational. Most of these restaurants – such as the Cheesecake Factory – hand out pagers that permit people to stroll around or go shopping until they are buzzed, a system that came into use in the late 1980s.

For those of us who prefer to go to restaurants that still take reservations comes the dawning realization that we are very likely paying a premium for the privilege. And soon we might be paying for the reservation itself, according to a recent story in the Atlantic.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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100 years of quotations

In addition to collecting restaurant menus, photographs, postcards, business cards, matchcovers, etc., I also collect words. Here are some choice quotations by, for, and about restaurants ranging from 1880 to 1980 that I’ve carefully selected to reflect the progression of American restaurants and customers’ relation to them.

In my opinion, they convey a richer and truer sense of restaurant history than would a conventional “timeline.” Funny too.

2lbSteak1880 “Whenever I feel possessed of an appetite that has any stability about it I go to a place where I find butchers dining. There order the juicy steaks and the mealy potato.”

1883 “The Restaurants and Cafes of Boston number nearly 500. Excepting those connected with hotels, there are not many worthy of particular mention.”

1893Bowerywaiter1884 “The waiters, with a dexterity which could only have been acquired through long practice, stood off and shied the dishes at the tables from a distance of three or four feet.”

1888 “Eating is a matter of business with Americans. They do it as they perform all other kinds of work – on the rush.”

1891 “No time for persuasion is as good as meal time, and so Mr. Close has hung the walls of his eating-house with texts from the Bible wherever the space is not needed for bill of fare placards.”

1894 “When a waiter shoves a bill of fare under a man’s nose nine times out of ten he will look it over and then say: ‘Gimme a steak and some fried potatoes.’”

1895 “The whizz of the big ventilating fans, the cries of the waiters, the clash of the heavy dishes and the clang of the cash register bell, all combine into a roar that has come to be the unnoticed and everyday accompaniment to the busy man’s lunch.”

1897 “Mr. Pundt, today or tomorrow, will place a 20-pound pig in front frozen in a block of ice, and that is something brand new in these latitudes, and is quite a credit to his fine taste.”

1901 “From Maine to California, from Florida to Wisconsin, the same choice of food is offered, all cooked and served in the same way.”

diningroomdisaster70s80s

1906 “One in twenty cooks and waiters may be counted upon as steady and worth while. The rest will come and go in any and all fashions.”

1909 “What sense is there in calling potatoes ‘Pommes de terre,” oysters ‘huitres,’ soups ‘potages,’ and so on through a lot of lingual fol-de-rol, when plain everyday English would tell the story comprehensively?”

PoodleDogwinelist1912 “Like all good things, it had imitators, and there have been no less than four Poodle Dogs and two Pups, each claiming to be a direct descendant of the original. Like ‘strictly fresh eggs,’ ‘fresh eggs’ and plain ‘eggs,’ we now have the Old Poodle Dog, the New Poodle Dog and the plain Poodle Dog.”

1915 “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.”

1916 “It was a typical New York courtship. They visited restaurants of all degrees.”

1917 “At the present time, to quote Professor Ellwood, the modern family performs scarcely no industrial activities, except the preparation of food for immediate consumption, and even this activity with the advent of the bakery, cafeteria, café, and hotel seems about to disappear from the home.”

waitressbeingkissed1920 “The men who patronize the cheaper restaurants look upon the waitress as a social equal and any man who comes in other than the rush hour expects a little visit with her.”

1922 “Places with old fashioned names and old fashioned furnishings should have waitresses in old fashioned costumes.”

1923 “A pronounced tendency of modern life is for people to eat out.”

1924 “All of the newcomers, the ‘Pig ‘n Whistles,’ the ‘Cat ‘n Fiddles,’ the ‘Lunchettes,’ the ‘Luncheonettes,’ the ‘Have-A-Bites’ and the What-Nots are now successfully bidding for the public favor.”

1927 “We serve the only real ‘Sho-nuff’ Down Home Plantation Dinner in Boston.”

1928 “Yet I have seen menus as tedious to read as a Theodore Dreiser novel. Beyond a certain number of well chosen dishes there is only distressing monotony.”

1929 “The little pink-curtained tea room that calls itself so disarmingly ‘Aunt Rosie’s Nook’ has bought its provisions on just such a system as Sing Sing employs.”

1932 “No lunch counter fails to add a leaf of lettuce to any sandwich that passes across the counter. No hotel or restaurant can do without lettuce. Lettuce is a habit.”

1934 “Cocktails at five o’clock used to be considered the privilege of the leisure class, but today in every white tile restaurant as well as the swankiest oasis men and women gather.”

sandwichshopWally'sNYC1937 “The peculiarly American contributions to restaurant types are establishments meeting the demand for speed combined with economy: the cafeteria, automat, fountain lunch, sandwich shop and drug store counter.”

1940 “I’m running a joint. It’s a good one, but it’s a road joint, started on a shoestring, called Kum Inn.”

1941 “A sure omen of a good tip is an order for scotch and soda before the meal.”

primex1941 “Tons and tons of Primex go into the frying kettles of The Flame each year. In fact, for eleven years this uniform quality fat has helped this famous Duluth restaurant build an enviable reputation for delicious fried foods.”

1943 “The days of ignoring lobster and hard to handle fish listed on restaurant menus are gone for the time being, and to help the perplexed diner we’ll list a few tips on tackling the denizens of the deep.”

1946 “Chromium may be all very well for an inexpensive place where your customers come for the most part from dull middle-class homes, so glitter and shine represent their escape.”

1951 “In whatever region he is traveling, the American tourist soon finds that good simple American cooking is an elusive myth.”

1952 “How to Do Simple Dish that Looks Fancy, Tastes Fancy and Costs Thirty-Eight Cents per Portion!”

Mcdonald'snearChicago1954 “Own Your Own Business – A Proven Investment – McDonald’s Speedee Hamburger – Franchises Available – A sensation in California and Arizona, showing profits well into 5 figures!”

1957 “Would you believe that in old Boston you could be transported to a native Polynesian Village surrounded by the lush, beautiful and exotic atmosphere of the South Pacific?”

Manhattan1959 “The much maligned cocktail has kept many a restaurant solvent.”

1960 “The Ark was built here in Wilmington in 1922 and has served as an army troop transport, a banana boat, a gambling boat and as a coast guard quarter boat until purchased by Eldridge Fergus in 1951 and converted into a floating restaurant.”

1961 “At present, the amount of space needed for rough food preparation is smaller than before, while the area needed for frozen and dry foods must be larger. This is the result of the growing popularity among restaurant owners of pre-portioned and frozen food.”

1963 “Tad’s plush decor offsets any machine-like atmosphere. Red velour wall coverings and globe lighting creates an 1890s setting for a 1970 operation.”

1966 “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out.”

1967 “When you enter the Buckingham Inn it’s like stepping into a charming old English Inn. There’s a feeling that you have stepped into one of the inns from the Canterbury tales that you read about in childhood.”

meatboy

1968 “There is nothing complicated about roast beef. Its relatively high cost can be offset not only by volume sales, plus volume beverage sales, but by the ease with which employees can be trained to produce and serve roast beef.”

1970 “The Grand is an old-fashioned, slightly grubby, mildly tumultuous restaurant, but nonetheless pleasant. The food is often heavy, the waiters on the ancient side, the furnishings worn; but you come away with the feeling that you got your money’s worth and your day has been enhanced.”

1973 “Pre-prepared frozen beef slices, chunks or tips may be transformed into a variety of nationality dishes, such as Russian, Italian, Mexican, Hungarian and Oriental.”

1976 “Journey to prehistoric days via the stone-age decor and  hearty feasting on Unique Appetizers, Fresh Seafood, Steaks, Barbeque Ribs; all complimented by an elegant Silver Salad Bar.”

1978 “A new definition of fresh must take into account that the potato salad, coleslaw or chicken salad you were served at lunch may have been more than a month old.”

1980 “In an adjective count we made from about 100 menus, by far the most common items were hot and fresh, with fresh considerably in the lead.”

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Restaurant-ing with Soviet humorists

littlegoldenamericaJPG1937coverNot that they found American restaurants especially funny.

Au contraire. On their car trip across the continent in 1935/1936 writers Ilya Ilf and Eugene Petrov, billed as “Soviet Mark Twains,” observed what they regarded a nation of joyless folks who ate tasteless food in restaurants designed for speed and efficiency. As they put it, “The process of eating was just as superbly rationalized as the production of automobiles or of typewriters.”

The acme of rationalization in their opinion was the Automat where a wall of metal and glass boxes filled with sandwiches and pie separated customers from staff. They preferred the Childs restaurant chain with table service. “At Childs one receives the same clean handsome food as in a cafeteria or an automat. Only there one is not deprived of the small satisfaction of looking at a menu, saying, ‘H’m,’ asking the waitress whether the veal is good, and receiving the answer: ‘Yes, sir!’”

littlegoldenAmerica1936AutomatBereniceAbbott

They did not visit luxury restaurants, preferring commonplace eateries where average Americans ate, such as cafeterias, drug store lunch counters, and roadside “dine & dance” halls. They also went to a football game, an Indian reservation, and other quintessentially American sites and events that they described in a book published in the Soviet Union, and then translated for Americans as Little Golden America (Farrar & Rinehart, 1937).

In Chapter 4 (Appetite Departs While Eating) they asked, “How does it happen that the richest country in the world, a country of grain growers and cattle raisers, of gold and remarkable industry, a country which has sufficient resources to create a paradise, cannot give the people tasty bread, fresh meat, real butter, and ripe tomatoes?” Not surprisingly, as dedicated socialists they located the cause of the problem in capitalism which reaped higher profits in shipping frozen beef and unripened California tomatoes cross country than in local food production.

By contrast, they cited Soviet Commissar of Food Anastos Mikoyan who was at that time spearheading a Stalinist reform campaign of joyous eating and champagne for everyone to replace the habitual diet of cabbage soup and mush. Mikoyan’s office produced a landmark cookbook with color photos of cosmopolitan meals (The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, 1939). Sitting in an American cafeteria in 1935, Ilf and Petrov felt that a Mikoyan speech that declared food in a socialist country must bring joy to its eaters “sounded like poetry to us.” But the truth was that Soviet leaders, Mikoyan included, were admirers of the U.S. rationalized system of production, including its food.

During their American travels Ilf and Petrov learned to drink tomato juice – well-peppered to their taste — as an appetizer, but could not adjust to eating melon before dinner, despite its “place of honor among American hors d’oeuvres.”

LittleGoldenAmericaBartellDrugStoreSeattle1936

They frequently made fun of drugstore meals that were numbered #1, #2, etc., and whose prices were based solely on quantity. “If in Dinner #2 a course called ‘country sausage’ consists of three chopped off sausages, then in Dinner #4 there will be six chopped off sausages, but the taste will be exactly the same.” When they ate at Bernstein’s fish restaurant in San Francisco, they were happy that the dinner there made up for that day’s drugstore lunch #3.

Seriously, why did they keep eating in drug stores, especially in a city of restaurants such as San Francisco? They could have tried Chinese food, or gone to a tea room or any number of places.

littlegoldenAmericaTopsy'sRoost

In my opinion they hit bottom when they visited a palace of fun outside San Francisco known as Topsy’s Roost, a “dine and dance” joint whose corny racist theme was based on shacks, pickaninnies, and fried chicken. Were their Soviet readers envious when they read, “For fifty cents [a man of moderate means] gets a portion of chicken, and, having eaten it, dances until he is on the verge of collapsing. After he is tired of dancing, he and his girl . . . ride down a polished wooden chute placed in the hall especially for entertainment-seeking chicken eaters.”

The book was said to be popular in Russia. I’d love to know what readers thought about America after reading it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Heroism at lunch

greensbororecordfeb21960

Actually there was no lunch. But there was plenty of heroism when four college students sat at a Greensboro NC lunch counter in February 1960.

The students were told to go to the segregated snack bar in the back of the Woolworth 5 & 10 cent store, but they refused. And although the Woolworth staff would not serve them, the students also refused to leave until closing time and pledged to come back every day until they won the right to eat there.

greensborojosephmcneilIt was an honor to hear one of the organizers of the protest a few days ago at the 9th Annual Northeast Regional Fair Housing and Civil Rights conference in Springfield MA. Joseph McNeil told a room of 500 attendees how much had hung in the balance for him at the time. A first-year student at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, he feared that he could end up in jail and disastrously interrupt his college career. (Fortunately, his fears were not realized and he went on to graduate and eventually to become a major general in the U.S. Air Force.)

In the Q & A after his talk, a woman in the audience asked what his mother had thought about his decision to hold a sit-in at the lunch counter. He said she had been uneasy about it but had to agree that it was the right thing to do based on the values she and his father had taught him.

The Greensboro protest grew as students from area schools joined with the initial four, then more student protests erupted at Woolworth stores around the South. In July 1960 Woolworth reversed its policy which had been to let local managers decide whether or not to serve Black customers based on local customs.

McNeil described how the sit-down protests served as “a down payment on our manhood and womanhood” for him and his fellow students, both men and women. The action, he said, was driven by their belief in the “dignity of men” and “the moral order of the universe.”

How odd it is to read the following letter to the editor of the Greensboro Record published a few days after the 1960 sit-in began. Writer Ruby Coble’s reference to the protestors’ “lack of race pride and personal pride” is totally baffling today. However it represents a long-held idea of the majority of white Americans in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, that restaurants should only serve well-mannered people and that any Black people who demanded service in a white restaurant were clearly not well-mannered because they were barging in where they were not wanted.

greensboroRecordFeb51960

Coble was right about one thing though. It was indeed much later than she thought.

McNeil received repeated standing ovations from conference goers last week. Everyone laughed when he said that he had always wanted to order coffee and apple pie at a Woolworth lunch counter but when he did, “The apple pie wasn’t very good.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Caper sauce at Taylor’s

FannyFernWhen journalist Fanny Fern took up her pen, readers knew wicked pronouncements would flow. Her fans loved it. Of course she also had many detractors who disapproved of her bold opinions and her feminism.

For twenty years starting in 1851 Fanny Fern wrote about her favorite subjects, “Men, Women, and Things.” Her essays appeared in newspapers and were later collected in books. The first collection, Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (1853), sold 80,000 copies in a matter of weeks. She was said to be the second highest paid woman writer in America after Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Fanny Fern was the pen name of Sara Willis, born in 1811 in Maine and raised in Boston. After her first husband died, she accepted an offer of marriage to a man who became abusive. Her literary career was launched by the need to earn a living for herself and her three children after she left him in 1851.

Food and dining out at dinner parties and restaurants were topics that occasionally appeared in her columns. Two of her collections were named for food – Ginger-Snaps and Caper-Sauce. She prefaced Ginger-Snaps with the following:

FannyFernGingerSnaps
Despite her acerbic style, even those who were its targets treasured her and over the course of her life she sold hundreds of thousands of books in the U.S. and England. An entry about her in American Women (1897), noting hers was “the most widely known and popular pen-name of the last forty years,” praised her for “wit, humor and pathos.”

Her style is captured in a short piece called “The Amenities of the Table” in which she described attitudes toward food as represented by three very different couples. Her depiction of the Joneses strikes a note today.

fannyFernJonesesp111AmenitiesoftheTable

In 1854 she moved from Boston to New York City where she wrote for the New York Ledger (and married author James Parton). No doubt she became familiar with Taylor’s, the glitzy, mirrored, pseudo-posh Broadway restaurant [pictured below] she featured in an essay called “Feminine Waiters at Hotels.” Always protective of women workers, she advised miserable seamstresses to throw their thimbles at their employers and rush to Taylor’s, which had just begun hiring women as servers. But she suggested that they take good care of themselves: “Stipulate with your employers, for leave to carry in the pocket of your French apron, a pistol loaded with cranberry sauce, to plaster up the mouth of the first coxcomb [“dude,” “masher”] who considers it necessary to preface his request for an omelette, with ‘My dear.’”

fannyfernTaylor's1853

The servers, she observed, would surely encounter all kinds of overdressed patrons trying to impress others and would “get sick of so much pretension and humbug,” But, she added, “Never mind, it is better than to be stitching yourselves into a consumption over six-penny shirts; you’ll have your fun out of it. This would be a horribly stupid world, if everybody were sensible.”

Sara Willis Parton died in 1872. Her life story is told in Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman by Joyce W. Warren (Rutgers University Press, 1992).

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Shared meals

comebacks1874AlaskaStPhil

There is a lot of interest now in menus designed for sharing. Groups of friends order a variety of dishes of intriguing appetizers, passing them around so that everyone gets a helping.

Sharing restaurant food has a long history, not all of it so appetizing.

In the 1890s stories appeared in the U.S. press about market stalls in France that sold food left over from the tables of restaurants and hotels. The buyers were those of scant means who needed a cheap meal. What the stories left out was that the custom was not unknown in this country. How common it was is hard to say, but an account in 1874 described an eating place in Philadelphia that sold table scraps from hotels to the city’s poor. [illustration above]

There are two kinds of leftovers in public eating places: prepared food that has not been served and food that has been served to patrons and returned on their plates to the kitchen. The latter is known as comebacks. To what degree food removed from plates was served again to other patrons or added to kitchen stews, hashes, and soups in the 19th century is unknown, but it began to receive attention from health departments in the early 20th century.

Americans became conscious of public health issues in 1906 with revelations about the meat packing industry in books such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. One result of the uproar was that cities and towns that had not already done so expanded the duties of their health departments to include restaurant inspections.

In Los Angeles, inspectors in 1907 discovered that chicken, steak, or chop bones with meat still adhering to them were often added to kettles for stock, soups, or gravies. Somewhat surprisingly, this practice was not likely to happen at the cheapest restaurants. Those selling meals at rock-bottom prices (10 cents) claimed they rarely had any food scraps returned to their kitchens. In a 1908 exposé in a D.C. newspaper, a waiter “told all.” Among his advice to lunch room patrons was to order dry toast with butter rather than buttered toast because in the latter case it was likely to be comeback butter wiped off a plate by the cook’s dirty finger.

comebackshashAlso ranking high on the public’s list of restaurant mystery dishes was hash. Middle-class women, who were particularly distrustful of restaurants’ cleanliness, would only eat it in their own homes or in a genteel, woman-run tea room. Patrons often told the proprietor of a home-style tea room in Bangor ME, “I’m not afraid to eat hash here.”

comebacksADV1908EvanstonAt least one restaurant, the Pure Food Café in Evanston IL, was so concerned about public perception that it adopted the unfortunate slogan, “We Use No Comebacks.” Perhaps its patrons, mainly students at Northwestern University, needed this reassurance.

Another illicit use of food returned on patrons’ plates was for staff meals. Minnesota’s state hotel inspector declared he would put a stop to it. “We are going to stop the practice of making restaurant and hotel employes eat the ‘comebacks’ that the guests have already dallied with,” he pledged in 1917.

The re-use of comebacks was not a popular topic for public discussion so it’s impossible to gauge how often it occurred or to what degree the practice was halted by inspections. But the problem either persisted or recurred during the Depression, as evidenced by an article in a 1932 issue of the trade journal Restaurant Management.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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High-volume restaurants: Crook & Duff (etc.)

crook&nashADV1875Luxury restaurants are more likely to become memorialized by time, but often ordinary restaurants have a history that is equally rich and played a more significant role in the everyday functioning of society.

That was certainly true of a restaurant that opened in New York City’s “Newspaper Row” in 1858 under the name of its two proprietors, Crook & Duff. The popular restaurant persisted until at least 1906 under nine different names and with four different addresses. It was considered not only a fine place to eat — “a marvel of gastronomic entertainment” – but also a depot where ideas were exchanged.

crookNYT1874Proprietor John Crook was already an old hand in the restaurant business by 1858, having learned the business from his uncle who ran an eating stand in Fulton Market. Crook then went into business with a brother, and next ran several places on his own before he and theatrical manager John Duff opened a restaurant in the newly constructed New York Times building on Park Row. [Unfortunately no signs for the restaurant are visible in the 1874 photograph shown above.] It was an excellent location since City Hall, the main Post Office, a new court building, and many newspaper and periodical offices were located close by. Journalists and printers especially, with their odd hours and relative freedom to roam the city, were frequent patrons of eating and drinking places such as Crook & Duff, aka Crook, Fox & Duff; Crook, Fox & Nash; Nash & Fuller; Nash & Crook; Nash & Brush; George S. Brush; Brush & Foy; and Foy & Crook.

The people of prominence who ate at Crook & Duff and its successors were numerous, many of them lawyers, journalists, business men, and political figures. Feminist publishers of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, were frequent patrons in the 1870s – probably eating in a room reserved for ladies (assuming they found  that acceptable). The restaurant was popular with women clerical workers in the 1880s when their numbers were on the increase.

The restaurant remained in the Times building, occupying the basement and much of the first floor for thirty years, while doing business under five different names, the best known and longest lasting being Nash & Crook. In 1888 it moved a short distance to 16 Park Place.

Nash & Crook (etc.) was known for good food, reasonable prices, and fast, expert service. Broiled oysters and corned beef hash were specialties. Fruits and vegetables came from the Oneida Community, a religious commune in upstate New York. The bar did a brisk business in gin slings and brandy smashes, especially during election season.

crook&NashSept51870Serving food from early morning until late at night, the restaurant was a high-volume business, dishing out up to 2,000 mid-day meals daily. In 1870 it claimed to have the largest dining room in the U.S. The lunch counter was 60 feet long. Even so, from noon to 3 p.m. it would often become so crowded that customers would stand and eat from plates in their hands. Many customers were regulars, including men who took all their meals there – and only there – for decades.

Reputedly it was the second restaurant in New York City to hire African-American waiters. During the Civil War draft riots of July 1863 when white mobs attacked Black men, the restaurant sheltered its staff in the basement. Many of the staff from both races were long-term employees. A Black waiter, John Thomas Cooper, worked at the restaurant from 1859 until his death in 1893, becoming a favorite for his sense of humor.

As late as 1927 a letter to the editor of the New York Times mourned the loss of Nash & Crook’s corned-beef hash.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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