Category Archives: history

Restaurant row

restaurantrow864

Search for the words “restaurant row” in old newspapers before WWII and you will become convinced that a restaurant was a prime spot to be stabbed or clobbered by flying crockery. Not as dangerous as a barroom, but close.

The other meaning and pronunciation refer not to a fight but to a happier state of affairs, namely a street lined with restaurants that has become a popular destination for diners.

restaurantrowChicago1909

The earliest use of the term I’ve found is a 1909 reference to Chicago’s Randolph Street where 39 busy restaurants lined up on a six-block stretch [illustrated]. A bit later Chicago’s Wabash Ave. was known as cafeteria row, reportedly aggregating the largest number of self-service restaurants in the world, while Clark Street with all its lunch rooms was nicknamed “toothpick row.”

The reason restaurants group together is not hard to see. As was true for downtown department stores that occupied several corners of a single intersection, groups of the same kind of businesses attracted flocks of customers who knew they were likely to find something they wanted. In the early 20th century, when chain restaurants were becoming common, lesser known restaurants were eager to locate near the winners to catch their overflow.

It’s also a marketing ploy. City officials may declare a street Restaurant Row to help boost the local economy, as NYC mayor John Lindsay did in the depressed 1970s with West 46th Street between 8th and 9th.  Actually New York had — and has — many restaurant rows, as is true of other large cities. Perhaps NYC’s first was Park Row in lower Manhattan where hungry politicians and newspaper workers crowded into Dolan’s, home of “beef an’” [corned beef and beans], which anchored the street’s concentration of lunch rooms.

RestaurantrowRichlor'sLos Angeles’ restaurant row on La Cienega Boulevard [illustrated at top] probably achieved more celebrity than did those of any other cities. Coming into prominence with the end of Prohibition in the 1930s it presented a mix of swanky restaurants and nightclubs alight with neon signs. In 1947 the row, centered at Wilshire and La Cienega, was enough of an attraction to inspire Southwest Airlines to offer a weekend jaunt built around it. One of the earliest restaurants in the row, Lawry’s The Prime Rib, established in 1938, continues today. Its owners also operated other La Cienega hotspots, Richlor’s [illustrated] and Steer’s.

Although the 1960s and 1970s were decades of decline on Los Angeles’ restaurant row, it made a comeback in the 1980s and continues to attract visitors today.

restaurantrowFramingham1965It didn’t take long for other cities, even small towns and suburbs, to realize that promoting a restaurant row was a way to bring people to town with money to spend. Restaurant rows with as few as four or five eating places began to advertise their attractions. [Route 9, Framingham MA illustrated]

With the spread of fast food eateries in the 1960s, people began to refer to fast-food rows where pizza, fried chicken, and burger emporiums clustered together. Competing chains kept a close eye on where McDonald’s opened, figuring the fast-food leader had chosen well after conducting extensive research on demographics and traffic patterns.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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At the sign of the . . .

TavernsignsWalker'sTavernEarleTaverns and inns of the Colonial and Early American eras were ancestors to hotels, providing the all-important trio of beds, food, and alcoholic drinks. But they also supplied inspiration to eating places in later centuries, particularly tea rooms and, to a lesser extent, steak houses.

One of the most prominent features of taverns were their signboards. Borrowed from England and Europe, they depicted images of military heroes, courtly symbols, and local landmarks, with names to match. Animals of various colors were especially popular such as the White Swan, the Golden Horse, the Black Bear, or the Red Lion.

TavernsignsCTOldLion

Taverns actually had dual names, the proprietor’s and that of the image on the sign. Signs were linked to a place. Proprietors might move from tavern to tavern but signs stayed where they were. For example, a Boston tavern keeper of the 1760s named Francis Warden advertised that he kept a “public house of entertainment” at the sign of the Green Dragon. Earlier he had been at the Blue Anchor.

Tavern signs have often been admired for their originality, but even in the 18th century they were stereotyped. Artists who painted them often advertised that they had a stock of signs on hand and ready to go except for the lettering. This undoubtedly accounts for the many taverns called The White Horse, The Beehive [illustrated above], The Three Crowns, or The Bunch of Grapes.

tavernsigns1784NYCBy the start of the 19th century the reign of taverns was slowly coming to an end and being replaced by larger hotels. The decline of the tavern was hastened by the temperance movement in the 1830s and 1840s which saw them as dens of iniquity. A temperance advocate suggested tavern signs should bear truthful names such as “The Widow and Orphans Manufactory” or “The New England Rum Pit.” As towns outlawed the sale of liquor, many old tavern signs were pulled down and replaced with signs saying Temperance Hotel.

As taverns declined, nostalgia began to develop for their Days of Olde when jolly hosts greeted guests and ushered them inside to sip hot toddies at the fireplace. Books and newspaper stories appeared describing quaint tavern signs and names of yesteryear. Historical societies became interested in preserving the increasingly scarce old signs. A Boston lodge of the Masons fraternal organization which had been founded in The Bunch of Grapes acquired two of the four carved wooden bunches in 1883 and locked them away in a steel vault. A collector in Pennsylvania treasured a sign he discovered in the 1890s that had been painted in 1771 by famous English artist Benjamin West.

TavernSignsold100TeaRoomWomen, particularly those New Englanders who could trace their ancestry to Colonial times, became supporters of the preservation of American antiquities. Newly possible car travel encouraged them to explore former taverns in the countryside. Next they began to open tea rooms that celebrated Early America, many with names and signs from tavern days. It was as though taverns had returned, clean, ultra-respectable and without liquor and drunkenness. Tea, after all, was known as “the cup that cheers but does not inebriate.”

tavernsignstabbycatwenhamMAOne feature that did not survive was the political statement tavern signs had made back in the days when their keepers sided either with the British crown or the rebellious patriots. Another oddity was how many tea rooms adopted names that incorporated the words “At the Sign of” – preceding “the Green Kettle,” “the Golden Robin,” etc. Where a tavern of 1800 advertised it could be found “At the Sign of the Seven Stars,” a 20th-century tea room, had it used the same style of advertising, would have had to say it was “At the Sign of At the Sign of the Seven Stars.” The sign of At the sign of The Tea-Kettle and Tabby Cat adorned a tea room in Wenham MA.

tavernsignscornishNH858

The sign for the Tea Tray, a tea room in Cornish NH, was painted by Maxfield Parrish and shows much more detail than old tavern signs would have included.

In the 1960s and 1970s some steak houses also adopted a tavern theme, with names such as Steak & Ale, Bird & Bottle, or Cork & Cleaver, but only as a superficial concept that did not include revival of old-fashioned signboards.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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“Atmosphere”

atmosphereschaber1941I put the word in quotation marks to acknowledge that what atmosphere in restaurants means is as elusive as air itself — which the word also refers to. It was often used to describe eating places in the 19th century, but not in a flattering way. A typical usage is that from 1868 where someone remarked that in a certain restaurant “the atmosphere is heavy with cooking vapors.”

The term atmosphere (or ambience, which came into use in the 1970s) became used in a more general way to describe the character of a restaurant – that intangible spirit of a place. The broader meaning could encompass an air that was sophisticated or homey, rowdy or relaxing, masculine or feminine, formal or casual, etc. I discovered a 1950s restaurant that claimed to have “Christian atmosphere” with home cooking by a Mrs. and “No Beer, Liquor or Smoking.”

In the 1890s the more general meaning almost always referred to the kinds of people associated with a restaurant, both owners and patrons. For example sawdust on the floor, pictures of athletes on the wall and the presence of prostitutes signaled a thoroughly masculine atmosphere while the presence of artists and writers in French, German, or Italian table d’hotes shouted “bohemian!”. A jolly host could also impart atmosphere, which might be altogether missing if he weren’t on hand, or if his most colorful patrons failed to show.

AtmosphereRomanyMarieSummer1921It didn’t take long before restaurant owners realized they could appeal to new patrons by bragging about their “atmosphere,” especially if it was bohemian. A San Francisco restaurant announced that it attracted “artists, writers, musicians, poets, painters, singers, draftsmen, balladists, literati and newspaper writers.” In 1903 NYC’s Elite Rathskeller Restaurant ran an advertisement claiming to have “Refined Bohemian atmosphere,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms since bohemians were supposed to be carefree souls who violated everyday norms of propriety.

The next step for restaurateurs was to merchandise atmosphere by generating it themselves. Since it seemed that so many people wanted to gawk at bohemians, why wait for them to show up if you could entice them with free dinners? Allegedly some restaurants did just that.

atmosphereVentureTeaRoomPhila

After World War I, following the reign of bohemian restaurants, came a new type of atmospheric eating place, the tea room of the 1920s. The tea room’s special atmosphere was  quaint and homey with artistic touches. In 1922 the Journal of Home Economics pronounced that “The very name of Tea Room has grown to mean a place with ‘atmosphere’ and with furnishings that are unique.” Ranging from the fashionable to the playful, tea rooms proved that women – their primary patrons – were in love with atmosphere.

atmosphere1918FlintMIBucking the trend toward atmospheric decor were a handful of holdouts. Anything like a “restaurant atmosphere” was anathema to a Y.M.C.A. cafeteria in Flint Michigan (1918). The Old Colony Coffee House in Richmond VA renounced “ordinary restaurant atmosphere” in 1924 and vowed it would have instead “simplicity in decorations” and “plainness in food.” Patrons of traditionally masculine restaurants feared that when Chicago’s J. R. Thompson’s tore out its white tiles for a more feminine look it had destroyed its no-nonsense atmosphere and gone “girly girly.” Likewise, design critic Lewis Mumford shuddered when the Childs’ chain replaced the “antiseptic elegance” of its “hospital ward atmosphere” for “fake fifteenth century English,” betraying the honest utilitarianism of the Machine Age. No doubt Mumford chuckled when Alice Foote MacDougall, queen of scenographic Spanish villas and French chateaux in NYC, went bankrupt in 1932. [see The Cortile below]

atmosphereCortile

In the 1950s there was still a tendency in the restaurant industry to see women as the constituency for atmosphere while men supposedly judged a restaurant first by its food quality. But by the 1960s this was no longer true, as indisputably demonstrated by the success of Polynesian restaurants. An executive of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) said that Americans’ demand for atmosphere had raised the cost of opening a restaurant to $4,000 a seat in 1962.

One of the early chains built around atmospheric theme restaurants was David Tallichet’s Specialty Restaurant Corporation in California. In 1965 the firm opened Gate of Spain, capturing the “atmosphere of old Castile” atop a tall building in Santa Monica. Restaurant industry consultant George Wenzel recommended the following year that restaurateurs “give your guests something to do or something to see, or something to make conversations about.” He suggested creating a Gay Nineties or a river boat atmosphere.

In the 1970s theme restaurants came into their own, classified by the NRA as one of three of the basic types of restaurant in 1976, and the one that drew the most affluent guests.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Taste of a decade: 1840s restaurants

1849Marden'sEating places began to show a French influence as places called “restaurants” and “cafes” replaced “eating houses.” Many hotels adopted the European plan which allowed guests to choose where they would eat instead of including meals in the hotel in the room charge, a change that encouraged the growth of independent eating places. A “restaurant culture” had begun to develop, yet with stiff resistance from many who associated restaurants with vice and immorality.

Menus, particularly those of cheaper eating places, contained mostly meat, pastry, and ever-popular oysters. Meat production was still local; NYC had 200 slaughterhouses in operation. Out-of-season fresh produce was beginning to come North by steamboat from the South, but still not in large quantities. Harvey Parker’s well-known eating house in Boston was celebrated for acquiring peas from Virginia in 1841, but strawberries remained a seasonal delicacy in the Northeast later in the decade.

U.S. territory grew substantially when Texas became a state. Oregon territory was acquired, along with a big chunk of what had been Mexico (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California). Gold was discovered in California and almost overnight San Francisco became a city of 25,000. San Francisco’s Tadich Grill, still around today, was one of the many restaurants that opened to serve the newcomers. The restaurant business was also doing well in New Orleans, home of generous “free lunch” buffets.

Among the middle classes in the Northeast the movement to discourage heavy drinking – or any at all — resulted in the establishment of “temperance restaurants” that served no alcoholic beverages.

1848Milliken'sBostonEating away from home remained a male activity mostly, as was true at The Alhambra in Richmond VA and Taft’s near Boston, but women sometimes made an appearance. Although an advertisement for the popular and inexpensive Milliken’s in Boston pictured men, it also advised it had  “apartments [dining rooms] for ladies exclusively.” (As the illustration shows, a stout figure was admired then.)

Highlights

1840 If a diner wants to leave his waiter a tip in a cheap eating house, the standard amount is 1 cent, which usually amounts to about 5%.

1841 The Colored American, a weekly newspaper dedicated to elevating the moral and social stature of free Blacks, declares it will accept no advertising for restaurants because they mostly dispense not “wholesome food for the body” but “liquid death, both for body and mind.”

1842 The Franklin Café and Restaurant, located in Philadelphia’s elegant Franklin House (hotel) announces it is serving Ice Cream, Sherbets, and Roman Punch made by a graduate of the world-famous Café Tortoni in Paris.

1843 When a group of temperance advocates visits the Eagle Coffee House in Concord NH to convince the proprietor to give up the sale of intoxicating drinks, he tells them that he would feel “very mean” if he had to refuse a visitor from Boston a drink.

1844 P. B. Brigham announces he has hired the best French and Italian “Artistes” for his Restaurant, Ice Cream, and Oyster Saloon in Boston and has a Ladies’ Saloon newly “fitted up in the Parisian style.”

1845Harvard

1845 Harvard forbids its students, all male then, from going to Cambridge eating and drinking places without a guardian.

1846 In an era when Black men occupy an important role in the catering business, NYC society caterer George T. Downing opens a summer branch of his business in Newport RI.

1846 A journalist travels somewhere “way out west” and eats at a small town tavern where the fare consists of ham and eggs fried in lard, hog jowl and greens (called corndoggers), and brains with greens, washed down with corn liquor or sassafras tea.

1849NYC

1847 Luxury comes to Baltimore with the opening of the Parisian Restaurant with a “French Cook.” As in Europe, Ladies (accompanied by Gentlemen) are to be honored in a private parlor “where it is hoped that they will be able to enjoy the luxuries of Oysters, Game, etc., from which they have been heretofore excluded.”

1848 In his vivid newspaper series New York in Slices, George G. Foster writes that about 30,000 persons who work in mercantile and financial occupations eat daily in the restaurants of lower Manhattan, and most of them “gorge . . . disgusting masses of stringy meat and tepid vegetables.”

1849 The Home Journal is convinced that the presence of restaurants, cafes, refectories, and oyster saloons, “on almost every corner of the streets” in cities is certain to lead young men to lives of “sensual excesses.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Eating Chinese

lynn1937KingJoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

WsEatChinese

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Park and eat

parkingJohnson'sHummocksProvidence

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

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

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

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

parkinggridlockLAmid1920s

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

parkingFlumeTeaHouseNH1933

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Thanksgiving quiz: dinner times four

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

TDaymenuChicken

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

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

tdaymenuTurkey3

 

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

Answers in the Comments, on Thanksgiving Day.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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