For the record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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The ups and downs of Frank Flower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Famous in its day, now infamous: Coon Chicken Inn

coonchickeninnpc3

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

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

coonchickeninnphoto1947

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Nothing but the best, 19th cen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Revolving restaurants II: the Merry-Go-Round

merrygoroundLA1930sApart from amusement parks, I think of merry-go-rounds mostly in conjunction with bars. It seems they served as jolly imbibing venues in the 1930s after Prohibition ended. It makes me mildly queasy to think of them going round and round but presumably they revolved very slowly and presented no hazards to tipsy customers. [pictured below is San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel bar during WWII]

MerryGoRoundBarSF

Even before revolving bars came upon the scene restaurateurs were dreaming up various sorts of revolving restaurants. I’ve written before about rotating restaurants atop tall buildings that let diners gaze upon ever-changing vistas spread out before them. California also had counter-style restaurants made with a revolving inner counter that held food in glass-enclosed compartments, almost like a revolving Automat, but without slots for coins. Some were round while others had a U-shape.

Merry-Go-Round-CafeNo.4Gustav and Gertrude Kramm were likely the first to introduce the merry-go-round concept to diners. Around 1930 they established two Merry-Go-Round Cafes in Long Beach CA incorporated as Revolving Table Cafés, Ltd. The corporation also produced the revolving serving tables. In 1931 Gustav filed a patent application for a “Café Table of the Traveling Conveyor Type,” for which engineer Harold Hackett was listed as inventor. It involved two conveyors, the top loaded with prepared relishes, salads, sandwiches, and desserts, and the lower one transporting dirty dishes to the kitchen. The conveyor traveled slowly enough, and the selection of dishes was repeated often enough, that customers could lift the glass doors and remove food easily.

merrygoroundcafeSFHot food, particularly main dishes, soup, and coffee, was delivered by servers who worked behind the counter.

Essentially the conveyor system was implemented so that the maximum number of customers could be served a fairly wide range of food inexpensively in a limited amount of space. The specialty of the Merry-Go-Rounds was the provision of full meals averaging 35 to 50 cents, an attractive bargain during the Depression. For 50 cents diners could order a main dish such as Ham Steak with Country Gravy and then choose two salads and two desserts from the revolving counter, along with all the relishes, rolls & butter, and coffee they wanted.

The Kramms operated some of the Merry-Go-Rounds and leased others. By the end of 1930 there were units in Long Beach (2), Los Angeles (4), and Seattle WA (1). Later Merry-Go-Rounds were opened in Huntington Park, Pasadena, San Diego, San Francisco, and possibly Santa Barbara, California. I’m not sure how long the restaurants remained in business but I could find no trace of them beyond 1941.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Basic fare: shrimp

Shrimpjumbo60sLARecently I heard that a shortage of shrimp due to disease is causing prices to shoot up. I stopped to wonder how long shrimp had been on American restaurant menus. I could find no instances before the Civil War.

Americans have probably been eating shrimp at home for centuries but shrimp didn’t make a splash in American cookbooks until after the Civil War when they became available in cans. Shrimp salad, usually whole shrimp piled up on lettuce with a mayonnaise dressing, became something of a delicacy that was especially popular with women. It began to show up on hotel menus as well.

shrimpcocktailShrimp cocktail, not really so different than shrimp salad, became a staple of banquets in the early 20th century. Instead of mayonnaise a cocktail sauce was used; it was similar or the same as oyster sauce and based on catsup with ingredients such as lemon or vinegar, tabasco or Worcestershire sauce, and horseradish added to give it zing.

Fried shrimp seems to have become a menu item in the early 20th century also, but breaded, deep fried shrimp did not make its big debut until after World War II when pre-cooked frozen shrimp,  plain or breaded, came on the market. Then shrimp dinners, relatively cheap because the breading could cover less desirable specimens, became available everywhere, even in many drive-ins.

shrimpBurdick'sDrive-InSt.Petes1952

Until the advent of frozen shrimp, shrimp cocktail and fried shrimp were found most often on  menus of restaurants in the Gulf states and California. In the late 19th and early 20th century locally caught shrimp were so plentiful in San Francisco that it was the custom for restaurants to present diners with a free plate of shrimp to nibble on before their meal was delivered.

Importation of shrimp from Mexico and India began in the early 1950s, but evidently it took some time before prices went down. Shrimp cocktail remained a minor luxury for many people through the 1960s. The cost of shrimp was high enough in the mid-1950s to make the theft of frozen shrimp a serious issue for New York’s Mamma Leone’s, which lost thousands of dollars worth of $1.12/lb shrimp to a ring of thieves. The thieves turned out to be a pantry man colluding with garbage collectors who resold the shrimp to other restaurants.

In today’s dollars Mamma Leone’s shrimp cost close to $10/lb, but in actuality prices are much lower than that now due to shrimp farms in Asia and Ecuador that supply most of what Americans eat in restaurants.

shrimp1977RichmondVAOne last note, on the distinction among shrimp, scampi, and prawns. This could launch a long discussion about how many species of shrimp there are, what they are called in various parts of the world, etc. But for all practical purposes, in standard menu-ese scampi, often given as “shrimp scampi” on menus, refers to shrimp cooked in butter and garlic and prawns are very large or “jumbo” shrimp. Sometimes the terms are bizarrely combined on menus. The finest example of this I’ve seen was a 1977 Richmond VA menu partially shown above. For an International Seafood Festival it offered an Italian special called Scampi Portofino which was described as “Jumbo Shrimp Prawns.” I guess those were really, really big shrimp-style shrimp.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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We never close

allnight758One way of sorting eating places is by the hours they keep. Those that are open 24 hours a day stand out from the crowd by their tirelessness and involvement in sometimes unwanted adventures.

Mostly there are three kinds of customers for all-night restaurants: those who travel at night, those who work at night, and those who play at night.

In pre-Civil War NYC all night eateries were haunts of “b’hoys,” a class of rogue males (sometimes accompanied by their g’hals) prominently made up of firemen and the more prosperous newsboys. They enjoyed oyster cellars, but one of their favorite places in the 1840s was Butter-cake Dick’s, where for a mere 6 cents they could get a generous plate of biscuits with butter and a cup of coffee.

ComicCheatingHusbandThe authors of the many Victorian “lights and shadows” books about urban immorality were quite fascinated by the dubious goings on in all-night supper clubs. No doubt their readers felt a shiver of horrified excitement when they spotted signs along city streets advising “Ladies’ dining parlor, up stairs”’ or “Refreshments at all hours.” Was it or wasn’t it?

One such book was George Ellington’s The Women of New York; Or, the Under-world of the Great City. But even Ellington observed that patrons of private dining rooms in these quasi-bordellos were also there to eat. He reported that patrons could be discovered consuming fish balls or pickled salmon at 3 or 4 a.m.

allnight761

People working at night surely outnumbered the pleasure seekers. Thomas Edison recalled that when his machine shop was on Goerck Street in NYC in the 1880s he used to grab a bite at 2 or 3 a.m. at a rough little place: “It was the toughest kind of restaurant ever seen. For the clam chowder they used the same four clams during the whole season, and the average number of flies per pie was seven. This was by actual count.” No doubt many of his fellow diners included some outside the law but also other denizens of the night such as newspaper printers, trolley conductors, bakers, and factory shift workers.

All-night restaurants were not just found in NYC but in all big cities and were often densest in areas near newspapers, city food markets, and ferries. Chicago’s all-night cafes on State Street were often portrayed as unsavory places where police connected with “stool pigeons” enjoying their midnight snack. Upstanding citizens shrank from the mere thought of all-night eateries but in actuality they were probably some of the most democratic places in that they drew characters from all stations of life.

allnight760

An all-nighter of renown in the 20th century was Coffee Dan’s, originally in San Francisco, which operated as an eating and entertainment venue, then a speakeasy in the 1920s and early 1930s. Its attitude in the mid-1920s is nicely expressed in the claim, “There will be dancing to the tinkle of a piano; there will be songs and it will never, never close, not even for fire, not even if the supply of ham and eggs is exhausted.” Coffee Dan’s expanded into a small chain and the Hollywood location became something of a gay hangout in the 1950s, a role played by all-night cafeterias such as Stewart’s in NYC’s Greenwich Village.

With so many night shifts for war workers in World War II, the demand for all-night restaurants rose to new heights. A 1948 restaurant sanitation manual noted how difficult it became to clean restaurants during wartime because of the never-ceasing 24-hour influx of customers.

allnight757The only figures I’ve run across concerning all-night restaurants were from the mid-1960s when 10% of eating places fell into that category. Some chain restaurants, especially coffee shops, pancake houses, and places offering breakfast at all hours, are founded on the 24-hour principle. Often they are located near highway exits to capture truck drivers and other nocturnal travelers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

See also:
Toddle House
Cabarets and lobster palaces

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