Tag Archives: 1910s

Picky eaters: Helen and Warren

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Helen and Warren liked eating in restaurants in the early 20th century when it was a rare experience for most Americans. They kept up with the trends and they tried restaurants of every format. They were affluent New Yorkers, somewhat jaded and always seeking the new thing.

Helen wanted to avoid expense and ostentation but was uncomfortable in offbeat places. Warren was cynical and alternately a cheapskate or big-spender. Both were distrustful. They feared they’d be taken advantage of, and sometimes were.

In the 1920s Helen and Warren were the best known couple in the U.S.A.

But they were fictional. They were the creation of Mabel Herbert Urner who wrote a column about the pair for over thirty years, from 1910 until the early 1940s.  The column was widely syndicated in newspapers from Boston to Los Angeles as well as in Canada and England. Though fiction, the column presents a fascinating subjective view of dining out, particularly in the 1910s and 1920s.

HelenandWarrenLathropandMabelHelen’s and Warren’s experiences likely had some resemblance to Mabel’s own life, particularly when the couple visited restaurants in Paris, London, and other European capitals. After marrying rare book dealer and collector Lathrop Colgate Harper in 1912, Mabel traveled with him around the world. In New York they lived in an apartment at 1 Lexington Avenue across from Gramercy Park from which they surely forayed into restaurants regularly.

Did Mabel and Lathrop, like her famous pair, have a preference for out-of-the-way restaurants such as the French and Italian tables d’hôtes in NYC? One starlit summer night in 1913 Helen dragged Warren to a backyard café run by three sisters. Helen exclaimed “Why, it’s a bit of Paris!” when she stepped into the garden. They were surrounded by writers, artists, and illustrators, including a “queerly dressed” literary woman. (Mabel’s inside joke?) Warren, a successful businessman, scoffed at the artists but even he had to admit afterward, “That [was] the best dinner in New York for the money.” They paid 65 cents each for soup, beef tongue with piquant sauce, squab, and salad, finished with fresh pears, Camembert, and coffee – wine included. The café was clearly modeled on that run by the Petitpas sisters on W. 29th in conjunction with a boarding house where artist John Butler Yeats lived. A dinner with Yeats and friends about this time was memorialized in a painting by John Sloan.

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The Petitpas dinner was one of the couple’s few positive experiences. As much as Helen was drawn to offbeat restaurants, she was often squeamish about unsanitary conditions. She refused to eat ground meat. Usually she wiped her silverware with her napkin. She had problems in a Chinese restaurant, an Italian place, an “anarchist restaurant,” probably Maria’s, as well as at the Pink Parrot in Greenwich Village (probably the Pepper Pot, shown here). When she pushed away her plate there, Warren reprimanded her, saying, “You’re a bum bohemian.”

Helen and Warren visited cafeterias, tea rooms, pre-war cabarets, hotel dining rooms, roadhouses, and shoreline resorts in the NYC metro area. Helen was often embarrassed by Warren’s behavior when he showed off or spent too much money. They bickered. He declared a tea room she liked “a sucker joint.” She was critical of the decor and pomp of expensive restaurants, but her attempts to put a brake on Warren’s spending often backfired.

In 1913 they went to a restaurant in the throes of a waiters’ strike. Somewhat surprisingly, considering the bourgeois lifestyles of both Mabel and Helen, the story presents a case for the strikers. Helen questions their server about the goals of the strike, and he says, “They want decent food, m’am; clean food and a clean place to eat it. They want to be treated like men – not dogs! And they want a living wage.” Warren asks about tips and the waiter replies, “Why does he have to depend on tips thrown at him?”

In many ways Helen’s and Warren’s restaurant adventures and complaints seem relevant today. Has it happened to you that a server tries to remove your meal in progress? Have you been charged extra for bread? Welcome to the 1910s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Women’s restaurants

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Not all restaurants have been purely, or even mainly, commercial ventures. This was particularly true of women’s suffrage eating places and those of the 1970s feminist movement.

Although the women’s restaurants of these two periods were quite different in some ways, they shared a dedication to furthering women’s causes and giving women spaces of their own in which to eat meals, hold meetings, and in the 1970s, to enjoy music and poetry by women.

SuffrageLunchBoston1918In the 1910s most major U.S. cities had at least one suffrage restaurant, tea room, or lunch room sponsored by an organization such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

As was true of later feminist restaurants, those of the suffrage era tended to be small and undercapitalized. An exception was the suffrage restaurant financed by the wealthy socialite Alva Belmont in NYC. In terms of patronage, it was almost certainly the most successful women’s restaurant of either era. It reportedly served 900 meals per day from a low-priced menu on which most items were 5 or 10 cents and consisted of soup, fish cakes, baked beans, and home-made pie.

Suffrage restaurants admitted men and welcomed the opportunity to ply them with leaflets and home-made soups, salads, and fritters that would incline them to support the cause. An aged Philadelphia activist recalled in 1988, “I worked at a suffrage tea room. We lured men in, for a good, cheap business lunch. Then you could hand them literature and talk.” In the NYC restaurant operated by NAWSA in 1911, it was impossible to ignore the suffrage issue since every dish, glass, and napkin bore script saying Votes for Women.

suffrageRestaurant1912Though dedicated to women’s causes, women’s restaurants were not free of conflict. Many suffragists objected to how Alva Belmont ruled with an iron fist, brusquely ordering servers around until they walked out on strike, followed by the dishwashers. Belmont was ridiculed when she brought in her butler and footman to fill the gap. Her footman quit too. Some feminist restaurants experienced discord over cooperative management and, especially, whether or not to serve men.

The first feminist restaurant, NYC’s Mother Courage, was founded in April of 1972. (Its co-founder Dolores Alexander discussed it in 2004-2005 interviews.) Others established in the 1970s included Susan B. Restaurant, Chicago; Bread & Roses, Cambridge MA; The Brick Hut, Berkeley CA; Los Angeles Women’s Saloon and Parlor, Hollywood CA; and Bloodroot, Bridgeport CT). Undoubtedly there were more, especially in college towns like Eugene OR and Iowa City IA. In the 1980s a number of women’s coffeehouses appeared, but they were performance spaces more than eating places.

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As part of the counterculture, 1970s feminist restaurants typically aimed at a broad set of goals. Women’s equal position in society was paramount but it was embedded in a project of establishing a more peaceful and egalitarian world. Feminist restaurants rotated jobs and paid everyone the same wages. They raised capital by small donations from friends. Staffs were entirely female and women also did most of the renovating. Their decor was spare, with exposed brick walls, mismatched furniture, and chalkboard menus. They served simple peasant-style food, usually prepared from scratch. Some served wine and beer. More often than not menus were vegetarian, or at least beef-less. The L. A. Women’s Saloon and Parlor supported farm workers and would not serve grapes or lettuce. The Brick Hut boycotted Florida orange juice during the anti-gay campaign of spokesperson Anita Bryant. The Women’s Saloon avoided diet plates and sodas, deeming them insulting to large-sized women.

Many proponents of feminist restaurants felt that women were often treated poorly in restaurants, many of which regarded men as their prime customers. Feminist restaurants made a point of  presenting women dining with men with the check and wine to sample. But for many women patrons, perhaps especially lesbians, the enjoyment of a non-hostile space was more significant.

At some point each feminist restaurant confronted the touchy question of whether they would serve men. Considerable acrimony erupted around this question at the Susan B. Restaurant in Chicago and Bread & Roses in Cambridge, resulting in the former restaurant’s closure after only a few months. At Bread & Roses a co-founder exercised non-consensus managerial power and fired a server who made men and some heterosexual women feel unwelcome, setting off rounds of group meetings. The restaurant, opened in 1974, was put up for sale and in 1978 became the short-lived “women only” Amaranth restaurant and performance space.

Today Bloodroot may be the sole survivor of the feminist restaurant era.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Kate Munra

With her Early-American-style ringlets and silk gowns, already outdated by 1900 when this portrait was taken, white-haired Katherine Sterrett Munra scarcely looks like a highly skilled hospitality professional. And yet she was.

She was a pinch hitter for the Oregon Rail &Navigation Company whose trains ran across Oregon through the rugged Blue Mountains. She worked at many of their establishments as well as overseeing food facilities at Oregon’s hotels and resorts as well as at a university and a department store.

In the 1870s, at the then-advanced age of 44, she moved to southern California from her hometown of Erie PA where she ran a boarding house and raised three children single-handedly. Her marriage had ended, probably through desertion or divorce. In the seven years she lived in California she married twice and ran two boarding houses. After her second husband’s death she married an accountant, Selkirk Munra, and they took a steamer to Oregon, assuming management of a hotel in Eugene.

Next they managed the O. R. & N.’s dining facility at Bonneville. When the railroad closed it down, they returned to Eugene as managers of another hotel there. We then find Kate running the student dining halls at the University of Oregon, Eugene. Next, in December of 1894 she went back to work for the railroad, choosing furnishings for the new log hotel and restaurant in Meacham. She managed it from its inauguration in January 1895 until it was destroyed by fire in 1902.

A publicity agent for the O. R. & N. may have been responsible for dubbing Kate “Grandma,” a dubious title commonly bestowed on women past 60. He heaped praise upon the Log Cabin, calling it a “frontier Delmonico’s” and a “mountain-gulch Waldorf ” where the rugged West melded with the “refined luxury of the metropolis.” “Cabin, tables, linen, china, silver, glass and waiter-girls are all the perfection of neatness and cleanliness, and the cookery is as dainty as that of the daintiest old-time private family,” he wrote. Although Kate learned to cook as a child and could have prepared the meals, her role was to supervise the kitchen and dining room staffs.

After the Log Cabin burned Kate managed the railroad’s hotel at Huntington OR, and then a private resort at Hood River called the Country Club Inn. In the winter of 1904, when the inn was closed for the season, she presided over the opening of a tea room at Portland’s Olds-Wortman department store. She might well have retired at this point, but in 1905 came an announcement that she would act as housekeeper for the Hotel Sommer in La Grande OR. She was 75.

Eventually she did retire, joining her daughter’s household in Portland and living until age 92. She was a suffragist and friend of Oregon suffrage leader Agnes Lane. In recognition of her pioneering role in Oregon’s development a peak in the Blue Mountains was named for her in 1915.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

Other posts on restaurant women:
Richards Treat cafeteria
Miss Hulling’s cafeteria
Anna de Naucaze
Harriet Moody
Romany Marie
Mary Alletta Crump
Afro-American women
The Maramor
Mary Elizabeth’s
Women culinary professionals
Alice Foote MacDougall

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Busy bees

A 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Nick of Time,” was set in a restaurant outfitted with a devilish fortune-telling device. The restaurant, supposedly in Ohio, was ordinary and undistinguished, with booths and laminated table tops.

The story’s writer chose a common name for it, one found in practically every city and small town across the entire United States: the Busy Bee.

I “collect” this name. To me it resonates with the typical 20th-century eating place. Judging from advertisements for eateries called The Busy Bee, they staked their reputations on being clean, economical, briskly efficient, and friendly.

I also find the name interesting because it is entirely divorced from place, proprietor’s ethnicity, and type of cuisine. Yet I’ve found that many restaurants of this name had proprietors who were of Polish, Italian, or Greek ethnic origins.

In the 19th century it was typical for restaurants to go by their proprietor’s surname. Over the 20th century, by contrast, many restaurants adopted “made up” names that were intended to suggest something positive, appealing, or at least memorable. I suspect that one of the factors propelling this change was the chance to background the ethnicity of the proprietor, particularly around World War I when much of the country became intolerant of those not native born. Busy Bee became one of the most common names around.

Also, restaurants owned by Greek-Americans, of which there were very many, were often run by multiple partners. It would be somewhat unwieldy if, for instance, the proprietors of the Busy Bee in Monessen PA in 1915 had decided to call their restaurant Chrysopoulos, Boulageris, Paradise, & Lycourinos. They might have taken the liberty of dubbing their establishment Four Brothers from Mykonos but they chose Busy Bee instead. [pictured: Busy Bee in Winchester VA -- its proprietor, James Pappas, was born in Greece ca. 1889]

I have yet to find a Chinese restaurant called the Busy Bee but I’ll keep looking – I know there had to be a few.

Among many locations, I’ve found Busy Bees in Mobile AL as early as 1898, in Bisbee AZ in 1915, and in New York City’s Bowery, for decades presided over by Max Garfunkel. It was at Max’s Busy Bee, in 1917, that alumni of the Short Story Correspondence Schools of North America convened to greet the author of “Ten Thousand Snappy Synonyms for ‘Said He.’” Many Busy Bees became headquarters for meetings of business, civic, and social clubs.

Busy Bees were not known for any particular culinary specialties, offering instead home cooking favorites plus the inevitable chili and other Americanized foreign dishes such as spaghetti and chop suey. The four popular Busy Bees in Columbus OH, nonetheless, had an attractive array of warm weather choices on their June 29, 1909, menu which included Spring Vegetable Salad (10 cents), as well as Blackberries or Sliced Peaches in Cream (10 cents) and Fresh Peach Ice Cream (15 cents).

The Busy Bee name lives on even today, though perhaps less robustly. I was surprised there was not a single Busy Bee mentioned in Joanne Raetz Stuttgen’s books on contemporary “down home” cafes in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Is there a common restaurant name all around us today that will come to characterize the 21st century?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Taste of a decade: 1910s restaurants

Like the decade following World War I, this was an eventful period in the development of the restaurant. Social and economic changes favored the growth of eating out. Even before the U.S. entered the war in April of 1917 restaurant patronage was on the rise and by the following year the Food Administration, under the direction of future president Herbert Hoover, estimated that more food was consumed in restaurants than in homes.

It was a schizophrenic decade. It opened with an accent on the high life but ended in austerity mode. Luxurious cabarets and “lobster palaces” of the early decade would sink into oblivion near its close. But at the same time urbanized speed-up and intense modern work regimes inclined people to seek more outlets for pleasure. Increasing numbers of single male and female white-collar workers in cities abandoned the old home-based courtship tradition; the new custom of middle-class dating brought a search for entertainment and swelled restaurant going. With better public transportation and the feminization of downtowns, more and more women patronized tea rooms and restaurants in and around department stores.

Due to growing sentiment against drinking, the saloon free lunch was on the skids by mid-decade. State-wide prohibition spread and the majority of the nation’s population soon lived in areas where the sale of alcohol was illegal. Saloon keepers remaining in the larger cities saw that their days were numbered and began to take out restaurant licenses. Authorities suspected that many of the restaurants did not actually serve meals but just wanted to evade laws which forced saloons to close on Sundays. Nevertheless, the trend would increasingly become genuine and bars would be turned into lunch counters and soda fountains.

In a tight labor market accompanied by Food Administration conservation measures that discouraged frills, most of the new restaurants were lunch rooms of the self-service type. In them customers avoided tipping and enjoyed lower prices for simple ready-to-eat meals.

American involvement in the war encouraged anti-ethnic sentiment, particularly toward Germans. Many restaurants took steps to appear more American, such as changing their names. Patrons expressed a wish to see menus with no French or other foreign terms. With the sudden end to European immigration, culinary labor unions took the opportunity to strike for shorter hours and higher wages. Frequently restaurant owners responded by replacing striking male waiters with women, who were believed to be more docile.

Highlights

1910 Measured as a ratio of restaurant keepers to total population, the nation’s top five restaurant cities are: 1) Seattle (1:434); 2) San Francisco (1:449); 3) Los Angeles (1:560); 4) Kansas City (1:580); and Manhattan (1:583)*. Los Angeles claims the reason for so many restaurants is its wealth of tourists and single men.

1911 Until legal counsel advises this would be a discriminatory misuse of police powers, the Massachusetts Legislature bandies about the notion of making it illegal for women under 21 to enter Chinese restaurants.

1912 New York City’s first Horn & Hardart Automat opens. – Speedy service is prized even at Casebeer’s Lazy J Cafeteria in Waterloo, Iowa, where the slogan is “One minute service – We don’t waste your time.”

1913 The diary of an executive secretary in NYC shows her eating in restaurants over 100 times during the year, including her first-ever restaurant breakfast. Among her favorites are Childs, Schrafft’s, The Goody Shop, and The Vanity Fair and The Rip Van Winkle tea rooms.

1913 NYC’s cabarets and “lobster palaces” such as Murray’s, Martin’s, and Shanley’s, formerly open all night, take a hit as the mayor orders 1:00 a.m. closings.

1914 Despite earning only $5.85 a week, a woman working in an Ohio playing card factory spends 30% of her food budget on restaurant meals, most costing 25 cents.

1915 An exact replica of a white-tiled Childs lunchroom is featured in a scene of a Broadway play directed by David Belasco.

1916 On one short block near Boston’s Newspaper Row, twelve restaurants serve 40,000 meals daily. – In the novel The Thirteenth Commandment a young couple gets engaged after a “a typical New York courtship [in which] they visited restaurants of all degrees.”

1917 Although the managers of Chicago’s Bismarck Hotel station an American flag at the entrance to the dining room (the Berlin Room), it is damaged by dynamite just a few months after the U.S. enters war with Germany. — The Kaiserhof Cafe in NYC changes its name to Cafe New York.

1918 Restaurants place glass on tabletops to save linens and laundry for the duration of the war. They remove sugar bowls, take cheese dishes such as Welsh rarebit off their menus, and feature more hors d’oeuvres, fresh vegetables, salads, fruits, seafoods, and organ meats.

1919 In response to labor agitation, restaurant men organize and hold the first National Restaurant Association convention in Kansas City MO. – Louis Sherry announces he will close his deluxe Fifth Avenue restaurant due to hardships imposed by Prohibition and “Bolsheviki waiters.”

* By comparison a recent NYT story reported that the U.S. city with the highest number of restaurants per capita is San Francisco, where the ratio is 1:227. NYC is 1:347.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1850 to 1860; 1860 to 1870; 1870 to 1880; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970

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Dipping into the finger bowl

Once upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.

Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*

These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.

Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.

Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.

For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.

Whether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.

But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.

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The Craftsman, a model restaurant

The restaurant operated by Gustav Stickley on the 12th floor of his retail house furnishings store on 39th street in NYC was a brave but brief experiment in pure food, sanitation, and “progressive living.” It opened in May of 1913 and was out of business a few months short of three years later when the entire retail business failed.

The restaurant’s ability to attract patronage was undoubtedly limited since it was intended to appeal to the same people who admired Arts & Crafts furniture and house fixtures. This did not include most Americans, particularly new immigrants who populated big cities such as New York. Additionally, restaurants located in stores, even big department stores which can attract hordes of shoppers each day, typically lose money.

The restaurant followed the same aesthetic, both in its decor and its approach to food preparation, that defined the Craftsman Workshop’s project generally. The Workshop’s ambitions were captured in the motto which appeared on furniture labels and the restaurant’s china: “Als ik kan.” In its quaint Dutch formulation, it was a pledge to do one’s very best work.

When applied to food this meant pure and fresh ingredients straight from the source, simply prepared by cooks using modern appliances in a pleasant work environment, and consumed slowly in a restful setting. “Style,”whether in house furnishings or a meal, was supposed to emerge organically from an honest approach to materials and workmanship. A 1910 article in the influential Stickley publication The Craftsman identified a type of ideal restaurant, the down-to-earth “marketman’s” café (such as New York’s Smith & McNell or Boston’s Durgin-Park) which used fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and fowl that had never seen the inside of a factory or cold-storage warehouse.

Provisions such as eggs, dairy products, vegetables, and spring water served for lunch[eon], teatime, and dinner at the Craftsman Restaurant were trucked in daily from Stickley’s 600-acre Craftsman Farms in Morris Plains NJ. As food reformer and “real food” proponent Alfred W. McCann argued, the restaurant was a model for the entire industry. “The legalized chemical preservatives, chemical bleachers, chemical glazes, chemical flavors, inert fillers and extenders, coal tar dyes and grossly impoverished foods, however popular, can find no place on the Craftsman bill-of-fare,” he wrote in 1915.

The Craftsman Restaurant was a haven for people of “good taste” wishing to avoid the show-off culture of champagne and loud music exemplified by lobster palaces and cabarets. It was the polar opposite of the garish Café de l’Opera, though ironically each in its own way was a spectacular failure. The Craftsman appealed to patrons such as well-to-do club women and college alumni groups. Shortly before it closed, the restaurant hosted Columbia University’s class of 1902. They enjoyed their dinner but were sorely disappointed to find out that the restaurant served no alcoholic beverages.

The dining room was decorated in earth tones: browns, deep reds, oatmeals, and creams. Plates, bowls, and cups were rimmed with a pinecone design. Bread was served in handmade willow baskets. The wood floor was mostly left bare while the tables were covered with criss-crossing Irish linen runners. A focal point of the room was a Germanic-looking hearth covered in Grueby tiles, with a hammered copper hood.

In keeping with the subdued decor, quiet and low-key service was accomplished by what one visitor described as “soft-treading little men of Nippon,” while stringed instruments softly played “something familiar from Grieg or [Edward] MacDowell.” This was most definitely not a restaurant for rowdies.

The store and restaurant closed early in 1916. In August the entire stock of the Craftsman Workshops store was sold at Gimbels Department Store at reductions of 35% to 50%.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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