Tag Archives: 1940s

Who was the mystery diner?

Jamescover795I am now the happy owner of Rian James’ Dining in New York published in 1930. When I opened it, I discovered a nice surprise: someone had penciled notes next to many of the restaurants described in the book.

This is a big deal to a restaurant historian because it is so hard to find out what consumers thought about restaurants in the past. Today it is easy, but in 1930, for instance, few people recorded their restaurant experiences and opinions in writing, possibly because it seemed trivial.

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As I looked at the comments I wondered who wrote them. Was it the person whose name is inside the cover? And just what is that name? M. Z. Mells? Or, were the notes made by someone other than the book’s owner?

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I puzzled over whether the writer was a man or a woman. There seems to be conflicting “evidence.” I find the handwriting ambiguous. As for content, on the one hand MZM used words such as “delightful” and “yummy,” went to lunch with Mother, Aunt Frances, and Mother’s friend Mrs. Claggett, and enjoyed the Gypsy Tea Shop (“Went here often with Mother – lots of fun”), all suggesting that MZM was female. But, then again, MZM loved the thick lamb chops at Keen’s Chop House, appreciated the Maitre d’ at the Roosevelt Grill, and often went to ice hockey games with Uncle Frank after dining at the Hotel Astor, hinting at maledom.

JamesrooseveltgrillThe surname Mells is uncommon. I found no M. Z. Mells, but did find a few women named Mells in NYC whose first names began with M. The strongest candidate was Mildred Mells. Born in New York City around 1910, in 1930 she worked as a model for a dress manufacturer and lived with her widowed mother and an older sister who was a supervisor for the telephone company. Her age meshed with the book’s publication and with the comment next to Enrico and Paglieri’s: “went there from childhood till 1945.”

JamesDivanParisienMZM added glowing comments, not only about the Roosevelt Grill (above), but also Keen’s (“Loved this place!”), The Lafayette and The Brevoort (both “old N.Y.C. landmarks”), Cavanagh’s (“A favorite place!”), Divan Parisien (“So good!”), and Charles French restaurant (“Excellent food and service”). In MZM’s minus column were The Wivel (“I liked other Swedish restaurants better.”), Luchow’s (“This was a very famous place but I didn’t care much for it or its food.”), and the Brass Rail, which merited the only comment written in the present tense (“don’t like this place”).

The writer couldn’t remember if s/he ever went to the Village Barn or Billy the Oysterman. S/he had eaten at Sardi’s, Zucca’s, Barney Gallant’s, The Commodore Grill, and Feltman’s on Coney Island but had no comments on them. And MZM regretted never making it to The Marguery or The Claremont Inn on Riverside Drive and 126th Street (“Went by this place hundreds of times but never got there. It looked so inviting.”)

I wonder why MZM passed by the Claremont Inn so often. Is that a clue? Now you know almost as much as I do. Any ideas about this little mystery?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Once trendy: tomato juice cocktails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Famous in its day, now infamous: Coon Chicken Inn

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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.

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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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Restaurant history day

KittyFoyleLifeMagazine1940Yesterday I was fully immersed in restaurant history. Starting off the day I had an e-mail exchange with a local 1970s activist about a feminist restaurant that once operated in Northampton MA. Next I had an interesting phone call from a researcher in Minneapolis who has unearthed the early 20th-century history of Greek immigrant restaurant and confectionery proprietors in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Then, while surfing a Facebook page about my former hometown of Webster Groves, Missouri, I discovered a discussion about a long gone restaurant there that refused to serve Afro-Americans.

manhattanX3The name of the restaurant was the Toll House. I never went inside but as a child I formed the impression that it was a place where old-line Webster Grovesians went to eat club sandwiches and fruit cocktail appetizers on the nights their maids were off. Since Webster Groves was a dry town then, it was a restaurant that my parents would never have chosen – no Manhattans!

TollHouseWebsterGrovesAn undated menu reveals that the Toll House had some surprisingly (to me) upscale dishes considering its rather drab appearance and its location in a dry, Waspy suburb of St. Louis – Oysters Rockefeller (.75), Pompano (.85), Lobster (1.25), Chateaubriand (1.35), and Baked Alaska (.40).

The Toll House was the site of pickets and sit-ins against racial discrimination in 1961 and 1962. Sadly, the city of Webster Groves seemed all too ready to arrest protestors. Just how many protests took place there is unclear, but I have found evidence of at least four. In the summer of 1961, two women picketers were arrested outside the restaurant after the proprietor Myrtle Eales, who ran the restaurant with her husband Forrest, claimed they had pushed her in a scuffle. In January of 1962 thirteen black and white members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were arrested for trespassing after they occupied the restaurant for four hours without being served. Although it was a cold winter day, the owners turned the heat off and the air conditioning on in an attempt to get them to leave. That same month a group of four protestors were locked in the restaurant’s vestibule for two hours. Then in April of 1962 three white protestors, all airmen from an Illinois military base, were arrested by Webster Groves police on suspicion of being AWOL (they weren’t).

The embattled restaurant did not survive the protests. I believe it closed in 1962.

Strangely enough, the otherwise obscure Toll House had made the national news earlier when it was featured in a 1944 Life magazine article about (white) teen-age social life. At that time it was a lunch counter popular with teens for hanging out. According to a letter sent to Life after the article appeared, whoever owned the restaurant then wanted young patrons to keep out. In a large advertisement in a local newspaper the management informed parents that their unruly children were bending silverware, breaking glasses, setting napkins on fire, carving up tabletops, and destroying stools.

In 1966 the CBS documentary “Sixteen in Webster Groves” appeared, portraying the suburb’s teenagers as spoiled, conformist, and more concerned about having a nice house with gleaming silverware than with the Vietnam war or civil rights. Residents were unhappy with what they felt was a false portrayal but, I wonder, was it completely off base?

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Banquet-ing menus

As those of us who collect menus know, people are more likely to preserve menus from restaurants related to memorable occasions than those from ordinary, everyday eating places. As a result, there are more menus in the ephemera market that come from famous restaurants, voyages on ships, and banquets than from humble eateries. I tend to concentrate on the latter group, but once in a while I will buy a banquet menu that interests me.

I particularly like ones that are from professional and business trade groups, unions, and organizations such as the three shown here. Even better if they have a humorous slant, as is surprisingly often the case.

The 1941 menu at the top, from a dinner presented by the American Can Company to a California trade group at the Hotel Del Monte, shares something in common with the dinner given for the Golden Jubilee of the Oakland Typographical Union in 1936. The site of the canners’ banquet, the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey CA, like the union’s locale, the Oak Knoll Country Club in Oakland CA, was soon to become a property of the U.S. Navy. The canners may have enjoyed one of the last banquets held at the historic hotel, originally opened in 1880, but rebuilt in the 1920s after a disastrous fire.

The Oakland “Typos’” menu is one of my favorites because of its design as a proof adorned with proofreader’s corrections. It is not only clever but reminds me of a job I once had back in the days of linotype when I marked up proofs using the very same marks indicating lines to be deleted and transferred, as well as misspelled words, broken type, etc.

The Legislative Correspondents’ Association, which still exists, held its first dinner in 1900, so this menu is from its tenth, held in Albany at the Hotel Ten Eyck – on April Fools Day, 1909. Throughout it is filled with wry commentary and comical rules for the banquet governing issues around table companions and drinking. Judging from the menu, I’d think everyone got plenty to drink. Not only is the dinner accompanied by wine, champagne, liqueur, and cognac, it’s topped off with cocktails. Whoa.

I don’t know if the canners were served canned food at their banquet, but I’d say that the journalists undoubtedly enjoyed the finest cuisine of the three groups.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Restaurants and artists: Normandy House

With the recent publication of the book Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home has come renewed appreciation of Miller’s talents and of the central role he played in the birth of Chicago’s Old Town arts colony in the 1920s and 1930s. Often seen as “Chicago’s forgotten Renaissance man,” Miller is mainly admired for his imaginative renovation of apartments and studios, with Sol Kogen, employing materials from demolished buildings.

His work encompassed mural paintings [portion of Black Sheep mural below], stained glass windows, wood and stone carvings, ceramics, wallpaper, and fabrics. In addition to dwellings, his playful virtuosity in the decorative arts was bestowed upon a number of Chicago’s eating and drinking places, including Harry’s New York Bar and the several outdoor cafes at the Streets of Paris complex in the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition. Following Repeal, when money poured into updating bars and restaurants, he worked with architects such as Andrew Rebori, painting murals for bars in the Northern Lights hotel, the 885 Club, and a Fred Harvey restaurant in Dearborn Station [pictured below]. At the Tavern Club, where Miller was a member and his precocious young son Skippy would later hold “one-man” shows, he created a renowned mural called Love Through the Ages.

Normandy House on Chicago’s near north side became his ongoing project in the late 1930s and through the 1940s. The restaurant occupied the corner structure in a row of five apartment buildings, each four stories in height, at the southern end of Tower Court (aka Tower Place and North Michigan Ave.) opposite the historic water tower. Once the home of the city’s blue-bloods, by the 1920s the entire row had become a commercial property. A restaurant called the Charm House occupied the corner site until about 1937 when Grace Holverscheid bought the business, renaming it Normandy House.

Grace, a widow, operated it with her friend Helen Wing, also widowed. Grace would soon marry a third partner, Richard Tallman. All three were involved with music, Richard as a composer, Grace as a concert vocalist, and Helen as her arranger and accompanist. While running Normandy House, Helen also wrote books and composed operettas for children.

Edgar Miller lived upstairs over the restaurant, perhaps trading his artistic work in exchange for rent. During its incarnation as Charm House, the restaurant had been renovated in quaint style with beamed ceilings, etc., to resemble a sister restaurant in Cleveland OH. An Old English taproom and grill installed in the basement in 1934 – named the Black Sheep Bar by its new proprietors — became the focus of Miller’s decorative elaborations. Over the years when he, and later his family, lived on the third floor, he carved a front door, painted murals, and made stained glass windows, wood sculptures, ceramic plaques, and wall paper for the restaurant. He was assisted by his brother Frank who became the Black Sheep’s bartender.

The Millers’ quarters, up the stairs past the restaurant’s cashier, also served as studio space for Edgar and his wife, the former Dale Holcomb, who translated many of Edgar’s designs into fabrics. At any given moment the whole family, including the two young sons, might be painting portraits, squeegeeing silk screens, or engaging in any number of artistic endeavors. Other artists, musicians, and classes of art students from the Art Institute frequently paid visits.

The Normandy House, like Chicago’s Le Petit Gourmet, attracted a clientele that included club women and professional groups of architects and academics. Its menu featured favorites such as the Pink Squirrel (broiled beef tenderloin with Roquefort sauce) and Eggnog Pie, as well as 1950s innovations such as salad in wooden bowls and individual loaves of bread served on cutting boards.

Helen Wing and the Tallmans closed Normandy House and retired in the summer of 1956. Then, under the management of a long-time employee and with backing from a Florida hotel mogul, it was reopened. In 1960 it moved to Rush Street, reinstalling at least some of Miller’s pieces.

The Tower Court building housing Normandy House along with the other four buildings in the row were razed to make room for a multi-story hotel. In the 1960s Miller and his wife moved to Florida where they ran a motel until her death. Edgar lived in Taos NM, Australia, and San Francisco, then returning to Chicago where he died in 1993 at age 94.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

Read more about Edgar Miller’s life and work.

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Reuben’s: celebrities and sandwiches

Once upon a time there was a famous NYC restaurant called Reuben’s. Today there is a famous grilled sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on pumpernickel called a Reuben. Wouldn’t it make a nice story if the sandwich came from the restaurant?

The connection has been well researched yet it remains unresolved. For anyone who wants to examine the matter in detail, I recommend Jim Rader’s excellent account. He has the last word, inasmuch as there is one.

Two important points. 1) No one has come up with an early menu from Reuben’s that lists the Reuben sandwich as it is known today. It does appear under the name “Reuben’s Pioneer” on a 1971 menu but by then the sandwich could be found everywhere. 2) Despite being a publicity hound – and despite an Omaha woman winning a national contest for creating the sandwich in 1959 — founder Arnold Reuben never laid claim to it as his restaurant’s creation.

What is certain is that the fame of Reuben’s restaurant and delicatessen was built upon sandwiches — and the celebrity patrons who ate them.

I have seen a menu from Reuben’s said to be from 1922. Under the top heading “Reuben’s Famous Sandwiches” are listed 42 sandwiches. Nine are named after celebrities of stage and screen of that time. What is striking about the named sandwiches is that they cost more than the others. At the low end are ordinary sandwiches priced at 35 cents such as Salami, Corned Beef, and Liver Wurst. The special celebrity sandwiches range from 75 cents to a dollar, amounts that would then buy a whole dinner in many restaurants. The specially named sandwiches probably had more ingredients and may have been larger, but the aura of celebrity around them must have added a few cents too.

Naming sandwiches for celebrities was a publicity gimmick probably thought up by a press agent. The columnist Westbook Pegler claimed that Reuben’s initially acquired fame because of publicity generated by the audacious Harry Reichenbach who encouraged Arnold to sue a well-known New Yorker over the price of a ham in 1920. Thereafter, like Lindy’s and the Stork Club, Reuben’s was constantly in the nationally syndicated gossip columns of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

Arnold Reuben was a German Jew who, with his family, immigrated to the US as a young child around 1886. He helped out by peddling produce, then worked at a delicatessen. In 1908 he opened his own deli, which he later referred to as a “shtoonky little store.” By the end of the teens, he was thriving; he had incorporated his Pure Food Shop at 2102 Broadway and opened an eating place at 622 Madison Avenue which was popular with Broadway performers and stars from Hollywood. (Transitions from food store to restaurant are not uncommon and, as was also the case with Texas butcher shops-to-barbecues, often begins with sandwiches.) In 1928 he had a third restaurant in Philadelphia and was said to be “enormously rich.” Adopting the slogan “From a Sandwich to a National Institution,” he often told a story about the first celebrity sandwich he created – ham, cheese, turkey, cole slaw, and dressing — for a struggling young actress.

He experienced some financial difficulties in 1933 and filed for bankruptcy but only two years later was back on course with a bigger and better restaurant [pictured] to replace the one on Madison Avenue. Of critical importance to his comeback was the end of Prohibition. His opening announcement in the New York Times attested to this with a prominent display of the names of Reuben’s “friends,” seven liquor manufacturers and distributors.

In 1946 he opened a restaurant on West 57th near Carnegie Hall, with a front nearly identical to East 58th Street. Like his others it was open 24 hours. No doubt it, too, had a doorman who greeted patrons with the bywords “Reuben’s, that’s all.” Larger than the East 58th place, it was billed “A City in Itself,” and contained shops for delicatessen, flowers, chocolates, cigars, and theater tickets, as well as a perfume bar and a barber shop. Despite all, it silently disappeared a couple years later.

Arnold retired to Florida in the mid-1960s and sold the business, which he had turned over to his son to manage years earlier. Reuben’s in NYC continued under new ownership at various locations until 2001. A Reuben’s was also opened in Miami in the 1940s but I have not been able to determine its subsequent fate.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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