Tag Archives: 1960s

Champagne and roses

CoupleDining111Four years ago I wrote a Valentine’s Day post that’s really more interesting than this one, about how the thought of romance in a restaurant was a scandalous at least until after WWI. It’s one of my favorites.

This year I thought I’d explore pre-1980s restaurants that specifically advertised special dinners for Valentine’s Day. What kind of food did they typically feature, I wondered?

Turns out I found way fewer of them than I expected, especially before the 1970s, which seems to be the decade in which the idea of a going out to a restaurant for a Valentine’s dinner took off.

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Most of the dishes I found in advertisements sound less than wonderful to me. Unless you like Chicken a la King on Crisp Noodles accompanied by a “molded cherry salad with creamed cheese and nut ball center.” That was from one of the earlier advertisements (1957) for Clark’s in Cleveland (pictured above). Call me unromantic, but I don’t picture myself sitting there eating jello.

shelterislandinnDitto for the Strawberry Gelatin Salad at the Shelter Island Inn in San Diego, 1972. Rare New York Strip steak, maybe, but no thanks to the Artichoke Bottoms filled with Petite Green Peas. Does that say Be My Valentine to you?

All the advertisements from the 1960s and 1970s seem to be addressing male readers. The Ohio Brown Derby chain, offered an $8.95 Champagne dinner for two in 1969, with a 20 oz. Napoleon steak “for you” and a 10 oz. Josephine steak “for her.”

ValentineRockfordIL1975But, console yourself. If you lived in Rockford IL in 1975 you might have been munching on a Perch Dinner accompanied by Complimentary Glass of Pink Champagne at Maggie’s (All You Can Eat, $2.25) or dining at Mr. Steak.

My favorite advertisement was the dinner at the Thai Pavilion in Springfield MA, 1976. No sign of Thai food whatsoever. Instead, the menu featured Baked Stuffed Shrimp, Prime Rib, or Filet Mignon with Tossed Salad, Baked Potato, and a Fudge Pecan Cake Ball. Dinner served from 5 pm to midnight, $21 per couple. Did I mention the Thai Pavilion was handily located in a motel?

Happy Valentine’s however you celebrate. No corsages, please.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Holiday greetings from Vesuvio Café

XmasVesuvio1956

I wish I could explain the Vesuvio’s holiday cards, but I can’t. Maybe it’s enough to know that the Café was a beatnik gathering spot in San Francisco.

The café was founded in 1949 by Henry Lenoir, who wore a beret and undoubtedly preferred to spell his first name as Henri. I’m guessing he’s the aging cherub on the left on the 1956 postcard above. I couldn’t find much about him other than that he was born in Massachusetts around 1904. The son of a Swiss university professor, he was a college graduate at a time when that was fairly unusual. In 1940, before he opened the café, he worked as a salesman in a San Francisco department store that I like to think was the Emporium. He was an art lover who enjoyed the company of beats and hipsters.

I don’t know if the Vesuvio served much food. It seemed to be more of a drinking than an eating place back in the days when Henry presided behind the bar. A sign in the window advertised “booths for psychiatrists” and a “Gay ‘90s Color Television” flashed old photos of women clad in bloomers. In the late 1950s it was on the North Beach circuit for beatniks who made the rounds from the Vesuvio to the Coexistence Bagel Shop and a nameless bar called “the place.” No doubt they stopped in at the City Lights bookstore too; Henry lived upstairs.

XmasVesuvio1964It was the day of the Hungry I, the Purple Onion, and the Anxious Asp (where the restroom was papered with pages from the Kinsey Report). “The place” and the Coexistence, considered the birthplaces and headquarters of the San Francisco beats, were both gone by early 1961. But, although Henry sold the Vesuvio in 1970, it continues even today. Of course it isn’t the same. Given that Beatnik dens became tourist sites almost overnight, it already wasn’t the same in 1964 when the card with the 5 nude mannequins and one real woman modestly dressed in a long-sleeve leotard was produced.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Roast beef frenzy

neba

According to Mike Davis, creator of the Neba chain, the arrival of fast-food roast beef sandwiches in the early 1960s was a sign of an upward-bound middle class able to afford its beef sliced rather than ground to bits. His sandwiches cost 69 cents as against the 15 or 20 cents for a chain burger.

Indeed, sliced beef was big. Despite being first into the beef sandwich market, by 1967 Neba faced competition from Arby’s, Beef Corral, RoBee’s (soon to become Roy Rogers), Heap Big Beef (with its odd Indian theme), and others. Burger King and McDonald’s were testing roast beef in some of their units and Minnie Pearl’s was poised to add roast beef to its chicken menu.

NEBAADVDavis began his fast food career with submarine sandwiches, branching into roast beef in 1960 because it was easier to produce in quantity and not commonly found in chain restaurants. There are various ideas about where the name Neba came from. Almost certainly it was not an abbreviation for “Never eat burgers again.” As strange as it sounds, it’s likely that Neba was chosen because it was the name of a dog once owned by Davis, as he said in a 1969 interview. “Nicest eating beef around,” sometimes used as an advertising slogan, may have been a back formation.

The first sandwich shops in the Neba chain were in the Albany NY area, the company’s headquarters before moving to Hollywood FL. In 1965 a Mike’s Submarine and Neba Roast Beef unit opened in Pittsfield, the first in Davis’s home state of Massachusetts. Franchised units eventually opened in Florida and southern states but the chain never made it to the West.

NebadavisphotoDavis described himself as driven to make money ever since his miserable childhood in which he earned up to $100 a week by organizing a crew of boys to deliver newspapers. Reportedly he used the money to pay rent and buy food for his brothers and sisters in an attempt to make up for parental neglect. Dropping out of school after 8th grade, he was apprehended for breaking into houses and stealing money in his teens and spent time in a reformatory. Described as “tight-lipped” and “compulsive,” he confessed he felt inhuman and never laughed.

The Neba chain reached its peak in 1969 when there were 70 units in the U.S. Having sold the Canadian branch, Davis, 35, was said to be worth $15 or 20 million at that time. In 1970 he resigned as chairman a month before the corporation declared bankruptcy. With 400 units by then, Arby’s had become the competition-busting roast beef leader.

As late as the mid-1980s a few of the original Neba sandwich shops, in upstate New York and Miami FL, remained in business under new owners.

I don’t know what happened to Davis after he left the company. I’d like to think he found some degree of happiness.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Dining by gaslight

GSThreeFountainsINTThough it seems fairly obvious when you think about it, the development of entertainment districts post-WWII encouraged the growth of restaurant-ing in many cities across the U.S. On the minus side, the fate of such restaurants was highly dependent upon the fate of the districts.

The Three Fountains [pictured] was the star restaurant in the entertainment district of St. Louis which began in the late 1950s and was officially named Gaslight Square in 1961. The one-and-one-half block area attracted affluent suburban St. Louisans and the city’s many conventioneers with restaurants, live theater, and clubs that featured national acts such as the Smothers Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Lenny Bruce, and Miles Davis.

Developing out of a racially borderline, transitional neighborhood populated with apartments, music schools, and antiques stores, its pioneering establishments included the Crystal Palace theater, the Gaslight Bar, Smokey Joe’s Tavern, the Laughing Buddha coffeehouse, and the Dark Side jazz club.

GSThreeFtnmenuThe Three Fountains exuded luxury with a multi-level interior lavishly decorated with  antique fixtures complemented by an oversize menu filled with expensive dishes (the $6.50 pepper steak would cost about $46 today). Its decor, like most of the restaurants and clubs in Gaslight, consisted of an extravagant, crazy melange of salvaged windows, doors, railings, paneling, statues, fountains, and light fixtures from structures mowed down by a city obsessed with urban renewal.

gsMillCreekValleySlum clearance in an area known as Mill Creek Valley brought its bounty. There the destruction of residences formerly housing 20,000 people (95% of them Afro-Americans) freed up tons of antique woodwork and hardware for decorators with a taste for Victorian. The transfer of objects from Mill Creek to the nightclubs and restaurants in Gaslight Square can also be seen as an illustration of a troubled relationship with the city’s black population who lived close by, worked in Gaslight’s restaurants, and performed in its clubs, yet whose patronage was not welcome.

According to Jorge Martinez, owner of a couple of jazz clubs, the block’s business association ruled against his proposal for a dance hall out of fear it would attract Afro-Americans. Terry Kennedy, an Afro-American who grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to the area and became a city alderman in 1989, observed that if you were black “you better not be there too long, or the police would run you off.” (Interviews with Kennedy, Martinez, and others are found in the book Gaslight Square, an Oral History, by Thomas Crone.)

Yet, Gaslight Square offered opportunity to a few Afro-Americans. Sandra J. Parks occupied a rare position in America, that of black female chef. She cooked in several of the area’s better restaurants, including Kotobuki and Port St. Louis and managed Two Cents Plain before moving to Chicago for a career in catering.

Compared to the city as a whole, Gaslight Square was a somewhat integrated area. Nonetheless racial tension would become a major factor in its downfall, most evident in white patrons’ grossly exaggerated fear of black-on-white crime.

From the area’s beginnings as an entertainment zone to its serious decline by 1968, at least 20 restaurants, dozens of nightclubs, and numerous coffeehouses and theaters were in business there [see map]. After-hour parties took place above street level, in apartment buildings and flats.

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There were steakhouses (Magnolia House, Marty’s, Jacks or Better, Mr. D’s), two Mexican restaurants (Tortilla Flat and a branch of Chicago’s La Margarita), a Polynesian restaurant (The Islander), a Japanese restaurant where servers dressed as geishas (Kotobuki), a fish restaurant where servers dressed as sailors (Port St. Louis), a Greek restaurant (Smokey Joe’s Grecian Tavern), a deli (Two Cents Plain), an Italian eatery (Bella Rosa), a tavern (O’Connell’s Pub), and several places whose cuisine I could not determine (Red Carpet, The Georgian, Carriage House, Die Lorelei, Left Bank).

Many of the restaurants were in converted town houses. Whenever possible they had patio dining in front, and most featured entertainment such as cabaret, folk music, or Dixieland, ragtime, or cool jazz.
GSLaughingBuhdaSTL60sThe more expensive restaurants were first to suffer from the area’s decline as well-dressed, well-heeled customers stopped coming. Conventioneers were warned off, in many cases, by cabdrivers who refused to drive there. Clubs with go-go dancers in the windows displaced coffeehouses with folksinging and poetry as a younger, more casually dressed crowd took over.

Although Gaslight Square was in ways a model for Chicago’s Old Town and Omaha’s Old Market, many businesses began closing or moving away by the mid 1960s. Port St. Louis and Two Cents Plain moved to more promising locations. In 1965 Craig Claiborne gave the Three Fountains a short – and horrid — review (“It is said to be the only French restaurant in the city and, if this is true, it is unfortunate.”) A few years later a number of gaslights were extinguished for nonpayment of gas bills. By 1972 when O’Connell’s moved to South Kingshighway, the area was largely in ruins.

Aside from a memorial constructed out of the pillars that once stood outside Smokey Joe’s, not a trace of Gaslight Square remains standing today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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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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Charge it!

DinersClubcard1955The advent of travel and entertainment (T&E) credit cards in the 1950s was instrumental in sparking a renaissance in luxury restaurants that hadn’t been seen since pre-Prohibition days.

Nowhere was the effect felt more strongly than in NYC, birthplace of the Diners’ Club.

On February 8, 1950, Frank McNamara paid for his lunch at a steak house called Major’s Cabin Grill in NYC with a Diners’ Club card numbered 1,000 (i.e., #1). With his little paper card he made the very first charge on a nationwide credit card.

DinersClub1956ADV

The timing of the Diners’ Club launch was perfect. During World War II expense accounts had proliferated as a way companies could use income for entertaining clients rather than hand it to the government as a tax on “excess” profits (profits greater than those before the war). Now, in 1950, the excess profits tax lifted at the end of WWII was only a few months away from reinstatement for the Korean War.

The growth of T&E credit cards went hand in hand with the growth of expense accounts. As one publication put it, credit cards were spinoffs of expense accounts. And, each time the IRS tightened up its requirements for itemizing deductions, more credit card applications came in.

Carteblanche1959Unlike the nationwide bank cards that would eventually swamp T&E cards, the latter required high financial standing, an annual membership fee, and full payment of balances within 30 days. Having one of these cards brought cachet.

Following quickly on the heels of the Diners’ Club launch came many others: Dine ’n Sign, National Credit Card, Your Host, Inc, Duncan Hines’ Signet Club, the American Hotel Association’s Universal Travelcard, Hilton’s Carte Blanche, the Esquire Club, and the Gourmet Guest Club (the last two linked to Esquire and Gourmet magazines). A smaller Diners’ Club continues today, but the only other survivor is American Express, which inaugurated its credit card in 1958, then quickly rose to the top of the T&E field.

Traveling salesmen and men (rarely women) in industries such as public relations, advertising, publishing, manufacturing, and wholesaling were fans of the convenience of charging business meals. And, of course, in the early days of T&E club cards it was a status factor to simply dash off a signature on a slip, particularly if the lunch took place in a top restaurant.

Bizlunch

Expense accounts and credit cards were a boon to restaurants. There were estimates that in the mid-1950s 50% to 80% of meals in high-priced restaurants were “on the company.” Vincent Sardi admitted that a big chunk of his NYC business was made up of men on expense accounts. Peter Canlis, of Seattle’s first-class Canlis Restaurant, said in 1953 that he decided to establish a restaurant there because “a lot of good expense account money wasn’t being spent because there was no place fancy enough to gobble it up – and I was happy to fill the gap.”

But not all restaurateurs were enamored of the cards at first. For one thing, Diners’ charged a 7% fee on transactions. Restaurant owners felt that they spent too long waiting for their payments and that they had to raise prices to make up for the fees, thus punishing cash customers. Some restaurants refused Diners’ Club cards or added surcharges for meals paid with them. The Diners’ Club lowered its transaction fees in 1966.

By 1965 the three biggest T&E cards, Diners’ Club, American Express, and Carte Blanche claimed a total of about 3.15M cardholders, a small fraction of the number of cards starting to be doled out then, often unsolicited, by nationwide bankcards.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Ohio + Tahiti = Kahiki

kahikiExterior

In the heyday of Polynesian restaurants, the 1960s and 1970s, the business attracted operators because of high profits in rum drinks. Their marketing relied on bar decoration, bartender apparel, drink names, elaborate serving vessels, and imaginative presentation.

The same was true for “Polynesian cuisine.” There could be no such thing as a Polynesian restaurant without fabulously kitschy decor.

Whatever Polynesian cuisine was, it certainly wasn’t what real Polynesians ate past or present. The Kahiki’s reference point was Tahiti. So, what were Tahitians eating in 1961 when the Kahiki opened? According to a geographer, the traditional Tahitian diet consisted of baked fish, breadfruit, and taro, but natives then preferred French baguettes with Australian butter, rice from Madagascar, canned beef from New Zealand, and Canadian canned salmon, all “washed down with generous drinks of Algerian red wine.”

KahikiDrinksIt’s doubtful that Tahitians ate much in the way of Oriental Beef or Tahitian Flambee (flaming ice cream with rum). Not to mention Tossed Green Salads, Eggs Benedict, or Reuben Sandwiches.

But people didn’t go to the Kahiki mainly for its food. As an unenthusiastic reviewer wrote in 1975, “If decor is your reason for dining out, the Kahiki in Columbus is the place for you.”

Its drinks, on the other hand, were hard to resist. With three bars on the ground floor alone, the Kahiki’s menu at one point illustrated drinks served in 30 different glasses, goblets, and ceramic cups and bowls. The most expensive was the Mystery Drink served with four straws. Its presentation involved a scantily dressed server, a gong, a lei, and a kiss. There were also Smoking Eruptions, with fumes emanating from chunks of dry ice, as well as Pago Passages, Malayan Mists, Tonga Tales, and Native Nectars.

kahikiserverBeyond rum, customers were dazzled by the restaurant’s architecture, decor, and theatricality (e.g., periodic thunder and lightning). In the restaurant’s last decades its fans celebrated it as a temple of kitsch but, surprisingly, in earlier years it was often regarded as authentic.

The building reportedly cost $1 million to build in 1960 and, with 560 seats, was the largest Polynesian restaurant in the U.S. In a flat landscape peppered with indifferent utilitarian structures, it was a startling sight that promised relief from drab ordinariness. Stepping beyond the up-swooping 50-foot facade the visitor entered a darkened Tahitian village with tall palm trees, waterfalls, thatched huts, idols, and a wild profusion of South Seas-style artifacts.

The Kahiki’s decorator, artist and engineer Coburn Morgan, was a prominent Ohio restaurant designer whose career may have been launched by his work on the Kahiki. The flamboyant design of the Kahiki was undoubtedly due to him.

In 1960, when he drew the sketch shown above, Morgan was head of the design division of the Tectum Corporation which furnished many of the composite building materials used in the construction of the Kahiki, including pressed wood for roof supports as well as for soundproofing and decorative wall panels. It may also have been used for flooring and for the stylized fish arrayed along the roof’s crest.

kahikiTangierCMorganFollowing completion of the Kahiki, Morgan designed the Aztec-themed Thunderbird Restaurant (Lima), a red-fronted prototype for the Bob Evans chain (Chillicothe), McGarvey’s Nautical Restaurant (Vermillion), the Wine Cellar (Columbus), Jack Bowman’s Steak House (Columbus), the Brown Derby (Columbus), the 18th-century-themed Old Market House Inn (Zanesville), the Tangier Restaurant (Akron — pictured), Mawby’s (Cleveland), and the “Western Victorian-style” Judd’s (Cleveland).

For theme-restaurant inspiration, Morgan traveled to the American West for the Bob Evans chain and to Lebanon for the Tangier, which was modeled on the summer palace of the head of state. The Wine Cellar, owned by Kahiki creators Bill Sapp and Lee (Leland) Henry, had a Shakespeare theme. When it failed in 1991 “16 tall carved knight’s chairs” and a “grand piano bar with winged dragon” were among the furnishings auctioned.

During its more than 50-year run the Kahiki, which was also a nightclub and banquet center, entertained hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups such as Jaycee-ettes, senior citizens, anniversary and wedding parties, and so on. Despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the efforts of local preservationists who felt the Kahiki was an important part of Columbus’ cultural identity, it was demolished in 2000.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Find of the day: the Redwood Room

RedwoodRoom

Sometimes after a day of largely fruitless hunting in the antiques marketplace – such as a recent trip to the Brimfield flea market – it takes a while to realize I’ve acquired a gem. In this case it is the above postcard of the Redwood Room in San Francisco’s Clift Hotel, ca. 1965.

I bought it because it has features that I like: diners, a chef, paneling, and red carpeting. From looking at thousands of images I’ve learned that the last two signify Beef, Money, and Masculinity. But it wasn’t until I read the back of the card that I realized it was a “find.”

On the back is the printed message: “The Redwood Room is unexcelled for fine dining. With its huge panels of 2000-year-old Redwood and the spacious bar, it conveys a feeling of masculinity that has for years appealed to leading San Francisco executives and their wives.”

Little did the people on the postcard know, but “barbarians” were about to descend on the Redwood Room.

The hotel opened around 1916 and the Redwood Room and the French Room (shown through the doorway) were created during the 1930s. Both served the same food, but the hyper-manly Redwood Room was also outfitted with a long redwood bar not shown on the card.

Craig Claiborne visited the Clift in 1964, and declared it was one of the few U.S. hotels that still maintained a kitchen of “relative eminence.” Its decor, he said, was of “undeniable elegance” and its tuxedoed waiters exhibited “politesse.” The menu specialty, as might be expected from a restaurant that borrowed dinner carts from London’s Simpson’s, was “absolute first rank” roast beef accompanied by Yorkshire pudding ($4.50).

The postcard photograph was taken when the hotel was at its peak, prior to a slump in the early 1970s brought on by a poor economy aggravated by a policy of turning away guests who violated the hotel’s conservative dress and hairstyle code. When Burt Lancaster and his longhaired son were refused admittance to the Redwood Room in 1971, the item made newspapers across the nation.

The Clift’s president, Robert Stewart Odell, created the dress code. When the musical “Hair” opened at the nearby Geary Theatre in 1968, “They came in from the theater, barefoot and bareback. For a time . . . the Redwood Room entrance was the scene of an almost daily confrontation between longhairs and the maitre d’hotel,” said a manager. The hotel posted signs and ran advertisements that advised: “The Clift Hotel caters to a conservative, well-groomed clientele. Registration, dining room and bar service is refused to anyone in extreme or abnormal dress and to men with unconventional hair styling.”

In response to the hotel’s conservatism, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen ridiculed it relentlessly, claiming it maintained “standards set in the Coolidge era as opposed to the Cool era.”

After Odell’s death in 1973, the hotel’s new president (whose hair was longish) welcomed well-dressed stockbrokers, lawyers, and businessmen with hair descending below their collar tops, along with women in pantsuits.

In 1976 the Clift was renamed the Four Seasons-Clift after its acquisition by Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotels, Ltd. After almost two years of remodeling and restoration, the Redwood Room became a bar only rather than a bar and restaurant. Yet it was little changed as that would have brought howls of protest from San Franciscans. A 2001 re-do brought the by-then-shabby Redwood Room bar back into fashionability.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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“Distinguished dining” awards

HolidayAward470After World War II American consumers were filled with pent-up demand accrued over years of rationing and deprivation. They wanted to sample the joys of the good life, which included American and world travel, even if only in their imaginations. A sophisticated magazine – Holiday — was created to cater to their aspirations.

HolidayMag1954Holiday’s first issue came out in March 1946. A couple of months later Madison Avenue advertising man Ted Patrick took over as editor. A gourmet and bon vivant, Patrick gravitated toward fine restaurants. In 1952 the magazine began presenting awards to American restaurants that achieved dining distinction, recognizing 49 the first year. Among the winners were Bart’s (Portland OR), Commander’s Palace (New Orleans), Karl Ratzsch’s (Milwaukee), and Win Schuler’s (Marshall MI).

Winners tended to remain on the list, though it was not guaranteed. Win Schuler’s (still in business today) featured steaks, prime rib, and pork chops, and hosted 1,200 patrons a day at its Marshall location [see menu below]. In 1971 it won its 20th Holiday award, no doubt not its last..

Even if, as Harvey Levenstein writes in Paradox of Plenty, Holiday stuck to “safe, sound, and usually American” choices where “the steak, lobster, and roast beef syndrome … reigned supreme,” its recommendations carried weight and raised the seriousness with which many American diners and restaurateurs regarded restaurants.

HolidayWinSchuler'sMenuTo win, a restaurant’s offerings were supposed to compare to French cuisine. It’s hard to see how a steak-and-baked-potato place could do that, but plenty such restaurants won awards. On the other hand, many of the winners were French inflected, particularly in NYC. A quick scan of restaurants included in the 1976 Holiday Magazine Award Cookbook shows that nearly 25% had French names and many more specialized in French dishes.

What some thought was a bias for restaurants in NYC and, to a lesser degree, NY state prevailed until 1968 when California restaurants won as many awards as New York (even though the number of winners in San Francisco still lagged behind NYC, 17 to 25).

HolidayAug1953The overall volume of winners grew over the years, reaching over 200 by the mid-1970s. The numbers reflected the growth in dining out – and maybe the tendency of award programs to expand. In the beginning whole swaths of the country had nary a winner. Winners would boast that they were “the only” restaurant – for example, in Wisconsin, in the South outside of Florida, among Midwestern states, etc. But over time winners could be found in all parts of the country, requiring some adjustment in the meaning of distinction. Statements appeared saying that awards were not given solely to elegant places. As Patrick’s successor Silas Spitzer said, “Elegance has a certain value in making our judgment of restaurants – but it’s not essential.”

I suspect that the significance of the awards was greatest during Patrick’s editorship, which ended with his death in 1964. The magazine fell on hard times in the 1970s and was sold in 1977. Even earlier the awards were losing clout. Among those in the 1976 cookbook were several that had come under harsh criticism. Many specialized in “continental” cuisine which had lost its glamour by this time, or were considered uninspired. In 1974 John Hess wrote that The Bakery in Chicago and Ernie’s in San Francisco were “disappointing.” NYT critic John Canaday declared in 1975 that Le Manoir was the French restaurant where he had the worst meal in the past 20 months, Le Cirque the “worst restaurant in proportion to its popularity,” and the “21″ Club “least worth the trouble.”

The awards, called Travel-Holiday awards after Holiday’s 1977 merger with Travel, continued until 1989.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Restaurant as fun house: Shambarger’s

Shambarger'sAI came across this restaurant while looking through lists of winners of Holiday Magazine awards. I was intrigued to learn that Shambarger’s, in the small town of Redkey, Indiana, was one of only five restaurants in that state to win such an award in 1972.

As I learned more about Shambarger’s I had mixed reactions: fascination at its creator’s unstoppable spirit, surprise that it had won prestigious awards, and gratitude that I had never been compelled to sit through a 5- to 6-hour dinner and vaudeville show there.

BeaconSupperClubDenverFor Shambarger’s fell into a category I call the fun house restaurant, once occupied by hotspots of enforced jollity such as Greenwich Village’s Village Grove Nut Club or the Beacon Supper Club in Denver whose owners put on funny hats to make people laugh [pictured]. La Nicoise in Washington, D.C. had waiters on roller skates.

Shambarger’s, adjacent to a railroad track, resembled an abandoned building on the outside, a junk shop on the inside [see painting below by Clyde Thornburg, 1971]. Its proprietor John Shambarger “performed” most of the seven-course dinner preparation in front of 50 or so guests who made reservations many months in advance, often traveled some distance, and paid about $100 a person in today’s dollars.

Shambarger'sClydeThornburg1971Making ten or more costume changes an evening, as a pirate, Tiny Tim, a Hawaiian dancer, etc., John chopped and mixed while singing, pattering, or loudly playing records keyed to each dish. Sometimes he told jokes, kissed women diners, or screamed ‘Aaayyyyy’ in people’s ears in concert with a Spike Jones record.

And all this without cocktails! No alcoholic drinks were served, except in later years when dinner began with punch bowl of “Bloody Redkey” made of tomato juice spiked with a Budweiser six-pack. Burp.

Holiday magazine’s volunteer judges in the 1960s and 1970s had a weakness for French cuisine. Which was what Shambarger’s provided, sort of. The menu was actually as jumbled as the decor of old clocks, menus, mirrors, lamps, and a moose head wearing a hat. It always included a main dish of Imperial Prime Ribs of Beef Flambee (in rum) and a dessert of sky-high strawberry pie (see above), but the first five courses varied. In one 1968 account they included – in a sequence that is perplexing – chicken soup, fresh fruit cup, corn fritters rolled in powdered sugar, shrimp, and guacamole with John’s special dressing.

Recipes for Shambarger’s guacamole and “Antique Salad Dressing” are furnished in the Holiday Magazine Award Cookbook (1976). I like guacamole and do not think it needs a dressing, especially not one made of cottonseed oil, vinegar, chopped onions, loads of sugar, catsup, concentrated lemon juice, and apple butter.

According to newspaper accounts, Redkey’s townspeople rarely ate at Shambarger’s, but they were always intrigued by the influx of well-dressed visitors from afar. In the words of Jayne Miller, who grew up in the area and now heads up Historic Redkey, Inc. (and provided information and images for this story), the locals knew that “magic” took place inside Shambarger’s humble structure.

The restaurant had its fans and its detractors, but enough of the former to keep Shambarger’s in business under John’s management from the 1960s through the early 1980s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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