Tag Archives: 1960s

Restaurant-ing as a civil right

CivilRightsBlackpatronsUNK

Fifty years ago this summer President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title 2 of the Act discrimination by race, color, religion, or national origin was forbidden in eating places as well as hotels, motels, theaters, and stadiums.

Similar laws had been enacted by 18 northern states in the 1880s in response to the creation of “Jim Crow” laws in 20 southern states that had institutionalized segregation; however they were ineffective and rarely enforced. Racial segregation in eating places, affecting not just Blacks, but also Asian- and Mexican-Americans, was the norm in many restaurants throughout the country. Outside the South, Black diners typically were discouraged from patronizing white restaurants by hostile receptions, bad tables, and poor – or no — service.

Although President Johnson said he expected it, many people were surprised that the Civil Rights Act met with such a high degree of acceptance. American society as a whole had become convinced that unequal treatment was in conflict with the principles of democracy and that integration was inevitable. One year after passage of the Civil Rights Act an official at the Justice Department said compliance had exceeded expectations and was a “major national accomplishment.” By the early 1970s desegregation of restaurants and hotels was so uncontroversial that the question was dropped from public polls.

But change is not magical. Enforcement was required. From the start there were persistent violators who attempted to skirt the law by creating fake private clubs or by subjecting Black customers to higher prices, delayed service, and other indignities. While congratulating the nation, the Justice Department also vowed that violators would be prosecuted.

Because private clubs were exempt from the law a number of restaurants tried this route of avoidance. Some became legitimate private clubs but many were clubs in name only.

civilrightsprivateclubcrawfordsvilleThe sham restaurants-turned-clubs were identified by things such as failing to charge dues or having no membership criteria other than race. In the case of Dixie Diners Club of Enterprise MS which claimed to promote fraternity among “connoisseurs of discriminating taste and epicurean pleasures,” a court ruled nothing had changed since its days as plain-old Richberg’s Cafe. “The only material difference between the two is that physically the club is accessible only by the entrance at the door which was formerly for whites only,” it said. The ruling noted that the club held no meetings, established no committees, and served the same food as before. Bonner’s Private Club in Crawfordville GA had previously been known as the Liberty Café, which closed when Afro-Americans tried to integrate it and reopened as a private club.

CivilRightsOllie'sThe justification for federal authority over restaurants and hotels was that they engaged in interstate commerce. So, of course, some restaurants claimed an exemption because theirs were purely local businesses. Ollie McClung, of Ollie’s Barbecue, lost a lawsuit despite his belief his business was local. “We are not located on a highway and don’t cater to out-of-town travelers,” he insisted. But as the Washington Post reported, it was exceedingly difficult for a restaurant to prove it had no interstate ties: “It would have to serve locally grown food, no tea, coffee and probably no beer, and would have to have a prominent sign saying, in effect, ‘No Interstate Travelers Served Here’ with a monitor at the door to make certain no interstate interloper slipped in.”

Another tactic was devised by ardent segregationist Maurice Bessinger who was granted an exemption for his Piggie Park Drive-in chain in South Carolina on the grounds no food was consumed on the premises. The decision was, however, soon reversed and it became clear that drive-ins would not be exempt.

It’s hard to say just how many Afro-Americans actually took advantage of the opportunity to patronize what had been all-white restaurants. It seems there was not a flood of Black diners in the first few years. But the new law was valuable to the middle-class, especially Black travelers who no longer had to rely on guidebooks such as The Negro Motorist Green Book to plot out where they could safely stop to eat or stay overnight. The Green Book became irrelevant, just as its publisher hoped it would.

Despite real advances, white Americans often overestimate the degree to which racism has disappeared. As critical as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in furthering equality, it did not put a complete end to racial discrimination in restaurants. Rather southern restaurants wanting to curb the number of Black diners learned to use tactics long practiced in the North. Nor have chains been free of bias. Cracker Barrel and Denny’s are among large chains hit by discrimination suits in the past couple of decades. And an academic study published in 2012 found that Black patrons continue to experience bad service based on waitstaffs’ belief that they are poor tippers. A study of 200 servers in North Carolina restaurants revealed that 38.5% discriminated against Black customers, sometimes playing a game called “pass the black table.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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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

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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

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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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