Tag Archives: 1970s

Interview: who’s cooking?

whoscookingRecently I interviewed someone who had cooked in a 24-hour restaurant located on the outskirts of a small Midwestern town in 1970.

He worked there one summer. He was the sole night shift kitchen staff from 10 pm to 6 am. Previous experience? One week as cook at a children’s summer camp the previous year.

He was 16 years old.

Although he gave it little thought at the time, he now suspects the restaurant was designed, owned, and operated by the food processing company that supplied the food, the menus, the “recipes” – in short, everything. Follow-up research revealed that the company supplied 1,500 restaurants, schools, and institutions in four states.

DIchickenThe building was new and blandly modern. It was surrounded by a parking lot. Through a big plate glass front window was a view of an interior with booths, formica-topped tables and chairs, and a counter with stools. The decor, as he remembers it, contained multi-colored hanging lights, fake stone, and grill work in a coordinated style he calls “corporate.” About 60 people could be seated. At night, except right after the bars closed on weekends, there were rarely more than a dozen patrons at any one time.

Most of the night customers were working men, traveling salesmen, work crews, people passing through town. It wasn’t much of a local hangout, unlike the bowling alley restaurant at the other end of town. It served no alcohol.

Was there a chef at this restaurant? Answer: prolonged laughter. The manager had preprinted forms on which he checked off what supplies were needed.

DIshrimpA popular order, particularly with the barflies, was steak and eggs ($2.50 with toast and coffee). Eggs were one of the few items of fresh food in the kitchen other than lettuce and tomatoes. “Everything was frozen so once you knew how to deep fry it or put it in the Lytton [microwave] oven, you were set,” he said. This included pies (“Served Hot from Our Electronic Ovens”), Cordon Bleu, Breaded Pork Tenderloin, Golden Fried Chicken, and Fillet of Perch. Potato Salad came in a tub, Soup of the Day in giant cans. Hard boiled egg came in a long tube so that every slice was the same. Home Baked Bread? Well, I think you know.

DILogoThe food  images shown in this post are stickers applied to the restaurant’s menu before the entire thing was plasticized. I take them to be generic, as I do the meaningless logo from the menu’s cover which looks like it was intended for a “steak & ale” eatery.

With some orders he got to do what he considered “actual cooking”: “Liver and onions. You have to make the bacon and onions – that was actual cooking. Denver omelet, that was actual cooking.” He enjoyed making sandwiches at the deli counter. One of his personal favorites was the Denver Sandwich — chopped ham, pickle, and scrambled egg made in a patty and served on toasted bread. He also enjoyed cottage cheese and pineapple.

DIsteakDiners rarely sent food back to the kitchen. “It’s amazing how many different kinds of food that a 16-year old could cook and not ruin anything. I was feeding a lot of people with a lot of liability and it didn’t go wrong,” he said. The manager criticized him for one thing only: giving customers too many french fries. Limit them to a handful, insisted the manager. So he garnished the plates with parsley and “Never got in trouble for using too much parsley.”

DIFriedChicken

Despite all, he had surprising praise for his old workplace, saying, “I was impressed with the efficiency of the kitchen. It was easy to work in. I liked that there was a ready supply of clean linens.” He added, “There were not many dining establishments. Before Applebee’s this filled a niche. It was more ambitious food than people had access to before.”

Did he ever return there as a customer? “No,” he said, “I had no warm fuzzy feeling for the place.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

7 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

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.

clarkscleveland

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

3 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Taste of a decade: 1970s restaurants

1979restaurantIn the 1970s the restaurant industry and the custom of eating in restaurants grew rapidly. The decade was the gateway to the present in many ways. Despite economic woes (recession and inflation), the energy crisis, urban decline, crime, and escalating restaurant prices, restaurant-going continued to rise.

The president of the National Restaurant Association proclaimed “Dining out is a significant part of the lifestyle of this great country,” noting in 1976 that one out of three meals was being consumed outside the home.

Restaurant patronage was encouraged by all kinds of things, including relaxed liquor laws in formerly dry states and counties, which brought more restaurants into the suburbs, the spread of credit cards, more working wives and mothers, youth culture, and a me-generation quest for diversion.

New York exemplified the problems faced by restaurants in troubled inner cities. Fear of crime kept people from going out to dinner. Restaurants closed, few new ones opened, and cash-strapped survivors began to trade vouchers for heavily discounted meals for advertising. But as New York struggled, California experienced a culinary renaissance as did other parts of the country. Still, much of the U.S. wanted only steak and potatoes, and hamburger was the most often ordered menu item nationwide.

A number of restaurant formats and concepts faced senescence, but new ones came on the scene at a rapid pace. Going, going, or gone were automats, coffee shops, continental cuisine, diners, drive-ins, formal dining, Jewish dairy restaurants, and Polynesian restaurants, not to mention the rule of elite French cuisine.

Fast-food chains continued to grow, with the number of companies increasing by about two-thirds. Growth was especially strong in the Midwest which was targeted as a region susceptible to their appeal. Toledo was bestowed with Hardee’s, Perkins Pancakes, a Mexican chain, and, in 1972, the arrival of two Bob Evans eateries. Another Ohio city, Columbus, was christened a test market for new fast-fooderies while Junction City KS, bordering Fort Riley, looked like a franchiser’s fast food heaven. By contrast, greater Boston had only one Burger King and one McDonald’s in 1970.

HamburgerFactoryAlong with the chains and a shortage of (cheap) kitchen help, came an upsurge in restaurants’ use of convenience foods and microwaves. In response, municipalities across the country enacted ordinances to protect consumers against false claims on menus, many of them centering on misuse of the words “fresh” and “home-made.”

Yet as the country was swamped with fast food, it experienced the flowering of restaurants specializing in ethnic, artisanal, and natural foods. Hippie and feminist restaurants stressed honest, peasant-style meals. Burgeoning interest in nutrition made salad bars popular. Bean sprouts, zucchini, and more fish showed up on menus. Diners learned that Chinese food was not limited to Cantonese, but might also be Mandarin, Szechuan, or Hunan. Once languishing behind luxurious decor, impeccable service, and famous patrons, food took center stage in deluxe restaurants as they purged Beef Wellington from their repertoire and took up the call for culinary creativity and authenticity.

Though not unknown in earlier decades, the restaurant-as-entertainment-venue came into full flourish with the proliferation of theme restaurants with unbearably cute names such as Orville Bean’s Flying Machine & Fixit Shop. To supplement a shrinking supply of old stained glass windows, telephone booths, and barber chairs, restaurant fixture companies began to manufacture reproduction antiques.

However crazy and mixed up the foodscape, America had become the land of restaurants for every taste and pocketbook.

Highlights

ChezPanissecookbook1971 – In Berkeley CA Alice Waters and friends found Chez Panisse, marking the movement of college and graduate students into the restaurant field, a career choice which is beginning to have cachet.

1972 – NYC’s Le Pavillon, considered the finest French restaurant in the U.S., closes. In Kansas City MO the first Houlihan’s Old Place, adorned with nostalgia-inducing decorative touches, opens, as does Mollie Katzen’s natural-food Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca NY.

1972 –Dry since 1855, Evanston IL, home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, grants liquor licenses to two hotels and six restaurants. Their business doubles in a few months.

1973 – Los Angeles County becomes the first jurisdiction in the country to enact a “truth in menu” ordinance. During the pilot program, the scenic Sea Lion Restaurant in Malibu is caught selling the same fish under five different names with five different prices.

1974 – A Chicago food writer throws cold water on arguments about which restaurant has the best lasagne, asserting that the debaters “might have found that same lasagne in restaurants all over the country” courtesy of Invisible Chef, Armour, or Campbell’s.

1974 – Restaurateur Vincent Sardi spearheads a campaign to get New Yorkers to eat out, claiming that the city’s major restaurants have lost up to 20% of their business in the past two years, thus precipitating the closure of 20 leading restaurants.

1976 – The CEO of restaurant supplier Rykoff says whereas his company once supplied whole tomatoes it now provides diced tomatoes “because the operator just can’t afford to pay someone to cut them up.”

RjGrunts1970s1976 – Richard Melman’s Chicago restaurant company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, operator of RJ Grunts, Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food Show, and Jonathan Livingston Seafood, opens Lawrence of Oregano and prepares to take over the flamboyant Pump Room.

1977 –Industry journal Restaurant Business publishes survey results showing that, on average, husband & wife pairs eat out twice a month, spend $14.75 plus tip, prefer casual restaurants, and tend to order before-dinner cocktails and dishes they don’t get at home. Measured by sales, Lincoln NE is one of the country’s leading cities for eating out.

1977 – Once characterized by blandness, San Diego now has restaurants specializing in cuisines from around the globe, an improvement one observer attributes in part to the new aerospace industry there.

1978 – A reviewer in Columbia MO complains, “A brick floor and pillars, old photos, Tiffany lamps, stained-glass windows and trim on the tops of the booths as well as revolving single-bladed, old-fashioned fans [is] a familiar type of decoration these days and I’m getting a little weary of the sameness of so many restaurants.”

1979 – As the year ends restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman observes that more people are eating out than ever before, transforming once-lackluster Washington D.C. into “what is known as a Restaurant Town.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

7 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Women’s restaurants

feministBreadandRosesBarbaraFried1976

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.

FeministBloodroot1981

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

1 Comment

Filed under food, history, restaurants

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

Leave a comment

Filed under food, history, restaurants

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

1 Comment

Filed under food, history, restaurants

“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

6 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

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

16 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

“Hot Cha” and the Kapok Tree

What kind of career might the son of a junk dealer father and a mother who owned a restaurant  end up with?

If he was Richard Baumgardner he would run restaurants raucously decorated with gilded and spray-painted objets d’art — wonderfully kitschy palatial junque bought by the ton in Europe (70 tons of statues in 1966). When his warehouse ran low on statues and urns, he would make plastic replicas with rubber molds.

His customers would find it all enchantingly “different.”

But first, he’d take a detour into the entertainment world as a jazz-era musician and bandleader known as Dick “Hot Cha” Gardner. As an introduction to his restaurant career in 1936, Dick inaugurated the Hot Cha Supper Club in conjunction with his mother Grace’s tea room, the Peter Pan Inn in rural Urbana MD. After she died in the 1940s, Dick took over the Peter Pan and transformed it into a let’s-drive-to-the-country mega-attraction for Washington DC families. In 1958, retired from bandleading, Dick opened his first Kapok Tree Inn in Clearwater FL, on the site of a tree planted in the 1880s.

It’s hard to know how to classify his restaurants. They fall into two of my classifications: 1) the high-volume restaurant, and 2) the curiosity-shop restaurant filled with quaint stuff.

The decor at the Clearwater Kapok Tree was a mix of light fixtures from Paris, chandeliers gathered from the DC Italian Embassy and old theaters in Baltimore and New York City, paneling from a De Medici compound replicated in plastic, and on and on.

Yet for all their madcap faux elegance, Dick’s restaurants followed a rigid formula designed for maximizing profits and minimizing costs. Magically, it worked. Despite ticket windows where customers were required to prepay their dinner tab, a teen-age staff, long waits for tables (in the bar), sticky sweet rum drinks, and limited menus with pedestrian cuisine, customers absolutely adored these zany buses-welcome eateries.

For years diners had just four dinner choices: fried chicken, ham, deep fried shrimp, and steak. When customers sat down at their tables, servers collected their receipts, knowing immediately by the prices what they had ordered. A complete meal included a typical 1950s melange of appetizers which never varied year in and year out, whether in Maryland or Florida — cottage cheese, (sweet) pickled vegetables, muffins, and apple butter. Sides were roast potatoes, peas in mushroom sauce, beets, and hush puppies. Ice cream for dessert and seconds on everything but the entrees. Boxes were provided for leftovers and the complimentary tall cocktail glasses. Few left empty-handed.

The Kapok Tree Inns prospered with the Pinellas County boom of the early 1970s. By 1978, two years after Dick died, there were three Kapok Tree Inns, in Clearwater, Madeira Beach, and Daytona Beach. The first remained the largest, seating at least 1,700. On really busy days upwards of 5,000 meals were served there.

Controlling interest in the Kapok Tree corporation, which also included the Peter Pan Inn and a couple of Baumgardner’s Restaurants in Florida, passed to Dick’s widow, a former waitress at the original Clearwater restaurant, who had largely been running the operation since he had a stroke in 1970. A year after his death, she told a reporter that hers was the most profitable publicly-held restaurant chain in the nation. The Daytona Beach Kapok Tree closed  in 1981, and the Clearwater restaurant closed ten years later.

I wonder what happened to all the wacky furnishings?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

3 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Basic fare: French fries

I suspect that in the 19th century more Americans ate French fried potatoes at home than in restaurants. Boiled, baked, and mashed potatoes were more common on restaurant menus than fried potatoes of any sort.

However there were probably a few restaurants that served French fries. Maria Parloa, whose New Cook Book of 1880 included a recipe for preparing French fried potatoes in a frying basket lowered into boiling fat, traveled around giving cooking lessons, and I know of at least one restaurant manager who attended them. The course of lessons she delivered in Trenton NJ in 1884 included how to make French fries, perhaps extending to the sweet potato fries that appeared in her cookbook. I have discovered at least one 19th-century restaurant menu with French fries, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1894.

The reason why few restaurants served fries then was not that they weren’t popular but that they used too much cooking fat. According to Jessup Whitehead, a culinary advisor to restaurant cooks in the 1880s and 1890s, raw potatoes cooked in hot lard were the most expensive potato dish for an eating place to prepare, while baked potatoes were the most economical.

Perhaps things were starting to change in the 20th century. I’ve found a 1902 advertisement for a potato slicer for hotels and restaurants that cut “perfect French fries.” In 1911 another company produced a heavy duty model (pictured). Around this time there was a movement afoot among restaurants to charge separately for French fries rather than provide them “free” with meat or fish orders. This change could have made it possible to make a profit despite the high cost of cooking oil.

In France at this time – and probably much earlier – street vendors outfitted pushcarts with coke-fired kettles and prepared fries (“pomme frites”) on the spot for customers who ate them from  paper cones. Many American soldiers in France during World War I developed the French fry habit, probably increasing demand for them in this country upon their return. In the 1920s and 1930s they began to appear on more and more menus. During World War II potatoes were scarce but after the war returning GIs, sick of mashed potatoes because of the dehydrated ones they had eaten in mess halls, hungered for French fries. Through much of the 20th century restaurant operators believed that men loved fries more than women did.

French fries were prominent on menus of postwar drive-ins. By then they were available frozen or formed from moistened dried potatoes forced through an extruder (little did the vets know they were eating dehydrated potatoes in a new guise). By 1968 the restaurant industry considered it “archaic” to make French fries from fresh raw potatoes. It was so much easier to shake frozen fries out of a bag straight into the fryer, no muss, no waste. According to Jakle & Sculle in their book Fast Food, the consumption of frozen potatoes went from 6.6 pounds a year per person in 1960 to 36.8 pounds in 1976. In this same period French fries made the short hop from drive-ins to their successors, hamburger chains such as McDonald’s.

Perhaps because of their mid-century popularity as side dish to sandwiches, French fries were shoved aside in the white tablecloth restaurants of the 1960s and 1970s by the old-fashioned baked potato which returned to favor as the prestigious accompaniment to steak and prime rib, especially when served with sour cream and fresh, er, frozen, chives.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

4 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants