Tag Archives: 19th century

See it, want it: window food displays

windowDisplayofmeat

To the degree that restaurants are about theater, food is one of the starring players. Putting it on stage has long been considered a way to sell it.

There are many opportunities to display food, one of them being the simple delivery of an attractive plate to a neighboring table. But there are also buffets, cafeteria shelves, dessert carts, flaming swords, etc., all of which have been featured or will appear as posts on this blog.

There are also several ways to attract potential customers passing along the street. One of the oldest, popular in the 19th century, was to string up game near the front door. Today that would probably be guaranteed to drive people away, but men of the 19th century responded positively. The Shakspeare Saloon in 1847 New York lured judges, lawyers, merchants, and men about town by displaying “a splendid buck, a couple of bear hams, haunches of mutton, . . . fatted capons as large as turkeys, . . . glittering fish and sirloin steaks marbled with fat.”

windowdisplayThe Shakspeare was below street level as were many eateries of the early 19th century. But as more eating places moved above ground, fitted out with windows that grew ever larger as the century proceeded, new display possibilities arose. In 1868 French rotisserie restaurants in San Francisco decorated their windows with marbled beef, vegetables, and live frogs in glass globes, displays that might have resembled the one portrayed in the 1880s trade card shown here. In it a woman gazes at fruit, as was appropriate for her gender. An article advised that women’s restaurants tempted the fair sex by fruit and delicate pastries, while “Meats are never shown, and the suggestion of anything so gross is studiously avoided. This is left to the restaurants patronized by men, who are supposed to find a stronger appeal in more solid and healthier food.”

And so meat and fish were especially popular to put on display. Up until the mid-20th century they might still have been on ice but increasingly they were displayed in refrigerated cases. Ice and refrigeration showed respect for the food, balancing two of restaurants’ prime virtues: a sense of extravagant plenty, communicated by large amounts of fine food, and a sense of order, demonstrated by methods that insured freshness.

Some restaurants placed in their windows food that had been frozen inside a large block of ice. Imagine two shad, each with a lemon in its mouth, that appeared to be swimming toward the bottom of the block, forming a V, with a red lobster between them. Or the 20-pound pig encased in ice by “gourmet artist” and restaurateur George Pundt that made such a hit with people passing the Parlor Restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1897.

windowfoodfakeonionringsAlong with meat, anything that was overlarge or brightly colored might appear in a window. Big yellow squash, pumpkins, melons, decorated cakes. Chicago’s Toffenetti’s piled up its much ballyhooed Idaho potatoes in the 1940s.

Despite the spectacular effects that could be attained with displays, there were also risks involved. As early as 1886 an article noted that “really first-class restaurants” did not engage in window displays. The pots of baked beans found in New York’s Bowery restaurants were proof, as was the “tired display of sliced tomatoes” placed in the smeared window of an eatery whose location was home to one failed business after another. In the 1920s a Niagara Falls cafeteria owner observed that he avoided putting food in windows because picky patrons felt that “sooner or later, they, as patrons of the restaurant, will have to eat that ‘window’ food” and so they tended to shun restaurants with food displays.

windowfoodfakesoupIt’s hard to pinpoint when window food displays began to wane. A Seattle newspaper columnist declared in 1965 that the city’s old-time Olympia Café was the last to feature refrigerated steaks in its windows. I can’t recall seeing real food in restaurant windows for the past several decades. Today food shown in restaurant windows is likely to be artificial. Japan, perhaps the biggest user of window food displays, specializes in making the most realistic and highest quality items. They don’t make me hungry, yet the collector in me wants to acquire the fake food for my collection.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Find of the day: J.B.G.’s French restaurant

FrenchtabledhoteJBG740

Last weekend I went to an antique paper show sponsored by the Ephemera Society of America where there were books and every sort of printed thing — maps, advertising cards, tickets, menus, postcards, posters, broadsides — for sale. I ended up buying only seven items, but one of them (shown above) was a gem.

I knew as soon as I spotted it that it was a relic of New York City’s old French quarter in which many restaurants flourished in the 19th century. The card probably dates from the latter years of the quarter, about 1904.

J.B.G.’s was operated by Jean Baptiste Guttin, who immigrated to the United States in 1872 and became a citizen in 1892. For many years he worked as a waiter at wine merchant Henri Mouquin’s well-known restaurant on Fulton Street. Then, in 1890, he took over a restaurant formerly run by A. Fourcade on West 25th street. Within a few years he changed the name to J.B.G. and moved down the street a bit.

frenchtabledhoteguttinMay1890Beginning in the 1890s the area from West 23rd to West 28th streets near Sixth avenue was the heart of the French quarter, which was said to be as much or more of a tight-knit community than the Chinese. It had earlier been situated farther downtown, south of Washington Square. By 1895 West 25th was the new restaurant row for French New Yorkers. The restaurants were also patronized by others who lived in the area, as well as adventurous “Bohemian” diners who came to soak up the atmosphere. Of course they also liked getting a six-course meal with red wine and coffee for 50 or 60 cents.

Described in the 1903 guide book Where and How to Dine in New York as “very French,” J.B.G.’s was a truly old-fashioned table d’hôte in that customers had no choice in dishes and didn’t know what they would be eating until it was set down before them.

Jean Baptiste Guttin was successful in the restaurant business. When he died in 1914 he left the then-considerable sum of $4,000 to NYC’s French Hospital as a way of thanking the late chocolate-maker and restaurateur Henry Maillard for advancing him a loan of the same amount “in a moment of difficulty.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Soup and spirits at the bar

soupIn the 1970s the National Park Service reconstructed the historic late-18th-century City Tavern in Philadelphia for use as a restaurant. An article that describes how the tavern was to be furnished noted that originally the bar was used for more than just serving alcoholic beverages. As a 1796 advertisement below shows, it also served soup which was kept hot on a stove behind the bar.

soup1796PhiladelphiaHaving soup available at the bar of a tavern or coffee house sounds odd today, but it was quite common in the late 18th century and the early 19th century. Some of the places that announced soup in their advertisements were ordinaries or coffee houses that served dinners and suppers at stated times or by arrangement. But others were primarily drinking places, such as Baker’s Porter Cellar which opened in Boston in 1796. It’s main purpose was to serve “wines and spirits of all kinds” and it specialized in “genuine draught and bottled London porter.”

soup1807NYCommonly, soup became available from 11 am until 1 pm each day, though some establishments offered it as early as 8 am and others kept serving it as late as 5 pm. A few times a week prized turtle soup would appear. In those places that were more than drinking spots and served full meals, soup was usually ready by 10 or 11 am, several hours in advance of the main meal.

soupTheEmporiumofArts&Sciences1815

So-called restorators, which were usually run by Frenchmen, always served soup, both as a standard part of a meal and alone in the morning, possibly with a glass of wine. Like the original Paris restaurants, based on soup and taking the name “restaurant” from it, they promised that their soup would restore health for those who were feeling under the weather. Boston’s Dorival & Deguise assured patrons that “nothing will be wanting on their part, to give Satisfaction, and restore Health to the Invalids, whose Constitutions require daily some of their rich, and well seasoned Brown, and other Soupes.”

I have seen one reference to an 1820s “soup and steak establishment,” that of Frederick Rouillard who carried on after the death of Julien’s wife in Boston, as well as running a hotel in Nahant MA. His “menu” reminds me of Paris bouillon parlors that served bouillon and bouilli, the bouillon being the strained liquid in which beef and vegetables had been simmered, and the bouilli being the beef which was served with the vegetables, all of it making an inexpensive two-dish meal.

Although some 19th-century Americans disliked the “foreign” French custom of beginning a meal with soup, soup soon became a standard part of most restaurant menus, as it still is. Advertisements for morning soups became rare in the 1830s, but I don’t know whether it was because it was so well-known a practice by then that there was no need to advertise or because it was no longer done.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Menu vs. bill of fare

billoffare1876ClevelandThe short version is that Bill of Fare is English and Menu is French, and up until the 1920s the use of Bill of Fare was standard, but by the 1930s it had been almost universally supplanted by Menu. In a way it seems surprising that Menu won out and I wonder, was it because it’s shorter?

Commercially printed Bills of Fare were unknown before the late 1830s. But did that mean that previously diners had no idea what was being served until they sat down and saw what was being set out on the table? No.

As early as the American revolution, and no doubt much before that, public eating places (whether taverns, inns, coffee houses, or eating houses) provided a written list of what they were serving that day. For instance a New York paper advertised in 1777 that at Mrs. Treville’s “the bill of fare is to be seen in the coffee room every forenoon.” In other places, too, around 10 or 11 a.m. a list of what was to be served that day would appear.

How the Bill of Fare was presented is never described, alas. Since paper was rare and expensive then, I would guess that it was usually chalked on a board.

It is also interesting that more than a few eating places in the early Republic followed the (supposedly French) innovation of letting guests choose their dishes and pay accordingly rather than charging them a set fee for pre-chosen dishes. Baltimore’s Freemason’s Tavern and Coffee House in 1796 advertised that “A bill of fare, with the price of each article, will be fixed up in the public room, so that gentlemen may chuse [sic] their own dinners, at any price, from a quarter of a dollar upwards.”

In the cheapest eating places the day’s offerings were recited verbally at the door, presumably because most patrons could not read.

In the 1860s the word Menu came into use – often referred to in italics to indicate a foreign word. Special dinners and banquets at first-class eating places, such as Delmonico’s and a few hotels in the Northeast, were accompanied by souvenir Menu cards giving the dishes chosen for that event. Such a Menu, sometimes called a Carte du Diner, was often decorated with gold lettering, ribbons, and hand-colored illustrations.

By the late 1800s it was commonplace for the better hotels and restaurants to print a Menu, not Bill of Fare, for their special dinners, including those for holidays. Often some or all of the dishes were listed in French but this was not essential. As a manual published in 1896 called The Practical Hotel Steward explained, in American usage the word menu was popularly understood to indicate a “limited, choicely selected meal, as for a table d’hote dinner, a banquet, etc.”

BillofFare636

Bill of Fare remained in use up until roughly World War I, especially among everyday lunchrooms, such as Clerk’s (shown). It was so common, in fact, that it came as a surprise to me to discover an ordinary eating place that had no association with anything French using the term Menu in the first decade of the 20th century. What led Mann Fang Lowe on Pell Street, or Van Liew’s quick lunch, both in NYC, to head their list of dishes with the word Menu?

At that time Menu still carried an association with French terms and dishes – and with a degree of snobbishness that brought forth “just folks” humor such as the following from 1914:billoffare1914joke

But change continued nonetheless. In the 1920s, many restaurants switched from Bill of Fare to Menu, yet it was still enough of a transition period to produce some strange combinations such as an American, Italian & Chinese restaurant in St. Louis that termed its list an A La Carte Bill of Fare, or the Berkeley CA restaurant that printed Menu on the outside but Bill of Fare on the inside.

By the 1930s Menu had become the norm, with no suggestion whatsoever of any French connection, so much so that it didn’t seem a bit strange that drug store lunch counters used that term. If a restaurant wanted to put on French airs they would have to resort to Carte du Jour.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Hot chocolate at Barr’s

e.c.Barrtearoomca1906

Even in a good-sized, prosperous city as Springfield MA was in the late 19th century, a chance to sit down and be served a cup of hot chocolate or other refreshments was hard to come by. Other than hotel dining rooms, usually open only during mealtimes, there was just about nothing.

Except for the city’s leading confectioner. As was true in other cities, a confectionery restaurant assumed a prominent role in feeding and entertaining the public.

E. C. Barr & Co. was Springfield’s leading restaurant, caterer, candy and ice cream maker, and baker of fine pastries and wedding cakes. In an advertisement in December 1889 it advised, “Ladies while on your Holiday shopping tour try a cup of that hot Chocolate, Cocoa or Bouillon at BARR’S Restaurant.” For most of its long existence it did business on Main Street, for 20 years occupying a corner just across from the city’s foremost retailer, the Forbes & Wallace department store.

e.c.barr1884Barr’s reach went beyond Springfield. With a branch in Northampton, its fame was known throughout Western Massachusetts. The restaurant ran advertisements in Amherst to lure students from the Massachusetts Agricultural College to come out for a “spread” or a class dinner. This 1884 example ran in the M.A.C.’s yearbook.

Barr’s stayed in the public eye as a prime banquet venue and with elaborate show window displays of confectionery. In 1909 the company commemorated the exploration of the North Pole with representations of Cook and Peary and their exploring party, all made of sugar fashioned by owner Edwin Barr’s son Walter.

Recently I was lucky to find the postcard image of the Japanese Tea Room in the Barr restaurant shown above. It dates from about 1906, when a dessert called the Priscilla College Ice, an ice cream soda with a “totally different flavor,” was a popular order. Edwin Barr’s second wife, Minerva, worked with him and it’s likely she supervised the tea room and may have chosen the Japanese theme which was in vogue then.

Barr’s was begun in 1865 or 1866 when founder Edwin Barr finally decided to give up prospecting for gold in California and Montana and returned to Springfield to settle down. It wasn’t until around 1891 that Edwin acquired the Main and Vernon corner (384 Main), one of the most valuable corners in the city’s shopping district. (It’s likely that the 884 Main address on the trade card shown here is misprinted.)e.c.barrtradecard

In 1870 an article in the Springfield Republican claimed that Barr’s decor was more “tasteful” than that of Delmonico’s in New York. Keep in mind that the New England taste of that time leaned toward plainness. The story also praised the appearance of the restaurant’s menu which was printed on cream paper with a thin magenta border – “neat, but not gaudy.”

Sadly the Barr family’s lives were not so neat. In 1891 Edwin’s eldest son, George, who managed the family’s Hotel Warwick in Springfield, shot and killed his wife and himself in a fit of jealousy. Edwin’s third son, Jesse, manager of the Northampton restaurant, died of syphilis in 1900.

Fortunately Edwin’s son Edgar lived a long life and carried on his father’s business for a time after Edwin’s death in 1911. In 1912 the restaurant moved to East Bridge Street and later was recreated on State Street. I have not been able to discover how long it remained in business.

Clearly Barr’s glory days were at Main and Vernon. That site underwent many demolitions, the latest being construction of the Monarch Place hotel and office complex.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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What would a nickel buy?

frankslunch

At a self-service restaurant in the town where I live, the menu includes a simple dish of beans and rice for only $1.25. It’s not steak but it’s better than a candy bar for anyone who is hungry but short of money.

It’s interesting to see typical restaurant prices from the past and to try to figure out if their prices were low or high. I remembered running across old advertisements for 5-cent dishes which I estimate might equal the $1.25 rice and beans of today. What, I wondered, did 5 cents buy in lunch rooms and restaurants of the past?

1869 – One quarter of a pie costs 5 cents in cheap and lowly New York City restaurants. (Five cents then would equal 87 cents today.)

1878 – Boston’s saloon eateries charge 5 cents for a schooner of beer. In some places the beer entitles the purchaser to free cheese and crackers. (Five cents then would equal $1.25 today.)

1880s – At the Old Albany Oyster & Eating House, patrons can take their choice of vegetable soup, meat stew, 1 dish of pickles, 4 slices of bread, or 1 dish of butter, each for a nickel.

1882CTlunchroomm

1880s – Visitors to the circus in Hartford CT can get a meal very cheaply [see menu], just as they can at Frank’s Dining Rooms in Boston [see above].

halfdime1890 – At the Half-Dime Lunch in Springfield MA, as in Hartford, every dish costs only a nickel. Half dimes were replaced by nickels in 1866 and are suggestive of the olden days.

1894 – Chicago’s sandwich wagons sell ham and egg sandwiches for 5 cents to patrons who don’t mind eating on the curb. In Worcester, night lunch wagons price all sandwiches at 5 cents except for sardine sandwiches which cost double. (Five cents then would equal $1.38 today.)

1894 – Five cents doesn’t buy much except a little something to eat. A Boston restaurant that covers its walls with folksy signs has one that says, “No napkins served with 5¢ orders. See?”

1905 – Five cents at the J.S. Mill’s Lunch and Sandwich Room in St. Paul MN will buy a sandwich of egg, wienerwurst, cheese, or pigs’ feet. (Five cents then would equal $1.35 today.)

1914 – About 1/4 of drug store soda fountains charge 5 cents for an ice cream soda.

1921 – At Thornton’s Cafeteria in Atlanta, fried oysters are 5 cents apiece. (Five cents then would equal 64 cents today.)

1929 – Following the stock market crash, a roadside stand in Great Falls MT named The Barrels slashes the price of a 10-cent glass of root beer in half.

1950 – The Horn & Hardart Automats finally raise the price of a cup of coffee from 5 to 10 cents. (Five cents then would equal 48 cents today.)

1979 – At a New Jersey surf & turf barn called The Wooden Nickel, nickels are valued only for their nostalgic aura. The Wooden Nickel’s specialty dish costs $12.95.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Diary of an unhappy restaurateur

hill'sTrenton1882or1883Edmund Hill began working in his father’s bakery and restaurant full-time in 1873 when he was 18. His help was needed because of his father’s poor health. He wanted to go on to Yale, yet he devoted his career to the business, which was operated under his father’s name Thomas C. Hill.

Hill'sMenuCardSAMPLEThomas Hill founded the business in 1860, rapidly becoming one of the city’s leading caterers and furnishing everything needed for soirees, suppers, and weddings except, as a 1866 newspaper story remarked, the brides and bridegrooms. Located in the center of Trenton, New Jersey, the restaurant advertised in 1882 that it was “the largest and finest between New York and Philadelphia” and could provide in its dining rooms or beyond all the fancy dishes of the day: boned turkeys, croquettes, rissoles, jellied meats, carved ice blocks, charlottes, spun sugar centerpieces, and bon bons. Hill’s hosted many organizations at its Greene Street location, including the Young Men’s Gymnastic Association whose members stuffed themselves in 1883 with many of the above plus a variety of ice creams, meringues, and walnut kisses. He specialized in fancy desserts, as is demonstrated by a portion of an 1883 souvenir menu shown here (courtesy of Henry Voight — The American Menu).

Hill'sDiningRoomsEdmund’s diary from 1876 through 1885 has been transcribed and digitized by the Trenton Historical Society and makes fascinating reading. Among other things it gives rare glimpses into the running of a bakery/restaurant/confectionery/catering business in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Edmund was a reluctant restaurateur. As the Historical Society’s site says, “Edmund severely disliked, even hated, working in the restaurant business and he focused much of his energies elsewhere, such as pursuing real estate and civic affair concerns throughout Trenton.”

Despite Edmund’s lifelong disappointment over being forced to take up a trade, he ran a successful business which he diligently kept abreast with the progress of the times, remodeling the restaurant, increasing baking capacity, and installing electricity. In the 1880s Hill’s restaurant and catering service, almost certainly run on a temperance basis, was known throughout New Jersey. And it made money as his diary entry of December 31, 1881, shows: “Finished up accounts in store. We took in $18,146.60, against $15,294.40 last year. Very satisfactory all around.”

Edmund became an expert cake baker and could, and did, fill in for just about any employee. In 1880 he paid his German baker to teach him how to make the Vienna bread made popular by the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. (“Bargained with Karl to teach me baking for twenty five dollars.”) On at least two occasions he organized a series of public cooking lessons taught in Trenton by cookbook author Maria Parloa of New York. In his diary he wrote that he found her lecture on bass with tartar sauce, baked fish with hollandaise sauce, ginger bread and vegetables “very instructive.”

Hill'sADV1880When he traveled to New York City or other cities he often ate at leading restaurants and probably toured their facilities. He mentions going to Dorlon’s, the renowned oyster restaurant in Fulton Market as well as Delmonico’s, the Hotel Bellevue, the Astor House, and the Vienna Model Bakery, all in NYC. He went to Moretti’s – Charles Delmonico’s favorite place for ravioli – but evidently did not care for it. (“Do not like Italian cooking.”) He even attended the French Cooks Ball to check out the fare. (“Dresses and dancing were ridiculous. The tables were superb.”)

In addition to ensuring the reputation of Hill’s Restaurant and Bakery, he was a well-off, well-read man of the world who traveled to Europe several times, a successful real estate developer, a banker, a city councilman, an esteemed civic benefactor, as well as a devoutly religious family man. He was friends with famous people, including Leo Tolstoy, whose son he hosted at an honorary dinner at Delmonico’s. Yet, according to the Historical Society’s site, he never got over having to end his education to take over the family business and considered himself a failure.

He sold the restaurant building and all his catering equipment in 1905 while moving the bakery which continued in business for many years thereafter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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