Tag Archives: 20th 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

2 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

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

2 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

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

Leave a comment

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Basic fare: bread

BreadbasketBread has always been basic to restaurants ranging from the lowliest hash house to the most elegant French dining room. This was made evident in 1912, for instance, when Los Angeles drafted a city ordinance permitting no liquor to be served without meals. The ordinance defined a meal as “not costing less than 15 cents, to consist of bread, or equivalent, together with meat, fish, cheese or beans in sufficient quantity to go beyond the question of subterfuge for a meal.”

From the early decades of the 19th century, bread not only accompanied almost every meal, in many cases it was the meal. The most fundamental early eating house meal was bread and coffee or bread and hot milk. When ordering the typical cheap meal of a thin slice of meat accompanied by some potatoes, customers were consoled by the fact that their meal would be filled out with two slices of bread.

In addition to brown bread, i.e., whole wheat bread, restaurant customers could hope for other varieties to pair with their coffee. Waffles and pancakes tended to be classified as breads in those days. In San Francisco in 1858, the Empire State Dining Saloon also served “Mississippi Hot Corn Bread, Hot English Muffins, Hot American Waffles, Hot Hungarian Rolls, Boston Cream Toast, German Bread, and New York Batter Cakes.” After Vienna-style yeast bread was introduced at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, restaurants associated with bakeries scrambled to hire bakers who could produce this newest sensation.

In order to get their free bread, diners had to order something costing at least 10 cents, as recounted in the comical tale of the hapless diner who asked for bread with a too-small order. The amount of bread given with an order was limited. An 1849 bill of fare from Sweeny’s House of Refreshment in New York City shows 3 cents was the going rate for extra bread.

breadRollonplateBread – and butter – were often poor or deliberately adulterated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so many eating places advertised that they observed quality standards. In the 1880s, cooking teacher Jessup Whitehead almost went apoplectic about the poor quality of baking-powder biscuits often found in low-priced restaurants. He wrote:

Such biscuits are yellow, dirty on the bottom, greasy to the touch; they have rough sides, no edges, for they rise tall and narrowing towards the top; they are wrinkled and freckled and ugly; they will not part into white and eatable flakes or slices, but tumble in brittle crumbs from the fingers, and eat like smoked sawdust.

BreadGingerbreadTeaRoomEven today it is commonplace to form a quick judgment about a restaurant by the quality of its bread. Historically patrons probably fared best if they went to a bakery restaurant that made its own baked goods. Or to a tea room in the early 20th century, many of which made a specialty of raisin, nut, or gingerbread, preferably served hot from the oven. In tea rooms, however, patrons often paid dearly for bread and rolls, usually on an a la carte basis.

By the turn of the century many habitual restaurant-goers had a habit of eating all the bread as soon as it was placed on the table. Etiquette minders disliked this behavior and owners preferred to serve bread only after other dishes were served. Waiters, on the other hand, liked the bread and butter set up because it enabled them to serve more guests who, with something to nibble on, were less impatient for their orders.

Not all eating places did their own baking even in the 19th century, and the number that did was drastically reduced by the mid-20th. As few as 6% of all restaurants did their own baking by 1952. However, the advent of frozen bread made “Doing our own baking” a common advertising claim in the 1960s. That decade also saw a spread in the novelty of individual loaves of bread served on a carving board, made possible by in part by frozen doughs, loaves, and rolls.

BreadADVPortlandOR1976As popular as the “cute” little loaves were for a time, discriminating patrons rejected them as mushy and tasteless. The counterculture preferred heavier whole grain breads, which soon made their way into restaurants such as Sausalito’s Trident. On a ca. 1968 menu, the rather high price charged for a basket of rolls was justified as follows: “Our rolls are hand baked for us daily using only the purest ingredients: finest organic grains, fertile eggs, organically grown onions & raisins, raw butter, oils & honey.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

8 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Toothpicks

Although toothpicks have many uses in the home, their career as a tool for picking teeth is mostly associated with restaurants. And, like so many aspects of restaurant history, their story says a lot about social class. The short version is that when using toothpicks was viewed as a custom of European elites it was approved in the U.S., but when American working class men adopted it, it became taboo. Today the use of toothpicks after a meal is infrequent compared to what it was roughly 100 years ago when it was at its peak.

In the Quick Lunch era of the early 20th century, toothpicks became more than a means to loosen bits of food stuck in tooth crevices. They were assertions of masculinity, essential accessories for the male lunchroom crowd. A dangling toothpick sent a macho signal as speedily as a cigarette between the lips of 1960s filmstar Jean Paul Belmondo.

In the 1890s lunchroom patrons felt entitled to toothpicks just as much as to a paper napkin and a glass of water. When a distinguished Afro-American man was told by a Kansas City restaurateur in 1890 that he would be charged an exorbitant $1 for pie and coffee, he seemed to consent but later walked out saying “Sue me for the rest” as he tossed a dime on the counter. And he grabbed a handful of toothpicks on the way, staking a claim to equality in an unmistakable fashion.

Arbiters of etiquette deplored toothpicks. Starting in the late 19th century when the picks came into fairly common use in the United States, and for the next 100 years at least, a string of advice columnists from Mrs. John Sherwood to Ann Landers railed against them. All declared using toothpicks in public vulgar and disgusting. “Dear Abby” echoed her forebears when she roundly condemned public toothpick use in 1986, calling it “crude, inconsiderate, and a show of bad manners.”

Goose quill toothpicks had been acceptable in the early republic, furnished even at such elite places as Delmonico’s. But as mass-produced wooden picks made of birch and poplar became available in the 1870s, prices fell drastically until even the cheapest eatery could afford to dispense them. Their social status plummeted.

Toothpick haters frequently pointed out that providing toothpicks in restaurants was as ridiculous as handing out toothbrushes. It’s interesting that in the early 20th century another form of tabletop hygiene, the finger bowl, was also about to go under attack. Strangely, since toothpicks and finger bowls were intended for cleanups, they were criticized as germ spreaders. Because toothpicks were provided loose in a bowl or cup, restaurant patrons often grabbed them helter skelter, fingering many they left behind. Trains eliminated them in their dining cars and Minneapolis health authorities banned open containers of toothpicks in 1917.

Another solution to the germy toothpick bowl and the habit of grabbing handfuls was bound to occur to America’s legion of gadget inventors. Presto! One-at-a-time toothpick dispensers. [shown here and in restaurant above, the Dial-A-Pic]

Restaurant owners would have been just as happy to see toothpicks disappear altogether. A NYC restaurant owner confessed in 1904 that he disliked the sight of men picking their teeth at his tables as much as that of others sticking knives in their mouths. But he took a pragmatic stance, admitting that “we cannot conduct examinations in table manners before we admit persons to our dining-rooms.”

Today toothpick usage is reportedly unpopular with younger diners and has been dropping off since World War II. So I was surprised to see a little cup of wrapped toothpicks in an upscale restaurant in Kansas City this weekend. Now I’ll be on the lookout everywhere I go.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

10 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants

Good eaters: students

As far back as the early 19th century students have made up a notable segment of restaurant clientele. They have played a significant historical role both in supporting the growth of restaurants and in shaping the eating habits of Americans.

In the 1800s some restaurants located near colleges specifically catered to students, alumni, and college faculty and staff. As incomparable caterer Othello Pollard of Cambridge MA noted in an 1802 advertisement, “Harvard flourishes and Othello lives.” In NYC in the 1840s poor divinity students could be found at the “sixpenny” eating house called Sweeny’s downing slices of roast beef, clam soup, pickles, and bread and cheese.

One of the penny-pinching patrons at Sweeny’s was Lyman Abbot, an NYU student who later became a noted theologian. Each month when he got his allowance he splurged on dinner at Delmonico’s, but as his money ran low at the end of the month he subsisted on Sweeny’s wheat cakes.

Restaurants clustered around colleges often billed themselves as “student headquarters” and supplied not only food, but entertainment in the form of billiards and supplies such as books and stationery. Hoadley’s, “Hoad’s” to Harvard students, also rented velocipedes in the 1860s. Restaurants around Yale sold weekly meal tickets, hosted private parties, and delivered midnight snacks – “spreads” – to students’ rooms [pictured: midnight “lunch” near Penn State College, 1905]. Billy Park’s chop house in Boston was a hot spot for Harvard students following athletic events. Big-spending students could enjoy the luxurious “sports bar” eateries of their day at places such as Newman’s College Inn in Oakland CA. When it opened ca. 1910 it was decorated with college pendants and tapestries depicting scenes in a man’s life from college to middle age. Murals pictured various college sports while chandeliers were fashioned out of copper and glass footballs.

Alums regularly gravitated back to their college haunts to relive their youth. “Papa” confessed to his daughter on a 1906 postcard of the “Famous Dutch Kitchen, one of the most noted student resorts in the country” near Cornell University, that he planned to eat there before returning home. “I am going to be a college sport for just two days. Big crowd in town. Slept at Fraternity house last night,” he wrote.

Many 19th-century eating places were restricted to male guests, but students at women’s colleges were supplied with tea rooms in the early 20th century [pictured: Brown Betty tea room near Shorter College]. Near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Almira Lovell’s University Tea Room offered teas along with dressmakers’ supplies and college souvenirs in 1903. Around the same time Smith students could often be found curled up on window seats eating popcorn at the Copper Kettle in Northampton. Well into the 1920s being stricken from a college’s approved list was the kiss of death for tea rooms and other eating places that depended upon patronage of women students. Such was the fate of the Rose Tree Inn in Northampton as well as a tea room near Connecticut College.

Students dearly appreciated places to “hang out” because well into the 20th century colleges and universities provided few dormitories and many students lived in rented rooms off campus. Plus, as recent research into Depression-era student life at the State Teachers College in Normal IL has shown, living off campus permitted poor students to economize on food expenses.

College students were prominent among the artsy, “bohemian” restaurant-going crowd. In the late 19th century, when lower Manhattan was filled with schools, students congregated around Washington Square. San Francisco’s art students loved Italian dinners at Sanguinetti’s. In Chicago in the 1920s students met at the Wind Blew Inn. In later decades student beatniks would flock to coffee houses, which in turn were succeeded by hippie hangouts. In 1960 the NYT reported that in one Greenwich Village student café an undercover government agent was asked blandly, “Do you want coffee or peyote?”

It’s harder to track high school students, at least until the 40s and 50s when their consumption of snack foods such as hamburgers, sodas, and pizzas became noticeable. Like college students before them they tended to favor informal meals eaten at odd hours of the day and night.

It would be interesting to calculate how many of the post-WWII fast food restaurant chains opened their early units near high schools and colleges. This was certainly true of King’s Food Host, Steak n Shake, and the Parkmoor drive-ins. I have no doubt there were many others.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

4 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Linens and things — part I

I hadn’t thought about this until I started to write this post but now I realize that I’m picky about restaurant napkins. I abhor polyester and am sort of iffy about colors. My favorite fold is a compact, squarish one called “the book.” Last night I went to a very nice place in Western Massachusetts. The food was delicious and everything was perfect – almost. Approaching the table, I felt the tiniest inadvertent ripple of irritation at seeing napkins folded to resemble a tuxedo. (Thought that flashed through my mind: Do they think their guests are that “easy”?) Please, no trickiness. No bishop’s hats [pictured below], and especially no fans with either side hanging limply from a goblet.

Do restaurateurs imagine that guests will critique their napkin folds? I hope they have better things to focus on. Actually though, it’s not really a new area of complaint. Twentieth-century consultants advised that men disliked small, ladylike napkins or ones that left lint on dark suits. But it was the lack of cleanliness in table linens that drew the most disapproval from guests, especially in the 19th century. How endless were the complaints about filthy tablecloths, themselves sometimes used as napkins for hands and mouths when none were provided – which was often.

After the hungry hordes finished breakfast in American hotels, one London visitor remarked in the 1840s, they left behind tablecloths littered with food fragments and overturned crockery and “defiled with stains of eggs, coffee, gravy.” In cheap restaurants the stains could accumulate for days before the cloth would be replaced.

Increasingly a first-class restaurant was distinguished by its immaculate linens. Some said Delmonico’s taught discriminating diners to expect this. However, in the 1890s, and no doubt later, some lunch counters furnished nothing more than a common towel hanging from a hook. Other restaurants, clearly not first-class, folded napkins nicely and placed them in a glass but, trouble was, they had already been used by other people.

As early as 1885 a few eating places began to substitute paper napkins for cloth, a move that was hailed by the hygiene-minded. A Philadelphia restaurant run by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union adopted them in the 1890s, as did modern self-service chain lunch rooms which placed table casters on tabletops which held napkins, condiments, and silverware [though in this image the napkins look like cloth].

In the early 20th century almost all tea rooms used paper napkins, often dainty ones imported from Japan or China. They also did away with tablecloths, leaving tabletops bare or using doilies or placemats. Tea room proprietors were motivated not only by a wish to cut laundry expense but also because they were of a time and social class that believed it was more sanitary to rid interiors of the excessive furbelows of the Victorian age. Reflecting this mentality, Alice Foote MacDougall remarked in a 1928 article titled “Eating Aesthetically,” “There is nothing particularly alluring about long rows of tables, standing like shrouded sepulchers in winding sheets of more or less unsanitary tablecloths.”

As the 20th century wore on most restaurants got rid of tablecloths making them something of a rarity, resulting in the term “white-tablecloth restaurant” for more luxurious establishments.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

3 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants