Tag Archives: Boston

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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Find of the day: Steuben’s

I got lucky at a vintage postcard show this weekend and found this mid-1950s menu from a once popular restaurant in Boston’s theater district. Yes, believe it or not, Boston did have a downtown entertainment zone with night-clubby restaurants such as Steuben’s at 114 Boylston Street near Tremont, not far from another such place, the Hi-Da-Way. The neighborhood – which later came to be known locally as “the Combat Zone” — was eventually taken over by strip clubs, adult bookstores, and X-rated movie theaters.

The menu exudes a spirit of hilarity and puts Steuben’s in a category which I think of as the “nut club.” These were mid-century places where church-going suburbanites went occasionally to take a break from rationality and good behavior. It seems as though they proliferated after World War II — what you might think of as the PTSD therapy of that era.

Café Midnight was the part of Steuben’s that catered to the late-night crowd which often included celebrities performing in town who came there after their shows to unwind. At its peak, the restaurant expanded into five rooms, featured floor shows, Latin music in The Cave, and a radio broadcast by host Don Dennis who enthused about the restaurant’s cheese cake.

Steuben’s was established in 1932 by two Austrian-born Jewish brothers, Joseph and Max Schneider. At that time it featured a 63-foot long soda bar but clearly its opening was in anticipation of the much-awaited end of Prohibition. About a year later the restaurant was one of the first 114 “common victuallers” in Boston to get a full liquor license.

The restaurant was not kosher but it served dishes such as smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel, kippered herring with scrambled eggs, and chopped chicken livers. But the late-night menu also included standard restaurant fare such as steak sandwiches and grilled cheese with Canadian bacon. During the daytime Steuben’s Dutch dining room advertised lobster and turkey specials for shoppers.

Steuben’s closed sometime in the early 1970s. Co-founder Max Schneider, who also operated Ye Olde Brass Rail restaurant in Boston, died in 1975, Joseph in 1986. The brothers also owned the Blue and Gold Corp. which managed concessions at the Lincoln Downs racetrack in Rhode Island and Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Waitress uniforms: bloomers

The bicycling craze of the mid-1890s brought “wheelwomen” dressed in bloomers into public view. It didn’t take long for enterprising restaurant men to latch onto the sensational pants-like garment as a waitress uniform. It was the middle of a nationwide depression and they hoped that male customers would flock to their establishments and the money would pour in. And this proved true, sort of.

Bloomers were originally a pragmatic garment of the 1850s woman’s rights movement intended to permit women to conduct everyday affairs without dragging 50 pounds of skirts and petticoats over filthy floors and streets. They were designed to do this by raising the skirt hem up to the shoe tops — with long gathered trousers worn underneath to modestly hide the ankles. But because of relentless ridicule, prior to the bicycle craze they had been worn only in private or in exceptional situations: doing gymnastics, while housecleaning, or by Westward-bound women crossing prairies and mountains.

The bloomers worn by female cyclists in the 1890s were more daring than those of the 1850s because they ended just below the knee, revealing stocking-covered calves and ankles. When “waiter girls” (as waitresses were known then) wore them, crowds of men gathered on sidewalks outside restaurants, jostling for a view. Although some restaurant owners claimed that bloomers were more practical than long dresses, it was pretty clear that most were motivated by a wish for publicity.

The bloomer uniform typically consisted of full-cut navy, brown, or black serge pants gathered at waist and knees and worn with a short matching vest (pictured on San Francisco waitresses) or “Zouave” jacket, and a colored blouse with leg o’mutton sleeves. Often the outfit was accessorized with black stockings, patent leather slippers, and caps imprinted with the restaurant’s name.

The first restaurant to adopt the fascinatingly curious uniform, in 1895, was the Bloomer Café in San Francisco. It was rapidly followed by restaurants in St. Louis and NYC. In 1896 and 1897 a few more opened in NYC, in Oakland CA, Chicago, and — gasp! — Boston. The police immediately closed the Chicago café on moral grounds. But they all seem to have been short-lived, usually because the crowds stopped coming once the sensationalism wore off.

Waitresses sometimes balked at bloomers because they feared they would be “on exhibit” and treated crudely by male patrons. Those who did agree to wear them, under threat of losing their jobs, reported that although they missed the “swish” factor of layers of starched skirts, they liked the new style because it enabled them to move quickly without trailing hems to get stepped on or slammed in doors.

Restaurant bloomers were an interesting example of a style crossing under coercion from one social class to another. Bloomers were seen as symbolic of the “new woman” – a decidedly privileged, well-educated, independent-minded daughter of the middle class. The new woman loved riding bicycles and engaging in sports. Working class women, by contrast, did not typically ride bicycles, play tennis or golf, or exercise in gyms. More than one bloomer waitress disclosed upon being interviewed that she had never been on a bicycle.

By 1898 the restaurant bloomer fad was over, but the idea of dressing waitresses in eye-catching costumes was only beginning.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Taste of a decade: 1890s restaurants

1893NYCAs the decade starts there are over 19,000 restaurant keepers, a number overshadowed by more than 71,000 saloon keepers, many of whom also serve food for free or at nominal cost. The institution of the “free lunch” has become so well entrenched that an industry develops to supply saloons with prepared food. As big cities grow, the number of restaurants swells, with most located in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, and the Midwest where young single workers live in rooming houses that do not provide meals. Southern states and the thinly populated West, apart from California, have few restaurants.

Cheap restaurants such as lunch counters, lunch wagons, and ethnic cafés are the leading types, buoyed by the heavy immigration of Southern Europeans, particularly Southern Italians. Chinese restaurants become more common in the East. More unescorted women patronize restaurants, particularly in downtown shopping districts and around office buildings where they work. Bigotry increases and, despite civil rights laws, Afro-Americans face greater rejection by restaurants.

An economic panic in 1893 sends the country into a severe four-year-long Depression. Self-service lunchrooms which operate on the honor system begin to notice that one out of every ten patrons shaves their check. Interest grows in an “automat” from Germany in which food is not accessible until money is deposited in a slot. Rumors spread that one will debut in St. Louis and another in Philadelphia.

1893LadyinRedNear the decade’s end, the “Gay 90s” commence and those who are able and so inclined pursue the good life, which increasingly includes going to restaurants for the evening. It is still considered somewhat disreputable to do this, so some people go out to dinner only when visiting another city.

Highlights

1891 The Vienna Bakery restaurant of Los Angeles creates a stir when it advertises that it never serves “come backs” (food left on other people’s plates). “When a meal is served its remains are thrown away,” it insists. The following week it reaffirms the claim and further boasts, “No Chinaman Handles any of the food cooked at THE VIENNA.”

1893 Chicago is full of horse-drawn lunch wagons which cluster around railroad depots and the entrances to Jackson Park to take advantage of the crowds attending the World’s Columbian Exposition.

delmonicobdwy5th26th921893 A drunken man fires five shots into Delmonico’s in New York City (5th Ave. and 26th St., pictured), later declaring he believes in equality among the classes and wanted to “give the rich people I saw in there enjoying themselves a good scare.”

1894 The Maverick Restaurant opens in Golden, Colorado, for the express purpose of serving 5-cent meals to the vast army of unemployed men who earn credit to pay for the meal of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable by cutting and stacking wood. Unlimited amounts of bread are included but no butter.

1894 In Chicago, jobless men are thankful for free food that saloons provide with the purchase of a beer. One declares, “This free lunch is all that keeps me alive. I have been out of work for three months…. Five cents now buys me a meal and another nickel goes for lodging. That is what I live on and I consider myself lucky.”

Marston's3501895 Competition from cafés and restaurants in Massachusetts has just about wiped out the old boarding houses where renters had all their meals supplied. One reason is that people prefer restaurants because they get to choose what and when they eat. – Boston’s Marston restaurant, established by sea captain Russell Marston in the 1840s, opens a women’s lunch room on Hanover Street.

1896 With the passage of the Raines Law, which permits only hotels to sell liquor on Sunday (the busiest day for many restaurants), some New York restaurants begin to permit prostitutes to ply their trade in upstairs rooms which they have furnished with beds to qualify as hotels. The Maryland Kitchen on 34th Street, known for Southern cooking, and Gonfarone’s Italian restaurant in the Village are two of the many which take this route.

1897 In Michigan and Indiana bills are introduced in the legislature to outlaw French on menus. The Michigan bill is introduced by a legislator who had an embarrassing experience in a Chicago restaurant. Unable to figure out a menu, he ended up with two bowls of soup and some toothpicks.

1897 In the midst of the bicycling craze, two debutantes open a pink and white tea room serving lettuce sandwiches and café frappé to cyclists in Greenwich CT. Meanwhile a black cyclist who stops at Chicago’s Old Vienna café on Cottage Grove orders a lunch that never arrives. When he presses the manager, he is told, “You ought to know we don’t serve n*****s here.”

1898 During the war between the United States and Spain, public opinion against Spain whipped up by “yellow” (nationalist, sensationalist) journalism causes some restaurant keepers to rename “Spanish omelets.” Instead they are listed on menus as “tomato omelets.”

1899 A Chicago newspaper runs a story with a headline that reads: “Swell Gothamites Now Dine in Cafes. Members of New York’s Smart Set, with Some Exceptions, Have Adopted a Bohemian Fad Inaugurated in Paris and London. Society People Now Court Publicity and Love to Exhibit Their Marvelous Toilets [clothes] for the Admiration of the Vulgar. It Is Predicted That This Innovation, of Questionable Taste, Will Spread to Chicago.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Famous in its day: Taft’s

Throughout much of the 19th century game topped the list of desirable restaurant fare. Taft’s Hotel located on the shore at Winthrop MA, 5 miles outside Boston, attained widespread fame as a place to enjoy a fish or game dinner. Proprietor Orray Augustus Taft called his place a hotel but did not accommodate overnight guests. Taft’s was actually a seasonal restaurant serving parties by reservation only, from May through October. It was established at Point Shirley around 1850 and closed in the mid-1880s.

Taft’s was not much to look at. Two unattractive structures attached to the main building (shown here) held bowling alleys and billiard tables suggesting that groups often made a day of it. According to visitors of the 1870s, the resort might have had a nice view of the harbor if it had not been blocked by a reformatory on neighboring Deer Island. Taft’s fame was obviously not based on an elegant setup but rather on its provisions. Taft liked to entertain guests by taking them into his kitchen and showing off the contents of his ice chests. Fish came from the waters of Nantucket, Boston Bay, Long Island, and far beyond. Flat fish, such as turbot and plaice, were his specialty. Ducks and birds (snipe, plover, reed birds, grouse) came from all along the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes.

A couple of the strangest items on Taft’s menus were “owls from the north” and “humming birds in nut shells.” Exactly what the “owls” were is uncertain. Snowy owls, horned owls? Or, perhaps it was a code for something else altogether. Owls sometimes appeared on 19th-century menus for birds obtained in violation of game laws. On an 1877 Taft’s menu the selection was explained cryptically in parentheses as “Lady’s Birds.”

The hummingbirds, according to a hunter who obtained them for Taft, were actually bank swallows. Another opinion suggested they were English sparrows. Clearly they were tiny and many believed they were genuine hummingbirds. They were served in a delicately hinged nut shell, which opened to reveal what resembled a miniature roast turkey. A guest from Philadelphia reportedly felt they were “really not worth eating, being dry and tasteless.” “But,” he admitted, “I wanted to say that I had eaten a humming bird, and now I can say it.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Mary Elizabeth’s, a New York institution

Mary Elizabeth Evans, for whom the landmark tea room was named, began her career in 1900 at age 15 as a small grocer and candymaker in Syracuse. After one year in business she cleared the then-handsome sum of $1,000 which she contributed to the support of her family while supervising a growing crew of helpers which included her two younger sisters who served as clerks and her brother who made deliveries.

Her family, though in seriously reduced circumstances, had valuable social connections. Her late grandfather had been a judge, her uncle an actor, and her departed father a music professor. That may help explain how she achieved success so rapidly – and why her story garnered so much publicity. By 1904 several elite NYC clubs and hotels sold her candy and soon thereafter it was for sale at summer resorts such as Asbury Park and Newport and in stores as far away as Chicago and Grand Rapids. In 1913 the all-women Mary Elizabeth company, which included her mother and sisters Martha and Fanny, was prosperous enough to sign a 21-year lease totaling nearly $1 million for a prestigious Fifth Avenue address close to Altman’s, Best & Co., Lord & Taylor, and Franklin-Simon’s.

By the early teens the candy store had expanded into a charming tea room with branches in Newport and two in Boston, one on Temple Street and the other in the basement of the Park Street Church near the Boston Common (pictured ca. 1916). Like other popular tea rooms of the era, Mary Elizabeth’s bucked the tide of chain stores and standardized products by emphasizing food preparation from scratch. Known for “real American food served with a deft feminine touch,” Fanny Evans said the tea rooms catered to women’s tastes in “fancy, unusual salads,” “delicious home-made cakes,” and dishes such as “creamed chicken, sweetbreads, croquettes, timbales and patties.” For many decades, the NYC Mary Elizabeth’s was known especially for its crullers (long twisted doughnuts).

Mary Elizabeth distinguished herself as a patriot during the First World War by producing a food-conservation cookbook of meatless, wheatless, and sugarless recipes, and by volunteering to help the Red Cross develop diet kitchens in France. After her marriage to a wealthy Rhode Island businessman in 1920 she apparently played a reduced management role in the business.

In its later years the NYC restaurant passed out of the family’s hands and began to decline, culminating in an ignominious Health Department citation in 1985.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Famous in its day: Fera’s

In the second half of the 19th century the wealthy families of Boston, New York, and Newport patronized Fera’s Confectionery and Restaurant in Boston, which had earned a reputation for high quality throughout the East. The business was established in 1853, and after 1876 was located on Tremont Street looking out on the Common. At Fera’s, patrons not only could enjoy dainty luncheons or after-theater suppers but could arrange to have the firm cater their next dinner party, complete with table ornaments. Confectioneries at this time tended to be large establishments which not only created elegant candies, ice creams, and pastries but also provided catering services and ran restaurants. Fera’s was especially popular with female patrons, as was always the case with confectioneries in the days when many restaurants were considered off-limits to respectable women.

Like many Europeans in the culinary trades who came to this country, founder George Fera had traveled a prestigious career path before arriving on U.S. soil in his early 20s. Born in Lübeck, Germany, he compressed a lifetime into a few years. Starting out at a young age he had trained in confectionery in Paris, succeeding so well that he was appointed confectioner to the Czar of Russia, in St. Petersburg, where he remained for a number of years. Upon his arrival in the United States, he went to work at a New Orleans hotel, moving from there to New York City where he was employed by the famed confectioner Henry Maillard. He was said to have made for Maillard’s the first caramels produced in this country. It is hard to verify this claim but Maillard’s specialties in the 1850s did include chocolate, raspberry, coffee, and pistachio caramels.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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