Tag Archives: coffee houses

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

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Taste of a decade: restaurants, 1810-1820

oysters090The nation has begun to grow westward though settlement is still mostly along the coast. Seven cities exceed 10,000 in population in 1810, rising to eight over the decade. In the largest city, NY (152,056 in 1820), commerce is on the rise, yet by mid-decade there are only eight hotels and five banks. Pigs run free in the streets. The defeat of Britain in the War of 1812-1815 does not cause an immediate end to British influence on public eateries, though there are a few French restorators. Beefsteaks are popular and oysters are served almost everywhere. Alcohol flows freely. Most eating places are also drinking places and boarding houses as well. Board can include lodging or not — some people pay a weekly or monthly fee simply for meals.

Highlights

1810 With close to 34,000 inhabitants Boston, the nation’s fourth largest city, has almost 50 victuallers who run either cook shops where householders take food to be cooked or places where cooked food is served on the premises. There are also five confectioners, one restorator (Jean Gilbert Julien), three taverns, three coffee houses, and seven wine shops, some of which serve cooked food.

1811 Robert Wrightson, owner of the Union Coffee House in Boston, advertises for “a young Woman to do Kitchen Work.” He has recently opened a hotel near Cambridge where, he promises, he will stock the finest Champagne, Madeira, Sherry, Port, and London Brown Stout. Also on tap: bowling alleys and “Dinners and other Refreshments provided at the shortest notice.”

1814 In Newport RI, N. Pelichan announces he has opened a Victualling House and is ready to serve “good Beef-Steaks, Oysters, Turtle-Soups, etc. with Pastries, Wines and all kinds of Spiritous Liquors, of the very best quality.” He looks forward to hosting dinners and suppers for men’s clubs and societies which make up a good part of the dining public.

beehiveny18181815 On July 17 Hannah Julien, who has run Julien’s Restorator since the death of her husband Jean ten years earlier, informs the public that she will be serving a “fine green turtle” that day. – In Salem MA, John Remond, who is black and from the West Indies, also runs a restorator where he prepares soups, green turtles, cakes, wafers, French rolls, and other delicacies.

1817 Boasting that he has cooked for wealthy men as well as President James Madison, Henry F.Doyhar promises to furnish breakfasts, dinners and suppers at his Washington, D.C. fruit and pastry shop “on the shortest notice.” Evidently he also has a billiard table on the premises because a few months later he receives a pardon from President James Monroe for keeping it without a license. – Meanwhile, over in Georgetown William Collins lures epicures with “the richest gravies, finest jellies,” York, Cove, and Nantiquoke oysters, canvassback ducks, and “every article that will serve to embellish a supper, and give gaiety and animation to the repast.”

1818 For a day of recreation, Philadelphia families head to Greenwich Point Tavern on the Delaware River. They order a meal or simply graze on turtle soup and ice cream which are prepared every Sunday. If they become bored they take a boat ride across the river to Gloucester Point on the New Jersey side.

1819 A New York oyster cellar on Chatham Street fills up around 9 pm with patrons who drop by for fried, stewed, or raw oysters washed down with their favorite alcoholic beverages. A visitor describes the interior: “There were several tables in little boxes, covered with cloths not very clean, and having broken castors, filled with thick vinegar and dirty mustard, together with knives and forks not very tempting in their appearance.” He is also critical of the age of the patrons (too young), their appetites (too big), and the times (too extravagant).

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

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Taste of a decade: restaurants, 1800-1810

The American population is settled mainly along the Eastern seaboard. The largest city, New York, with almost 80,000 people, is one of only about 15 cities with more than 1,000 inhabitants. Meals are available in taverns, oyster houses, coffee houses, and French restorators. Most diners are male travelers, businessmen, or boarders, though religious societies and clubs of firefighters, politicians, or old soldiers gather for banquets from time to time. The dinner hour falls between noon and 3:00 p.m.

Highlights

1800 Meat, fish, and fowl are the principal offerings of eating places, and an establishment’s quality is measured by the amount and assortment of animal protein set out on the table. At the Portland Restorator in Portland, Maine, the proprietor proudly announces he has “potted lobster, potted eel, chicks fricaseed, and fine ragouts, beef alamode, and barbicues, sausage Bologna, Hamburgh, Naples, choice venison pastry, pork pie Cheshire, good beef steak, and bacon rasher” as well as “round of beef, fat Sirloin, turkey roast, or calf’s head boil’d with tongue & brains.” Beyond these main dishes, he supplies only soup and a few pies. Strangely, he does not mention one of the most popular edibles of the 19th century, oysters.

1801 Well-off Americans who read fashionable magazines are fascinated by the popularity of restaurants in Paris. There, it is said, “everybody” (who is anybody) dines frequently outside the home. The awkward term “restorator,” an Americanized version of restaurateur which refers either to a place to dine or to its proprietor, becomes a trendy metaphor for a publication, an essay, or an editor.

1802 Napoleon offers amnesty to his opponents and many French citizens who escaped to America during the revolution return to France, shrinking the number of skilled restaurateurs. Not all leave, however. Julien continues in Boston.

1802 The inimitable black caterer Othello Pollard, of Cambridge MA, beckons “select” clients from nearby Harvard with beefsteak, soup, cheese, ham, tongue, ice cream, custard, strawberries and cream, whip-syllabub, pies, jellies, olives, and fruit, along with a well-stocked liquor cabinet. In an unusual advertisement, he observes: “It is a wise saying … that the Body is as much a subject of education as the Mind. Both require tuition and discipline. The UNIVERSITY takes the Mind for its pupil; OTHELLO takes the Body. He, therefore, who has not been at both schools is half a Scholar.”

1803 In Charleston, South Carolina, a new hotel opens with a banquet room accommodating 300.

1807 The beefsteak and oyster house remains a popular sort of eating place. Turtle soup is a delicacy and restaurants place notices in papers when they are about to prepare it. On June 8 Wm. Fryatt, who has recently opened a Porter, Beef Steak and Oyster House on the corner of Pine and Nassau in New York, advertises he will prepare the last turtle of the season.

1808 Henry Doyhar of New York City announces that he will list his dinner specials in writing each day: “To accommodate those who wish to procure their Dinner …, the bill of fare, containing the dishes regularly numbered, will be exhibited every day from nine till eleven o’clock, A.M. for the purpose of engaging beforehand such dishes as may be wanted.” Since so many people are illiterate at this time, this suggests his clients are educated and probably wealthy.

1809 In Boston the elegant and expensively built Boston Exchange Coffee-House opens with a coffee room on the ground floor, furnished with a bar and 14 private and “handsome boxes, each containing a mahogany table, seats, and a bell rope.” On the second floor is a banquet hall and a dining room whose “walls are painted a beautiful green, and the windows decorated with curtains of scarlet moreen.”

Read about other decades: 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; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Chain restaurants: beans and bible verses

Although the restaurants run by Alfred W. Dennett in the 1880s and 1890s were popular and earned him a cool million in just a few years, some people took a strong dislike to them because of the framed bible quotations which covered the walls. Newspapers regularly ridiculed them, noting for instance that burglars who cracked the safe at the Park Avenue Dennett’s in New York City did so right under a sign that read, “Be ye strong, therefore, and let not your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.” But no one took such a negative position against the Northeastern coffee/dairy/beans & fishcakes-based chain as did Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor. In a talk in Brooklyn he offended some audience members when he declared, “I, temperance man as I am, would go into the lowest rumhole in the city, and get blind, rolling drunk, rather than go into that restaurant where they have such signs as ‘Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself,’ to get a cup of coffee.”

Founder Dennett, born in 1840 the son of a storekeeper in Topsham, Maine, was a zealous religious believer and temperance advocate who required his waitresses to attend daily prayer services and took a leading role in citizen vice squads. In New York City he disguised himself — as streetcar conductor, laborer, or man about town — to conduct surveillance and collect evidence against suspected sites of immorality. He gave away his fortune to charity, was forced out of his company by stockholders, and had numerous mental breakdowns, culminating in a declaration of insanity after being found wandering the streets of San Francisco with a pillowcase over his head. When the Childs brothers took over the chain in 1900 evidently they retained the Dennett’s name and left the bible verses on the walls. The chain of about 16 outlets continued until at least 1912.

At various times Dennett and his son George tried for a comeback on the West Coast, operating several places in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early 20th century (and possibly earlier) but they did not succeed and some of the San Francisco locations were taken over by the Puritan restaurant chain, which continued in a religious vein under the management of the appropriately named Mr. Goodbody.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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