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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Don Dickerman

dickermanrev Don Dickerman was obsessed with pirates. He took every opportunity to portray himself as one, beginning with a high school pirate band. As an art student in the teens he dressed in pirate garb for Greenwich Village costume balls. Throughout his life he collected antique pirate maps, cutlasses, blunderbuses, and cannon. His Greenwich Village nightclub restaurant, The Pirates’ Den, where colorfully outfitted servers staged mock battles for guests, became nationally known and made him a minor celebrity.

It might seem that Don’s buccaneering interests were commercially motivated except that he often dressed as a pirate in private life, owned a Long Island house associated with pirate lore, formed a treasure-hunting club, and spent a small fortune collecting pirate relics. He was a staff artist on naturalist William Beebe’s West Indies expedition in 1925, and in 1940 had a small part in Errol Flynn’s pirate movie The Sea Hawk.

piratesdenmenu225Over time he ran five clubs and restaurants in New York City. After failing to make a living as a toy designer and children’s book illustrator, he opened a tea room in the Village primarily as a place to display his hand-painted toys. It became popular, expanded, and around 1917 he transformed it into a make-believe pirates’ lair where guests entered through a dark, moldy basement. Its fame began to grow, particularly after 1921 when Douglas Fairbanks recreated its atmospheric interior for his movie The Nut. He also ran the Blue Horse (pictured), the Heigh-Ho (where Rudy Vallee got his start), Daffydill (financed by Vallee), and the County Fair.

bluehorsephoto226On a Blue Horse menu of the 1920s Don’s mother is listed as manager. Among the dishes featured at this jazz club restaurant were Golden Buck, Chicken a la King, Tomato Wiggle, and Tomato Caprice. Drinks (non-alcoholic) included Pink Goat’s Delight and Blue Horse’s Neck. Ice cream specials also bore whimsical names such as Green Goose Island and Mr. Bogg’s Castle. At The Pirates’ Den a beefsteak dinner cost a hefty $1.25. Also on the menu were chicken salad, sandwiches, hot dogs, and an ice cream concoction called Bozo’s Delight. A critic in 1921 concluded that, based on the sky-high menu tariffs and the “punk food,” customers there really were at the mercy of genuine pirates.

As the Depression deepened business evaporated, leading Don to declare bankruptcy in 1932. A few years later he turned up in Miami, running a new Pirates’ Den, and next in Washington D.C. where he opened another Pirates’ Den on K Street in Georgetown in 1939. In 1940 he opened yet another Pirates’ Den, at 335 N. La Brea in Los Angeles, which was co-owned by Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby among others. In the photograph, Don is shown at the Los Angeles Pirates’ Den with wife #5 (photo courtesy of Don’s granddaughter Kathleen P.).

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

Learn more about Don Dickerman’s life.

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Sweet and sour Polynesian

One remarkable accomplishment of Polynesian restaurants was how they lured the male diner without using steak as bait. Who would have believed mid-century Homo Americanus Modernus could swallow so many sugary rum drinks, pineapple chunks, and sticky sauces?

Another notable coup was that these tropical resorts were so obviously fake it was preposterous to accuse them of it. It is easy to imagine how Vic Bergeron, originator of Trader Vic’s, would have roared with laughter if charged with inauthenticity. (“Jeez, Honey, that was the whole point!”) Guests were well aware that the Tiki gods, fishnets, and outrigger canoes were artfully staged to stimulate escape fantasies, and vaguely conscious that the menu represented a culinary amalgam that never existed in the outside world. Bergeron once stated that the food of Polynesian islanders was “primitive” and “not acceptable to American tastes.” Stephen Crane, mastermind of Kon-Tiki Ports, admitted that many ingredients used in Polynesian dishes – bean sprouts, water chestnuts, tomatoes, and pea pods – didn’t grow on the islands. Who cared?

Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s were the first Polynesian restaurants, beginning in California in 1934 and 1938 respectively. It was quite a while, though, before eating in pseudo-grass-huts became a fad. Around 1957 only about 20 Polynesian restaurants were known. But by 1962, after Hawaiian statehood and the debuts of the movie South Pacific and TV show Hawaiian Eye, the number had grown to 200, according to a National Restaurant Association estimate.

Many were in big hotels where their job was to boost profits. As a Wall Street Journal headline succinctly put it in 1959, “Cocoanut Milk, Idols, Waterfalls Help Hotels Lift Food, Drink Take.” The Polynesian restaurant was about merchandising. Whether it was Bonko Bonko soup at Columbus’s Kahiki, Pineapple Teriyaki Garni at The Lahala House in Corpus Christi, or a take-home scorpion drink bowl (pictured) at Trader Vic’s, the concept was greater than all the inexpensive ingredients combined.

The appeal of exotic drinks held steady longer than the rest of the package. Already by the mid-1960s, American and “continental” standbys were infiltrating menus. Steaks made a comeback and diners could also choose from a broad array of restaurant items not even remotely tropical such as clam chowder, chicken cordon bleu, and hush puppies. In the 1970s more adventurous diners rejected Cantonese, the core of Polynesian cuisine, for spicier Szechuan and Hunan. Decor was seen as a growing problem, too, as the cost of importing tapa cloths and outrigger canoes rose. Restaurateurs searching for a concept were counseled to think about Old English which was easier to accessorize, according to the journal Cooking for Profit, only requiring some paneling and “a few old swords, or other recognizable ‘art objects.’”

By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s critics heaped scorn on things Polynesian, food especially. It seemed hard to believe NY Times critic Craig Claiborne had given it an ounce of credibility in 1958. Actor Yul Brynner sued Trader Vic’s in NY’s Plaza Hotel in 1979 after eating spareribs there and acquiring trichinosis. Ten years later Vic’s was booted out of the Plaza. Vic himself, having died in 1984, was spared the ignominious news. The long-lived Kahiki closed in 2000. Yet, even today Polynesian motifs cast a campy spell.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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All the salad you can eat

The salad bar most likely developed from the Americanized version of the smorgasbord which, by the 1950s, had shed its Swedish overtones and turned into an all-you-can-eat buffet. The smorg concept lingered on for a while in the form of salad “tables” holding appetizers and a half dozen or so complete salads typically anchored by three-bean, macaroni, and gelatin. Eventually someone came up with the idea of simply providing components in accordance with the classic three-part American salad which structurally resembles the ice cream sundae: (1) a base, accessorized by (2) plenty of garnishes, and smothered with (3) a generous pouring of sauce.

Whatever its origins, the salad bar as we know it – with its hallmark cherry tomatoes, bacon bits, and crocks full of raspberry and ranch dressings — became a restaurant fixture in the 1970s. Introduced as a novelty to convey hospitable “horn-of-plenty” abundance and to mollify guests waiting for their meat, it became so commonplace that the real novelty was a restaurant without one. Though strongly associated with steakhouses, particularly inexpensive chains, salad bars infiltrated restaurants of all sorts except, perhaps, for those at the pinnacle of fine dining. Salad bars were positively unstoppable at the Joshua Trees, the Beef ’n Barrels, and the Victoria Stations, some of which cunningly staged their salad fixings on vintage baggage carts, barrels, and the like.

Although industry consultants advised that a salad bar using pre-prepared items could increase sales while eliminating a pantry worker, restaurant managers often found that maintaining a salad setup was a full-time task. Tomatoes and garbanzos had a tendency to roll across the floor, dressings splashed onto clear plastic sneeze-guards, and croutons inevitably fell into the olde-tyme soup kettle.

On the whole salad bars went over well with the public – and still do — but by the late 1970s restaurant critics were finding it hard to hide their disdain. Judging them mediocre, some blamed customers who were gullible enough to believe they were getting a bargain. Others were wistful, such as the forbearing reviewer in Columbia, Missouri, who confessed, “It would be a nice change to get something besides a tossed make-it-yourself salad, and to have it brought to the table.” The trend at the Missouri college town’s restaurants, however, was in the opposite direction. In the 1980s Faddenhappi’s and Katy Station ramped up competition by offering premium salad makings such as almonds, broccoli, and cottage cheese while Western Sizzlin’ Steaks pioneered a potato bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Beans and beaneries

“Beanery” was less a name that an eating place would claim for itself than a slang term for a cheap and lowly lunch room. In these eating places baked beans was a staple dish going back at least as far as the mid-1800s. Milliken’s Beefsteak & Coffee Room in lower Manhattan offered its customers pork and beans in 1845. The price was 6 cents, the same, surprisingly, as roast beef or chicken pot pie.

Before sweet things became standard breakfast fare, baked beans were considered ideal for the morning meal. In fact the beauty of beans was that they made a square meal 24 hours a day. Like ham and eggs, they were favorites at all-night eating places. They could also be found in other nighttime establishments such as Silk & Anderson’s Saloon, Billiard and Keno Hall in Trinidad, Colorado, established in 1876, where baked beans, ham, and cole slaw made up the free “lunch” spread from 9:00 at night until 2:00 in the morning.

Baked beans could be found in restaurants all over the U.S. – Cincinnati, San Francisco, New Orleans – but it was in hard-edged Chicago, New York, and Boston where the slang term “beanery” especially captured the imagination of writers. Despite the unsentimental words of a 1908 hash house waitress, “There ain’t no romance about pork and beans or any of it. It’s all to the real life, and a punched check for a finish,” novelists of that time loved to set their tales of salty characters in big city beaneries.

Each city’s beaneries had a different character. Chicago’s South Clark Street, “toothpick row,” was full of them but beans also did duty in the city’s saloons where a 5¢ glass of beer earned a free lunch of beef and baked beans, with pickles, olives, and celery for trimmings. New York City was known for its “beef and” places, as they were called. The beef, in this case, was corned and everyone knew the missing word after beef was beans.

In Boston baked beans formed a considerable industry. Bakeries and other bean specialists ran hot ovens full of beanpots every night, turning out 32 million quarts annually which they delivered daily to restaurants and lunch counters. Baked beans often appeared on menus accompanied by brown bread, a combo known as “B. B. B. & B. B.” Even in 1921 when beans were slipping out of favor as a restaurant dish, the Childs chain found demand strong enough to keep them (and oysters) on their Boston breakfast menus.

It was said that baked beans was too frugal a dish to be popular in Los Angeles where garden produce was available year round. Yet “Ptomaine Tommy” DeForest laid claim to inventing a bean dish unique to L.A., the mysteriously named “size,” a hamburger on a bun covered with chili and diced raw onions.

By the 1960s Americans had outgrown their love of baked beans. In a restaurant trade book of 1966 they are listed as “foods to shun,” along with kidneys, chipped beef, turnips, and rutabagas.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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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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