Tag Archives: lunch rooms

Early chains: Baltimore Dairy Lunch

baltimorelunchDetroitAPeople liked to say that the names of lunch room chains in the early 20th century offered a lesson in geography. There were Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Iowa, Manhattan, Maryland, Milwaukee, New York, Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, St. Louis, and Utica Lunches, or Dairy Lunches as some were known. Los Angelenos patronized a New York Lunch in 1905, while customers in Duluth MN, Lexington KY, and San Francisco enjoyed their sandwiches in a Boston Lunch. Detroit had its Manhattan Lunch, while Manhattan had a Detroit Lunch. And so on.

baltimorelunchDetroitBBut before the 1920s no lunchroom chain was as popular as the Baltimore Dairy Lunch which at that time outnumbered Childs. Founder James A. Whitcomb began the business in the late 1880s in Washington, D.C., where he was a federal postal clerk, then opening a lunch room in Baltimore. Along with four quasi-franchisers, he controlled about 140 units by 1920. The largest branch, under the ownership of Harry Bowles in Springfield MA, consisted of a couple dozen units. Few large cities were without a Baltimore Dairy Lunch, as Whitcomb’s were named, or a Baltimore Lunch, the name used by Bowles.

baltimorelunchDetroitCWhether they belonged to large or small chains or were independents, Baltimores or Buffalos,  all Lunches were similar. As someone put it, “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.” A humorous story in Everybody’s Magazine in 1914 featured a cranky elderly man who went around from lunch room to lunch room asking the local wits, “What is the difference between a Hartford Lunch and a Baltimore Lunch.” Their answer was always the same, “Search me.”

Regardless of their similarity, dairy lunches were regarded as characteristically and proudly American, so much so that during battle in World War I, after U.S. soldiers took control of an improvised clubhouse used by German troops, they tore down a sign the Germans had posted over the door that said “Hindenburg Rathskeller” and replaced it with “Baltimore Lunch.”

baltimorelunchDetroitBaltimore Lunches shared many features in common with the fast food chains that arrived in the 1960s. Their offerings were simple and inexpensive. No alcohol was served. Customers got their food at a counter and carried it to their seats. Seating – one-armed wooden chairs — was uncomfortable and did not encourage lingering. Patrons didn’t mind, though, because they were interested in expediting the entire getting and eating process so they could go about their business.

baltimorelunchDetroit710Unlike fast food architecture of the 1960s, though, Baltimore Lunches were built as solidly and luxuriously as Grecian temples. Interiors used marble lavishly for counters and fixtures. Was it because both Whitcomb and Bowles were natives of Vermont, the state where so much marble is quarried? Maybe, but I think that marble was an expression of cleanliness and investment in a growing economy’s ability to efficiently mass produce affordable, nutritious meals. A standard feature of the Baltimore Lunch – a large marble bowl filled with sugar set on a marble pedestal — can easily be seen as a representation of democratic abundance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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B.McD. (Before McDonald’s)

ArmstrongMOcafe

In most towns and cities across the USA the landscape is filled with fast food eateries that belong to chains, McDonald’s obviously being only one. Chain restaurants make up close to half of all restaurants today, and many of them can be classed as fast food places. A large proportion of the meals people eat away from home come from this type of eating place.

Where did people grab a quick bite before the fast food chains came along? What was the ordinary, inexpensive eating place like for so much of the last century, B.McD.?

Let’s peer back into the first half of the 20th century. There were some “quick lunch” chains in existence, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Although high-traffic locations in larger cities were quickly grabbed up by chains such as Baltimore Lunch or John R. Thompson, less desirable sites in cities and on Main Streets in smaller towns were populated with small independent eateries.

ConeyIslandCafecropped

Many, perhaps most, lunch rooms and cafes – not likely to be called restaurants then – occupied storefronts or freestanding one-story buildings of very basic construction. Often they were “mom & pop” operations with one of the pair handling the cooking, the other running the food service side of things. Very likely the proprietors knew most of their customers on at least a first name basis.

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Most lunch rooms shared a basic floor plan in a standard storefront space 18 to 25 feet wide and 75 to 100 feet deep. About 2/3 to 3/4 of the space was devoted to the dining room, the rest making up the kitchen which was hidden behind a wall, partition, or just a curtain.

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Usually seating would include both a counter and some tables or booths along the side or arranged toward the back. Very narrow storefronts had counter seating only. Shelves behind the counter or glass display cases might hold baked goods, packaged groceries, cigars, or candy. A cash register was often a prominent feature.

BaltimoreCafeoysterHouseAberdeenWA1921

In many cases during Prohibition, a café’s or lunch room’s previous status as a barroom was plainly evident.

AuburnWAcoffeeshop

Decor, such as it was, was frequently provided by posters and stand-up signs advertising national brands, particularly soft drinks.

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What was gained and what was lost when the old lunch rooms disappeared? It’s a mixed picture. I doubt that their food was much to brag about. Some were clean, some were dirty. Often their menus were limited — but rarely as limited as the fast food chains. Food was served on dishes, not in paper wrappings. They provided service and often friendliness and a sense of community, though it was sometimes circumscribed by race, gender, and familiarity.

I recall walking into a local café in Hannibal MO about ten years ago. The few customers at the counter all turned to stare openly as we came though the door. The proprietor screeched, “Where are YOU from?” We were horrified when the chili came with a big scoop of sour cream on top. She seemed offended when we failed to order pie. I hate to admit it but, all in all, I would have preferred the anonymity of a chain for lunch that day. On the other hand, if we had gone to a chain I wouldn’t remember being in Hannibal at all.

© 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.

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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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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Charles Sarris

SarrisCandyKitchen1939

It is always a big deal to me when I find a restaurant proprietor’s memoir, all the more so when he or she conducted an “everyday” sort of restaurant. My Ninety-Five Year Journey, privately published by Charles N. Sarris in 1987, was a just such a wonderful, and rare, find.

The book illustrates a fairly typical restaurant career for thousands of Greek-Americans who opened restaurants in small towns which had few eating places in the early decades of the 20th century.

Charles was born in Lesbos, Greece, in 1891. At 19 he lived in dread that any moment he would be conscripted into the Turkish army and, possibly, spend the rest of his life in an occupied country. He decided to leave for the U.S. For the next six years he bounced around Connecticut and Massachusetts, working in Greek-owned confectioneries where he learned to make candy and ice cream. In 1916 he went to work in a new confectionery in Amherst MA, population 5,500. It wasn’t long before Charles and his partners, who included his brother James, took over the confectionery and expanded it into a lunchroom serving basic fare such as hamburgers and ham and eggs.

SarrisCandyKitchen1921ADVThe restaurant was named the College Candy Kitchen [1921 advertisement pictured], obviously aimed at student patrons from Amherst College and the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts). Candy Kitchens run by Greek entrepreneurs could be found throughout the United States in the early 20th century. Coincidentally, another “College Candy Kitchen” did business in Cambridge’s Harvard Square.

One of only three Greeks in Amherst when he arrived, Charles would not feel welcome in his new home for some time. He heard racial and ethnic slurs unfamiliar to him from his previous residency in Andover MA. He observed that many townspeople valued people from France, Germany, or England more highly than those from Italy, Poland, the Middle East, or Greece.

In 1927 he and two other merchants who occupied the three-story building located on Main Street across from Amherst town hall formed Amherst Realty Co. to buy the property. Yet not until 1939, after running a thriving restaurant for 23 years, did Charles finally gain admission into one of the town’s fraternal organizations, the Rotary Club.

SarrisCandyKitchenca1927

The College Candy Kitchen modernized and expanded in the 1920s [1920s Spanish-style interior shown], despite a disastrous fire in 1928 which necessitated moving to a new location for several months. Business slowed drastically but Charles and James got through the Depression ok.

Students, who made up the bulk of customers, balked when the restaurant introduced new foods such as yogurt and melons. Some greeted watermelon with the objection, “Gee, we’re not Alabama Negroes!” Charles reassured them that the menu would always include staples such as boiled dinners, baked beans, and meatloaf. For decades the restaurant continued to produce its own baked goods, ice cream, and, for holidays, candy.

Once again Charles encountered customer resistance when he hired Afro-Americans as staff or served them as patrons. “We had a lot of opposition from the students but we ignored it,” he wrote. Eventually they settled down and got used to it.

According to Charles, the restaurant closed in 1953 due to illness, parking problems, and customers’ demands for alcoholic beverages (which he did not wish to deal in). It was succeeded by the Town House Restaurant. A 1953 bankruptcy auction notice gave a fair idea of the size of the restaurant then. On the auction block were 30 leather upholstered booths, two circular booths, four showcases, a soda fountain with 12 stools, and kitchen, bakery, and ice cream equipment. I can just picture it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Greek-American restaurants

GreekrestaurantMarlboroMA

Ethnic restaurants are generally seen as places where people from cultures outside the U.S. provide meals similar to what they ate in their homelands. A high degree of continuity between restaurant owners, cooks, and cuisines is presumed, as in: the Chinese run Chinese restaurants in which Chinese cooks prepare Chinese dishes.

Questions are sometimes raised about whether, for example, Chinese restaurants in America have adapted to American consumer’s tastes to the point where the Chinese cuisine is not “authentic,” but few question how obviously true or historically accurate it is to assume that Chinese always cooked or served Chinese food.

History is rarely tidy. Chinese, Germans, and Italians cooked French food. Germans ran English chop houses. And people of almost all ethnicities — Irish, Italian, German, Croatian, Greek — cooked American food and owned American restaurants.

GreekPaul'sLuncheonette233Greek immigrants, in fact, have been especially inclined to run American restaurants which serve mainstream American food, with little suggestion of the Mediterranean. Typically they’ve been  the independent quick lunches, luncheonettes, coffee shops, and diners that are open long hours, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to working people. Many have been run under business names such as Ideal, Majestic, Elite, Cosmopolitan, Sanitary, Purity, or Candy Kitchen, rather than the proprietor’s name.

The emphasis on names suggesting quality or cleanliness is explained by the tendency of Americans in the early 20th century to brand Greek-run eateries as “greasy spoons” or “holes in the wall.” A negative attitude to Greek eating places is evident in the following piece of rhyme published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1926 entitled “Where Greek Meets Greek”:

The other day I wandered in where angels fear to tread –
I mean the well known Greasy Spoon, where hungry gents are fed;
Where eats is eats and spuds is spuds, and ham is ham what am –
And the pork in the chicken salad is honest-to-goodness lamb.

GreekConstantineDrive-In

Certainly there were substandard Greek restaurants, but I’ve found that Greek-American proprietors had a propensity to plow profits into modern equipment and fixtures whenever possible.

Greek immigrants showed strong affinity with the restaurant business since the beginning of the 20th century when they began coming to the U.S. in large numbers. The reason for this is often attributed to a lack of English skills, but the first Greek restaurants, actually coffeehouses where patrons could linger, probably had more to do with the absence of women among early Greek migrants. Coffeehouses furnished community. Although in big Eastern cities many Greek restaurants continued to focus on Greek immigrants, many enterprising Greeks took the step of expanding beyond their compatriots. Some, such as Charles Charuhas who established the Washington, D.C. Puritan Dairy Lunch in 1906, were expanding or transitioning from the confectionery and fruit business.

While heavily invested in the New England lunch room business, especially in Providence RI and Lowell MA, Greek immigrants spread to many regions of the U.S, bringing restaurants to the restaurant-starved South. It is impressive that a Raleigh-based Greek trio opened its 15th restaurant in North Carolina as early as 1909. At that time, Greeks were said to be “invading” the lunch room trade in Chicago, operating about 400 places. Because of the simplicity of American cuisine, it was said that two months spent shadowing an American cook was all it took for Greek restaurateurs to pick up the necessary skills.

GreekTorchofAcropolisDallasOther successful Greek restaurateurs of the past century included John Raklios who at one point owned a chain of a couple dozen lunch rooms in Chicago. In New York City Bernard G. Stavracos ran the first-class restaurant The Alps on West 58th, established in 1907. The Demos Cafe in Muskegon MI was one of that city’s leading establishments. In Dallas The Torch of the Acropolis (pictured) had a 36-year-long run, closing in 1984, while the College Candy Kitchen was an institution in Amherst MA.

The children of successful Greek restaurant owners often preferred professional careers, but a new wave of Greek immigrants arrived after WWII, gravitating to diners, particularly it seems, in New Jersey. In 1989 the author of the book Greek Americans wrote that according to his estimate about 20% of the members of the National Restaurant Association had Greek surnames. And, as if demonstrating a flair for adaptation, according to a 1990 study, Greek-Americans were then dominating Connecticut’s pizza business.

GreekdinerDrimonesBrosNJ

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Famous in its day: Reeves Bakery, Restaurant, Coffee Shop

The renowned Reeves of Washington, D.C. was a many splendored thing. So much so that for lack of space I had to leave out its other historical identities as Grocery Store, Tea Room, Confectionery, and Soda Fountain. Though called a restaurant, it was really a lunch room of the bakery/confectionery type which closed for the evening.

Over its eleven decades in business the homely eating place expanded, changed focus, remodeled, went through three generations of Reeveses plus two or three other owners, burned, rebuilt, closed and disappeared for a few years, reopened at a new location, and through it all managed to build and hold onto an army of loyal followers who still miss it four years after it closed for good in 2007.

How old was it when it closed? I figure it had been 112 years since its founding as a grocery store by Sewell A. Reeves in 1895. Although the restaurant itself as well as newspaper stories usually dated Reeves’s beginnings to 1886, I have found no evidence for that. In 1887, and up to at least 1892, the 1209 F Street site was occupied by G. E. Kennedy’s grocery store, while Sewell Reeves was identified in city directories as a clerk for other businesses. But whatever … Reeves was D.C.’s oldest surviving restaurant when it closed. According to a 1989 column by restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman, its nearest competitor for longevity was Napoleon’s, established in 1925.

During its first three years of existence, Reeves expanded his grocery store by adding coffee roasting and candy making operations, a bakery, and a lunch counter which at first seated only 12 people. By 1902 he had enlarged the building with the bakery and candy departments occupying the second and third floors and the lunch counter lengthened to seat 150. At Sewell’s death in 1941 his son Algernon, who had managed the business since 1916, took ownership.

After Algernon died the business was sold in 1966 by his son John to the Abraham brothers who remodeled the premises and successfully broadened the clientele from its traditional feminine base which had largely deserted F Street stores in favor of suburban shopping centers. The middle and late 1960s, characterized by racial unrest and downtown desolation, marked a low point for Reeves, and it would not have been at all surprising if had met its end around 1970 – but in fact it still had close to 40 years of life left in it.

Reeves remained the kind of comforting eating place known for waitresses with long tenure and a menu untouched by the latest food fashions. Affordably priced dishes such as chicken salad sandwiches and pie, especially strawberry pie, were dependable favorites.

Reeves went through the 1970s with its somewhat dowdy appearance intact. High ceilings were equipped with fans and brass chandeliers, while Tiffany lamps hung over the 100-foot dark cherry counter. [pictured] Then, in 1984, a disastrous fire destroyed the interior. When Reeves reopened in 1985 it had an entirely new look, with blond counters, exposed brick walls, and a dropped ceiling effect with recessed lighting. The old booths were gone, replaced with more comfortable ones padded in dull maroon. Of the original fixtures only the wooden counter stools remained.

Customers had barely adjusted to the modernization when the next blow came in 1988 when the property was sold for $7 million to a developer planning an office building. But Reeves wasn’t finished yet. In 1992 the restaurant’s former general manager reopened it barely a block away on G Street, rehiring much of the old staff and for the next 15 years turning out thousands more strawberry pies.

I have no doubt that even now the occasional visitor can be found on F or G streets looking for Reeves.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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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

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