Tag Archives: men patrons

Bumbling through the cafeteria line

In 1931 the American humor magazine Life (not to be confused with the later photojournalism magazine of the same name) published “The Cafeteria,” an essay that described an inexperienced patron’s befuddlement in composing a meal item by item while being propelled forward by an ever-moving line. (The illustration by W. E. Hill is also from 1931.)

The essay, from which I have selected sentences to shape into a “poem” similar to Charles Green Shaw’s The Bohemian Dinner, was written by John C. Emery. It’s likely that at the time he wrote about his cafeteria experience he was a 27-year old editor with Railway Age, a trade journal located in Chicago. Chicago, it happens, was a city with plenty of cafeterias. In its early stages cafeterias were identified with women while men were notoriously resistant to them.

Turns out Mr. Emery had an interesting biography. As a naval commander during World War II, he was in charge of expediting air cargo. Following the war he founded Emery Air Freight, which began as a freight forwarder that leased space on existing airlines and grew into a major corporation. Alas, I know nothing about his further adventures in eating out, but I doubt he continued to go to cafeterias.

The Cafeteria
The trays.
The cutlery.
The selection of a knife, a fork and two spoons.
The selection of two pieces of bread and a roll.
The after-thought selection of another roll.
The sudden realization that you have a lot of bread.
The hesitancy to put any of it back, under the eagle eye of a waitress.
The great variety of salads.
The quick selection of one kind.
The immediate regret that you did not take another kind instead.
The inclination to make a change.
The nudge of a tray in the hands of a woman in line behind you.
The decision to move along.
The bowl of soup.
The meat order.
The potatoes.
The string beans.
The beets.
The realization that your tray is getting pretty full …
The decision to forego dessert.
The tempting pies.
The urgent desire for a piece of pie.
The selection of a piece of pie.
The difficulty of finding space for it on your tray.
The check, amounting to $1.32.*
The vast surprise.
The realization for the first time that you have enough food for about three hungry men.
The search for a table.
The unloading of your tray.
The vast array of dishes.
The growing conviction that other patrons are laughing at you.
The discovery that you forgot to take a napkin.
The consumption of every bit of food before you.
The gorged feeling.
The sluggish return to the office.
The surreptitious nap.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

* Equal to about $18.90 in 2010 dollars, probably about double what he usually paid for lunch.

1 Comment

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Men only

Men’s grills were often located in hotels or were set off as special preserves in venues heavily trafficked by women such as tea rooms and department stores. Schrafft’s, Stouffer’s, Mary Elizabeth’s, Marshall Field’s all featured men’s grills. Designed to resemble clubs, they were decorated in Elizabethan or Dutch style with dark wood paneling and sturdy tables and chairs, in stark contrast to the pastel garden look of women’s tea rooms. Women secretly referred to men’s grills as “tea rooms for men.”

There were plenty of grill-type restaurants in the 19th century – when they needed no gender preface because everyone knew they were men’s haunts. But in the 20th, with more women out and about and entering restaurants willy nilly, the words “men’s grill” were used deliberately lest a misguided female might wander in. Policies varied. In some men’s grills absolutely no women were allowed while in others men could bring women guests (see 1966 Schrafft’s ad). But women “alone” were not admitted. Not until the 1970s, that is.

In May 1970 a prominent NYC editor, a woman, walked into Schrafft’s on the corner of 47th Street and Third Avenue with another woman. They noticed that at the back of the restaurant there was a section that looked especially attractive, with more space between tables, tablecloths, and carpeting that cushioned noise. The hostess told them it was the men’s grill and they were not permitted to eat there. They left. The editor sent a letter to Schrafft’s saying that although she was no “stirred-up advocate of Women’s Lib,” she was offended by the restaurant’s policy which, she asserted, was illegal. She received a reply from a Schrafft’s VP who said that the restaurant no longer had a policy of reserving some areas for men. The hostess’s reaction, he said, was due to a breakdown of communication.

Stuffy as they may have been there was much to envy about men’s grills. As a Chicago woman remarked, they had “fast service, good food, and cheaper prices than a comparable restaurant.” She and a woman friend crashed the men’s grill at the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store in Chicago, noting that a male patron there asked the hostess, “Why don’t you throw them out?” They enjoyed their lunch even though their waitress said, “Don’t you know men come here to get away from you?”

The 1964 Civil Rights Law did not mention gender as a basis for discrimination in public accommodations, but after its passage some cities and states enacted laws that forbade it in restaurants and bars. Chicago passed legislation in 1969. McSorley’s ale house in Greenwich Village, with a 116-year tradition of serving men exclusively, gave way in 1970 after the NY city council passed a bill. Even in states without this legislation changing social mores soon brought about new policies. Men’s grills disappeared, to the consternation of some men who, like the lone dissenter on NY’s city council, lamented, “In this troubled world there has to be an oasis in the desert for men.” However, judging from a 1970 comic book, many men disagreed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

8 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants