Tag Archives: Repeal

Steakburgers and shakes

After recently reading Roger Ebert’s wonderful book Life Itself, I decided to write this post and dedicate it to him. I loved his depictions of his childhood, which included his first restaurant meal, a steakburger at Steak n Shake, near the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign where his father worked as an electrician. He has also written about the restaurant on his Sun Times blog.

Even though I grew up in St. Louis, where there were many Steak n Shakes, most with curb service in the early years, I knew nothing about the chain’s history then and mistakenly believed it originated in St. Louis. I’m embarrassed to admit that I held a widespread St. Louis prejudice that few good things came from Illinois, the chain’s first home.

The chain was founded by Gus Belt and his wife Edith. Their basic problem was the Depression. The gas station Gus operated in the town of Normal, Illinois, was not thriving. In 1932 he and Edith decided to extend into the restaurant business by converting a house on the property to an eating place serving Edith’s fried chicken and beer, which was about to become legal in the first stage of Repeal. They called it the Shell Inn.

According to Robert Cronin’s Selling Steakburgers, beer was a bigger hit than chicken. Because Normal was the home of a state college that trained teachers, who were supposed to be morally upright, the town had a long history of forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages. After a brief wide-open period following Repeal, the town voted 2 to 1 to remain dry. Seeing what was about to befall their eatery, Edith and Gus decided to turn it into a hamburger joint.

They followed an honored tradition in the restaurant business of studying the successful practices of others and copying them like crazy.

The Shell Inn’s prime customers were the students at the nearby teachers college. No doubt the Belts had observed how much college students in the neighboring town of Champaign enjoyed hamburgers at the White Spot, the White House Lunch, Wimpy’s, and Maid-Rite. With the switch to burgers, the Belts renamed their place “Whitehouse Steak n Shake.” Later, they would adopt another idea from Champaign’s hamburger sellers, that of selling burgers by the bag (“Buy ‘Em by the Sack” advertised White Spot), borrowing the “Takhomasak” slogan from a Colorado restaurant. The idea of advertising that your hamburgers contained higher grades of steak was not unique to Steak n Shake. In Detroit during the Depression, there were a couple of places advertising this: the Marcus All Steak Hamburger Restaurant chain, and Meyers Real Steak Hamburgers. I wonder too if the Belts got the idea of serving food on china from Champaign’s Wimpy’s.

Their timing was good. Led by youthful first adopters, hamburgers, once shunned by the middle class who associated them with poverty and adulteration, were gaining respectability. Also reassuring was Steak n Shake’s squeaky clean white tile interior characteristic of 1920s lunch rooms and hamburger chains such as White Castle.

Theirs was among a number of hamburger chains that proliferated in the Midwest and other non-coastal areas during the Depression. Among the chains that got their start then were Little Canary Castle (Winston-Salem NC, 1931), Krystal (Chattanooga TN, 1932), Wimpy Grills (Bloomington IN, 1934), White Hut (Toledo OH, 1935), and Rockybilt (Denver CO, 1936). So the 1930s, which had begun so poorly for the couple, turned out well for them.

By 1940 the Belts had units in Normal’s twin city of Bloomington, as well as Champaign [1937 advertisement above], Decatur, E. Peoria [pictured at top], Galesburg, Danville, and Springfield. In the late 1940s Steak n Shake moved into St. Louis and in 1959, five years after Gus’s death, with Edith at the helm, there were 14 units in that city. Indianapolis [pictured 1965] and Florida were other early markets. By the time Edith sold the family’s controlling interest to the Longchamps corporation in 1969, there were 50 or so units.

After that the story shifts to corporate history, with decades of ups and downs, aborted openings in Chicago and Texas, modernizations and returns to roots, changes in ownership, and further expansion until today when there are almost 500 units in 22 states.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Find of the day: Demos Café

It’s pretty cool when you can stroll over to an antiquarian book and ephemera show only a few blocks from your house and, barely 10 feet into the room, come upon a trove of restaurant memorabilia. That’s what happened a few days ago when I found a collection of photographs and water glasses from one of Muskegon’s premier cafés.

Judging from the hubbub in some of the photos of the bar area, the moderne-style Demos Café was a real Michigan hotspot in 1939 and 1940 when these were taken. Some of the patrons seem to be hiding from the camera and the face of a man sitting at the bar was deliberately blacked out in the darkroom. Hmmm…

Located at 415-419 W. Western Avenue, the café was owned and run by the Greek-American Demos brothers, Spyros, Theodore (Ted), and John. Ted is shown behind the bar in two of these photos while John stands in the back of a crowded room in one and in another lights a cigarette for visiting Hollywood celebrity Buddy Rogers, husband of Mary Pickford. The café’s cocktail lounge often hosted touring jazz bands. And, as can be seen, it kept customers up to date on baseball scores.

The café’s wood veneer backbar was almost certainly a product of local industry. The Brunswick-Balke-Collender company’s main plant, which manufactured bar fixtures, was located in Muskegon. As soon as beer was legalized in 1933 the factory geared up with 1,500 new workers in anticipation of renewed business.

In addition to serving zombies (“only 2 to a person”) and frozen daiquiris, and apparently pouring quantities of Four Roses bourbon, the Demos Café specialized in steaks, chops, and sea foods. Signs placed in the front windows advertise a blue plate special for 50 cents, “genuine Italian spaghetti with Roman cheese” for 35 cents a plate, and “sizzling steaks,” a Depression-era culinary gimmick across the U.S. As was true of most Greek-American restaurants, the menu would have been thoroughly Americanized, without any dishes common to the owners’ native land.

During its heyday in the 1940s the Demos Café, along with the Causeway Café and the Lakos Café – all Greek-American owned – was one of the big three restaurants in Muskegon. But by 1951 or 1952 the café apparently went out of business after a tax investigation and lawsuit.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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With haute cuisine for all: Longchamps

Staked by his brother-in-law, gambler Arnold Rothstein, Henry Lustig expanded from the wholesale produce business into restaurants in 1919. His first location, at 78th and Madison Avenue, was a property that belonged to Arnold. By 1924 he had two more restaurants, one conveniently near Saks Fifth Avenue. An advertisement informed “Madame or Mademoiselle” that at Longchamps they would find light French dishes as well as “soothing quiet, faultless service and a typically ‘Continental’ cuisine” that was above average “yet … not expensive.” While not exactly cheap, Longchamps was considered easily affordable by the middle-class.

The chain continued to grow rapidly after the repeal of Prohibition when it hired top modernist decorators and architects to give it ultra-sophisticated chic. With the assistance of German-born artist and designer Winold Reiss and architects Louis Allen Abramson and Ely Jacques Kahn, New York City gained some of its most glamorous restaurant interiors of the period. Reiss showed considerable talent in disguising irregular spaces with mirrors and murals, multiple levels, dramatic lighting, and flashy staircases that lured people cheerfully downward to dine below ground (see his interior sketch and menu cover below). From 1935 to 1940 Longchamps opened seven new restaurants, including two on Broadway, one at Lexington and 42nd Street, and one in the Empire State Building.

Cocktail bars were no small part of the slick 1930s Longchamps formula. The chain’s ninth unit at Madison and 59th Street, a site vacated by Reuben’s, had a long oval bar stationed above floor level in the middle of the dining room. With 50 bartenders staffing the bar, the restaurant itself seated 950 diners. When it opened in 1935 a Longchamps advertisement immodestly called it “The Outstanding Restaurant Creation of the Century.” Architectural critic Lewis Mumford found its red, black, gold, and yellow color scheme — carried out even on chair backs and table tops — overdone, but he sensed that his was a minority opinion and he was almost certainly right. Among others, it soon became a meeting place for James Beard and his old friends from Oregon.

During the war Longchamps’ did a booming business. Lustig, it turned out, was siphoning off cash as fast as he could and keeping two sets of books, one for him and one for the IRS. Keep in mind that he owned racehorses and had named his restaurants after a famous Paris racetrack. The game was up in 1946 when he was handed a bill for delinquent taxes and fines of more than $10M and sentenced to four years in federal prison. Nine restaurants, along with a good stock of wine (the Times Square unit alone was said to have 120,000 bottles in the cellar), miscellaneous pieces of Manhattan real estate, and the chain’s bakery, catering business, ice cream plant, candy factory, and commissary, then passed into the hands of a syndicate which owned the Exchange Buffet.

In 1952 a Longchamps was opened in Washington, D.C., becoming one of the few downtown restaurants in that city that served Afro-American patrons. About this time another Longchamps opened in the Claridge apartments on Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. In 1959 the chain was acquired by Jan Mitchell, owner since 1950 of the old Lüchow’s. He revealed that the chain, which consisted of twelve red and gold restaurants, a poorly trained kitchen staff, and a diminishing patronage, had been losing money for the past five years but that he could revive it as he had done with Lüchow’s. Under his ownership the New York units began offering guests the dietary concoction Metracal in their cocktail lounges, as well as free glasses of wine and corn on the cob with their meal. After a couple of years the chain was in the black.

In 1967 Mitchell sold it to the Riese brothers, who owned the Childs restaurants and were in the process of buying up classic New York restaurants – Cavanagh’s in 1968, Lüchow’s in 1969, and others. In 1969 the old Longchamps were mostly turned into steakhouse theme restaurants. The restaurant at Madison and 59th, though, was renamed the Orangerie, dedicated to “hedonistic New Yorkers,” and given a “festive mood of Monte Carlo.” Its $8.75 prix fixe dinner came with free wine, “Unique La ‘Tall’ Salade,” and after-dinner coffee with Grand Marnier. In 1971 a single Longchamps operated under that name, at Third Avenue and 65th Street, but I doubt it had anything in common with the classic Longchamps of the 1930s. The holding company “Longchamps, Inc.” vanished in 1975.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Taste of a decade: 1930s restaurants

wonderbar1941Even as the Depression deepens, the number of full-fledged restaurants continues to increase, from 134,293 in 1929 to 169,792 in 1939. Immigration slows in response to restrictive legislation of the late 1920s, reducing the supply of professional waiters and cooks. Female servers make up more than half of waitstaffs. The economical fixed-price meal, which had virtually been replaced by a la carte service, returns to popularity. Promotions such as “all you can eat” and “free coffee refills” are featured. After the repeal of Prohibition nightlife revives. Many diners, accustomed to speakeasies, show a preference for small, intimate restaurants. All-white interiors give way to imaginative decor which mimics ships or European courtyards. Federal financing facilitates modernization, encouraging restaurants to add streamlined fronts and air-conditioning. Deprived of bootlegging revenues, racketeers infiltrate unions and extort restaurants, dispatching picketers and stench bombs to those that don’t play along.

Highlights

veneto351981931 Restaurants drop prices and see patronage rise. In Chicago prices go down by 10% to 12%.

1932 Stores install lunch counters to lure shoppers and capture a piece of the flourishing lunch trade. Architect Ely Jacques Kahn designs a sleek tea room with vermilion-topped tables and green and black terrazzo floors for the Broadmoor Pharmacy on NYC’s Madison Ave. – Chains such as Schrafft’s, Childs, Horn & Hardart, Lofts’, and Bickford’s expand as they take advantage of reduced rents and absorb failed competitors.

1933 Expecting all alcoholic beverages to be legal by the end of the year, liquor suppliers court restaurateurs. In Amherst MA a small lunchroom operator receives complimentary wine and champagne from the S. S. Pierce Company. – The Afro-American proprietor of the Launch Tea Room in Sheepshead Bay decides to cancel plans for wintering in Palm Beach and turn her Long Island tea room into a free dining room for the poor.

1934 In post-Repeal California Ernest Raymond Baumont-Gantt opens Don the Beachcomber, while Victor Bergeron starts Hinky Dinks, forerunner to Trader Vics. In accordance with state law both must include food service with their bar operations. – In NYC, the president of the Downtown Restaurants association acknowledges, “We know now that repeal of prohibition has saved the restaurant business from utter annihilation and saved it just in time.”

1935 The pro-America mood of the 1920s continues, exemplified by a column in a restaurant trade magazine which asserts preposterously that Delmonico’s got its recipes from Southern plantations while in the 1880s French chefs “flocked to this country” to learn American cooking. — Many restaurants remodel their fronts (see above illustration) as towns across the country launch “Modernize Main Street” campaigns backed with federal money.

brassrail371971936 An investigation reveals that Jack Dempsey’s, Lindy’s, The Brass Rail, and numerous cafeterias are among the NYC eating places that have capitulated to shake-downs by mobsters.

1937 The nationwide Childs chain reports that 47% of all alcoholic drinks served in their dining rooms are cocktails, 22% are highballs, 8% are wines (mostly sherry and port), and oldfashioned195the remainder are cordials. Beer is the most popular drink in summer.

1938 The president of the National Restaurant Association warns members that the number of places serving meals has quadrupled in the past 15 years and only the ingenious will survive.

1939 A book on how to run a tea room notes that 30,000 restaurants are managed by women and advises prospective proprietors to make inquiries such as, “Do the racketeers expect you to pay for protection?”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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