Tag Archives: San Francisco

Holiday greetings from Vesuvio Café

XmasVesuvio1956

I wish I could explain the Vesuvio’s holiday cards, but I can’t. Maybe it’s enough to know that the Café was a beatnik gathering spot in San Francisco.

The café was founded in 1949 by Henry Lenoir, who wore a beret and undoubtedly preferred to spell his first name as Henri. I’m guessing he’s the aging cherub on the left on the 1956 postcard above. I couldn’t find much about him other than that he was born in Massachusetts around 1904. The son of a Swiss university professor, he was a college graduate at a time when that was fairly unusual. In 1940, before he opened the café, he worked as a salesman in a San Francisco department store that I like to think was the Emporium. He was an art lover who enjoyed the company of beats and hipsters.

I don’t know if the Vesuvio served much food. It seemed to be more of a drinking than an eating place back in the days when Henry presided behind the bar. A sign in the window advertised “booths for psychiatrists” and a “Gay ‘90s Color Television” flashed old photos of women clad in bloomers. In the late 1950s it was on the North Beach circuit for beatniks who made the rounds from the Vesuvio to the Coexistence Bagel Shop and a nameless bar called “the place.” No doubt they stopped in at the City Lights bookstore too; Henry lived upstairs.

XmasVesuvio1964It was the day of the Hungry I, the Purple Onion, and the Anxious Asp (where the restroom was papered with pages from the Kinsey Report). “The place” and the Coexistence, considered the birthplaces and headquarters of the San Francisco beats, were both gone by early 1961. But, although Henry sold the Vesuvio in 1970, it continues even today. Of course it isn’t the same. Given that Beatnik dens became tourist sites almost overnight, it already wasn’t the same in 1964 when the card with the 5 nude mannequins and one real woman modestly dressed in a long-sleeve leotard was produced.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Famous in its day: Pig’n Whistle

One of the strange appropriations of the early 20th-century involved using old tavern signs and names for distinctly non-alcoholic eateries, often tea rooms or confectionery restaurants appealing primarily to middle-class women. One of these was the Pig’n Whistle chain which began in California in 1908.

The name originated with ancient British taverns. Many believe that “whistle” was a corruption of wassail, an alcoholic concoction drunk from a small bowl or cup called a “pig.” But an early advertisement for Pig’n Whistle (shown below) gives no suggestion that patrons could get anything stronger than a cup of tea.

Although there is some disagreement about whether Pig’n Whistle started in San Francisco or Los Angeles, it seems likely that the first one was opened in San Francisco by Frank L. Callebotta, in 1908, perhaps growing out of a candy store he established earlier. In 1912 there was one unit in downtown San Francisco and another in the H. C. Capwell department store in Oakland.

By December of 1908 there was a store in Los Angeles, the city that was destined to become the chain’s headquarters. In 1914 the third LA Pig’n Whistle opened on South Broadway with an ivory baked enamel front displaying the trademark fife-playing pig which also decorated interior walls. In 1916 Pig’n Whistle was known for hanging original artworks on the walls, a custom it would continue into the 1930s. Patrons liked the idea so much they asked to be seated in booths where their favorite paintings appeared.

In 1926 the chain made a public stock offering and began an expansion drive. It absorbed Melody Lane restaurants in Los Angeles and Ennor’s in Berkeley. By 1929 it had opened its 20th store and had restaurants in Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Pasadena, Hollywood, and Los Angeles, including one planned for Grauman’s Egyptian Theater. It acquired the Mary Louise Tea Rooms as part of its Elite Catering subsidiary. Operating three factories, it made its own baked goods, candy, and ice cream. In 1931 passengers traveling on Transcontinental-Western Air, Inc. out of LA and San Francisco had lunches furnished by Pig’n Whistle.

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Pig’n Whistles made a specialty of appealing to children and created menus and booklets for them. Although the restaurants were casual, they were also considered refined and somewhat elegant. Menus were elaborate even though prices were moderate. In 1934 it was possible to order a “De Luxe” six-course dinner for $1.00 that included dishes such as “Braised Saddle of Rabbit, Chasseur” and “Grilled Boned Loin of Spring Lamb” with fresh mushrooms and mint jelly. The dinner came with additional courses and accompaniments such as seafood cocktail, soup, spaghetti, avocado salad, and asparagus Hollandaise. To finish, there were 23 desserts to select from.

Profits declined in the 1950s and the chain shrunk. In 1952 it was reduced to five locations in LA and Hollywood, and one each in Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Long Beach, and San Diego. When an Illinois corporation, King Kastle, bought the company in 1968 there were only three units remaining, all in Los Angeles. King Kastle planned renovations and expansion but I don’t think they materialized.

Coming full circle, the name Pig’n Whistle can now be found on several drinking places around the country, as well as one of the original units at 6714 Hollywood Blvd. (interior pictured above) which has been restored and is operated as a restaurant.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Taste of a decade: 1850s restaurants

The population was moving west, with about a third living beyond the Appalachians. California had just been admitted as a state. Cities were growing. NYC was the largest, at over half a million, yet it was the only one of the nation’s eight biggest cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants. Slavery continued in the South and threatened to move West.

The smallest of the “big” cities, San Francisco, with a metropolitan area of about 35,000 in 1850, was the decade’s headline grabber. With so many living in tents and hovels, nearly everyone there ate in restaurants most of the time. Cooks came from every part of the world, as did the cuisine.

Boston, third largest with fewer than 137,000 residents, reported that among properties supplied with water there were 65 hotels, 57 saloons, 56 restaurants, 13 oyster shops, and 12 eating houses, along with 9 distilleries and 8 breweries. Beer was, in fact, beginning to supplant hard liquor as the national alcoholic beverage. Some parts of the country were overtaken by temperance sentiment and a few temperance restaurants were initiated.

The old Yankee/English term “eating house” was giving way to the more elegant French term “restaurant.” Because of so many single males in cities, many restaurants were run in conjunction with barber shops, pool halls, and bowling lanes. Those places that accommodated women usually set apart a separate room for them.

American restaurant cuisine was becoming more diverse, yet oysters reigned supreme as everybody’s favorite appetizer, late night snack, and fast food. They were ordered by simply saying, “Give me six.”

Highlights

1850 Residents of San Francisco are delighted when the refined Excelsior opens. Its white tablecloths, someone writes, give the new restaurant “quite a human appearance.” It is outfitted with gold spoons and some of its vegetables come all the way from the Sandwich Islands. – The city also has the first three Chinese restaurants in the U.S., serving “chow-chow and curry dishes” along with more conventional “English” choices.

1851 In Louisville KY, Walker’s City Exchange celebrates the opening of its new five-story restaurant building, fitted out with marble drinking saloon, dining rooms, an oyster stand, and private dining apartments. On the upper floors are tenpins alleys, billiards rooms, and staff dormitories.

1852 Newly arrived in Boston for his U.S. tour, English novelist William Thackeray is treated to a plate of gigantic oysters at Ferdinando Gori’s restaurant in the Tremont House. After downing one, he cast a “comic look of despair” at the other five, admitting he felt as if he had “swallowed a little baby.”

1852 Broadway, the grand avenue of NYC, is home to elaborate Paris-style cafés, including the popular gilt and mirrored ladies’ resort called Taylor’s and several others with names borrowed directly from France such as Tortoni and Rocher de Cancale.

1853 In Philadelphia someone has fitted up a handsome row house with a café and restaurant called Parkinson’s. It has a ladies’ saloon “sumptuously furnished in velvets and frescoes,” a garden, and a confectionery shop. – In San Francisco, M. L. Winn operates a fashionable alcohol-free ladies’ Refreshment Saloon at the corner of Washington & Montgomery (pictured) designed to “sail through the Gulf of Dissipation, Misery and Death.”

1854 Six years after the Declaration of the Rights of Woman at Seneca Falls NY, women’s rights supporter Stephen Pearl Andrews argues for abolishing home kitchens, writing “the large and elegant eating saloon, with cleanliness, order, artistic skill, and abundance, in the preparation of food, is a cheaper arrangement than the meager and ill-conditioned private table.”

1855 George T. Downing, a black caterer from New York, opens the Sea Girt House in Newport RI where he presents an ice cream saloon, private dining rooms, and, behind a lace curtain, a ladies’ café. Specialties prepared by his French and English assistants include New York oysters, confectionery, and cakes.

1856 Baltimore issues 177 licenses to eating places. Since the number of eating places not serving liquor would be minuscule, this is undoubtedly close to the total number of restaurants.

1858 At the Empire State Dining Saloon in San Francisco, a wide choice of baked goods, regionally and nationally, is available with the diner’s California Bacon and Eggs such as Mississippi Hot Corn Bread, Hot English Muffins, Hot American Waffles, Hot Hungarian Rolls, Boston Cream Toast, German Bread, and New York Batter Cakes.

1859 Only a few years old, a café owned by Charles Pfaff is discovered by a loose band of artists and writers which includes Walt Whitman who make it their club. They eat German pancakes and drink Pfaff’s beer from the barrels which line the walls. The word Bohemian has not made it into the dictionaries yet but when it does it will be applied to them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1870 to 1880; 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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Waitress uniforms: bloomers

The bicycling craze of the mid-1890s brought “wheelwomen” dressed in bloomers into public view. It didn’t take long for enterprising restaurant men to latch onto the sensational pants-like garment as a waitress uniform. It was the middle of a nationwide depression and they hoped that male customers would flock to their establishments and the money would pour in. And this proved true, sort of.

Bloomers were originally a pragmatic garment of the 1850s woman’s rights movement intended to permit women to conduct everyday affairs without dragging 50 pounds of skirts and petticoats over filthy floors and streets. They were designed to do this by raising the skirt hem up to the shoe tops — with long gathered trousers worn underneath to modestly hide the ankles. But because of relentless ridicule, prior to the bicycle craze they had been worn only in private or in exceptional situations: doing gymnastics, while housecleaning, or by Westward-bound women crossing prairies and mountains.

The bloomers worn by female cyclists in the 1890s were more daring than those of the 1850s because they ended just below the knee, revealing stocking-covered calves and ankles. When “waiter girls” (as waitresses were known then) wore them, crowds of men gathered on sidewalks outside restaurants, jostling for a view. Although some restaurant owners claimed that bloomers were more practical than long dresses, it was pretty clear that most were motivated by a wish for publicity.

The bloomer uniform typically consisted of full-cut navy, brown, or black serge pants gathered at waist and knees and worn with a short matching vest (pictured on San Francisco waitresses) or “Zouave” jacket, and a colored blouse with leg o’mutton sleeves. Often the outfit was accessorized with black stockings, patent leather slippers, and caps imprinted with the restaurant’s name.

The first restaurant to adopt the fascinatingly curious uniform, in 1895, was the Bloomer Café in San Francisco. It was rapidly followed by restaurants in St. Louis and NYC. In 1896 and 1897 a few more opened in NYC, in Oakland CA, Chicago, and — gasp! — Boston. The police immediately closed the Chicago café on moral grounds. But they all seem to have been short-lived, usually because the crowds stopped coming once the sensationalism wore off.

Waitresses sometimes balked at bloomers because they feared they would be “on exhibit” and treated crudely by male patrons. Those who did agree to wear them, under threat of losing their jobs, reported that although they missed the “swish” factor of layers of starched skirts, they liked the new style because it enabled them to move quickly without trailing hems to get stepped on or slammed in doors.

Restaurant bloomers were an interesting example of a style crossing under coercion from one social class to another. Bloomers were seen as symbolic of the “new woman” – a decidedly privileged, well-educated, independent-minded daughter of the middle class. The new woman loved riding bicycles and engaging in sports. Working class women, by contrast, did not typically ride bicycles, play tennis or golf, or exercise in gyms. More than one bloomer waitress disclosed upon being interviewed that she had never been on a bicycle.

By 1898 the restaurant bloomer fad was over, but the idea of dressing waitresses in eye-catching costumes was only beginning.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Decor: glass ceilings

There’s a couple of reasons why I’ve been thinking about glass ceilings in restaurants this week. I took a look at the total number of visits to my top posts and, apart from the various Taste of a decade posts which draw a lot of traffic, Swingin’ at Maxwell’s Plum is #1. An elaborate stained glass ceiling was one of the most striking features of Maxwell’s Plum in New York City, and another was created for the San Francisco Plum (pictured) which opened in 1981.

The second reason is that last Sunday I went to the antique paper show Papermania in Hartford CT and brought home a 1970s-era menu from a pizza restaurant in St. Louis that I used to go to but had forgotten all about. It too had a glass ceiling though, as I recall, it was fairly plain. I won’t name the restaurant but will say that it was located in the vicinity of Washington University where I went to graduate school and there was a second place in Creve Coeur.

On one occasion I went there with a group of friends and we witnessed a kind of free floor show – only it took place inside the glass ceiling. We heard the sounds first, of little claw feet scratching on glass. Then we looked up. We saw silhouettes of a legion of four-footed creatures with long tails which were furiously scrimmaging above us, as though playing a game of football. We laughed, considered leaving, but ended up staying. If the management noticed anything amiss they certainly didn’t show it. No one came over to explain away the incident (not that I know how you’d do that), no one offered us free drinks, nothing!

The menu from this restaurant which I just acquired displays on its cover a pledge of quality accompanied by the signature of the restaurant’s owner. One of the sentences jumps out at me: “More ingredients go into our pizza than the normal recipe calls for.” Yikes, say no more!

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Swingin’ at Maxwell’s Plum

In 1965 impresario Warner LeRoy, son of Hollywood producer Mervyn LeRoy (Wizard of Oz, Mr. Roberts, Quo Vadis), opened Maxwell’s Plum as part of his theater on First Avenue and 64th Street in NYC. Hamburgers and a good wine list made it a hit with the swinging singles who crowded into the café. It was so popular that a few years later he closed the theater and expanded the café, adding a luxurious dining room with a Tiffany glass ceiling that reminded some of Maxim’s in Paris. Patrons could choose to experience Maxwell’s Plum either as a singles’ bar, a boulevard café (pictured), or a grand restaurant which, as a bonus, provided a fine view of the bar scene located on a lower level.

After a 1969 expansion the Plum seated about 250 and produced 1,000 to 1,500 meals a day. It rapidly ascended to the ranks of the city’s biggest grossing restaurants, taking in well over $5 million in the mid 1970s, with a big chunk — more than a third — from alcohol sales.

With offerings ranging from burgers to wild boar, the restaurant enjoyed excellent reviews, winning four stars from NY Times reviewers Craig Claiborne and John Canaday. For a riotously overdecorated Art Nouveau/Deco/Etc. pleasure palace, the Plum provided far better cuisine than it needed to. In the egalitarian spirit of the later 1960s and 1970s, many diners appreciated that its good food was uncoupled from the snobbery then associated with New York’s top restaurants. Canaday hailed the Plum for delivering first-class service “whether you were known or not,” while he stripped stars from La Côte Basque and La Grenouille because of the “disparity in their treatment of favorite (usually fashionable) customers and unknowns.” LeRoy claimed that he didn’t object to patrons looking shaggy, adding, “And if they don’t want to eat fancy food, they can have a hamburger. Whatever.” James Beard declared that he enjoyed hamburgers as much as paté en croute and decided to feature the Plum’s chili recipe for one of his 1973 columns.

LeRoy’s expansions were funded by Hardwicke Companies which ran resorts, wild animal parks, duty-free border shops, and Benihana restaurants. Hardwicke also financed LeRoy’s acquisition of the even-bigger-grossing Tavern on the Green, a failed San Francisco version of Plum (below), and a short-lived 900-seater in DC called Potomac. Hardwicke, under the control of a former Sara Lee exec, came under suspicion for influence buying in its efforts to get a gambling license for its Atlantic City Ritz Hotel. LeRoy broke with Hardwicke in the 1980s, blaming them for the failure of the San Francisco Plum.

New York’s Plum did not survive the 80s. Due to changing tastes and weak reviews that a succession of chefs could not remedy, LeRoy closed it in 1988, announcing that he wasn’t having fun anymore. He sold the First Avenue building for a nifty sum, while Donald Trump plunked down $28K for one of its Tiffany glass windows. At the same auction, the Tribeca Grill acquired the Plum’s large island bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Drinking rum, eating Cantonese

Will the real Don the Beachcomber please stand up and mix me a Zombie? As is true with so many business histories it’s difficult to lock down the true story. Confusion in the case of Don the Beachcomber mainly arises from a divorce between the principals, Don (or Donn) Beach (born Ernest Beaumont-Gantt) and his one-time wife Cora Irene Sund. Both were involved in the development of the original Don the Beachcomber, begun in 1934 as a bar serving exotic drinks in Hollywood, California. Cora, a Minnesota schoolteacher turned model, arrived on the scene shortly after Don launched his business. She invested in it and became president, while Don acted as general manager. She focused on the food side of things, hiring a Cantonese chef and expanding the bar into a restaurant with “South Seas” cuisine. They married in 1937 and divorced in 1940, the year Cora opened a branch in Chicago. When Don came back from the Air Force after WWII they split up as business partners, she keeping the mainland operations while he concentrated on Hawaii.

According to Vic Bergeron, creator of Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber provided his inspiration for transforming his Oakland CA bar and sandwich spot Hinky Dink’s into a Polynesian restaurant in 1938.

beachcombertrunkDon ran into trouble with the postwar longshoremen’s strike and decided to limit his Honolulu Beachcomber to a drinking spot. By the early 1960s he was also in the restaurant business, operating a South Seas Cabaret Restaurant, a Colonel’s Plantation Steak House, a Colonel’s Coffee House, and at least one restaurant boat. Cora’s popular Chicago Don the Beachcomber was named one of the top 50 US restaurants in 1947. She soon opened another location in Palm Springs and by 1972, when it was acquired by Getty Financial, the chain had 6 or 7 units.

The greatest growth occurred under Getty management, eventually building the chain to a total of 16. An architect gave the Beachcombers a new look. The interior of the new 1973 Dallas Beachcomber, like others to follow, featured a full array of tropical effects such as a bridge over a reflecting pool, a waterfall, rain forest, thatched roofs, palm trees, and outrigger canoes suspended from a firefly-studded ceiling. But the public’s love affair with Polynesian restaurants began to fade and by 1989 only three Don the Beachcombers remained.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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