Tag Archives: sanitation

Shared meals


There is a lot of interest now in menus designed for sharing. Groups of friends order a variety of dishes of intriguing appetizers, passing them around so that everyone gets a helping.

Sharing restaurant food has a long history, not all of it so appetizing.

In the 1890s stories appeared in the U.S. press about market stalls in France that sold food left over from the tables of restaurants and hotels. The buyers were those of scant means who needed a cheap meal. What the stories left out was that the custom was not unknown in this country. How common it was is hard to say, but an account in 1874 described an eating place in Philadelphia that sold table scraps from hotels to the city’s poor. [illustration above]

There are two kinds of leftovers in public eating places: prepared food that has not been served and food that has been served to patrons and returned on their plates to the kitchen. The latter is known as comebacks. To what degree food removed from plates was served again to other patrons or added to kitchen stews, hashes, and soups in the 19th century is unknown, but it began to receive attention from health departments in the early 20th century.

Americans became conscious of public health issues in 1906 with revelations about the meat packing industry in books such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. One result of the uproar was that cities and towns that had not already done so expanded the duties of their health departments to include restaurant inspections.

In Los Angeles, inspectors in 1907 discovered that chicken, steak, or chop bones with meat still adhering to them were often added to kettles for stock, soups, or gravies. Somewhat surprisingly, this practice was not likely to happen at the cheapest restaurants. Those selling meals at rock-bottom prices (10 cents) claimed they rarely had any food scraps returned to their kitchens. In a 1908 exposé in a D.C. newspaper, a waiter “told all.” Among his advice to lunch room patrons was to order dry toast with butter rather than buttered toast because in the latter case it was likely to be comeback butter wiped off a plate by the cook’s dirty finger.

comebackshashAlso ranking high on the public’s list of restaurant mystery dishes was hash. Middle-class women, who were particularly distrustful of restaurants’ cleanliness, would only eat it in their own homes or in a genteel, woman-run tea room. Patrons often told the proprietor of a home-style tea room in Bangor ME, “I’m not afraid to eat hash here.”

comebacksADV1908EvanstonAt least one restaurant, the Pure Food Café in Evanston IL, was so concerned about public perception that it adopted the unfortunate slogan, “We Use No Comebacks.” Perhaps its patrons, mainly students at Northwestern University, needed this reassurance.

Another illicit use of food returned on patrons’ plates was for staff meals. Minnesota’s state hotel inspector declared he would put a stop to it. “We are going to stop the practice of making restaurant and hotel employes eat the ‘comebacks’ that the guests have already dallied with,” he pledged in 1917.

The re-use of comebacks was not a popular topic for public discussion so it’s impossible to gauge how often it occurred or to what degree the practice was halted by inspections. But the problem either persisted or recurred during the Depression, as evidenced by an article in a 1932 issue of the trade journal Restaurant Management.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


Filed under food, history, restaurants

Washing up

“Please don’t make me a pearl diver,” begged ruined Chicago restaurateur John Raklios as he entered debtors’ prison in 1939. As someone who had worked his way up in the restaurant world, he knew there was no job lower than washing other people’s dirty dishes.

In restaurant kitchens dishwashers were long considered “life’s wreckage,” people so reduced by circumstances, drugs, and drinking that they could find no other work. In the 19th and early 20th century dishwashers worked up to 12 hours a day for a free meal and very little money. In addition, they were often tormented by cooks and others in the kitchen.

A stark portrait of the life of a dishwasher, based on the author’s firsthand experiences, is painted by George Orwell in his autobiographical book Down and Out in Paris and London. Luckily, at its best dishwashing could produce a zen-like state in which the mind is untethered  from mundane matters.

The origins of the slang term “pearl diver” are as murky as dishwater itself. According to one historic account washers would clean dishes by feeling rather than sight. They would reach down into deep sinks “sorting the dishes into rows, washing them with a wave-like motion through the water” and then scooping huge piles onto a drain board. During busy periods when dirty dishes flowed into the kitchen “like lava from a volcano,” pearl divers quickly learned to “manipulate thousands of dishes at lightening speed.”

In literary and journalistic portraits, dishwashers were typically males unused to the better things in life and therefore relatively unbothered by floating scum, filth underfoot, rats, taunts, or low pay. Despite Orwell’s claim that the dishwasher “has no escape from this life, save into prison,” there were numerous stories of men who worked their way into careers as successful restaurateurs, such as Vincent Sardi, Morris Schwartzer of the NYC Biltmore Cafeteria chain, and Philippe Mathieu, purveyor of acclaimed French dip beef sandwiches in Los Angeles.

Afro-Americans or new immigrants who didn’t speak English often became dishwashers mostly because of their reduced job prospects generally, and were thus less likely to be from the ranks of the truly down and out. The same may have been true of women who washed dishes. Until 1911, when labor laws reduced the number of hours women could work, many dishwashers were women. Evidently they continued to work as dishwashers after reforms too, because state inspections of Michigan restaurants in 1918 revealed that for every two male dishwashers there were three women doing that work. Their pay, $1.20 a day, was rock bottom for restaurant workers then.

Mechanical dishwashers were invented in the 19th century, but were not electrified or widely used until well into the 20th. Though not the first female dishwasher inventor, Josephine Cochran is credited with devising the first truly practicable dishwasher, which she patented in 1886 [illustrated, 1912]. From a comfortable home with servants who performed kitchen labor, she was driven by a wish to prevent breakage. But her invention, which led her to form a company called Garis-Cochrane, ended up in hotels and restaurants rather than private households.

Before being electrified, generally during the teens and 1920s, mechanical dishwashers were manually operated, some requiring two people to turn handles that swished baskets of dishes through suds. The heavy baskets were lifted out of the water by pulleys which required considerable strength, sometimes resulting in the replacement of women dishwashers by men.

Despite strides in kitchen mechanization in the 1920s, it is notable that a survey of Rockford IL in 1929 found that only 16 of the city’s 179 restaurants had mechanical dishwashers. Even as late as the 1940s many restaurants still washed dishes by hand, often inadequately. Health department crackdowns following World War II found that scalding hot water and/or chlorine rinses still were not employed in many of the smaller restaurants across the country.

Though it’s unclear how many worked in restaurants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 522,900 dishwashers making an average of $8.19 an hour in 2008.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under history, restaurants

Dipping into the finger bowl

Once upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.

Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*

These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.

Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.

Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.

For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.

Whether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.

But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.


Filed under history, restaurants

White restaurants

Whiteness in restaurants has had multiple dimensions. When it swept through the lunchroom industry in the early twentieth century the obvious intent was to denote cleanliness through the liberal use of marble and porcelain table tops and counters, and white tile walls and floors.

With names like White Kitchen, Sanitary Café, and Purity Cafeteria, large lunchrooms, led by the Childs’ and Thompson’s chains, advertised not only their cleanliness but their modernity and efficiency with ceramic tile, plate glass windows, and bright electric lights. They sent a message that they could not be more unlike “the old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor,” according to Edison Monthly in 1911. Though the story didn’t say so, it’s likely readers would have associated the greasy old days with ethnic proprietors and the reign of the saloon-cum-eatery.


White tile lunchrooms figured as heralds of modernity to critic Lewis Mumford. Although he found them noisy and sterile, he was impressed with their machine age provenance (“If one looks carefully at the floors, the cutlery, the tables, the chairs, and the rest of the fixtures one discovers that there is not an object in the place which is not a machine product.”). In “The Quick-Lunch Counter,” poet William Rose Benét selected them as an exemplary institution of the World War I era alongside movie theaters and skyscrapers, with the lines:
Then a sharp command.
And, starting up, I take in hand
My share of thick white china, holding
Limp bread some limper ham enfolding,
Brown doughnuts, and a liquid less so.
(They call it ‘coffee.’ Well, I guess so!)

At the same time as white tile was being installed to cover up the unsanitary wood beneath it, other kinds of whitenings were taking place in the emerging “quick lunch” marketplace. Demands by the public — made up of growing ranks of male and female white-collar office workers — for greater cleanliness brought rejection of waiters’ European-style black garb which gave way to white uniforms. Many of the wearers of white were women servers who replaced men, oftentimes black men who had long made up the bulk of America’s waiters.

And while white-tile lunchcounters were scarcely the only eating places to refuse service to black patrons, it should be noted that the chains’ progressive attitudes did not extend to equal treatment of everyone who came through their doors. In the same years that the Busy Bee outlets in Columbus OH replaced black waiters with white women the chain grudgingly seated black patrons in the rear of its shiny lunchrooms and charged them higher prices.

The frankly businesslike hustle and bustle of the white tile lunchrooms lost steam in the 1920s and came to a definite close with the Depression of the 1930s. The public had lost their distrust of restaurants and no longer demanded visible proof they were sanitary. But even more significant a reason for their decline was the wish for escape from the tedium and anxiety of everyday life. Bright colors and movie-set interiors became the new order of the day.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under history, restaurants

Taste of a decade: restaurants, 1900-1910

It is the dawn of the modern era of restaurant-ing. Patronage grows at a rate faster than population increases and the number of restaurant keepers swells by 75% during the decade. Leading restaurant cities are NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston. Inexpensive lunch rooms with simple menus and quick service proliferate to serve growing ranks of urban white collar workers, both male and female. Women patronize places they once dared not enter, climbing onto lunch counter stools and venturing into cafes in the evening without escorts.

Diners worry about food safety and cleanliness. Cities mandate restaurant inspections. Meat preservatives used by some restaurants to “embalm” meat that has spoiled come under attack. Restaurants install sanitary white tile on floors and walls to demonstrate cleanliness.

Cooks and waiters unionize. Restaurant owners follow suit, advocating the abolition of the saloon’s “free lunch,” combating strikes, and targeting immigrants who operate “holes in the wall.” As Italians and Greeks open eating places some native-born Americans complain that foreigners are taking over the restaurant business.

New types of eating places become popular such as cafeterias, vegetarian cafés, German rathskellers, tea rooms, and Chinese and Italian restaurants. Dining for entertainment spreads. Adventurous young bohemians seek out small ethnic restaurants (“table d’hotes”) which serve free carafes of wine. Many restaurants introduce live music. The super-rich are accused of “reckless extravagance” as they stage elaborate banquets. The merely well-to-do hire chauffeurs to drive them to quaint dining spots in the countryside.


1901 As restaurant patronage rises “foody talk” is everywhere. A journalist overhears people “shamelessly discussing the quantity and quality of food which may be obtained for a given price at the various restaurants.” Hobbyists begin collecting menus and Frances “Frank” E. Buttolph deposits over 9,000 menus in the NY Public Library.

1902 Restaurants automate and eliminate waiters. In Niagara Falls a restaurant devises a system of 500 small cable cars which deliver orders to guests. The Automat opens in Philadelphia, inspiring the city’s Dumont’s Minstrels to create a vaudeville act called The Automatic Restaurant which features “Laughing Pie” and “Screaming Pudding.”

1903 “Where and How to Dine in New York” lists restaurants with cellars where men’s clubs play cavemen and eat steak with their hands. – Hawaiians croon in San Francisco restaurants; ragtime bands play in NYC’s Hungarian cafés; and at McDonald’s (“a touch of Bohemia right in the heart of Boston”) a “Young Ladies’ Orchestra” serenades patrons.

1903 In Denver, where a large part of the population eats out, a cooks’ and waiters’ strike closes large eating places. Strikes break out in Omaha and in Chicago, where a newly formed union rapidly gains 17,000 members. Restaurant owners replace black servers with white women in Chicago, while in Omaha they replace white waiters and cooks with black men.

1905 Five hundred guests of insurance magnate James Hazen Hyde don 18th-century costumes and enjoy a banquet at Sherry’s. Two floors of the NYC restaurant are transformed into a royal French garden and supper is served at tables under wistaria-covered arbors set on a floor of real grass.

1906 Afternoon tea is so fashionable that NYC’s Waldorf-Astoria supplements the Waldorf Garden space by opening the Empire Room from 4 to 6 p.m. – Italian-Americans Luisa and Gerome Leone start a small table d’hote restaurant in NYC near the Metropolitan Opera.*

1908 Johnson’s Tamale Grotto is established in San Francisco with “A Complete Selection of Mexican Foods to Take Home.” – In Washington, D.C., the Union Dairy Lunch advertises that they have passed inspection with “Everything as sanitary and clean as your own home.”

1909 The Philadelphia Inquirer features a story about stylish yet practical “restaurant frocks,” showing a coral pink dress and matching hat ideal for traveling in dusty, open automobiles while visiting rural roadside inns and tea rooms.

* Later known as Mamma Leone’s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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


Filed under history, restaurants

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


Filed under food, history, restaurants

Taste of a decade: 1940s restaurants

DCcafeteria1943During the war (1941-1945) the creation of 17 million new jobs finally pulls the economy out of the Depression. Millions of married women enter the labor force. The demand for restaurant meals escalates, increasing from a pre-war level of 20 million meals served per day to over 60 million. The combination of increased restaurant patronage with labor shortages, government-ordered price freezes, and rationing of basic foods puts restaurants in a squeeze. With gasoline rationing, many roadside cafes and hamburger stands close.

For a time after the war, rationing continues and wholesale prices stay high but patronage falls off as women leave jobs and return to the kitchen. Trained restaurant personnel are in short supply. Restaurants take advantage of food service methods and materials developed for the armed services. The frozen food industry supplies restaurants with fish, French fries, and baked goods. Boil-in bags of pre-cooked entrees become available. Fast food assembly lines and serving techniques used by the military are transferred to commercial establishments.


1940 Based on how many restaurant tablecloths have numbers scribbled on them, executives of the National Restaurant Association reason that mealtime deals are being made and that business is finally bouncing back from the Great Depression.

toffenetti3321941 When the restaurant in the French pavilion at the New York World’s Fair closes, its head Henri Soulé decides he will not return to a Paris occupied by Germans. He and ten waiters remain in New York and open Le Pavillon. Columnist Lucius Beebe declares its cuisine “absolutely faultless,” with prices “of positively Cartier proportions.” – Chicago cafeteria operator Dario Toffenetti, who also had a successful run at the Fair, decides to open a cafeteria in Times Square.

1942 According an official of the National Restaurant Association, nearly one tenth of the 1,183,073 employees and proprietors in the U.S. restaurant business are in California.

1943 Decreeing that patrons will not need to turn in ration coupons for restaurant meals, Washington makes a fateful decision that will fill restaurants to the bursting point. In Chicago, restaurants in the “Loop” experience nearly a 25% increase over the year before, while in New York City patronage doubles and earlier seatings must be devised.

1943 Food imports cease and Chinese restaurants cannot get bamboo shoots. They substitute snow peas, now grown in California and Florida. Because of restrictions, restaurants of all kinds leave cakes unfrosted and substitute honey and molasses for sugar. Instead of beef, lamb, and pork, vegetable plates, fish, omelets, spaghetti, and salad bowls fill menus.

1944 In Reno, Nevada, the White House offers a menu with many fish, seafood, and poultry selections, including lobster, crab legs, frog legs, oysters, fried prawns, brook trout, guinea hen, squab, pheasant, sweetbreads, turkey, duckling, and chicken a la king.

schrafftsrockefellerctr19481946 Like health departments all across the country, NYC begins a crack down on unsanitary conditions in restaurants, a problem that worsened with skeleton crews and extended mealtimes during wartime. An official says that of five inspections he witnessed only a Schrafft’s (shown here: Schrafft’s at Rockefeller Center) could be pronounced “sanitary and clean.”

1947 The Raytheon Corporation, maker of radar systems and components for the military, teams with General Electric to introduce the first microwave oven, the Radarange. Not available for home use initially, it is rented to hotels and restaurants for $5 a day.

1947 After numerous Afro-Americans are refused service in Bullocks department store tea room in Los Angeles, a group sponsored by C.O.R.E. stages a sit-in. Later a supportive white veteran publishes a letter to the editor of a paper declaring that since black soldiers regarded it as their duty to protect him from the “enemy abroad” during wartime, he now feels it is his duty “to protect them from the enemy at home.”

1948 An advice column tells girls to let their date handle all restaurant transactions, including complaints or questions about overcharges. “The girl does not intrude or ask, later, who won the argument,” advises the columnist. – In Chicago, a year-long trade school program in professional cooking enrolls veterans to help relieve the city’s acute chef shortage.

howardjohnsons1949 Howard Johnson’s, the country’s largest restaurant chain, reports a record volume of business for the year. HoJos, which has not yet spread farther west than Fort Wayne IN, plans a move into California.

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; 1930 to 1940; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under history, restaurants, Uncategorized