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Theme restaurants: castles

So often restaurant reviewers seem to struggle to say something positive about a restaurant. Is it my imagination or did they try twice as hard when reviewing restaurants with medieval castles and King-Arthur-and-his-knights themes? No doubt there were a handful of restaurants of this sort that really cared about food but, mainly, I think not. Of course most were actually steak houses in disguise — but what wasn’t a steak house around 1967, the year that the movie Camelot came out, almost certainly boosting this restaurant-ing trend?

In America Eats Out, John Mariani comments that during the 1960s many “strained and mawkish” restaurant themes prevailed. For example, he writes, “‘Old English pubs’ proliferated in places with names like Ye Olde Bull & Bush in Atlanta, The Golden Bee in Denver, and His Lordship’s in St. Louis. At Atlanta’s Abbey restaurant, waiters came to the table dressed as monks (a sartorial gimmick also featured at New York’s Monk’s Inn).”

The popular movie Camelot explains some but not all instances of medieval English resorts in this country. There were none in the 19th century that I’ve discovered, but a few can be found before the 1960s. I do not include White Castle hamburger stands. Despite their name and laughably minimal crenellated exteriors, they were so clearly not castles that they may be excused from consideration. They didn’t print menus on parchment scrolls, didn’t decorate with suits of armor, and didn’t dress countermen in monks’ robes or velveteen rompers with tights. As others have commented, White Castle interiors looked more like morgues than baronial halls. And while White Castles were sited near bus stops and factory gates, only a novelist like Vladimir Nabokov could have created the existential contexts for English castles: The Coat of Arms on Oracle Blvd. in the Casa Adobes Plaza; the Camelot Castle, a smorgasbord in Azusa CA; King Arthur steaks in Long Beach.

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Back in the 1920s entrepreneurs in Los Angeles were knocking together roadside castles – and windmills, Irish shanties, French Bastilles, giant igloos, anything that would catch the eye of a speeding motorist. It may have been a similar motive that led to the ca. 1920s erection of a castle in Westhampton, Long Island, once the home of the Gray Lion Tea House (another medieval castle would spring up in a Valley Stream shopping center in the mid 1960s housing a unit of the Steak Pub chain). The 1939 Chicago World’s Fair occasioned many theme restaurants including The Hunting Lodge, an English castle whose guests were attended by young women dressed as Robin Hoods.

Quite unlike White Castles’s tiny beef patties, Olde English castles encouraged “royal” self-indulgence, designed principally for male guests. Stiff drinks in front of the roaring fire, the color red, chunky chairs, cheese crocks, T-bone steaks, jumbo shrimp, and oversize desserts were typical of these castles.

The proliferation of restaurants of this type in the 1960s makes me think that it took a lot of coaxing to get men to go out to dinner in that decade.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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