Tag Archives: tea rooms

Tea at the Mary Louise

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In 1914 the J. W. Robinson department store arrived on West Seventh and Grand, launching a shift in Los Angeles’ shopping district from Broadway. The following year the Brack Shops began leasing specialty shops in an empty loft building nearby. Construction activity boomed as Seventh Street turned into a shopping mecca.

Will and Dolla Harris staked the future of the Mary Louise Tea Room on the prosperity of West Seventh. In 1918 they opened their first tea room on the 12th floor of the Brack Shops. With wide hallways allowing shops to open their doors and let goods spill outside, it resembled a modern-day shopping mall. Shoppers could easily spend the day having their hair done, browsing the latest styles, or enjoying lunch, tea, or a Thursday night chicken dinner at the Mary Louise.

MaryLouiseBarkerBros790Through the 1920s the Mary Louise expanded, opening additional tea rooms on West Seventh — on the mezzanine of the fashionable New York Cloak & Suit House, and on the top floor of the gigantic Barker Brothers home furnishings store [shown here]. In 1922 construction began on what would be the largest of the Mary Louise tea rooms [shown below], a two-story building across from Westlake Park (renamed MacArthur Park in 1942). It opened in 1923 and was soon followed by a Mary Louise in Fullerton, next door to the new Alician Court movie theater owned by Dolla’s brother Charles S. Chapman. The last Mary Louise, whose servers were young Asian-American women dressed in Chinese costumes, opened in 1931 on North Cahuenga in Hollywood.

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Shortly after its debut, the park-side Mary Louise advertised it was “the Center of the City’s Social Life.” Wedding parties and meetings of professional groups were booked regularly. Elaborately decorated on a lavish budget equal to more than half the cost of construction, the capacious building held a large entry hall [shown below] and dining room [shown at top] on the first floor plus an afternoon tea room, a banquet hall, and four smaller dining rooms for private parties on the second. In sync with the fashion of the day, the rooms had themes such as Mah Jong and Italian tea garden.

MaryLouiselobby789As can be seen on postcards from the Mary Louises in Barker Brothers and opposite Westlake Park, the tea rooms were decorated in glamourous movie-set style markedly different than minimalist Eastern tea rooms. Gilded pieces, Oriental rugs, wall tapestries, heavy draperies, and paired ornamental trees abounded.

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The Mary Louise mini-empire was dealt a severe blow just a few months after the Hollywood location opened when Will Harris died suddenly. Three of the tea rooms, including the main one opposite Westlake Park, were quickly sold to the Elite Catering Company owned by the expanding Pig’n Whistle chain. When I acquired the business card shown here opened up, it had Xs penciled over all but the section reading “2 Smart Downtown Tea Rooms,” evidently reflecting the changeover.

Dolla Harris continued to operate the two downtown tea rooms: in Barker Brothers and in the Security Bank Building opposite the Robinson’s store. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, she was forced to reduce prices for lunch and to attract customers with palmists and numerologists. How long she stayed in business is uncertain but I’ve found evidence that there was still a Mary Louise tea room in Barker Brothers in 1952.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Hot chocolate at Barr’s

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Even in a good-sized, prosperous city as Springfield MA was in the late 19th century, a chance to sit down and be served a cup of hot chocolate or other refreshments was hard to come by. Other than hotel dining rooms, usually open only during mealtimes, there was just about nothing.

Except for the city’s leading confectioner. As was true in other cities, a confectionery restaurant assumed a prominent role in feeding and entertaining the public.

E. C. Barr & Co. was Springfield’s leading restaurant, caterer, candy and ice cream maker, and baker of fine pastries and wedding cakes. In an advertisement in December 1889 it advised, “Ladies while on your Holiday shopping tour try a cup of that hot Chocolate, Cocoa or Bouillon at BARR’S Restaurant.” For most of its long existence it did business on Main Street, for 20 years occupying a corner just across from the city’s foremost retailer, the Forbes & Wallace department store.

e.c.barr1884Barr’s reach went beyond Springfield. With a branch in Northampton, its fame was known throughout Western Massachusetts. The restaurant ran advertisements in Amherst to lure students from the Massachusetts Agricultural College to come out for a “spread” or a class dinner. This 1884 example ran in the M.A.C.’s yearbook.

Barr’s stayed in the public eye as a prime banquet venue and with elaborate show window displays of confectionery. In 1909 the company commemorated the exploration of the North Pole with representations of Cook and Peary and their exploring party, all made of sugar fashioned by owner Edwin Barr’s son Walter.

Recently I was lucky to find the postcard image of the Japanese Tea Room in the Barr restaurant shown above. It dates from about 1906, when a dessert called the Priscilla College Ice, an ice cream soda with a “totally different flavor,” was a popular order. Edwin Barr’s second wife, Minerva, worked with him and it’s likely she supervised the tea room and may have chosen the Japanese theme which was in vogue then.

Barr’s was begun in 1865 or 1866 when founder Edwin Barr finally decided to give up prospecting for gold in California and Montana and returned to Springfield to settle down. It wasn’t until around 1891 that Edwin acquired the Main and Vernon corner (384 Main), one of the most valuable corners in the city’s shopping district. (It’s likely that the 884 Main address on the trade card shown here is misprinted.)e.c.barrtradecard

In 1870 an article in the Springfield Republican claimed that Barr’s decor was more “tasteful” than that of Delmonico’s in New York. Keep in mind that the New England taste of that time leaned toward plainness. The story also praised the appearance of the restaurant’s menu which was printed on cream paper with a thin magenta border – “neat, but not gaudy.”

Sadly the Barr family’s lives were not so neat. In 1891 Edwin’s eldest son, George, who managed the family’s Hotel Warwick in Springfield, shot and killed his wife and himself in a fit of jealousy. Edwin’s third son, Jesse, manager of the Northampton restaurant, died of syphilis in 1900.

Fortunately Edwin’s son Edgar lived a long life and carried on his father’s business for a time after Edwin’s death in 1911. In 1912 the restaurant moved to East Bridge Street and later was recreated on State Street. I have not been able to discover how long it remained in business.

Clearly Barr’s glory days were at Main and Vernon. That site underwent many demolitions, the latest being construction of the Monarch Place hotel and office complex.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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An annotated menu

One of my most-treasured menus is a grubby, dog-earned Afternoon Tea menu from Schrafft’s at 181 Broadway in NYC dated September 3, 1929. What makes it so great is that it was carried off from the restaurant by someone who took detailed notes concerning a number of dishes. Apparently (judging from the notation “Monday & Wednesday”) the “spy” made two visits to the restaurant. The menu has holes along the side as though it was kept in a binder for reference.

I have always imagined that the spy, who must have been accompanied by a few friends, was a rival tea room operator hoping to learn a lesson or two from a successful competitor. The notes really bring the menu to life, and also give a feel for just how scanty tea room dishes could be. I had read that tea rooms were often criticized for their high-priced “bird-like” portions. I see from this menu that there was some truth in the charge.

The prices are indeed high. It is difficult to be confident about today’s equivalents to the prices below, but keep in mind that in 1929 a full dinner could be had at a decent restaurant for 50 cents. So, clearly, the sense in which Schrafft’s was a middle-class restaurant essentially means that it was easily affordable only to the upper middle class and above, though lower-income patrons may have enjoyed an occasional splurge there.

Here are a few of my transcriptions of the difficult-to-read notations, with my punctuation and explanations added:

Cold Fresh Shrimp with Tomato Mayonnaise in Puff Shell – 55 cents
Cut top off a tea [?] puff; put a 40 sc. [presumably refers to scoop size] of tomato mayonnaise inside; put 5 large or 6 small shrimp in the puff; place 3 or 4 nice sprigs of watercress around puff; serve on T. P. [tea plate]; make Bread & Butter sandwich cut in [fourths]

Toasted Mushroom Sandwich, Stuffed Celery, Ice Cream and Cocoanut Crisps, Pot of Tea – 60 cents
Cut crusts off 2 sl. toast and ½ inch off remaining 2 sides; butter and cover with mushrooms, a nice piece of lettuce; cover with another sl. toast same size; spread with mayonnaise; cut in 3 oblong pieces; serve on a doily on a T. P. with 1 stalk of stuffed celery

Egg and Tomato Salad – 50 cents
4 pcs. crisp lett. laid on a salad pl.; 3 ½ slices of tomato, cut crosswise; in center ½ stuffed egg; between each slice of tomato, place a nice spray of watercress

Fruit Salad with Orange Cream Dressing – 65 cents
A small sl. pineapple on 2 sm. lettuce leaves; on 1 side 1 section orange, half on pineapple and half on plate; on other side between orange & grapefruit on a l. l. [lettuce leaf] put 30 sco[o]p of dressing

Cocoanut Crisps – 25 cents
2 ea. on the Tea [see Toasted Mushroom Sandwich above], 4 ea. ala carte

Chicken Salad Club (Sandwich) – 60 cents
Tea plates. 1 sl. toast; 30 scoop of Ch. salad, may[be?] 8 lettuce leaf. Another slice of toast, cut diag. on ea. half; place ½ sl. of bacon, ½ sl. tomato, sweet pickle & toast cover

Fresh Fruit and Pecan Salad – 55 cents
Tea plate. 1 sl. pine[apple]; 2 sec. orange; 2 sec. grapefruit, 8 pecans

Fresh Bartlett Pear and Roquefort Cheese with Special Dressing – 65 cents
Tea plate. 2 halves of pear, 50 sc. of cheese in ea.; sp. dressing, capers, pimiento

Creamed Potatoes with New Lima Beans (Plate) – 45 cents
Tea plate. 1 sp. cr. pot[ato]; 1 sp. of limas; sprig of parsley

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Celebrity restaurants: Evelyn Nesbit’s tea room

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of celebrities have gone into the restaurant business when their careers waned. Their level of direct involvement may be high or low but all these ventures bank on the idea that a famous name will attract customers.

When Evelyn Nesbit opened her NYC tea room in May of 1921 she made sure that her name was prominently displayed. Located on West 52nd street just off Broadway, the sign saying “Evelyn Nesbit’s Specialty Shop” was visible from the theater district’s Great White Way.

She was then in her mid-30s, years away from her peak as a teenage artist’s model [above, age 16], “Gibson Girl,” Floradora showgirl, and millionaire’s wife. Her fame derived not only from her former good looks – from the years her image was displayed everywhere – but also from her involvement in a romantic triangle with prominent architect Stanford White and her insanely jealous husband Harry Thaw. After Thaw shot and killed White in 1906, she became notorious as a witness during the sensational “trial of the century.”

By 1921 she had divorced Thaw, had a son, returned sporadically to the stage, taken up sculpture, published a memoir, and married a second husband from whom she was estranged. Characteristically, she was in debt, owing the equivalent of a year’s income to a dress shop.

Her tea room enjoyed such a short, unsuccessful run that it is hard to learn much about it. Presumably she raised funds from friends to furnish it and pay the $300 monthly rent. She lived in two rooms upstairs. One account described the 100-seat tea room as “super-beautiful” and furnished with rich carpets, Oriental tapestries, and exotic plants, a description at odds with the homey scene in a 1922 photograph shown here.

In several interviews Evelyn made what sound like preposterous claims that she served food available nowhere else. “I am revolutionizing the restaurant business in New York,” she boasted. Her specialties included deep dish apple pie and ice cream which she said she made herself. “I amazed the chef, let me tell you, with what I know about cooking,” she said.

I found it surprising that she claimed to be a good cook; however I did discover that when she left the US for Paris in 1910, surely pregnant with her son, she told friends that she planned to rent a modest apartment on the outskirts of Paris, study sculpture, and do her own cooking.  Although she evidently hired someone else to cook for the tea room she said she furnished the recipes and did all the buying.

Things went wrong fast. During the first six months she (barely) survived three robberies, one kidnap attempt, one suicide attempt, and eviction for nonpayment of rent. On a second try in January of 1922 she was successfully evicted, after which she returned to cabaret dancing. In 1926, while performing at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge, she tried to kill herself again by swallowing Lysol. Her troubled brother took his own life two years later.

But Evelyn achieved happiness in later life and lived on to age 81. She moved to Southern California near her three grandchildren and their father, a pilot for Douglas Aircraft. She returned to her lifelong interest in art, teaching sculpture and ceramics at a community center. Easing her constant need for money, she received a $10,000 bequest when Thaw died in 1947 and was paid more than $50,000 for use of her life story in the 1955 movie “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”

After many years away, she visited New York in 1955, reflecting on the great meals she had eaten during her heyday. Passing the former location of Sherry’s, she recalled “the wonderful terrapin they served.” She expressed surprise that she had managed to stay slim in her youth. “I ate so much in the old days I still wonder why I didn’t get fat,” she said referring to another performer’s, Lillian Russell’s, “upholstered” appearance. Heading off to a restaurant dinner, the ever-unsentimental Evelyn confessed, “You know what I really want to see most in New York? A nice big broiled Maine lobster.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Good eaters: students

As far back as the early 19th century students have made up a notable segment of restaurant clientele. They have played a significant historical role both in supporting the growth of restaurants and in shaping the eating habits of Americans.

In the 1800s some restaurants located near colleges specifically catered to students, alumni, and college faculty and staff. As incomparable caterer Othello Pollard of Cambridge MA noted in an 1802 advertisement, “Harvard flourishes and Othello lives.” In NYC in the 1840s poor divinity students could be found at the “sixpenny” eating house called Sweeny’s downing slices of roast beef, clam soup, pickles, and bread and cheese.

One of the penny-pinching patrons at Sweeny’s was Lyman Abbot, an NYU student who later became a noted theologian. Each month when he got his allowance he splurged on dinner at Delmonico’s, but as his money ran low at the end of the month he subsisted on Sweeny’s wheat cakes.

Restaurants clustered around colleges often billed themselves as “student headquarters” and supplied not only food, but entertainment in the form of billiards and supplies such as books and stationery. Hoadley’s, “Hoad’s” to Harvard students, also rented velocipedes in the 1860s. Restaurants around Yale sold weekly meal tickets, hosted private parties, and delivered midnight snacks – “spreads” – to students’ rooms [pictured: midnight “lunch” near Penn State College, 1905]. Billy Park’s chop house in Boston was a hot spot for Harvard students following athletic events. Big-spending students could enjoy the luxurious “sports bar” eateries of their day at places such as Newman’s College Inn in Oakland CA. When it opened ca. 1910 it was decorated with college pendants and tapestries depicting scenes in a man’s life from college to middle age. Murals pictured various college sports while chandeliers were fashioned out of copper and glass footballs.

Alums regularly gravitated back to their college haunts to relive their youth. “Papa” confessed to his daughter on a 1906 postcard of the “Famous Dutch Kitchen, one of the most noted student resorts in the country” near Cornell University, that he planned to eat there before returning home. “I am going to be a college sport for just two days. Big crowd in town. Slept at Fraternity house last night,” he wrote.

Many 19th-century eating places were restricted to male guests, but students at women’s colleges were supplied with tea rooms in the early 20th century [pictured: Brown Betty tea room near Shorter College]. Near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Almira Lovell’s University Tea Room offered teas along with dressmakers’ supplies and college souvenirs in 1903. Around the same time Smith students could often be found curled up on window seats eating popcorn at the Copper Kettle in Northampton. Well into the 1920s being stricken from a college’s approved list was the kiss of death for tea rooms and other eating places that depended upon patronage of women students. Such was the fate of the Rose Tree Inn in Northampton as well as a tea room near Connecticut College.

Students dearly appreciated places to “hang out” because well into the 20th century colleges and universities provided few dormitories and many students lived in rented rooms off campus. Plus, as recent research into Depression-era student life at the State Teachers College in Normal IL has shown, living off campus permitted poor students to economize on food expenses.

College students were prominent among the artsy, “bohemian” restaurant-going crowd. In the late 19th century, when lower Manhattan was filled with schools, students congregated around Washington Square. San Francisco’s art students loved Italian dinners at Sanguinetti’s. In Chicago in the 1920s students met at the Wind Blew Inn. In later decades student beatniks would flock to coffee houses, which in turn were succeeded by hippie hangouts. In 1960 the NYT reported that in one Greenwich Village student café an undercover government agent was asked blandly, “Do you want coffee or peyote?”

It’s harder to track high school students, at least until the 40s and 50s when their consumption of snack foods such as hamburgers, sodas, and pizzas became noticeable. Like college students before them they tended to favor informal meals eaten at odd hours of the day and night.

It would be interesting to calculate how many of the post-WWII fast food restaurant chains opened their early units near high schools and colleges. This was certainly true of King’s Food Host, Steak n Shake, and the Parkmoor drive-ins. I have no doubt there were many others.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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From tap room to tea room

Cities in the United States were generously supplied with saloons before national Prohibition took effect. Saloons occupied some very choice sites, often on corners or other desirable spots. So it was quite a boon for other types of businesses such as drug stores and eating places when those locations became available en masse in 1919.

San Francisco’s Temple Bar was an English-style ale house established in the 19th century. Its name played upon London’s Temple Bar – which was a gatehouse, not a drinking place at all. One of its greatest assets was a magnificently carved rosewood and birch backbar said to have been made in Philadelphia in the 1840s. The saloon sat at the end of a quaint little cobblestone alley off Grant Avenue named Tillman Alley or Tillman Place. Just as Prohibition was set to begin, one of its best customers, on a whim perhaps fueled by too many drinks, declared he would buy it; William Davenport, a commercial illustrator who was used to capping off his afternoons there with colleagues from work, paid $300 for the place.

A few months later he and his young wife Hope opened it as the Temple Bar tea room and gift shop. It was also a circulating library which rented books for a small fee. Young Chinese women, dressed in Asian costumes, served lunch and afternoon tea.

William, who was known in artistic circles as “Davvy” and had designed posters for telephone companies up and down the West Coast, decorated the tea room in yellows, blues, and oranges, and fashioned an eye-catching orange sign. To liven up the outside he installed boxwoods in planters. However when they died, victims of the lack of sunlight, he replaced them with modernistic conical-shaped trees he constructed out of painted galvanized iron.

templebartearoomThe alley was inhabited by other interesting businesses and studios such as that of metal craftsman Harry Dixon whose work was exhibited and sold in the Temple Bar gift shop. Another alley denizen was Ye Old Book Shop where George Hargens rapidly gained fame as a seller of rare old books. Grant Avenue was the city’s most fashionable shopping venue in the 1920s, so the Temple Tea Room and its neighbors on Tillman Place were well positioned to catch the attention of affluent shoppers from businesses such as the White House department store just across from the alley.

Hope died in 1932. Davvy carried on the Temple Bar until at least the 1950s when a reporter found him behind the bar mixing dry martinis and old-fashioneds for lunching shoppers. Since his time the location has had many reincarnations as restaurant, bar, and place of entertainment. The backbar was removed to Berkeley in 1990.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Anna de Naucaze

In 1908 two women adventurers opened The Rose Tree Inn, a tea room in a 200-year old house in Northampton, Massachusetts. Both called themselves “Madame” and claimed to be related to European nobility by birth or marriage. They were used to supporting themselves and living by their wits. One, Anna [pictured], a widow, was a former British stage actress, while the other, Marie, who had an 11-year old son, was married to a criminally inclined soldier of fortune who masqueraded as a German baron and was exiled to a British penal colony.

Each had arrived in New York City from London in 1907 to cover the sensational Harry Thaw murder trial for British papers. Almost immediately they became involved in what might be termed attempted “capers.” Madame Anna de Naucaze, 52, claimed she knew the secret to winning at roulette and could prove it if only someone would back her at Monte Carlo, while Madame Marie von Veltheim, about 38, said she had a treasure map showing where $4 million in gold was buried in mountains in South Africa’s Transvaal.

Next they got in trouble with the courts for misappropriating a photo album that was evidence in the Thaw trial. The album contained photographs of Thaw’s wife Evelyn Nesbit who had been having an affair with Thaw’s victim, architect Stanford White. With a possible charge of larceny hanging over them, Anna returned the album to Thaw’s lawyer.

And then they went to Northampton. By comparison with their pasts, the small college town must have seemed dull. It’s not clear what drew them there, though if they were looking for a way to make money, they found it. The RTI, as it was known by its primary patrons, Smith College students, became a very popular place known for its sumptuous desserts and continental, “bohemian” atmosphere. Marie, who claimed to be the inn’s originator, stayed around until about 1913 when, after looking for a location for a new tea room, she evidently left for New York to “save her husband.”

Anna ran the tea room for the next 10 years, catering to students from Smith, Amherst College, and the Massachusetts Agricultural College. She took out advertisements as far away as Yale and also entertained visitors from her stage and literary past. She did well enough to warrant additions to the inn, one a screened-in section known as “the bird cage.” She opened two annexes in town, the Rose Tree Hut and the Rose Tree Den. At some point there was also a summer branch of the RTI in Old Orchard, Maine.

In addition to the attractions of delicious food and the quaint house with its old world charm, everyone was intrigued with the eccentric person of Anna herself, particularly because her gender was ambiguous. She dressed like a man and seemed mysterious. As one student put it, “Some say she is fleeing from justice, that she married a Frenchman and were greatly in debt so left France and came to America.” She was reported at various times to have been born in France, Belgium, and Russia. For several years she published a magazine called “4 All,” and she occasionally appeared in local theater productions. She was also known for writing her own humorous and folksy advertising copy, such as, “If you descend in an aëroplane we will be ready for you, but we much prefer to have you telephone.” According to a 1915 story about her, after business hours she spent evenings “alone with her dog and her revolver.”

In the early 1920s Anna fell afoul of Smith’s good graces over issues such as the inn’s cleanliness and reports that Smith students were smoking, and maybe drinking and meeting boys there. In 1923, when the college still had the power to control which off-campus restaurants students could patronize, the RTI was removed from the approved list. The RTI could not go on and, at age 69, Anna was deprived of her income. She lived in Maryland for a while but died in NYC in 1924. For many years later the building was occupied by the Rose Tree Filling Station.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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