Tag Archives: temperance

Taste of a decade: 1820s restaurants

Aside from roadside inns, most eating places are found in cities in this decade. With a population slightly over 150,000 New York is more than twice as big as its nearest rivals, Philadelphia and Baltimore, but most cities are considerably smaller. In 1820 only 12 have populations over 10,000, all of them along the East Coast with the exceptions of Albany NY and New Orleans LA.

Yet industrial development is underway. After a financial panic at the decade’s beginning, textile mills in Massachusetts begin large-scale production. The Erie Canal goes into operation with its completion in 1825, spurring commercial development in NYC. With the city’s expansion there is greater distance between work in lower Manhattan and places of residence, bringing more customers to oyster cellars and taverns. But New York still lags behind Boston in its supply of refined French restaurants.

Big hotels begin to be established, most notably Baltimore’s City Hotel (1826), Philadelphia’s United States Hotel (1827), Washington’s National Hotel (1827), and Boston’s Tremont Hotel (1829). In most hotel dining rooms it is still the custom to put all the food – soup, meat, vegetables, puddings — on the table at once. Except for the occasional banquet, menus are not printed. A list of available dishes is chanted by waiters or chalked on a board behind the bar.

Apart from eating in hotels while traveling, “respectable” women stay home. They avoid  public dining spots, especially oyster houses or cellars which are associated with heavy drinking and the burgeoning male “sporting life” of gambling and frequenting prostitutes.

The temperance movement begins. Since there is little separation between eating and drinking places, restaurants are targeted as sites of temptation and moral downfall. Religious publications warn readers that it’s a slippery slope from sipping “innocent soda water” in a pleasure garden to getting drunk in the oyster house or “the common grog shop.”

Highlights

1820 Aiming for well-off gentlemen, Dudley Bradstreet advertises fine venison, “a warm room and the best of wine” at his Phoenix Restorator in Boston.

1821 In summer wealthy New Yorkers vacation in Saratoga Springs and environs where they enjoy Wild Pigeons, Pike, and Bass “taken daily at the foot of the much celebrated Cohoes Falls” at S. Demarest’s Mansion House.

1823 A visiting Frenchman complains he cannot get French cooking in New York’s typical English-style chop houses. He pleads, “Will any body be kind enough to point out a veritable French coffee house or restaurateur in New-York, where ‘haricot mutton,’ ‘coutulettes a la maintenon,’ and sundry other dishes may be procured?”

1824 France’s marquis de Lafayette, friend of the American revolution, pays a return visit to the US and is feted with a dinner at Boston’s Exchange Coffee House which features an astonishing selection of American and French dishes.

1826 A teenager named Hawes Atwood opens an oyster saloon on Boston’s Union Lane which he will operate into the 1890s. (Still in business and now known as Ye Olde Union Oyster House, it is the nation’s oldest restaurant in continuous operation, looking very much the same as in its 1889 illustration above.)

1826 To the delight of a passerby who copies it in his notebook exactly as it appears, a sign at a Philadelphia oyster cellar captures the speed and energy of the spoken bill of fare: “OystersOPENED,ORINSHELLFriedorstuedBEER,PORtE,ALE”

1827 Swiss immigrants Giovanni and Pietro Del Monico arrive in New York and establish a small European-style confectioner’s shop serving pastries, coffee, wine, and liquor at 23 Williams Street.

1828 Black caterer Edward Haines opens a summertime Mead Garden on the corner of Front and Jay streets in Brooklyn NY.

1828 The editor of the Trumpet & Universalist Magazine applauds a Providence RI restaurant keeper who has “substituted at his Restorateur hot coffee in lieu of intoxicating alcohol.” “If a man must drink at 11 o’clock, he writes, “let him drink Hot Coffee.” (By the way, he is referring to 11 A.M.)

1829 Downtown in NYC patrons of the dark and dreary, but cheap, Plate House crowd into box-like seating and wolf down plates of beef and potatoes. Child waiters shout orders to the kitchen followed by the guests’ box numbers (Half plate beef, 4!). [Philadelphia oyster cellar pictured; note curtained booths]

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

Read about other decades: 1810 to 1820; 1860 to 1870; 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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Restaurant-ing on Sunday

The Chick-fil-A controversy has arrived at my blog. A few days ago I heard from a reporter looking for restaurant history background on the subject of religion and restaurants.

Was there, she asked, ever a commercial restaurant chain similar to Chick-fil-A that took a strong religious stand evidenced by decisions such as closing on Sundays?

Why, yes, there was. It was the Dennett’s chain of the late 19th century. Founded in New York City by the crusading moralist Alfred W. Dennett, it sported religious slogans on the walls, held a mandatory daily prayer session for employees – and was closed on Sundays. Dennett failed in the Northeast in the 1890s but his successors followed his policies. Later, he made another attempt to run a chain of lunchrooms on the West Coast.

Chick-fil-A boasts of its personnel practices, but Dennett’s was scarcely a model employer as a waitress at a San Francisco Dennett’s discovered. Employees were fined so frequently for missing prayers or other minor infractions that most never took home a full pay envelope. She reported that she saw a placard on the wall that quoted Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercises loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth.” As she read, another waitress came up behind her and remarked wittily, “So now you know that four dollars a week is right, and kind, and just.”

From the patrons’ point of view Sunday closures were generally not pleasing. Sunday was a popular day to eat in a restaurant beginning in the late 19th century and continuing into the 1960s. Not only did thousands and thousands of people living in rented rooms absolutely need access to restaurants all week long, for decades Sunday was the only day off for most working people.

Back when drinking was the social issue of the day, some temperance reformers thought it was advisable to keep restaurants open on Sundays since eating a meal in a decent place was preferable to getting drunk in a saloon. Critics found it outrageous that in the 1870s New Hampshire law ordered all restaurants closed on Sundays unless they also rented rooms.

By the 20th century it was fashionable to eat Sunday dinner out and many patrons filled their Sunday afternoons with dining and dancing to a live orchestra. In the 1920s, when car ownership spread, it became a Sunday treat for families to drive to the “country” (i.e., the city outskirts) to go to a tea room for chicken dinner. Service often was “family style,” with all the food on platters or in bowls to pass around.

I recall as a child going to such a place outside St. Louis, in Valley Park, called Madame DeFoe’s. It was a cottage with many screened windows, in a wooded setting. I thought it was terribly quaint and that Madame was foreign and exotic. Only recently did I discover that her first name was Cora and that she was a farmer. She must have been in her early 90s when I met her.

The reporter also asked me if I knew of any restaurants in the past that, after coming under criticism for a controversial stance such as rejecting homosexuality, had politicians rally the public to show support for it through mass patronage (as is intended to happen August 1 at Chick-fil-A locations).

That one had me stumped.

© Jan Whitaker 2012

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That glass of water

I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a restaurant with someone who answers “Just water” when the server asks what they would like to drink. For some inexplicable reason I am always strangely disappointed when I hear this reply. Is it my Irish-German ancestry haunted by ghosts of the temperance movement? I honestly don’t know but I am fascinated with the question of why that glass of water is plunked down first thing in American restaurants.

Why are Americans so crazy for water when diners in other parts of the world are not? European visitors from the 1860s to yesterday never failed to notice the American habit. In 1883, a Londoner reported that in hotel dining rooms, “Immediately the guest is seated, the attendant at the table brings a napkin, a bill of fare, and a glass of iced water.” Another crossly noted, “You cannot escape from this glass of water from the day you set foot on American soil to the day you leave it…”

Carbonated soda water and mineral water were available in early 19th century American cafes, as was ice for beverages. But the first mention I’ve found of water served free with a meal occurs in the 1840s, which happens to be the decade that NYC’s and Boston’s public water supply began. In the late 1840s a newspaper reporter reflected on cheap restaurants where patrons could enjoy “pumpkin pie at four cents the quarter-section, with a cup of Croton, fresh from the hydrant, gratis,” referring to the Croton Reservoir from which water flowed into NYC beginning in 1842.

It is also a decade when the temperance movement geared up, praising cold water as the most moral beverage and the only one drunk in Heaven. The teetotaling followers of food reformer Sylvester Graham found cold water the sole drink consistent with “nature’s bill of fare.” The mission of temperance advocates was to make pure water widely available in hopes they could lure drinkers away from the hard stuff. The battle continued at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. After failing to prevent the sale of beer and wine at the fair’s European-style restaurants, temperance groups installed a free ice-water fountain.

Restaurants run by new Americans did not immediately fall into line. Italians, for instance, preferred wine as their basic beverage. A Boston diner in 1906 was impressed with how totally different it was to eat in an Italian restaurant as compared to a typical wineless Yankee lunch room where the staples were baked beans, pie, doughnuts, cookies, cake, gingerbread, tea, toast, and boiled dinners — all washed down with ice water.

Although the custom of providing water was likely firmly established during Prohibition, even before that water service gradually lost its temperance overtones and became standard operating procedure in restaurants. A waitress in 1907 learned the first day of work that as soon as she took an order she was to give the patron water as a signal to the head waitress that the order had been taken. A 1908 manual instructed waiters to “serve water first” and the bread and butter set-up later.

Americans don’t always drink the water provided in restaurants, but they expect it to be there. In 1930 patrons of luncheonettes coast to coast were dismayed by burnt toast, dirty menus, and failure to serve water unless requested. A National Restaurant Association survey in 1978 found that customers did not like to ask for water and almost 75% of them were annoyed if there was no water on their table.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Chain restaurants: beans and bible verses

Although the restaurants run by Alfred W. Dennett in the 1880s and 1890s were popular and earned him a cool million in just a few years, some people took a strong dislike to them because of the framed bible quotations which covered the walls. Newspapers regularly ridiculed them, noting for instance that burglars who cracked the safe at the Park Avenue Dennett’s in New York City did so right under a sign that read, “Be ye strong, therefore, and let not your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.” But no one took such a negative position against the Northeastern coffee/dairy/beans & fishcakes-based chain as did Terrence Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor. In a talk in Brooklyn he offended some audience members when he declared, “I, temperance man as I am, would go into the lowest rumhole in the city, and get blind, rolling drunk, rather than go into that restaurant where they have such signs as ‘Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself,’ to get a cup of coffee.”

Founder Dennett, born in 1840 the son of a storekeeper in Topsham, Maine, was a zealous religious believer and temperance advocate who required his waitresses to attend daily prayer services and took a leading role in citizen vice squads. In New York City he disguised himself — as streetcar conductor, laborer, or man about town — to conduct surveillance and collect evidence against suspected sites of immorality. He gave away his fortune to charity, was forced out of his company by stockholders, and had numerous mental breakdowns, culminating in a declaration of insanity after being found wandering the streets of San Francisco with a pillowcase over his head. When the Childs brothers took over the chain in 1900 evidently they retained the Dennett’s name and left the bible verses on the walls. The chain of about 16 outlets continued until at least 1912.

At various times Dennett and his son George tried for a comeback on the West Coast, operating several places in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early 20th century (and possibly earlier) but they did not succeed and some of the San Francisco locations were taken over by the Puritan restaurant chain, which continued in a religious vein under the management of the appropriately named Mr. Goodbody.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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