Tag Archives: theme restaurants

Image gallery: dinner “on board”

ShipTacomaTopoftheOceanest1946burned1977

There are numerous historical links between restaurants on land and vessels that navigate seas, lakes, and rivers. Ocean going sailors arriving in port, for instance, made up a notable fraction of early restaurant customers. Their ranks also provided stewards, cooks, and chefs, bringing new skills and cuisines wherever they took up their profession on land. San Francisco in the 1850s provides a striking example. In the United States steamboats that traveled the rivers and Great Lakes contained dining salons that were among the 19th century’s most luxurious and among the few places where ornamental French cuisine flourished.

But . . . this post isn’t about that. Instead it illustrates how far restaurants featuring ship and boat themes have strayed from a connection with their watery history. Ship restaurants are for the most part little more than a novelty – but a novelty that can be traced back at least to the 1850s. Despite quite a lot of ship restaurants running aground or sinking, literally and figuratively, there is some kind of primal appeal that keeps them going.

Frank Bazzuro may have been first. He arrived in San Francisco from Italy in 1852 and installed a restaurant in one of the hundreds of ships abandoned in the Bay, introducing his customers to a Genoese fish stew, cioppina. In the 1880s Capt. Paul Boyton, a world-famous swimming champion who popularized rubber wet suits, opened a restaurant on West 29th in NYC called “The Ship” which resembled a ship’s cabin. On Venice Pier in CA, a developer constructed a replica of a Spanish Galleon in 1904, after which it rode the waves of good and bad luck until its demolition in 1946. After an underworld shooting in 1928, it went through a couple of name changes, from Show Boat Café to Volga Boat.

Most ship restaurants that float on water – which not all do – have had checkered pasts as more utilitarian vessels or ones that have spent some time under water. Before it became a floating restaurant in Wilmington NC in 1951, the Ark had transported troops, hosted gamblers, and housed the coast guard. The SS Catala was one of about ten ships that appeared in Elliott Bay during the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Previously it had served as a coastal passenger steamship, then fish transporter. When the fair ended it was towed to Los Angeles where it failed as a nightclub restaurant, then appeared in an Perry Mason TV episode before returning to restaurant-ing in Washington where a storm ran it aground.

Dining on a floating restaurant can be hazardous. A storm tore St. Louis’s Becky Thatcher Riverboat from its moorings, sending it downstream where it ran onto the opposite side of the Mississippi in 1969. Bar business was said to be brisk in the interlude before its 100 diners were rescued.

Ships moored on land are safer but rarely very convincing in their roles, particularly if they are in Dallas or Phoenix (below, respectively), smack on a roadway or surrounded by an asphalt parking lot where the water consists of a few puddles.

ShipRestaurantBountyDallas1971ShipCopperBelleRiverboatPhoenix

A parking lot might seem like a strange place for a ship but, a little reflection tells you that Noah’s Ark could have ended up almost anywhere. And that may be the reason enterprises with that name have done business not only on the beach in Leucadia CA, but near the interstate in St. Charles MO (pictured) and in Grovetown GA and Des Moines IA.

ShipNoah'sArk

Some sites present a real challenge. How do you make your restaurant resemble a ship when it’s in the middle of a block? Boyton’s ship cabin restaurant where only the interior resembles a ship gives an answer, but so do a number of storefronts that have been adorned with protruding ship’s prows, such as Bernstein’s in San Francisco (pictured).

shipBernstein'sFishGrotto

Babette'sYachtBarThere were oh so many bars shaped like boats and yachts, of which Babette’s was one (above).

Many restaurants with ship themes specialize in fish and seafood, but not all. Why not Chinese and American cuisine as in the 1940s Ship Ahoy chain with restaurants in  Atlanta and Augusta GA, Charlotte NC, Columbia SC, and Houston TX? Or hamburgers (McDonald’s, St. Louis riverfront, shown below)?

ShipSTLRiverfrontMcDonald's

In researching this topic I learned that almost every city or town will sooner or later have a ship restaurant. And many of them will sink, be scrapped, or get towed to another location. The fate of the Showboat Restaurant in Beaverton OR was ironic. In 1981 it became Showboat Liquidators where “Selling Your Boat Is Our Only Business!”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

2 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Taste of a decade: 1970s restaurants

1979restaurantIn the 1970s the restaurant industry and the custom of eating in restaurants grew rapidly. The decade was the gateway to the present in many ways. Despite economic woes (recession and inflation), the energy crisis, urban decline, crime, and escalating restaurant prices, restaurant-going continued to rise.

The president of the National Restaurant Association proclaimed “Dining out is a significant part of the lifestyle of this great country,” noting in 1976 that one out of three meals was being consumed outside the home.

Restaurant patronage was encouraged by all kinds of things, including relaxed liquor laws in formerly dry states and counties, which brought more restaurants into the suburbs, the spread of credit cards, more working wives and mothers, youth culture, and a me-generation quest for diversion.

New York exemplified the problems faced by restaurants in troubled inner cities. Fear of crime kept people from going out to dinner. Restaurants closed, few new ones opened, and cash-strapped survivors began to trade vouchers for heavily discounted meals for advertising. But as New York struggled, California experienced a culinary renaissance as did other parts of the country. Still, much of the U.S. wanted only steak and potatoes, and hamburger was the most often ordered menu item nationwide.

A number of restaurant formats and concepts faced senescence, but new ones came on the scene at a rapid pace. Going, going, or gone were automats, coffee shops, continental cuisine, diners, drive-ins, formal dining, Jewish dairy restaurants, and Polynesian restaurants, not to mention the rule of elite French cuisine.

Fast-food chains continued to grow, with the number of companies increasing by about two-thirds. Growth was especially strong in the Midwest which was targeted as a region susceptible to their appeal. Toledo was bestowed with Hardee’s, Perkins Pancakes, a Mexican chain, and, in 1972, the arrival of two Bob Evans eateries. Another Ohio city, Columbus, was christened a test market for new fast-fooderies while Junction City KS, bordering Fort Riley, looked like a franchiser’s fast food heaven. By contrast, greater Boston had only one Burger King and one McDonald’s in 1970.

HamburgerFactoryAlong with the chains and a shortage of (cheap) kitchen help, came an upsurge in restaurants’ use of convenience foods and microwaves. In response, municipalities across the country enacted ordinances to protect consumers against false claims on menus, many of them centering on misuse of the words “fresh” and “home-made.”

Yet as the country was swamped with fast food, it experienced the flowering of restaurants specializing in ethnic, artisanal, and natural foods. Hippie and feminist restaurants stressed honest, peasant-style meals. Burgeoning interest in nutrition made salad bars popular. Bean sprouts, zucchini, and more fish showed up on menus. Diners learned that Chinese food was not limited to Cantonese, but might also be Mandarin, Szechuan, or Hunan. Once languishing behind luxurious decor, impeccable service, and famous patrons, food took center stage in deluxe restaurants as they purged Beef Wellington from their repertoire and took up the call for culinary creativity and authenticity.

Though not unknown in earlier decades, the restaurant-as-entertainment-venue came into full flourish with the proliferation of theme restaurants with unbearably cute names such as Orville Bean’s Flying Machine & Fixit Shop. To supplement a shrinking supply of old stained glass windows, telephone booths, and barber chairs, restaurant fixture companies began to manufacture reproduction antiques.

However crazy and mixed up the foodscape, America had become the land of restaurants for every taste and pocketbook.

Highlights

ChezPanissecookbook1971 – In Berkeley CA Alice Waters and friends found Chez Panisse, marking the movement of college and graduate students into the restaurant field, a career choice which is beginning to have cachet.

1972 – NYC’s Le Pavillon, considered the finest French restaurant in the U.S., closes. In Kansas City MO the first Houlihan’s Old Place, adorned with nostalgia-inducing decorative touches, opens, as does Mollie Katzen’s natural-food Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca NY.

1972 –Dry since 1855, Evanston IL, home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, grants liquor licenses to two hotels and six restaurants. Their business doubles in a few months.

1973 – Los Angeles County becomes the first jurisdiction in the country to enact a “truth in menu” ordinance. During the pilot program, the scenic Sea Lion Restaurant in Malibu is caught selling the same fish under five different names with five different prices.

1974 – A Chicago food writer throws cold water on arguments about which restaurant has the best lasagne, asserting that the debaters “might have found that same lasagne in restaurants all over the country” courtesy of Invisible Chef, Armour, or Campbell’s.

1974 – Restaurateur Vincent Sardi spearheads a campaign to get New Yorkers to eat out, claiming that the city’s major restaurants have lost up to 20% of their business in the past two years, thus precipitating the closure of 20 leading restaurants.

1976 – The CEO of restaurant supplier Rykoff says whereas his company once supplied whole tomatoes it now provides diced tomatoes “because the operator just can’t afford to pay someone to cut them up.”

RjGrunts1970s1976 – Richard Melman’s Chicago restaurant company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, operator of RJ Grunts, Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food Show, and Jonathan Livingston Seafood, opens Lawrence of Oregano and prepares to take over the flamboyant Pump Room.

1977 –Industry journal Restaurant Business publishes survey results showing that, on average, husband & wife pairs eat out twice a month, spend $14.75 plus tip, prefer casual restaurants, and tend to order before-dinner cocktails and dishes they don’t get at home. Measured by sales, Lincoln NE is one of the country’s leading cities for eating out.

1977 – Once characterized by blandness, San Diego now has restaurants specializing in cuisines from around the globe, an improvement one observer attributes in part to the new aerospace industry there.

1978 – A reviewer in Columbia MO complains, “A brick floor and pillars, old photos, Tiffany lamps, stained-glass windows and trim on the tops of the booths as well as revolving single-bladed, old-fashioned fans [is] a familiar type of decoration these days and I’m getting a little weary of the sameness of so many restaurants.”

1979 – As the year ends restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman observes that more people are eating out than ever before, transforming once-lackluster Washington D.C. into “what is known as a Restaurant Town.”

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; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

7 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Ohio + Tahiti = Kahiki

kahikiExterior

In the heyday of Polynesian restaurants, the 1960s and 1970s, the business attracted operators because of high profits in rum drinks. Their marketing relied on bar decoration, bartender apparel, drink names, elaborate serving vessels, and imaginative presentation.

The same was true for “Polynesian cuisine.” There could be no such thing as a Polynesian restaurant without fabulously kitschy decor.

Whatever Polynesian cuisine was, it certainly wasn’t what real Polynesians ate past or present. The Kahiki’s reference point was Tahiti. So, what were Tahitians eating in 1961 when the Kahiki opened? According to a geographer, the traditional Tahitian diet consisted of baked fish, breadfruit, and taro, but natives then preferred French baguettes with Australian butter, rice from Madagascar, canned beef from New Zealand, and Canadian canned salmon, all “washed down with generous drinks of Algerian red wine.”

KahikiDrinksIt’s doubtful that Tahitians ate much in the way of Oriental Beef or Tahitian Flambee (flaming ice cream with rum). Not to mention Tossed Green Salads, Eggs Benedict, or Reuben Sandwiches.

But people didn’t go to the Kahiki mainly for its food. As an unenthusiastic reviewer wrote in 1975, “If decor is your reason for dining out, the Kahiki in Columbus is the place for you.”

Its drinks, on the other hand, were hard to resist. With three bars on the ground floor alone, the Kahiki’s menu at one point illustrated drinks served in 30 different glasses, goblets, and ceramic cups and bowls. The most expensive was the Mystery Drink served with four straws. Its presentation involved a scantily dressed server, a gong, a lei, and a kiss. There were also Smoking Eruptions, with fumes emanating from chunks of dry ice, as well as Pago Passages, Malayan Mists, Tonga Tales, and Native Nectars.

kahikiserverBeyond rum, customers were dazzled by the restaurant’s architecture, decor, and theatricality (e.g., periodic thunder and lightning). In the restaurant’s last decades its fans celebrated it as a temple of kitsch but, surprisingly, in earlier years it was often regarded as authentic.

The building reportedly cost $1 million to build in 1960 and, with 560 seats, was the largest Polynesian restaurant in the U.S. In a flat landscape peppered with indifferent utilitarian structures, it was a startling sight that promised relief from drab ordinariness. Stepping beyond the up-swooping 50-foot facade the visitor entered a darkened Tahitian village with tall palm trees, waterfalls, thatched huts, idols, and a wild profusion of South Seas-style artifacts.

The Kahiki’s decorator, artist and engineer Coburn Morgan, was a prominent Ohio restaurant designer whose career may have been launched by his work on the Kahiki. The flamboyant design of the Kahiki was undoubtedly due to him.

In 1960, when he drew the sketch shown above, Morgan was head of the design division of the Tectum Corporation which furnished many of the composite building materials used in the construction of the Kahiki, including pressed wood for roof supports as well as for soundproofing and decorative wall panels. It may also have been used for flooring and for the stylized fish arrayed along the roof’s crest.

kahikiTangierCMorganFollowing completion of the Kahiki, Morgan designed the Aztec-themed Thunderbird Restaurant (Lima), a red-fronted prototype for the Bob Evans chain (Chillicothe), McGarvey’s Nautical Restaurant (Vermillion), the Wine Cellar (Columbus), Jack Bowman’s Steak House (Columbus), the Brown Derby (Columbus), the 18th-century-themed Old Market House Inn (Zanesville), the Tangier Restaurant (Akron — pictured), Mawby’s (Cleveland), and the “Western Victorian-style” Judd’s (Cleveland).

For theme-restaurant inspiration, Morgan traveled to the American West for the Bob Evans chain and to Lebanon for the Tangier, which was modeled on the summer palace of the head of state. The Wine Cellar, owned by Kahiki creators Bill Sapp and Lee (Leland) Henry, had a Shakespeare theme. When it failed in 1991 “16 tall carved knight’s chairs” and a “grand piano bar with winged dragon” were among the furnishings auctioned.

During its more than 50-year run the Kahiki, which was also a nightclub and banquet center, entertained hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups such as Jaycee-ettes, senior citizens, anniversary and wedding parties, and so on. Despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the efforts of local preservationists who felt the Kahiki was an important part of Columbus’ cultural identity, it was demolished in 2000.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under food, history, restaurants

The power of publicity: Mader’s

Compared to cities of comparable size in 1910 — such as Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or New Orleans — Milwaukee at first appears to be a town where people rarely ate outside the home. But statistics can be deceiving. In the city made famous by its breweries, most eating places were primarily saloons before Prohibition, usually set up in business by one or another brewery.

This is how Charles Mader got his start, as a saloonkeeper who also served meals of the homely sort. Although 1902 is commonly given as the year in which he began, I suspect it was a few years later that he opened his own place. Throughout most of his early career he worked with a partner. He and Gustav Trimmel joined up in 1915, the year the saloon moved to the present-day restaurant’s address. In 1921 Mader had a new partner, Charles Ruge, with whom he remained in business until 1928. Thereafter his partners were his sons George and Gus who assumed ownership when Charles died in 1937. [pictured above, 1950s]

Although many restaurants get a good share of patronage from out-of-towners, relatively few located in America’s midsection make a determined bid for nation-wide recognition. Mader’s was one of those that did so successfully. A late 1920s photograph in the historic photo collection of the Milwaukee Public Library shows the restaurant with a prominent “Tourists’ Headquarters” sign in its front window. In 1929, a newspaper item suspiciously resembling an advertorial (publications didn’t identify them as such then) claimed that Mader’s had won a reputation for hospitality extending “the length and breadth of this land and to distant lands as well.”

Charles Mader was known for his belief in advertising, often remarking, “If your business is not worth advertising, advertise it for sale.” Beginning afer Prohibition, Mader’s would intensify its advertising program and accentuate its Germanness, following a kind of reverse assimilation common to other German-themed restaurants in the US. Very likely this reflected a proportionate shift in patronage from German-American Milwaukeans to a wider clientele of conventioneers, traveling businessmen, and tourists of all stripes looking for an identifiably ethnic experience. The trend would continue: a 1968 newspaper story reported that at Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s, mostly patronized by tourists, German dishes were popular, while at restaurants patronized exclusively by Milwaukeans such as the Fox and Hounds, filet mignon and lobster tail were favorites.

In 1935 the Maders remodeled the 3rd Street building to look more typically German in a style suggestive of medieval architecture with a high stepped gable and two bas relief panels depicting quaintly costumed servers. By contrast, only a couple years earlier Mader’s had a typical plate glass storefront with a centered, recessed entryway and a moderne sign with its name spelled out in bold aluminum lettering. In subsequent decades, the Mader’s compound has been further extended and embellished, given a vaulted ceiling and decorated with heraldic swords and shields. It has taken on a castle-like appearance.

Along with arch competitor Karl Ratzsch’s, a Viennese-inflected restaurant pursuing much the same strategy, Mader’s began to win awards and listings in national magazines and restaurant guides, such as Duncan Hine’s Adventures in Good Eating and those of the Automobile Club of America and Ford Motor Company. It began attracting visiting Hollywood stars in the 1930s, hanging their autographed photos on its walls. In 1937 and again in 1949 and 1952 a poll of traveling business men voted it America’s favorite German restaurant and one of their ten favorite restaurants overall. Accolades continued coming in up to the present day.

Mader’s is a survivor, having outlasted most of Milwaukee’s venerable German restaurants, some of which, Forst-Keller and the Old Heidelberg for example, were associated with the city’s breweries. Cafes originating with Fritz Gust, Joe Deutsch, and John Ernst have all passed from the scene, the last as recently as 2001.

Long considered “heavy” eating, German cuisine has perhaps sunk in popularity somewhat from the middle of the 20th century, although Pork Shanks – ever popular at Mader’s – remain on the restaurant’s menu to this day. Notably, though, this once-humble dish has become an expensive entree.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

1 Comment

Filed under food, history, restaurants

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.

knightCrownRoomSheratonMotorHotelNYC

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

2 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

Birth of the theme restaurant

brasseriedeL'enfer86

Credit for the development of the first theme restaurants goes to Paris cafés and cabarets which opened in Montmartre in the later nineteenth century. They were primarily drinking spots rather than full-scale restaurants but they served food also. Like American theme restaurants today they were built around a concept and created an environment which appeared to be something other than a mere eating and drinking place.

In their early years these artistic cafés had a counter-cultural impetus that in some cases celebrated the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871 which had been rooted in Montmartre.

That was particularly true of the Café du Bagne (Café of the Penitentiary) established in 1885 by Maxime Lisbonne (shown with waiters), a member of the Commune long exiled in a South Pacific penal colony. Posters on the wall of his café, which replicated a prison eating hall, hailed Commune heroes. Waiters were dressed as real convicts but with fake balls and chains. The place caused an instant sensation when it opened, with patrons lining up outside to get in. Possessed of a socialistic mission, Lisbonne posted a sign in 1886 announcing a free breakfast for the poor residents of Montmartre: “Come, and eat your fill, your appetite sharpened by the knowledge that it was from their [the capitalists] coffers the money was extracted.”

The Chateau d’If’ of the 1880s, possibly an imitator of the Café du Bagne, was designed to resemble the prison by the same name in Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Outside it had an imitation drawbridge which stretched from the street to a large oak door, while inside were cells and dungeons. The L’Abbaye de Thélème, with a medieval theme, dressed its servers as monks and nuns.

At Le Chat Noir, the decor was in Louis XIII style, with waiters dressed in the authentic green jackets of the Immortals of the French Academy whose job it was to protect the purity of the French language – the object being, of course, to mock them. When it was established in 1881, Le Chat Noir, which was also decorated with images of black cats throughout, served as a club for artists where they exhibited their work. Its fame spread quickly and it became a magnet for visitors to Paris. (Later incarnation of Le Chat Noir pictured below.)

Many of the Montmartre cafés celebrated the macabre, with paintings and decor whose subjects included infanticide, crucifixion, and assassination, but in 1894 The Café of Death opened, furnished with coffins serving as tables. The police objected to its name and its habit of serving beer in imitation human skulls so its name was changed to the Cabaret du Néant [of Nothingness].

The 1890s marked a turning point at which original owners left the scene, artists stopped coming, bohemianism vanished, and new café owners took dead aim at tourists. Certainly few of the popular cafés and cabarets of the early 20th century had much connection with earlier enterprises even when old names remained. Many felt that the Café de l’Enfer (Café of Hell) exemplified the purely commercial type of enterprise.

chatnoirclichy401

The spirit of Paris’s bohemian cafés passed into the United States first in New York City. Au Chat Noir was in business there in 1895, decorated with a wall frieze of black cats. Otherwise, though, it seemed like a fairly standard small French restaurant of the day serving dishes such as cold lobster, tripe, and deviled crabs. Later at least a couple of other cafés named The Black Cat appeared in NY and Coppa’s in San Francisco adopted a similar theme.

Other early theme restaurants undoubtedly inspired by Paris cafés include beefsteak dungeons in New York and elsewhere, as well as tea rooms and cabarets in Greenwich Village both before and after World War I, a prime example being the Pirates’ Den. As in Paris, theme restaurants and cafés rapidly lost any counter-cultural overtones.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

2 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants

Theme restaurants: barns

At the risk of offending anyone I have to say I find this one of the worst themes ever. I almost feel I don’t need to elaborate, that everyone is thinking “I agree.” Not only is the decor corny and the “atmosphere” non-existent, but the kitchen is usually totally lacking in ambition if not turning out food that is downright bad.

The 19th century was mercifully unafflicted with barn restaurants, presumably because barns were still needed for farming and restaurants that were more than plain, bare-bones eateries tended toward grandeur. Sometimes the grandeur was hokey but at least the aim was to provide guests with an experience that went beyond eating in a shelter designed for animals and fowls. Though theme restaurants weren’t totally unknown, the past had not yet been ransacked to come up with novelties that would attract jaded patrons looking for “something different” or catch the eye of passing motorists.

Barn themes were usually used to attract men. I’m guessing it was because subliminally they seemed to promise large quantities of food while not demanding overmuch etiquette. Some beefsteak dungeons, as they were called, where men ate steaks with their bare hands in basements of hotels and restaurants, adopted barn themes. Occasionally even tea rooms, supposedly appealing to discriminating women of delicate tastes, were tucked away in barns in the 1920s (Hyannis Tea Barn pictured). Men tended to avoid tea rooms, so a 1924 tea room trade journal suggested adopting a barnyard theme to draw them. A headline read “The Barnyard Lunch Shows How to Win and Hold Masculine Patronage.” Oof.

The nightclub and restaurant “renaissance” which occurred in 1933 right after the repeal of Prohibition inspired a host of barn eateries as well as many other kinds of theme restaurants. Many were night spots for drinking and dancing as well as “dining.” Examples included the Village Barn in Greenwich Village, as well as Topsy’s Roost near San Francisco which after Repeal relocated to a larger barn equipped to service over 1,000 merry imbibers at once. At Topsy’s, rooster images decorated the walls while chicken prints crossed the table tops. Is anyone thinking sucker joint?

The 1960s and 1970s saw another spate of barn restaurants, this time chains such as Red Barn and Nickerson Farms, which actually constructed barn-shaped buildings as restaurants. And some people loved them.  And pine over them even today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

6 Comments

Filed under history, restaurants