Native American restaurants

Although there has been growing interest in exploring native foodways in the past twenty or so years, it seems there’s been little research into the history of Native American restaurants, that is, those serving traditional Indian dishes and/or those run by Indians.

The earliest one with a Native American proprietor that I found was in Coweta, Oklahoma, around 1906. It was run by Frank Oliver, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. A very brief newspaper item reported, “There are few Indians in the restaurant business but Mr. Oliver likes to feed ‘em and is prosperous.” It was not unusual for Indian restaurants in the Southwest to serve Mexican dishes, especially in later decades.

That same year another Indian proprietor was running a restaurant in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. His name was given simply as Antoine, born a Mohican in New York state but adopted into the Creek tribe. Sometime later a woman named Elizabeth Sapulpa, probably the wife of the tribe’s chief, also had a restaurant in Sapulpa where she served Sofky (corn soup made of hominy, bits of meat and blue corn dumplings) as well as cornbread made of cornmeal soaked overnight in buttermilk.

Many of the references to Indian restaurants I found did not lead anywhere. For instance, despite much searching, I could not determine if the Santa Fe movie studio, opened in Monrovia CA in 1927, ever established its planned Hopi Indian restaurant. And I’d love to know how the Hollywood actor Don Porter fared with his restaurant. It was to be built in Hollywood in 1951 with an open firepit vented through a hole in the roof. For years he had collected recipes from many tribes and planned to feature buffalo, bear, venison, wild greens, wild rice, and corn – along with cook-it-yourself fish wrapped in leaves and mud. Also, I wondered if the plans reported about a 1970s graduate of a culinary training program in Albuquerque had succeeded. She hoped to establish a restaurant on her reservation serving game such as quail, rabbit, and deer, along with blood pudding and her tribe’s oversized homemade tortillas.

Her endeavor would have been in contrast to many Indian-run restaurants on reservations that featured mainstream American fast food. As Ruben Silverbird would observe in the 1980s, “On the reservation we have restaurants run by Indians, but they sell hot dogs, hamburgers, ham and eggs.” Similarly, at the Tigua reservation’s cultural center in El Paso TX in 1986, a restaurant called Wyngs drew non-Indian tourists and served fajitas, seafood platters, and barbecued ribs.

It has been said that Native Americans don’t have a restaurant culture, but I have the sense that there were many native people who for decades wished there were more Indian restaurants. Especially among Indians living in cities there was a strong desire for gathering places and ways to stay connected to their culture, including foods. In 1968 a Queens resident, an Otoe-Pawnee from Oklahoma, observed, “There’s no place for Indians to gather in New York (City) – no Indian restaurants or anything like that.” Buoyed by the Black Power movement, she and other native women had recently joined together to promote their Indian identities.

In the mid-1960s, a food court representing many different cuisines in a Phoenix shopping mall included “The Hogan,” which was claimed – somewhat unconvincingly – to serve the only authentic Indian food in Arizona outside a reservation. It was run by a Scandinavian proprietor who served corn on the cob impaled on arrows. The second incarnation of an Indian restaurant there was named Tiny Teepee where posole, a hominy and pork stew, was prepared and served by Native Americans.

Also in the 1960s Native Americans began to urge the creation of cultural centers that would honor their heritage. By decade’s end a number of Indian restaurants began to open as part of complexes that included motels and cultural centers with museums and craft demonstrations. The Cherokee Heritage Center opened in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1967 with an associated restaurant, the Restaurant of the Cherokees shown here. Although hamburgers and other common “American” dishes dominated the menu, the restaurant also served traditional Indian food such as shuck bean bread (corn and bean dough, steamed in cornhusks), sorrel, watercress from local streams, poke salad, fried huckleberries, crawdads, and “squaw” bread made with sour milk. In the spring, it hosted wild onion dinners.

Building Indian community took a hit in Baltimore when an Indian restaurant failed to open, despite being fully set up and ready to open its doors. The problem was that the U. S. Labor Department claimed it had been a mistake to permit the grantee to buy restaurant equipment with a 1974 job training grant for an American Indian Study Center. The government removed the equipment, sinking what would have been the only Native American restaurant in the Washington-Baltimore area.

1986 marked the opening of what claimed to be New York City’s first Native American restaurant, Silverbird. Its proprietor, Ruben Silverbird Ortiz, a professional singer and entertainer of Indian/Mexican/white heritage, said it would serve New Mexico food, including “green and red chile, blue corn chips, salsa, all that good stuff.” As was true of most Indian restaurants, the menu accommodated non-Indian patrons with American dishes, but held weekly dinners serving rattlesnake stew. The restaurant employed a diverse crew, with servers and kitchen staff made up of Comanches, Navajos, Blackfeet, Italians, Irish, and Mexicans.

Some Indian restaurants were decorated with Southwestern art or murals of buffaloes and teepees. Silverbird was decorated with Kachina dolls and tables inlaid with sand paintings. However, some, such as Dovecrest [shown at top], gave little visual indication they were Indian.

Probably the most celebrated Indian restaurant of the 20th century was Loretta Barrett Oden’s Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that ran from 1993 to 2001. Before opening her fine-dining restaurant, Oden, a member of the Citizen Patawatomi Nation, spent three years researching tribal recipes and cooking methods, which can vary considerably according to region. She is a proponent of healthier dishes such as bison, wild-caught salmon, trout, quail, venison, corn, beans, and squash. She has also been a vocal critic of deep-fried fry bread, a popular Indian item in itself as well as serving as the bottom layer of “Navajo tacos,” popular in eating places throughout the Southwest. She has tried to convince Indian-run casinos to offer native dishes, but has found that a hard sell considering the strong attachment of their patrons, both white and Indian, to steak, hamburger, pizza, etc.

The 2000s seem to have raised interest in indigenous chefs and restaurants, but they have continued to face a rocky road in terms of widespread acceptance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

12 Comments

January 16, 2022 · 12:47 pm

Restaurant ware

Fine table settings were not to be taken for granted in pre-Civil War American eating places. In 1843 an English visitor was delighted to find a Charleston hotel with “clean table cloths and silver forks.” He recommended the Jones Hotel, run by a Black proprietor named Jehu Jones, the son of a freed slave. Thick dishes, often chipped, and crude forks were more typical of many hotels then.

According to Junius Henri Browne’s The Great Metropolis, in 1869 there were many restaurants in New York City but only in the most expensive, such as Delmonico’s, did the diner find “silver, and porcelain, and crystal, and fine linen.” Common basement eateries, on the other hand, had “broken earthen-ware, soiled table-cloths, and coarse dishes.”

Coarse dishes had become the definitive sign of a cheap restaurant. But in the later 19th century, when early fast-food chains began to form, they attempted to break the equation that thick dishes and bowls indicated filth by being insistent about cleanliness. They stuck with thick dishes that didn’t break or chip simply because they were more practical.

The Baltimore Dairy Lunch

Founded in the late 1880s, Baltimore Dairy Lunch was an early challenger to the old assumptions about thick chinaware. The first unit was opened in Baltimore by a postal clerk. By 1920 there were about 140 locations in large cities through much of the Northeastern U.S. Menus were simple and prices were low. Customers went to a counter to get their food, and consumed it quickly, either while standing at a high counter-type table or sitting in a one-arm chair similar to a school desk. This thick, shallow bowl – possibly used for milk toast – expresses the spartan simplicity of Baltimore Lunches. Despite some yellowing along the edges, it has held up well over the decades.

Ontra Cafeteria

The Ontra (pronounced “on tray”) was a cafeteria begun as a working women’s lunch club, one of four operated by Mary Dutton in Chicago in the 1910s. Like the Baltimore Dairy Lunches they were meant to be affordable and appealed to those who did not want to spend much for a noonday meal. Undoubtedly, like most women cafeteria owners who had studied home economics, Mary Dutton put a high stock on practicality and thrift. This Ontra plate, date unknown, is sturdy but not as thick as dairy lunch dishware.

Steak n Shake and Demos Café

These sturdy glasses are typical of mid-century restaurant glassware with their non-chip rims and their dents and bulges that make them slip proof as well. It’s likely they were produced by Libbey, a major advertiser of glassware in mid-century restaurant trade journals. An advertisement assured restaurant buyers that “Libbey Safedge glassware offers you a wide selection of patterns in all sizes, for beverage and bar service. And because of its durability, you are assured of economy in operation . . . with every glass backed by the famous Libbey guarantee: ‘A new glass if the rim of a Libbey ‘Safedge’ glass ever chips.’”

Woolworth’s lunch counter

The Woolworth plate came from my local dime store when it was closing for good in 1990. Its pattern is one of the endless variations on a theme of this sort, one that could appear in any of a number of colors. Again, a sturdy plate for customers who never gave it a second look.

The Craftsman restaurant

Cheap dishes, glasses, and flatware simply wouldn’t do for upscale restaurants. The better-off classes demanded finer table settings. This had always been true for the wealthy, but in the early 20th century, the middle-class also raised its expectations.

Good taste expressed in restrained design suggestive of nature was the motto of The Craftsman in New York City from 1913 to 1916. Lunch and dinnerware was Onondaga white china with a light brown pinecone design forming a border. For afternoon tea, Lenox furnished an off-white china featuring the Stickley “Als Ik Kan” symbol and motto that promised integrity of method and materials.

Alice Foote MacDougall coffee shops

Women’s tea shops tended to stress individuality. This meant rejecting standardized restaurant ware, instead establishing a unique identity with decor and tableware. Alice Foote MacDougall — who called her tea shops coffee shops to attract men — complained loudly about thick cups and dishes. In her 1929 book, The Secret of Successful Restaurants, she described how, formerly, she had to eat in restaurants “where china, white, thick, and hideous was used.” In them, food was served “naked on a bold, pitiless plate half an inch thick and consumptive in its whiteness . . .” By contrast, she said, the plates in her restaurants were colorful with shades of yellow, blue, turquoise, and lilac.

Shown above is the Graziella pattern used in her Italian-themed coffee shops. Like all the imported china in her restaurants it was also for sale ($2.50 for a dinner plate or a cup and saucer).

The Four Seasons

In 1966 a well-known restaurant consultant explained how people with good incomes preferred to dine when they went out. They liked fine restaurants, appreciated good food, and ate out often. “They expect the restaurant decor to be as nice as the decor in their own homes!,” he explained, adding, “They like fine china.”

Given that The Four Seasons was a power-lunch site, I’m sure there were some guests who paid absolutely no attention to the fine design of the hundred items designed by Garth and Ada Huxtable, nor did they notice that unlike the glasses used in dime stores and lunch counters, their wine glass had no reinforced edges. Others guests no doubt were pleased with the elegant simplicity of the designs.

When the restaurant closed and the furnishings and serving pieces were auctioned in 2018, bidders paid goodly sums for items such as the bread servers (as much as $6,250) and cream and sugar sets (more than $2,000) shown above. I do find it humorous that the cream and sugar set included so plebeian an object as a container for packets of sugar substitutes.

Today, collectors of restaurant ware value a wide range of china, including the thick kind often bearing the logo of a once-popular eating place.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, lunch rooms, restaurant customs, tea shops

An early French restaurant chain

Sometimes you need to leave your own country in order to get some perspective on it. Along with going back in time, that is what I’ve done. I’ve gone to France — though only through texts and pictures — to explore a restaurant chain begun in the 19th century known as Bouillon Duval.

I tend to think of the United States as the home of restaurant chains, and that they are quintessentially American. There is some truth to this, but it is also full of blind spots as the existence of the Duvals shows. They came before American chains, and showed that a highly rationalized, business-like approach to running restaurants is not solely American. [pictured, rue Poissonniere, 1882]

Looking at Bouillon Duval, which began as a soup restaurant, also dispels a bit of romanticism about French restaurants. As much as Duvals emphasized quality, they were eating places for the frugal masses, not temples of haute cuisine. In the beginning they were meant for poor workmen, but soon they became popular with the middle class. To put it in the language of the day, the “black coats drove out the blouses” who were embarrassed to be in the presence of the better dressed.

The Bouillons were the idea of Baptiste Adolphe Duval. He had a butcher shop in Paris and came from a family that ran a brasserie in the north of France. According to legend, around 1857 he opened a small soup restaurant near his shop using the unsalable meat scraps, and went on from there to become fabulously successful and wealthy. By 1867 he had eight Bouillons Duval in the city as well as at least one at that year’s world’s fair.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, and he might have failed if it hadn’t been for his wife’s assistance. According to the most thorough account of the chain’s development, the business was headed for failure as soon as it expanded beyond the small shop. With an enlarged menu and a lot of ideas, M. Duval had moved to a location in a former ballroom on the rue Montesquieu [shown at top of page in 1882, when it had reinstated male waiters]. There he installed a steam-heat system of cooking, along with elaborate piping that served every table with seltzer water. Both innovations were disastrous failures that cost a fortune to tear out. Add to this the lack of an accounting system that made it hard to calculate sales and permitted chiseling on the part of employees and the business was soon drowning in debt.

His wife Ernestine helped set up an accounting system and suggested replacing the questionable male servers with married women of irreproachable character who she dressed in uniforms resembling nuns’ habits [pictured, 1902]. The business began to show a profit and soon expansion was underway. Not surprisingly, when M. Duval died in 1870 shareholders chose Ernestine to take over the corporation and expand it further.

The Duval company had incorporated in 1868, by then consisting not only of eating places but also its own butcher shops, slaughter houses, bakery [pictured, 1882], large laundry, and caves that stored wine.

The company achieved heroic status in 1870 when it somehow managed to stay open during the “Siege of Paris” when German forces surrounding the city cut off food supplies. Their continuing in operation was significant not only for providing meals but also in boosting morale. In 1900 the French government awarded the Duvals’ son Alexandre, then manager, with the medal of the Legion of Honor. By then the company ran 32 restaurants.

The Duval system was based on keeping prices low while serving a large volume of customers quickly and efficiently. It was thoroughly a la carte right down to an extra charge for a tablecloth if wanted. During the Siege a London man recorded what he ordered at one of the 14 Duvals. He and his companion ordered bread for 1 cent, potato soup for 2 cents, as well as roast mutton, puréed potatoes, green beans in white sauce, and a pint of Mâcon wine. The total bill – with tablecloth – came to 18 cents. [Above, a menu that was to be filled out by the customer, ca. 1882; See The American Menu blog for several Duval menus.]

Needless to say, the fact that wine and other alcoholic beverages appeared on menus set the Bouillons Duval apart from most early chains that later developed in the U.S., such as Childs.

Numerous Americans as well as English citizens frequented the Bouillons when visiting Paris [above, diners at the 1878 Paris International Exposition; the objects with handles on the tables are menus], and expressed a wish to have something like them in their own countries. In addition to serving quality food and decent wine at low prices they were known to be spotlessly clean, quite unlike most of the cheap fixed-price cafes that working people had frequented before the Bouillons came along. The major criticism against them was that portions were small. Some critics said that if a hungry diner ordered all they wanted they would find that their bill was as expensive as in a finer restaurant. Other guests complained about the crowds and the “deafening din of knives and forks clinking against plates and dishes.”

Nonetheless the Bouillons Duval were invariably recommended in guide books for visitors to the international fairs held in Paris in 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. In 1878 the Duval restaurants were said to have served 5M meals that year. Pictured above is one of several Duval locations at the 1889 Exposition.

At some point a Bouillon Duval was opened in London, and in the 1880s there was one advertised in Los Angeles that offered “hot soup and schooner lager beer, five cents.” I couldn’t determine whether it was connected to the Paris restaurants or not.

The last mention of the Paris Bouillons Duval I found was in 1924, when the chain was still said to be all over the city.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under chain restaurants, patrons, proprietors & careers, restaurant prices, waiters/waitresses/servers, women

“Biblical” restaurants

This week an unknown person found my blog by searching for “restaurants in the bible.” I found this humorous because, needless to say, I am 99.99999% certain there are no restaurants mentioned in the bible.

I wondered why a search engine would have directed this person to my site. Could it be because of a post I published in 2017 called Christian restaurant-ing?

Since I found it funny, I went to Facebook and posted a note about the search term.

Next thing I knew, my clever friends had started inventing imaginative names for biblical restaurants. Here they are in alphabetical order:

The Ark

Calvary (not very popular, limited cuisine)

The Last Supper Bar & Grille

The Last Supper Club

Loaves and Fishes

Manna Nirvana

Mary and Martha’s Place

Not Just Another Room at the Inn

Olive Garden

Olive Garden of Eden

Olives of Gethsemane

The Stable, a Family Restaurant

Suspicious Fish

3 Wise Guys Pizzeria

12 Hungry Men

Water & Wine

Do you have any ideas for names?

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under restaurant names

Thanksgiving dinner at a hotel

In 1843, when the most enthusiastic celebrators of Thanksgiving were New Englanders, the Sons of New England – who were living in Philadelphia — decided to hold a Thanksgiving dinner at a hotel there. They chose the Washington House, which had recently been taken over by a new manager who emphasized that he provided recherché fare.

What little is known about the dinner gives a peak at a strange, lost holiday custom.

The Sons of New England were men from the two states that were known for their enthusiastic celebrations of Thanksgiving, Connecticut and Massachusetts. As evidence, in 1817 a report circulated about the lavishness of Thanksgiving dinners in Connecticut. The source of the story’s figures listing the quantities of food is a mystery, but it’s impressive how much Wine, Brandy, Gin, Rum, Cider, and Whiskey was said to be consumed. It’s also interesting how the most popular food items mentioned differ from those regarded as traditional today. Geese outnumbered turkeys by a factor of 10, and apple sauce was 12 times more plentiful than cranberry sauce.

The Washington House dinner was held at 4:30 p.m. on November 30, with about 130 in attendance. The Sons were said to be men of prominence in Philadelphia. Obviously they were not poor if they could pay the $3 ticket charge, easily equal to $100 today.

The bill of fare for the 1843 dinner is unfortunately not available, but a newspaper story describing it revealed that it included red onions cultivated in Connecticut and baked beans — then practically the official dish of Boston.

The beans seem like an odd dish for Thanksgiving, but the big surprise was that bowl of molasses passed around so everyone could take a lick! I puzzled over how it might have reminded them of “other times.” What could that mean? Turns out I guessed right — that it brought back memories of childhood. According to accounts from that time, young children would go to wharves with small sticks that they would insert repeatedly into molasses barrels and then lick them off.

Have a wonderful holiday and be thankful that your dinner won’t include sharing a bowl of molasses.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Dinner and a movie

The first time anyone thought of combining film and food may have been about 100 years ago. In the early 1920s, organizers of the annual “renegade” Paris art exhibition, the Salon d’Automne, added both cinema and gastronomy to its notion of art. And then – voila! – they combined the two. In 1924, right in the middle of the grand salon, guests watched a film while they dined. The Salon’s novel idea did not migrate to the U.S., however.

It was an entirely different motive that brought the two together here. In the 1940s, entrepreneurs created small movie projection rooms available for rental by companies that wanted to screen films for their employees or the public, and to serve meals. Usually the films were training or promotional films, but evidently major Hollywood studios also used these screening rooms at times, perhaps for managers of movie houses. In NYC, for example, the Monte Carlo was used by Paramount in 1946. [Shown above, 1945, and during a ca. 1949 screening below]

The broader concept of combining food and film for the entertainment of the general public began to emerge in the 1970s. The Ground Round chain showed silent films and cartoons in the mid-1970s. About the same time, the New Varsity Theater in Palo Alto CA granted free movie admission to diners at its associated restaurant (though the dining area was not in the theater’s viewing area). Popular films included Reefer Madness, and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones. The restaurant was also a place for meetings of the French Cine Club, which followed its dinner with a French film. It’s likely that the theater and restaurant often hosted students.

In Boston a bit later, a combination restaurant/bar/theater named Play It Again, Sam, served as a popular student hangout, especially for those attending Boston College. Mexican-American food was served.

At the same time, in 1975, two brothers in Florida conceived the idea of a way to fill new malls with nighttime entertainment for adults. This took the form of a restaurant-theater called Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse showing movies rather than live performances, and selling beer, pizza, and sandwiches. By 1980 they had created four, three in Florida and one in Atlanta GA. One of them was franchised.

By 1994 the Duffys had created 22 Cinema ‘n’ Drafhouses, twenty of them franchised. In their prospectus they asserted that theirs was “a proven recession-proof product – food, drink and film – combined in a stylish, art deco theater.” They also suggested to franchisees that the theaters could be rented for private parties as well as being used in the daytime for business seminars. Another 1980s start-up was the Cabaret Pictures Show in St. Petersburg FL where the menu emphasized finger foods such as pizza and sandwiches.

The concept of the combined restaurant-theater really took off as downtown movie theaters began to fail and sit empty in the 1980s and 1990s. Theaters had become more dependent on strong concession sales, and selling drinks and dinners was an extension of this type of revenue. Typically these combo-businesses showed second-run movies that appealed to viewers of drinking age.

The franchised theater-restaurants, such as those created by the Duffy brothers of Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse (Cinema Grill Systems) seemed to fare better than some individual attempts. Expertise in running a restaurant did not usually extend to theater management. Cinema Grill Systems helped by handling movie selection and distribution, permitting operators to focus on the restaurant and bar.

The Cinema Grill franchise in Harrisburg PA, depicted here in 1997, showed two movies a week on a large high-resolution screen. Its menu included burgers, pita specialties, jalapeno poppers, and even sangria. The seating setup is shown here, and it is clear that the space is not as dark as in traditional theaters.

The winning formula has emphasized comfortable seating in cushy non-stainable leather lounge chairs, and a menu with popular casual dining/brewpub fare. Over time a number of chain-restaurant favorites have appeared on menus, such as fajitas, wraps, and chicken tenders. Despite a fairly high failure rate, theater-restaurants have proven popular with customers who are looking for a reasonably affordable and enjoyable night out, but are not overly demanding about the fare, whether food or film.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under alternative restaurants, chain restaurants, Offbeat places

Restaurant murals

It’s likely that most Americans are familiar with restaurant murals. They have appeared in a range of restaurants, from sandwich shops to expensive dining resorts. They reveal how much restaurants are related to the arts, not only as producers of fine food but as patrons of the visual arts.

Admittedly, many of them are artistically tame. As someone quipped in 1976, “Talk about murals and most people think of Greek ruins or Venetian canal scenes in Italian restaurants.” I could add scenes of Switzerland, Paris, or of any city or town. And then there are generic mountains, seascapes, and rolling plains. In most cases, restaurant murals have served as upbeat but unobtrusive decorative backgrounds, filling blank walls, often in windowless rooms.

Nevertheless, some murals portraying local scenes have managed to rise above the norm. That was certainly true of one commissioned by a McDonald’s at the request of a local Hawaiian artist, Martin Charlot [portion shown here], in the mid 1980s. It featured lively portraits of over 100 area residents in poses that illustrated proverbs (but in ways that are far from obvious). Despite its popularity with customers at the Kane’ohe shopping center McDonald’s, it was removed in a 2010 remodel.

Occasionally a mural will illustrate controversy. In 1991, after disputes with the Pasadena CA’s bureaucracy over a neon sign at the Rite Spot café, artist Kenton Nelson created a portrait of the city that included scenes of city workers shoveling money into a truck and a doughnut-eating policeman ignoring a mugging. In Northampton MA, owners of the Green Street Café anticipated its coming 2012 closure with a 30-ft long last-supper-themed mural by children’s book author and illustrator Jeff Mack [shown above]. It vanished when the landlord — with whom the restaurant had been wrangling for years – demolished the building.

Mack’s mural has a humorous tone, a quality shared by others such as those at Chicago’s Normandy House, by Edgar Miller; The Waverly Inn, by Edward Sorel; The Waldorf-Astoria, by Tony Sarg; The Carlyle Hotel, by Ludwig Bemelmans; and those by artistic patrons of the early-20th century Coppa’s in San Francisco.

In the late 1930s a dozen or more artists were hired and given freedom to create satirical murals at NYC’s left-leaning Café Society, including Anton Refregier, Ad Reinhardt, and William Gropper. The mural shown above on a graytone postcard was by Alice Stander for the original Greenwich Village location. It depicts a customer in a typical nightclub besieged by a photographer, cigarette “girl,” and others trying to make a sale. Café Society’s mural artists were paid relatively small amounts supplemented by equal payment in free meals.

Quite a number of well-known artists have created restaurant murals over the course of the 20th century, among them Howard Chandler Christy (The Café des Artistes, NYC), Guy Pène du Bois (The Jumble Shop, NYC), Edgar Miller (Normandy House, Chicago), and Maxfield Parrish (Hotel Knickerbocker, moved to Hotel Regis, NYC).

Beginning in the late 19th century, hotels were the sort of businesses especially likely to hire muralists. Before World War I, the murals were usually meant to convey a sense of luxury in the style of baroque European palaces. Nudes and near-nude nymphs and goddesses from myth, with titles such as “The Daughters of Hesperia,”and “The Sirens Beguile Odysseus,” were almost taken for granted in New York’s grand pre-war hotels.

By 1948 a very different sense of luxury was evident in the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, designed by the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. In the lobby was an Alexander Calder mobile, while one dining room had a mural of Cincinnati buildings by Saul Steinberg and another had a surrealist mural by Joan Miró which is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Perhaps because they were often windowless, restaurant and hotel bars were the most likely locations for murals. Not only was this true of Maxfield Parrish’s Old King Cole mural [above], but also of the fourteen murals by Greenfield MA’s Thurston Munson. He was commissioned in the 1940s to adorn the walls of a basement barroom at Hartford CT’s popular Adajian’s Restaurant. [sample below] As was so often the case with barroom murals, some of the paintings included female nudes.

It seems as though murals with nudes evaded the censors in the 19th century, but the country’s uneasy relation to alcohol after Prohibition often brought official crackdowns when they appeared in bars and restaurants. In the 1970s a Hackensack NJ restaurant was threatened with cancellation of its liquor license unless it covered up a nude in a mural illustrating classical Greek mythology. I doubt this was an isolated case.

I can’t say whether there was a golden age of restaurant murals, or just how many restaurants have them now or have had them in the past. But it is worth taking notice when a restaurant hires an artist to create original art for the enjoyment of its guests.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Dining at the Centennial

In 1876, one hundred years after independence, Philadelphia held America’s first world’s fair to celebrate the country’s growing importance in industry, trade, and the arts, and perhaps implicitly to recognize of the end of the Civil War.

It is notable, though, that no Southern states elected to participate. According to a historian who studied the South’s attitudes toward the Centennial, it’s likely that relatively few visitors from the South attended [“Everybody is Centennializing”: White Southerners and the 1876 Centennial, Jack Noe, 2016]. This was due both to inability to afford it and a widespread opinion reflected in Southern newspapers that the whole thing was another Yankee scam meant to benefit the North.

Another problem was that the entire country was moored in a severe six-year-long depression. Despite the drawbacks, however, the Centennial Exhibition was judged a big success, based on its efficient organization, the participation of many other countries, the range of exhibits, and the attendance over its six-month span which was reported as nearly 10 million.

When I began to think about exploring the topic of eating places at the Centennial I imagined that its restaurants and cafes would have been a novelty to many visitors who would have been delighted to experience them, with many having their first restaurant meal.

I was not prepared for the large number of criticisms, ranging from offense at snooty European waiters to complaints about menu prices and tacked on service charges. They began to pour out as soon at the Centennial began. High prices were the main target. A widely circulated Chicago Tribune story claimed that a meal could easily cost $4, with $1 charged for asparagus, and 50¢ for mashed potatoes. These were prices that rivaled fine restaurants in New York City such as Delmonico’s.

There were at least 20 restaurants and cafés on the grounds. Several seated thousands. George’s Hill Restaurant, a Kosher eating place, was capable of serving an astounding 5,000 patrons at a time. Of course most fair goers could not begin to afford these grand restaurants, each of which occupied its own massive building. Many probably found it difficult to pay even the 50¢ admission fee.

The complaints about restaurant prices leveled off a bit over time, and it may be that the Centennial Commission forced managers to lower them. Or, perhaps there was a compromise leading the big restaurants to devote part of their space to lower-priced cafes, as seems to be reflected on the menu from the La Fayette Lunch Garden shown above, part of the La Fayette Restaurant complex. There a sandwich was a mere 10¢.

Regardless, one effect of all the publicity about high prices was that many fair goers brought their own picnic lunches [see cartoon above]. Soda and popcorn stands also proved to be very popular, as did the Vienna Model Bakery which furnished no meals but served coffee and freshly baked bread, both of a quality Americans had not experienced before. Another popular eating place was a moderately priced rustic café called The Dairy [shown below] where milk, fruit, biscuits, and pies were available.

Actually, the entire organization of the Centennial discouraged working people from attending. From the start the Commissioners decided against Sunday openings and half-price Saturdays, both of which had been operative at recent world’s fairs in Paris and Vienna. Only after disappointing attendance in the unusually hot summer months did they relent and declare a handful of Saturdays eligible for discounted fares. When the weather cooled off and attendance increased, they eliminated the discounts.

The dominance of elite restaurants at the Centennial may have been part of the same plan of discouraging, or simply ignoring, working class patrons. Perhaps the restaurant that was most resented was the “Parisian” restaurant, Aux Trois Frères Provencaux [shown here and at top]. It had a famed past dating back to the 18th century, though, unbeknownst to most Americans (if they even vaguely knew of it), it had changed hands many times, lost much of its splendor, and closed several years before the Centennial.

The Trois Frères Provencaux and the five other big restaurants at the Centennial were set up much like first-class restaurants and hotels of that time. They had large main dining rooms, a big banquet hall, a number of smaller private dining rooms, and a café. It’s likely that some of the buildings also included living quarters for the staff.

Most of the big six restaurants came in for some degree of criticism, with only George’s Hill and Lauber’s being largely exempt. George’s Hill Restaurant, on a breezy hill with a beautiful view, may have offered relief from the heat, and perhaps its customers appreciated having a kosher restaurant on the grounds. Lauber’s was already a popular Philadelphia German restaurant and it promised that its prices at the fairgrounds were identical to downtown’s.

Faring less well in public opinion were The Grand American Restaurant (disliked for its employment of foreign waiters) and The La Fayette [shown here]. The latter was perceived as a French import despite the fact that the proprietor had a restaurant in New York City. Its building was considered unattractive and its waiters were alleged to cheat customers. As was also said of the Trois Frères Provencaux, a critic claimed that its French management was unable to “comprehend America.”

The other large eating place, the Restaurant of the South [shown here], seemed to be predicated on a fascination that Northerners would have with Southern culture (including an “Old Plantation Darkey Band”), along with the belief that Southern visitors to the Centennial would want to group together in their own place. But if it was the case that few Southerners visited the fair [Noe, cited above], this would probably have taken a quite a toll on the Restaurant of the South.

In addition to meals, most restaurants and cafés also served beer and wine, despite the attempt by temperance organizations to prevent this. A California winemaker brought his wine to the Centennial to introduce it to Easterners. For $1 he also offered a “copious luncheon” with a half pint of his “California Golden Wine,” which was considered quite a bargain by the standards of the fair. Although it seems that all the cafés and restaurants had beer and wine, it’s probable that beer sales far outstripped wine sales, judging from the final report of the Centennial Commission which reported no royalties on wine.

Which was the most American restaurant? Not the Grand American, which Scribner’s magazine declared had “nothing especially American about it,” but the American Lunch Counter. Associated with railroads – where lunch counters were the norm in stations – it was ridiculed by elite critics such as one in The Nation who pointed out “the excessive liberality of the bill-of-fare as compared with the actual resources of the kitchen, the negro or nondescript waiters, the unlimited pickles,” etc. The Nation’s account included the other two restaurants advertised as American — The Grand American Restaurant and The Restaurant of the South — in its complaint.

I’m left with questions about the restaurants at the fair and the fair itself. How many people actually attended? Each person had to pass through a turnstile that counted them, but since many people made multiple visits, it leaves the question whether there were 10M visitors, or 10M visits. Given that the Commissioners’ detailed final report did not show any royalties from restaurants or cafés, I can’t help but wonder if the restaurants lost money.

But surely, since many thousands ate at the fair’s restaurants, there must have been some who had good experiences.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

For more images of the Centennial buildings and exhibits, visit the collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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Restaurant-ing in 1966

Every month in 1966 – 55 years ago — the Gallup organization surveyed about 1,600 Americans to find out what they thought about restaurants. The surveys were conducted for and published in Food Service Magazine.

Then, as now, dining out took place at a time of upheaval. It was a year of turmoil, with the U.S. bombing Hanoi as the Vietnam war raged on and protestors spilling into the streets. Black Americans pushed civil rights to the forefront, often meeting resistance from whites.

Gas cost 32 cents a gallon. The minimum wage was stuck at $1.25 despite attempts to raise it. Gallup divided the population into five income categories, with yearly family income under $3,000 at the bottom, and $10,000 and over at the top.

The restaurant industry was growing rapidly, led by lower-priced chains such as Denny’s, McDonald’s, and Jack in the Box. According to the National Restaurant Association, by 1966 annual restaurant volume had grown to $20 billion, compared to about $3 billion in 1940.

That year a steak dinner at a Bonanza Steak House came to $1.39. Very much at the opposite pole was Voisin in New York City where a dinner of Foie Gras, Consommé, English Sole, Squab Chicken, Fresh Peas and Asparagus, finished with Almond Soufflé, accompanied by wine, would come to $25 plus tip. Of course most restaurant meals were priced much closer to Bonanza’s then.

What did Americans want in a restaurant? The loudest and clearest message received by Gallup’s pollsters was that restaurant goers valued cleanliness more than atmosphere or appearance and almost as much as good food. “If there is anything Americans want, it is a restaurant that is clean, clean, clean!” the January report exclaimed. Diners had an eagle eye for sticky menus, flatware with water marks, waitresses with grimy fingernails, and dirty rags for wiping tables.

The most common answer to why eat out? was to have a change in routine, an attraction in itself far more appealing than getting a special kind of food, such as “Italian, Chinese, seafood, etc.” At a time when (white) married women were supposed to shun employment, it was hardly surprising that many commented that they wanted relief from cooking or just to get out of the house.

It is especially interesting that it seemed as if not all Americans had been won over to frequent restaurant meals. Pollsters were surprised to learn that many respondents actually preferred home cooking to restaurant food. The report noted that “many patrons really look down their noses at restaurant-prepared hamburger, roast beef, fish, chicken, baked potato and soup.” Grasping for an explanation, it asked: “Is the apparent preference for home cooking really a protest against the drab presentation of food in so many restaurants . . .?”

I find it somewhat surprising that the 1966 Gallup reports as published by Food Service Magazine candidly expressed criticisms of American restaurants. Another area they identified as in need of improvement was the lack of atmosphere. They noted: “Too many American restaurants have no personality – offer nothing that will give patrons a sense of participating in the exciting adventure that eating out really ought to be.”

But looking at the twelve monthly survey reports of 1966, I wonder just how much excitement in dining Americans actually wanted. According to the survey focused on atmosphere, the characteristic liked best about respondents’ favorite restaurant was “pleasant atmosphere,” (42%) followed by cleanliness (40%). Unsolicited comments referred to positive attributes such as “good-looking waitress,” “not too dark [lighting],” and “they leave me alone once I have been served.”

Clearly patrons weren’t looking for adventures in dining or in food. When asked “If you were going out to dinner tonight, which two of the foods on this list would you most likely select to go with your favorite meat dish?” most preferred baked potatoes and green beans. As for appetizers, 55% of respondents chose tomato juice as their favorite, although those with incomes over $10,000 preferred shrimp cocktail.

A short article prepared as part of a 12-page newspaper insert on the occasion of the 1966 opening of a new Forum Cafeteria in Miami remarked about the restaurant’s music: “Music by Muzak was designed to be unobtrusive and require no active listening. It avoids distracting musical devices and has a uniquely distinctive character which never forces itself on the conscious minds of its audience.”

I wonder whether the average American restaurant of 1966 achieved the same effect in dining.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Romanian restaurants

Historically, the Romanian* restaurants that received the greatest attention from the press have been those in New York City. In 1901 the population of Romanians in New York City as a whole was estimated to be 24,000, with about 15,000 of those in the Romanian quarter on the Lower East Side. There were said to be 150 restaurants, 200 wine cellars, and 30 coffee houses kept by Romanian Jews. Favorite foods included broiled meats, goose pastrami, cabbage rolls, polenta, and spicy skinless sausage. Seltzer and red wine figured largely as drinks.

Not all Jewish-operated Romanian restaurants followed kosher law, but they were unlikely to have pork on the menu, the principal meat of Romanian cuisine and used in cabbage rolls (sarmale).

Immigration to this country began in the 1880s. It’s likely that the earliest Romanian restaurant in New York was one that began as a wine cellar in 1884 on Hester Street, and soon evolved into an eating place. Romanian immigrants were disproportionately male, working during the day and renting crowded floor space to sleep at night. Restaurants and coffee houses were not only places for meals and refreshment, but also community centers for these men, who were essentially homeless.

In his memoir An American in the Making (1917), Marcus Ravage explained that when he arrived in New York City in 1901, as soon as he made a few cents peddling on the streets he headed for a Romanian restaurant on Allen Street, where he ordered a ten-cent dinner of “chopped eggplant with olive-oil, and a bit of pot-roast with mashed potato and gravy.” Ravage expressed the difficulty he had in accepting American food and eating habits. When he went to college in Missouri in 1905, he reported that everything tasted “flat” to him, and that he “missed the pickles and the fragrant soups and the highly seasoned fried things and the rich pastries made with sweet cheese” he grew up with.

A Romanian dish from an East Side restaurant described in 1905 was a “hot and very piquant” round steak with peppers. The steak was cut into 3-inch-wide strips, slashed with a knife and marinaded in lemon juice and oil before being pan fried. Small red peppers were fried with it. Each diner took a pepper, opened it, and sprinkled the seeds on the meat.

According to author Konrad Bercovici in Around the World in New York (1924), many of New York City’s Romanian restaurants were run by Jews, but often the proprietors were Greeks, Hungarians, or Germans, as was the case in Romania’s capital, Bucharest. Over time, it seems as though the fare served in these restaurants merged with what was becoming known as Jewish cuisine rather than remaining strictly Romanian. (Of course Romanian cuisine itself strongly reflected a blend of traditions.)

Some of New York’s Romanian restaurants developed into night clubs, with a grab-bag of acts bordering on vaudeville. Joseph Moskowitz was a world-famous cymbalom player, who began his restaurant career in 1913 with a wine cellar on Rivington street. Later he had restaurants with music and dancing on Houston, and then on 2nd Avenue in 1938 at Moskowitz & Lupowitz where dinners began at 85 cents. He sold his share in that restaurant a short time later and moved to Akron OH, where he often played at Gruhler’s Romany Restaurant.

Other popular East coast night spots included Old Roumanian on Allen Street in New York and Shumsky’s Roumanian Restaurant and Bar in Atlantic City, established 1925, which advertised “New Kishka (sausage) Room” and “Dinner ‘Muscat’ Music” in 1952. At Sammy’s, on NY’s Chrystie street, which opened in 1975 and closed quite recently, entertainment was mainly in the form of extras placed on the table. They included a pitcher of chicken fat, fizz-your-own-seltzer, and for dessert a bottle of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, milk and two glasses for making an egg cream.

A bohemian version of a Romanian Restaurant was operated by Romany Marie in Greenwich Village. Sculptor Isamu Noguchi characterized it as “a sort of a transfer of the Paris café life to New York.” It’s likely this was true to some degree of many Romanian eating places which tended to exude a sense of good cheer and camaraderie all their own. [above: 1924 advertisement]

Many Romanian restaurants had prices in the reasonable range, with full dinners running from $1.00 to $1.25, but that was far from the case for the elegant restaurant in the Romanian House at the 1939 NY World’s Fair [shown above]. There the menu was in French, fresh caviar was $2.50, and a dinner was priced at $3.50, minus wine.

Outside of New York – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before many Romanians dispersed into the larger population – there were Romanian colonies in other cities, both in the East and in the upper Midwest. Some were composed of Romanian Jews, but others, perhaps most, were communities whose members belonged to Catholic and Orthodox religions. Immigration to the U.S., almost nil from 1920 until the 1940s, resumed after World War II when the Soviets took over and continued through the 20th century and into the present.

It becomes harder to track Romanian restaurants in the later 20th century since they became less inclined to use Romanian as part of their names. But they certainly existed in Trenton, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Los Angeles, and many other cities. One reason they might not have been clearly identified as Romanian was expressed in 1990 by Felicia Zanescu, proprietor of Mignon European Restaurant in Los Angeles. When asked why she called it European rather than Romanian, she replied, “Who ever heard of Romania?” Nonetheless the menu was convincingly Romanian with its carp roe dip, eggplant paté, dill-accented white bean broth, fried cheese, sausages, cabbage rolls, etc.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

* Before 1975 Romania was usually spelled Roumania or Rumania.

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