Anatomy of a restaurateur: Woo Yee Sing

While looking for something else one day, I came upon Yee Sing [full name: Woo Yee Sing], a Chinese-American who ran a restaurant in Minneapolis in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th. In 1902, he was interviewed by a reporter from the Minneapolis Journal in which he revealed an anti-racist perspective that was sadly uncommon among white America at the time.

Chinese restaurants were some of the very few spaces in the United States where the “races” mixed. The reporter observed that at the four Chinese restaurants in Minneapolis at that time a black patron “gets just as cordial a greeting from the proprietor as is accorded to a white man.” Woo asked, “And why shouldn’t they? They are men like you or me. They have got to eat and there must be some place for them to do so.” He looked around his restaurant, observing, “They are all brothers, and there is no room for race prejudice.”

The story made me want to know more about Woo Yee Sing.

He arrived in the United States in 1882, evidently just before the United States prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers with the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. He was admitted – but scarcely welcomed. He reported years later that when Chinese came to America “their baggage is turned topsy turvy and probably stolen, they are locked up as if they were criminals and are sent back many times without any kind of a show.” It is likely he experienced something like this himself.

He established an import store in Minneapolis in 1882, and the Canton restaurant in 1883. A brother arrived in 1884 and joined the businesses, and they opened a couple of laundries. Woo cut off his long braid, joined a Protestant congregation, and embraced his new country. He set about to acquire citizenship, which proved not an easy process (although he said he was naturalized, he is identified as an Alien on U.S. censuses and was not allowed to take an oath of allegiance in 1898).

He evidently made quite a favorable impression on a number of people in Minneapolis. He was often quoted or interviewed in the newspaper and his minister defended him against those who physically assaulted him in 1890, saying he was “a thorough business man, a gentleman and a Christian, and one of the best members of my church. In my opinion he is better than 90 per cent of those [who] are so vindictively persecuting him.”

As the minister’s remarks reveal, Woo experienced hostility in Minneapolis. In 1892 Congress extended the Exclusion Act with the Geary Act which required Chinese to carry resident permits or be deported. Although Geary was supposed to apply only to laborers and not to merchants, in practice it became necessary for all Chinese to carry permits or risk deportation — based on the widely accepted belief that it was impossible to tell one Chinese person from another.

The Canton restaurant was picketed by the cooks’ union in 1902, which asked union members to boycott it and other Chinese restaurants in Minneapolis. The union charged that Woo and the others underpaid their Chinese cooks and this made it impossible for white-owned restaurants to compete with equally low prices. Woo responded that he paid his cook well. He rejected the union’s claim that powerful Chinese in San Francisco furnished money for others to open Chinese restaurants all over the country, calling this “the old California cry [i.e., propaganda].” Note that a Chinese cook could not join a union, nor be paid at the same rate as others when cooking in a white restaurant.

The head of the cooks’ union disliked hearing Woo claim that he was a citizen. During the boycott he complained to a reporter, “It is silly to hear him talking of being a naturalized American citizen. All know why a Chinaman gets naturalized – not for love of the country, but for the lust of gold.”

Woo and his brother did not let discrimination keep them from progressing. In 1905 they opened a new restaurant named Yuen-Faung-Low Chop Suey House [see 1916 advertisement above], but popularly known as “John’s Place.” It was damaged by a bomb in 1909, but reopened. In 1916, the restaurant advertised the addition of a second-floor tea room “for ladies” that catered to “a strictly high-class clientele.”

Woo Yee Sing died in 1925. His funeral, attended by 700 people, was accompanied by a 25-piece band playing a Chopin funeral march. He left an estate valued at $41,200, and his was said to be the first “Chinese” will filed in Hennepin County probate court. Woo Yee Sing’s brother Woo Du Sing continued to operate John’s Place, and opened another, The Sea Food Grill, in the early 1930s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

For more about the Woo family and photos of Yee Sing and the Yuen-Faung-Low restaurant, see the article about his socially prominent wife in Minnesota History. Some of the dates in that story are discrepant with those I found.

 

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Lobster stew at the White Rabbit

On the menu shown here a bowl of lobster stew cost 70 cents and came with crackers, pickles, and chips. Oyster stew was 50 cents, while fried clams with french fries, cole slaw, and coffee cost 60 cents.

The menu is undated but is probably from the 1940s. Fried lobster was one of the White Rabbit’s most popular dishes, according to Duncan Hines’ 1947 guide book, Adventures in Good Eating. With a fruit cup, tomato, pineapple, french fries, rolls, dessert, and tea or coffee, it came to $1.35. And, of course, they threw in pickles and chips.

In addition to lobster fried, sautéed, or stewed, it was also available as a salad.

Admiring patrons quoted in the 1948 edition of Gourmet’s Guide to Good Eating explained that the reason the Rabbit was always mobbed with people on their way to and from Cape Cod was due to its high standards, excellent food, and, specifically, “plates of hot buttered rolls.”

On Saturday nights the White Rabbit offered a traditional Massachusetts dinner of baked beans for 50 cents. Other interesting dishes on the menu include a vegetable salad sandwich (35¢), a sardine and horseradish sandwich (25¢), and a side order of tomato and cucumbers (15¢).

The tea room got its start in 1931, in West Chatham on the Cape, about 37 miles from the Buzzards Bay location which became its long-term home. Prior to its beginning, owner Nate Nickerson was a taxi driver in Brockton MA, where co-owner Mildred Ring may have worked as a waitress.

Nickerson’s two sons were waiters at the restaurant which was open only from April through November.

In 1966, the final year in which I found advertisements for it, the White Rabbit had evidently abandoned the tea room theme. It then featured liquor and steaks. Nickerson had died in 1950 and it’s likely that it was under different management.

A few years ago I received a nice surprise when a stranger sent me this bowl by Syracuse china used in the tea room.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Restaurants in the family: Doris Day

I’ve often been struck by how many American families have some relationship to restaurants other than as patrons. It’s not at all unusual to have a family member who has worked for a restaurant or has owned one.

Reading the lengthy obituary for Doris Day in the NY Times this week I discovered this was true for her also. Both her father and one of her husbands worked in or owned restaurants and related businesses.

For most of his life her father, William J. Kappelhoff, had a career in music, whether as a church organist, piano teacher, or choral director in Cincinnati where Doris and her family lived. But by the late 1950s he was operating a place in Cincinnati called the Mound Café, and in 1960 he owned the Melburn Bar. Exactly what was served in either place is unclear but, like many taverns, their menus may have included light food along with drinks.

Kappelhoff divorced Doris’ mother in 1935 and then married the woman he had been having an affair with when Doris was growing up. After his second wife died he married his tavern manager, Luvenia Bennett, in 1961. Because he was Doris Day’s father, and was white, the fact that his new wife was a Black woman was considered unusual and newsworthy and reported widely across the USA.

In 1976 Day married her fourth husband, Barry Comden, who had worked in various aspects of the restaurant business. In the 1960s he was involved with a restaurant dining club which sold coupon books enabling buyers to get two dinners for the price of one at member restaurants. Called Invitation Dinners, in 1965 it operated in nineteen cities around the U.S. including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Boston.

In the 1970s Comden was hired to open the Old World Restaurant in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. He also supervised the building of Tony Roma’s, a rib place in Palm Springs CA.

He was also maître d’ or manager (or both) of the Old World Restaurant in Beverly Hills, which was dedicated to serving fresh natural foods without preservatives. Day met him at the restaurant, after she went there on a recommendation from her dentist who was part owner. The Beverly Hills location was the second in the Old World chain which at one time had locations on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip, as well as in Beverly Hills, Westwood Village, Newport Beach, and Palm Springs.

In a 1976 interview Comden said that Day disliked sauces of any kind. “She likes plain hamburgers, vegetables, plain fish!” he said. It is true that Day was often described as a down-to-earth, no frills woman who rejected glamour, for instance wearing no makeup in public. She said in the interview that one of her favorite dishes at the Old World was the round-the-clock Belgian waffle special, a popular selection that included a whole wheat waffle with sausage, bacon, Canadian ham, or vegetables, plus cottage cheese, two eggs, and a Mimosa cocktail – all for $4.50.

As Day said in her 1976 as-told-to autobiography (Doris Day, Her Own Story, by A. E. Hotchner), when she visited the Old World, Comden would give her scraps to take home for her dogs. The two tried to create a pet food brand that would raise money for an animal foundation she wanted to create, but that project failed as did the marriage. Day and Comden were divorced in 1981.

An interesting footnote: The original Old World, on Sunset Strip, was begun by Jim Baker, creator (with his wife) of a natural-foods restaurant, The Aware Inn, and later The Source, a vegetarian restaurant. Known as Father Yod, he became leader of a commune that eventually moved to Hawaii. Coincidentally, like Day, Baker was born in Cincinnati in 1922.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Almost like flying

There’s something so crazy about restaurants and cocktail lounges in airplanes that I thought it had to be a purely American idea. Turns out I was wrong. In the past and up to this day they have been all over the world, as was true of revolving restaurants atop high buildings.

But why not a restaurant in an airplane? It was bound to happen, given the modern fascination with flight. Already in 1942 there were said to be a chain of drive-in theaters for airplanes in Flushing NY, and another one opening in Asbury Park, NJ, in 1948. In Elwood IN a drive-in restaurant for both airplanes and cars debuted in 1954.

The first restaurant in a converted commercial airplane in the U.S., according to Hospitality Magazine, was in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, once the home of the notorious Al Capone.

Cicero’s Sky-Hi Drive-In and Restaurant, operated in a salvage-yard DC-7, was opened in late 1963 by the Dimas brothers, Jim, John, and Chris, who evidently spent way too much money renovating and outfitting the 110-foot long plane with all-electric cooking facilities. They perched it on top of a small luncheonette that served as the drive-in part. The fuselage was to provide a fine dining experience, though it’s doubtful that happened. Located on a lot that previously held an auto body shop, it may not have been in the most favorable site. Whatever the problem, less than two years after opening it was out of business.

A longer lasting airplane restaurant appeared in Penndel, PA in 1968. It got off to a tragic start when a hot air balloon hired to publicize the opening hit wires and crashed, killing both occupants. One of them was to be a server in Jim Flannery’s Constellation Cocktail Lounge that hovered over his Route 1 restaurant. As was true of the Sky-Hi Drive-in, servers were dressed as airline stewardesses. Flannery was bankrupt by 1982, but the restaurant continued onward with two other owners before it closed for good in 1995.

Meanwhile in a small town in Yugoslavia, guests sipped sodas in an old Ilyushin 14 Soviet passenger plane. A short time later another restaurant was set to open in a Lockheed Constellation in Japan, likely in the same type of plane as in Penndel. Both of the planes were veterans of WWII. Once again, servers dressed as stewardesses.

Although it might seem that the notion of using old airplanes for restaurants would have died out rapidly, it did not go away, despite various failed plans. In Opa Locka FL a Lockheed Constellation remained parked on an empty lot for years, abandoned by the businessmen who had hoped to make it into a restaurant. And yet in 1980 an airplane restaurant opened in a Convair 990 in Denver. In Georgia, someone tried to unload a battered 60-seat restaurant in a DC-7 for nearly $60,000 in 1984; never mind that moving costs would have also been in the tens of thousands. The plane may well have been the one previously used as a steakhouse in Byron GA shown here.

To bring things up to date, recent years have seen a McDonald’s in an airplane in New Zealand and, just this past March, “Connie,” a 1958 Constellation plane, passed through Times Square on its way to become a cocktail lounge for the new TWA hotel at JFK airport.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Eye appeal

Long before the internet, color photography became a factor that restaurants had to take into account. In the 1974 book Focus on . . . adding eye appeal to foods, author Bruce H. Axler noted, “The dramatic four-color, full-spread photos of food appearing in magazines have set visual standards for the restaurateur.” Perhaps he was thinking of Gourmet magazine in particular.

Color photography began to be used for advertisements in magazines in the 1930s, and consequently became identified with commerce rather than art. It was used mostly in women’s magazines, frequently to advertise food products at a time when major brands and ad agencies were hiring home economists to oversee product promotion and photography.

After decades of viewing photos of brightly colored food arranged artistically in attractive settings, the American public, possibly women in particular, expected food to look as good as it tasted. With the increase in restaurant patronage in the 1960s and 1970s, restaurants began to realize they needed to focus more on the appearance of what they served.

Bruce Axler, building on considerable experience in the hospitality industry, set out to assist restaurateurs in dealing with vexing problems such as too much whiteness or brownness, shapeless blobs and piles, flat sandwiches, and the empty-plate look. Perhaps most important, he addressed the issue of commonplace food that didn’t look worth its high price considering how much cheaper it was at the place down the street.

Given patrons’ high expectations regarding visuals, Axler set out a depressingly cynical scenario on page 1: “If it [restaurant food] is any less luscious looking, it suffers by comparison to such photos; especially when the guest has had three ice-cold martinis and cannot really taste the difference between a prickly pear and a mashed rutabaga.” He seemed to suggest that restaurateurs couldn’t even count on taste and texture working for them anymore.

He also observed that some of the old-time fixes could no longer be relied upon. Broken potato chips couldn’t fill a void, he noted. Nor could food displays be enlivened by the old standbys parsley and paprika. “Buffets are loaded with mystery meats and salads similarly garnished with parsley and rouged with paprika like so many ancient chorines.”

He should have counseled against overuse of lettuce garnishes and potato borders too.

Axler’s suggestions included ladling soup from a tureen and serving sandwiches opened up, both to fill the plate and to display their innards. He advised that “Mounds are better than blobs, rolls better than slices, shingled layers better than piles,” and that vegetables should be portioned in odd numbers. To give the impression of increased worth, he recommended anchovy or grated cheese toppings.

At times his suggestions bordered on the desperate, such as “planting sparklers in food items” and floating small lit candles on soup croutons. I, for one, am not among the many customers he believed “would enjoy the visual appeal of a bright red tulip stuffed with chicken salad.”

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that restaurants were eager to adopt ideas such as his. Many have become standard practice, yet by now it has become clear that chefs have many more tricks up their sleeves, especially when it comes to making a dish look deserving of a high price. Some seem to go against the wisdom of the past. Who in the 1970s could have foreseen how powerfully miniature food artfully arranged on a king-size plate could signify a $$$$ restaurant?

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Writing food memoirs

I attended a wonderful panel moderated by Cara De Silva at the past weekend’s Food Writing Forum at the New School in New York. The panelists – all with rich careers in food and writing — had so many interesting things to say, a handful of which are excerpted below. Not exactly restaurant history, but close enough.

Elissa Altman

“I grew up in a home that was tied in knots over food.” Her mother, who was afraid of food, gave her diet pills while her father, a “fresser,” smuggled her off to secret meals at La Grenouille.

Among other books, she is author of POOR MAN’S FEAST and the upcoming MOTHERLAND: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing.

Mark Russ Federman

“A fish monger from the lower East Side,” he observed that when word got out that he was writing a book about his family’s famed business, “All the literary agents showed up and bought an eighth pound of lox.”

As the third generation of the Russ family to own and operate the family appetizing store, he published a combined memoir/history titled RUSS & DAUGHTERS: Reflections and Recipes.

Madhur Jaffrey

As a memoir writer, she realized that “When I looked back on my life it was all about food.” Reflecting that the name given to her at birth means honey, she commented, “God connected me to food.”

She is author of cookbooks and CLIMBING THE MANGO TREE: A Memoir of a Childhood in India.

Anne Mendelson

Writing a biography of the mother-daughter cookbook authors of The Joy of Cooking she admits, “I was flying blind.” But she considers this a “necessary condition” for writing a biography.

She has written STAND FACING THE STOVE about Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, as well as cookbooks and other food books.

Laura Shapiro

“You can tell any life if you know the food,” she observed. Working on her recent book, she knew she was onto something when she discovered that feminist Inez Haynes Irwin had once confessed that preparing Sunday dinners had “set a scar on my soul.”

Among her books are PERFECTION SALAD and the new one, WHAT SHE ATE: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories.

 

See my new-ish blog on childhood food memories, Archaeology of Taste.

 

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Ruby Foo

Is any proof needed that restaurants are show business to a high degree – given that they are enveloped in mystique made up of names, signs, logos, lighting, decor, artistically arranged food, and costumed and scripted personnel?

And sometimes restaurateurs themselves are not the people they appear to be but are creations as carefully crafted as the stars of the entertainment world.

After extensive research I’ve begun to wonder if the public persona of Ruby Foo was largely fictitious.

She is often seen as a rare example of a Chinese woman who defied convention by creating a chain of stylish, nightclub-style Chinese restaurants that appealed to non-Chinese customers. It seems to me that however wealthy she became from the Ruby Foo restaurants, she had a turbulent and difficult life with three marriages and legal troubles that belied her vaunted glamorous life of jewels and furs, shopping in Paris, and flying her own plane.

To begin, note that she was indeed of Chinese ancestry but was born in California as were both her parents, who gave Ruby and her three siblings American first names. This casts doubt upon lore cranked out by gossip columnists who made much of her exotic identity. Their Ruby Foo seemed to have been born in China and had a mother who could not speak a word of English.

Some accounts say she opened her first restaurant in 1923. But she was married to an herbalist and living in Boston’s Back Bay in a house valued at $11,000 [pictured 2018], which was quite a lot at that time. She had a one-year-old and gave birth to her second child that year. Hard to believe that under those circumstances a woman would open a small lunch room for manual workers, as it has been described. I have been unable to find any trace of it.

According to other tales, she opened her first restaurant in 1929, which is more believable, though I think it might have been a bit later. In publicity she is always represented as the sole proprietor, but when her brother George died in the 1960s, the Boston Globe reported that he had opened the “original” Den with Ruby. It could not have been called Ruby Foo’s Den then, because she had not yet divorced her first husband, Dr. Shong, and married Mr. Foo. A story in a New York City paper said that Ruby opened a restaurant in 1930 upon the death of Dr. Shong; actually, he died in 1933, by which time she had remarried. [Ruby Foo’s Den, Boston, ca. 1950]

Her second husband, Tam/Tom Foo, who she married sometime between 1930 and 1932, was a bookkeeper when they married and soon fell into big trouble when he embezzled $20,000 from his employer in 1932. Stories in the Boston Herald said the Chinese community regarded him as a scrupulously honest man who became money hungry when he married Ruby and adopted a more expensive lifestyle. Remarkably, by the time he died at age 47 in 1940 he had redeemed himself in the eyes of the community and was, indeed, an importer.

Around 1941 Ruby married William Wong. Wong sued for divorce in 1948, after being shot in the neck the previous year by Ruby’s son Earl/Earle Shong. Earl’s defense was that he was defending his mother from Wong’s attack on her with a hammer. Earl was acquitted, but later had several run-ins with the police. Wong claimed in his divorce proceedings that Ruby drank heavily and had assaulted him on three occasions, one resulting in a hospital stay. He was granted an uncontested divorce on the grounds of cruel and abusive treatment.

During the 1930s, with the end of Prohibition, Ruby Foo’s Den grew into a popular nightclub and expanded into New York and Miami, each with two locations, plus another at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But it isn’t at all clear to what degree Ruby owned and operated the 11 Ruby Foo’s that existed at one time or another (not only in Boston, New York, and Miami, but also in Providence, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London). She was in poor health in the 1940s, when William Wong managed the Boston restaurant. It’s likely that by the time of her death in 1950 she held a financial stake in four of them and the others were licensed to use the copyrighted name “Ruby Foo’s Den.” A woman named Florence Pike partnered with Ruby to create and run the New York Ruby’s at 240 W. 52nd street near the theaters that was often featured in 1930s gossip columns. [pictured at top, ca. 1940] According to an obituary for Foo, Pike became owner of the restaurants after Ruby’s death.

One role that Ruby did honor as a restaurateur was to visit her restaurants regularly and to give interviews to columnists.

A Ruby-Foo’s Den was recreated in New York’s Times Square in 2000 and closed a few years ago.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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