Odors and aromas

It is said that the sense of smell became less important when proto-humans began to walk upright. Yet it has played a significant role in restaurant history, for better and for worse.

While not limited to the 19th century, complaints about bad odors in eating places abounded then. In that century, unwanted smells might come from the building itself, accumulated cooking odors, or the humans in the rooms. Worst of all were the cheap eating places located in damp and windowless basements where all three perils came into play.

A self-styled researcher in 1849 cancelled a plan to visit common eating houses in New York City, writing, “We once undertook to count these establishments in the lower part of the City, but got surfeited on the smell of fried grease before we got half through the first street, and were obliged to go home in a cab.”

Even Taylor’s, Broadway’s mid-19th-century hot spot where fashionable ladies went to consume fricandeaus and meringues, failed the smell test. It had a deluxe interior with 18-ft-high ceilings, gold leaf, fountains, and mirrors, leading journalist Fannie Fern to exclaim, “What a display of gilding and girls.” And yet, upon its close in 1866, a critic put things straight, admitting “there was always the restaurant odor, the mingled essence of many past dinners, and precisely the same from month to month and year to year.”

If Taylor’s wasn’t free of bad odors, what restaurant was? Well, according to a British visitor, the answer was just about none! In 1868 the author, after visiting New York, gave 99.9% of the city’s eating places a no-star rating when it came to smelliness. “The restaurants, with the exception of Delmonico’s on Fifth Avenue, generally speaking, are dingy and warm, and have a sickly smell about them,” he wrote. Not much later the Prince of Wales traveled to the U.S. and quickly grew sick of the sight and smell of one of the country’s most beloved foods: oysters. “During his sojourn he was always endeavoring to escape from the smell of them,” according to one chronicler. Obviously, one person’s bad odor might be another’s delicious aroma.

Old-fashioned chophouses, revered as hyper-masculine shrines to meat-eating, also came in for criticism. One critic denounced New York’s Old Tom’s, a venerable dining spot, as “the humbug of the century.” He characterized its atmosphere as “fat and greasy,” adding, “You breathe it, smell it, taste it.”

On the whole, though, it was unusual for men to criticize the smell of meat cooking. It was so enticing that the owner of an 1890s NYC ballroom arranged to pipe in the kitchen’s odor of steaks being grilled at the end of the night’s entertainment, ensuring a crowd for his dining room a floor below.

The restaurant foods usually singled out as unacceptably smelly tended toward fried, greasy things, as well as garlic, onions, cabbage, and, in certain cases — when they perfumed residential neighborhoods — hamburgers and hot dogs. Los Angeles regarded tamale wagons as “odor factories” and Scarsdale fought to remove a “smelly” stand operated by Castel Hitaltakides, aka ‘Hot Dog Joe.’

But it wasn’t until after the first world war that real improvements were made with ventilation and kitchen design. Wood surfaces were replaced with harder materials such as “Monel metal,” forerunner to stainless steel. And the use of vents and exhaust systems grew commonplace except in the poorest eating places. Air conditioning in the 1930s also made a big difference. However, improvements in air quality were always in order. A 1946 customer survey revealed that restaurant patrons’ biggest complaint after noise and clatter was still bad odors. They almost certainly would have included cigars and cigarettes, which would draw even more complaints as the movement to ban smoking in restaurants grew.

What could restaurants do to control odors? There were range hoods as far back as the 1880s, though I don’t know enough about them to judge their effectiveness. Another method employed by restaurateurs who could afford it was to locate their kitchen on the top floor of a building, with the dining room a floor below so the kitchen’s greasy hot air and odors would float inoffensively skyward.

But then attitudes to food smells began to shift. An overlooked feature of the food “revolution” taking place in the late 1970s and 1980s was that cooking aromas – which, apart from beef, had rarely been regarded as a positive attraction in restaurants – became a plus, particularly when they emanated from the kitchens and platters of ethnic restaurants. Fast food smells, such as the pizza-burger’s, were also redeemed as pleasant.

At Joe’s, yes, but not so much in luxury restaurants.

Remember that smelling was long associated with lowly creatures. And for decades the standard had been that proper middle class homes should be entirely free of cooking smells, even if this required a series of doors between kitchen and dining room as well as frequent daily airings of the kitchen. In the 1920s a genteel residential hotel in Cleveland went so far as to design suites in its new building with no kitchenettes “so that one family will not inconvenience other occupants with cooking odors.”

It seems this standard was adopted by luxury restaurants as well. I have been unable to find any reviews of elite restaurants that mentioned odors or aromas. Evidently the only time customers’ noses were allowed to come into use was in sniffing wine offered by the sommelier.

What would Julia (Child) have thought about this? In a 1972 interview, she was asked how, when traveling, she identified a good restaurant. Her answer: “If you poke your nose in, the smell will tell you something. A good restaurant smells good – of fresh food and butter and fresh olive oil.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Digging for dinner

In 1919 a new term made its debut in popular culture with the enormously successful Broadway play The Gold Diggers. It wasn’t about gold miners, but about attractive “show girls” who flirted and played up to men for what they could get out of them. In it, one of the women tells her roommates “either you work the men, or the men work you.”

The play betrayed the upheaval in gender relations that had begun in the late 19th century but was deepened by World War I, continuing into the 1920s. Women had thrown off Victorian restrictions and traditional roles as they entered the job market. Men were confused, sometimes angry. The divorce rate soared.

In the 1920s the play was made into a movie and a virtual swarm of other gold-digging-themed plays and movies arrived, with titles such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Broadway Daddies, The Shopworn Angel, Naughty Baby, and Hardboiled. The theme remained strong in the 1930s, when there was a run of Busby Berkeley Gold Digger films.

The gold digger problem also appeared in advice columns. Columnist Dorthea Dix went so far as to proclaim, “No other women in the world do more harm than do these demanding women.” Ordering a lavish restaurant dinner paid for by a man was a clear sign of gold digging, according to a 1920 newspaper story. Good behavior, on the other hand, would look like this: “If she orders cheaply and modestly, she is either very considerate or very wise; . . . and if she says, ‘Oh, let’s go home and broil a chop in my kitchenette!’ – she is a wonder!”

Gold diggers also appeared in cartoons and on postcards, usually shown in a restaurant, eating and drinking freely and running up the check. So they not only took advantage of men, but their other sin included eating too much, in violation of the idea that true ladies had naturally small appetites. The examples below are presented in approximate chronological order.

She puts on her gloves, showing no concern for his alarm upon seeing the check.

“Dear” meaning costly. At a time when a steak dinner including caviar, oyster cocktail, deviled crab, steak and lambchop, with something sweet and a demi-tasse would have come to $3 a person, $32.50 was a very expensive dinner.

On the postcard at the top of the page, it appears that Miss Gold digger is also a heavy drinker.

This nasty little cartoon from 1927 makes her seem seriously — almost professionally — conniving.

In the 1930s Depression the male victim assumed the profile of a sugar daddy, possibly suggesting to the economically deprived masses that he deserved to be relieved of some of his money.

On the other hand, this poor guy truly looks like he’s suffering and his gold-digging girlfriend isn’t a bit sympathetic. She looks as though she rather enjoys seeing him wash dishes.

A 1940s card from a vending machine, assuming the worst about this woman, who probably made considerably less money each week than the mean-hearted server.

This one appeared in 1959, still working the tired old joke.

I’d like to think the gold digger meme had been retired, but a recent defamation lawsuit would suggest otherwise.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Restaurant as community center

The first Salad Bowl restaurant, at 4100 Lindell in St. Louis, was established in 1948 by two former employees of Miss Hulling’s Cafeteria downtown. The husband and wife owners were mainly concerned with making a living for their family and had little idea that, like Miss Hulling’s, their venture was destined to become a celebrated local institution and landmark. [above: final and primary location, 1989]

The Salad Bowl’s founders were Elmer and Anna Sewing, whose three sons would one day take over the cafeteria, having gained plenty of hands-on experience working there in their younger years. At its final location at 3949 Lindell Blvd. the sons, David and his twin brothers Norman and Norbert, took full charge after their father’s death in 1976. Knowing they had to expand the business, they encouraged greater use of the banquet rooms. To draw customers during the day the sons made the rooms available for free to clubs and organizations for meetings and talks if their members and attendees went through the cafeteria line. [Norbert and Norman Sewing at the bakery counter, 1989]

The cafeteria was located about halfway between two universities, making it possible for the cafeteria’s banquet rooms to become popular sites for talks and lecture series by professors. The Salad Bowl had the unique distinction of being the only eating place that I know of that advertised “seminars” among its attractions. [1988 advertisement] A few of the topics covered over time were homelessness, children’s mental health, the working poor, the global economy, and the Jewish sanctuary movement.

News conferences took place regularly at the Salad Bowl. In 1986 a speaker from Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen group discussed the rapidly rising rates of liability insurance, blaming it on greed in the insurance industry. The event was sponsored by the Missouri Public Interest Research Group and the Missouri Citizen-Labor Coalition.

Although, like many restaurant owners, Elmer Sewing had turned away Black diners at a time when he judged that white customers would not accept them, he often said that he was opposed to segregation. According to his grandson Stephen, who privately published a memoir-style history of the Salad Bowl* after its closure in December of 2005 [title page above], his grandfather was personally opposed to segregated eating facilities. He was said to be eager to welcome Black customers once the Civil Rights Act had passed, making it illegal to refuse service to patrons based on race. Stephen wrote that the cafeteria was one of the first in St. Louis to integrate.

Black organizations, clubs, and events by Black activists were included in the Salad Bowl mix, as were prayer breakfasts in honor of Martin Luther King. Another example was a news conference held by well known activist Ivory Perry who denounced President Ronald Reagan’s introduction of housing vouchers in 1982, calling it a step in federal abandonment of public housing and urging people to join a protest rally in Washington. A St. Louis section of the National Council of Negro Women held its 5th annual awards dinner there in 1986.

Both Black and white politicians gave talks at the cafeteria, and Jessie Jackson visited there. According to Stephen Sewing’s book, “Every state senator, state representative and governor has known the Salad Bowl because of all the political parties, press conferences, meetings and rallies held at the Salad Bowl over the years.” Organizations holding regular meetings included the Book Lovers Club, the League of Women Voters, the Press Club, Retail Druggists, Weight Watchers, the Worker’s Rights Board, the Women’s Coalition for the Democratic Party, and locals of the St. Louis Teachers Union and the Service Employees Union.

Scrolling through the notices of talks and public events held at the cafeteria made me realize how impossible it is to give more than a partial idea of how many and varied they were.

In the 1990s the cafeteria was also used as a site for flu shots, blood pressure tests, and school children’s immunizations.

The Salad Bowl menu focused on standard cafeteria comfort food such as Kidney Bean Salad, Whiting, Beef Brisket, Banana Cream Pie, and the St. Louis specialties, German Potato Salad and Toasted Ravioli. Customers could also stop at the bakery counter to buy baked goods to take home. A tavern room called Bits and Saddles operated for ten years as part of the complex and there was an underground parking garage, a remnant of the car dealership that had occupied the site before the Salad Bowl took it over. [shown below, 1952]

The restaurant also served as a special gathering spot for the extended Sewing family who used banquet rooms for their own wedding dinners and receptions as well as major holiday feasts. With the three fathers working long days, sometimes six days a week, often the only way to see them was for their families to come to dinner at the cafeteria. Their wives and children also put in time as spare hands for serving banquets, helping with bookkeeping, and other chores.

Now, when restaurants tend to be ranked and rated mainly for the quality and novelty of their cuisine and interior appointments, I find it refreshing to review a restaurant from the past that was so deeply a part of city life, and valued for that by thousands of St. Louisans.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

  • Two copies of the 90-page booklet are available at the main St. Louis Public Library.

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The Mister chains

Sometimes I feel the need to focus on ridiculousness in restaurants, maybe because I run across so many instances of it when I’m meandering through old sources. Lately I’ve been exploring franchising and have encountered numerous silly concepts expressed in the names of chains. Many businesses across the country adopted “Mister” or “Mr.” as part of their names, and this seems to have been particularly true of restaurant chains. [For now, I’m calling all of them Mister.]

There are also scores of restaurants with names such as Mister Mike’s or Mister T’s, but those are usually not part of franchise chains and the letter or nickname refers to an actual person, usually the owner, who may be known by that name in real life. I’m not including those here.

I’m more interested in the Misters that are not named for actual humans. At least I’m hoping that there is no real-life Mister Beef, Bun, Burger, Chicken, Drumstick, Fifteen, Hambone, Hamwich, Hofbrau, Pancake, Quick, Sandwich, Sirloin, Softee, Steak, Swiss, or Taco.

There were also Sir chains, such as Sir Beef, plus Kings and Senors. Were they in their own way an expression of multiculturalism? Being “continental,” Sir Beef was classier than most of the Misters.

For quite a while I believed there could be no Mister Chicken. That seemed obvious to me – who wants to be called a chicken? But then it occurred to me that I should do a little more research. I was proven wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Surrounding the logo shown here were the words: Home of America’s Best Barbecue Chicken Since 1966!” Although there were restaurants by the same name in Rockford IL and Atlanta GA, I don’t know if they were related.

I find Mister Pancake’s face somehow threatening, but never mind that – he was a hit in his hometown of Indianapolis. He came into the world there in 1959, but I don’t know if he appeared anywhere else.

I especially like the logos that attempt to humanize food, particularly unlikely items such as hambones. Sadly for him and his girlfriend, Mister Hambone International – aka Hammy — really didn’t catch on. Starting out in Virginia in 1969, he opened at least one place in North Carolina, but nothing, I think, internationally.

Mister Softee with his natty bow tie, born in New Jersey, was mainly peddled out of ice cream trucks, but there were also restaurants of the same name that served hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs, fish, etc., along with the creamy guy. In 1967 a mobile franchise cost $2,500 while a restaurant was ten times that, which may account for why there were then 1,600 trucks — even as far off as the French West Indies — but only 5 restaurants. Overall, Mister Softee, like Mister Steak, had a more successful life than most of the Misters.

Mister Drumstick, born in Atlanta, offered the World’s Best Fried Chicken. I can’t help but wonder why he is holding a hamburger rather than a chicken leg. Maybe it was because his franchise was sold in connection with Mister Sirloin, a roast beefery, as well as Mister Hamwich, a ham sandwich purveyor. So far I’ve found four Mister Drumsticks in Atlanta and a few in Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri. Nino’s Mister Drumstick in Sandusky OH looks more athletic than Atlanta’s, but of course he has the advantage of legs. Was he a go-go dancer in an earlier phase of his career?

I like the Drumsticks, but my favorites are Mister Bun and Mister Sandwich (of New York City!). They are so versatile. They can handle anything that goes between two slices of bread. I don’t know what Mister Sandwich looked like but Mister Bun was a strange one, with his extremely short legs, his six-guns, and his 10-gallon hat. I can’t really figure him out. Is he trying to compensate for being nothing but bread?

The three Florida creators of Mister Bun had high hopes in 1968 when they opened their first location in Palm Beach, with plans to add more outlets in Florida as well as a number of other states where investors were interested. They advertised for franchisees by telling them that Mister Bun featured “the eight most popular food items in this nation.” It was true that Mister Bun could hold almost anything, so they settled on roast beef, cold cuts, roast pork, frankfurters and fish, accompanied by french fries and onion rings, and washed down with a range of beverages, including beer. Alas, Mister Bun had a rather unhappy life, experiencing little growth, abandonment by his primary creator, and time in court.

Females seemed to stay out of the game, so there are no Mrs. Buns, Mrs. Beefs, Mrs. Tacos . . . or Miss Steaks. Maybe theirs was the wiser course.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Celebrity restaurants: Here’s Johnny’s

Restaurant chains whose owners and franchisees hope to succeed based on a connection with a celebrity are often disappointed. It’s clear that a famous name is not enough, leading to the failure of many that have depended too heavily on this while ignoring other elements of what makes for restaurant success.

Here’s Johnny’s, with Johnny Carson as its namesake, is a vivid example of the inability of a name to build a chain’s fortunes. The same was true of many other chains, such as those affiliated with Pat Boone, Minnie Pearl, James Brown, and Mahalia Jackson.

The fact that the would-be national restaurant chain Here’s Johnny’s barely got off the ground had nothing to do with Johnny Carson. The bad timing for fast-food start-ups then, 1969, had something to do with it. But so did the initial concept – gourmet hamburgers – and the poor implementation and direction of the chain’s development.

Rather than Johnny Carson, it was the Swanson brothers, grandsons and wealthy heirs of the frozen food empire that introduced Swanson TV dinners, who were responsible for the chain.

Johnny Carson, a popular host of the Tonight Show, was already a television fixture when he agreed to lend his name and engage in publicity for Here’s Johnny’s. He accepted the position of nominal chairman of the board of the parent company, Johnny’s American Inn, Inc. His duties were to appear at five or more restaurant openings a year. In exchange he was to receive $37,500 a year and what amounted to about 15% of stock in the parent company.

Carson insisted publicly that he was more than a figurehead: “I’m going to be active in it. . . . I’m not going into one of those get rich quick things that you just lend your name to and strike gold.” But, of course, the business was under the direction of the Swansons, primarily the elder brother Gilbert Jr. Carson was right, though, in saying it wasn’t a “get rich quick thing.”

The Swansons had been overly optimistic about how many franchisees they could sell. Even before the prototype opened in Omaha in 1969, they announced that they were hoping to sell 375 franchises in the next 18 months, including four or five in Omaha. An advertisement for franchises that appeared in Esquire magazine less than a year after the grand opening claimed “more than 300 have been sold.” However many may have been sold, few actually made it into operation. When the parent company declared bankruptcy in 1974, only 13 were in business.

The original concept was of restaurants with booths, each furnished with a telephone for placing orders (a setup shared by the King’s Food Host chain, based in Lincoln NE). The menu was fairly limited, with hamburgers, fried chicken, steak, fish sandwiches, and hot dogs. However, in October of 1971, a little more than two years after opening, the two Omaha restaurants, described in the Esquire ad as having a “luxurious atmosphere,” were redesigned and the entire concept was changed to that of a family-style restaurant. The telephones that enabled each booth to call in their order were scrapped. Reportedly they had never worked properly.

All franchising was to halt until the new program was in place, but the changes were made only in the two company-owned Here’s Johnny’s in Omaha. The company acknowledged that it would be unable to carry out the makeovers for the franchised units. Needless to say the revamp did not save the chain, though it did improve business at the initial Omaha restaurant. [pictured: advertisement, 1972, for the only two Omaha locations ever opened]

The final blow for the Swanson brothers was a lawsuit brought by the Louisiana franchiser, who charged numerous problems with the chain, such as shoddy kitchen equipment, inadequate training, and little help with financing and site selection. The franchiser was awarded damages. Altogether, the brothers ended up having lost millions.

In 1976 the last Here’s Johnny’s, the first to be opened, closed its operation on S. 72nd Street in Omaha.

At the same time that Here’s Johnny’s was launched, the Swansons also opened the first of what was to be a chain of 100 Time Out fast food eateries meant to serve as financial boosters for the Black community. The brothers partnered with two Black sports figures, Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer, and other backers. The North Omaha location, opened in 1969, was the only one ever built. It failed in 1972 and was then taken over by new owners. It is still in business today, in the original building.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Pizza by any other name

Driving around Connecticut a while back I noticed signs with the unfamiliar terms “lapizza” and “apizza.” Occasionally since then I’ve wondered what accounted for the deviation from the commonplace word “pizza.”

Thanks to a recent round of fundraising on Connecticut Public Television, when they featured showings of Pizza, A Love Story, I found out why pizza was spelled that way. Watching the show, I heard the word apizza pronounced – repeatedly – for effect. Can you say ah-BEETS? That pronunciation is Neapolitan dialect, a simplification of la pizza. New Haven CT is hailed as today’s apizza center of the U.S. by its dedicated fans who probably would refuse to even enter a pizza chain’s parking lot.

In fact, it’s impressive that in 1978, when Pizza Hut had expanded to over 3,000 units nationwide, none was listed in New Haven’s City Directory. However, there were at least 31 pizza places in that city then, ten of them with apizza as part of their name. One of the pizza restaurants in New Haven was that of Fancesco “Frank” Pepe, initially a baker, who started making pizza in 1925. [1960s postcard shown at top of page] Today Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana is a small New England chain that has won many awards.

Although the word apizza came into common usage in advertisements in Connecticut newspapers in the 1930s – not just in New Haven but also Bridgeport, Meriden, and other cities – it remains in use today in many of the state’s Italian restaurants. I haven’t run across any descriptions of the Connecticut apizza of earlier days, but it’s unlikely that it was the cheese-delivery vehicle that most Americanized pizza has become. In the early 20th century Neapolitan pizza was described as a somewhat puffy, foldable crust typically topped with cooked tomatoes, grated cheese, oregano, and/or anchovies.

From the start in Connecticut and a few other parts of the Northeast, as well as California, pizza was take-out food, often bought at a bakery. But after Prohibition ended, it expanded into casual eating spots in Connecticut cities. Many of its purveyors ran taverns or other night spots, some of which featured it only on weekends. [below, Club Crystal, Bridgeport, 1940s] It was more of a snack than a meal, something to enjoy with friends. Beer was the favorite liquid accompaniment. As Meriden CT restaurant owner Vincent Verdolini put it in 1939, “beer to a lover of la pizza is like whipped cream to strawberry shortcake.”

Until the 1950s, most apizza consumers were Italian-Americans, many of them workers in Connecticut’s factories. Happily for them, pizza was inexpensive (in 1940, roughly 25¢ for small ones and 45¢ for large) and sellers delivered to workplaces. Early advertisements aimed at Italian speaking customers appeared in Italian-language newspapers such as La Sentinella in Bridgeport.

As I searched for the history of apizza in Connecticut, I happened upon another name for pizza, one that really surprised me because its meaning has shifted: pizzeria. Now a common name for a pizza parlor, at one time it was a word for pizza itself, as is evident in the advertisement for “delicious pizzeria, 25¢” at Frieda’s in Asbury Park NJ in 1936, shown above, or at the Paradise Bar and Grill on Staten Island in 1947 below.

For several decades restaurant chains have dominated the pizza market, making it all the more interesting that apizza, the word and the food, has survived.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Women’s lunch clubs

Lunch clubs for working women appeared in American cities in the 1890s and early 20th century. In a fairly short time they stimulated the development of commercial cafeterias, as well as employee cafeterias in large companies.

Chicago was regarded as a prime incubator of the lunch club idea. In 1891 a group of alumnae of the prestigious Ogontz finishing school near Philadelphia opened a space for women workers on an upper floor of Chicago’s Pontiac Building. At the start the club charged 10 cents a year for membership, and sold sandwiches for 4 cents and milk, tea, or coffee for 2 cents each.

By the end of the nineteenth century, women’s lunch clubs could be found in other major cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, and San Francisco, but not in the South. Some, such as three in NYC, were affiliated with churches. In Indianapolis, temperance supporters – members of the W.C.T.U. — ran a lunch club.

The lunch clubs were meant to provide not only inexpensive noontime meals for working women, but also to give them a place to enjoy a little leisure in “rest rooms” supplied with sofas, rocking chairs and desks, as well as libraries and other amenities. Some offered evening lecture series.

The clubs came at a time when the number of office workers in cities was on the increase. The clubs mainly catered to “business women,” which then meant young white-collar workers in offices and department stores. Although women factory workers had a greater need for restful and inexpensive lunches than did office workers, their shorter lunch breaks and lower pay made it difficult to accommodate them.

The earliest lunch clubs were launched by elite women as philanthropic projects to assist workers with affordable lunches, give them a place to hang out at noon, and to uplift them culturally. The food was not cooked on site, but supplied by other kitchens, such as that at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. To avoid the cost of hiring servers, food was set out on counters and diners selected what they wanted, a novel arrangement in the 1890s. [Above: Chicago’s Ursula lunch club, 1891] Prices were meant to cover costs but not to make a profit.

Lunch clubs had to tread a fine line in terms of how philanthropic backers related to the working women. At least one of the philanthropic lunch clubs made its lunchers feel pitied and failed to attract enough women. Those who had stuck with it then took it over as their own co-operative enterprise. Some other lunch clubs were begun as co-operatives. [Above: postcard of a commercial lunch club that admitted men]

A humorous turn-of-the-century story characterized the uneasy feeling of some working women toward philanthropy. In it, a wealthy man approaches a young sales clerk in a department store to say that he is thinking of starting a Noon-Day Rest Club, “where you and the others may come and drink Tea and listen to me read Advice to the Young.” She replies, “That would be lonely Billiards, wouldn’t it? We don’t want to be rounded up and sozzled over. Not on your Leaflards. The Poor Working Girl draws a line on having a kind-hearted Gentleman pull the Weeps on her. I think I can struggle along without having you come around to hold my Hand.”

Despite this obstacle, lunch clubs proliferated. The Klio Club’s Noon-Day Rest expanded its menu, adding dishes such as soup, baked beans, and salmon salad. In 1899 a sample menu in one of Chicago’s six lunch clubs might have looked like this:
Two slices of bread or two rolls, with butter 5c
With jam or cold meat 6c
Extra butter 1c
Tomato soup, beef hash, Spanish stew 5c
Potato salad, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, cottage cheese 5c
Tea or coffee, with cream 5c
With milk 3c
Iced tea, buttermilk 3c
Raspberry ice, lemon ice 5c
Vanilla ice cream, tutti-frutti ice cream 5c

The success of serve-yourself lunch clubs spurred the development of commercial cafeterias. Over time it became harder for lunch clubs to attract large numbers of women patrons. Some began to accept men who, after all, tended to spend more for lunch. For-profit help-yourself businesses proliferated. In one case, a dispute at Klio’s Noon-Day Rest led its caterer, Kate Knox, to leave and start her own self-service lunch club business. [Mrs. Knox’s lunch club pictured above] Another enterprising woman, Mary Dutton, operated four cafeterias by 1915 after beginning with a single lunch club.

But the lunch clubs made an impact, for a time at least. Boston’s original noon-day lunch club closed because it felt it had elevated the standards of common restaurants. And businesses borrowed ideas from the lunch clubs. For example, The Harmony Cafeteria in Chicago, a commercial business, advertised in 1913 that it featured a basement rest area, with a drawing showing two women in rocking chairs reading books.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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The long life of El Fenix

In 1958, an advertisement celebrating 40 years in business made the claim that El Fenix was “The Oldest Mexican Restaurant Chain in the U.S.” According to the family of founder Miguel Martinez, he opened his first restaurant in 1918 in Dallas TX. [El Fenix on McKinney Ave. pictured above, ca. 1954]

Of course Mexican eating places, including stands, were not a new thing in Texas. They had been around throughout the 19th century in San Antonio – which of course was part of Mexico for part of that time. A Mexican man and his French wife in Los Angeles were serving tamales, enchiladas, carne con chile, and albondigas in 1881 — along with French dishes!

Martinez had come to the U.S. around 1911 during the upheaval of the Mexican revolution. Then about 21 years old, he left behind a life of hard labor that began early in childhood, with no time for school. Before opening a small café in Dallas, he had worked as a streetcar track layer, a dishwasher, cook, pool hall operator, and barber.

It’s remarkable that he was so successful in the restaurant business – where failure within five years is the norm — and that he and his family altogether carried on the business for 90 years. But I am not convinced that El Fenix was the first Mexican restaurant chain in the U.S., since its true chain development took place after WWII.

Miguel’s first café – not yet named El Fenix — was located in the center of Dallas’ “Little Mexico” barrio, a part of the city virtually abandoned in terms of city services, without paved streets, and full of poorly constructed rental properties, many of which lacked plumbing.

About seven years later, Miguel — who adopted the name Mike – moved his restaurant to a new location, in a brick building that had been a food market. Although I’ve seen earlier dates quoted, the 1926 advertisement shown here suggests it was that year that the restaurant moved to 1608 McKinney Street, an address that would be a primary location until 1965 when construction of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway necessitated moving – across the street. The name Phoenix/Fenix referred to the mythical bird associated with rebirth and survival.

By the 1930s, Mike Martinez was regarded as the big success story of Little Mexico. According to a 1931 account his restaurant had become quite popular with visiting Northerners who came to Dallas to escape cold winters and were looking for something different in the form of enchiladas and chicken mole.

Within five years he had three restaurants. In addition to the El Fenix Café on McKinney [pictured] there was an El Fenix Coffee Shop on Oak Lawn Ave. and a Mexico City Café on Pacific Ave. However, within a few years, the group was down to just one, the McKinney Street address. The manager of the Mexico City Café had bought the business and moved to a new address. About the same time, the Coffee Shop’s manager joined rival El Chico and a grocery store took over its location.

Until the mid-1940s, when Mike Martinez turned over El Fenix to his eight children, the McKinney Street location remained the sole restaurant. It had become a popular place, equipped with a large banquet room and a ballroom annex and hosting many civic and social groups. The restaurant’s owners, now the second Martinez generation, soon began to build El Fenix into a chain. [Oak Cliff location, opened 1948]

Despite the popularity of Mexican food with certain Texans and out-of-town visitors, it appears that many patrons were not fans. El Fenix, like other Mexican places, found it necessary to offer standard American restaurant fare as well. Judging from advertisements, the American menu was often promoted more actively than the Mexican, suggesting that it took a while for many Dallasites to develop a taste for Mexican food, even when it was prepared to appeal to “Tex-Mex” preferences. Although the McKinney café redecorated with a Mexican theme in the mid-1930s, the menu featured standard American restaurant fare such as steak, fried chicken, fish, and shrimp, spaghetti and meat balls, combination salads, and french fries in addition to Mexican dishes. With the end of Prohibition, it began to offer alcoholic drinks, which no doubt expanded its appeal as a dinner venue.

In 1950 the family opened the first Oklahoma City restaurant [see above advertisement], then came new locations in shopping plazas. Meanwhile, the chain also produced much of its own food for sale, including candies, tacos, tamales, and canned chili. [below, Casa Linda Plaza El Fenix, ca. 1957]

By the 1960s, Mexican dishes formed a more prominent place in El Fenix advertising, with specialties such as “crispy” puffed tortillas filled with spiced beef, chili con quezo, or fried beans. With the opening of their restaurant at Lemmon and Innwood in 1960, tagged the “most elegant Mexican restaurant in the Southwest,” an advertisement touted its fare as “the ultimate in authentic . . . extraordinary Mexican cuisine.”

The chain continued to grow. By 1984 there were 18 El Fenix-owned/franchised restaurants, 11 of them in Dallas, 4 in other Texas cities, and 3 in Oklahoma City. Two went by other names: Don Miguel’s, in Addison TX; and Taco Burrito, in Oklahoma City. [pictured above, Galleria Mall, Houston]

In 1998 newspapers reported that the other venerable Dallas chain, El Chico, was set to buy El Fenix, but the deal fell through. Ten years later El Fenix – then consisting of 15 restaurants — was sold to the Firebird Restaurant Group which continues to own it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

Thanks to Daniel Arreola for lending the postcard of El Fenix in Houston’s Galleria Mall.

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Filed under chain restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

Pausing to reflect

I prepared a new post for today, but with the grotesque events happening in Ukraine, the invasion worsening by the hour as Russia attacks daycare centers and residential housing, it seems so wrong to post it.

For that matter, I feel that over the past couple of years I haven’t seriously acknowledged the effects of Covid on restaurants. When it all began – which now seems long ago – I wrote a post on the effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic on restaurants, noting a number of responses similar to what has happened recently. But since then I haven’t really dealt with the difficulties contemporary restaurants have been having, with staff miseries and shrinkage, shifts to carry out, disappearance of printed menus, mass closings, etc. I hope to come up with some new themes that touch upon historical precedents. For example, there was terrific difficulty in hiring restaurant kitchen and dining room staff during WWII. I could look at how restaurants dealt with that problem.

If you want to read something new today, I recommend some of my “old” posts that still seem to hold up. Since I’ve been doing this since 2008, there are many to choose from. Some have few likes which is because when I started blogging there was no “like” button!

Here are some of my personal favorites:

The (partial) triumph of the doggie bag
Once upon a time it was embarrassing to ask for a doggie bag.

That glass of water
Visitors from other countries are always surprised at getting a glass of water without asking.

No smoking!
Ending smoking in restaurants was a long struggle.

Deep fried
Where would restaurants be without deep frying?

You want cheese with that?
Everything’s better with cheese, right?

Chocolate on the menu
It all started with cups of hot chocolate.

Basic fare: club sandwiches
How a mere sandwich became a classic.

Take care,

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Filed under blogging, food, restaurant customs

Sugar on the table

Probably most patrons never give sugar a thought when they are visiting cafes and restaurants, but it is a subject that has been somewhat vexing for proprietors and guests over time.

Sugar in restaurants has figured as a health concern, an aesthetic concern, a monetary concern – and just a plain old nuisance.

For decades in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when tables were shared by strangers, a bowl of sugar was put on the table to be used by all. In the average eatery of 1830s Boston, as elsewhere, a table would typically hold a sugar bowl along with salt, butter, and other condiments.

By the late 19th century, the new-style help-yourself lunchrooms had a novel way of grouping condiments together. These were three-tier revolving trays placed in the center of round tables and holding napkins, silverware, sugar and salt, etc. They looked prim and neat – at least before the “quick lunchers” arrived.

But whether the sugar bowl resided on an 1830 oak table or a “modern” nickel-plated “Waldorf” revolving tray in a 1910s lunch room, it posed a sanitation problem.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how shared sugar bowls could go wrong. The salty journalist who wrote under the name Fanny Fern expressed her disgust vividly in the 1850s when she described a scene at New York’s popular and well-known Taylor’s Saloon. “J-u-l-i-u-s C-ae-s-a-r! look at that white-aproned waiter pulling out his snuff-box and taking a pinch of snuff right over that bowl of white sugar, that will be handed to me in five minutes to sweeten my tea!” she exclaimed.

Along the same lines, complaints about sugar bowls that had signs of careless use were common. The cheaper the restaurant, the better the odds that the ugly cracked bowl of sugar would have coffee stains or fly specks. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, sugar bowls usually had no lids and often customers used their own spoons to dip into them. When lump sugar was used, as was often the case, diners would take pieces out of the bowl with their fingers.

Concerns about public health brought changes in the 20th century. In 1912 the U.S. Surgeon General suggested that if people would not use tongs to remove lump sugar from bowls then restaurants should switch to loose sugar, which required a spoon.

During World War I, many restaurants removed sugar bowls from their tables. Not for sanitary reasons but because they were severely restricted in the amount of sugar they were allotted. Some restaurants served no sugar while others served it only if asked, limiting the amount to one teaspoon per customer. In others, the staff put the sugar in diners’ coffee or served it in small paper packets.

By the end of the war municipal health departments around the country began to order restaurants to use covered sugar bowls, a move probably made more urgent by the nation’s deadly flu epidemic. The postwar years marked several other changes in restaurants’ ways of handling sugar, partly because prices were higher than before. Some introduced wrapped sugar cubes that were often smaller than the lumps of old, while others set out shakers rather than bowls, another method meant to discourage overuse.

Meanwhile, though, tea rooms – and fine restaurants — continued to use sugar bowls, often matching their china patterns, suggesting this was considered more refined and attractive than shakers. During the Depression a tea room consultant advised proprietors who wanted to attract male customers not to use wrapped sugar cubes because “somehow they do not know what to do with that bit of paper.” Likewise, a columnist in 1941 pitied the tired businessman seeking a restaurant meal who couldn’t “dip his spoon into a good old sugar bowl.” Instead he had to fumble with unwrapping a cube and waiting for it to dissolve in his coffee, wasting time and fraying his nerves. Poor guy, who knew?

Another age-old issue with sugar was that when its price went up, customers stole it. No doubt this occurred in the 19th century but it became a focus in news reporting beginning in World War II when sugar was rationed. Waitresses began to notice diners dumping bowls of sugar cubes into their pockets and purses. Some came prepared to steal sugar, bringing along paper bags. It didn’t take long before managers decided not to use lump sugar or discontinued placing any sugar on tables. Some began to furnish saccharin.

Stealing occurred again in 1963 and in the fall of 1974 when sugar prices tripled. The fact that many restaurants were using sugar packets by then actually made stealing easier. This time, many restaurants returned to using loose sugar. A few began to have servers provide sugar only when asked, occasionally going so far as to add a charge on the customers’ checks. [cartoon, 1975]

Things have changed since then. Sugar shakers continue to be associated with diners and lunch counters. But cubes have come up in the world. In the late 1980s a restaurant critic expressed dismay when he went to Justine’s, a restaurant that had long been regarded as one of the finest in Memphis. Among the disappointing details he noticed was the restaurant’s sugar delivery system. “Do people spending hundreds on food and wine really want to use sugar from a paper packet rather than sugar cubes?” he asked.

Today I suspect that the reduced custom of drinking coffee with meals means that restaurants provide far less sugar to customers than they used to.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

Wishing you a sweet Valentine’s Day!

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Filed under food, patrons, restaurant customs, sanitation