Finds of the day: two taverns

Steuben Taverns

Two small finds on a cold, rainy day at the Brimfield flea market. Both are from the 1930s, both are taverns, and both conjure up bygone days. But beyond that, the two – one representing a chain of German-themed restaurants and the other a small-town tea room – have little in common.

Steuben Taverns was a chain of pseudo-Bavarian restaurants located in big cities. The first, on 47th Street, was opened in New York City in 1930 and was the longest survivor of the moderate-priced chain, staying in business until 1971 [the postcard of the interior below is probably of the 47th Street place]. At its peak the chain had about a dozen restaurants, mainly in NYC but also in Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

The business encountered a few bumps along the road. Opening a huge, block-long unit in Times Square in 1934 proved difficult, dragging out to 14 months, because the restaurant was located over the Times Square subway station, which had to be redesigned. Despite selling a lot of beer (Prohibition had just ended) and seating 800 customers, the Times Square Steuben Tavern failed just five years later.

Meanwhile the chain suffered more grief in 1936 during a mobster shakedown that affected a number of high-profile NYC restaurants. As a chain the Taverns allegedly paid a particularly high sum – $17,000 – to ensure that the racket leaders did not carry out their threats to send “union” picketers or set off stench bombs.

Strangely, given its German theme, the Steuben Tavern in Newark evidently entertained many Jewish patrons in the 1930s. On September 14, 1934, with the Nazis in power in Germany, the restaurant took out an advertisement in Newark’s Jewish Chronicle wishing its patrons the best for the Jewish holidays.

White Gate Tavern

It was almost as though the White Gate Tavern was in another country altogether, one without beer, racketeers, or subway stations. It began in business in August of 1932 in the town of Ashburnham, Massachusetts, in a 100-year-old house formerly occupied by a Latin teacher at the town’s private school, Cushing Academy.

Its proprietors were two unmarried middle-aged women, both of whom had worked for the Y.W.C.A. at one point. Ida J. Lyon was from Connecticut and, as a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a bona-fide Yankee. Her partner, Helen G. Cowell, was the daughter of the late but long-time principal of Cushing Academy.

The two women set about having the house remodeled for use as a guest house and tea room. They installed a modern kitchen with electric refrigeration, a convenience undoubtedly not enjoyed by many of the townspeople at that time. They emphasized the house’s old-fashioned Colonial features as they were considered “homey” by their prospective patrons. The dining rooms were decorated in a green and yellow color scheme that was carried over to the dishes and glassware. In 1932 – in the depths of the Depression – they offered special Sunday dinners for $1.00 and $1.50. (By comparison the Steuben Taverns advertised their “famous” 55-cent dinners on the business card from about the same time.)

In the next few years, further improvements were made to the White Gate Tavern. A yarn shop where knitting lessons were given was opened in a finished room in a barn adjoining the house. In 1935 the interior of the house was renovated and the kitchen was enlarged. A so-called Peasant Tea Room was opened in the barn, along with a “Sunbeam Shop,” a gift shop with crafts made by villagers.

The White Gate Tavern probably closed in the late 1930s. I could find no trace of it after 1937 — the local newspaper carried no further notices of its annual opening for the season or the usual lists of guests who stayed there.

The house is still standing and from the outside likely looks much like it did in the 1930s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Dining with a disability

Throughout the 20th century the number of mobility-impaired Americans grew – due to medical advances, lengthening lifespans, polio epidemics, wars, and rising rates of automobile accidents. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the problem of physical barriers confronting those using wheelchairs, braces, canes, and walkers, began to get attention, largely as a result of activism by the disabled.

At first the focus was on public buildings, but it soon expanded to include commercial sites such as restaurants. One of the early efforts to ease a path was the publication of a 1961 Detroit guide book that devoted several pages to describing features of two dozen popular restaurants that were at least minimally accessible. For instance The Village Manor in suburban Grosse Pointe had a street-level front entrance and a ramp in back as well as main floor restrooms outfitted with grab bars. But several of the restaurants listed had steps at entrances, narrow doorways, restrooms too small to maneuver a wheelchair, and tables too low for wheelchair seating.

In 1962 the National Society for Crippled Children and Adults (NSCCA, an organization that had added “Adults” to its name during WWII) joined with the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped (established in 1947) to launch a nationwide movement to change architectural standards and building codes so as to remove barriers affecting people with mobility limitations. This marked a new attitude acknowledging that handicapped people wanted to “do more things and go more places” but were blocked by the built environment. It was becoming apparent, reported one newspaper, that those “who were no longer ‘shut-ins’ were ‘shut-outs.’”

In 1963 the NSCCA began sponsoring surveys of public and private buildings which included restaurants. In various cities local volunteers equipped with measuring tapes compiled records of buildings concerning the width of doorways, number of steps, presence of ramps and elevators, and placement and design of restroom facilities. Meanwhile, in New Jersey the Garden State Parkway altered its restaurants and restrooms for disabled travelers.

Overall, though, there was very little action. The surveys showed that accessibility in the United States – not only in restaurants, but in schools, court houses, hospitals, churches, and all kinds of businesses – was rare. A survey of Oklahoma in 1968 revealed that only 32 of the first 2,144 public facilities checked were fully accessible to anyone operating their own wheelchair, while 60% were entirely inaccessible. In Oklahoma City, the state’s capitol, only one of the 20 restaurants surveyed at that point could accommodate a wheelchair user.

1968 was the year when official recognition of the problems presented by architectural barriers was achieved with the passage of a federal law that decreed that any building constructed even partly with federal funds had to be barrier-free. Although restaurants remained unaffected by the law, it was significant for demonstrating a growing recognition that accessibility problems arose from the environment as much as from the disabilities of individuals. It would, however, take another 22 years, with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, before serious attention was given to eliminating obstacles in all kinds of public facilities.

Despite a common (and illogical) attitude held by numerous restaurant owners that there was no need to make their restaurants accessible since disabled people did not frequent them, there were a few owners who voluntarily removed barriers before the ADA passed. When the owner of the Kitchen Kettle in Portland OR remodeled in 1974 he built an entrance ramp and a low lunch counter. In Omaha, Grandmother’s Skillet, co-owned by Bob Kerrey who had lost a leg in the Vietnam war (and later became governor of Nebraska and a U.S. senator), had a restaurant designed in 1976 that could be used by anyone in a wheelchair or on crutches. In California, a builder constructed accessible homes as well as fast food restaurants with ramps and restroom grab bars in the mid-1970s.

In the 1980s it became a fairly common practice for restaurant reviewers to note whether an eating place accessible or, more likely, not. Most of America remained inaccessible. As irony would have it, that included much of Future World at Disney’s Epcot Center. Several fast food cafes there required patrons to get into a line formed by bars that were spaced too narrowly for wheelchairs. Even more depressing were the ugly letters advice columnist Ann Landers received in 1986 after she defended the rights of a handicapped woman to patronize restaurants. “Would you believe there are many handicapped people who take great pleasure in flaunting their disability so they can make able-bodied people feel guilty?” wrote one reader.

Passage of the ADA was a big step forward, but it didn’t work miracles. Even in the late 1990s it took enforcement activity from the U.S. Justice Department to get some restaurants to comply. Friendly’s, a family restaurant chain, was fined and compelled to alter entrances, widen vestibules, and lower counters, among other changes. Wendy’s settled out of court and agreed to remove or widen zigzag lanes at their counters.

Although many restaurants have gone to great lengths to guarantee accessibility, problems remain. Even when a restaurant is in compliance, there’s a good chance that disabled patrons will have an uncomfortable experience. This was detailed beautifully in a 2007 NYT story by Frank Bruni titled “When Accessibility Isn’t Hospitality.” His dining companion Jill Abramson, then editor of the paper and using a wheelchair following an accident, found that even luxury restaurants could present dismal challenges to patrons with mobility limitations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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The history of the restaurant of the future

Starting in the early 20th century, most futuristic thinking about restaurants involved technological inventions. Many envisioned replacing waiters with mechanical devices that would send orders straight to the kitchen, then deliver the food to customers. Others foresaw the day that electricity could be used in restaurant kitchens to power every kind of tool for peeling, slicing, heating, etc.

In the teens, in fact, major hotels installed pneumatic tube systems that swooshed restaurant orders from guests in bedrooms and dining rooms to hotel service pantries. [1916 image]

The arrival of electronics with the end of World War II inspired dreams of near-instant cooking, and led to imagined scenarios in which waitresses shouted directions to the kitchen meant to produce a soft-boiled egg and crisp bacon: “One egg, hundred and thirty megacycles, six seconds – bacon, two hundred and forty megs, eleven seconds.”

The late 1950s, perhaps a wackier decade than it is usually portrayed, brought forth two curious predictions. Don Roth of Chicago’s Blackhawk Restaurant probably gave his prediction as a publicity stunt when he suggested that in the future gourmet meals by famous chefs would arrive by rocket ship from all over the world. Arrive, that is, after diners ordered via 3-D television on which they watched a chef prepare it. A columnist writing “Astro-Guide” under the name “Ceean” predicted that restaurants patronized by advertising and television executives would soon be equipped with table jacks permitting portable TVs and earphones to be used to monitor programs during lunch.

Watching a little screen at your restaurant table while eating? What a silly idea.

Still, in one way or another, most of the predictions eventually came true. Of course it helped if a prediction was made when the trend was already well underway. It wasn’t too daring in 1969 to predict that chains and franchising would grow. On the other hand, the same analysts considered the possibility that as people ate out more, future restaurants might offer special pricing for anyone who planned to eat five or more dinners a month at the same place. They did not seem to know that as far back as the 1870s it had been commonplace for restaurants to sell discounted weekly meal tickets.

Also in the 1960s, food scientists and industry gurus dreamed of frozen pre-prepared meals that needed only to be heated and served. That happened too.

The 1960s also produced a semblance of futuristic dining at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at the gas industry’s Pavilion Restaurant [shown above], and at Disney’s Tomorrowland [shown here, 1967]. It was heralded as “Tomorrowland Terrace – A restaurant of the future where excellent food and entertainment are served daily. Presented by COCA-COLA.” The Pavilion Restaurant had walls of blown air, while the futuristic aspects of Tomorrowland Terrace escape me. Later TT was remodeled and renamed Club Buzz, and then in 2006 was semi-restored and once again became Tomorrowland Terrace.

A hospitality management professor once told me that the restaurant industry is not interested in the past, only the future. That attitude can produce some strange predictions, such as those of a professor of hotel management in 1976. He anticipated push button ordering with pneumatic tube delivery (turn of the century ideas, partly realized in the teens), boiling bag entrees (see 1964 image), pictorial menus (already in use by then), and scratch ‘n’ sniff menus (which, thankfully, never materialized).

In the mid-1970s, some thought that restaurants that implemented energy-conservation measures were models of restaurants of the future. In 1976 a new Jolly Tiger restaurant opened outside Albany NY, designed as a test site for energy reclamation and conservation, and monitored by the State University of New York, with funding from the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (later the Department of Energy). Given that restaurants are huge energy users, energy conservation has been recommended by the National Restaurant Association and implemented to varying degrees in some restaurants. However, as of 2013 only 38 U.S. restaurants out of a total of over 600,000 had been granted LEED certification, signifying that they had made a serious commitment to reducing energy consumption.

That future has yet to arrive.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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The food gap

Last week I spent some time doing library research, an increasingly rare activity for me in the age of digitized sources. Looking at early 1980s issues of a major restaurant trade journal I was struck by how unappetizing the food looked. The problem may have been partly due to poor photography but it was also due to the way food was presented, including how it was discussed. My reaction was so strong that I began to wonder briefly why I had ever been attracted to eating in restaurants.

It wasn’t the first time I experienced distancing from how restaurant trade magazines approach food. It has often seemed to me that there is a deep gulf separating how home cooks think about food as compared to how the restaurant industry – as reflected in trade journalism – does.

Here’s an example. What do you see in the image above of an excessively grill-marked steak accompanied by geometrically arranged onion rings and a yellowy triangle of Texas toast? The photo was part of an advertisement for portion-controlled steaks, accompanied by the text below. I have italicized the words that I find bizarre and alienating.

“Our luscious Longhorn shown above is a mildly marinated USDA Choice steak that provides consistently plump plate coverage at a slim cost. Like our Black Diamond, Sunset Strip and Steak for 2, it offers minimal cooking shrinkage, no waste and is highly merchandiseable as a steak you’ll proudly call your own.”

Nice silverware though.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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All the salad you can eat

The salad bar most likely developed from the Americanized version of the smorgasbord which, by the 1950s, had shed its Swedish overtones and turned into an all-you-can-eat buffet. The smorg concept lingered on for a while in the form of salad “tables” holding appetizers and a half dozen or so complete salads typically anchored by three-bean, macaroni, and gelatin. Eventually someone came up with the idea of simply providing components in accordance with the classic three-part American salad which structurally resembles the ice cream sundae: (1) a base, smothered with (2) a generous pouring of sauce, and finished with (3) abundant garnishes. Or, as a restaurant reviewer summarized it in the 1980s, “herbage, lubricant and crunchies.”

Whatever its origins, the salad bar as we know it – with its hallmark cherry tomatoes, bacon bits, and crocks full of raspberry and ranch dressings — became a restaurant fixture in the 1970s. Introduced as a novelty to convey hospitable “horn-of-plenty” abundance and to mollify guests waiting for their meat, it became so commonplace that the real novelty was a restaurant without one. Though strongly associated with steakhouses, particularly inexpensive chains, salad bars infiltrated restaurants of all sorts except, perhaps, for those at the pinnacle of fine dining. Salad bars were positively unstoppable at the Joshua Trees, the Beef ’n Barrels, and the Victoria Stations, some of which cunningly staged their salad fixings on vintage baggage carts, barrels, and the like.

Although industry consultants advised that a salad bar using pre-prepared items could increase sales while eliminating a pantry worker, restaurant managers often found that maintaining a salad setup was actually a full-time task. Tomatoes and garbanzos had a tendency to roll across the floor, dressings splashed onto clear plastic sneeze-guards, and croutons inevitably fell into the olde-tyme soup kettle.

The hygienic sneeze-guard came into use after World War II, first in schools and hospital cafeterias. Although a version of it had made its appearance in commercial restaurants in the early 20th century with the growth of cafeterias, many restaurants served food buffet style into the 1950s and 1960s without using any kind of barrier. The Minneapolis Board of Health required that uncovered smorgasbords either install sneeze-guards or close down in 1952, but it seems that their use did not become commonplace nationwide until the 1970s. Eklund’s Sweden House in Rockford IL thought it was novel enough to specifically mention in an advertisement in 1967. Massachusetts ordered them to be used in restaurants with buffets or salad bars in 1975.

On the whole salad bars went over well with the public – and still do — but by the late 1970s professional restaurant critics were finding it hard to hide their disdain. Judging them mediocre, some blamed customers who were gullible enough to believe they were getting a bargain. Others were wistful, such as the forbearing reviewer in Columbia, Missouri, who confessed, “It would be a nice change to get something besides a tossed make-it-yourself salad, and to have it brought to the table.” The trend at the Missouri college town’s restaurants, however, was in the opposite direction. In the 1980s Faddenhappi’s and Katy Station ramped up competition by offering premium salad makings such as almonds and broccoli while Western Sizzlin’ Steaks pioneered a potato bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Find of the day, almost

Over the weekend I went to Brimfield to see what the postcard dealers had to offer. As usual I was determined to come home with a “find.” But, no. The card that I thought might qualify turns out to be that of a tourist café in Montmartre that is enmeshed in dubious lore and still in business today just down the street from a Starbucks.

The Mère Catherine [Mother Catherine] looks so unpretentious on the ca. 1950s postcard that I wanted to believe it was a relatively unknown little café. I doubted I could learn much about it through research. However, instead I found many stories, most of them glorified puff pieces starting in the late 1920s.

The stories I rounded up are full of contradictions. Mère Catherine was established either in 1793 or in the 1830s. Mère Catherine herself was either the restaurant’s founder in 1793 and died in 1844 or she was the owner in 1939.

As I continued to search for Mère Catherine’s history the more confused I became. It appears that for much of its history Mère Catherine was more of a drinking place than the eating place it became in the 20th century. One article said it hosted impoverished singers who were allowed to bring food there to eat.

An image of the restaurant from 1897 shows the name then as Maison Catherine Lamothe. Might its founder have been the same Catherine La Mothe who was born in 1766 in Bourges, France? Or was there ever an actual Catherine Lamothe at all? An 1897 publication about Montmartre’s history suggested that Catherine and Lamothe were two different women, both wine merchants on Rue du Tertre once upon a time. After I read that I started to think I could make out a nearly invisible hyphen between the two names on the sign shown on the ca. 1897 photograph above. But maybe I was seeing things.

A brief mention of the restaurant at the end of the 19th century described it as an “ancient”, low-ceilinged cabaret that was popular with artists. The same paragraph reported that Mère Catherine left the business to her son who then sold it to someone else. At one point it was owned by a man nicknamed “Gros Guillaume.” In the late 1920s, when it was first publicized by newspaper columnists in the U.S., it was known as Chez Lemoine, and was popular for its billiards tables. [image] During the German occupation of World War II and into the 1960s it was owned by people named Meriguet.

The restaurant appeared in a 1928 Swedish film by the name of “Sin” (Synd), directed by Gustaf Molander who also directed Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo. The two movies have remarkably similar plots. In Sin, Mère Catherine is living in the 1920s and running a Montmartre restaurant with the same checkered tablecloths as are visible in my newly acquired postcard. She tries to prevent a young playwright with a wife and daughter from falling for a femme fatale who seduces him while she is starring in his play. [see above]

In the end, I am skeptical of the legend of Mère Catherine, but don’t know what the real story is either.

At least I have one small consolation. The postcard I bought at Brimfield for $2 is being offered on e-Bay for 79 Euros ($86.80). But I’ll be surprised if it gets a bid at that price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Famous in its day: The Bakery

Louis Szathmary’s restaurant, The Bakery, opened in Chicago at a time when restaurant going in that city was not a very exciting proposition. Amidst the steak and potatoes of 1963, its pâté, bouillabaisse, Wiener schnitzel, and Viennese tortes stood out as exotic. Despite its storefront location in a run-down neighborhood – and no decor to speak of — the 25-seat neighborhood restaurant became an instant success. A little more than a year after it opened it was given a distinguished dining award by Holiday magazine. Reservations became hard to get.

The first review of The Bakery described it as a table d’hôte offering a set dinner that began with pâté, possibly followed by celery soup, shredded celery root salad with handmade mayonnaise, and Filet of Pike with Sauce Louis. By 1975 the number of entree choices for the then-$12 five-course dinner had extended to ten, with Beef Wellington and Roast Duckling with Cherry Glaze [pictured] among the most popular. Even as Beef Wellington lost its fashionability in the 1970s and 1980s, it continued as a Bakery mainstay. In 1989, as the restaurant was about to close, Szathmary said that although current food writers made fun of it, “they all raved about it once, and I know 50 percent of our sales after 26 years is still beef Wellington.”

Szathmary, who claimed a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Budapest, had learned to cook in Hungary during WWII when he was conscripted into the Hungarian army. He arrived in the US in 1951, working as a chef in several institutional settings in the Northeast before moving to Chicago in 1960 to join Armour & Co. in product development. As executive chef at Armour he helped launch the company’s Continental Cuisine line of frozen entrees for the home and commercial market that came in polybags that could be immersed in boiling water and served.

Among the first eating places to serve entrees from Armour’s Continental Cuisine and American Fare lines were Holiday Inn motels and the Seagram Tower at Niagara Falls. Dishes available in the two lines included beef burgundy, chuck wagon beef stew, turkey and crabmeat tetrazzini, chow mein, shrimp creole, and barbecued pork fried rice. Only months before opening The Bakery, Chef Louis (as he was popularly known) had been training the staff of a Michigan gas-station-restaurant complex aptly named The American Way how to heat and serve Armour’s bagged entrees.

After he left Armour to concentrate on The Bakery, Chef Louis continued to praise the use of convenience foods in restaurants. He published a column titled “Use Psychology on Your Customers” in a trade magazine in 1965 in which he urged restaurant managers to be honest about the food they served. He conceded that because he knew many of his guests were suspicious of frozen foods, he did not apologize when he took them on a tour of his storage areas. Although he sometimes used frozen foods, he said he always revealed that on his menus. In a July 1968 column for the trade magazine Food Service, he insisted that the restaurant industry should welcome factory-produced food because of the shortage of help at a time when restaurant patronage was on the rise.

That column brought forth a protest from fellow Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang of the elegant Four Seasons in NYC. Lang wrote, “I would very much like to preserve the level of cooking and the niveau [peak] of gastronomy that we practice at the Four Seasons.” To this Chef Louis replied that he was simply trying to be provocative. Not much later he boasted that he had the distinction of being fired as a consultant to Restaurant Associates (owner of the Four Seasons) – as well as caterer to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

With his fingers in many pies, Chef Louis was assisted by his wife Sada and a contingent of relatives, not to mention quite of few of his compatriots from Hungary who served in The Bakery’s kitchen and dining room (one going so far as to grow his own handlebar mustache). No doubt it was his loyal staff who made it possible for him to run a restaurant while producing books and copious newspaper and magazine articles, appearing frequently on TV and radio, teaching and lecturing at colleges, and conducting sideline restaurant consulting and cooking school businesses [shown above training waiters]. Always a showman, the flamboyant Chef Louis gave talks with titles such as “The Naked Ape and the Frying Pan,” and another in which he compared his ex-wives unfavorably to a bottle of Angostura bitters that had lasted longer and never got spoiled.

In addition to The Bakery, he owned or co-owned two other restaurants managed by his wife’s sister and brother-in-law, the Kobatas. The Cave, in Old Town, opened shortly after The Bakery. Its interior of papier mache simulated the walls of a cave covered with prehistoric drawings as researched by Chef Louis. In 1970 he opened Bowl & Roll, another family-wide venture drawing in not only the Kobatas but also the mothers of both Louis and Sada, plus Louis’ brother and sister-in-law. In an opening advertisement Bowl & Roll promised a range of unusual soups such as Hungarian sour cherry soup, Scandinavian fruit soup, and kohlrabi soup.

In the mid-1970s The Bakery’s reputation began to sag somewhat along with “continental cuisine” generally. Critic John Hess, in 1974, questioned the high regard that Holiday magazine bestowed on The Bakery and declared its Beef Wellington “the quintessence of the pretentious gourmet plague.” Patrons sent letters to Chicago newspapers saying the Roast Duckling was as “tough as an auto tire,” and charging that the restaurant’s acclaim was based on “mass hysteria” whipped up by Chef Louis himself. Chicagoans were sharply divided into lovers and haters. For two years in the 1970s readers polled by Chicago Magazine voted The Bakery as one of both the city’s 10 favorite and 10 least favorite restaurants. Still, in 1977 Cornell University named it one of the country’s six great restaurants, and, despite its loudly banging front door, too-brisk service, lack of decor, and awkward layout, its loyal patrons stuck by it and it remained profitable to the end.

At the 1989 closing Chef Louis said that the restaurant business had changed so much he could not have successfully created a restaurant such as The Bakery then, partly because of the public’s growing preference for lighter food. He declared he was proud that he “never served one kiwi fruit.”

Chef Louis stayed busy in retirement and donated his vast cookbook and culinary arts collection to libraries at the University of Iowa and Johnson & Wales University.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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