What were they thinking?

I have often been struck by how many postcards fail to present restaurants at their best. Most of those I’ve chosen for this post are from popular restaurants, some of which stayed in business for a very long time and were well loved.

But the whole idea behind postcards was to extend the appeal of a restaurant beyond its regular patrons, to those who perhaps never even heard of it. What would strangers think about the places associated with these self-presentations?

Why show an exterior like this?

I don’t know what explains the sad appearance of the Olympia Oyster House. It was a popular spot that had been around for decades, but the front of the building in 1971, with its high-school-gym style and blanked out window, does not seem attractive even to the people in the photo. It seems they can’t quite bring themselves to enter.

Apparently the Hilltop Restaurant, shown here in 1960, was listed for sale for an extended period of time. Years and years — all the while doing business. Nothing like a patch of weeds to set off a place.

The names!

Please, no more Squat-N-Gobbles! Such a strange name for a white-tablecloth restaurant advertising “Dinner by Candlelight.”

And yet, having no name at all doesn’t work well either.

Identity crisis

As names go, Mammy’s Kitchen is offensive, and, in the case of this 1970s Myrtle Beach restaurant, does not seem to have anything to do with either the food or the strange atomic symbol hovering overhead. Its cuisine is likewise heterogeneous, covering the usual steaks and chicken, but also offering “Italian Kitchen and KOSHER SANDWICHES.” New management took over in the mid-1980s but the objectionable name from an earlier age was still in use as late as 2019.

The Wolf’s Den in Knox, Pennsylvania, opened in 1972 in a very old barn that had been decorated with plows, saddles, old rifles and such. The section called the Hay Mow is shown on this card. Something about the dusty appearance of dried out straw and the chains and hooks does not convey an enjoyable dining experience. According to a 1977 review, the restaurant was expensive and served “standard American fare” such as escargot and French onion soup. I’m confused.

Do these look delicious?

German pancakes have been a favorite at Pandl’s Inn in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, for decades. The trouble is they don’t photograph at all well. It is also a mystery to me why anyone would accompany a large pancake with a basket of bread and rolls.

A similar problem afflicts the specialty ice cream pie at Tripp’s Restaurant in Bar Harbor, Maine.

The postcard was almost certainly created to celebrate the opening of the Sirloin Room at Dallas’ Town and Country Restaurant in 1951. Of course steaks are brown, plus this one seems to be resting in a pool of its own juices. I can see that some touch of color was needed, but maybe this parsley is a bit much.

Threatening interiors

Probably when you’re actually in King Arthur’s Court, a room at the Tower Steak House in Mountainside, New Jersey, the deadly implements wielded by the suits of armor recede into the distance and the blood red carpeting is barely noticeable. But in this shot they loom disturbingly.

No, the lion is not actually holding a gun, but she is showing her teeth in a menacing way. Likewise those antelope horns look sharp at the Kenya Club in Palm Beach, Florida.

This light fixture? sculpture? installation? might just be the ugliest I’ve ever seen. Let’s hope that it was well connected to the ceiling of the William Tell Restaurant in Chicago. Then there are the inset wall displays, and . . .

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under decor, food, odd buildings

Dining underground on Long Island

A couple of weeks ago when I wrote about the various editions of the Underground Gourmet, I omitted Long Island and Honolulu because I couldn’t find those books. But then a reader generously sent me a copy of the Long Island Underground Gourmet.

If you were looking for inexpensive restaurants with good food on Long Island in 1973, you might have been disappointed by the Underground Gourmet. It has me puzzled. Why were so many restaurants rated as expensive and even very expensive included in the book? Was it because of the opening sentence in the Foreword which said , “People still persist in saying there are no good restaurants on The Island.”

That sentence and others that say Long Island “has long been in the shadow of New York” and is “unjustly ignored” make me think that demonstrating the existence of fine restaurants took precedence over advising readers where they could find good food at bargain prices. The author’s belief that the Island’s restaurants were not well regarded was reflected in a 1972 restaurant review in New York magazine with a pull-quote referring to the Hamptons area as “a culinary desert.”

But, indeed, just how wonderful were many of Long Island’s restaurants that were rated “expensive” ($10 to $14) or “very expensive” (“Bring your checkbook”)? Barbara Rader made some ambiguous assessments of some of them, not saying they were bad, but planting little seeds of doubt. For example, she commented that the “very expensive” Greenbriar in Great Neck was beautifully decorated but, “I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the food as the decor.” Of the expensive Sans Souci, in Sea Cliff, she wrote, “the food is fairly good.” Similarly, expensive-to-very-expensive Hadaway House in Stony Brook had “some fairly good dishes.” The venerable Beau Sejour (“expensive to very expensive”) in Bethpage offered “good-to-excellent food” but sounded as though it was on the point of collapse, with “paint and wallpaper . . . showing their years, the chairs . . . a bit rickety and the electric wires draped across the paintings on the dining porch . . .” It closed a short time later.

The book leaves the impression that if Rader had limited her survey to “finds” comparable to those in other Underground Gourmet editions it would have made for a very slim volume. About 38 of the 300+ eating places covered in the book are given “mini reviews” of one short paragraph. They are mainly seafood stands, pizza joints, luncheonettes, and diners. No price range is given for them, but presumably they would fall in the category of “low cost” (95 cents for a meal) or “inexpensive” (under $3). I wonder if some of these would have qualified as finds but not a lot is said about the quality of their food.

There is not a great deal of cultural variety represented in the book, but what little exists is captured in a few of the mini reviews. Examples include a soul food place (Reid’s Bar-B-Que in Copaigue); a Puerto Rican restaurant (La Lechonera in Brentwood); and Pepe’s Taco in Smithtown.

Perhaps to make up for the small number of bargain places with good food, the book concludes with 13 pages of chain and fast food restaurants. The section includes some local/regional chains such as Wetson’s, serving “Big Ws” at 16 Island locations. Her assessment of it is “Strictly a drive-in, mobbed with families with kids, or with young couples with poorly developed palates.” Of the Big W she says, “Stick with the plain hamburgers.”

Other restaurants that I would think could be considered finds fall in the inexpensive to moderate ranges ($3 to $7 for a meal). They include Linck’s Log Cabin in Centerport (“A food fantasy for families; good food”); The Elbow Room in Jamesport (“plain but excellent food”), Wyland’s Country Kitchen in Cold Spring Harbor (“good home cooking”), and Gil Clark’s in Bay Shore (“one of the best known seafood houses on The Island” with “better-than-average food”).

Rader as well as the NY Times’ critic Craig Claiborne were in agreement that the “expensive to very expensive” Capriccio in Jericho was, as Claiborne put it, “probably the finest restaurant on Long Island,” one that could easily compete with the city’s best. However, on the whole the Long Island UG makes me think that the Island still had one foot in the era when many customers prized decor, atmosphere, and deferential service over cuisine, and were not interested in adventurous dining.

The contrast between Long Island in 1973 and San Francisco in 1969, as painted in the two books, is quite striking.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under guides & reviews, restaurant prices

My blogging anniversary

It’s kind of scary to realize that it’s the 14th anniversary of my blog.

At the start – July 17, 2008 – I thought it would be so easy. I thought I’d build my posts around my collection of restaurant memorabilia such as the match books above. I imagined it would take me about half an hour to write each post, and in fact the first one didn’t take much longer than that. That is no longer true.

Since then I’ve revised that initial post — Joel’s bohemian restaurant – because I came to realize it was much too sketchy. I’m thinking of revising it a second time.

My blog posts have grown longer, though I try to keep them relatively brief, and I have extended my topics way beyond the possibilities of my ephemera collection. Now my process is reversed and I’m always on the lookout for elusive images that are relevant to subjects I want to investigate.

When I began, WordPress was a folksy kind of blog host. I always got a quick answer to queries about how to do things, and they were signed with first names. The company made relatively little effort to sell additional services or to get bloggers to add advertising to their site.

They did, however, place advertising on sites without asking. The day I discovered that WordPress had inserted a weight loss advertisement into one of my posts, I shouted NO! Then I immediately signed up for “No Advertising” even though I had to pay an annual fee – and still do.

Now, after publishing 496 posts and pages, I remain glad that I didn’t “monetize” my blog.

Another change in WordPress (for the better in this case) was the ability to link posts easily to other internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. – and for readers to click “Like.” My early posts have no Likes, not because I had no readers but because there was no Like button then.

I am thankful for my readers and followers. I’m happy that they are interested in what I write about and that they bring a lot of knowledge about restaurants with them. Along with on-site comments, I get an equal number of emails from readers, some looking for additional information and others who kindly go out of their way to send compliments.

Another nice aspect of producing my blog are the occasional invitations to give talks and interviews.

Now, when I go back and look at my old posts I always see something that could be improved – where I should add a link or illustration (see part of my image file above), reword an awkward sentence, clarify a murky point, or insert something I’ve since discovered. Usually I try not to obsess over these shortcomings and end up moving on.

Although I often profile individual restaurants, frequent readers probably realize that my greatest interests are how the custom of eating out grew, how the various types of eating places developed, the types of food and ways of cooking that are highly associated with restaurants, and how restaurants reflect American culture.

A few of my favorites posts are linked here, some of them early ones that are deserving of more attention.

Back in 2008, a friend asked if I feared that I would soon run out of topics. That still makes me smile. I haven’t even come close.

Thanks for reading!

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Filed under blogging, favorite posts, writing

Underground dining

In the 1960s, with the rumble of social change came a flood of interest in low-priced eating places with character and good food. In this spirit, New Yorkers Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder began a newspaper and magazine column titled The Underground Gourmet, followed by a guide book in 1966 with the same name.

Their book led to a series. It’s been a little difficult to nail down how many different UGs there were, but here is my list, with initial publication dates: New York (1966), San Francisco (1969), Los Angeles (1970), Washington D.C. (1970), New Orleans (1971), Boston (1972), Honolulu (1972), and Long Island (1973).

Several factors probably contributed to the new mood regarding restaurants. The economy was bad and the public was looking for bargains. Youth culture was blossoming as the baby boomers grew older, many becoming college students. And increased travel abroad was widening the public’s interest in unfamiliar foods and ways of cooking.

The public’s attraction to low-priced independent restaurants could also be seen as a reaction against the growth of fast food chains taking place, the greater use of frozen food in restaurants, and a rebellion against the blandness of much American food.

What was considered a low price for a meal during these years? The first New York edition specified in 1966, “Great meals . . . for less than $2 and as little as 50¢.” But the third edition (1977) explained that “unending inflation . . . has changed our perception of an inexpensive meal from one that cost $2.00 to one that costs $5.00 or $6.00.” For the New Orleans’ second edition in 1973, author Richard Collin promised meals “for less than $3.75 and as little as 50c.” This was still a lower price than featured by the others, which ran from $1.00 to $3.75 in San Francisco in 1969; $1.00 to $4.00 in D.C. in 1970; and “under $4.00″ in Boston in 1972. Dining in Honolulu remained a bargain, with the 1972 UG promising meals as inexpensive as in the first New York edition (50¢ to $2).

Low price was not really what set the best of the recommended restaurants apart from others. Rather it was the quality of the food for the price. Although Mr. Steak in 1970 offered its most expensive meal – Steak & Lobster with salad, toast and potatoes – for $3.99, it didn’t make the cut, though strangely enough a few other chain restaurants did win recommendations including a McDonald’s in D.C. and a Burger King in New Orleans.

What were some of the most remarkable finds in these books? Richard Collin [above cartoon] discovered a number of dishes that he gave his highest praise, naming them “platonic dishes,” as perfect as that dish could possibly be. His New Orleans list of platonic dishes included Oysters Bienville and Fried Chicken at Chez Helene’s soul food restaurant — which he rated one of the city’s finest restaurants; Creole Gumbo at Dooky Chase; and Fried Potato Poor Boys at the dirt-cheap Martin’s Poor Boy.

The number of restaurants that met the criteria varied from city to city. Boston and D.C. are notably slim books. New York is the fattest volume. San Francisco and New Orleans have about 2/3 the heft of New York. However, with his shorter entries, Richard Collin packed over 250 restaurants into the 1973 revised New Orleans edition, rating everywhere he ate, including some very bad places. Needless to say, this makes for interesting reading.

In his 1969 UG, R. B. Read made a case that the San Francisco area had a unique set of restaurants from all over the world, such as at The Tortola, which preserved “hacienda cookery” from the days before gringos settled in the state. He also heaped praise on restaurants that were rare in the U.S. then — from Korea, the West Indies, and Afghanistan. The latter instance, Khyber Pass, offered a “fabled” ashak, which he described as “aboriginal ravioli.” In a different category of unusual was The Trident in Sausalito, with jazz and a “debonairly eclectic” menu with a psychedelic design.

Because my copy is the third edition of the New York UG (The All New Underground Gourmet, 1977), I did not get the flavor of the earlier versions, which is a shame. Sadly, Jerome Snyder died during the publication of the book. That and rising prices may have cast a pall over this edition, which strikes me as less interesting than the New Orleans and San Francisco UGs. The original NYC book contained 101 of the best low-cost eating places (out of 16,000!). The third edition has about 130. The three given the highest ratings for “excellent food” were the Italian Caffe da Alfredo, and two Greek restaurants, Alexander the Great and Syntagma Square. Mamma Leone’s showed up in the book even though it met the price criterion only for its Buffet Italiano Luncheon where for $4.25 it spread out 25 feet of salami, mortadella, meatballs, celery, olives, green bean salad, and more.

The UG authors for Boston were Joseph P. and E. J. Kahn, Jr.; Washington D.C.’s were Judith and Milton Viorst. Both books show a lower level of enthusiasm. The Viorsts admitted that Washington “has not been known for its restaurants” and that of the 100 restaurants they visited, “a substantial proportion were so awful that we were unable to include them.” Father and son Kahn began by telling of a long-time resident of Boston and Cambridge who couldn’t imagine that anyone could recommend inexpensive restaurants since the area’s expensive restaurants were “bad enough.” The Kahns then admitted, “It is probably true that the Boston area does not loom large in the world of cuisine.”

Despite their reservations, the authors of both books managed to find some places they liked. The Viorsts singled out five D.C. restaurants as “great finds.” They were: the Calvert Café, an Arabic place “worthy of shahs and empresses”; Don Pedro, Mexican, with a marvelous mushroom appetizer called hongos; the Cuban El Caribe, featuring raw Peruvian-style fish cubes in lemon-onion sauce (95¢); Gaylord, an Indo Pakistani restaurant with “delicious samosas”; and Warababa, a West-African place run by a Ghanaian couple with “exquisite” dishes such as peanut butter soup and Joloff rice flavored with bits of beef and vegetables.

The Kahns didn’t exactly rave about finds in Boston or Cambridge. But, after encountering “enough blandness while making our rounds to put us to sleep,” they enjoyed spicy lamb stew at Peasant Stock in Cambridge. They included the No Name restaurant on Fish Pier – no name, no sign, no lights, no decor — where a seafood chowder (50¢) served as the house special and was “so incredibly rich and so brimming with hunks of fresh fish that a cupful could be a meal in itself.” But the popular Jack and Marion’s in Brookline, known for its giant menu and huge portions, ranked merely as one of the area’s “better delicatessens.”

Alas, I couldn’t find the books from Honolulu, Los Angeles, or Long Island, but I saw a magazine piece that criticized the Los Angeles UG for its surprising inclusion of 25 restaurants in Palm Springs.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under alternative restaurants, ethnic restaurants, restaurant prices

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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Filed under atmosphere, elite restaurants, food, patrons, restaurant issues

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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Filed under patrons, women

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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Filed under alternative restaurants, cafeterias, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

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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Filed under chain restaurants, food, restaurant fads, restaurant names, signs

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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Filed under ethnic restaurants, food, patrons