French fried onion rings

It’s hard to say just how long french fried onion rings have been on restaurant menus. But it’s likely that they were served at the Grove Park Inn, in Asheville NC, shortly after it opened in 1913. A few years later politician William Jennings Bryan’s recipe for them appeared in a Boston newspaper in which he said that the inn was the first place he – a frequent traveler – had ever encountered them.

Women had been preparing them in their homes before that. A recipe appeared in Women’s Home Companion in 1905, but I’m sure they were known earlier.

Bryan’s recollection as well as the 1905 recipe settle the question of whether french fried onion rings were the 1920s invention of a Pig Stand in Texas as frequently claimed on the internet. They were not.

In the 1930s onion rings became more common in restaurants, probably aided by improvements in cooking oil (though many used lard) and deep fryers. Then, and for several decades later, they were usually featured as an accompaniment to a steak. In the heart of the Depression Schrafft’s advertized its Sizzling Steak Combination, saying, “With it you get generous helpings of French fried potatoes, onion rings or a fresh vegetable, a green salad, and a pot of Schrafft’s coffee, $1.50.” It ended with the tagline, “A Man’s Meal.”

They were often specifically marketed to men. Whether women shied away from them because of fear of breath contamination or some other stigma is unclear. Or maybe they enjoyed them just as much as men did, but were less likely to order steak because of price.

Despite the fact that men liked onion rings, onions in general carried a stigma. At various times in the last century they were characterized as “ordinary and even common,” as breath contaminators, and as food that restaurant kitchen workers did not like to handle. A 1966 handbook recommended that restaurant operators drawing up menus “shun” onions, along with lamb kidneys, pig’s knuckles, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas. In 1969 a Gallup Poll found that potatoes were Americans’ favorite vegetables, followed by green beans, asparagus, corn, and tomatoes. French fried onions were ranked as slightly more popular than broccoli, lima beans, and peas.

Prejudices aside, onion rings grew more popular over time.

The arrival of pre-breaded frozen onion rings, which saved kitchen labor, was almost certainly part of their rising popularity. Their production began in the early 1950s when food companies contracted with fish processors who had learned the art of breading and freezing. Contra the Gallup poll, in 1969 one writer acknowledged that, after french fries, onion rings “must be the all time favorite accompaniment to hamburgers.”

Use of the ready-to-heat rings increased in the 1970s when fast food chains began to serve them. Some, such as those sold at Burger King, were made of ground onions that had been extruded through tubes in factories. Their uniform size and shape, suited for “portion control,” did not sit well with a restaurant reviewer in 1977. He complained that a Burger King in Seattle served onion rings that were “those pressed-onion jobs that come out all one size and lacking a great deal of onion taste.” What an ingrate! Didn’t he realize that extrusion meant he could count on always receiving the exact same number of grams of breading and ground onion as the next customer?

In 1978 McDonald’s began test-marketing their own version of deep fried onions, using chunks instead of rings and calling their “french fried chopped onion product” Onion Nuggets. But the nuggets didn’t make it past the test stage, reputedly because they got cold too quickly. Restaurant onion rings, in general, were often criticized for being served cold – as well as for being limp and greasy.

Overall, the historic trajectory of onion rings in restaurants seems to be:

  1. Beginning in the early 20th century primarily as a garnish or accompaniment to a steak
  2. Especially as onion prices rose, becoming a separately priced side order, often where hamburgers were popular such as drive-ins and fast food outlets.
  3. Ascending to the top of the menu — with inflated prices — as appetizers at dinner-house chains such as TGI Friday.

Though not ring-shaped, Outback Steakhouse’s “Bloomin’ Onion” may have propelled deep fried onions to their historic pinnacle both in terms of fat and calorie load as well as price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Hash house lingo

Odd – often humorous – names for simple restaurant orders were long associated with cheap eating places such as hash houses, beaneries, and lunch wagons. In addition to inexpensive food, patrons got free entertainment, while newspaper reporters never ran out of light copy.

In cheap restaurants it was customary through much of the 19th century and early in the 20th for servers to convey orders to the kitchen by shouting them out from the dining area. It’s highly likely that many, maybe most, of the servers as well as the cooks, were unable to read and write.

The colorful stories began to fill papers’ pages in the 1880s. In 1881 U.S. President Chester Arthur was reported to have visited a “coffee and cake saloon” in lower Manhattan – probably Hitchcock’s — where waiters shouted out his order of coffee and rare corned beef to the kitchen in slang.

Judging by how often it was repeated in the press, the public was endlessly amused by the tale of the clever Bowery hash house waiter who bested the patron who tried to confuse him by asking for two poached eggs on toast by adding that he wanted the yolks broken. Without a pause, the waiter shouted out “Adam and Eve on a raft. Wreck ‘em.”

Eggs merited the most jargon of all foods, probably because there are so many ways of preparing them. Two terms remain in almost universal use today and are so commonly used that probably no one suspects they were once regarded as unfamiliar waiter slang. I’m sure you will spot them easily in the list of egg orders.

Many of these terms make no sense at all, and some have more than one reference. Why were they used? Clearly they are not necessarily shorter or easier to yell than if they were straightforward. According to the 1945 article Soda Fountain Lingo, “An exclusive language – racy, picturesque, humorous – understood only by the initiate, adds zest to the monotony. Further, it lends pride to the job and provides an esprit de corps. It gives incentive to the new waiter, mystifies the general public, and furnishes satisfaction to the enlightened professional hasher.”

Eggs
Ham and eggs – Kansas City chicken and Adam and Eve
Scrambled eggs — Adam and Eve shipwrecked; Agitated eggs; Storm tossed eggs; Eggs around the curve; Wreck Noah
Scrambled eggs with chili sauce – Ship wreck in the Red sea
Scrambled eggs on toast – Wreck on a raft
Fried eggs unturned — With eyes open; Sunny side up; Straight up; Two white wings turned down
Fried eggs turned over – In the dark; With a black eye; Over easy; Eyes closed
Fried eggs scalded in hot grease — Blindfold two
Poached eggs – Sleeve buttons
Poached eggs on toast – Two ladies on horseback; Adam and Eve on a raft
Soft boiled eggs – A light on the ocean wave; In the sea/ocean
Hard boiled eggs – A light under the waves; Two in the water like a brick

Meat/fish/main dishes
Dozen oysters stewed plain — Drown a dozen
Dozen oysters in the loaf — One in the coffin
Oyster stew – Two in a bowl; Stew-o-o-oo
Chicken stew — Springer in the mud
Corned beef hash – Brownstone front (can also refer to pancakes); Mystery
Wienerwurst and sauerkraut — A Dutchman’s paradise
Ham and beans – Ham an’
Beef and beans – Beef an’
Beans – Plate of Bostons; Thousand on a plate
Baked beans without the pork — Brass band without the leader
Beefsteak – Patent leather; One sole without a shoe
Mutton chops – Whiskers
Codfish ball – Sinker (also refers to doughnuts and to pancakes)
Spring chicken on toast and boiled potatoes — Foul tip and a hot grounder
Fried catfish (quickly) — Railroad a hot swimmer

Other
Macaroni — A son of Italy; Put up the flag
Buttered toast — Butter the gash
Pancakes — Brownstone front; Brown the wheats; String o’ flats; Stack ‘em up
Pancakes and coffee – Bootleg and sinkers
Buckwheat cakes – Brown the buck
Hot biscuit — Order of the boat heels
Doughnuts – Sinkers; Life preservers; Fried holes
Shredded wheat biscuits and a glass of milk – Couple o’ bales of hay & squeeze the cow
Milk toast – Cemetery stew
Chicken soup – Hen in the bowl
Slice of watermelon — The Red Man
Mince pie with powdered sugar on top — Indigestion in a snowstorm
Pie a la mode – Freeze out; Snow on the open face
No gravy – Make it dry
Keep it hot – In a hot box

Beverages
Hot tea — Cup of China; On the Chinaman
Tea without milk – Hong Kong on crutches
Iced tea — One in the mountains
Cup of coffee — One in the dark; Draw one
Glass of milk — One in the light; Squeeze the cow
Ice water – One Arctic

Customers often contributed to the lingo by inventing their own, both for ordering and asking someone to pass something.
Pass the sugar – Give the sand box a kick down this way
Request for butter – Pass the dope
Milk – Drive the cow down this way
Beans and molasses – Short and sweet
Fried pigs’ feet – A Trilby foot [Trilby was a popular 1894 novel about an artist’s model with beautiful feet]
Coffee and doughnuts – Slop and sinkers
Sandwich with a liberal allowance of ham – One boxing glove with plenty of lining

Hash house lingo died a slow death in the 20th century with the arrival of automated eating places, cafeterias, and other serve-yourself places, and was pretty much gone by the 1930s. It has been artificially revived here and there as a novelty attraction, the former Ed Debevics diners being a prime example.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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The golden age of sandwiches

In their restaurant career sandwiches came from humble beginnings. They could sometimes be found in eating places as far back as the early 1800s, such as at the Ring of Bells, a porter and oyster house in New York. But they became more popular when they teamed up with beer joints after the Civil War. They also flourished in Boston’s “sandwich depots” of the 1880s — bean sandwiches included. And they were among the edibles offered by lunch wagons, saloons, and stand-up buffets in the late 19th century.

But it was the trend toward lighter mid-day meals in the early decades of the 20th century, spurred by the growth of cities, that gave sandwiches their big boost. Then, as light meals replaced hot dinners at noon, they found their niche, furnishing a quickly prepared menu item available in a variety of styles and combinations. Sandwiches of all kinds – named after celebrities, toasted, clubs, St. Paul’s — continued to flourish until after WWII when hamburgers began to take center stage.

While some eating places stuck with hot meals at noon in the early 20th century, others were quick to embrace sandwiches, particularly lunch rooms, tea rooms, drug stores, and delis. The sandwich shop was declared the winner among fast food restaurants. To critics the proliferation of this slapped-together fare was a sign of cultural decline. “The postwar decade might be known as the era of the sandwich,” declared cultural observer Eunice Fuller Barnard in a New York Times article of 1929 with the mournful headline, “We Eat Still, But No Longer Do We Dine.”

Among new developments was the formation of sandwich chains such as the Tasty Toasty and the Hasty Tasty. The B/G System was one of many in that category, which also included R&C, C&L, S&S, and no doubt other alphabetical combos across the USA. In 1924, the “Purely American, Meal in a Minute, No Tipping” B/G chain claimed to pay wages allowing their workers to “live according to American standards.” It had outlets in 16 large cities and was about to spread further. Was St. Louis the champion host of sandwich shops? Included among the city’s 52 sandwich shops in 1938, there were at least 6 “sandwich systems,” the Continental, Hollywood, Nickel Plate, Night Hawk, Ure-Way, and Yankee.

The sandwich selections on the menu shown here are from the Huyler’s confectionery-based chain. Tongue and Cream Cheese sandwiches, rarely (ever?) seen today, were quite popular in those early years (1921 menu above).

Polly’s Cheerio Tea Room’s Ham and Jam on French Toast would seem to be unusual, though perhaps Los Angelenos would have disagreed (1932 menu above).

I can’t account for why Schrafft’s in New York City felt the need to indicate which sandwiches were made with mayonnaise (1938 menu above). I’ve found one other tea room, located in St. Joseph MO, that included the same annotations.

Among the other interesting sandwich combinations I’ve found are Cucumber & Radish (25c at The Cortile in NYC in 1928); Egg and Green Pepper with Mayonnaise on Whole Wheat Gluten Bread (25c at Schrafft’s in 1929); “Chef’s Pride,” Smoked Tongue, Sliced Chicken, and Deviled Eggs double decker (50c at Townsends, San Francisco in1933); Peanut Salad (10c at The Candy Box in Winona MN in 1935); Peanut Butter, Sliced Tomato, Bacon, and Lettuce triple decker on toast (25c at The Little White House in NYC in 1936); and Marshmallow and Peanut Butter (15c at The Bookshop Tearoom in Springfield MA in 1946).

I prefer my BLTs without peanut butter. Hold the marshmallows, please.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Black Tulsa’s restaurants

(This post is a footnote to Robin Caldwell’s fine essay on Black grocers in the Greenwood community – my attempt to give some sense of the community by sketching a little about the area’s many restaurants.)

Before the Greenwood district’s destruction in 1921 – evaluated at $536M in property damage in today’s dollars — the area had become home to a prosperous Black business district filled with brick buildings, many of them housing eating places. Its leading citizens had done very well and a Black newspaper, the Tulsa Star, had begun publishing in 1913, with its office located near the heart of the business district at N. Greenwood and E. Archer avenues.

Nonetheless, like all of Tulsa, the area had its share of problems, no doubt due in large part to its rapid growth and the city’s attractiveness to transients and people on the make in both a good and a bad sense. Though generally striking a positive note, The Star complained of inadequate city services reflected in a failure of police to shut down gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging, and the lack of sewers in some parts of the community. Shortly before the massacre area residents petitioned the city, urging annexation of that part of the Black community outside the city limits and lacking modern improvements such as water, street lights, railroad crossings, fire stations, sidewalks, and paved streets. [Shown above: ca. 1915 photo of flooding in the 300 block of N. Frankfort street; Russell & Co. was a black-owned business.]

One of the most successful Black restaurant proprietors was Texas-born Joe Lockard who moved to Tulsa from his farm in Muskogee Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In 1914 he opened The People’s Café near Tulsa’s Frisco train depot. In 1920 he became president of the board of directors of a newly created investment company. That same year a white customer got into an argument with Lockard’s cook, shooting and killing the cook in the cafe’s dining room. Lockard’s café was destroyed by white rioters in 1921, but he continued in the café business into the 1930s, possibly later.

In contrast to Lockard, another Texan, Al Floyd, operator of the Cosy Corner [shown at top, 1915 advertisement from The Tulsa Star], was in business for at most a few years before relocating to Oklahoma City where he managed a railroad café.

The Busy Bee Café was run by Texas-born Savannah Elliott, also known as ‘Mother Elliott” despite only being in her 30s. In 1918 the newspaper mentioned that she entertained groups, such as teachers, and birthday dinners with as many as 17 guests. She sold the 112 N. Greenwood location at the end of that year, and moved to a new place that she operated briefly before again moving to Kansas City MO. In KC she and her husband ran a café called the Blue Goose. [1917 advertisement]

L. W. Wells ran a café in Okmulgee OK in 1914. The following year he moved to Tulsa, working in a white-owned restaurant called the Ever Eat Café. By 1918 he was running two quick-lunch cafes of his own in the Greenwood area where he provided “classy lunches” according to advertisements. It was wartime and business was booming, possibly because soldiers were passing through on the railroad. As the above advertisement indicates he was unable to keep his second location open because of the business crunch which probably meant increased patronage and a simultaneous shortage of help. In 1918 he had a dangerous brush with a drunken customer, engaging in a fist fight with him and pulling a gun. Like Lockard, he owned a farm in Oklahoma and was considered well off. The Star paper noted that for Christmas 1918 he presented his wife and daughter with a piano costing $475. His restaurant on Greenwood Avenue was destroyed in the 1921 attacks. [1918 advertisement]

Most of the cafes in the Greenwood district were basic, pricing meals reasonably, often charging 25 cents for a plated hot dinner. Many were open day and night. Their advertising stressed cleanliness. Most went by their owners’ names but there were also plenty of colorful names such as Busy Bee, Cosy Corner, Crystal, Ideal, Liberty, Little Pullman, Lone Star, Minute, Olympia, Palace, People’s, Red Rose, Square Deal, Star, and Sunny Side. (Because Tulsa was a Jim Crow city, it’s easy to identify which were Black restaurants – they were marked (c) in the city’s business directories.)

The greatest number of restaurants over the years 1913 through 1920 were on North Greenwood avenue. It intersected with East Archer to form the heart of the area’s business district, as well as bearing the brunt of destruction in 1921. East Archer had the second largest number of restaurants. I counted about 30 on North Greenwood during the 8-year period and 15 on East Archer, with another couple dozen on other streets.

Overall, the cafes went through a great deal of turnover and geographical churn – as was common throughout the US. They changed hands or moved to new addresses with some frequency. For example, Susie Bell’s cafe suffered fire damage when the Waffle House next door caught on fire in 1920. Although she had already moved several times, she was not defeated. She went out scouting for a new location early the next morning, confident she would be back in business by evening. In all likelihood she had “regulars” who counted on her to provide their daily meals. Her cafe was destroyed in the massacre. [1913 advertisement]

I had hoped to get an idea of what foods restaurants served, but that turned out to be difficult. Many advertised “home cooking” but almost never mentioned specific dishes. Usually when applied to basic cafes, home cooking referred to plain meat-and-potatoes dinners of the sort preferred by people who relied on restaurants for most of their meals. It’s likely that a fair number of residents of the Greenwood area lived in rooming houses and residential hotels with no cooking facilities. According to the 1920 federal census, about a tenth of Tulsa’s Black population were lodgers.

Though advertising did not offer much idea of what was served in the cafés, two foods were mentioned fairly frequently: Barbecue and Chili. Aside from the Black population born in Oklahoma, the next largest percentage were transplants from Texas, so it isn’t at all surprising that these two foods would be staples. There was also frequent mention of confectionery, pies, and cakes.

The one and only menu I discovered was for a 1918 Christmas dinner, billed as home cooking, at the Sunny Side Café. An advertisement also referred to it as a “Conservation” dinner, reflecting wartime rationing. In addition to a “Christmas Oyster Loaf,” the dinner included: Baked Turkey with Roquefort Dressing; Baked Chicken with Corn Dressing; Roast Goose with Sage Dressing; Smothered Duck with Brown Gravy; Cream Potatoes; Cream Peas; Griddle Corn; Macaroni; Stuffed Tomatoes; Stewed Prunes; String Beans; Cream Cabbage; Cranberry Sauce; Cherry Cobbler and Whip Cream; and the following pies: Pumpkin, Potato Custard, Mince Meat, Lemon Custard, Apple, and Cocoanut Custard.

Despite the enormity of the disaster in which possibly more than 300 Black lives were lost and there was extensive property destruction, survivors went to work almost immediately. Cafes that had been turned into rubble were rebuilt and reopened, and new locations were found. The area rebounded.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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They delivered

Many restaurants survived the past year’s shutdown by offering curbside pickup as well as delivery by outside services. Neither takeout nor delivery is a new idea. Both stretch back into at least the 18th century when French-influenced “restorators” in cities offered a range of ready-to-eat food to be picked up or delivered to homes.

Deliveries included soups – a specialty of restorators – oysters, and full meals. A typical newspaper notice would closely resemble that of J. B. LeRebour of Salem MA in 1800, offering “all the delicacies that the season and market can afford . . . dressed for the epicure . . . Families in town may be supplied with Dinners and Suppers at the shortest notice.”

Notices in 1815 and 1816 from the versatile New York restaurateur, pastry cook, and confectioner Mrs. Poppleton give an idea of the kind of food that epicurean families might order. They included: Almond Soup; Savory Patties; Lobster Puddings; Chicken, Eel, and Game Pies; Anchovey Toasts; Omelettes; Italian Sallads; and Cold and Ornamented Hams, Tongues, and Fowls; as well as Savory Cakes and Pies.

Mrs. Poppelton also provided ladies with party trays. Clearly the notion of restaurant-ing then was closely tied to that of catering.

With the decline and disappearance of the French-influenced restorators by the 1840s, it seems as though home delivery pretty much dried up for a while.

Toward the end of the 19th century, some women interested in reducing household drudgery began to dream of a future when cooked food would be delivered to homes. Writer and thinker Helen Starrett, author of After College – What?, predicted in 1889 that cooking would one day leave the home just as had soap and butter making. She believed that meal delivery would succeed as a business “because capital will find it profitable.”

It wasn’t always profitable, though. Perhaps Starrett was unaware of the startling collapse in 1884 of one of the earliest for-profit ventures, The New-York Catering Company. Despite a strong beginning, with $100,000 capital and floods of orders from families, it failed due to poor management and the disappearance of subscribers during summer when they left town for the countryside.

The fate of other early companies is mixed. In 1890 the Boston Catering Company delivered not only dinner but also lunch and breakfast. Founded by Thomas D. Cook, it was carried on by son Walter. It fared better than The 20th Century Food Co. of New Haven CT, which lasted little more than a year. Its menus offered a range of choices in 1900, such as Breaded Lamb Chops, Beef Stew and Dumplings, and Corned Beef Hash.

Despite failures aplenty, interest in home delivery of ready-to-eat meals did not disappear, and grew even stronger in the early 20th century propelled by the “servant shortage.” Co-operative projects, such as the Women’s Industrial and Educational Union in Boston and the Central Co-operative Kitchen in Minnesota’s Twin Cities tried to take up the slack. And a number of women around the country began to run small enterprises out of their home kitchens, hiring boys on bicycles to deliver within relatively short distances.

Profit-making restaurant-based food delivery grew stronger at the same time. Examples include the Laboratory Kitchen of Boston, which retained a strong flavor of the co-operative movement. But other restaurants were purely business. For them, delivery was encouraged by the number of people able to order via telephone. Two New York tea rooms, The Colonia and The Fernery, delivered to businessmen who called in orders from their offices.

It wasn’t long before Chinese restaurants were taking delivery orders by telephone. And in the 1930s, fried chicken became a popular restaurant specialty for delivery. An interesting development was the opening of the first unit of the fried chicken delivery chain Flying Chicken in Albuquerque in 1946. Like the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain established in 1952, it did not provide any dining facilities. It advertised with slogans such as “Prepare Dinner with One Finger – Use Your Phone, Not Your Stove.”

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of home delivery remained strong, increasingly focused on relatively limited menus, such as pizza, barbecue, or chicken, rather than full dinners or choices of many entrees. Still, here and there someone would start up full-service meal delivery with more ambitious selections and higher prices. For example, the Casserole Kitchen in New York City, begun in 1951 by a continentally trained chef, offered about 10 entrees each day. A sample dinner was Green Turtle Soup, Ham Imperial, Brussels Sprouts, Salad, and Vienna Chocolate Cake.

It wasn’t influential – and certainly not typical – but it’s impossible not to mention a phenomenon of the 1960s, San Francisco’s Magnolia Thunderpussy. Named for its proprietor, it was an eating place in Haight-Ashbury whose x-rated menu featured suggestively-named ice cream desserts and basic grub like stew (Mouthpiece Menage), and chili. Deliveries continued until 4 a.m., often handled by Magnolia herself.

Today’s “ghost kitchen” concept – restaurant-less kitchens used only to prepare food for delivery — obviously isn’t new at all, going back to businesses such as the New York Catering Company of the 1880s. The arrangement remained strong in the 1950s and 1960s, even continuing into the 1980s. Examples include Phone-A-Feast (Peoria IL); The Orbit (Jersey City NJ); Mr. Dinner (Columbus OH); and Bring Me My Dinner (Stamford CT). General Mills, however, did not succeed with its trials of the concept: Order Inn was shut down in 1988 after one year, while the next experiment, Bringers, ended in 1992 after a two-year trial in Minneapolis.

Another delivery concept — such as Uber Eats or Grubhub that bring orders from any number of restaurants — isn’t new either. Messenger services, such as the Boys With the Red Sweaters (Bakersfield CA, 1910), provided early meal delivery for Chinese restaurants. In the early 1990s Las Vegans were served by Entrees on Trays, which handled deliveries from 20 restaurants.

Apart from pizza and Chinese food, it’s my sense that there were fewer restaurants and kitchens that delivered food to homes (and offices) in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps because that was a time when going out to eat, often for entertainment as well as nourishment, became very popular with a wide swath of the population.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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America’s finest restaurant, revisited

In the 19th century and well into the 20th there was absolutely no doubt that Delmonico’s was the nation’s finest restaurant, for decades the only one with a worldwide reputation. It was one of the few places in this country that European visitors compared favorably with the glittering restaurants of Paris’s “super mall” of the 19th century, the Palais Royal. [above: cafe section of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street Delmonico’s]

Founded by two Italian-Swiss immigrants in 1823 as a small confectionery shop in New York City, it soon grew into a “restaurant Français” occupying various New York City locations over its nearly 100-year run under family ownership. The Delmonico restaurants of the 1830s and subsequent decades were favored by foreign visitors, but soon Americans came to appreciate them too as their fame spread. As a form of homage — sometimes tongue-in-cheek — restaurants high and low, all over the USA, christened themselves Delmonico’s.

During much of the 19th century, most of America’s restaurants were located in hotels; up to the Civil War most operated on the American plan. This meant that everyone sat at large tables with others not necessarily of their choosing while bowls and platters of whatever was being served that day were set on the table to be shared – or not — by the diners. The Delmonicos introduced the European plan which allowed guests to have their own table and order just what they wanted, prepared the way they wanted.

An 1838 menu revealed that fine preparation was only part of Delmonico’s appeal. It also offered a profusion of dishes including 12 soups, 32 hors d’oeuvres, 28 entrées of beef, 46 of veal, 22 of game, 48 of fish, plus 51 vegetable or egg choices, and 45 pastries, cakes, and other desserts. (That 11-page menu is replicated in Lately Thomas’s classic book Delmonico’s, A Century of Splendor.) [Beaver street location shown above]

The number of dishes offered at Delmonico’s is overwhelming proof that the abbreviated reproduction menu that is commonly displayed and offered for sale online is a fake.

The original Delmonico brothers’ mission was what one observer writing in The Nation in 1881 characterized as establishing “a little oasis of civilization in the vast gastronomic waste which America at the time of their arrival presented.” For many Americans, the enjoyment of food bordered on sinfulness. Not only was it viewed as a monetary extravagance, claimed the essay, but there was a feeling among reform-minded people “that all time devoted to the table must be subtracted from that dedicated to spiritual improvement.”

So lauded was Delmonico’s that it’s necessary to point out that it had its critics who disliked the extravagant balls and banquets it hosted. In 1865, a year in which the newly Civil-War-rich were pouring into Delmonico’s, Morton Peto, a British railway and real estate developer, held a banquet for 100 guests. The cost was an astounding $250 a head. For comparison, as much as sixteen years later, the restaurant paid its waiters $30 a month. Another banquet that drew public disapproval was the dinner for James G. Blaine, a Presidential candidate in 1884. His backers, wealthy men who stood to gain from his election, were mocked in a front page cartoon in The World, which named the event after a Babylonian prince who tried to engineer his ascension to the throne. [above: front page of The World, 1884]

For a long time the Delmonico’s menu was entirely in French, without translation, a problem for English-only guests. If a guest ordered badly he (only men were given this task) imagined he could hear his waiter snickering. As a New York Times reporter put it in 1859, “we are made nervous by the sneerful smirk of the waiter, if we order the wrong wine in the wrong place . . .” And he might end up with a dinner of pickles and brandied peaches as happened to one hapless patron. The solution was to throw yourself on the mercy of the waiter and ask for his recommendations. [above: Fifth Avenue and 14th Street]

It’s interesting to note that Charles Delmonico, who ran the family empire following the death of Lorenzo, was said to be fond of the Italian restaurant Café Moretti. There he ordered risotto, a favorite dish that his restaurant’s French cooks did not know how to prepare. [above: Delmonico’s, Fifth Avenue and 26th Street]

Over time Delmonico’s moved from their initial “society” restaurant on the corner of Beaver, William, and South William streets [shown above, third from top] to three successive Fifth Avenue locations. Like all wise businesses, they were following in the path of their wealthy patrons. In 1862 they moved into an elegant mansion at Fifth Ave and 14th Street and in 1876 jumped up to 26th. In 1897 they settled in their final Fifth Avenue location at 44th Street, facing off with arch-rival Sherry’s. [above: Fifth Avenue and 44th Street]

Through the years the Delmonicos always kept at least one other location farther downtown for businessmen and politicians. The restaurant at 22 Broad Street served Stock Exchange brokers and speculators. It was said that for them “not to go to Delmonico’s for one’s lunch or tipple was to lose caste on ‘the Street.’”

In 1897 Delmonico’s yielded to music and smoking in its hallowed halls, a sign many regarded as evidence of a downhill slide. By then the 44th Street Delmonico’s was the last one doing business. It closed in 1923, a victim of weak management, increasingly informal dining customs, and Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

Delmonico’s was one of my early posts, and I realized I hadn’t given the subject its full due. This is an enhanced version.

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Filed under elite restaurants, menus, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies

Tableside theater

Is tableside service the kind of glamour that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny? It may be a noble tradition in French restaurants, but in the United States it’s another story. Depending upon how you look at it, it can be fun — or it can be understood as a way to charge more for lower quality food.

I haven’t been able to determine how common tableside service was in 19th-century America. But clearly chafing dishes were employed long ago, especially where oysters were served. A widely circulated story from 1843 described a man staying at a fine hotel in New Orleans who was outraged that he should “cook his own victuals” when he ordered a venison steak and the waiter brought a chafing dish for him to prepare it in.

How times change! By the mid-20th century, restaurant guests were delighted to prepare food themselves with a hibachi or fondue pot.

One of the most flamboyant sorts of tableside service is the presentation of food on flaming swords. It represented the consummate display of tableside theatrics, particularly at Chicago’s Pump Room of the late 1930s and 1940s. Master of ceremonies Ernie Byfield asserted that he preferred to host “laughing eaters” rather than “grim gourmets.” He was quite frank about the degree of pretense involved with tableside service at the Pump Room, implicitly acknowledging that formal French service was out of step with mainstream American culture. [Pump Room flaming swords, 1943]

Tableside service as entertaining floorshow got a foothold in American restaurants in the 1930s. By then, according to an essay by A. J. Liebling, Prohibition speakeasies had introduced middle-class New Yorkers to “a pancake that burned with a wan flame,” a reference to Crepes Suzette.

The popularity of flames at the table and other forms of tableside food preparation grew in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The full show was described by the proprietor of the Bubble Bar in Akron OH in 1952: “Just as your Flaming Sword Dinner is about to be served, the Rajah (that’s my assistant) and I dim the house lights and approach your table, sword in hand aflame with choice morsels of lamb, beef tenderloin or chicken. . . . And of course, following such an adventure in dining, you wouldn’t think or dare to order any dessert but our Flaming Cherry Jubilee or Flaming Crepes Suzette.”

Alas, a look behind the scenes quickly dissolves whatever magic adheres to tableside drama. The 1974 how-to book Showmanship in the Dining Room leaves little doubt that tableside service in all its forms — whipping up sauces, tossing Caesar salads, serving beef from shiny rolling carts, flaming things — is all about money. The book builds upon the wisdom articulated in a July 1966 issue of Cooking for Profit that asserts that, for “the table-cloth operation,” service is the prime merchandiser. Tableside service, goes the thinking, makes customers feel important and willing to pay more for what is often food of lesser quality or quantity.

Here are some of the magic-dissolving points made in the Showmanship book:
– The rolling cart has a virtually unique benefit. It allows the restaurateur to sell items he could not otherwise sell.
– Wines on a cart allow the waiter to push particular bottles. Few people can resist when a bottle is held before them with the waiter’s recommendation.
– Coffee can be served by a specialist. For some inexplicable reason customers accept an individual dressed like an Indian maharajah much more readily than a native of a coffee-producing country.
– A casserole item with a low food cost, such as curry made from turkey thighs, which could not be readily sold otherwise, can be merchandised from a self-service chafing dish on the table.
– As a general rule, carving in the dining room gives the operation a better yield; The carver becomes proficient at making less meat look like more; the waiter can divide a piece of meat that is less than the sum of two individual orders.
– If flambéing is done properly, the customers enjoy it and willingly pay for it. In most instances, it does not harm the food very much at all.
– Any waiter who can light a match can flambé a dish.
– Nothing about the perennial flambé favorites, crepes Suzette and cherries Jubilee, is exciting except the showmanship.
– But people like sweet tastes, and people like flames. The combination is seemingly irresistible, as it sells at menu prices so exceeding the cost that they would make a desert water vendor blush.
– The matronly waitress might be able to flambé successfully . . . but she may look domestic making a steak tartare and resemble a washerwoman when tossing a Caesar salad.

Let the patron beware!

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under food, restaurant customs, restaurant fads, theme restaurants, waiters/waitresses/servers

Bicycling to lunch and dinner

In the 1890s old wayside inns and roadhouses removed the horse troughs and replaced them with bicycle stands. A new day was dawning!

For years, ever since railroads had reduced horse-and-carriage traffic on the old colonial turnpikes, roadside eating and drinking places outside cities had been in serious decline. After the Civil War they were visited mostly by farmers and marketmen taking their produce to the city by horse and wagon. But, due to the popularity of bicycling beginning in the late-1880s, city people became the favored customers, both because they came in larger numbers and because they spent more.

Bicycling was fast becoming the favorite leisure-time activity of the American public. They couldn’t wait to take a spin in their free time, often on a route with wayside inns and roadhouses. The oldest inns were in the East, mostly found in states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The Red Lion inn at Torresdale PA, for example, was built in 1730.

For those preferring shorter rides, city parks were attractive, perhaps none so much as Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. It was well supplied with places to stop for a bite [such as The Dairy, shown here]. New Yorkers liked to tour the good roads on Staten Island or pedal out to Long Island and Coney Island, often making a stop at the beach. Bicyclists in Oregon were drawn to a rose farm outside Portland, site of the Ah Ben roadhouse where chicken dinners were served.

There were also eating places set up in homes along the wayside, and homemade refreshment stands in fields. Often these eating and drinking places were dubbed “Wheelman’s Rest.” One in Malden MA was offering light snacks in 1896, but apparently no beer or liquor, an activity that landed many proprietors who had no liquor licenses in jail.

Californians boasted that bicycling was possible year round in “the land of sunshine.” Country trips might be planned around visits to old missions. Pictured above are members of San Diego’s Crown City club, wearing white suits and sombreros on a tour in 1896.

Bicycling was popular across the country with men and women, both white and Black. Black cyclists, however, were banned from some local clubs and, after 1894, from membership in the national League of American Wheelmen. That did not stop them from cycling, but I can’t help but wonder whether they were welcome at most inns and roadhouses.

White women, however, were welcome, despite those who criticized them for showing their ankles or adopting non-ladylike postures. For years feminists had tried and failed to reform constricting women’s clothing. Almost overnight, opposition faded as bicycling women began wearing split skirts and bloomers. Beyond clothing, it seemed as though the new past time had a freeing effect. A journalist visiting a Bronx beer garden one evening wrote: “The bicycle has made ‘new women’ of them. They lean their elbows on the table and call for beer, or, leaning back, cross their legs man fashion and sip from the foaming mug.”

Bike paths were crowded from April through October, especially on Sundays, the most popular day of the week for cycling. Christian ministers were horrified, particularly if stopping at roadhouses was involved. As one wrote in 1897, this inevitably led to “blunting the moral sense, dulling the moral perceptions, and tainting the purity of the moral character . . .”

Ministers disliked Sunday bicycling no matter where riders stopped along the way. More conventional “wheelwomen” might prefer tea-roomy places serving nothing alcoholic where menus included milk, root beer, and lemonade, along with sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and cakes. Servers there were women who, according to one account, were ready to repair a sagging hem, brush dirt off a costume, or attend to a minor wound. The short-lived Greenwich Tea Room in Connecticut, operated by two young society women, offered dainty sandwiches of tongue, ham, chicken, or lettuce, plus home-made cake and ice cream. Drinks included café frappe and café mousse, both 10 cents.

Shore dinners also attracted bicyclists. In 1899 a cyclist traveling along the shore from New York City to Boston stopped at Hammonasset Point in Madison CT for a dinner that included clam chowder, bluefish, steamed clams, boiled lobster, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, pudding, ice cream, coffee, and milk – all for 50 cents. And an abandoned church turned restaurant and bowling alley in Undercliff NJ [pictured] did a brisk summer business in clam chowder with cyclists traveling along the Hudson River cliffs.

In the early years of the 1900s, the fad began to slow somewhat. Bicycling on roads became more dangerous as the number of cars multiplied. Through the years bicycling organizations had lobbied ceaselessly for improvement of the nation’s roads, most of which were unpaved. But they did not reap full benefit. As roads were improved, cars soon took over and bicycling accidents, often fatal, increased. However, automobile drivers continued the Sunday habit of heading out to country inns, tea rooms, and roadhouses that bicyclists had begun.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under Offbeat places, patrons, roadside restaurants, tea shops

Anatomy of a chef: John Dingle

Although he was English, it was John Dingle’s lifelong ambition to be regarded as a French chef. Ironically, it was while working at a Bronx roadhouse that he attained that recognition when he was dubbed “Monsieur Jean Dingle.” He expected his former co-workers in New York’s Ritz Hotel kitchen to ridicule him about it, but it turned out they were proud of him. [pictured: the roadhouse, ca. 1912]

His few years spent in New York capped what he regarded as on-the-job professional training. To help support his family, he had begun as kitchen boy at the Old Drawbridge Hotel in his home city of Bristol, England, at age 13. At 14, he resolved to become a first-class chef, even though he knew that it was an unusual aspiration for an Englishman. He knuckled down, working 12-hour days and teaching himself French. By the time he came to the U.S. nine years later, in 1911, he had worked in hotel and restaurant kitchens in London and throughout Europe. Despite facing ridicule because he was English — especially in France — he managed to work his way up. [Majestic Hotel, Paris, approx. when he worked there]

He tells his story in the book International Chef: Paris, New York, London, Monte Carlo, Lisbon, Frankfurt (1953).

He was recruited off the streets of London for a kitchen job at the soon-to-open NY Ritz-Carlton by an agent who offered him free passage and a wage of $27.50 a week. This was good pay contrasted with much of Europe where, he had discovered, the more prestigious the kitchen, the lower the wages. At the Ritz he was assigned to make hors d’oeuvres, but soon requested a move up: “I considered that I had already spent longer than was necessary in the cold department of the industry. I made my customary request to be transferred to the main kitchen and I was soon working in the sauce department, which is the most important in any kitchen . . .”

French was the language of the Ritz staff. Soon after he arrived his colleague “Monsieur Robert” showed him how to write out the daily supply requisition. Robert was surprised how well he did it, leading Dingle to reply, “I ought to be able to write it considering I’ve spoken it all my life.” Monsieur Robert (Trudge) was astounded, saying, “Well I’m blown, I thought I was the only English chef living.” Neither of them had ever met an English chef before. Of course, since an English chef had to masquerade as French, they might have been wrong. [pictured: Ritz dining room, ca. 1911]

Dingle decided to move on and, after a few short stints at summer resorts, landed a job at the Woodmansten Inn, on the Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. Adjoining a racetrack in its early years, it also had the distinction of being one of the roadhouses closest to Manhattan.

If everything was in order at the Ritz-Carlton, with its 70 chefs and well-equipped kitchens, that was far from the case at the Woodmansten Inn. Hired as chef, he immediately began correcting problems. He discovered that waiters had quite a few tricks such as substituting cheap wines for good vintages, and getting kickbacks from suppliers who were furnishing inferior foods while charging for higher grades. Refrigeration was supplied by three ice boxes located in the hot kitchen where the ice melted rapidly and dripped on the floor. He moved one to the cool cellar and used the others as storage cabinets. He rescued the inn’s vegetable garden and fruit trees which had been allowed to go wild. He converted abandoned, rundown stables and sheds into chicken houses. Another major coup was his introduction of broccoli onto the menu after he found an Italian neighbor growing it. It was not widely known outside of Italian communities – he referred to it as “green cauliflower.” He guessed that it would be a novelty to guests, who would tell their friends about it. Apparently he was correct because the next proprietor of the inn, well-known NY restaurateur Joe Pani, earned the title “broccoli king” by claiming he had introduced it to the U.S.

After a couple of years in New York, Dingle decided it was time to return to England, to his fiancé and his aging parents. He announced the decision to his boss, a man simply identified as “Mr. Roberts” in the book. Roberts then proposed that Dingle return after his marriage and become a co-proprietor with him. He convinced Dingle to hand over his savings, which amounted to $1,000 – equal to 70% of his annual income. After his return to Bristol, Dingle received urgent messages from Roberts informing him that the owner of the property was about to sell it and was demanding accumulated back rent. Roberts claimed he had paid off the debt and moved to Chicago.

I’ve come to suspect that Dingle was the victim of a scam by Roberts, who knew that the actual property owner – and the restaurant’s proprietor – was planning to sell, and who had no intention of going into business with Dingle. In fact, Roberts was also probably in on the various fiddles that Dingle attributed to the cooks and waiters.

Despite seeing his plans for the future ruined, and having lost his savings, the ever-determined Dingle went on to open two successful restaurants in Bristol.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under chefs, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants

Sunny side up?

In the 19th century it was common for eating places to offer breakfast, along with dinner and supper (as the meal sequence ran then). That was because so many of their patrons were travelers or people (mostly men) who did not have households and ate all their meals away from their lodgings.

A Baltimore coffee house proprietor advertised in 1812 that from 7 until 10 in the morning he would have “every sort of cold Breakfasts, a la Parisienne, or warm ones, such as Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, &c. served up in the best style.” Unlike most, he specialized in “elegance,” with food produced by a French cook.

All kinds of things were eaten for breakfast then. An Englishman traveling around the country in the early 1840s was surprised by the wide range of dishes available. Beyond a selection of meats, he listed rolls, toast, eggs, chicken, gravy, and “cakes of buckwheat and Indian corn.” He was disgusted by a favorite do-it-yourself concoction at one hotel he stayed at — a raw or near-raw egg whipped with butter and condiments and spooned or drunk from a wineglass.

Breakfast all day, in the form of bacon and eggs, was not unknown. And it was also common to offer the same dishes for breakfast and supper, particularly outside the East. At San Francisco’s Popular Dining Saloon, in 1887, patrons had many choices, including quail on toast, a “family porterhouse,” eggs and oysters, hot cakes, corned beef hash with an egg, waffles, boiled corn in cream, and more. [pictured is a somewhat similar menu from St. Louis, 1875]

Oysters for breakfast? Why not? Anyone living today might gasp at the breadth of offerings on an 1880 advertisement for a Portland OR restaurant bill of fare: Codfish balls, Family Porterhouse, Salmon bellies, Brains, German Pancakes, Oysters, Waffles, etc. What might “etc.” even mean?

Some of the most elaborate breakfasts were those served to butchers by Mme. Begue after closing time of the big New Orleans market. Breakfast one day in 1905 included successive courses of shrimp salad, oysters a la Newberg, omelette filled with sweetbreads, cauliflower with egg dressing, broiled mutton chops and peas, and fruit and cheese. All accompanied by wine and coffee aflame with brandy. Those were truly the olden days. By contrast, the 20th century would be known for the light breakfast, nothing like Madame’s (though maybe the popularity of brunch comes closest, regarding both the variety of foods and the alcoholic beverages).

Cereals played a role in lightening breakfasts. Branded cereals had their start in the later 19th century, but were not heavily promoted until the early 20th. Marketing campaigns featured eating places. In 1902 Hotel Monthly noted that promoters of shredded wheat had been successful in getting it onto menus in “hotels, restaurants, clubs, dining cars, steamships and lunch rooms,” to the point where an estimated 5,000 hotels and restaurants were serving it to patrons. The rising demand for cleanliness in food launched the popularity of single-serving cereal packages. Counter seating in lunchrooms meant that display shelves offered opportunities for promoting branded products. It didn’t take long for companies such as Post and Kellogg to begin providing handy display cases. [Kellogg’s ad in American Restaurant Magazine, 1946]

Despite the trend toward lighter and more standardized breakfasts, as late as 1921 Boston stood out with breakfast menus that catered to local demand for oysters, baked beans, and pie. Another oddity was the breakfast item that appeared in the 1926 Edgewater Beach Hotel Salad Book. Named “Eight-Fifteen,” it was lettuce and watercress with ham and hard-boiled eggs.

By the 1930s light breakfasts had beaten out the old favorite, ham & eggs. Also, time spent eating the morning meal was on its way down from half an hour to ten minutes. Breakfast was looking like a losing deal for restaurants, even with the additional lures of waffles and pancakes. Although restaurant patronage was on the rise in 1960, a survey by the National Restaurant Association and General Foods showed that 61% of meals eaten out were lunch, 28% were dinner, and only 11% were breakfast.

However, in the 1960s and 1970s the number of restaurant breakfasts seemed to be on the rise and by the middle of the 1970s McDonald’s had begun trying out breakfast items. Breakfast menus became widely popular at fast food outlets in the 1980s, driving up the number of breakfasts eaten out. Among breakfast menus’ other advantages for burger chains then was relief from the rising price of beef. [McDonald’s postcard, 1979]

Another interesting breakfast development that spread across the U.S. in the 1980s was the so-called power breakfast. An occasion for an informal meeting of power brokers and business executives, it was said to have begun with those in the world of finance who gathered in the late 1970s at the Regency Hotel’s Le Restaurant in NYC. More meeting than meal, power breakfasters ate little and drank even less, in striking contrast to the legendary but largely fictitious three-martini lunch. Though often hosted by hotels, an interesting effect of the power breakfast was to induce some elite restaurants to open for breakfast.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under food, menus