Dining with Chiang Yee in Boston

Chiang Yee was a travel writer, born in China but a resident of London since 1933. In 1953 he came to the U. S. to research his book The Silent Traveller in Boston (1959). In 1955 he immigrated to the U.S. and taught at Columbia University for 16 years.

While in London he had published 21 books, many of them which he illustrated with paintings and drawings. Some were about travel but all of them interpreted aspects of Chinese culture for non-Chinese readers, reflecting upon similarities and differences with Western culture. In the travel books, for which he adopted the persona of Silent Traveller, he avoided political criticism and controversy while presenting himself as a serene, meditative man who walked slowly, looked closely, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of life.

Of course his visit to Boston involved quite a few restaurants, including a number of well-known places. He made influential friends — intellectuals and cultural elites — who took him to clubs and fine restaurants such as the Parker House, Locke-Ober, and the hidden-away 9 Knox Street, then run by two men in their antique-filled home at that address.

He went to popular spots such as Durgin-Park, Purcell’s, Jimmy’s Harborside, and Union Oyster House where he made a drawing of himself with a lobster and bib [shown above]. He was eager to sample local dishes such as cod, baked beans, and clam chowder. He never criticized the restaurants he patronized, though he admitted he was not fond of raw seafood.

A darker and far less serene Chiang Yee was revealed in 2010 with the publication of Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller from the East – A Cultural Biography. Its author, Da Zheng, examined Chiang’s correspondence and interviewed friends and family, painting a complex portrait of his subject. In the Foreword, Arthur Danto reminded readers that “the Silent Traveller itself is a mask he wore that enabled him to survive under skies very different from those under which he was born.” Danto related that after visiting China in 1975, Chiang proclaimed to a group of friends, “Nobody knows who I am!! Nobody! I am a REVOLUTIONARY!!!!.”

Chiang had left his wife and four children behind when he went to London at age 30, confessing to his closest associates that his marriage was unhappy. Born into a wealthy family, he was trained in the classical arts as well as science which he studied in college. He had been a magistrate in China but in the West he built his career around Chinese art and high culture.

According to Da Zheng, when one of his sons immigrated to the U.S. in 1960, Chiang advised him to expect hardships and to be forbearing. His son observed that his father’s New York apartment was filled with signs saying “Forbearance,” suggesting that his father had much need of his own advice.

Chiang Yee told his son to stay away from Chinatown or he might end up running a restaurant there, advice he had earlier given his older son in London. Given the prejudice against Chinese in the U.S. and England – of which he was strongly critical — Chiang told them it was wise to cultivate relationships with non-Chinese.

In the light of revelations in his biography of Chiang’s strong feelings about politics, society, and the vicissitudes of his own life, I interpreted some of his words in a different light than on my first reading of The Silent Traveller in Boston. It is interesting how suggestive his stories of restaurants are in particular.

Although he admired Chinatown residents’ determination and drive, he did not share their language or cultural background. He showed some irritation that his non-Chinese friends and acquaintances in Boston expected him to be an expert on American Chinese restaurants. He wrote that a Frenchman would not “be asked to suggest which French restaurant in Boston is the best as I was asked to do in the case of Chinese restaurants almost as soon as I had arrived in the city.”

He also told of experiencing his first clam chowder in San Francisco but being greeted with silence when he told his Boston friends about this. At first he did not realize why, but later, when they asked if he thought food in Chinatown restaurants was genuine, he reminded them of their reaction to his story of eating Boston clam chowder in San Francisco. I now see this as a kind of mild dig at them, a subtle reminder that the food of American Chinatowns was as foreign to him as it was to them.

I also find it interesting that he tells of a dinner with the family of Harvard professor Yang Lien-sheng at the Old Wright Tavern. He was pleased that the waitress complimented the good behavior of the Yangs’ 5-year old son, but also wrote, “Neither the manageress nor the waitress bothered to tell us the history of the inn . . . Perhaps the people of the Wright Tavern had no time to spare from catering. Or they took for granted our knowledge of Concord history.” I suspect that he felt they had been slighted.

He must have experienced numerous “microaggressions.” Surely experiences such as the one he related about Durgin Park accounted for at least some of his Forbearance signs. Given a huge plate of food that he could not finish, a waitress addressing him as “young man” (he was 53), loudly commented, “Can’t you finish your plateful? If you can’t you should not have come here to waste your money; if you don’t like the food, we want to know why. We don’t like people who don’t like our food.” He said that when she laughed he realized she was joking, but admitted to feeling embarrassed. I’m certain that he knew that the “joke” contained a jibe about his being a foreigner.

It is a shame he had to travel silently and could not be as frank about his estimations of American culture as the Soviet authors of Little Golden America.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Slumming

The word slumming had several meanings when it came into use in the 1880s. Basically it meant visiting the slums. But the purpose for elite and middle-class white Americans might vary, from charity to data collection, curiosity, a sexual escapade, or general entertainment.

Apart from ministers, reformers, and city officials, those who went on slumming tours (with guides) in the late nineteenth century usually were motivated by curiosity or a wish for entertainment.

In 1884, the New York Times ran a story about British actress Lillie Langtry and her party visiting the city’s slums, noting, “So far the mania here has assumed the single form of sight-seeing – the more noble ambition of alleviating the condition of the desperately poor visited has not animated the adventurous parties.”

Following the vogue begun in London, slumming became a mark of worldly sophistication among some Americans in the late 19th century.

Although most newspaper accounts of slumming focused on New York’s Bowery and Tenderloin or San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, there were in fact areas of interest to slumming parties in many parts of the U.S. For example, a group of conventioneers from Omaha visiting Dakota Territory in 1889 took an excursion to Deadwood’s Chinese settlement. They were disappointed it was so tame.

Tours often involved stopping at a restaurant or café, particularly if a group was visiting a Chinese area, as was often the case especially as Chinese populations increased in the Eastern U.S. beginning in the later 1880s. Many of the first white, middle-class customers of Chinese restaurants were “slummers.” Such excursions increased around the turn of the century. A 1900 account described how Chinese restaurant keepers had learned that it paid to accommodate slumming parties who “would spend more money in their places in an hour than their regular customers would spend all day.”

But Chinese restaurants weren’t the only ones “discovered” by slummers. King’s Handbook of New York listed slumming restaurants under the category of “Novelty in Restaurants” in 1892. In addition to Chinese (“dirty, foul-smelling and cheaply furnished”), the handbook mentioned Hebrew restaurants of the East Side, a Japanese restaurant, Russian restaurants, Polish restaurants, a place with Spanish cooking, and “Italian restaurants of a low order” on Mulberry Street. Of a higher order, according to King’s, were Austrian, Swiss, Hungarian, and German eating places.

In addition to Chinese, Italian and Hungarian restaurants were top choices of slummers. Coppa’s, particularly before San Francisco’s great fire of 1906, drew many who were curious about “bohemian” lifestyles.

Postcards from New York’s Little Hungary around 1906-1908 illustrate customers’ thrilled reactions. Anna & Will mailed their card to Arlington NJ, while Marge, who apparently left out a word, sent hers to a woman in Syracuse.

A common interpretation of the appeal of immigrant restaurants was the aridity of mainstream American culture, with its emphasis on the strict rules of proper behavior. Italian and Hungarian restaurants, by contrast, were enjoyed as places where patrons might sing along with the band or talk to their neighbors without being introduced. James Harvey wrote in his 1905 book In Bohemia, “By the time you get to the roast, it is eight o’clock and the evening is in its prime. Everybody seems to love everybody else, thanks to the heavy Hungarian wines.”

In some cases nostalgia played a role. According to a 1997 article by Beth S. Wenger subtitled “The Invention of the Lower East Side,” that part of New York became a destination for Jews who had moved uptown. She quoted a 1926 Jewish Daily Forward story that said “the crowds come nightly to Delancy and Rivington Streets to drink selzer, eat Roumanian Broils and listen to sentimental ballads.” Wenger saw visits to the East Side as symbolizing “the uneasy social adjustment of second-generation Jewish Americans” who were not satisfied with “the ‘strained and sterile’ dining spots in their new neighborhoods.”

Though it was regarded as daring to venture into immigrant restaurants in the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, it became less so as the restaurants responded by exaggerating their “foreignness” to attract suburbanites and tourists. In 1905, according to Town & Country, “to eat spaghetti in the backyard is a pet fad,” especially for wealthy conservatives in search of “thrills at the strangeness of it all.” The proprietor played up to them by dressing as a ferocious bandit, “his head bound up in a gay bandanna with large rings in his ears.”

In a 1914 Sinclair Lewis novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, the protagonist takes a woman to a restaurant run by “Papa Gouroff” who wears a fez in hopes that “the place would degenerate into a Bohemian restaurant where liberal clergymen would think they were slumming . . .”

Menus, too, were tailored to the tastebuds of outsiders, producing dishes such as chop suey and chili con carne.

Slumming really hit the mainstream before and after World War I, probably due to a number of movies and novels whose plots included exciting scenes of people on tours. In the 1913 “New York’s Society Life and Underworld,” a group is set to visit the Port Arthur restaurant in Chinatown [pictured] just as they hear a woman’s scream. Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford both starred in 1918 films with slumming scenes; Pickford’s included slumming in San Francisco’s red light district, the Barbary Coast.

At this time just about anyone might venture into the slums, whether a group of clayworkers visiting New Orleans in 1914, or soldiers from Seattle on leave in New York. One soldier admitted, “I was never so disappointed in my life as I was in the Bowery. I expected to see several murders and gun fights but all I could see was foreign merchants with hair all over their faces.” Their big thrill, as it turned out, was going to the Automat.

In fact the Bowery wasn’t what it used to be, having been sanitized in the war period. According to the book Slumming (Chad Heap, Univ. Chicago Press, 2008), counterculture tea rooms in places such as NY’s Greenwich Village and Towertown in Chicago became the bohemian “thrillage” sites of the 1920s. [verse from The Quill, 1919]

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Picturing restaurant food

Restaurants have long tempted the public with displays of food, but in the 20th century it became possible to replace actual food with images of desirable dishes on colored postcards and illustrated menus.

Color photochrome postcards became standard after WWII, yet it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that menus illustrated with full-color photographic images of food came into common usage.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, before photochrome postcards came into widespread production, linen-finish postcards were the norm. Their cartoonish coloring often lacked realism. For example, the grayish shrimp topping stuffed flounder at Manuel’s in Galveston TX look distressingly like worms.

Even as quality photography and printing became more available in the 1950s, restaurants weren’t always successful in portraying food attractively. Professional food stylists had yet to arrive on the scene to solve problems such as poor plating, monochromatic food combinations, and runny gravies.

Regarding poor plating, a large portion is all very fine but should an order of meat or fried fish be bigger than the plate?

Gargantuan food itself can be questionable, not only to consume but also to look at. How attractive are french fries almost as big as baked potatoes? Is a two-pound burger eight times better looking than a quarter pounder?

On menus, photos of food play multiple roles, providing information about “exotic” dishes, invoking desire, and steering choices. In the case of restaurants whose dishes – or drinks in the case of Polynesian theme restaurants — might be unfamiliar to some patrons, pictures serve as visual description.

As far back as the 1930s, some restaurants used illustrated menus but with images that appeared to be hand drawn and colored and almost comical compared to the realistic photographs that dominated chain restaurant menus by the 1980s. Full-color, laminated menus are most often found in 24-hour coffee-shop restaurants and present all the meals and dishes that are available; breakfast, lunch, and dinner often have no clear demarcation.

Laminated menus cost more to produce than others yet are relatively long-lasting because they can be wiped off — though, as often noted, rarely are. Their lifespan is about 3 to 6 months, after which prices and dishes need updating.

Unlike Indian, Chinese, or Mexican restaurants (especially in the years when they were new to many diners), dishes found on illustrated menus of chain restaurants – such as bacon and eggs, pancakes, or burgers — are not the least bit unfamiliar. Quite the opposite.

Which seems to raise the question of why such ordinary food needs to be illustrated at all.

Not too surprisingly the main role of photos is to encourage customers to order the restaurant’s more profitable dishes. It’s always possible to order a single pancake or fried egg, but it is certain that what will be pictured is instead a stack of three pancakes or two eggs with sausage or bacon.

Featured dishes are positioned to follow the paths typically taken by customers’ eyes. Prized locations include the menu’s center and top right. Another tactic, one that turns the whole menu into an eye-catching circus, is to place featured dishes inside brightly colored boxes.

As for dishes that don’t get top billing, a Denny’s advertising director observed that a hopelessly slow seller like a grilled cheese sandwich would be line-listed, no photograph. On a 1970 Tops Big Boy menu [shown here], beef and shrimp achieved center feature status but ham and fish dinners failed to make the cut, languishing in a line-list.

I am still left wondering why many dishes on illustrated menus look so unattractive, especially considering that the menus are often produced after extensive research and consultation with experts. On a three-panel 1985 Friendly’s menu a “100% Sirloin Steak Burger” looms over the center column at a scale larger than other features such as a Clamboat Platter and a Seafood Salad Plate, yet it utterly fails to project charisma.

Contrary to wished-for results, many diners view laminated, illustrated menus as a signal that a restaurant’s offerings are going to be bland and uninteresting. An Orlando FL restaurant reviewer complained in 1988 that many restaurants there used laminated menus: “It seems that no matter what type of restaurant I go to, or how much is charged for the average meal, the menu is plastic coated. It reminds me of the people who buy really nice furniture and then cover it in plastic.”

Really? Nice?

Illustrated menus have become so strongly associated with mediocre food that it is a huge mistake for an establishment aiming for the fine-dining category to use such a menu, even temporarily. But, believe it or not, such a restaurant existed in Phoenix AZ in 1983, with expensive entrees pictured in shiny plastic while the wine list was calligraphied and covered in velvet.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Find of the day: the Double R Coffee House

It gets harder and harder to turn up anything interesting at flea markets – even on the sprawling fields of Brimfield. But luck was with me this past week when I found the little menu from The Double R Coffee House.

It didn’t look terribly interesting in itself until I remembered that my restaurant collection contained a cartoon-style postcard with the same name that I especially liked.

Turns out that the two Double R Coffee Houses had an interesting history. They were established and funded by sons, daughters, cousins, and others related by blood or marriage to Theodore Roosevelt. The impetus for the coffee houses came from Theodore’s son Kermit, who had spent time in South America and Arab countries. He mentions coffee repeatedly in his book War in the Garden of Eden. The book describes his experiences while serving with the British forces in Iraq and other countries involved in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I.

The initial business incorporation in 1919 was called Café Paulista after a café in Buenos Aires that Kermit had frequented years before. The corporation launched the first coffee house, then located at 108 West 44th Street, calling it The Brazilian Coffee House as inscribed above the door in this 1919 photo.

The coffee house got a fair amount of press due to the Roosevelt connection, but the family did not involve themselves in running it, nor were they known to frequent it. However, in one instance President Roosevelt’s widow did visit the 44th street location. A widely publicized news story in 1923 told of how she had saved two oil paintings of her late husband when a minor fire broke out in the kitchen.

What was truly unusual about the coffee house was not so much its owners or its decor, but how serious it was about coffee. The manager, Brazilian Alfredo Salazar [shown above], declared it was not a restaurant. Although it served light food including empenadas, he insisted the focus was on serving “real” coffee. He declared that Americans, New Yorkers included, did not know how to roast, grind, brew, or for that matter, drink coffee. Coffee that was boiled or percolated and left to sit around for over 30 minutes was equivalent to “tannic acid soup” in his estimation. He advised drinking it black, but allowed that the coffee house would provide cream, milk, and sugar since it was not a “propaganda establishment.”

The coffee house roasted coffee beans on the site and everyone commented on the wonderful aroma this produced.

Shortly after opening, the 44th Street coffee house moved to larger quarters nearby at #112. It was popular from the start, particularly with Brazilians, American business men – and business women — as well as surrounding theater-district performers.

Another characteristic of the coffee house that was appreciated was that patrons could linger as long as they liked, even if they ordered very little. Imprinted stationery was provided along with some reading materials – including an abridged version of the U.S. Constitution — and the place soon extended its hours to 1 a.m.

In February of 1921 the name was changed to Double R Coffee House due to a conflict with another business claiming that name and also because a cousin named Robinson was the corporation’s new president. In May a second coffee house on Lexington was opened with an exhibit of paintings by members of the Art Students League curated by realist painter John Sloan. Because of the art connection, it seems as though this coffee house had a more bohemian aspect. In a letter to Chicago poet and editor of Poetry Magazine Harriet Monroe, poet Wallace Stevens wrote that he had visited the new coffee house in August and “had a dash of maté.”

In 1923 there was talk of opening another Double R on 45th street in Times Square, but I could find no trace of it. Vague ideas about expanding to Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, talked about in 1919, never materialized and in 1928 one or both of the coffee houses were sold to new owners. What happened after that is unknown.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Delicatessing at the Delirama

The gigantically oversized menu shown here from Jack & Marion’s Delirama in Brookline MA is 21.5 inches tall, 34 inches wide fully opened, and contains over 230 items not counting drinks, desserts, or carry-out Delicacy Platters. It was probably in use from the mid to late 1950s.

Digesting its pink and white interior is a dizzying, yet entertaining, exercise. Some items, such as the Hot Roumanian Pastromi Sandwich, are marked with a red star indicating “good profit item for Jack and Marion’s (Please order).” The Empire State Skyscraper Sandwich comes with a warning “Sissies, Please Don’t Order!” There is a “Jewish Dictionary” that explains that a “Zedeh” is “a grandchild’s press agent” while “Mein Bubbe’s Tahm” means “chopped herring at Jack’s and Marion’s.”

Patrons could join the “Fressers Fraternity” if they cared to admit that they had gluttonous appetites.

Hungry patrons could feast on bowls of sour cream with banana, fresh vegetables, or cottage cheese. Or on “Forshpies (before getting serious . . . a treat!”), in other words appetizers ranging from a dish of Sweet Gherkins (.35) to Chopped Herring (.65) or a Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail (.95). Along with shrimp, the deli also served non-kosher dishes such as Canadian Bacon Steak and Lobster Surprise, one of the most expensive choices at $5.95. Parties of six could feast on a $25 “Sandwich Supreme, served on a sterling silver platter (which remains our property.)” Like delis generally, sandwiches formed the bulk of menu offerings.

The deli on Harvard Street in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner was owned by Jack and Marion Solomon who opened it in 1950, advertising themselves as “designers and builders of the famous Skyscraper Sandwiches.” Jack, who had previously operated a deli in Brighton, explained that he modeled the Delirama on the famous Raymond’s on Boston’s Washington Street. Raymond’s was a bargain store that used corny advertising by a fictitious Unkle Eph who coined the store’s slogan “Where U Bot the Hat.” Jack Solomon said he, much like Raymond’s, had “done everything to make this the most talked-about restaurant.”

For a number of years the deli kept late hours, staying open until 3 a.m. It drew celebrities doing shows in Boston, such as players from the musical revue Bagels and Yox, who performed songs in Yiddish and other languages. In the 1950s it was often mentioned in entertainment columns in Boston newspapers. It was also a popular place for college students and couples on dates.

Despite suffering two bad fires and having the safe stolen, the Delirama persisted. It did, however, eventually withdraw from the entertainment scene and begin to keep earlier hours. The business did not survive long after the death of Jack Solomon in 1971. Despite attempts by his second wife, Valda, to keep it going, it went bankrupt and closed around the mid-1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Restaurant design and decoration

In the second half of 19th century restaurant decoration – in restaurants that had any — was mainly the work of painters who created baroque fantasies on walls and ceilings. Rooms reserved for female diners seemed to be more likely to be well decorated. An example was a ladies’ Refreshment Saloon on Broadway in New York in 1853 painted by someone simply referred to as Delamano. It’s likely he was the same Signor Delamano who painted scenery for a minstrel production with tableaux featuring Uncle Tom and Little Eva five years later.

Unfortunately I don’t know what the women’s decor of 1853 looked like. But for men, a standard decorative focal point was a painting over the bar of a reclining nude woman. Presumably men enjoyed these paintings, though one dissenter in 1884 declared barroom artwork a tasteless and degraded “decorative nightmare” aimed at “gamblers and the swell-mob.” To little effect – such paintings survived well into the 20th century, continuing to define spaces as male turf.

Along with friezes and murals, a full-service painting and decorating firm was likely to be able to handle plaster ceiling decorations and room moldings. In the case of the excessively ornate, carved and gilded Tosetti Restaurant opened in Chicago in 1895, decorators were aided by metal grillwork attached to the ceiling which was then covered with elaborate plaster work and lunettes painted to depict historic scenes.

Magnificence had become more attainable in the 1880s with the availability of Lincrusta-Walton, a thin version of linoleum that was embossed and paintable. It was waterproof and altogether superior to papier maché reliefs that had been used earlier. An era of exuberant gorgeousness was about to begin.

Theatrical decor reached a peak in the work of Henry Erkins, who designed the short-lived, Babylonian-styled Café de l’Opera and the opulently ridiculous Murray’s Roman Gardens in New York, shown here in 1908.

Decorative materials such as Lincrusta [shown here] were especially popular in the decades when restaurants were designed as empty boxes, ready for a decorator. As explained in Interiors Book of Restaurants (1960), architects from earlier eras had “designed buildings from the outside in, often giving no more thought to the appearance of the interior than the use of appropriately designed moldings, paneling, stairways, and other architectural details which would relate the style of the interior to that of the exterior.” The rest was left to a decorator who would finish the interior in the period style selected.

Later, particularly around the mid-20th century, the process was reversed, with architects working from the inside out, often in collaboration with an integrated design team that might include lighting and kitchen consultants along with interior designers. The integrated inside-out process was manifested in the California coffee shop of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Of course hiring a professional design team presumes a well-capitalized restaurant. Many restaurants, of course, had no architect, designer, or decorator unless it was the owner or an associate, and this remains the case today. In stark contrast to restaurants designed by prominent designers and decorators such as Raymond Loewy Associates or Dorothy Draper [see top, coffee shop at The Greenbrier], were the everyday 20th-century cafes and lunchrooms that had no decor whatsoever other than advertising calendars and soft drink posters.

For a long time, only luxury restaurants enjoyed the services of professionals, but that had begun to change with the emergence of chain lunchrooms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They adopted functional designs meant to make the most of a storefront location from a business standpoint. Rather than beauty or faux-luxury, they built their reputations on cleanliness, efficiency, and brisk, moderately priced food service.

Although there have been some well-known restaurant designers, they tend to remain behind the scenes, largely unknown to the dining public. Certainly the designers of lunchroom and cafeteria chains were not celebrated. It’s likely that some of them were employees of restaurant supply companies, such as Vulcan Equipment and Supply Co. of Birmingham AL, which claimed in the 1950s to be “One of the South’s Finest Restaurant Designers,” specializing in “beautiful and serviceable” restaurants.

After World War II restaurant design came into its own, with firms that specialized in just that, handling not only dining room decor, but kitchen layouts, lighting, furnishings, and even the design of distinctive uniforms, tableware, and menus. In the case of restaurants owned by New York’s Restaurant Associates – such as the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, Leone’s, the Four Seasons [see below], La Fonda del Sol, and others, each restaurant had its own logo appearing on menus, matchbooks, ashtrays, and in advertisements.

Although New York City had many restaurants by top designers, California proved a strong rival in the 1960s when restaurant patronage soared there. A new restaurant type had evolved, the “California coffee shop,” combining elements of drive-ins, coffee shops, cocktail lounges, and dinner houses. They occupied specially designed structures that used novel angles and signage, with modern interiors that were said to reduce labor costs and speed up service. Among the leading designers were IRS, Inc., responsible for designing and developing more than 2,200 California coffee shops by the mid-1960s, and Armet & Davis, hailed by Alan Hess (Googie, Googie Redux) as responsible for making “Coffee Shop Modern . . . a major popular modern style.” Hess identifies a specialized architectural vocabulary applicable to these styles, one that includes terms such as boomerangs, dingbats, folded eaves and plates, and hyperbolic paraboloids. [Biffs, Los Angeles, Dougles Honnold architect]

The Four Seasons, opened in 1959 in NY’s Seagram Building, represented the height of luxury restaurant design, not only because it employed a top flight of designers but also because everything in it was custom designed to the tune of $5.5 million. The decor changed with the seasons, from the interior trees and plants right down to the color of waiter uniforms and matchbooks. The recreated Four Seasons, about to open at a new address, reportedly cost $30 million, which works out to $6.2 million less than the present-day value of the 1959 project [measuringworth.com].

In the 1970s and 1980s, the growing popularity of theme restaurants brought about new kinds of decorating services, as well as a growing industry of collectors who amassed warehouses full of objects of all sorts, ranging from antiques to wagon wheels and dentists’ chairs. One such business, originating in the late 1950s, was Oceanic Arts in suburban Los Angeles which grew to be a major supplier and manufacturer of Tiki decor.

By the later 20th century anyone opening a first-class restaurant faced a host of requirements beyond heightened customer expectations of decor. They ranged from managing utility demands, fire and health regulations, accessibility issues, and, in California, earthquake proofing. By 1990 costs began in the hundreds of thousands, easily escalating into the millions, even when dealing with a location in pre-existing building.

Restaurant design has come a long way from Lincrusta and potted palms.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Dining on a dime

To celebrate my blog’s 10th anniversary, I’m looking at what a dime would buy in American restaurants of the 19th and 20th centuries.

It’s not too surprising that a meal could be bought for a dime through much of the 19th century. BUT, does that mean that a restaurant meal was much cheaper then than today?

Not necessarily. For example, compare the situation of unskilled laborers in 1869 and now.

In New York City in 1869, when the average hourly wage for an unskilled laborer was about 15 cents, a meal of meat or fish with two slices of bread and a potato could be had for 10 cents. Adding pie, the bill came to 15 cents. A laborer had to work one hour to pay for this meal. And, any restaurant with prices this low – most were more expensive – was almost certainly dirty and smelly.

Today, by contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that $16.60 is the median hourly wage for an unskilled construction worker, meaning half of workers surveyed make less than that and half make more. Using this as a typical wage, we also have to consider that various taxes are taken out resulting in a smaller net amount, something that was not the case in1869. Subtracting $5.00 gives a net wage of $11.60. At McDonald’s a regular hamburger costs .95, but let’s make it a double for $1.89; small fries are $2.09, and an apple pie is $1.14. The total comes to $5.12. So a laborer has to work less than one-half hour to pay for what is probably a more substantial meal than in 1869. And – this is not intended as an advertisement for McDonald’s — the restaurant is undoubtedly cleaner.

Before Prohibition cheap restaurants had a hard time competing with saloons’ free lunches in many parts of the country. According to research on urban working-class saloons (Jon M. Kingsdale, American Quarterly, October 1973), along a 4-mile section of a major street in Chicago in the 1890s there were 115 saloons with free lunches, but only five 10-cent restaurants and twenty five charging 20 to 35 cents. Brewers bought food cheaply in large quantities and furnished it to saloons at cost.

Not surprisingly, it became harder to find 10-cent meals, or even single dishes, in 20th-century restaurants. And, of course, even in the Depression people who had jobs made more per hour than they did in the 19th century, making a 10-cent sandwich, for example, a better deal.

But in the 1970s it was basically impossible to find anything on a menu for ten cents. (But, keeping in mind the McDonald’s example above, it was possible to find something in a restaurant that cost no more than one hour’s wages.)

Here are some samples of what you could get for a dime in American eating places over the years:

1854 A New York City temperance restaurant tried to lure patrons away from strong drink with plates of meat for 10 cents, as well as tea, coffee, and cocoa for 3 cents a cup. Since a typical laborer’s wage was even lower then than in 1869, this was a bargain only in the sense that prices were higher in most other restaurants.

1869 In contrast to New York City, a workman could do pretty well in San Francisco, according to one newspaper account that asked, “Where else in the world can a man sit down to green-turtle steak, bread and butter, celery, sauces, etc., . . . with but ten cents in his pocket? A very popular cheap eatery was in the What Cheer House which served over 1,000 patrons a day in dining rooms crowded with people waiting to grab a vacated seat. On average, workers in California made 60% more than New Yorkers, about $2.00 a day.

1884 At the Novelty Lunch Room in Grand Rapids MI a hungry worker could get Hot Griddle Cakes and Maple Syrup or Pork and Beans for 10 cents. A nickel more bought pie or cake. Michigan’s median daily wage for a laborer was then $1.42.

1889 Boston was said to be the home of sandwiches of all kinds, with Wyman’s taking credit as originator of the Fried Egg Sandwich. As noted on this trade card from the 1880s, Wyman’s specialty was a ten-cent lunch. At this time Massachusetts’ median daily wage for a laborer was only $1.22, about 12 cents an hour.

1895 Eating places known as “Beefsteak Johns” in NY sold single dishes such as roast beef and potato for 10 cents, while a regular dinner costing 20 cents had meat and potato plus soup, tea or coffee, and pie or pudding. But a few years later a letter to the editor of the Daily People signed “Hamburger Steak” charged Beefsteak Johns with paying low wages and serving bad food. It ended with “Forward! To the days of the Socialist Republic when the food of the workers will not be adulterated by the little business man in the restaurant line.”

1904 Fairgoers generally expected high prices for food at world’s fairs, but at the St. Louis World’s Fair the Universal Lunch Co. ran barbecue stands selling hot beef sandwiches for ten cents.

1910 Prices were lower in self-service eating places such as the newly opened Servself Lunch in Detroit’s Majestic Building which billed itself as the finest quick lunch in America. Most items, including soup, corned beef hash, pork and beans, macaroni and cheese, chicken pie, boiled eggs, sandwiches, corn flakes, baked apples, griddle cakes, and pastry, cost a dime each.

1922 Cooper’s Cafeteria in the college town of Champaign IL offered weekend specials such as Veal Loaf with Tomato Sauce or Creamed Chicken on Toast for 10 cents, while most side dishes and desserts cost 5 cents.

1928 and 1929 At Macy’s Department Store in New York, where it was “Smart to Be Thrifty,” the store shaved a penny off items that would have been 10 cents in most restaurants, such as Vegetable Soup, almost all pies and cakes, and a variety of beverages including Coca-Cola and Orange or Raspberry Phosphate. Each cost 9 cents. But a 1929 menu from Schrafft’s at 181 Broadway in New York listed absolutely nothing for 10 cents. The average hourly wage for manufacturing workers before taxes was about 56 cents in both years.

1932 The White Castle chain adopted a promotion to attract women customers (who generally avoided the restaurants). They were mailed coupons by a hostess named “Julia Joyce” that offered five small hamburgers to carry out for only a dime. The economy was depressed and the average hourly pre-tax wage for factory workers had dropped to 47 cents.

1941 With the U.S. supplying food to Great Britain for the war effort, the cost of food went up. Restaurants responded by raising prices. In Springfield IL a Wimpy’s hamburger stand increased the price of its 10-cent burgers to 12 cents.

1950 In New York City the Automat raised the price of coffee from 5 to 10 cents. At the Children’s Milk Bar in the Lord & Taylor department store, children could snack on milk and crackers for 10 cents.

1951 In Beaumont TX the Pig Stand was selling hamburgers that cost 10 cents before WWII for 25 cents. The average hourly pre-tax wage for manufacturing workers was $1.59.

1962 Even at inexpensive restaurants and drive-ins, beverages such as coffee or a small soda were usually the only items priced at 10 cents.

1965 A Burger Chef in Baton Rouge LA celebrated its 6th anniversary with 10-cent hamburgers. Ordinarily they cost 15 cents.

1974 See cartoon.

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