The smörgåsbord saga

Swedes began immigrating from rural Sweden to the United States in significant numbers in the 1870s, but it took a while before Swedish smörgåsbords were introduced to the American public. The earliest ones opened in cities in the 1910s, but even in the 1930s proprietors still found it necessary to explain the concept to Americans who were not of Swedish ancestry.

In 1912 a self-proclaimed high-class Swedish restaurant called Henry’s opened in New York City [advertisement 1918]. There had been earlier Swedish restaurants in the city but they appeared to serve workers and were unlikely to have offered smörgåsbord. In 1915 another first-class restaurant opened in New York, Scandia, headed by Gerda Simonson. It was the first known restaurant of its kind run by a woman.

It is somewhat surprising that these early examples were in New York City since both Chicago and Minneapolis had larger populations of Swedish immigrants. But it’s likely that at that time NYC restaurants were better able to attract travelers from abroad as well as Swedes living there.

Despite the presence of a Swedish restaurant with a smörgåsbord at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, there do not seem to have been many such restaurants in Chicago until the 1920s. They were also evident in Rockford IL. As was true of tea rooms, many were run by women. The Bit of Sweden in Chicago, opened in 1925, billed itself as a tea room, but of course Prohibition was in effect, ruling out the smörgåsbord’s classic accompaniment to herring, a shot of Aquavit. The number of smörgåsbord restaurants increased during the 1930s, particularly after Prohibition ended. [pictured:Rococo House, run by the same woman who introduced Bit of Sweden]

At first it seemed that Swedish restaurants in the U.S. relied heavily on patrons of Swedish ancestry who enjoyed them on Sunday evenings. [above Rockford IL, 1928; kropkokn is a cake] Gradually they drew a non-Swedish clientele, many of whom had as much trouble with the concept of smörgåsbord as they did with its pronunciation.

At their finest, smörgåsbord restaurants achieved a high level of artistic beauty in food presentation as is evident in the above photograph of a New York restaurant in 1939.

Newspaper stories had appeared in the late 19th century explaining that Swedish steamships and hotels furnished smörgåsbord as appetizers before a meal. Patrons took a small plate with a slice of bread and then selected a few items to eat while standing, accompanied with a strong drink and beer. They might have seconds but they did not eat so much that they spoiled their appetite for a full meal which they would soon order from their table.

Non-Swedish Americans, however, tended to see the smörgåsbord as a meal in itself, piling their plates high and often returning for more. Soon restaurants adapted by pricing the smörgåsbord separately. For a higher price, patrons could precede a dinner with smörgåsbord if they chose to. In the 1930s the Bit of Sweden restaurant in Los Angeles went to some trouble to explain how it all worked, devoting a page of its menu to this, and instructing patrons that the correct pronunciation was SMIR-GOES-BOORD (rather than SMAR-GUS-BORD). The restaurant charged $1.50 for smörgåsbord with dinner, or $1.00 without, and included a warning on its instructions page that customers had better eat all they took or they would be charged extra.

Other stories also appeared in the 1930s with instructions on how to handle smörgåsbords. In 1948 well known food journalist Clementine Paddleford explained what she learned from the daughter of the manager of NY’s Three Crowns Restaurant — which made its debut at the 1939 NY World’s Fair. She was told there was a system to choosing from its famed 100 items. First, she wrote, take pickled herring and a bit of herring salad along with a boiled potato with sour cream. On the second visit, more fish – maybe shrimp, sardines, smoked salmon, and a marinated mussel. Trip three might be hot dishes, but alternatively could be cold meats, salads, and cheeses if the diner was planning a fourth trip for hot food.

Decades later, smörgåsbord restaurants could still be found, but it seems that the idea of freely choosing food from a spread was being taken over by low-price, no-frills, all-you-can-eat buffets. Some, such as the Sir George’s chain called themselves smörgåsbords, but others named themselves “smorgies.” I doubt many, if any, were owned or operated by Swedish-Americans. [above, Sir George’s in Hemet CA]

As for authenticity, Tracy Nicole Poe explained in her 1999 dissertation that even the early examples of smörgåsbords in the U.S. represented an “invented tradition.” She wrote: “Like other elements of Swedish-American ethnicity . . . the smorgasbord’s origins are more a product of the National Romantic Ideal, and its rituals more concocted from the imagination of community leaders, than they are manifestations of rural immigrant culture. The fact is, most Scandinavian immigrants would probably never have attended an actual smörgåsbord in the classic nineteenth century European sense.”

On the other hand, I think the all-you-can-eat smörgåsbord derivative, though invented, is a genuine representation of American culture.

© Jan Whitaker, 2023

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Meals along the way

On Monday, October 6, 1834, Charles Shipman and his two teenage daughters, Joanna and Betsey, left Athens, Ohio, for Philadelphia. Charles went there twice a year to buy goods for his general store. They traveled in their two-horse carriage and would not return until November 15, by which time they had been through the mountains, traveled by steamship, visited Washington and Baltimore, and met with President Andrew Jackson.

Their usual plan was to get up early, travel for a while and then stop for breakfast and dinner at an inn or tavern. Their main meal was mid-day dinner. They ate “supper” wherever they were staying for the night. They stayed at inns, hotels, and for their longest stay, in Philadelphia, at a boarding house where their meals were supplied.

The meals in taverns and inns in small towns were surely humble. Joanna kept a record of their travels, more of a log of times and distances than a diary of subjective impressions and descriptive details. It’s disappointing that she was not inclined to record much about what they ate on their travels, but there are some interesting bits.

On their fourth day of travel they stopped in Morristown OH for breakfast at 9 a.m. Joanna writes: “Found some tomato preserves on the table, at first thought they were very good, but after tasting again concluded to the contrary.” On Joanna’s initial recommendation, Betsey ate some of the preserves but later told her sister that they made her feel sick.

That evening they arrived in Wheeling – now in West Virginia, but then Virginia – and stayed in a “very good country tavern” where Joanna reported she “Ate too much supper, and that with rainy weather and miserable roads makes me feel a little homesick.”

In the journal it becomes clear that the sisters were prone to feeling homesick and anxious – about traveling through the mountains, staying in cities, meeting people, and being on steamboats. Joanna found Smithfield VA, and then Petersburg VA where they stayed overnight, depressing: “Have had the horrors all day.” Seeing a fire from their window in Philadelphia, Joanna recorded that she and Betsey were “frightened out of our wits.”

Did anything thrill the sisters on what was probably their first trip outside Ohio? Joanna certainly shows no excitement about meeting “Old Hickory,” the President, and simply records that after shaking hands, and “looking at him as long as we cared to, we left his August presence and went into the yard.”

Joanna writes with a restrained tone, yet it’s clear she has a sense of humor. The Shipmans met with various people along the way. After one of them, a man who “ogled his eyes” when he looked at the sisters, told them he planned a future visit to Ohio, Joanna writes, “So now look sharp, Miss Betsey.”

On the way to Fredericktown MD, they stayed overnight at an inn. Joanna recorded her simple breakfast the next morning as “a piece of bread, strong [i.e, rancid] butter, peach sauce and a cup of milk.”

At that point they were about to reach that part of their trip that took them to larger cities. But I feel certain that they had no interest in exploring urban dining as itemized on the 1834 bill of fare of the Adelphi Coffee House in Philadelphia [shown above]. It gives a good idea of choice dishes of that time, but since the coffee house was also a drinking place it would have been forbidden territory for this family. Charles Shipman was a dedicated temperance follower who refused to handle alcohol in his store.

Upon reaching Baltimore the next evening, they had trouble finding a hotel that was not full, but on the third try discovered a new place called Page’s that had just opened. Joanna described it as “the most splendid house my little eyes ever beheld.” They had a private parlor and meals brought to their room. But despite these positive aspects, she wrote “It nearly frightens us out of our wits to go all through [the hotel]. Betsey says she never thought she was raised in the woods to be scared at an owl, but she has found tonight that she was.”

Their 11-day stay in Philadelphia included some strange-sounding entertainments. At the Hall of Independence they viewed dogs powering cloth making, and an automaton that wrote. The next day they went to Washington Hall where they saw speaking and dancing puppets and “the exhibition of the burning of Moscow.”

Their father offered Joanna and Betsey a trip to New York City, but they turned it down, preferring to head for home.

Leaving Philadelphia they returned to Washington, beginning their journey homeward. They stayed in a large hotel, Brown’s Indian Queen Inn, but did not record anything about it. Traveling through Virginia they stopped at Warm Springs, where they were weighed so they could see how much they gained at dinner. Charles (119½), Betsey (109), and Joanna, (118½) each added from 1 to 1½ pounds to their slight frames. They stayed overnight in the springs region, eating “a real country breakfast” the next morning. Then, for dinner at White Sulphur Springs, they “were treated to some fresh pork fried, some fresh beef fried, some light bread and some milk, rather tough this, as I look at it,” recorded Joanna.

Only two days from home, they stopped at Wilson’s Hotel in Charleston for dinner. She reported “the way dinner was served was a ‘touch above the vulgar.’” I would not think that was a resounding compliment.

Joanna was more than thrilled to get back home to her mother and brother.

© Jan Whitaker, 2023

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Dinner in Miami, Dec. 25, 1936

Judging from the number of restaurants and hotel dining rooms advertising Christmas or Xmas dinner that year, there must have been quite a few prospective diners around. It was still the Depression but prohibition had ended several years earlier, tourism was well underway, and Art Deco buildings were going up all over.

The not-at-all modernistic Old Heidelberg shown above – which had opened in the unfortunate year of 1929 — gave no details about its offerings that day, other than to characterize it as an “Old-Fashioned Dinner.” That’s a fairly meaningless description if you ask me. Given that Germany had withdrawn citizenship from Jews in 1935, this probably was not a restaurant popular with Miami’s Jewish community.

Most of the advertisements mentioned price, not surprising since most people had to watch their spending. They ranged from a low of 50¢ per person to a high of $2.00 at a place called the Rose Bowl, a restaurant specializing in Southern dishes, with a woman serving bread dressed as a “mammy.” Like the Heidelberg, the Rose Bowl made no effort in its Christmas advertisements to tout its dinner or whatever other attractions it might have possessed.

Others went to great length to attract diners. The Big And Little Grill had no end of attractions, including music, “gifts to all,” free parking, a chef who had formerly worked at a New Hampshire resort hotel, and a Santa Claus who once appeared in Charlie Chaplin’s movie “Circus.” All dinners were 75¢. The list of comestibles filled ten wide lines of text. It contained 35 separate items, among them a “Big and Little Salad,” Boiled Lobster Stuffed with Oysters, Supreme of Sole Florentine, Sizzling Steak with Wine, and numerous vegetables and desserts.

The Big and Little offered an equally good deal for its New Year’s celebration, with a return performance of Charlie Little, now in the role of clown. As for its advertisement, as a New Englander I’m obligated to point out that there is no Dixieville in New Hampshire – it’s Dixville.

Attraction-wise, the Big and Little was hard to top. But George’s Restaurant tried hard, with even more inches of advertising, not to mention wine and bottled beer. Its 75¢ dinner comprised six courses: Cocktail (tomato juice, half grapefruit, etc.); a soup accompanied by olives and hearts of celery; a choice of five entrees that included Whole Broiled Lobster, Maitre d’Hotel (chances are these were clawless Florida lobsters, considered inferior to Maine’s); a salad; eight vegetables; choice of many desserts (six kinds of pie, a cake, a sundae, ice creams, jello, or stewed prunes). For those who didn’t have big appetites there was George’s Special 50¢ Dinner, which of course offered fewer choices and only half a lobster, but still looked like a bargain.

The Studio Grill’s turkey dinner included wine, which may have accounted for the $1.00 charge. Shortly after it opened a few years earlier, the suburban Miami curb service eatery had advertised for “Girls with Blonde Hair” who were 5’6″ tall, weighed 118 lbs., and had “striking” personalities. Undoubtedly reflecting Depression conditions, 800 showed up. The grill was owned by a magazine cover illustrator and was filled with his paintings of nude women.

The Laura Jacobsen Café, a high-class Chicago transplant, was located in a residential apartment hotel. Her Christmas dinner in the ritzy-looking Colonial Towers accommodating snowbirds from the North was $1.25.

Wherever and whatever you may eat, I hope you will enjoy your holiday dinner.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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An early restaurateur’s rise & fall

Life in the 19th century was chaotic and unpredictable in so many respects, but the weird and eventful life and restaurant career of the highly enterprising Mark Langdon Winn, with its succession of ups, downs, and strange twists, would stand out in any century.

As far as his many business schemes went, he never stuck with any of them for long, restaurants included. He bounced around Maine, Boston, New York City, Albany NY, San Francisco, Virginia City NV, and finally back to New York City where he died in 1881. His San Francisco restaurants were the most successful of his enterprises, but despite their promise he held onto them only for about six years.

Before going to California he owned two grocery stores in Boston. Next he went to New York City where in 1843 and 1844 he manufactured and sold a cure-all product called Winn’s Irish Vegetable Relief Candy, good for “weakness of the chest and lungs, liver complaint(s), asthmatic affection, impurities of the blood, dyspepsia and all bowel complaints.”

Maybe restless, disappointed by candy sales, or lured by gold, he took off for San Francisco in 1849, age 34, after leaving Albany where his wife and children remained for another couple of years. Borrowing money from a shipmate upon arrival, he began making candy and peddling it in the streets. After a short time he had enough money to open a confectionery with a partner. Before long he was running the business solo and had added bakery goods and simple meals to his offerings.

Fires were frequent occurrences in San Francisco and he was burned out at both of his initial locations in less than a year. In 1851 he opened his principal restaurant on Long Wharf, calling it Winn’s Fountain Head. Despite the abundance of eating places in the city, it rose to prominence rapidly due to its respectability, cleanliness, and relatively low prices. It was unique in heavy-drinking San Francisco for providing no alcoholic beverages. Winn was a dedicated temperance advocate, always emphasizing the cause in his frequent, wordy newspaper advertisements that often contained sermons on the evils of drink.

The Fountain Head was not fancy. Long Wharf (aka Commercial Street) was hardly a fine location. It was a busy street without sidewalks, filled with liquor saloons, gambling dens, and all-night stores. It vibrated with “a heterogeneous crowd” of carriages, horses, carts, and pedestrians. A writer in the March 1854 issue of The Pioneer wondered “Why there are not a dozen or two broken necks there daily.”

The Fountain Head was open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to midnight, with a menu that included a wide range of meats and vegetables, along with puddings bearing such homely names as Aunt Sally’s and Cousin Jane’s. According to a ca. 1853 menu, an order of roast beef, veal, or corned beef and cabbage cost 25c, while most vegetables were 12c.

According to the city’s Commercial Advertiser in April, 1854, the Winn enterprises — by then comprising the main Fountain Head restaurant and a more elegant “Branch” welcoming women with fancy desserts – had attained the pinnacle of success. Together, the story reported, the two places served 3,000 patrons daily, taking in $57,000 a month, and paying out monthly as much as $1,600 for advertising, $8,000 for meat, $4,000 for milk, $3,000 for potatoes, and $2,000 for ice.

But this account was misleading because only a few months later Winn went into bankruptcy.

Following bankruptcy he started up at a new address, combining the Fountain Head and its Branch into one. But things soon turned sour again. In Spring 1856, he and his new business partner dissolved their partnership with the partner taking over the business. Almost immediately after that, Winn’s wife Eliza took advantage of a California law that allowed women to run businesses independently, declaring that she would carry on the “Fountainhead Confectionery and Steam Candy Manufactory” in her name. It appears she continued to run the business of making and selling baked goods and confectionery until 1859. He may have briefly tried to make a comeback at his original address, but in 1859 the Fountain Head on Commercial Street and a confectionery run by Eliza Winn were put up for sale.

Years later, in a Poughkeepsie NY newspaper story of 1878, Mark Winn would blame the failure of his San Francisco restaurants on employees who robbed him. “Every man I employed was a thief,” he said, singling out his secretary, cashier, and cook. With honest help, he claimed, “I would have been worth a half a million of dollars.”

But the Winns’ western odyssey wasn’t over after leaving San Francisco. In 1860 they moved to the boomtown Virginia City, Nevada, where silver had just been discovered. There, Mark Winn struck silver, opened a restaurant and confectionery called Winn’s Fountain Head, Jr., and invested in a hotel. The hotel soon relocated to another city in Nevada and he lost his investment. The fate of the restaurant is unknown but it did not achieve fame as he had done in San Francisco [1864 advertisement]. He tried to sell shares in his silver mine, advertising that “there is no doubt that within the next six months a fair dividend will be made to the stockholders.”

Apparently he didn’t strike it rich, though, because after five years in Virginia City he filed for insolvency and the Winns returned to San Francisco where he began work on the invention of a shampooing device that was patented in 1871 [shown above].

Next, the couple moved to New York City where he deteriorated rapidly, living in destitution and displaying signs of paranoia that had been in evidence as far back as 1854 when he referred to his “enemies” in an advertisement for the Fountain Head. On one occasion he was arrested as a public nuisance, wandering the streets of New York wearing “armor” and a tin helmet (possibly the shampooing device?) while distributing religious tracts. He spent his final days in the Alms House on Blackwell Island where he was described as suffering from “religious mania.” It also came out that his father had been an alcoholic.

Despite the uneven contours of his career as a restaurateur, Winn’s Fountain Head has become a subject of interest, often mentioned positively in a number of books and articles that tell of San Francisco’s early history. It’s presented as a triumphal success, when really it’s a boom and bust story sadly common in the restaurant business.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Runaway menu prices

Restaurant prices are rising during the current inflationary period, but this is scarcely the first time. In fact it’s at least the fourth in little more than a century.

The first was during World War I, particularly after the war ended. In response, many restaurants teamed up for cooperative buying to keep costs under control to a degree. Drugstore soda fountains and other inexpensive eating places gained a thriving lunch business, while first-class restaurants raised prices as they whisked away frills including cloth tablecloths and napkins. The average restaurant operator’s motto became “simpler, cheaper, faster.” In New York, the venerable Mouquin’s hiked steak prices, charging $4.50 for a porterhouse steak with mushrooms that had historically been only $1.00.

The tough business climate combined with Prohibition caused the closure of droves of fancy restaurants such as Delmonico’s, which had been sliding for a while.

Complaints mounted. In 1920 Chicago’s city hall called restaurateurs on the carpet to explain their high charges, as the “Carry-Your-Lunch” movement grew. Boston put a U.S. District Attorney on the job to investigate prices at the city’s popular restaurants, including The Puritan and The Pilgrim.

Restaurant workers wanted raises, but it was a bad climate for strikes. Chicago’s 1000-seat faux-luxe North American Restaurant sacked their striking waiters and installed a cafeteria line. Their advertising copy assured customers they didn’t need to tip because “There was no one there to tip.” At the same time the North American’s advertising championed low prices, the ballyhooed bargain-priced “whole baby lobster” shrank to half a baby lobster. Did they think customers wouldn’t notice?

Although World War II also raised restaurant prices, that did not dampen patronage by war workers who enjoyed higher wages than ever. The president of the Society of Restaurateurs reported that from 1941 to 1944 New York City’s 19,000 restaurants went from serving 3 million to 8 million meals a day.

Soon the federal Office of Price Administration tried to control prices at restaurants across the country by freezing them to April 4-10, 1943, levels. Restaurateurs found ways to skirt regulations by reducing portions and substituting “blue plate” specials for what had previously been a regular meal including appetizer and dessert. In addition to reducing food costs, the move also saved a lot of dishwashing. Quality and sanitation went down as patrons mobbed restaurants severely short staffed due to military recruitment and the lure of defense industry jobs. High prices continued through 1948 as did meat rationing. [Britling advertisement, 1942]

The “stagflation” of the 1970s was still to come, with inflation accompanying a stagnating economy – a situation similar to what some economists see looming today.

In 1970 consumer prices rose steadily, especially for food and restaurant meals. Soon New York maitre d’s became friendlier and even the city’s rich began to complain about costs. A wealthy woman who had never paid attention to prices and customarily ate out six or more times a week became angry at being charged over $4 for a melon wrapped with prosciutto at the Plaza’s Oak Room. A nationwide Gallup survey found that a substantial percentage of restaurant goers had cut back on evening dinners out.

A few years later famous NYC restaurants including the Colony and Le Pavillon failed. At the same time Chinese restaurants were prospering. Across the country, salad bars became popular as did fast food outlets and restaurants specializing in dishes such as pizza, pasta, and tacos. Books recommending inexpensive restaurants did well. By 1974 three chains – McDonalds, Colonel Sanders, and Burger King — were furnishing 13% of all food eaten outside the home nationwide. Five years later there were 66,000 franchise outlets in the U.S., nearly double the number in 1973. Elsewhere, doggie bags soared in popularity and some customers began packing away anything edible on the table. A few restaurants went so far as to remove tops from ketchup bottles to discourage patrons from carting off their ketchup. [above: 1970s fast food streetscape]

Printing houses could barely keep up reprinting menus as prices went up, up, up. And still the restaurant industry experienced heavy, some said “booming,” business – even though patrons were eating more hamburgers than steaks. Analysts thought it was due to the number of working wives, along with the fact that the hike in supermarket prices outdid restaurant price increases. The president of the National Restaurant Association reported that the country’s half million restaurants enjoyed rising sales throughout the mid-1970s, with 1975’s take 16% higher than the year before. Nonetheless the industry fought a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage from $2.30 to $3.00 an hour.

Despite continuing challenges, the economy began to improve in 1982, ushering in a period of gastronomic innovation in restaurants.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Thanks so much!

Recently I was looking over some of the comments my readers have left over the years and I realized that saying thanks is way overdue.

I’m flattered and pleased that my readers and followers are so kind – and so smart! They have sent praise, suggested new topics, asked good questions, and gently corrected me. They have added to my understanding of many of the places, people, and situations I’ve written about. Some have loaned me images or mailed me books, menus, even restaurant china on a few occasions. Others have shared my posts, bringing me more readers. The number of rude or ugly comments I’ve received is minuscule, probably less than 1 in 1000.

I am grateful.

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Digesting the Madonna Inn

The Madonna Inn complex in San Luis Obispo CA, including a fantasyland motel, wedding venue, shops, and restaurants, represents the genius and determination of a rugged male individual – assisted by his wife — conquering all obstacles to build a dream.

Alex Madonna had been planning his project from 1953 if not earlier. The motel opened in the full sense of the word in early 1959, but it was not until a couple of years later that the complex was furnished with eating facilities.

Although all along it has had plenty of overnighters, honeymooners, lunch and dinner patrons, banqueters, and gawkers who love it, the place has also had detractors. Among their assessments: “a fantasy run amok,” “the epitome of lousy taste,” and “a crazy, outrageous Hansel-and-Gretel complex.”

Madonna Inn lore credits its unorthodox design to Alex and Phyllis Madonna’s untutored creativity. Alex, according to legend, speedily dismissed the architects he initially consulted. Yet, up until the end of 1958 Madonna worked with plans developed by Beverly Hills architect Louis Gould, a former Hollywood film set designer. And as late as 1966 an advertisement for an apartment complex Gould designed credited him with other “outstanding landmarks . . . including the famed Madonna Inn.” To the extent that the Inn’s exterior achieved any coherence, it may be due to his early influence.

Yet there was a point where no professionals guided the design, as revealed especially in the striking – to me jarring – use of large stones and boulders. The two most celebrated rooms – a men’s public bathroom with a urinal flushed by a waterfall and the Caveman Room [shown above] – prominently feature these materials.

Throughout the interior, the combination of stones and boulders with bright primary colors, artificial flowers and vines, gilded cupids, figured textiles, and plush carpeting is disturbing. The Inn’s eating places exemplify the common observation that many American restaurants are more about decor than food. This was especially true of the primary dining room, the Gold Rush Room [shown below]. Its jangling decor, superficially suggesting luxury but not allowing the eye to rest, is out of keeping with fine dining where food is the star.

A Los Angeles Times reviewer said he lost his appetite in the Gold Rush Room after viewing the giant tree with “fat, glossy, grinning cherubs, spray-painted gold and swimming in Pepto-Bismol.” Alex Madonna responded with a letter defending the room’s centerpiece. The 25-foot tall tree, he pointed out, had been “hand-crafted” on the spot out of “electrical conduit and copper remnants left over from building projects.” The pink, he wrote, was inspired by a visit to Hawaii where it was used lavishly in hotels and restaurants. At one point, even the Inn’s bread and sugar were pink.

The images of the Madonna Inn shown here are difficult to date, but most are probably from the 1960s and 1970s. Everything was subject to change and frequently overhauled. As a 1973 story in the Los Angeles Times observed, Alex Madonna perpetually thought up new ideas, one being an indoor lake featuring a floating cocktail bar that patrons would reach by canoe. The room would have been furnished with a snowflake machine and a three-story fireplace that burned entire trees. That dream did not materialize, nor did the plan to build another motel complex atop the San Luis Mountain behind the Inn that he bought from the city of San Luis Obispo in1972.

The Inn’s basement Wine Bar below the Gold Rush Room featured boulders incongruously festooned with vines and blooming flowers, a beamed ceiling, and chairs fashioned from barrels. If the wine list was anything like the coffee shop’s, it too would have specialized in Lancers and Paul Masson selections such as Rosé and Sparkling Burgundy, along with Port and Sherry aperitifs.

Lunch and supper specials on a ca. 1960s coffee shop menu were also uninspired. They included low-calorie choices such as Ground Beef Patty with Cottage Cheese, and entrees like Top Sirloin Steak with Cottage Cheese and Peaches. “Chilled” Tomato Juice as an appetizer.

The 1960s and 1970s were not distinguished decades gastronomically, and in that sense the Inn was typical. Patrons might be thrilled with the oversized pastries available in the coffee shop, but otherwise the fare did not receive many comments. A few observed that it was nothing special and overpriced. Recent photos taken by guests are not flattering, though it’s only fair to admit that they may reflect Covid-era staffing issues.

The Inn was hailed in the 1970s by fans of vernacular roadside architecture, such as John Margolies, as well as some influential writers and scholars. Not only did Margolies declare the Inn’s meals “delicious,” he considered the complex “a labor of love” designed to make people happy” and “a place where things that don’t go together go together.”

Hmm. I’d say that in the Gold Rush Room’s Christmas scene, among others, things could never go together.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Halloween soup

Although the food-page story in a New Orleans newspaper said that this photo showed a jack-o-lantern just carved by Chef Gunter Preuss for his children, I can’t help feeling a little bit spooked by it. Is it how he’s holding that knife, or his serious gaze?

Never mind, because the story was about the Harvest Cream Soup he makes out of the pumpkin’s insides. (See recipe below.)

At the time of this story, 1976, Gunter Preuss and his wife Evelyn were owner-operators of the Versailles Restaurant in New Orleans. Eight years later they acquired a part interest in Broussard’s, which they took over from 1993 to 2013.

The Versailles received a glowing review in Richard Collin’s “Underground Gourmet” column in 1978 — although it was definitely not a restaurant for the price-conscious diner. Collin declared it “spectacular,”and “about as fine a restaurant as one can imagine.” He singled out many dishes as “platonic,” meaning they could not be more perfect. Among them were Bouilabaisse Marseillaise, Rack of Lamb Persillades, Ris de Veau Grenobloise, and Pears Cardinal. Chef Preuss was also featured on the show Great Chefs of New Orleans.

The recipe for pumpkin soup does not give amounts for every ingredient. It calls for a pumpkin’s interior, seeds removed, to be cubed and washed. Then sauté the cubes with onions and celery until glazed. Add flour and a half quart of chicken stock. Simmer the mixture over medium heat for 45 to 60 minutes, seasoning with salt, white pepper, powdered ginger, and white wine. Then strain the soup and add three eggs yolks and a cup of light cream. Simmer on low flame for five minutes, then pour into cups and serve with a whipped cream topping and a touch of ginger. Serves six.

Enjoy Halloween!

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Restaurant-ing with John Margolies

The multi-talented John Margolies spent nearly 40 years on the road taking tens of thousands of photographs of roadside businesses. He focused particularly on those with bright paint, unusual signs, or odd shapes. Often the buildings were amateurish constructions, sometimes abandoned and forlorn looking [above, Orange Julep, Plattsburgh NY, 1978].

Restaurants and ice cream stands were frequently his subjects, as were motels and gas stations. The photos were notable for the absence of people, which tended to give them a strangely monumental appearance as well as a degree of pathos. The sky was always blue, often cloudless, even if he had to wait for days to take the shot. It is clear that his involvement with these subjects was highly personal. [Daisy Queen, Greenville SC]

He produced at least a dozen books using his photographs and ephemera from his and other collections. Among them were The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America (1981), Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station (1994), and Home Away from Home: Motels in America (1995). An elegiac tone concerning the buildings and businesses made obsolete by interstate highways, fast-food chains, and big box stores suffused his project.

Rejecting the distinction between good and bad taste, he was determined to put popular culture on a par with elite high culture. For example, he admired the flamboyant architecture of San Luis Obisbo’s Madonna Inn, designed by its owners who were untrained as architects. His photographic choices reflect his dedication to this mission.

How fortunate that nearly 12,000 color slides of Margolies’ work have been acquired by the Library of Congress and can be viewed online.

I have selected a few of the hundreds of restaurants whose images he captured. For the most part, these restaurants were not the sort to do much advertising or to be reviewed in newspapers, so they are difficult to research. For example, little is recorded about the barrel-shaped eateries he photographed, such as The Beef Burger in Amarillo TX. I suspect it may have once served as an A&W rootbeer stand.

The Fish Inn of Coeur d’Alene ID, on the other hand, often cropped up in local newspapers. It was designed by its husband-and-wife owners in the mid 1930s. It changed hands often and probably stood empty for a time, yet amazingly enough has survived into the present, primarily as a roadhouse with live bands.

A Spokane WA newspaper columnist in 1936 described it as “a grotesque structure, made in the shape of the fish, with its shingled sides representing scales and the huge mouth the main entrance.” That attitude would change. By the time Margolies photographed it in 1987, appreciation for what became known as “roadside America” had spread across the land and the Fish Inn had been noted as one of its gems. There were other odd structures in the greater Spokane area such as a creamery’s 38-ft tall milk bottles, the Miner’s Hat in Kellogg ID, a giant Paul Bunyan, a tavern in the form of a prairie schooner, and a number of pseudo-windmills.

After standing empty for several years The Boat Restaurant in Vernon NY was reopened in 2008, but possibly later closed and demolished. According to a brief note on the Oneida County History Center site, a longtime former owner dated it to 1923. Margolies photographed it in 1988, by which time it had lost a few of its original features. Why the restaurant was built as a boat is unclear other than to attract the attention of passersby. Many eating places have adopted the shape of boats over the years.

As a storefront restaurant built in an alleyway in the 1930s or 1940s, the 12-foot-wide Town Talk Diner was a “greasy spoon” notable for its cheap burgers, cream pie, and giant modernistic sign. Because of its front it is not strictly a piece of vernacular architecture, but it no doubt captured Margolies’ interest in 1984 because of its sign. Located on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, it — along with many other businesses in the vicinity — was burned to the ground during protests against the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

In 2017 it had been taken over by new owners who renamed it the Town Talk Diner & Gastropub. Noticing that most of their guests came from out of town, they were puzzled about the lack of local customers. They discovered through social media that many thought it was still a diner, mainly because of the sign. How odd that what attracted Margolies kept customers away.

Powers Hamburgers, built before WWII, has survived fast-food competitors and thrives to this day in Fort Wayne IN. It even has a Facebook page. Like the Town Talk Diner, it seems quite different than vernacular buildings such as the Fish Inn and The Boat. Rather than whimsy, Powers and the Town Talk both display the influence of European moderne design as interpreted by professional designers. Powers Hamburgers reminds me of the architect-designed units of the White Tower chain in the 1930s with their white porcelain paneled exteriors.

In his later tours Margolies photographed fast food chain units, including a few McDonald’s, Bennigan’s, Papa John’s, and a Del Taco. Buildings by corporate chains with staff architects do not seem to have much in common with his earlier subjects, especially considering that their rise was responsible for the failure of so many “mom and pop” businesses. I’m still puzzling over that.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under diners, odd buildings

True confessions

Through the years a number of writers have described deceptive practices and foul scenes in restaurant kitchens where they have worked. Probably the best known authors are George Orwell (Down and Out in London and Paris, 1933) and Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential, 2000).

In those books, and in periodicals, I’ve read many reports of bad restaurant food, along with dishes misrepresented on menus. But I’m still a bit stunned after reading Restaurant Reality: A Manager’s Guide by Michael M. Lefever (1989). One of the biggest surprises is that he reveals his own willing involvement in kitchen tricks and horrors inflicted on guests — even in restaurants he and his wife owned and operated.

The book has a puzzling disclaimer on the copyright page: “This book is a composite of the author’s own experiences. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is purely coincidental.” But, whether absolutely factual or not, and despite being aimed at college students interested in restaurant management, the book seems to sanction questionable activities.

In his preface to Restaurant Reality the author makes several statements that seem to undermine the disclaimer somewhat. He says that he tried to present “an authentic overview” that was “a real eye-opener for anyone who has ever eaten in a restaurant.” He adds that while the content may be shocking, “that’s how things really are.”

Starting at age 14, Lefever had at least a 23-year career in a number of restaurant roles, including dishwasher, server, cook, and bartender for an Italian restaurant, followed by unit manager and district manager for a fast-food chain, and regional manager for a dinner-house chain. Plus, in between the chains, he and his wife were owner-operators of three independent restaurants. Following his restaurant career, he held academic positions both as Associate Dean of the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston and as head of the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Travel Administration at UMass Amherst.

Although no names of individuals, places, or restaurants are given in the book, I have discovered that the third restaurant the Lefevers owned briefly was The Balcony in Folsom, CA. According to a 1983 story in the town’s paper, their two previous restaurants were in Bend OR and Salt Lake City, probably in that order.

How things really were

At age 16 Lefever became head cook at an Italian restaurant. It was before microwave ovens were common so hot water was used for parboiling and defrosting items such as lobster tails. The same water might be used for multiple items, such as pasta, chicken, and fish, as well as frozen steaks before they went on the broiler. He remarks, “This may be of some interest to readers who are strict vegetarians.”

No matter what the customer ordered at the Italian restaurant, all steaks were delivered to guests rare and cooked further only if they complained. If the customer insisted on a well-done steak the kitchen took revenge by putting it in a deep-fat fryer, followed by treatment with a blowtorch which caused it to burst into flames. Just before it burned to a crisp they would throw it on the floor and smother it in salt, then shake off the salt, put it on a platter and brush it lavishly with butter. He claims – and maybe it was true – that customers loved these steaks and some started asking for theirs charred.

As a fast-food unit manager, he oversaw (or witnessed? or heard about?) some truly disgusting practices. For instance, afternoon employees hired mainly to clean toilets and dispose of trash often did some off-hour cooking as well — but they weren’t always terribly sanitary. If no fresh lettuce was available, he writes, “the afternoon employee might fish out of the garbage can some discarded outer leaves.” They were oversized with tough spines, so the worker would “simply place his palm on the assembled sandwich and smash it downward.” When condiments squished out, he would “take a dirty cleaning rag” and wipe off the bun.

Since Lefever’s monthly bonus was based on keeping costs down, he recycled sandwiches that had officially expired as often as he could, even though this subverted the chain’s system. Eventually they began to look inedible. Then the workers would replace limp lettuce, spray the dry bun with water, and make other repairs. If that didn’t work they would disassemble the sandwiches and salvage the valuable parts for remakes during the off-hours, and so much the better if the customers were nighttime drive-thrus who had spent their evenings in a bar.

At the Lefevers’ own restaurant, The Balcony, servers were instructed to tell customers that all dishes — Veal Piccata, Beef Wellington, and so on — were prepared on site though they actually came from a supplier of frozen entrees. The cooks were highschool students who defrosted them in a microwave while doing their homework.

He declares that customers who found eggshells in their omelets should have been grateful since this meant the restaurant used fresh eggs rather than processed omelet mixes. But it could also mean that they came from the bottom of containers they used to store hundreds of cracked eggs in water. And, he reveals, “The bottom also collected the heavier eggs, which result when hens are sick, given a strange diet, or frightened.” Customers requesting decaffeinated coffee didn’t necessarily get it, since servers randomly grabbed the handiest pot, switching the red or green plastic bands that indicated type of coffee.

In discussing food spilled on the floor, he writes, “I have served . . . entrees spilled and then salvaged such as lasagne, beef stew, chili, pasta, and scrambled eggs. Steaks and chops are no problem at all. Simply put them back on the grill or in the pan to freshen them, after washing them under the faucet.” But he advises cooks to inspect the entree “looking for hairs and foreign pieces of food that do not complement the dish.”

Lately I’ve found myself eager to eat at home.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, proprietors & careers, restaurant customs, restaurant issues, sanitation