As far back as the 1700s families in cities obtained some of their meals from public eating places. Usually the food came to them rather than the reverse. If they were wealthy they sent a servant to pick up dinner from the local caterer. “Any Family may be supplied at any time with dishes of victuals hot or cold,” advised a standard newspaper advertisement of the 1790s.
No one realized it of course but the habit of getting the family dinner from a restaurant and eating it at home would become a mainstay of American restaurant business of the future, especially after World War II when carry-out increased.
Families occasionally went out to eat in the 19th century, yet it was unusual enough that when children were spotted in restaurants it tended to set off alarms that still echo today. A magazine in 1853, observing children at New York’s Thompson’s, Taylor’s, and Weller’s – all of which specially catered to women and children – noted, “The little people are taken out, to save trouble, and fed on dainties at the brilliant restaurants, where their appetites are awfully vitiated, and they eat most alarming quantities of ice-creams and oysters.”
Ladies’ restaurants aside, most places were and would remain male turf almost until World War I. Families usually ate in private rooms upstairs, away from barrooms, ruckus, and rude stares. Even in small towns the more ambitious restaurants provided special accommodations for families. In Tombstone, Arizona, the International Restaurant, a miners’ café, advertised dining rooms reserved for them in 1881. Conditions changed little until tea rooms became popular around 1910. They established a kind of “beachhead” for women diners, also multiplying the places where children might eat. Early ones such as the Mother Goose-theme tea room in NYC and the Whistling Oyster in Ogunquit, Maine, which produced its own souvenir children’s book, made a specialty of pleasing young patrons.
After the First World War restaurants became cleaner, more informal, and alcohol-free — and they did more business than ever before. Families were especially attracted to cafeterias, particularly on the West Coast where they thrived. As more families acquired cars, the custom developed of taking a country drive on Sundays, capped off by an early dinner at a roadside inn or tea room. Children’s menus appeared, such as those of California’s Pig ‘N Whistle chain in 1937. The South’s S&W cafeteria chain began to present weekly children’s entertainment nights in 1939. Thanks to rising incomes, more vacations, and a pro-family culture, the restaurant industry of the 1950s saw families as the customer base of the future. “You get a picture of the powerful social and economic trends working in your favor,” an advertising agency spokesman told a restaurant association in 1955.
Working mothers and smaller families in the 1960s further enhanced restaurant growth. By the mid-1960s there were 18,000 restaurants in Southern California, where sales had increased almost 100% since the end of WWII, attributed primarily to family dining. In 1976 the National Restaurant Association identified families’ favorite eating spots as family restaurants, fast-food eateries, theme restaurants, cafeterias, and coffee shops. Chains such as Howard Johnson’s, Bonanza, Ponderosa, Pizza Hut, International House of Pancakes, and Denny’s looked forward to a bright future.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008