Even as the Depression deepens, the number of full-fledged restaurants continues to increase, from 134,293 in 1929 to 169,792 in 1939. Immigration slows in response to restrictive legislation of the late 1920s, reducing the supply of professional waiters and cooks. Female servers make up more than half of waitstaffs. The economical fixed-price meal, which had virtually been replaced by a la carte service, returns to popularity. Promotions such as “all you can eat” and “free coffee refills” are featured. After the repeal of Prohibition nightlife revives. Many diners, accustomed to speakeasies, show a preference for small, intimate restaurants. All-white interiors give way to imaginative decor which mimics ships or European courtyards. Federal financing facilitates modernization, encouraging restaurants to add streamlined fronts and air-conditioning. Deprived of bootlegging revenues, racketeers infiltrate unions and extort restaurants, dispatching picketers and stench bombs to those that don’t play along.
1932 Stores install lunch counters to lure shoppers and capture a piece of the flourishing lunch trade. Architect Ely Jacques Kahn designs a sleek tea room with vermilion-topped tables and green and black terrazzo floors for the Broadmoor Pharmacy on NYC’s Madison Ave. – Chains such as Schrafft’s, Childs, Horn & Hardart, Lofts’, and Bickford’s expand as they take advantage of reduced rents and absorb failed competitors.
1933 Expecting all alcoholic beverages to be legal by the end of the year, liquor suppliers court restaurateurs. In Amherst MA a small lunchroom operator receives complimentary wine and champagne from the S. S. Pierce Company. – The Afro-American proprietor of the Launch Tea Room in Sheepshead Bay decides to cancel plans for wintering in Palm Beach and turn her Long Island tea room into a free dining room for the poor.
1934 In post-Repeal California Ernest Raymond Baumont-Gantt opens Don the Beachcomber, while Victor Bergeron starts Hinky Dinks, forerunner to Trader Vics. In accordance with state law both must include food service with their bar operations. – In NYC, the president of the Downtown Restaurants association acknowledges, “We know now that repeal of prohibition has saved the restaurant business from utter annihilation and saved it just in time.”
1935 The pro-America mood of the 1920s continues, exemplified by a column in a restaurant trade magazine which asserts preposterously that Delmonico’s got its recipes from Southern plantations while in the 1880s French chefs “flocked to this country” to learn American cooking. — Many restaurants remodel their fronts (see above illustration) as towns across the country launch “Modernize Main Street” campaigns backed with federal money.
1937 The nationwide Childs chain reports that 47% of all alcoholic drinks served in their dining rooms are cocktails, 22% are highballs, 8% are wines (mostly sherry and port), and the remainder are cordials. Beer is the most popular drink in summer.
1938 The president of the National Restaurant Association warns members that the number of places serving meals has quadrupled in the past 15 years and only the ingenious will survive.
1939 A book on how to run a tea room notes that 30,000 restaurants are managed by women and advises prospective proprietors to make inquiries such as, “Do the racketeers expect you to pay for protection?”
© Jan Whitaker, 2008