Taste of a decade: 1930s restaurants

wonderbar1941Even 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 The economical fixed-price meal, which had virtually been replaced by a la carte service, returns to popularity.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.


veneto351981931 Restaurants drop prices and see patronage rise. In Chicago prices go down by 10% to 12%.

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.

brassrail371971936 An investigation reveals that Jack Dempsey’s, Lindy’s, The Brass Rail, and numerous cafeterias are among the NYC eating places that have capitulated to shake-downs by mobsters.

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 oldfashioned195the 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?”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008


Filed under miscellaneous

33 responses to “Taste of a decade: 1930s restaurants

  1. Pingback: How the Great Depression Influenced Taste, Touch, Smell, and Sound | Kayla’s Blog

  2. My grandfather listed his job as a cook at Le club in the 1930 census of Chicago IL. Have any ideas?

  3. Pingback: New York Food 1930s New York Info

  4. Anonymous

    Does anyone know anything about The Dixie Restaurant on E. 43 or 44 st. NYC in the late 1930’s and early 40’s?

  5. Helen F. Caldarone

    My husband’s grandfather, Anthony Albiani, started the Albiani Lunch Company in Boston during the early 1900s. At its peak, it had a dozen or more storefronts in Boston and Cambridge. He was a well-known and respected Italian-American who supported many charities and benevolent societies primarily to assist Italian immigrants who needed help. One of my husband’s aunts, Eleanor Albiani Coleman, had a news clipping showing her father standing on the steps of the Cathedral with Cardinal O’Connell having received an award for his philanthropy. Anthony Albiani and his wife, Luisa, lived in Dorchester with their 5 children (Settimo, Letitia, Frances, Kay and Eleanor). Settimo ran the business after his father died until his own death at an early age. After that, it was managed by cousins, Henry Albiani and Fred Albiani until the chain of restaurants closed in the 1960’s, I believe. There was a central commissary where most of the food was prepared; from there everything was delivered to each location. My mother-in-law worked in the office before she was married. She was very proud of the fact that her suggestion of putting a dollop of jelly on top of the tapioca pudding was accepted. The Albiani’s on Harvard Square was mentioned in Erich Segal’s “Love Story” as Oliver ran past it. That was fun to read.
    Just today, I discovered a fotocopy of one of the Albiani locations on Washington St. in Boston, as I was going through a box of things which had belonged to my mother-in-law, Frances Albiani Caldarone. In fact, I started my own married life using several pieces of the blue chinaware from the restaurants. There are still many Albiani descendants living in the Boston area.
    Helen C. September 19, 2013

    • I know of the chain. Thanks for the information!

    • Rob Hoyt

      Hi! I’m researching my son’s great great grandfather from his mom’s side of the family. On his 1940 census he listed himself as employed as “cook, chain restaurant”, and on his 1942 draft card he lists his employer as Albiani’s Restaurant. His name was Francesco Donadio and was an Italian immigrant, as you mention many of the employees were.
      You mention “on the steps of the Cathedral”. I’m looking for a marriage record for Frank. Was there a specific Cathedral that would have attracted the Albiani employees, or should I look more closely at his neighborhood in Medford (Harvard st and Main st area)?

      • Anonymous

        Hi Rob, Thanks for your comment and questions. If, as you say, Francesco Donadio was a cook for the Albiani restaurant chain, my husband tells me that he would have worked at their central commissary at Church St. in Boston. Food was prepared there and then delivered to each of the restaurant locations. Whether any records still exist or not, I couldn’t say – but, probably not.
        In my post, I mentioned the Cathedral – there is only one Cathedral in Boston (or any other city, for that matter); a Cathedral is the official seat of the local “bishop”, currently Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Most churches must maintain records of all baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals performed by them.
        The North End of Boston is traditionally where new waves of immigrants made their home – at least, at first. My own Irish forebears lived there in the late 1800’s. In fact, my husband’s Italian forebears lived there in the early 1900’s – often occupying addresses on the same streets as my family members. The church in that neighborhood attended by new Catholic immigrants is Sacred Heart – it would be a good place to start your research. I’m not sure of the address but I recall that it is very close (across the street, perhaps) from the famous, old Paul Revere house.
        My husband’s family worshipped at St. Joseph’s Church in Medford. His mother was Frances (Philomena) Albiani. If Mr. Donadio did not belong to that parish, I’m sure that the folks at St. Joseph’s church office could provide names and addresses of churches near where your relative lived.
        Perhaps, the best source of info (births, deaths, marriages, etc.) can be found at the Massachusetts State Archives at Morrissey Point in Boston – it is quite close to the JFKennedy library.
        Good luck!

      • Rob Hoyt

        Wow, thank you for your prompt reply! I would suspect they went to the same church as your Albiani family. They lived in two locations near the intersection of Harvard and Main streets in Medford, not too far from the St. Jo’s your family attended. It appears he may have worked at Albiani’s for quite some time.
        Again, thanks for your help,

      • Tom

        If you are still looking for information on frank Donadio, I may be able to help

      • Rob

        That sounds great! I would love to know more about Mr. Donadio. I have only gotten as far back as him on my son’s mom’s side of the family.

      • Glenn Hydock

        Hello I am researching my grandfather Stanley R. Hydock. His WW2 draft card listed the Albiani Restaurant on Washington Street, Boston. Does anyone recognize the name and possibly know what he did for Albiani? Any information would be appreciated.

    • jean campbell martin

      Hello Helen,
      The Albianis, Seti and Tedda, lived across the street from us at 18 Barrington Road in Dorchester. In 1942 our family was quarantined with
      scarlet fever(they did things like that then-we were confined to our house).
      Seti would call and ask my mother what she would like for dinner and it would be delivered to the front porch at dinner time. They were wonderful neighbors. Their children: Marie, Leticia were friends of my sister Brenda.
      Happy memories.
      Jean Campbell Martin

  6. Pingback: Monday MMM… | Flapper Femme: what's Past is Prologue...

  7. hp manning

    I am looking for recipes from the old brass rail in nyc–any idea where i could find them?

  8. Josie

    Josie B
    I’m looking for restaurant prices in the 1930’s in Michigan.

  9. I’m looking for any information on my great-grandmother’s diner she had in Mt. Clemens, MI during the depression. She went by Sadie Drake or Sadie Smith (?). She worked as a Pastry Chef and traveled across the country before she settled in Mt.Clemens, MI. Any information about her or her diner would be great.

  10. Sally

    I am looking for a 1930’s cafeteria style table with the swing stools. If you have any idea of where such a table could be found I’d like to know. I am also quite happy corresponding with someone who makes them as reproductions. Thank you. Please let me know if you have contacts.

  11. Sally

    I am trying to find vintage menus. Any ideas of where to shop on-line or in person. American and French are what I am most interested in, but would never walk away from an authentic English menu. Your ideas are welcome.
    Thank you. Sally

  12. I love your web site and it is good for a project.

  13. Alexandra

    I am currently working on a novel, a historical romance set in the 30’s of a banker’s daughter and a hobo/tramp (it’s an adaptation, per se, of “Lady and the Tramp”.) I wanted a scene where the hero takes the heroine for a “free” meal, ala the spaghetti scene at Tony’s in the film. Would a restaurant in the 30’s possibly give “hand outs” or the such or should he take her to a soup kitchen? 😉 Thanks!

    • Alexandra, The traditional way that restaurants gave away food in the Depression (and before — and maybe now at times) was at the back door. They didn’t want poorly dressed folks who needed a bath coming into their dining rooms. For that reason, I would say it makes more sense for you to have your characters stand in a bread/soup line. If you’ve seen photos of bread lines in the 1930s, you know it was usually men who did this (all wearing newsboy-style caps) so a well-dressed woman in their midst would make a striking scene. — JW

  14. Carol Raymond

    What did you find on the cafeteria chain, Albiani’s of Cambridge and Boston? I have scant information. My Dad worked there while a student at BU.

    • The only thing I can tell you about the Albiani Lunch Company, as it was known, is that I have found it in Boston directories beginning in 1892 (when there were 6 locations) and ending in 1973. In 1962 there were 4 locations. Some of the company executives were Alf and Dominic Albiani. There was also an Albiani’s market, which may have been a butcher shop, but I don’t know if it was related. It was a type of eating place known as a dairy lunch. Dairy lunches were usually small self-service establishments. They had limited menus of sandwiches, maybe oysters and baked beans, doughnuts, and pie, with coffee and milk to drink. They were inexpensive, fast, and plain, and there were small local chains of these eateries in cities and towns all over the country before the fast food hamburger chains came along.

  15. Pingback: Purple State of Mind

  16. I find this all so fascinating. I just can’t get enough. I hope you don’t mind if I add you to my blog roll, I know many of my visitors will find it tastefully satisfying.

    Thanks so much for sharing…

    • Susan Battjer

      I am looking for pictures outside Delmonico’s of San Francisco during the World Fair in 1939; two of my ancestors danced the Big Apple at the bay in front of Delmonico’s as children. Their names were Laddie and Josie Porter.

      • I’m sure many, many photos were taken of the 1939 NY World’s Fair, but unless you definitely know a picture was taken of your ancestors you may be looking for something that doesn’t exist. I would start by looking at the NYPL and historical society archives.

Leave a Reply to victualling Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.