Taste of a decade: 1940s restaurants

DCcafeteria1943During the war (1941-1945) the creation of 17 million new jobs finally pulls the economy out of the Depression. Millions of married women enter the labor force. The demand for restaurant meals escalates, increasing from a pre-war level of 20 million meals served per day to over 60 million. The combination of increased restaurant patronage with labor shortages, government-ordered price freezes, and rationing of basic foods puts restaurants in a squeeze. With gasoline rationing, many roadside cafes and hamburger stands close.

For a time after the war, rationing continues and wholesale prices stay high but patronage falls off as women leave jobs and return to the kitchen. Trained restaurant personnel are in short supply. Restaurants take advantage of food service methods and materials developed for the armed services. The frozen food industry supplies restaurants with fish, French fries, and baked goods. Boil-in bags of pre-cooked entrees become available. Fast food assembly lines and serving techniques used by the military are transferred to commercial establishments.


1940 Based on how many restaurant tablecloths have numbers scribbled on them, executives of the National Restaurant Association reason that mealtime deals are being made and that business is finally bouncing back from the Great Depression.

toffenetti3321941 When the restaurant in the French pavilion at the New York World’s Fair closes, its head Henri Soulé decides he will not return to a Paris occupied by Germans. He and ten waiters remain in New York and open Le Pavillon. Columnist Lucius Beebe declares its cuisine “absolutely faultless,” with prices “of positively Cartier proportions.” – Chicago cafeteria operator Dario Toffenetti, who also had a successful run at the Fair, decides to open a cafeteria in Times Square.

1942 According an official of the National Restaurant Association, nearly one tenth of the 1,183,073 employees and proprietors in the U.S. restaurant business are in California.

1943 Decreeing that patrons will not need to turn in ration coupons for restaurant meals, Washington makes a fateful decision that will fill restaurants to the bursting point. In Chicago, restaurants in the “Loop” experience nearly a 25% increase over the year before, while in New York City patronage doubles and earlier seatings must be devised.

1943 Food imports cease and Chinese restaurants cannot get bamboo shoots. They substitute snow peas, now grown in California and Florida. Because of restrictions, restaurants of all kinds leave cakes unfrosted and substitute honey and molasses for sugar. Instead of beef, lamb, and pork, vegetable plates, fish, omelets, spaghetti, and salad bowls fill menus.

1944 In Reno, Nevada, the White House offers a menu with many fish, seafood, and poultry selections, including lobster, crab legs, frog legs, oysters, fried prawns, brook trout, guinea hen, squab, pheasant, sweetbreads, turkey, duckling, and chicken a la king.

schrafftsrockefellerctr19481946 Like health departments all across the country, NYC begins a crack down on unsanitary conditions in restaurants, a problem that worsened with skeleton crews and extended mealtimes during wartime. An official says that of five inspections he witnessed only a Schrafft’s (shown here: Schrafft’s at Rockefeller Center) could be pronounced “sanitary and clean.”

1947 The Raytheon Corporation, maker of radar systems and components for the military, teams with General Electric to introduce the first microwave oven, the Radarange. Not available for home use initially, it is rented to hotels and restaurants for $5 a day.

1947 After numerous Afro-Americans are refused service in Bullocks department store tea room in Los Angeles, a group sponsored by C.O.R.E. stages a sit-in. Later a supportive white veteran publishes a letter to the editor of a paper declaring that since black soldiers regarded it as their duty to protect him from the “enemy abroad” during wartime, he now feels it is his duty “to protect them from the enemy at home.”

1948 An advice column tells girls to let their date handle all restaurant transactions, including complaints or questions about overcharges. “The girl does not intrude or ask, later, who won the argument,” advises the columnist. – In Chicago, a year-long trade school program in professional cooking enrolls veterans to help relieve the city’s acute chef shortage.

howardjohnsons1949 Howard Johnson’s, the country’s largest restaurant chain, reports a record volume of business for the year. HoJos, which has not yet spread farther west than Fort Wayne IN, plans a move into California.

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; 1930 to 1940; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under miscellaneous

22 responses to “Taste of a decade: 1940s restaurants

  1. Lloyd Wightman

    Check Out
    Largest in the world
    Old Mexico Room
    Live Bands
    Floor shows
    South Attleboro Ma
    Gone but not forgotten
    Anyone have pictures or info please contact
    Thanks LW

  2. Anonymous

    What was the name of Rovelli”s restaurant on Boston rd and Parker street in the 50’s in Springfield, MA?

    • The name was simply Rovelli’s restaurant, owned by Anna and Carlo Rovelli. They had a restaurant by that name since at least 1934, first on Bridge Street, then Worthington Street, then Boston Road. Anna may have actually owned the restaurant. In 1957 they sold or leased it to William E. Hartman who ran it under the name Hartman’s until near the end of 1959 when he became ill and closed it. In December, 1959, it became The Crossroads restaurant. I’m not sure how long it stayed in business.

  3. Samuel McMullen

    Trying to find the owner of bills diner in springfield mass around 1940s-1950.

  4. Noel Duncan

    Do you have info on a 40’s restaurant called Little Old Mansion at 244 East 51st Street owned by Gladys Wilcox (Wilcoxin)?

    • A little. I have a leaflet,but it is from 61 East 52nd St. and the owner’s name is Gladys Wilcock, not Wilcox. She also owned, maybe a bit earlier, a place in New Jersey called the Old Mansion. The cuisine was Southern. A specialty was eggplant soaked in cream.

  5. Anonymous

    I have a project in school. Can you tell me some resteraunt names from the 1940’s?

    • Many popular restaurants of the 1940s began in earlier decades and lasted until later decades, so they’re not just from the 1940s. A few are Sivil’s Drive-in, Houston; Canary Cottage, Cincinnati; Stouffers, Cleveland; Myron Green Cafeteria, Kansas City MO; Lawry’s, Los Angeles; Toffenetti’s, Chicago and New York. You would learn a lot more if you could find an online copy of Duncan Hines’ nationwide guide book called Adventures in Good Eating which was published through the 1940s.

  6. Bob Giordano

    Please give me information about The Silver Palms restaurant in New York from the 1940’s.

  7. Layla Bozek

    Hi Jan,
    I’d love to know where you found the photo of the couple eating in a diner circa 1940? I’m a filmmaker working on a short documentary about a diner in my area. Looking to license photos of diners in the 1940s and the photo you have in this blog would be ideal for the project. Any info you could share on where you licensed this from is most appreciated!
    Layla Bozek

  8. I saw the Green Book of Travel and Restaurants (Ford’s) when I pulled up Buffalo, NY, forgot to save it yesterday.
    Could you please post it for me???? Forgot how to find it
    I used to go with my Uncle Luther in the 40’s to the Lafayette Hotel in Buffalo, NY for dinner when I was in kindergarten. We ate out of those Halls’ dishes and little green and brown tea pots. I had so much fun.
    Then we would go to Little Harlem for dinner. I got lost in cyberspace and this need your help and Thanks!

  9. Wendy

    Does anybody remember a restaurant/club called Corso’s? Probably around the 1940’s in NYC. It’s where my parents met. That’s the only info. I have about it.

  10. carl

    Anyone know what the term is for describing the pre vending machines of the 40’s where the employees would load the individual food items from the rear of a glass doored compartment that you had to put coins in to open the door, it is not called a vending machine but was popular in New York restaurants in 46 and 47?

  11. Pingback: Food Taste of a decade: 1940s restaurants | India Restaurants

  12. wow, that sure was eye opening. Thanks for the timeline. Keep up the great work on this blog.

  13. What a wonderful timeline! I didn’t know about the exemption of restaurants from rationing–a very interesting wrinkle.

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