Theme restaurants: barns

At the risk of offending anyone I have to say I find this one of the worst themes ever. I almost feel I don’t need to elaborate, that everyone is thinking “I agree.” Not only is the decor corny and the “atmosphere” non-existent, but the kitchen is usually totally lacking in ambition if not turning out food that is downright bad.

The 19th century was mercifully unafflicted with barn restaurants, presumably because barns were still needed for farming and restaurants that were more than plain, bare-bones eateries tended toward grandeur. Sometimes the grandeur was hokey but at least the aim was to provide guests with an experience that went beyond eating in a shelter designed for animals and fowls. Though theme restaurants weren’t totally unknown, the past had not yet been ransacked to come up with novelties that would attract jaded patrons looking for “something different” or catch the eye of passing motorists.

Barn themes were usually used to attract men. I’m guessing it was because subliminally they seemed to promise large quantities of food while not demanding overmuch etiquette. Some beefsteak dungeons, as they were called, where men ate steaks with their bare hands in basements of hotels and restaurants, adopted barn themes. Occasionally even tea rooms, supposedly appealing to discriminating women of delicate tastes, were tucked away in barns in the 1920s (Hyannis Tea Barn pictured). Men tended to avoid tea rooms, so a 1924 tea room trade journal suggested adopting a barnyard theme to draw them. A headline read “The Barnyard Lunch Shows How to Win and Hold Masculine Patronage.” Oof.

The nightclub and restaurant “renaissance” which occurred in 1933 right after the repeal of Prohibition inspired a host of barn eateries as well as many other kinds of theme restaurants. Many were night spots for drinking and dancing as well as “dining.” Examples included the Village Barn in Greenwich Village, as well as Topsy’s Roost near San Francisco which after Repeal relocated to a larger barn equipped to service over 1,000 merry imbibers at once. At Topsy’s, rooster images decorated the walls while chicken prints crossed the table tops. Is anyone thinking sucker joint?

The 1960s and 1970s saw another spate of barn restaurants, this time chains such as Red Barn and Nickerson Farms, which actually constructed barn-shaped buildings as restaurants. And some people loved them.  And pine over them even today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

6 Comments

Filed under odd buildings, restaurant decor, theme restaurants

6 responses to “Theme restaurants: barns

  1. Sheila

    Has anyone ever heard of a restaurant called the Village Barn Restaurant in Greenwich Village, NYC?

  2. Jimmy Jimson

    Oddly I know a little bit about three of these restaurants. Have you seen the inside of Topsy’s Roost? It was crazy. I approve. Red Barn and Nickerson’s: I used to go there as a small and medium-sized kid (at the same time, very strange). I don’t remember much about the quality of the food, but it’s one of those old memories that are rose-colored and soft focus. Oh, memories.

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  4. Jan:

    Another fascinating look at restaurant culture, one has to wonder how some of the elements survive today? It seems as if the kissing cousin “country” restaurants are the descendants of these barns? I also think that dinner theater or places like Cracker Barrel (my feelings aside) are related.

    As always another great post.

    • Hi Alan, Yes, I agree with you that “country” restaurants, Cracker Barrels, and dinner theaters are related in the kind of signals they send out to potential customers. Ye olden mill restaurants too. There is always something distorted about singling out one type — but such is journalism and blog posting! BTW hope your research is going well. Jan

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