Restaurant-ing al fresco

Today there are many opportunities to eat outdoors, but for much of our history it was fairly uncommon. Partly explained by dust and dirt from unpaved roads, even in the 20th century when this had been overcome there were still few outdoor restaurants, particularly with the spread of air-conditioning after World War II. Though impossible to quantify, it’s possible that dining in open air was more in vogue in the late 18th century than in 1960.

“Pleasure gardens,” as they were called, were enjoyed in 18th-century American cities. Smaller ones were called tea gardens. Patrons, including whole families, were invited to lounge, stroll, and possibly spend the day. They offered a variety of food and drink, but by far the most popular order was ice cream. Many gardens were run by English tavern-keepers or French confectioners. New York’s Vauxhall Gardens, which contained a wax museum, was managed in the 1760s and 1770s by Sam Fraunces of the West Indies, later steward to George Washington. In 1798 a tea garden behind a Philadelphia tavern advertized it was “laid out in grass plats, provided with tables, benches, boxes, bowers, etc. and delightfully shaded by fruit trees.”

Outdoor gardens where patrons consumed mead, lemonade, and light snacks gave way around the Civil War to German beer gardens (Bismarck Gardens, Chicago, pictured) which, like tea gardens, were often situated on the outskirts of cities. They continued until the second decade of the 20th century when burgeoning suburbs wishing to eliminate alcohol purveyors succeeded in closing them down. Prohibition also defeated the dreams of American soldiers returning from WWI who had enjoyed sidewalk cafes in Paris and wanted to reproduce them in their homeland. But would they have caught on in a pragmatic country like America so dedicated to business and industry that sitting at a sidewalk café seemed like decadent loafing?

In truth dining outdoors was enjoyed by Americans mostly when they were in tourist mode, at the seashore or in Europe. Seasonal tea rooms delightfully situated in places such as Marblehead MA (pictured) commonly offered afternoon tea, lunch, and dinner on porches, lawns, and patios. World’s fairs were another place to enjoy Continental ways. Beginning with the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, fairs always included provisions for dining al fresco.

There were a few 20th-century exceptions to the general disinclination to dine outdoors. Rooftop restaurants, usually atop hotels such as the Astor (pictured here), attracted fashionable patrons around 1900 and persisted through the 1920s. New York had more than most cities, but they did flourish elsewhere, such as at San Antonio’s St. Anthony hotel. The title of “first” was claimed by St. Louis restaurateur Tony Faust who added rooftop dining in 1877.

And some odd artistic types — “bohemians” — enjoyed summertime dinners in the backyards of small Italian and French restaurants as early as the 1890s. By 1905, Town & Country magazine declared this habit had attained fad status among adventure seekers.

Louis Sherry claimed to have set up the first sidewalk café in this country, outside his Fifth Avenue restaurant in 1900. He wasn’t actually the first. In 1891 women out shopping in Manhattan liked to “eat al fresco under the vineclad, bush-shaded bower” in front of the Vienna Café. Not too surprisingly, the warmer climates of Florida and California proved most hospitable to sidewalk dining. The custom did not really catch on in a big way across the U.S., though. Those sidewalk cafes that were created in the mid-20th century, such as the St. Moritz Hotel’s Café de la Paix (NYC, pictured), usually advertised their Continental atmosphere, suggesting that eating on sidewalks had not yet earned true American status.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Restaurant-ing al fresco

  1. Sarah

    We live in what was the Brown Owl Tea Room in Marblehead Massachusetts. I’m wondering if this is what is pictured above? If so do you have any more info? Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Food Restaurant-ing al fresco | India Restaurants

  3. In Germany the first beer gardens and coffee gardens were also opened in the 18th century but a little bit outside of the cities. It was like having picnic there. Cafés in cities like Berlin had no terraces before 1840. I think in Germany the refusal to eat outside of a restaurant or the own home had something to do with the rule that it is bad manners to be seen doing nothing. And sitting there and just drinking or eating was very similar to doing nothing … The italian ice saloons (soda fountains) in Germany had curtains at their windows until the 1970s 🙂

    • We are doing a story on al fresco dining for a summer section to be published early June. I was hoping there might be some way in which we can be sent a jpg file of a photo depicting an early outdoor dining site.
      Thank you for any consideration.

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