He-man menus

I question whether there are huge gender differences in food preferences but I’ve seen plenty of evidence that many restaurants have marketed menus on this basis, especially by playing to the idea that men have manly tastes. This idea seems to have grown stronger in the 20th century when more women patronized restaurants on an equal basis with men.

Many people believe that men like heartier food than women do. In the 19th century, of course, men dominated restaurants and women were often viewed as special guests. Since eating places were accustomed to catering to men then, menu staples such as oysters, beef, and pie came to be seen as men’s favorite dishes. Perhaps they were, but then again they may have been regarded as “masculine” simply because men were the ones who usually ate them out in public.

In the early 1900s articles began to appear in newspapers that offered ideas of what food men liked best. Restaurants designed menus to appeal largely to male diners. Pollution of oyster beds brought growing distrust and beef came to top the list. “Quick lunch” spots noticed that men ordered more meat dishes than women. Louis Sherry said that women guests in his deluxe Fifth Avenue restaurant did not like to draw blood so they avoided red meat and game.

In the many places that served “business men’s lunch,” the favorite meal was meat and potatoes, pie, and coffee. If the lunch was served in a tavern setting, the pie and coffee might be replaced by a glass of beer. But men had other favorites as well, such as griddle cakes, corned beef and cabbage, beef stew, chili con carne, bean soup, fried potatoes, and ham and eggs.

With the advent of national Prohibition in the 1920s, observers noticed that men were eating lighter meals, more sandwiches, and even the occasional salad. While nutritionists hailed the change as healthier, some restaurant owners longed for the return of the heavy eater. When beer became legal again in 1933 the executive chef of Chicago’s Palmer House said, “With the stein on the table, masculine foodstuffs are bound to come into their own.” In 1934 a New York guide book tipped off men about where they could enjoy “man-sized” food “served without fancy gegaws.”

After Prohibition men who preferred no women in the dining room could go to bar & grill restaurants in hotels such as the Esquire Restaurant in the Penn-Harris Hotel in Harrisburg PA or the men’s bar at the Waldorf Astoria where they could enjoy their Martinis and Mutton Chops minus female company. In the men’s bar at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.,  the dining room captain personally prepared Cannibal Sandwiches of raw beef, onion, egg yolk, and Worcestershire sauce at guests’ tables.

Known as the Rib Room, the men-only Mayflower bar was also host to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who lunched there daily in the 1960s, always at the same table facing the door. His favorite meal, consumed with only the slightest variation, was cream of chicken soup, coffee, and Jello. While he was President, in 1970, Richard Nixon and four of his staff dropped in at the Rib Room for breakfast after Nixon’s early morning visit to Vietnam War protesters at the Washington Monument. Nixon ordered corned beef hash with an egg on top which, according to his press secretary, marked the first time he had eaten this dish in five years.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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