Dining in shadows

Until electricity became common no one thought dining by candlelight was the least bit romantic. In the later 19th century any restaurant that acquired electricity made a big bragging deal of it. A Chicago restaurant called The New York Kitchen boasted in 1888 that its dining room was “brilliantly lighted by the Mather Incandescent Electric System.” In the early 20th century going places with bright light was fashionable, especially because it turned restaurants into stages on which to be seen and to covertly stare at others.

But there were some ultra-refined people who considered the glare of bright light vulgar. Etiquette expert Emily Holt recommended in1902 that candles be used instead of gas or electric chandeliers for home dinner parties lest the dinner resemble a “blazing feast … in some hotel restaurant.” At that time restaurant patrons who wanted mellow light could choose a place such as Sherry’s in New York where wall sconces gave off gentle illumination and candles topped by artistic shades reposed on each table. So private! So French!

Candlelight promised the gentility of an elite dinner party, far removed from loud music, noise, and guests who drank too much. Candles suited the tea room perfectly. Not only did they shed flattering light, they discouraged the rowdy, fun-seeking masses from entering the door. Tea room owners, overwhelmingly WASPs, also liked how candles, as well as lanterns and fireplaces, created a quaint atmosphere that they imagined resembled how their Colonial ancestors lived.

In Greenwich Village some tea rooms of the 1910s used candles exclusively. The homey Candlestick Tea Room was described as “a little eating place chiefly remarkable for its vegetables and poetesses.” Like other tea rooms lit solely by candles it was undoubtedly atmospheric, but its owners Mrs. Pendington and Mrs. Kunze probably had a more basic reason for using candles. Many of the substandard Village buildings had no electricity. Nonetheless candles did not guarantee respectability. In Chicago, police declared the candle-lit Wind Blew Inn disreputable. A dilapidated, Bohemian student hangout, it had only three candles lighting its two floors.

Outside of Bohemian haunts, though, candles in tea rooms continued to suggest quiet good taste. Alice Foote MacDougall pronounced in her 1929 book The Secret of Successful Restaurants that “Tea time is relaxation time and lights are softened, candles lighted, music plays softly, accompanied by the rippling measure of water falling from our fountains.” She spent the considerable sum of $10,000 a year on candles in her tea rooms. In the 1930s genteel shoppers at Joseph Horne’s in Pittsburgh enjoyed tea and cake by candlelight while listening to organ music in the department store’s tea room.

Today candles are so common in restaurants that they are scarcely noticed, yet as recently as 50 years ago they were considered feminine tools of romantic entrapment. A kind of low-level warfare simmered through the 1950s and early 1960s in which women such as Patricia Murphy of the Candlelight Restaurant in Yonkers announced that wives could save their marriages with candle-lit dinners, while men countered they “liked to see what they were eating.” In 1962 a fire official in Beverly MA said that his ban against candles in restaurants was not motivated by a dislike of dining by candlelight but a need to protect the public from “open flames.” But change was on its way. In the 1970s millions of Americans, male and female, would flock to restaurants where they sipped wine while candles flickered against exposed brick walls.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

2 Comments

Filed under restaurant customs, restaurant decor

2 responses to “Dining in shadows

  1. Pingback: {Party} Dining by candlelight « Garden, Home & Party

  2. murphy

    I’m confused: if real men eat steak with their hands, wouldn’t that be better by firelight? Who needs to see?

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