Taste of a decade: 1850s restaurants

The population was moving west, with about a third living beyond the Appalachians. California had just been admitted as a state. Cities were growing. NYC was the largest, at over half a million, yet it was the only one of the nation’s eight biggest cities with more than 200,000 inhabitants. Slavery continued in the South and threatened to move West.

The smallest of the “big” cities, San Francisco, with a metropolitan area of about 35,000 in 1850, was the decade’s headline grabber. With so many living in tents and hovels, nearly everyone there ate in restaurants most of the time. Cooks came from every part of the world, as did the cuisine.

Boston, third largest with fewer than 137,000 residents, reported that among properties supplied with water there were 65 hotels, 57 saloons, 56 restaurants, 13 oyster shops, and 12 eating houses, along with 9 distilleries and 8 breweries. Beer was, in fact, beginning to supplant hard liquor as the national alcoholic beverage. Some parts of the country were overtaken by temperance sentiment and a few temperance restaurants were initiated.

The old Yankee/English term “eating house” was giving way to the more elegant French term “restaurant.” Because of so many single males in cities, many restaurants were run in conjunction with barber shops, pool halls, and bowling lanes. Those places that accommodated women usually set apart a separate room for them.

American restaurant cuisine was becoming more diverse, yet oysters reigned supreme as everybody’s favorite appetizer, late night snack, and fast food. They were ordered by simply saying, “Give me six.”

Highlights

1850 Residents of San Francisco are delighted when the refined Excelsior opens. Its white tablecloths, someone writes, give the new restaurant “quite a human appearance.” It is outfitted with gold spoons and some of its vegetables come all the way from the Sandwich Islands. – The city also has the first three Chinese restaurants in the U.S., serving “chow-chow and curry dishes” along with more conventional “English” choices.

1851 In Louisville KY, Walker’s City Exchange celebrates the opening of its new five-story restaurant building, fitted out with marble drinking saloon, dining rooms, an oyster stand, and private dining apartments. On the upper floors are tenpins alleys, billiards rooms, and staff dormitories.

1852 Newly arrived in Boston for his U.S. tour, English novelist William Thackeray is treated to a plate of gigantic oysters at Ferdinando Gori’s restaurant in the Tremont House. After downing one, he cast a “comic look of despair” at the other five, admitting he felt as if he had “swallowed a little baby.”

1852 Broadway, the grand avenue of NYC, is home to elaborate Paris-style cafés, including the popular gilt and mirrored ladies’ resort called Taylor’s and several others with names borrowed directly from France such as Tortoni and Rocher de Cancale.

1853 In Philadelphia someone has fitted up a handsome row house with a café and restaurant called Parkinson’s. It has a ladies’ saloon “sumptuously furnished in velvets and frescoes,” a garden, and a confectionery shop. – In San Francisco, M. L. Winn operates a fashionable alcohol-free ladies’ Refreshment Saloon at the corner of Washington & Montgomery (pictured) designed to “sail through the Gulf of Dissipation, Misery and Death.”

1854 Six years after the Declaration of the Rights of Woman at Seneca Falls NY, women’s rights supporter Stephen Pearl Andrews argues for abolishing home kitchens, writing “the large and elegant eating saloon, with cleanliness, order, artistic skill, and abundance, in the preparation of food, is a cheaper arrangement than the meager and ill-conditioned private table.”

1855 George T. Downing, a black caterer from New York, opens the Sea Girt House in Newport RI where he presents an ice cream saloon, private dining rooms, and, behind a lace curtain, a ladies’ café. Specialties prepared by his French and English assistants include New York oysters, confectionery, and cakes.

1856 Baltimore issues 177 licenses to eating places. Since the number of eating places not serving liquor would be minuscule, this is undoubtedly close to the total number of restaurants.

1858 At the Empire State Dining Saloon in San Francisco, a wide choice of baked goods, regionally and nationally, is available with the diner’s California Bacon and Eggs such as Mississippi Hot Corn Bread, Hot English Muffins, Hot American Waffles, Hot Hungarian Rolls, Boston Cream Toast, German Bread, and New York Batter Cakes.

1859 Only a few years old, a café owned by Charles Pfaff is discovered by a loose band of artists and writers which includes Walt Whitman who make it their club. They eat German pancakes and drink Pfaff’s beer from the barrels which line the walls. The word Bohemian has not made it into the dictionaries yet but when it does it will be applied to them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1870 to 1880; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Taste of a decade: 1850s restaurants

  1. bosomfriends

    Fascinating – would love to know more about riverboat cuisine.. from what I am reading in Dr. Robert Gudmestad’s book about them, just out, they were like a cross between a Las Vegas hotel and a cruise ship.. great food and lotsof it.. but I’d like to know WHAT food. In my novel in progress the riverboat iss owned by a swanky guy from New Orleans… so I am thinking the food on the boat would be similar to New orleans restaurants and hotels… and bordellos. If you have any leads, do let me know.

    Nan Hawthorne
    hawthorne@nanhawthorne.com

    • Nan, I can’t help you out much there. So far I’ve concentrated my research on land-based restaurants. I would think you could find numbers of travelers’ accounts searching among Google Books.

  2. RED DAVE

    Hi. Your entry on Pfaff’s in New York has some serious mistakes. The place was established around 1853, right by the corner of Bleeker Street and Broadway in New York. Right from the start, Charlie Pfaff tried to attract a writing crowd. Henry Clapp, the “King of Bohemia,” back from France, met Pfaff on the street and Pfaff invited him and his friends to make the place an informal headquarters for writers and theater people. Pfaff’s Vault, as it came to be knows (it was actually below the street level in a basement) became the first bohemian hangout in the USA. It’s leading light was the great Walt Whitman. There’s great website entirely dedicated to Pfaff’s:
    http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/pfaffs/

  3. I am enjoying your blog. I am with the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Do you have many artifacts from Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans?

    • Hi Liz, We met when I was in NO in February and looked through some of the museum’s menu collection. But sorry to say I don’t have anything from Antoine’s other than a commonplace postcard. I haven’t really seen anything at ephemera shows either. Are you planning an exhibit on restaurants? Cheers, Jan

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