It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the free lunch wasn’t really free. As everyone knows the patron of a saloon had to buy a beer or some other sort of drink in order to partake of whatever edibles the proprietor had to offer. What might be news, though, is that it wasn’t exactly what we would call lunch nowadays. It was more of a snack eaten between meals, sometimes around noontime, sometimes not.
Although the standard free-lunch time began at 11:00 a.m. through much of the 19th century, some saloon keepers put out a spread as early as 9:00 in the morning, hours after most working people had their breakfasts. Or it might be at night – a kind of happy hour. At some saloons lunch on the house was provided every day, but at others it was more of a special occasion celebrating a grand opening, holiday, or proprietor’s birthday.
The dishes did not conform to our modern idea of a snack. In early June of 1872 the owner of a Sioux City IA saloon promised a Saturday morning spread where patrons could accompany their juleps and Roman punches with oyster soup, fish with egg sauce, deviled ham, lobster salad, pickled oysters, salmon, tongue, pickles, lettuce, and radishes – a very different kind of morning break than today’s coffee and doughnuts. Which proves that our snacks have become lighter, while lunch has gained the stature of a regular meal. It also shows that profit on the sale of whiskey and beer could be more than enough to underwrite a veritable feast.
It’s likely that the free lunch is a very old custom. Certainly there were plenty of free lunches to be had in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s. But in their advertisements saloons rarely described a spread equal to what the drinking man (respectable women did not enter saloons) could find in New Orleans, considered the country’s finest free lunch locale. In Northeastern cities often only plates of crackers and cheese made it onto the counter, possibly accompanied by a crock of soup. The New Orleans free lunch was more elaborate, with beef, mock turtle soup, “delicate slices of highly flavored buffalo tongue,” and “well dressed salads.”
The rule of thumb was that where there was intense competition, there would be high-quality saloon fare. San Francisco qualified, as did St. Louis and Chicago. Chicago’s spreads were rarely elegant, but they were hearty. Beer drinkers there favored sandwiches of dark rye bread piled with liver sausage or herrings, strong mustard, and sauerkraut.
In the 1860s, upscale saloons patronized by better-off customers started calling themselves buffets or cafés. Later some would charge a small charge for a “merchant’s lunch.” Business men liked these lunches because they were quick. The food was ready, no tipping was necessary, and little ceremony was involved. You could eat standing if it suited you, in fact there were few tables and chairs.
Feeling the loss of customers, restaurateurs repeatedly tried to abolish the free lunch habit, as did temperance advocates who wished there could be cheap but respectable restaurants that competed successfully with saloons for the workingman’s business. The average saloon normally charged only 5c for food and drink, an amount for which most restaurants could not furnish a decent meal.
The anti-saloon movement grew stronger with the approach of World War I. Alcohol-free quick lunch chains such as Thompson’s and Child’s — the McDonald’s of their day — learned that by doing a high-volume business they could serve lunches almost as cheaply as saloons. With national prohibition in 1920 the restaurant industry, freed from saloon competition, blossomed and took its modern shape.
Reformers from the 19th century would be thrilled to learn that cheap lunches today are no longer normally washed down with a beer.
© Jan Whitaker, 2011