Perhaps the very earliest type of eating place is the stand which is largely in the open air on the street or in a marketplace. Who really knows how old they are? In this country today they are mostly found at fairs and carnivals, but they played a broader role in the 19th century and furnished the basis for other casual eateries such as standing-room-only quick lunchrooms, drive-ins, and fast food joints.
Remember that before some fast food chains started calling their units “restaurants” (what a shock it was the first time I heard McDonald’s called a restaurant!), they were called hamburger stands. Customers placed their orders at a walk-up window.
Stands were virtually synonymous with hamburgers and hot dogs in the 20th century, but through the decades they have also been places to get soft drinks (A&W rootbeer), coffee, doughnuts, ice cream, oysters, barbecue (Pig Stands), chili, and tamales.
At a classic stand, patrons really do stand outdoors while eating, or take their food away to consume elsewhere. But, clearly this is not the only type. Coffee stands in New Orleans sometimes furnish a roof and tables and chairs, though no walls. Neddick’s sleek curvilinear hot dog stands in mid-century NYC had open fronts and no seating, but patrons could get out of the rain at least while they placed their orders.
Some stands provide tall stools for their patrons, perhaps out of a competitive spirit or because they serve one or more of their offerings in dishes that they don’t want to lose. Others might have benches nearby.
Stands have always been considered the lowliest of eating places. Amenities are in short supply and customers pay first and then get their food. Yet they are more democratic than elite restaurants. Typically, no one is turned away.
They have flourished in particular circumstances and settings. Produce, fish, and meat markets of the early 19th century were dotted with stands offering prepared foods. These were usually located under the market’s roof and did business year round, keeping a fire blazing in cold weather.
Stands popped up everywhere in new settlements or in those destroyed by natural disasters. An 1850 directory to San Francisco showed a number of “refreshment stands,” and even a few “refreshment tables” doing business. Booming oil and mining towns of the West had stands (and tents) furnished by enterprising camp followers. Stands were erected in empty lots following the Chicago fire of the 1870s and the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.
Recently some open-air pop-up restaurants seem to have come close to reproducing aspects of earlier days of eating out, but mainly as an offbeat diversion for jaded sophisticates.
© Jan Whitaker, 2012