Bread has always been basic to restaurants ranging from the lowliest hash house to the most elegant French dining room. This was made evident in 1912, for instance, when Los Angeles drafted a city ordinance permitting no liquor to be served without meals. The ordinance defined a meal as “not costing less than 15 cents, to consist of bread, or equivalent, together with meat, fish, cheese or beans in sufficient quantity to go beyond the question of subterfuge for a meal.”
From the early decades of the 19th century, bread not only accompanied almost every meal, in many cases it was the meal. The most fundamental early eating house meal was bread and coffee or bread and hot milk. When ordering the typical cheap meal of a thin slice of meat accompanied by some potatoes, customers were consoled by the fact that their meal would be filled out with two slices of bread.
In addition to brown bread, i.e., whole wheat bread, restaurant customers could hope for other varieties to pair with their coffee. Waffles and pancakes tended to be classified as breads in those days. In San Francisco in 1858, the Empire State Dining Saloon also served “Mississippi Hot Corn Bread, Hot English Muffins, Hot American Waffles, Hot Hungarian Rolls, Boston Cream Toast, German Bread, and New York Batter Cakes.” After Vienna-style yeast bread was introduced at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, restaurants associated with bakeries scrambled to hire bakers who could produce this newest sensation.
In order to get their free bread, diners had to order something costing at least 10 cents, as recounted in the comical tale of the hapless diner who asked for bread with a too-small order. The amount of bread given with an order was limited. An 1849 bill of fare from Sweeny’s House of Refreshment in New York City shows 3 cents was the going rate for extra bread.
Bread – and butter – were often poor or deliberately adulterated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so many eating places advertised that they observed quality standards. In the 1880s, cooking teacher Jessup Whitehead almost went apoplectic about the poor quality of baking-powder biscuits often found in low-priced restaurants. He wrote:
Such biscuits are yellow, dirty on the bottom, greasy to the touch; they have rough sides, no edges, for they rise tall and narrowing towards the top; they are wrinkled and freckled and ugly; they will not part into white and eatable flakes or slices, but tumble in brittle crumbs from the fingers, and eat like smoked sawdust.
Even today it is commonplace to form a quick judgment about a restaurant by the quality of its bread. Historically patrons probably fared best if they went to a bakery restaurant that made its own baked goods. Or to a tea room in the early 20th century, many of which made a specialty of raisin, nut, or gingerbread, preferably served hot from the oven. In tea rooms, however, patrons often paid dearly for bread and rolls, usually on an a la carte basis.
By the turn of the century many habitual restaurant-goers had a habit of eating all the bread as soon as it was placed on the table. Etiquette minders disliked this behavior and owners preferred to serve bread only after other dishes were served. Waiters, on the other hand, liked the bread and butter set up because it enabled them to serve more guests who, with something to nibble on, were less impatient for their orders.
Not all eating places did their own baking even in the 19th century, and the number that did was drastically reduced by the mid-20th. As few as 6% of all restaurants did their own baking by 1952. However, the advent of frozen bread made “Doing our own baking” a common advertising claim in the 1960s. That decade also saw a spread in the novelty of individual loaves of bread served on a carving board, made possible by in part by frozen doughs, loaves, and rolls.
As popular as the “cute” little loaves were for a time, discriminating patrons rejected them as mushy and tasteless. The counterculture preferred heavier whole grain breads, which soon made their way into restaurants such as Sausalito’s Trident. On a ca. 1968 menu, the rather high price charged for a basket of rolls was justified as follows: “Our rolls are hand baked for us daily using only the purest ingredients: finest organic grains, fertile eggs, organically grown onions & raisins, raw butter, oils & honey.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2013