Dining in summer


For most of restaurant history proprietors watched their business drop off drastically in summer.

Not only did patronage decline but those who showed up ate less. In the 1890s many asked for crackers and milk in place of the usual steaks and chops. Orders for hot coffee fell off by a third or more. Around 1911 lunch rooms had become used to customers who ate nothing but a dish of ice cream. In the 1920s sandwiches and salads were popular. An August 1925 restaurant journal bewailed “the diner who doesn’t eat enough,” typified by the man whose cafeteria tray held only a measly dish of cottage cheese and a corn cob.

ACFanLeaderRestaurantFood did not stand up well to the heat. Salt shakers became clogged, butter melted, oils turned rancid, and vermin multiplied. In 1882 a Chicagoan was disgusted by “butter the consistency of salad-oil, dotted with struggling flies.” Restaurants that put food on display, as many once did, were in danger of turning their patrons’ stomachs with what in effect had become an advertisement for not eating there.

People’s moods were likely to sour along with dairy products. Servers were surly and the kitchen received more complaints than usual from dissatisfied customers.

It’s hard to imagine sitting in a stifling dining room wearing a suit and tie but that was the requirement for men in most restaurants before World War I. In 1911 it took a dire July heat wave in Cleveland for downtown eateries there to permit men to dine in shirt sleeves.

Restaurants tried all kinds of things to deal with the summer doldrums. In 1797 Boston’s Julien offered a range of (dubious?) remedies “calculated for strengthening and invigorating the system of nature, during the heat of Summer” which included vinegars and white wines. Another solution was to open a summer garden. Before the Civil War Delmonico’s opened a garden attached to their Brooklyn vegetable and dairy farm. Other restaurants took to the roof for a whiff of breeze.

Restaurants might shut down their city restaurants or open seasonal branches in resort areas. Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner had a custom of closing up for summer altogether. Portland’s Exchange Restaurant in Maine opened a branch on the city’s Long Island in the 1890s where it hosted clam bakes and shore dinners. The English Tea Rooms near the Waldorf in NYC migrated to Newport and Northampton’s Rose Tree Inn moved to Maine while its principal customers, Smith College students, took summer vacation.

ACFanfanIn the 1880s the more modern restaurants were equipped with fans driven by steam or electric dynamos in the basement. The New York Kitchen, a mass feeding establishment serving up to 2,000 meals a day, advertised in 1888 that it was the coolest restaurant in Chicago “made so by our steam exhaust fan, which introduces 15,000 cubic feet of fresh air every minute.” The so-called “quick lunch” eateries of the 1890s – forerunners to today’s fast food establishments – led the way with modern methods of buying, food preparation, and facilities equipped with ceiling fans. But the average, undercapitalized restaurant could not afford such luxuries and made do with paper fans. (Um, and pretend it’s electric?)

Movie theaters, passenger trains, and restaurants were among the first businesses to install air-conditioning in the late 1920s and 1930s, but it was still fairly rare in restaurants before WWII. The largest restaurants and chains such as S&W cafeterias and Toffenetti’s were in the lead. In New Orleans, Gluck’s (“serving more than 10,000 meals a day”) was air-conditioned by 1930. In the mid-1930s federally backed modernization loans helped, but it was still common to see restaurants in smaller cities at the time advertising that they were “the only” air-conditioned restaurant in, say, Lexington KY or New Bedford MA.

There can be little doubt that air-conditioning was attractive to customers. During WWII Gimbels in Philadelphia, where all six of its restaurants and private dining rooms were air-conditioned, was serving up to 23,000 meals a day. Needless to say, today it is considered a must.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under technology

7 responses to “Dining in summer

  1. The paper fan is great. A ca. 1940 postcard from the President Tavern and Cafeteria advertises their spacious “air cooled” cafeteria. Certainly a draw for weary office workers during a New York summer: http://fiveoclockteaspoon.blogspot.com/2012/02/culinary-ephemera-new-yorks-one-and.html

  2. Interesting post Jan. It’s fascinating that old menus show so little seasonality, especially given the summer eating preferences that you describe.

  3. I can’t imagine “NO AIR-CONDITIONING” being from Texas living in the 21st century! Plus, I’ve read where personal hygiene (lack of) was always an issue during early America’s development as well. So,the olfactory system would have been in overdrive from food, breath, perfume, lack of personal hygiene, smoke & other contaminants,etc..Indeed an Odoriferous Moment!

    In reference to NY Kitchen 1888_ “made so by our steam exhaust fan, which introduces 15,000 cubic feet of fresh air every minute.” Somehow I started to visualize the collection of “Model Steam Engines” presented on the British Antiques Roadshow (filmed at the Steam Train Museum)_wondering if these “massive steam engines” powered these steam exhaust fans_& were in fact out back of the restaurant humming away while folks dined…imagine the noise! “The Mind is a Terrible thing to Waste”.

    I love the photos of the Fans! People got really creative with the making of fans. I learned the history of fans when I researched the culture of Spain for my “Essence of Spain Christmas Party 2012”, here’s a link_http://sagebookwhisperer.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-essence-of-christmas-in-spain.html. This was a helpful book in learning about fans_ “Fans in Spain” by Nancy Armstrong….fascinating!

    As always_Love this Dining History! I so love your Blog….it makes my brain cells go in overdrive!

    • Yep, noisy, smelly — I’m sure you’re right that if people from 2013 took a time machine to a 1900 restaurant, they’d have to be really, really hungry to sit down and eat in the average restaurant.

  4. Does anyone remember The Piccadely Diner located at 186th St. across from Columbia-Presbyterian (Babies) hospital, early 1920’s to mid to late 1930’s? Was owned and operated by Margaret & Pat Byrne, my great aunt and uncle, who left me with a virtual treasure of stories and memories about owning and operating a business during and at the height of the Great Depression. She could serve a whole, home-cooked meal including the 5 cents for a piece of pie for dessert, for 60-75 cents and all the freshly brewed coffee you could drink!

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