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.
Food 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.
In 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