The case of the mysterious chili parlor

Historical research sometimes goes nowhere. I saw the following advertisement in a 1903 Denver newspaper and was intrigued. Chinese noodle and chili parlor? Another strike at the idea of ethnic authenticity in cuisine. I wondered, was the owner Chinese or Mexican or neither? What did “no opposition” mean? I hoped I could find out more.

The ad says “old established trade.” I was unable to verify that. I discovered that in 1890 a man named Reuben Newhart ran a restaurant at 909 18th street, but I could find nothing about him. In the early part of 1902 a restaurant at that address was under the management of Mrs. Lizzie Albin. She also proved to be a cipher. Otherwise Denver city directories for the intervening years showed no restaurants at #909.

I searched for additional advertisements. What I found made everything more confusing.

Can you, dear reader, create a scenario which explains the following series of advertisements?

The earliest I found was September 15, 1902, when the business is described as a chile parlor. (Note: chile was often used instead of chili.)


In October it is put up for sale. Clearing $100 a month, about $6,000 today – not too bad for a chili parlor.


October 24, it is no longer described as a chile parlor but as an “all new” Short Order and Oyster House.

It is on November 19, 1902, that the restaurant is first described as a “chile and noodle parlor.”

But on December 13 it is doing business as “The Orient” and serving Chinese Noodles and Chop Suey. Western Chinese restaurants were often located in the rear of saloons but, the advertisement announces, this is not true of The Orient. Now we discover the asking price: $160.

Eight days later, December 21, and the Chile, Noodle and Lunch Parlor is clearing $125 a month. But is that true? The owner must be pretty desperate to sell if s/he is willing to raffle it at 1 cent a chance.

Well, it’s January 25, 1903, and evidently the raffle was not successful. The owner must sell in the next few days. The profit picture seems to have dimmed a little – but maybe the new owner could collect on those invoices, which I’m guessing had been figured into previous profit estimates. Price dropped to $125.

The advertisement that got me interested in the first place, January 28, 1903. Why is no one buying it if it’s doing big business and has a fine location and low rent? The owner isn’t around much.

Six days later, the price drops to $100, but now the place is clearing only $90 a month.

March 11, 1903. Makes no sense at all.

Chile parlor gone! Looks like selling faucet filters is a better deal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under miscellaneous

7 responses to “The case of the mysterious chili parlor

  1. Kristie

    I recently started a YouTube channel talking about American Chinese food and came across a menu from a noodle parlor in Butte, Montana in the 20’s that also has the item chili. Now I am so intrigued, but couldn’t find more info on the connection between chili parlors and noodle parlors.

    • I don’t know of any connection between chili parlors and noodle parlors but it is true that restaurants run by Chinese people, maybe especially in a mining town like Butte, would be likely to cater to local tastes. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that the menu would show both.

  2. Anonymous

    Does chile in Denver mean chili? Or the actual chile pepper that might have had another specific menu-item use? And do girls and chili mean something besides waitresses, or is this an escort service? Or maybe this is the early version of the emails we all receive about sending just $200 to another country and then become rich. Or the Craig’s List ad that wanted me to put down a deposit for an apartment by looking only at the outside of the building since the owner was out of town. Intriguing.

  3. Anonymous

    Thanks for laying out this fascinating mystery so well. Now I wonder what kind of businesses the neighbors were, in case that sheds any light, as well as anything important concerning food-selling businesses in 1902–any possibly relevant factors of context.

    Maybe, since you can’t find out anything about the owner, that person does not exist–at least under that name–and the deal was shady and enough people knew it to stay away. It was never meant to be sold…….see? Imagination running wild!

    Great story.

  4. Jan

    Love your research! Fascinating glimpse into hidden history.

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