We burn steaks


While most restaurant advertising tends to exaggerate the subject’s merits, some takes the opposite tack, declaring that the restaurant’s food and service are horrid. The reason is simple, a wish to stand out from the crowd.

ToughSteaksShermanOaks1950How well this works is questionable. If a restaurant has nothing going for it in food quality or service, a gimmicky promotional attitude isn’t going to make it successful. For instance, the humor of Hawley’s Tough Steaks, Sherman Oaks Ca, displayed in the slogan “Famous for Dining Discomfort” wears thin almost instantly. After you have read through the menu once, and maybe smiled wanly at its jokiness – Tired T-Bone, 25 cents, With Meat, 2.25 – you might not ever want to see it again. I haven’t been able to determine how long Hawley’s stayed in business.

I sense a degree of desperation in the advertisement for The Garret in Greenwich Village. In 1922 when this ad appeared, The Garret’s proprietor was Grace Godwin, single mother of four who ran it to support her family. It was located near the spot in the Village where all the tour buses parked, which should have given it an edge despite the fact that it was housed on the second floor of a dumpy old building. The ad played off the Village’s reputation for zaniness that was so attractive to tourists. Grace gave up the business not much later.


But sometimes it seems to work.

Ptomaine Tommy’s in Los Angeles fared quite well and was around at least from 1913 to 1940 if not longer. It multiplied, “dotting California roadsides,” according to newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre who mentioned the restaurant’s name often enough even if he wasn’t terribly flattering. He called them “hastily constructed” and comparing them to the Shanties, Shacks, and Food Hutches that sprang up in the Depression serving bean soup and hash.

Perhaps partly because McIntyre made the name known, it became a popular one. Ptomaine Tommy’s appeared in San Francisco, Portland OR, Reno NV, and even Eau Claire WI. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if restaurants with that name are in business today.

I think that the self-denigrating approach appeals to a sense of humor among those, historically men, who aren’t especially fond of eating out unless they can be reassured that they won’t be expected to pay much, dress up, or display refined manners.

Restaurants that make fun of themselves give off a message that they aren’t pretentious. Patrons can be sure they won’t meet up with haughty servers. Or, as Newman’s in Amarillo and Dalhart, TX, put it, “Terrible Service, But We’re Friendly.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under miscellaneous

6 responses to “We burn steaks

  1. liquidcool

    Ptomaine Tommy’s was just featured at the start of the new Perry Mason series on HBO. On a hunch it might be real, I did a search and it brought me here. Then looking at Wikipedia, it says they invented the chili burger and the term “chili size” and lasted until 1958.


    Also interesting is that the current champion of the chili burger, Original Tommy’s, actually came along 33 years later in the same city. So not very original, but certainly more successful.

  2. Patricia Dewall

    Hawleys was quite famous. I always enjoyed it. Great steaks.

  3. Patricia Dewall

    Ate there many times in the fifties. Loved it..

  4. VEZ

    Just a note for you… Hawley’s Tough Steaks did very well for quite some time. It was opened by Bettye Hawley in the 50’s and was a favorite of many celebrities of the time. My mother worked as hostess and pretty much managed the restaurant until the death of Charles Hawley, who had assumed ownership. When Charles passed away in 1965, my parents purchased the business and ran it successfully into the 1970’s, when they eventually tired of the business and sold it. The restaurant business is cyclical, and there were good times and lean times, but Hawley’s was around for at least 20 years. (The food and service were top-notch. Mom wouldn’t stand for anything less!) Thanks for the article.

  5. I would patronize any restaurant that promises me Unspeakable Coffee. 😉

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