Once trendy: tomato juice cocktails


Recently I acquired a 1947 menu from the Algonquin Hotel of “round table” literary fame. I noticed that one of the appetizers was tomato juice and I thought to myself how commonplace a selection that once was and how rarely it is seen today.

No doubt there are restaurants that still have it on the menu – nothing really ever goes away totally. It reminds me strongly of an old standby restaurant in Massachusetts that closed about ten years ago. I was fascinated by the quaint metal contraptions on each table holding little pots of appetizers such as cottage cheese, olives, and pickles. There must have been tomato juice on the menu, too, despite it being decidedly out of style by then.

I was so convinced that tomato juice was hopelessly unimaginative that I was taken by surprise when I did a little research and discovered that it was considered a fashionable snob drink in the 1920s and 1930s. It came into vogue in the 1920s along with other good-for-you foods such as Melba toast, cottage cheese, pineapple, and sauerkraut juice. Women’s magazines touted it as smart, healthful, and perfect for anyone wanting to lose pounds just like a Hollywood movie star.

It is said that a chef at the French Lick resort hotel in Indiana introduced tomato juice to  American diners in 1917. It MIGHT be true that he was first to serve it in a public dining room – it does not seem to appear on American menus prior to World War I. However tomato juice was well known and available in cans in the 19th century so he clearly did not invent it (as is often reported).

A tomato juice cocktail could be made by the addition of tobasco sauce, paprika, sauerkraut juice, clam juice, etc. Mix well, shake until foamy, and pour over crushed ice. Restaurants tried all sorts of combinations. The Wrigley Building Restaurant in Chicago came up with clabbered tomato juice which was tomato juice mixed with a goodly amount of cottage cheese. Denver’s Blue Parrot Inn blended orange and tomato juices, while The Colony in New York mixed clam and tomato.


Although tomato juice could be found on menus of all kinds of eating places, even Chinese-American restaurants, it tended to be an appetizer favored by those who eat luncheon, not lunch. It was especially popular in restaurants that appealed to women then such as tea rooms, quaint inns, and department store restaurants. [illustration shows portions of menus from China Garden, Filene’s department store, and Willow Tea Cottage]

Arriving on the scene as it did during Prohibition, tomato juice clearly served as a non-alcoholic cocktail. Non-drinkers appreciated it, as did serious imbibers who had overdone things at their neighborhood speakeasy. It was a well known morning-after tonic continuing into the 1950s (and perhaps the present). In 1939 a restaurant in Shawnee OK allegedly served a “hangover breakfast” of tomato juice with hot sauce, soft-boiled egg, whole wheat toast, coffee, and two aspirins.

Tomato juice was so popular by the mid-1930s, both in homes and restaurants, that government scientists were said to be working on disease-resistant tomato varieties that would yield more juice. But by the 1980s it was considered an appetizer totally lacking in sex appeal, analogous to vanilla ice cream as a dessert. But, who knows? It could make a comeback. Tomato and kale juice cocktails?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under food, restaurant customs

27 responses to “Once trendy: tomato juice cocktails

  1. Pingback: History of the Bloody Mary

  2. Marilyn Strachan

    Bailey’s ice cream parlor was on the corner of Boylston and Tremont Right across from the Torraine Hotel….I DON’T know the dates of its existence….

    • I was grateful for the way you based your commentary off of historical sources! Here I am looking at a Mennonite cookbook from the Shenandoah valley written in the late 80s, and tomato juice cocktail is supposed to be made with sugar, onion salt, and celery salt and then canned. I wondered what on earth one was expected to do with such a concoction.

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  4. Note that canned tomato juice was widely used for cooking prior to WWI (also, counterintuitively, for stain removal). It was not commonly consumed as a regular (non-medicinal, non-survival) beverage until after WWI, when it became popular as a Temperance drink.

  5. Pingback: Good food, and lots of it, in a historic setting – times two | Meanwhile, at the Manse

  6. robertnill

    At the Mission Inn in Riverside, California,they serve a shrimp cocktail that is basically a tomato cocktail with shrimp. According to the staff there, this was the original form of shrimp cocktail, before its current form of shrimp plus cocktail dipping sauce. Seems plausible, and certainly explains what’s always seemed an odd name for dish we know now.

  7. I love, and still mix for myself, a cocktail of low-sodium V8 and sauerkraut juice.

  8. I think tomato juice is still on the menu at my mother’s retirement home.

  9. In Canada the use of clamato juice is commonplace in the infamous Caesar, but beyond its borders the tomato based cocktail is a little harder to find.

  10. My mother used to serve our lucky dinner guests tomato aspic (think dense tomato flavored jell-o) with a scoop of cottage cheese on top as a gross side dish/salad frankenfood once in a while. And we did have Clamato juice in the fridge — they probably mixed it with vodka or something to numb the taste buds.

  11. pboid

    I stillllll love tomato juice. It rounds out a boring diet quite nicely and does no damage. That hangover breakfast up there sounds like a meal I have eaten many a time with or without the aspirin. But there was no hangover.

  12. I remember being served tomato juice in a restaurant or two many years ago.

  13. I remember that still in the 1960s and 1970s, orange, grapefruit and tomato juice were still fairly commonly options on menus here in the UK as first courses at lunch and dinner, at restaurants of all levels. Always out of a little bottle or a tin, and always served in a Paris goblet wine-glass, usually on a small plate with a paper doily on it. It would be unbelievable now. As you suggest, I think it was partly on menus as a “healthy” option and maybe something unchallenging to those unaccustomed to eating out.

    Fruit juice for breakfast was pretty much unheard of then in the UK – indeed, I remember while visiting the USA in 1985 we were puzzled by a note left by an (absent) host family for our group when we reached Providence RI: “Please use the blue bathroom and there is milk and OJ in the fridge.” We had to go to look in the fridge to see what on earth OJ might be!!

    • Interesting! Love the OJ story. Orange juice became a common breakfast drink in the US after WWII when it became available frozen. And I agree with you that tomato juice — and the also very commonplace menu appetizer “fruit cup” — tended to be found on the most conventional restaurant menus after the fashionability factor had worn off completely in the later 20th century.

  14. Glen H

    Isn’t there a Canadian drink called Clamato that sounds like the cocktail at the Colony? As someone who had his first Poutine today, it sounds intriguing .

    • There is indeed. I haven’t tried it, and you’re ahead of me with Poutine.

    • Yes Clamato Juice is readily available in Canadian stores. I drank it as a treat when I was a child many decades ago and still do occasionally; it is a mixture of clam juice and tomato juice and usually comes canned. I imagine you can get it frozen as well but canned clamato juice tastes great. I have never mixed with any alcohol but many do. Not everyone likes it and I am told it is an acquired taste but most things are.

    • Marilyn from Canada

      My favorite drink – a Caesar — Vodka, Clamato juice, in a glass rimmed with Caesar rimmer (salt, celery salt). Some put a stick of celery in the glass, or a dill pickle, or pickled asparagus. mmmmm!

  15. You should copyright your tomato and kale juice cocktail. I can see that being snapped up as a vegetable smoothie appetizer!

  16. silverbird

    I think it was in the 60s comedy “That Girl” with Marlo Thomas where she would go to an automat and mix ketchup with hot water for soup? Or was it some other sitcom? At any rate, what I find I REALLY miss are the old relish trays. I remember a restaurant up by Chautauqua Lake that used to have watermelon pickles, olives, and celery–all beautifully presented in a crystal dish. I looked forward to that more that the entree. That was still in the late 90s, so decisively retro by then.

  17. I have long enjoyed tomatoe juice or V-8 with lots of lemon, a bit of salt, a drop of hot sauce, and a dash of worcestershire sauce – over ice thanks!

      • Last night I saw abut 10 minutes of an old Jack Benny show. He and a woman were in a cafeteria. Cheapskate that he played, he placed 2 glasses of water on each of their trays. The woman questioned this. He explained that he found adding a dash of salt and some catsup from the table to one glass of water made a lovely tomato juice.

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