To the degree that restaurants are about theater, food is one of the starring players. Putting it on stage has long been considered a way to sell it.
There are many opportunities to display food, one of them being the simple delivery of an attractive plate to a neighboring table. But there are also buffets, cafeteria shelves, dessert carts, flaming swords, etc., all of which have been featured or will appear as posts on this blog.
There are also several ways to attract potential customers passing along the street. One of the oldest, popular in the 19th century, was to string up game near the front door. Today that would probably be guaranteed to drive people away, but men of the 19th century responded positively. The Shakspeare Saloon in 1847 New York lured judges, lawyers, merchants, and men about town by displaying “a splendid buck, a couple of bear hams, haunches of mutton, . . . fatted capons as large as turkeys, . . . glittering fish and sirloin steaks marbled with fat.”
The Shakspeare was below street level as were many eateries of the early 19th century. But as more eating places moved above ground, fitted out with windows that grew ever larger as the century proceeded, new display possibilities arose. In 1868 French rotisserie restaurants in San Francisco decorated their windows with marbled beef, vegetables, and live frogs in glass globes, displays that might have resembled the one portrayed in the 1880s trade card shown here. In it a woman gazes at fruit, as was appropriate for her gender. An article advised that women’s restaurants tempted the fair sex by fruit and delicate pastries, while “Meats are never shown, and the suggestion of anything so gross is studiously avoided. This is left to the restaurants patronized by men, who are supposed to find a stronger appeal in more solid and healthier food.”
And so meat and fish were especially popular to put on display. Up until the mid-20th century they might still have been on ice but increasingly they were displayed in refrigerated cases. Ice and refrigeration showed respect for the food, balancing two of restaurants’ prime virtues: a sense of extravagant plenty, communicated by large amounts of fine food, and a sense of order, demonstrated by methods that insured freshness.
Some restaurants placed in their windows food that had been frozen inside a large block of ice. Imagine two shad, each with a lemon in its mouth, that appeared to be swimming toward the bottom of the block, forming a V, with a red lobster between them. Or the 20-pound pig encased in ice by “gourmet artist” and restaurateur George Pundt that made such a hit with people passing the Parlor Restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1897.
Along with meat, anything that was overlarge or brightly colored might appear in a window. Big yellow squash, pumpkins, melons, decorated cakes. Chicago’s Toffenetti’s piled up its much ballyhooed Idaho potatoes in the 1940s.
Despite the spectacular effects that could be attained with displays, there were also risks involved. As early as 1886 an article noted that “really first-class restaurants” did not engage in window displays. The pots of baked beans found in New York’s Bowery restaurants were proof, as was the “tired display of sliced tomatoes” placed in the smeared window of an eatery whose location was home to one failed business after another. In the 1920s a Niagara Falls cafeteria owner observed that he avoided putting food in windows because picky patrons felt that “sooner or later, they, as patrons of the restaurant, will have to eat that ‘window’ food” and so they tended to shun restaurants with food displays.
It’s hard to pinpoint when window food displays began to wane. A Seattle newspaper columnist declared in 1965 that the city’s old-time Olympia Café was the last to feature refrigerated steaks in its windows. I can’t recall seeing real food in restaurant windows for the past several decades. Today food shown in restaurant windows is likely to be artificial. Japan, perhaps the biggest user of window food displays, specializes in making the most realistic and highest quality items. They don’t make me hungry, yet the collector in me wants to acquire the fake food for my collection.
© Jan Whitaker, 2014