atmosphereschaber1941I put the word in quotation marks to acknowledge that what atmosphere in restaurants means is as elusive as air itself — which the word also refers to. It was often used to describe eating places in the 19th century, but not in a flattering way. A typical usage is that from 1868 where someone remarked that in a certain restaurant “the atmosphere is heavy with cooking vapors.”

The term atmosphere (or ambience, which came into use in the 1970s) became used in a more general way to describe the character of a restaurant – that intangible spirit of a place. The broader meaning could encompass an air that was sophisticated or homey, rowdy or relaxing, masculine or feminine, formal or casual, etc. I discovered a 1950s restaurant that claimed to have “Christian atmosphere” with home cooking by a Mrs. and “No Beer, Liquor or Smoking.”

In the 1890s the more general meaning almost always referred to the kinds of people associated with a restaurant, both owners and patrons. For example sawdust on the floor, pictures of athletes on the wall and the presence of prostitutes signaled a thoroughly masculine atmosphere while the presence of artists and writers in French, German, or Italian table d’hotes shouted “bohemian!”. A jolly host could also impart atmosphere, which might be altogether missing if he weren’t on hand, or if his most colorful patrons failed to show.

AtmosphereRomanyMarieSummer1921It didn’t take long before restaurant owners realized they could appeal to new patrons by bragging about their “atmosphere,” especially if it was bohemian. A San Francisco restaurant announced that it attracted “artists, writers, musicians, poets, painters, singers, draftsmen, balladists, literati and newspaper writers.” In 1903 NYC’s Elite Rathskeller Restaurant ran an advertisement claiming to have “Refined Bohemian atmosphere,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms since bohemians were supposed to be carefree souls who violated everyday norms of propriety.

The next step for restaurateurs was to merchandise atmosphere by generating it themselves. Since it seemed that so many people wanted to gawk at bohemians, why wait for them to show up if you could entice them with free dinners? Allegedly some restaurants did just that.


After World War I, following the reign of bohemian restaurants, came a new type of atmospheric eating place, the tea room of the 1920s. The tea room’s special atmosphere was  quaint and homey with artistic touches. In 1922 the Journal of Home Economics pronounced that “The very name of Tea Room has grown to mean a place with ‘atmosphere’ and with furnishings that are unique.” Ranging from the fashionable to the playful, tea rooms proved that women – their primary patrons – were in love with atmosphere.

atmosphere1918FlintMIBucking the trend toward atmospheric decor were a handful of holdouts. Anything like a “restaurant atmosphere” was anathema to a Y.M.C.A. cafeteria in Flint Michigan (1918). The Old Colony Coffee House in Richmond VA renounced “ordinary restaurant atmosphere” in 1924 and vowed it would have instead “simplicity in decorations” and “plainness in food.” Patrons of traditionally masculine restaurants feared that when Chicago’s J. R. Thompson’s tore out its white tiles for a more feminine look it had destroyed its no-nonsense atmosphere and gone “girly girly.” Likewise, design critic Lewis Mumford shuddered when the Childs’ chain replaced the “antiseptic elegance” of its “hospital ward atmosphere” for “fake fifteenth century English,” betraying the honest utilitarianism of the Machine Age. No doubt Mumford chuckled when Alice Foote MacDougall, queen of scenographic Spanish villas and French chateaux in NYC, went bankrupt in 1932. [see The Cortile below]


In the 1950s there was still a tendency in the restaurant industry to see women as the constituency for atmosphere while men supposedly judged a restaurant first by its food quality. But by the 1960s this was no longer true, as indisputably demonstrated by the success of Polynesian restaurants. An executive of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) said that Americans’ demand for atmosphere had raised the cost of opening a restaurant to $4,000 a seat in 1962.

One of the early chains built around atmospheric theme restaurants was David Tallichet’s Specialty Restaurant Corporation in California. In 1965 the firm opened Gate of Spain, capturing the “atmosphere of old Castile” atop a tall building in Santa Monica. Restaurant industry consultant George Wenzel recommended the following year that restaurateurs “give your guests something to do or something to see, or something to make conversations about.” He suggested creating a Gay Nineties or a river boat atmosphere.

In the 1970s theme restaurants came into their own, classified by the NRA as one of three of the basic types of restaurant in 1976, and the one that drew the most affluent guests.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


Filed under atmosphere, restaurant decor, theme restaurants, women

5 responses to ““Atmosphere”

  1. I am writing a series of stories about a 1940’s romance and your info on your site was very helpful to get ideas for a restaurant or lounge date set in the 1940’s. Thank you!

  2. Dawn Lorenty

    I am trying to find a recipe for the potato soup and sauerkraut that was served at The Dumpling House near Lyons. Illinois. It closed a number if years ago.

  3. Wonderful post. I love the idea of the refined Bohemian atmosphere — very funny!

  4. Just wanted to wish you a happy New Year. Keep up the great blogs!

  5. Hi Vicki, Want to wish you a happy New Year and let you know I am back on-line after having to take a rather long hiatus. I want to tell you again how much I love reading all of your ‘posts’ and particularly enjoy all the subject material., pictures, and restaurant fashion you report for us…Thank you for all the positive energy you put into your work and for all the historical benefits and knowledge we, as your readers and ‘followers’, take from your column. Many kudos and blessing sent your way for another successful and prosperous New Year. The only thing I need to work on is finding a way that the editorials I send in to you, the paper, reach their address and are published with all the other posts. The very last one I did probably nearly 2 years ago was a great historical reflection and one of my best pieces. Then somewhere in the “send’ mode it was completely lost even on my end and landed somewhere in eternity! I was heart broken and then stopped writing altogether. Anyway , let’s try to fix that and in the meantime, I am still harboring a private hope in my heart that someone, somewhere realized the great potential in bring Schrafft’s back, at 42nd and Broadway, and maybe even in the mezzanine, to start! Keeping the faith, Martha PS. With these holidays just over I can’t tell you how many times I was again reminded that Schrafft’s had the very best holiday candy mix on the market: all the varieties: ribbon, assorted hard candy in the tin, divinity, puffed peppermints, fudge, candy canes, and a specialty candy I cannot remember the name but was a thin, hard peppermint candy on the outside and was filled with a smooth, delicate mocha filling…I haven’t seen any kind of a replacement since they manufactured their last batch of Christmas candy! However, we must keep talking the talk, walking the walk, and keeping the faith that Schrafft’s as we knew it can come back….. FAO Schwartz did. Date: Sun, 11 Jan 2015 12:00:52 +0000 To: rosewood03@hotmail.com

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