Search for the words “restaurant row” in old newspapers before WWII and you will become convinced that a restaurant was a prime spot to be stabbed or clobbered by flying crockery. Not as dangerous as a barroom, but close.
The other meaning and pronunciation refer not to a fight but to a happier state of affairs, namely a street lined with restaurants that has become a popular destination for diners.
The earliest use of the term I’ve found is a 1909 reference to Chicago’s Randolph Street where 39 busy restaurants lined up on a six-block stretch [illustrated]. A bit later Chicago’s Wabash Ave. was known as cafeteria row, reportedly aggregating the largest number of self-service restaurants in the world, while Clark Street with all its lunch rooms was nicknamed “toothpick row.”
The reason restaurants group together is not hard to see. As was true for downtown department stores that occupied several corners of a single intersection, groups of the same kind of businesses attracted flocks of customers who knew they were likely to find something they wanted. In the early 20th century, when chain restaurants were becoming common, lesser known restaurants were eager to locate near the winners to catch their overflow.
It’s also a marketing ploy. City officials may declare a street Restaurant Row to help boost the local economy, as NYC mayor John Lindsay did in the depressed 1970s with West 46th Street between 8th and 9th. Actually New York had — and has — many restaurant rows, as is true of other large cities. Perhaps NYC’s first was Park Row in lower Manhattan where hungry politicians and newspaper workers crowded into Dolan’s, home of “beef an’” [corned beef and beans], which anchored the street’s concentration of lunch rooms.
Los Angeles’ restaurant row on La Cienega Boulevard [illustrated at top] probably achieved more celebrity than did those of any other cities. Coming into prominence with the end of Prohibition in the 1930s it presented a mix of swanky restaurants and nightclubs alight with neon signs. In 1947 the row, centered at Wilshire and La Cienega, was enough of an attraction to inspire Southwest Airlines to offer a weekend jaunt built around it. One of the earliest restaurants in the row, Lawry’s The Prime Rib, established in 1938, continues today. Its owners also operated other La Cienega hotspots, Richlor’s [illustrated] and Steer’s.
Although the 1960s and 1970s were decades of decline on Los Angeles’ restaurant row, it made a comeback in the 1980s and continues to attract visitors today.
It didn’t take long for other cities, even small towns and suburbs, to realize that promoting a restaurant row was a way to bring people to town with money to spend. Restaurant rows with as few as four or five eating places began to advertise their attractions. [Route 9, Framingham MA illustrated]
With the spread of fast food eateries in the 1960s, people began to refer to fast-food rows where pizza, fried chicken, and burger emporiums clustered together. Competing chains kept a close eye on where McDonald’s opened, figuring the fast-food leader had chosen well after conducting extensive research on demographics and traffic patterns.
© Jan Whitaker, 2015