Eating in restaurants is so common today that it is hard to imagine that it in the past many people found it confusing and embarrassing, especially in more formal restaurants.
They had trouble figuring out menus, felt nervous and self-conscious, worried about their manners, and generally didn’t know how to act.
One solution was to avoid public eating places. That way no one would witness your poor manners, no haughty waiter would sneer at you, other patrons would not stare and examine your clothes as you walked in.
Restaurants were primarily men’s turf in the 19th century. Until the 1890s when affluent women began entertaining their friends at restaurant luncheons, restaurants were often seen as undesirable locations for women. High society was very private. Dinner parties were held in the home, outside public view. In a culture that was completely the opposite of today’s celebrity whirlpool, being seen in public was demeaning, especially for women. Additionally, many women of the 19th century disliked eating in a room with strangers.
Even men and women who enjoyed restaurants found ordering from a menu entirely in French difficult. When menus were in English, they were still daunting to unworldly Americans who had never experienced many of the dishes served. Books and articles offered advice but many diners gave up the struggle and instead let the waiter select their meal.
An observer commented in 1899 that “it is a severe trial for many women, and some men, to enter a hotel dining room and particularly hard if it must be done without a companion. Some that march in with boldest front and utmost nonchalance are but actors, trembling within while brave to outward seeming.” Actors aside, other people unfamiliar with restaurants could be identified by their behavior. Some rushed in, going straight to a table without being escorted there by the head waiter. Others might give themselves away by accidentally ordering a ridiculous set of dishes such as fruit and pickles or by being overly chummy with the waiter. According to an 1890 account, going to a high class New York restaurant solo led waiters to conclude that the patron “is a countryman or unused to restaurant life.”
For the poor or the newly arrived immigrant, a restaurant could be a terrifying challenge. Two period novels illustrate this beautifully. In A Daughter of the Tenements (1895), the son of a tenement janitor goes to a restaurant for the first time:
Tom had never, for an instance, had a table napkin in his hand; had never seen more than one knife and fork placed beside a plate; had actually never been served at table by any person other than one who was eating with him; had never seen wine drunk at meals.
In The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the main character experiences his first visit to a “high-class restaurant”:
The immense restaurant, with its rows and rows of table-cloths, the crowd of well-dressed customers, the glint and rattle of knives and forks, the subdued tones of the orchestra, and the imposing black-and-white figures of the waiters struck terror into my . . . heart. The bill of fare was, of course, Chinese to me, though I made a pretense of reading it. The words swam before me. . . . The worst part of it all was that I had not the least idea what I was to say or do. The occasion seemed to call for a sort of table manners which were beyond the resources . . . of a poor novice like myself.
African-Americans rarely experienced embarrassment in restaurants for the simple reason that they were not welcome in most of them before the 1960s Civil Rights era. Even those who attained success in the restaurant business reported an unfamiliarity with restaurants in their early lives. Sylvia Woods, founder of Sylvia’s in New York City, disclosed that when she moved to New York from South Carolina at age 28 she had never been in a restaurant. Renowned chef and cookbook author Leah Chase, of Dooky Chase in New Orleans, said she had never set foot in a restaurant until she got a job waiting on tables. “Black people didn’t go to restaurants,” she said. “That’s the way it was.”
By the 1920s it was considered acceptable for young (white) women to go to a restaurant on a date. But this could be hazardous, as “C. S.” confessed to a Boston newspaper in 1927. “Having never eaten in a restaurant before,” she wrote, “imagine my surprise when I picked up the square of butter from the butter dish, thinking it was cheese! That was my first and last date with him.”
In 1970 an etiquette expert reported that she frequently encountered young middle-class women who had never eaten in a restaurant other than a hamburger stand and said they were unsure how to order or to use silverware.
Has discomfort with restaurants disappeared? While writing this post I’ve started to wonder if my opening sentence is wrong. Maybe achieving a feeling of assurance in restaurants is actually an ongoing project.
© Jan Whitaker, 2018