In 1919 two women opened a small tea room in Boston with just four tables. It was something of a lark. They had virtually no money to outfit it so they bought used furnishings. The location was a candlelit basement on Oxford Terrace in Boston, a romantic name for what would generally be known as an alley.
Anyone reading about their opening might have predicted they would fail spectacularly – especially after noting their rather boastful claims: “Such a place as we are about to open to the public is rare in New England. We are just trying out an idea and are seeking an answer to it by actual experiment rather than to obtain profits. If this is a success we will open others in large cities of the country.”
Despite being in an unpretentious building in a lowly area it turned out to be a very favorable location, in walking distance of the central Boston Public Library and Copley Square with all its hotels and nearby shops.
They named it Nan’s Kitchen after Nan Gurney, one of the founders. The two had met while in the Navy during World War I. Before that Nan had been married, but left her husband behind to join the service. Claiming desertion, he divorced her. Nan’s partner Thellma McClellan had worked as an astrologer before joining the Navy. Both enjoyed performing and were involved with vaudeville and amateur theatrics.
Nan’s Kitchen was an instant success, popular with members of the Professional Women’s Club to which they belonged. It also attracted fellow vaudeville performers. Publicity helped, particularly newspaper stories that made the tea room sound like a haven for romantic trysts at lunch and afternoon tea. They added more tables, but continued to specialize in one dish, chicken and waffles.
They must not have made much in the way of profits initially because they continued their side jobs as freelance teachers of music and elocution for several years. They were generous with the servers (who wore smocks, Oriental pantaloons, and artists’ caps), giving them a share of profits and paying them over the summer when the tea room closed.
In 1925 the pair seemed to become more serious about the restaurant business, opening a second tea room called Nan’s Kitchen Too at 3 Boylston Place. The next year the original Nan’s remained open all summer for the first time. The following year it was remodeled to resemble an outdoor garden containing a small cabin where a Black woman prepared the waffles, an arrangement also in use at the Boylston Place Nan’s. (Shades of Georgia’s Aunt Fanny’s Cabin? I would hope that Nan’s Black cooks were not costumed as Mammys!)
Although Nan and Thellma lived together in the 1920s, in 1930 they no longer did. In 1931 Nan went to New York where she worked as steward in an “exclusive Manhattan club,” according to an advertisement for Birds-Eye frozen foods. From 1934 to 1936 she ran Nan Gurney’s Inn, in her home town of Patchogue, Long Island, where she had grown up as Lettie L. Smith. After that, in 1937, she opened Nan Gurney’s Restaurant on Northern Blvd. in Flushing NY, specializing in “Long Island food.” [Flushing restaurant shown below later when it was Villa Bianca]
In 1932 Thellma, who had managed Nan’s Kitchen Too, was living in Connecticut. A version of Nan’s moved to the Motor Mart Building on Park Square and remained in business until 1935, but whether Thellma or Nan had any connection with it then is unknown.
© Jan Whitaker, 2021