I’ve collected numerous provocative comments about restaurants over time. Most of the following samples are excerpts from diaries, others from newspaper interviews. I selected them mostly because they were informative about restaurant conditions and practices at various times in the past, as well as patrons’ experiences.
There are some recurring themes. A number of the comments reveal women’s opinions of restaurants and their roles in them. Others show how unfavorably foreign travelers tended to view American eating places during the 19th century. Several comments reveal the high prices and deteriorated conditions that prevailed in the South during the Civil War.
1825, a Boston portrait engraver: “In the evening, at 8 P.M. we called on Mr. Allston at Rouillard’s Restorator. Found him at dinner; we sent up our letters . . . ; after waiting a few minutes Mr. Allston entered the parlour, and received us very cordially. He took us up to his dining room (quite private) and invited us to partake of his wine and cigars.”
1850, daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, in Cooperstown: “Then, again, there are seven taverns in our village, four of them on quite a large scale. As for the eating-houses – independently of the taverns – their number is quite humiliating; it looks as though we must needs be a very gormandizing people: there are some dozen of them – Lunches, Recesses, Restaurants, etc., or whatever else they may be called . . .”
1861, a Confederate clerk, in Richmond VA: “Mr. Tyler then invited me to join him at breakfast at a neighboring restaurant, where we had each a loaf of bread, a cup of coffee with milk (but brown sugar), and three eggs. The bill was sixteen dollars!”
1861, an Irishman visiting Montgomery AL: “Then, as to food – nothing could be had in the hotel – but one of the waiters led us to a restaurant, where we selected from a choice bill of fare, which contained, I think, as many odd dishes as ever I saw, some unknown fishes, oyster-plants, ‘possums, racoons, frogs, and other delicacies, and, eschewing toads and the like, really made a good meal off dirty plates on a vile table-cloth . . .”
1861, and then the Irishman visited Washington: “I dined at a restaurant kept by one Boulanger, a Frenchman, who utilised the swarms of flies infesting his premises by combining masses of them with his soup and made dishes.” [To be fair, Joseph Boulanger was in ill health and had been trying to sell his restaurant for a while when the visitor from Ireland came along.]
1864, a visitor to New Orleans: “Charges for living were most exorbitant; a simple breakfast at a restaurant, one dollar; a frugal dinner, two dollars; two small slices of dry toast, fifteen cents; the same for a cup of tea or coffee; ten cents for ice and butter; sixty cents for one small mutton chop. The simplest fare cost six dollars a day.”
1883, a touring Englishman in San Francisco: “After dressing, we all went to the ‘Poodle Dog’ restaurant to dinner. Here my sister Sarah behaved in an extraordinary way, affecting a morality which appeared to me immoral, and questioning the propriety of dining at this place.”
1893, a woman attending the Chicago World’s Fair: “Then we went to Rector’s Marine Restaurant [shown here], and on its breezy gallery had the swellest sort of little dinner. (The first glimpse of the menu made me faint. All the salads were .60 & .75, the fish all .60 & .75, relishes .25 & .30, vegetables .30 & .40, ice cream .25 . . .)”
1921, a European woman visiting New York: “We ordered some steak for our dinner, and when the waiter brought enough for a school treat I exclaimed, and he said, ‘In Broadway they serve the dishes — here we serve the food!’ They did indeed; even sharing it with a starving cat I couldn’t get through with it. The restaurant was rather a good one and very clean. I reproached Kenneth for not having taken me somewhere with more local color. I hate being treated as a Bourgeoise.”
1951, a male peace activist traveling across the country: “Another group, two whites and a Negro, stopped for coffee at a lunch counter in Maryland. The counter woman brought two porcelain cups and one paper cup. When the white man gave the paper container to the white woman and not to the Negro, the counterwoman said, ‘We’re not allowed to serve colored, it’s against the law.’. . . On the wall, all red-white-and-blue, was a poster which read, ‘If you don’t like this country, there are boats leaving for Russia every hour.’”
1970, a New York book editor: “First we went to Chez Vito and all I had was spaghetti and wine and iced tea. And the check was $6. My God.”
1973, a group vice-president of Howard Johnson’s: “I think anybody who’s not using convenience foods is out of it. And some of the prepared food around today is top quality. You’d never know the difference. We’re going to open a restaurant a week this year, and where could we get cooks and chefs for this kind of expansion? Even if we could get them we couldn’t train them fast enough.”
1989, a woman chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America: “Interviewers tell me, ‘You don’t look like a chef. You look like a hostess. How can people work around you? Or they ask, ‘Do you mind getting dirty?’”
© Jan Whitaker, 2023
5 responses to “In their own words”
Jan, nice to come up to date with your excellent work here.
I recall decades ago in one of the law firms I then worked (in Canada), a matter of interpretation came up for a lease in a shopping mall.
It had to do with the term “convenience food”, and its precise ambit, since another tenant in the mall was selling a food that the first tenant thought violated his rights.
I recall researching the term in Canadian case law, and perhaps American, and to my best recollection, we tracked it back to the 1960s. This 1973 usage you document is consistent with that, same general era.
It probably goes back even earlier, maybe to the early days of chain restaurants (White Castle) and the Automat.
In the HoJo context it makes sense to see it, as probably there was a central commissary that sent out prepared foods, at least pies and the like, although I’m not sure today we would call that convenience food.
It’s a term that seems easy to grasp and yet when one thinks on it, the contours become quickly unclear, which is what happened for that legal question so long ago.
So true, Gary. And actually it has two different meanings right off the bat — for the customer there is no waiting and for the proprietor there is little preparation involved.
Right, and a further thing, how different is this from “fast food”? Are they synonymous?
I’d say no, because it is usually hand held. Convenience food is a wider category.
Thank you for researching and sharing these wonderful comments!