Category Archives: alternative restaurants

Restaurant-ing on wheels

Will more people turn to food trucks for away-from-home meals this summer? With the cancellation of so many outdoor festivals and events, food truck operators may want to set up on city streets instead.

But in many places they may face obstacles that go back more than 100 years, to the era of the horse-drawn lunch wagon.

Selling ready-to-eat food on the street originated long ago. As far back as the 1830s, and again in the 1850s, “omnibuses” outfitted as cafes appeared on the streets of Paris and Lyons. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that some American sellers of prepared food graduated to vehicles. Following Chicago’s disastrous fire of 1871, “wagons gaily painted and covered with awnings” showed up on street corners supplying homeless crowds with basics such as sausages, fish, oysters, boiled onions, baked potatoes, pie, and coffee.

Early lunch wagons could be found in other states too. The oldest advertisement I’ve found is from Connecticut in 1877. In the 19th century they were usually referred to as night lunch wagons since night was their busy, sometimes only, time of business.

In the 1880s the number of lunch wagons grew. Temperance groups in Chicago and the Northeast adopted them as a way to lure late-night drinkers with coffee and rolls, naming their vehicles “owl wagons.”

The first wagons tended to be cobbled together out of spare parts, but it wasn’t long before enterprising New Englanders realized the potential for profit in manufacturing them. Worcester, Massachusetts, became a center of production for a number of companies, as detailed in the classic book American Diner by Richard Gutman. By 1892, Worcester lunch wagon maker Charles Palmer was supplying his patented lunch wagons to many parts of the country. Some of them had elaborately painted exteriors that made them resemble circus wagons. Larger ones tended to have enough room inside to allow a few customers to sit at narrow side counters, while in older and homemade models orders were handed out a window.

Except for in Southern states where they were rare, their numbers continued to grow in the 1890s. It’s likely that the economic depression of that decade expanded their popularity. The low prices lunch wagons charged for humble food such as hamburger sandwiches made them favorites of the poor who formed their main customer base along with heavy drinking saloon patrons. In some places they were known as sandwich or frankfurter wagons, and in California as tamale wagons. Whatever they served, it was inexpensive.

Some lunch wagon proprietors made a decent profit but there were costs to doing business in addition to supplies. These could include wagon rental, hiring a horse to haul the wagon back and forth, rental of a garage to store the wagon during off time, and sometimes various payoffs to authorities and saloon owners.

It didn’t take long for opposition to lunch wagons to emerge, particularly from all-night restaurant keepers who became angry when wagons took a stand outside their doors. In 1893 restaurant keepers in Hartford CT petitioned the city for an ordinance that would limit how many hours lunch wagons could be on the streets. Complaints against the wagons were extensive. Restaurant owners declared that their businesses built up the town by supporting taxable properties, while the lunch wagons did not. They also argued that city streets were not intended as business sites.

Other complaints — from city officials and the public at large — focused on traffic congestion, gaudy and ugly appearance, unsanitary conditions, and rough customers who got into fights. In Los Angeles in the early 1900s, wagon proprietors were criticized for serving “embalmed” beef dosed with chemical preservatives. There were complaints about cooking odors. In Fort Worth TX, a paper reported, “Some people simply don’t like the idea of seeing a man take a big greasy hamburger sandwich and standing on the sidewalk munching away, while ladies and children pass and cannot avoid seeing him.” (Hamburger was seen as undesirable poor people’s food then.)

Fancier lunch wagon designs may have been intended to win greater acceptance. “White House” lunch wagons, produced by Thomas Buckley in Worcester and regarded as the finest made, were not only painted a clean-looking white but had colored glass windows with images of presidents and military figures. By 1899 the Buckley company was said to operate and control the lunch wagon business in 25 cities. The company sent wagons all the way to the Pacific Coast. However, despite their finery, Buckley wagons in Chicago operated in the poor parts of the city, where payoffs to property owners and police were often necessary.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th more regulations and limitations were forced on lunch wagon operators. Some required restaurant licenses or limited the number any one owner could operate. Chicago was among the cities that banned wagons on main streets, while others such as Albany NY and Lynn MA banned them on all streets. Operators began to look for alleyways or permanent locations they could settle on, often hiding their wheels behind dummy foundations. Over time the prefab eateries – now called diners – were produced in larger sizes, without wheels, and with better seating and cooking facilities.

But, now-motorized portable restaurants on wheels did not go away – rather they adapted to the restrictions by going on the move. They traveled to factories for shift changes, or to fairs and carnivals. As long as they were moving all day and had a peddler’s license, they were legal. Then, in the 2000s, food trucks became somewhat upscale, appealing to customers interested in exploring dishes from a wide range of the world’s cookbooks.

Yet some of the issues that plagued early lunch wagons lingered on. Complaints today no longer target brawling customers or spoiled food, but not all cities welcome the trucks. Fumes from gasoline powered generators that many trucks use can be obnoxious. And of course restaurants still don’t want them parked outside. Regulation of food trucks has increased considerably since the olden days (see Wikipedia) and some locations are off limits.

But, with the threat of the spread of disease and some diners’ hesitations about indoor seating, I wonder if we’ll see some relaxation of regulations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Good eaters: “bohemians”

There were certain segments of society that helped to build restaurant culture through their patronage. Bohemians were one. They enjoyed food, drank wine, and were more adventurous in experiencing new dishes. It was said that the average American restaurant was a place “where records in fast eating are the order of the day.” By contrast, bohemians enjoyed gathering with their friends in offbeat cafes and restaurants and lingering, deep in conversation.

They rejected the joyless aspects of American culture and tended to ignore accepted rules of behavior. Nor did they care that conventional people – “the Philistines” – judged them harshly, considering them practically bums.

Most were drawn from occupations in the arts – actors, painters, writers, musicians, and journalists. Men predominated but they were joined by women who dared to flaunt the bounds of ladyhood [example shown here, 1895]. Their most famous “member” was Walt Whitman, who for a time in the late 1850s and early 1860s gathered with friends at Pfaff’s, on Broadway in New York. Run by German immigrant Charles Pfaff, the cellar café served German pancakes, liver and bacon, and untold quantities of Rhine wine and beer.

Apart from the distinctly non-American cuisine furnished in most restaurants favored by bohemians, these places were also free of rigid social rules of etiquette. Proprietors were tolerant, some might break out singing, servers weren’t haughty, and in contrast with bourgeois etiquette it was perfectly acceptable to speak to strangers at a nearby table.

The lifestyle associated with bohemians was first depicted by French writer Henri Murger, whose 1840s Scenes of Bohemian Life (basis for Puccini’s opera La Bohème) launched the use of the word and its mystique. But that way of living undoubtedly existed earlier, even in this country. A NYC saloon opened in 1832 by Ned Windust called The Shakspeare surely qualified. In 1847 it was described as attracting “wits and men about town,” many from the arts. It was known for fine fare.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were other places in New York and elsewhere, the world capital being Paris. Bohemian subculture survived into the 1920s, but in weakened and commercialized form, feeding on past glory. Once it was “discovered”– in the 1880s — it was denounced as a thing of the past: each generation pronounced the next generation’s bohemianism inauthentic.

As someone noticed, whether genuine or fake, bohemians enjoyed out of the way places “where the cooking is in any style but the American.” That preference often led them to French and Italian table d’hotes. In New York City of the 19th century they gravitated to the city’s French section, to the Restaurant du Grand Vatel [shown above] and the Taverne Alsacienne. Although Boston was a city with few bohemians, it had Marliave’s and Arrouët Mieusset Frères, both on Van Rensselaer Place at one point. Italian table d’hotes such as Moretti’s, Gonfarone’s, and Viano’s also thrived in New York. In San Francisco, bohemians patronized Italian restaurants such as Coppa’s, Sanguinetti’s, as well as Matias’ Mexican café. A rare Mexican restaurant in New York, Joel’s, was also popular.

In the early 20th century it’s likely that most major cities had something like a “little bohemia” section attractive to night owls. Among the better known were New York’s Greenwich Village and Chicago’s Towertown. San Francisco had so many bohemian restaurants that an entire book was devoted to describing them in 1914. By the 1920s, it was said that “the prosperous middle classes went bohemian on a bigger and better scale.” As suburbanites sought out offbeat restaurants and cafes it is not surprising that many cafes vying for their trade adopted catchy names such as The Dirty Spoon and Mary’s Little Lamb in San Francisco, The Purple Pup and The Hell Hole in Greenwich Village, or the Den of 40 Thieves in Detroit.

It’s clear in retrospect that the bohemians of the 19th century were apostles of the future. Their wish to enjoy sociable meals in restaurants would gradually become nearly universal as the 20th century continued.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Lunching in a laboratory

Bertha Stevenson was born at a time when a woman’s interest in chemistry, or any scientific field, could only be channeled into the limited confines of women’s realm. That was the same era in which Ellen Richards, the first woman admitted to MIT, became “the mother of home economics.”

Even though Stevenson was younger than Richards, she ended up directing her postgraduate study of chemistry to bread making. On the bright side, she was quite successful, not only at marketing bread but also in creating a string of high-quality lunch rooms with prices low enough that young working women could afford them.

She began making bread in Cambridge MA around 1902. Her shop was quite fashionable in a refined way. According to one description, “The furniture is of the hand made order, simple in line, artistic in design. A few big copper vessels, gleaming red, a few palms, a rug or two, good, but not extravagant, a Ruskin portrait in a black oak frame, one or two Millet pictures, numerous quotations from Ruskin, Tolstoy, Morris.” About a year later, stories appeared in newspapers around the country describing her Samore Bread Laboratory, and congratulating her and her female associates for finally showing the world that college-educated women were good for something after all.

The following year they moved the bakery to Boston. A lunch room was opened with it, sponsored by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU), a non-profit organization in Boston founded in 1877 to advance the well-being of women.

The lunch room, known as the Laboratory Kitchen, was on Temple Place in Boston’s shopping district where it could serve women workers and shoppers. It carried over the Arts & Crafts style of the former Cambridge bakery, with muted greens and browns and touches of copper and brass. Servers dressed in Puritan costumes with white caps and kerchiefs. In addition to producing bread and inexpensive lunches, the plan was to set up a hot dinner delivery service that would free homemakers from kitchen drudgery.

Problems cropped up almost immediately. The Laboratory Kitchen was located on the 2nd and 3rd floors of an elevator building. Unfortunately the elevator often was out of service. Next, another restaurant physically resembling the Laboratory Kitchen opened on the ground floor, causing many lunchers to patronize it thinking they were in the Laboratory Kitchen. Meal delivery turned out to be much more difficult than expected and the delivery zone had to be cut back. As far as I could determine the delivery project was abandoned after the three-year WEIU contract expired.

But the lunchrooms proved to be successful. When Temple Place started up, a second Laboratory Kitchen, not under WEIU sponsorship, was opened on Bedford St. It was operated as a cafeteria, a type of eating place popular in Chicago but then unknown to Bostonians. Ellen Richards and a group of Boston’s progressive women pioneers attended an opening luncheon there where they learned how to handle a cafeteria tray.

Subsequent lunchrooms of the chain – of which there were eventually five or six — were all based on self service or counter service and were less expensive than the full-service Temple Place location. Stevenson used technological advances to cut costs and speed service. At one address outfitted with a lunch counter [location shown above on Bedford St., viewed from Kingston St.], guests ordered by number. Waitresses then relayed the number to kitchen workers on the floor below by punching the number in a machine and the order was sent up via a dumbwaiter under the counter. At another of the lunch rooms, she employed a simplified “Automat”-style set of heated or cooled boxes that she patented. Workers filled them from the back while patrons lifted a glass window in front and removed what they wanted. [see patent illustration]

I stumbled across a story of someone who was a regular at one of the Laboratory Kitchens in the early days. She began working at the Filene’s department store at age 15, getting $4 a week, which barely allowed her to pay for a ride on the “T” and a 15-cent lunch at the Laboratory Kitchen. Eventually she became a department store buyer and a women’s rights activist.

As popular as the lunch rooms were with women, they also attracted men, particularly after one opened in 1919 on Washington Street in the stretch then known as Newspaper Row.

The dishes served at Laboratory Kitchens, such as vegetable plates, chowders, and beefsteak pies, were not fancy. Bertha Stevenson was dedicated to providing lunches that were hot, healthful, and hygienically prepared. In one of the articles she wrote for Good Housekeeping magazine she chided young office workers who ate sweets for lunch, asking, “How can a girl who feeds herself on cream puffs be anything but mercurial?”

She retired in the 1940s but the last Laboratory Kitchen, on Lincoln St., survived until the late 1960s, still advertising its “real lunch without frills.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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New Year’s Eve at the Latin Quarter

Anyone who wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve at New York City’s nightclub The Latin Quarter in the 1940s and 1950s had to plan ahead. Way ahead, as in July or August.

The club – its name suggestive of Paris — seated 600 patrons. It took a lot of effort to fill it Like New York’s other nightclubs of that era, it was highly dependent upon out-of-towners.

Packing the house for two or three shows nightly meant that every travel agency in America had the LQ on its list, as did every convention planner. In 1956 it was said that there was scarcely an insurance company anywhere that didn’t include a night at the Latin Quarter among its prizes for top-selling agents.

The most ordered dinners were favorites of the time. Nightclubs weren’t known for the best food in town. Obviously, patrons were not there for the food, but for the show with lightly clad women. In the mid-1950s roast beef was tops. Then, somewhat surprisingly, came turkey, then steak.

The Latin Quarter opened in 1942, with Lou Walters as manager-owner and E. M. Loew’s of Boston’s Loew’s theaters as a financial backer. Walters (father of Barbara Walters) also had interests in LQ clubs in Boston, Miami, and Detroit, along with other nightclubs in New York and Florida.

In addition to the nearly nude performers and big name bands and comedy acts, the LQ threw in some trick performances such as a waiter who unexpectedly squirted guests with water and a drunk photographer who would stumble onto the stage taking pictures of performers and creating a noisy ruckus. He was so convincing that guests (and sometimes even waiters) would try to shush him or have him arrested.

The Latin Quarter closed just before New Year’s Eve in 1968, marking the end of New York’s nightclub era. The building went through various identities after that, as a porn theater, a disco, and a hip-hop club.

Best wishes to everyone for happiness in 2020. Have fun, plan ahead, and don’t be fooled!

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Chinese for Christmas

Readers may be familiar with the custom among many Jews of going to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. Hard as I tried I could not determine when this custom began, although based on advertisements I did get the sense that the tradition of going to the movies on Christmas Day may have begun in the 1920s.

That is the same decade for which I found the earliest advertisements by Chinese restaurants in Jewish newspapers. [Wong Yie, American Israelite, 1922, Cincinnati] I didn’t find any Chinese restaurant ads that invited readers to visit on Christmas Day, though I saw some that reminded them to make reservations for New Year’s Eve. Some also mentioned that they were near movie theaters. In the 1930s some wished readers of Jewish papers happy new year at Rosh Hashanah.

So, even though I don’t know when Jews began going to Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day, I suspect that the affinity between Jews and Chinese restaurants became notable in the 1920s.

While the 1920s may have marked the blossoming of Jewish patronage of Chinese restaurants, I did find one earlier example of a Chinese restaurant said to be patronized by Jewish businessmen. According to a New York Tribune story of 1907, Chinese Delmonico’s on Pell Street near the wholesale center was kosher. At “Kosher Delmonico’s,” as it was called in the story, a French chef prepared mushroom delicacies, lotus lily seed soups, and other dishes for lunch using no dairy products or “game of the kind that is shot.”

Bernstein-on-Essex, a deli that opened in the 1920s on New York’s lower East Side, is often credited with being the first restaurant serving kosher Chinese food – a 1959 addition to the menu [above menu fragment from a later date]. But it may not have actually been the first: Aside from Chinese Delmonico’s, there was said to be a kosher Chinese restaurant on Temple Street in the Jewish section of Los Angeles in 1929.

What Bernstein’s might have been an early example of, though, was a Jewish restaurant that served kosher Chinese food – in contrast to a Chinese restaurant that was kosher, which was rarer. Although Chinese restaurants generally did not feature dairy dishes, typically they would serve pork, as well as shellfish, meat that wasn’t from kosher butchers, and noodles cooked in lard.

For the most part Jews had to be willing to make whatever adjustments they found necessary in order to enjoy Chinese restaurants. This could mean not ordering pork, shrimp, or lobster dishes, or, as many writers have pointed out, accepting dishes with pork that had been minced and “hidden” in wontons. Nonetheless, not everyone was so careful. According to Haiming Leu, author of A History of Chinese Food in the United States, one of the most popular dishes with American Jews was moo shu pork. Such behavior brought an angry comment from a rabbi writing in Newark’s Jewish Chronicle in 1929: “The writer has seen families leaving an orthodox synagogue on Sabbath noon and taking the new Bar Mitzvah, who has just pledged his allegiances to Jewish tradition, into a Chinese restaurant for a salt-pork chop suey meal.”

While the topic of Jews and Chinese restaurants has been a popular one with scholars and journalists, it’s worth noting that historically Jews were not the only non-Chinese cultural group that heavily patronized Chinese restaurants. Even though in the early 1930s Jews were estimated to make up 60% of the white clientele of Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, the estimate was that white customers totaled a minority of patrons. The rest of non-Chinese customers were Black.

After WWII Jews began moving from the inner cities and into the suburbs. Meanwhile, most African-Americans stayed behind. Many Chinese proprietors courted their Jewish customers, often opening suburban restaurants with pleasant interiors. In Black neighborhoods often the facilities tended to be poorer, many for carry-out only, and some even outfitted with protective bars and orders taken and delivered through small hatches.

Another change in the postwar years was the increase in the number of kosher Chinese restaurants, some, such as Sabra and the popular Moshe Peking, with Jewish owners. The 1970s and 1980s saw a rise of kosher Chinese restaurants adhering to what appeared to be a stricter standard in how food was obtained and prepared and also in hours of operation, being closed on the Jewish Sabbath as well as holidays. Additionally, they had a rabbi on hand to inspect food preparation.

Happy Holidays to readers, whatever you may be eating on December 25!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Coffee and cake saloons

When it came to cheap ready-to-eat food that was available around the clock, butter cakes sold in coffee and cake saloons were king. By the mid-19th century they had become food of urban lore. They were said to be favorites of people of the night such as newsboys, newspaper printers, policemen, volunteer firemen, and prostitutes.

Until the 1880s when they widened their menus, coffee and cake saloons served nothing but those two items. Although called saloons, they were not drinking places. Saloon then simply meant a room.

There was no hint of elegance in these places. Many were run by Irish proprietors, at a time when the Irish were pretty much at the bottom of the class order. Usually they were in basements, but those were the more established coffee and cake saloons. Other sellers occupied market stands or peddled butter cakes on the streets with trays strapped over their shoulders.

The lack of niceties in coffee and cake saloons was celebrated in a joke that described a waiter’s shock when asked for a napkin in one of these places. He had a quick comeback, inquiring whether the patron wanted his napkin fringed or unfringed. (Surely there were no tablecloths as in this 1889 illustration.)

Among the well-known proprietors of New York City were George Parker, who opened a place on John street in 1832 and “Butter-cake Dick,” whose full name was Dick Marshall. Oliver Hitchcock took over from Dick, who turned to a life of crime. Pat Dolan, starting business in the 1860s, reputedly invested in real estate and had amassed a quarter of a million by his death in 1889, while a couple of the Meschutt brothers later opened hotels.

Lore surrounding these establishments grew as they became rarer in the late 19th century. By the early 1900s the memory of coffee and cake saloons was tinted with nostalgia. It was often said that proprietors retired with fortunes — an unlikely story in the majority of cases. Another notion was that they were “peculiar to New York.” This, too, is inaccurate. I have found them in St. Louis, Sacramento, New Orleans, San Antonio, and San Francisco. Undoubtedly they could be found in most large cities.

Just what was a butter cake? That isn’t totally clear. They are described differently, to the point where it’s anyone’s guess what they really were. Sometimes they sound like doughnuts, sometimes griddle cakes, sometimes like carnival-style fried dough – but without sugar. In St. Louis waiters referred to them as a “stack of whites.” Often they are referred to as biscuits. Sometimes they are called short cakes, as in the 1850s recipe shown here. I believe that initially they were made of little more than dough and were nearly indigestible, leading to the nickname “sinkers.” After bakers started adding yeast, they became lighter.

An 1890 story in the New York Sun explains that butter cakes could be either “wet” or “dry.” It said that the wet ones “were saturated with lard or grease of some sort, called butter for the purposes of trade.” But possibly some places really did use butter. A San Francisco restaurant advertised in 1856 that they used “none other than California Butter, fresh from the best Petaluma Ranches.” Their menu called them “New York Butter Cakes,” selling for the high price of 12 cents. In New York an order cost 3 cents. Butter-cake Dick was said to make his sinkers on the griddle and to store them in a kettle of melted butter until orders came in. The three Meschutt brothers sampled Dick’s but found a way to lighten them by adding yeast, splitting the cakes (biscuits?), and letting customers add the butter.

Although coffee and cake saloons were just about extinct by the 20th century, Lewis Hine managed to capture a view of newsboys exiting one in 1908. [shown at top]

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Almost like flying

There’s something so crazy about restaurants and cocktail lounges in airplanes that I thought it had to be a purely American idea. Turns out I was wrong. In the past and up to this day they have been all over the world, as was true of revolving restaurants atop high buildings.

But why not a restaurant in an airplane? It was bound to happen, given the modern fascination with flight. Already in 1942 there were said to be a chain of drive-in theaters for airplanes in Flushing NY, and another one opening in Asbury Park, NJ, in 1948. In Elwood IN a drive-in restaurant for both airplanes and cars debuted in 1954.

The first restaurant in a converted commercial airplane in the U.S., according to Hospitality Magazine, was in Chicago on Cicero Ave.

Chicago’s Sky-Hi Drive-In and Restaurant, operated in a salvage-yard DC-7, was opened in late 1963 by the Dimas brothers, Jim, John, and Chris, who evidently spent way too much money renovating and outfitting the 110-foot long plane with all-electric cooking facilities. They perched it on top of a small luncheonette that served as the drive-in part. The fuselage was to provide a fine dining experience, though it’s doubtful that happened. Located on a lot that previously held an auto body shop, it may not have been in the most favorable site. Whatever the problem, less than two years after opening it was out of business.

A longer lasting airplane restaurant appeared in Penndel, PA in 1968. It got off to a tragic start when a hot air balloon hired to publicize the opening hit wires and crashed, killing both occupants. One of them was to be a server in Jim Flannery’s Constellation Cocktail Lounge that hovered over his Route 1 restaurant. As was true of the Sky-Hi Drive-in, servers were dressed as airline stewardesses. Flannery was bankrupt by 1982, but the restaurant continued onward with two other owners before it closed for good in 1995.

Meanwhile in a small town in Yugoslavia, guests sipped sodas in an old Ilyushin 14 Soviet passenger plane. A short time later another restaurant was set to open in a Lockheed Constellation in Japan, likely in the same type of plane as in Penndel. Both of the planes were veterans of WWII. Once again, servers dressed as stewardesses.

Although it might seem that the notion of using old airplanes for restaurants would have died out rapidly, it did not go away, despite various failed plans. In Opa Locka FL a Lockheed Constellation remained parked on an empty lot for years, abandoned by the businessmen who had hoped to make it into a restaurant. And yet in 1980 an airplane restaurant opened in a Convair 990 in Denver. In Georgia, someone tried to unload a battered 60-seat restaurant in a DC-7 for nearly $60,000 in 1984; never mind that moving costs would have also been in the tens of thousands. The plane may well have been the one previously used as a steakhouse in Byron GA shown here.

To bring things up to date, recent years have seen a McDonald’s in an airplane in New Zealand and, just this past March, “Connie,” a 1958 Constellation plane, passed through Times Square on its way to become a cocktail lounge for the new TWA hotel at JFK airport.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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