Category Archives: alternative restaurants

Underground dining

In the 1960s, with the rumble of social change came a flood of interest in low-priced eating places with character and good food. In this spirit, New Yorkers Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder began a newspaper and magazine column titled The Underground Gourmet, followed by a guide book in 1966 with the same name.

Their book led to a series. It’s been a little difficult to nail down how many different UGs there were, but here is my list, with initial publication dates: New York (1966), San Francisco (1969), Los Angeles (1970), Washington D.C. (1970), New Orleans (1971), Boston (1972), Honolulu (1972), and the noncity Long Island (1973).

Several factors probably contributed to the new mood regarding restaurants. The economy was bad and the public was looking for bargains. Youth culture was blossoming as the baby boomers grew older, many becoming college students. And increased travel abroad was widening the public’s interest in unfamiliar foods and ways of cooking.

The public’s attraction to low-priced independent restaurants could also be seen as a reaction against the growth of fast food chains taking place, the greater use of frozen food in restaurants, and a rebellion against the blandness of much American food.

What was considered a low price for a meal during these years? The first New York edition specified in 1966, “Great meals . . . for less than $2 and as little as 50¢.” But the third edition (1977) explained that “unending inflation . . . has changed our perception of an inexpensive meal from one that cost $2.00 to one that costs $5.00 or $6.00.” For the New Orleans’ second edition in 1973, author Richard Collin promised meals “for less than $3.75 and as little as 50c.” This was still a lower price than featured by the others, which ran from $1.00 to $3.75 in San Francisco in 1969; $1.00 to $4.00 in D.C. in 1970; and “under $4.00″ in Boston in 1972. Dining in Honolulu remained a bargain, with the 1972 UG promising meals as inexpensive as in the first New York edition (50¢ to $2).

Low price was not really what set the best of the recommended restaurants apart from others. Rather it was the quality of the food for the price. Although Mr. Steak in 1970 offered its most expensive meal – Steak & Lobster with salad, toast and potatoes – for $3.99, it didn’t make the cut, though strangely enough a few other chain restaurants did win recommendations including a McDonald’s in D.C. and a Burger King in New Orleans.

What were some of the most remarkable finds in these books? Richard Collin [above cartoon] discovered a number of dishes that he gave his highest praise, naming them “platonic dishes,” as perfect as that dish could possibly be. His New Orleans list of platonic dishes included Oysters Bienville and Fried Chicken at Chez Helene’s soul food restaurant — which he rated one of the city’s finest restaurants; Creole Gumbo at Dooky Chase; and Fried Potato Poor Boys at the dirt-cheap Martin’s Poor Boy.

The number of restaurants that met the criteria varied from city to city. Boston and D.C. are notably slim books. New York is the fattest volume. San Francisco and New Orleans have about 2/3 the heft of New York. However, with his shorter entries, Richard Collin packed over 250 restaurants into the 1973 revised New Orleans edition, rating everywhere he ate, including some very bad places. Needless to say, this makes for interesting reading.

In his 1969 UG, R. B. Read made a case that the San Francisco area had a unique set of restaurants from all over the world, such as at The Tortola, which preserved “hacienda cookery” from the days before gringos settled in the state. He also heaped praise on restaurants that were rare in the U.S. then — from Korea, the West Indies, and Afghanistan. The latter instance, Khyber Pass, offered a “fabled” ashak, which he described as “aboriginal ravioli.” In a different category of unusual was The Trident in Sausalito, with jazz and a “debonairly eclectic” menu with a psychedelic design.

Because my copy is the third edition of the New York UG (The All New Underground Gourmet, 1977), I did not get the flavor of the earlier versions, which is a shame. Sadly, Jerome Snyder died during the publication of the book. That and rising prices may have cast a pall over this edition, which strikes me as less interesting than the New Orleans and San Francisco UGs. The original NYC book contained 101 of the best low-cost eating places (out of 16,000!). The third edition has about 130. The three given the highest ratings for “excellent food” were the Italian Caffe da Alfredo, and two Greek restaurants, Alexander the Great and Syntagma Square. Mamma Leone’s showed up in the book even though it met the price criterion only for its Buffet Italiano Luncheon where for $4.25 it spread out 25 feet of salami, mortadella, meatballs, celery, olives, green bean salad, and more.

The UG authors for Boston were Joseph P. and E. J. Kahn, Jr.; Washington D.C.’s were Judith and Milton Viorst. Both books show a lower level of enthusiasm. The Viorsts admitted that Washington “has not been known for its restaurants” and that of the 100 restaurants they visited, “a substantial proportion were so awful that we were unable to include them.” Father and son Kahn began by telling of a long-time resident of Boston and Cambridge who couldn’t imagine that anyone could recommend inexpensive restaurants since the area’s expensive restaurants were “bad enough.” The Kahns then admitted, “It is probably true that the Boston area does not loom large in the world of cuisine.”

Despite their reservations, the authors of both books managed to find some places they liked. The Viorsts singled out five D.C. restaurants as “great finds.” They were: the Calvert Café, an Arabic place “worthy of shahs and empresses”; Don Pedro, Mexican, with a marvelous mushroom appetizer called hongos; the Cuban El Caribe, featuring raw Peruvian-style fish cubes in lemon-onion sauce (95¢); Gaylord, an Indo Pakistani restaurant with “delicious samosas”; and Warababa, a West-African place run by a Ghanaian couple with “exquisite” dishes such as peanut butter soup and Joloff rice flavored with bits of beef and vegetables.

The Kahns didn’t exactly rave about finds in Boston or Cambridge. But, after encountering “enough blandness while making our rounds to put us to sleep,” they enjoyed spicy lamb stew at Peasant Stock in Cambridge. They included the No Name restaurant on Fish Pier – no name, no sign, no lights, no decor — where a seafood chowder (50¢) served as the house special and was “so incredibly rich and so brimming with hunks of fresh fish that a cupful could be a meal in itself.” But the popular Jack and Marion’s in Brookline, known for its giant menu and huge portions, ranked merely as one of the area’s “better delicatessens.”

Alas, I couldn’t find the books from Honolulu, Los Angeles, or Long Island, but I saw a magazine piece that criticized the Los Angeles UG for its surprising inclusion of 25 restaurants in Palm Springs.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under alternative restaurants, ethnic restaurants, restaurant prices

Restaurant as community center

The first Salad Bowl restaurant, at 4100 Lindell in St. Louis, was established in 1948 by two former employees of Miss Hulling’s Cafeteria downtown. The husband and wife owners were mainly concerned with making a living for their family and had little idea that, like Miss Hulling’s, their venture was destined to become a celebrated local institution and landmark. [above: final and primary location, 1989]

The Salad Bowl’s founders were Elmer and Anna Sewing, whose three sons would one day take over the cafeteria, having gained plenty of hands-on experience working there in their younger years. At its final location at 3949 Lindell Blvd. the sons, David and his twin brothers Norman and Norbert, took full charge after their father’s death in 1976. Knowing they had to expand the business, they encouraged greater use of the banquet rooms. To draw customers during the day the sons made the rooms available for free to clubs and organizations for meetings and talks if their members and attendees went through the cafeteria line. [Norbert and Norman Sewing at the bakery counter, 1989]

The cafeteria was located about halfway between two universities, making it possible for the cafeteria’s banquet rooms to become popular sites for talks and lecture series by professors. The Salad Bowl had the unique distinction of being the only eating place that I know of that advertised “seminars” among its attractions. [1988 advertisement] A few of the topics covered over time were homelessness, children’s mental health, the working poor, the global economy, and the Jewish sanctuary movement.

News conferences took place regularly at the Salad Bowl. In 1986 a speaker from Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen group discussed the rapidly rising rates of liability insurance, blaming it on greed in the insurance industry. The event was sponsored by the Missouri Public Interest Research Group and the Missouri Citizen-Labor Coalition.

Although, like many restaurant owners, Elmer Sewing had turned away Black diners at a time when he judged that white customers would not accept them, he often said that he was opposed to segregation. According to his grandson Stephen, who privately published a memoir-style history of the Salad Bowl* after its closure in December of 2005 [title page above], his grandfather was personally opposed to segregated eating facilities. He was said to be eager to welcome Black customers once the Civil Rights Act had passed, making it illegal to refuse service to patrons based on race. Stephen wrote that the cafeteria was one of the first in St. Louis to integrate.

Black organizations, clubs, and events by Black activists were included in the Salad Bowl mix, as were prayer breakfasts in honor of Martin Luther King. Another example was a news conference held by well known activist Ivory Perry who denounced President Ronald Reagan’s introduction of housing vouchers in 1982, calling it a step in federal abandonment of public housing and urging people to join a protest rally in Washington. A St. Louis section of the National Council of Negro Women held its 5th annual awards dinner there in 1986.

Both Black and white politicians gave talks at the cafeteria, and Jessie Jackson visited there. According to Stephen Sewing’s book, “Every state senator, state representative and governor has known the Salad Bowl because of all the political parties, press conferences, meetings and rallies held at the Salad Bowl over the years.” Organizations holding regular meetings included the Book Lovers Club, the League of Women Voters, the Press Club, Retail Druggists, Weight Watchers, the Worker’s Rights Board, the Women’s Coalition for the Democratic Party, and locals of the St. Louis Teachers Union and the Service Employees Union.

Scrolling through the notices of talks and public events held at the cafeteria made me realize how impossible it is to give more than a partial idea of how many and varied they were.

In the 1990s the cafeteria was also used as a site for flu shots, blood pressure tests, and school children’s immunizations.

The Salad Bowl menu focused on standard cafeteria comfort food such as Kidney Bean Salad, Whiting, Beef Brisket, Banana Cream Pie, and the St. Louis specialties, German Potato Salad and Toasted Ravioli. Customers could also stop at the bakery counter to buy baked goods to take home. A tavern room called Bits and Saddles operated for ten years as part of the complex and there was an underground parking garage, a remnant of the car dealership that had occupied the site before the Salad Bowl took it over. [shown below, 1952]

The restaurant also served as a special gathering spot for the extended Sewing family who used banquet rooms for their own wedding dinners and receptions as well as major holiday feasts. With the three fathers working long days, sometimes six days a week, often the only way to see them was for their families to come to dinner at the cafeteria. Their wives and children also put in time as spare hands for serving banquets, helping with bookkeeping, and other chores.

Now, when restaurants tend to be ranked and rated mainly for the quality and novelty of their cuisine and interior appointments, I find it refreshing to review a restaurant from the past that was so deeply a part of city life, and valued for that by thousands of St. Louisans.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

  • Two copies of the 90-page booklet are available at the main St. Louis Public Library.

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Native American restaurants

Although there has been growing interest in exploring native foodways in the past twenty or so years, it seems there’s been little research into the history of Native American restaurants, that is, those serving traditional Indian dishes and/or those run by Indians.

The earliest one with a Native American proprietor that I found was in Coweta, Oklahoma, around 1906. It was run by Frank Oliver, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. A very brief newspaper item reported, “There are few Indians in the restaurant business but Mr. Oliver likes to feed ‘em and is prosperous.” It was not unusual for Indian restaurants in the Southwest to serve Mexican dishes, especially in later decades.

That same year another Indian proprietor was running a restaurant in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. His name was given simply as Antoine, born a Mohican in New York state but adopted into the Creek tribe. Sometime later a woman named Elizabeth Sapulpa, probably the wife of the tribe’s chief, also had a restaurant in Sapulpa where she served Sofky (corn soup made of hominy, bits of meat and blue corn dumplings) as well as cornbread made of cornmeal soaked overnight in buttermilk.

Many of the references to Indian restaurants I found did not lead anywhere. For instance, despite much searching, I could not determine if the Santa Fe movie studio, opened in Monrovia CA in 1927, ever established its planned Hopi Indian restaurant. And I’d love to know how the Hollywood actor Don Porter fared with his restaurant. It was to be built in Hollywood in 1951 with an open firepit vented through a hole in the roof. For years he had collected recipes from many tribes and planned to feature buffalo, bear, venison, wild greens, wild rice, and corn – along with cook-it-yourself fish wrapped in leaves and mud. Also, I wondered if the plans reported about a 1970s graduate of a culinary training program in Albuquerque had succeeded. She hoped to establish a restaurant on her reservation serving game such as quail, rabbit, and deer, along with blood pudding and her tribe’s oversized homemade tortillas.

Her endeavor would have been in contrast to many Indian-run restaurants on reservations that featured mainstream American fast food. As Ruben Silverbird would observe in the 1980s, “On the reservation we have restaurants run by Indians, but they sell hot dogs, hamburgers, ham and eggs.” Similarly, at the Tigua reservation’s cultural center in El Paso TX in 1986, a restaurant called Wyngs drew non-Indian tourists and served fajitas, seafood platters, and barbecued ribs.

It has been said that Native Americans don’t have a restaurant culture, but I have the sense that there were many native people who for decades wished there were more Indian restaurants. Especially among Indians living in cities there was a strong desire for gathering places and ways to stay connected to their culture, including foods. In 1968 a Queens resident, an Otoe-Pawnee from Oklahoma, observed, “There’s no place for Indians to gather in New York (City) – no Indian restaurants or anything like that.” Buoyed by the Black Power movement, she and other native women had recently joined together to promote their Indian identities.

In the mid-1960s, a food court representing many different cuisines in a Phoenix shopping mall included “The Hogan,” which was claimed – somewhat unconvincingly – to serve the only authentic Indian food in Arizona outside a reservation. It was run by a Scandinavian proprietor who served corn on the cob impaled on arrows. The second incarnation of an Indian restaurant there was named Tiny Teepee where posole, a hominy and pork stew, was prepared and served by Native Americans.

Also in the 1960s Native Americans began to urge the creation of cultural centers that would honor their heritage. By decade’s end a number of Indian restaurants began to open as part of complexes that included motels and cultural centers with museums and craft demonstrations. The Cherokee Heritage Center opened in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1967 with an associated restaurant, the Restaurant of the Cherokees shown here. Although hamburgers and other common “American” dishes dominated the menu, the restaurant also served traditional Indian food such as shuck bean bread (corn and bean dough, steamed in cornhusks), sorrel, watercress from local streams, poke salad, fried huckleberries, crawdads, and “squaw” bread made with sour milk. In the spring, it hosted wild onion dinners.

Building Indian community took a hit in Baltimore when an Indian restaurant failed to open, despite being fully set up and ready to open its doors. The problem was that the U. S. Labor Department claimed it had been a mistake to permit the grantee to buy restaurant equipment with a 1974 job training grant for an American Indian Study Center. The government removed the equipment, sinking what would have been the only Native American restaurant in the Washington-Baltimore area.

1986 marked the opening of what claimed to be New York City’s first Native American restaurant, Silverbird. Its proprietor, Ruben Silverbird Ortiz, a professional singer and entertainer of Indian/Mexican/white heritage, said it would serve New Mexico food, including “green and red chile, blue corn chips, salsa, all that good stuff.” As was true of most Indian restaurants, the menu accommodated non-Indian patrons with American dishes, but held weekly dinners serving rattlesnake stew. The restaurant employed a diverse crew, with servers and kitchen staff made up of Comanches, Navajos, Blackfeet, Italians, Irish, and Mexicans.

Some Indian restaurants were decorated with Southwestern art or murals of buffaloes and teepees. Silverbird was decorated with Kachina dolls and tables inlaid with sand paintings. However, some, such as Dovecrest [shown at top], gave little visual indication they were Indian.

Probably the most celebrated Indian restaurant of the 20th century was Loretta Barrett Oden’s Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that ran from 1993 to 2001. Before opening her fine-dining restaurant, Oden, a member of the Citizen Patawatomi Nation, spent three years researching tribal recipes and cooking methods, which can vary considerably according to region. She is a proponent of healthier dishes such as bison, wild-caught salmon, trout, quail, venison, corn, beans, and squash. She has also been a vocal critic of deep-fried fry bread, a popular Indian item in itself as well as serving as the bottom layer of “Navajo tacos,” popular in eating places throughout the Southwest. She has tried to convince Indian-run casinos to offer native dishes, but has found that a hard sell considering the strong attachment of their patrons, both white and Indian, to steak, hamburger, pizza, etc.

The 2000s seem to have raised interest in indigenous chefs and restaurants, but they have continued to face a rocky road in terms of widespread acceptance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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January 16, 2022 · 12:47 pm

Dinner and a movie

The first time anyone thought of combining film and food may have been about 100 years ago. In the early 1920s, organizers of the annual “renegade” Paris art exhibition, the Salon d’Automne, added both cinema and gastronomy to its notion of art. And then – voila! – they combined the two. In 1924, right in the middle of the grand salon, guests watched a film while they dined. The Salon’s novel idea did not migrate to the U.S., however.

It was an entirely different motive that brought the two together here. In the 1940s, entrepreneurs created small movie projection rooms available for rental by companies that wanted to screen films for their employees or the public, and to serve meals. Usually the films were training or promotional films, but evidently major Hollywood studios also used these screening rooms at times, perhaps for managers of movie houses. In NYC, for example, the Monte Carlo was used by Paramount in 1946. [Shown above, 1945, and during a ca. 1949 screening below]

The broader concept of combining food and film for the entertainment of the general public began to emerge in the 1970s. The Ground Round chain showed silent films and cartoons in the mid-1970s. About the same time, the New Varsity Theater in Palo Alto CA granted free movie admission to diners at its associated restaurant (though the dining area was not in the theater’s viewing area). Popular films included Reefer Madness, and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones. The restaurant was also a place for meetings of the French Cine Club, which followed its dinner with a French film. It’s likely that the theater and restaurant often hosted students.

In Boston a bit later, a combination restaurant/bar/theater named Play It Again, Sam, served as a popular student hangout, especially for those attending Boston College. Mexican-American food was served.

At the same time, in 1975, two brothers in Florida conceived the idea of a way to fill new malls with nighttime entertainment for adults. This took the form of a restaurant-theater called Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse showing movies rather than live performances, and selling beer, pizza, and sandwiches. By 1980 they had created four, three in Florida and one in Atlanta GA. One of them was franchised.

By 1994 the Duffys had created 22 Cinema ‘n’ Drafhouses, twenty of them franchised. In their prospectus they asserted that theirs was “a proven recession-proof product – food, drink and film – combined in a stylish, art deco theater.” They also suggested to franchisees that the theaters could be rented for private parties as well as being used in the daytime for business seminars. Another 1980s start-up was the Cabaret Pictures Show in St. Petersburg FL where the menu emphasized finger foods such as pizza and sandwiches.

The concept of the combined restaurant-theater really took off as downtown movie theaters began to fail and sit empty in the 1980s and 1990s. Theaters had become more dependent on strong concession sales, and selling drinks and dinners was an extension of this type of revenue. Typically these combo-businesses showed second-run movies that appealed to viewers of drinking age.

The franchised theater-restaurants, such as those created by the Duffy brothers of Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse (Cinema Grill Systems) seemed to fare better than some individual attempts. Expertise in running a restaurant did not usually extend to theater management. Cinema Grill Systems helped by handling movie selection and distribution, permitting operators to focus on the restaurant and bar.

The Cinema Grill franchise in Harrisburg PA, depicted here in 1997, showed two movies a week on a large high-resolution screen. Its menu included burgers, pita specialties, jalapeno poppers, and even sangria. The seating setup is shown here, and it is clear that the space is not as dark as in traditional theaters.

The winning formula has emphasized comfortable seating in cushy non-stainable leather lounge chairs, and a menu with popular casual dining/brewpub fare. Over time a number of chain-restaurant favorites have appeared on menus, such as fajitas, wraps, and chicken tenders. Despite a fairly high failure rate, theater-restaurants have proven popular with customers who are looking for a reasonably affordable and enjoyable night out, but are not overly demanding about the fare, whether food or film.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Nan’s Kitchens

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

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers, tea shops, women

Fish & chips & alligator steaks

The menu shown here caught my eye as I was browsing the internet. Of course, I wanted to know more about it. The first thing I discovered was that it is available as a reproduction.

Evidently the Trebor Dinner was a specialty menu for complete dinners of multiple courses. Three dollars was a steep price for the Depression when this menu was introduced, at least double what a comparable meal would have cost in a moderately-priced good restaurant then.

The illustrated menu shows 14 entrees. But the restaurant almost certainly did not have all the exotic items available at all times. Another fish & chips, inc. menu from 1937, for example, offered one appetizer, one soup, and only four entrees.

The menu could date any time from the opening of the restaurant in 1936 into the 1940s. Its clever design may have been due to owner Bob Winter’s background in advertising. Why the menu is named “Trebor Dinner” is a mystery. It’s possible that Trebor is a play on the owner’s name Robert.

Fish & chips, inc. was conveniently located in the Loop, across the street from the central Chicago library, now the Chicago Cultural Center. It was a handy location for a 1943 dinner of the literary members of the Boswell club, admirers of Doctor Samuel Johnson. In their honor the restaurant posted one of Johnson’s quotations over their table in which he criticized French menus, requesting “thy knaves to bring me a dish of hog’s pudding, a slice or two from the upper cut of a well roasted sirloin, and two apple dumplings.”

It was a popular restaurant, said to be especially well liked by male patrons. In 1944, during World War II, lines formed at the door. The following year it was enlarged to seat 300. [1949 advertisement shown]

With no meat on the menu, the restaurant would have had the advantage of escaping wartime food restrictions and shortages.

Advertising that it had 50 varieties of fish on hand daily, a lunch or dinner could include sunfish, crappies, smelts, cod, brook trout, sea bass, shrimp, and lobster among many others. The restaurant advertised heavily during the Lenten season.

Bob Winter died in 1953 and the entire contents of the restaurant were auctioned, including groceries.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Street food: tamales

As a recently excavated site in Pompeii has demonstrated so beautifully, street food is ancient. Both sold on the street and usually consumed on the street, it is food that is inexpensive, easy to handle, and aligned with popular tastes.

For many years tamales occupied a prominent role as street food in the U.S., starting in the 1880s in parts of the country where many Mexican-Americans lived such as California and Texas. [above photo, Sacramento CA, 1937]

While Mexicans remained prominent in the tamale trade, both producing and selling them, people with a range of ethnic backgrounds joined in. Sellers might also be U.S. born or recent immigrants of Irish, German, even Danish ancestry. A NY Tribune story described a NYC tamale vendor with red hair and a brogue. Italian immigrants seem to have been particularly prominent among street sellers. And, a story in Overland Monthly reported that in the copper region of Idaho in the early 20th century “the Syrian quarter . . . is the seat of the hot tamale industry.”

Chicken was the favorite tamale filling, though critics often wondered if that was what they were eating. The filling was surrounded by a corn mush mixture that was rolled in a corn husk and steamed. Most tamales were sold in cities and towns where finding a supply of corn husks could be a problem. But by the early 1900s, a market in husks had developed, with some farmers finding them quite profitable.

The corn husk specialty grew as companies got into the canned tamale business, beginning around in the early 1900s. Some, such as the X. L. N. T. Company of Los Angeles, delivered tamales to homes [above, 1908]. A publication of the California State Federation of Labor claimed that by 1916 canned tamales had become so popular that the leading packing company was selling 4,000,000 cans of its I. X .L. brand annually. In Mexico, tamales were wrapped in the white inner husks; the packing industry, by contrast, bleached the green husks. Still, bleaching was better than unsanitary tamale production such as that uncovered in Ohio in 1900 where the corn husks were obtained from old mattresses. As might be expected the canned tamale business cut into street trade.

Certainly there were people who regarded tamales sold on the street as unsanitary, acceptable only to drunken men (no doubt revealing a bias against immigrants). Sellers were criticized for disrupting the peace at night as they called out their wares. Cities and towns tried to regulate them out of existence, sometimes succeeding. It was not an easy business overall. Selling tamales on the street was a rough job, conducted mainly after dark. Vendors risked frequent encounters with attackers and robbers, and it was not unusual for them to be seriously injured or killed.

During their peak popularity extending from the 1890s up to WWII, tamales spread across the U.S., but they were always most common in the West. Originally sold out of kettles in which they were kept warm by a separate hot water basin at the bottom, they soon migrated to lunch wagons and stands. [above, Brownsville TX, 1938] Unlike chop suey, spaghetti, chili, frankfurters, and hamburgers, they did not quite win full American “citizenship,” and were not often found on restaurant menus outside of the West and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest and South.

Tamales figured on menus a bit differently than they would today when a restaurant serving them is almost certainly run by someone of Mexican descent or is a corporate Mexican-themed chain. In either case, the menu is dominated by what are regarded as Mexican dishes. It wasn’t always this way. Although proprietors with ties to Mexico have always been prominent, the owners of many earlier tamale grottoes, parlors, shops, and stands were, like the street peddlers, a diverse lot. I have found proprietors named Mohamed, Truzzolino, and Stubendorff. Menus could also be diverse and include lobster tails, oysters, or banana cream pie. A Klamath Falls OR tamale parlor combined Mexican dishes with those of Italy and China [advertisement pictured above, 1921]. Tamales turned up in unexpected places, such as the California Pig ‘n’ Whistle confectionery chain and, in 1909, the Marshall Field department store tea room in Chicago.

The custom of selling tamales from kettles, carts, and stands might have largely died out sooner if it hadn’t been for the 1930s Depression, when many people were desperate for even a trickle of income. The 1937 Roadman’s Guide, a little booklet full of ideas for money-making schemes that could be launched out of the home, gave a detailed recipe for making tamales.

Not that tamales have entirely disappeared today. They can be found as part of family holiday celebrations, at Western tamale festivals, and for sale by street vendors here and there.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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The Automat goes country

What happened when Horn & Hardart went outside the densely populated city and into the countryside?

“The Automat in the Forest” was located in Sterling Forest Gardens, a 125-acre private park filled with attractions such as huge floral displays, children’s playgrounds, fountains, and a meditation garden. The enterprise, created by a NYC investment company, was a one-hour drive outside New York City.

The Gardens presented a highly-engineered version of nature achieved with imports such as 1.5M tulip bulbs and 300 robins for the grand opening in spring of 1960. (The robins arrived by plane.) There were swans, peacocks, cranes, and flamingos, while native wildlife was strongly “discouraged” from participating. There were even special “picture-taking spots” where a sample photograph was displayed along with precise instructions on how to get the same results.

At the time of the 1960 opening a wire-service story disclosed a jarring fact: “The setting is so romantic that few visitors would guess that the Union Carbide Corporation’s laboratory is constructing an atomic reactor over the nearest hill.” That did not seem to deter visitors.

Into this surreal wonderland came the Automat in 1962. That summer a promotional photo showed children feeding a deer in front of a wall of vending cubicles – which was odd since deer were forbidden in the gardens. The photo’s caption explained that the Automat was the first to be located outside a city, and described it as having redwood planks and pastel panels rather than the usual marble facing “in keeping with its surroundings.” In the postcard above, the vending wall looks oddly out of place in the high-ceilinged building and has little feel of an urban Horn & Hardart.

At the same time that the Automat moved into the Sterling Forest Gardens, Horn & Hardart’s Food Service and Management Division was advertising that it could furnish In-Plant ‘Automats for Industry’. I suspect the factory installations were very similar to the array in the Gardens.

The Automat was not the first eating place in the Garden’s International Pavilion. A 1961 postcard described the original eating place, a buffet, as “tastefully decorated in international motifs.” Nor was it the last restaurant in the Pavilion. It was there only two years, continuing in business through the 1964 season. By the 1965 Spring Festival the Automat in the Forest had been replaced by the Sterling Farms Restaurant. Later, in 1968, there was a Schrafft’s occupying the Pavilion.

Horn & Hardart also operated a second eating place in the Gardens, Peacock Patio, that had a cafeteria and barbecue. Not far from the park, it ran a Country Store where, ironically, H&H frozen prepared dishes were sold. It’s not clear how long either remained in business under Horn & Hardart’s ownership.

As might be imagined, Sterling Forest Gardens was popular with garden clubs, groups of older adults, and bus tours generally. Without doubt its most unusual guests were Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia and his wife who visited in summer 1963, one day after Tito enemies had infiltrated the Waldorf Towers where the Titos were staying in NYC. Distrustful of the city’s ability to protect him, Marshall Tito cancelled plans to attend a 1,100-person dinner at the United Nations, asking instead to visit a farm. He was taken to Sterling Forest Gardens, where he and his wife lunched at the Automat. Walking through the Automat’s cafeteria line, he chose a hamburger steak, french fries, and macaroni while she accompanied her ground meat with fries, carrots, and spinach.

After several years of slumping attendance, the Gardens closed in 1976. Later, it became a site for medieval jousting.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Lunching at the drug store

I’ve often noticed how the history of some institution or object does not quite mesh with the nostalgic haze that eventually envelopes it. To a significant extent this is true of now-vanished drug store soda fountains, many of which became places for lunches as well as for sweet fountain treats before they vanished.

Independent soda fountains date as far back as the 1810s. Decades later some druggists began adding soda fountains to their apothecaries, mainly as a favor to their customers. Soda fountain drinks, whether plain carbonated water or water mixed with syrups, were viewed as healthful and in accord with the temperance movement of the 19th century.

Soda fountains emphasized the elaborate beauty of their fountain apparatus, especially after a marble soda fountain went on display at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia. A soda fountain in Boston in 1886 was described as made of “black and chocolate marble, surmounted by a statue of purest marble, representing a dancing girl.” In addition to the artistic features, customers were attracted by the technical aspects of fountains with their tubes and faucets.

Fads in drinks meant that there was a constant search for newness, with Easter punch the first choice in 1890, but surpassed in 1891 by orange phosphates and Creme de Russe. The number of concoctions was endless. The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages, published in 1897, promised more than 1,500 “formulas,” including how to mix “Coloring Agents, Foams, Extracts, Essences, Fruit Juices, Syrups, Meads, Beers, Ales, Phosphates, Lactarts, Egg Drinks, Ades, Milk and Cream Drinks, Medicinal Drinks, Popular Fancy Drinks, Hot Soda Drinks, Ice Creams, Ciders, Fruit Wines, Liqueurs, Cordials, Bitters, [and] Cremes.”

In the 1890s druggists began to feel economic pressure to install soda fountains. Apart from drawing people into the store, soda fountains produced good profits at a time when department stores were taking away some of druggists’ business by selling over-the-counter medicines. Plus, the complex range of possible drinks did call upon mixing skills in a way that was at least somewhat similar to what druggists did in compounding medicines. They could reassure themselves — if need be — that they were using “formulas” rather than “recipes.”

In the 1910s, many druggists took a step further and began offering light lunches along with fountain drinks. According to one account, this was a way of ensuring that soda fountain traffic did not die away during lunchtime as it had been doing.

The added profits from selling sandwiches and a few other edibles were welcome but, having spent many years learning their trade, many druggists were depressed about needing to go into what became known as the luncheonette business. A 1914 survey of pharmacists found that most respondents were not thrilled about selling food. Replies included, “Let the hash houses have the pie business.” Some called the situation degrading and asked, “Can we still claim the right to class our calling as a profession?” and “When a man finds it necessary to make a living selling hot dogs, he had better pull in the sign ‘Druggist.’”

Nevertheless the luncheonette business spread and grew, as did druggists’ dependence on this source of revenue. In the 1920s it was not at all unusual to find a luncheonette in a drug store, some even selling hot dishes such as chop suey and tamales. By 1931 an estimate was that nearly half of the 25,000 drug stores nationwide served fountain lunches, with 2,800 doing so in NYC alone. And it was said that some druggists were taking in more money from food service than from everything else combined.

As popular as they were with customers, soda fountain luncheonettes were deeply disliked by catering employee unions, as well as restaurateurs and lunch room owners who viewed them as illegitimate competitors. A 1926 article in the trade magazine Cafeteria Management argued for higher national standards for restaurants, pointing out drug stores as examples of businesses that should not be in the feeding business. To gourmets who mourned the loss of fine restaurants in the 1920s when the sale of alcohol was banned, drug store food exemplified the worst of the worst. Duncan Hines, who began to rate restaurants across the entire country in the 1930s, pointed to the drug store lunch counter as a “sinister influence” and asked, “How in God’s name can anyone who regularly eats drugstore snacks ever be expected to recognize a good meal when it’s served?” Much of the food sold in drug store luncheonettes in the 1920s, was in fact bought ready-to-eat or nearly so from commercial commissaries.

Given all the criticism of drug store lunches, it’s rather surprising to see a menu attachment from Walgreen’s in 1948 and note how closely it resembles a full-scale restaurant, both because it offers 8 “complete dinners” with soup, potatoes, vegetables, roll and butter, desert, and beverage and because it describes the sauces for two fish dishes à la française! Of course it’s likely that the big drug store chains met a higher standard of cleanliness and food quality than many of the small stores had in earlier decades.

Drug store lunch counters were still sufficiently popular in the early 1960s that they, along with dime store counters, were sites of Black protestors claiming a right to patronize them. Notably, a 1951 report of the Congress for Racial Equality cited Walgreen’s stores as among the very few eating places in St. Louis that served Black customers.

By the 1970s drug stores were beginning to close their lunch counters. As early as 1970 Walgreen’s operated only one in New York City, down from 17. Whelan’s too had closed most of its counters there. The trend swept across the country and by the 1980s, nostalgia attached to the few left, most of which were limited to serving sodas and ice cream concoctions. Bitterness among druggists is long forgotten, along with other complaints. Now the best way to find any still in existence is to search for “old-fashioned soda fountain.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Suffrage tea & lunch rooms

In roughly the ten years preceding passage of the 19th amendment giving women the vote in 1920, suffragists ran tea rooms and lunch rooms to raise funds for the cause and to publicize their arguments for why women should have the right to vote.

Most major cities – New York, Boston, Baltimore, Hartford, Charleston, Atlanta, D.C. [see above illustration], etc. – had a suffrage tea or lunch room, many located in the local suffrage headquarters. In smaller towns they might be temporary, running only for a week or so in order to get money for something such as sending a delegate to a meeting out of town. There were other related ways to make money: in San Francisco suffragists sold a specially packaged Equality Tea, with a booth in the Emporium department store.

Some groups served only tea but in larger cities tea and lunch rooms also provided food. When a suffrage tea room opened in Chicago in 1914, it offered a variety of salads and sandwiches with a beverage for 35 cents. Desserts could be added for another 15 cents, but evidently pie a la mode was reserved for male guests. Men were warmly invited to patronize suffrage tea and lunch rooms, and treated very well, since they would be the ones deciding whether women would get the vote. Lifelong peace activist Mildred Scott Olmsted [shown here at age 29], interviewed at age 97, said she had been a volunteer waitress at Philadelphia’s suffrage tea room, where they “lured men in for a good cheap business lunch.” “Then,” she said, “you could hand them literature and talk.” No doubt she did a lot of talking. Over and over she heard the argument that women should rely on husbands, fathers, and brothers to vote for them.

At Boston’s suffrage lunch room on Tremont Street [shown below] substantial meals were available, such as corned beef hash with beets and a muffin or boiled salmon with egg sauce and potatoes, both for about 30 cents. The back of the menu was used to inform diners that if the lunch room succeeded in adding another 40 daily patrons to its usual 160, it would make enough profit to cover its office rent. Yellow was the color most often associated with the suffrage cause, explaining the Sunflower name adopted by the Boston suffragists.

Undoubtedly, the most eye-catching of the pro-suffrage tea and food dispensaries was the yellow and black lunch wagon that showed up in the Bronx near Fordham College in the summer of 1911. Suffrage volunteers worked in it, selling lemonade and sandwiches. The plan was to have one wagon in each of the five boroughs; one showed up in Brooklyn in 1915, though I couldn’t determine if there were others.

The lunch wagon was only one of New York’s suffrage eating places. At 70 Wall Street was the Votes for Women lunch room run by the Empire State Suffrage Campaign Committee, in a space donated by the husband of one of the suffragists. When a promise of homemade food was made on September 16, 1915, the place was mobbed, with men crowding the tables and “against the walls.” A menu published later promised “Real Home Cooking,” featuring Chicken Salad, Corn Bread, Waffles with Real Maple Syrup, and Home-made Ice Cream.

The offer of “homemade” food was politically strategic in that it reinforced the idea that suffragists were feminine women, not pseudo men as argued by the anti-suffragists. Using the same logic a suffrage group in Washington state put out a cookbook with 700 recipes. [1917 ad for Philadelphia’s lunch room show here]

Multi-millionaire Alva Belmont financed another New York City suffrage lunch room on East 41st street, at the headquarters of her Political Equality League. There middle-class women who could afford to spend 50 cents for lunch ate in one room, while working-class women ate inexpensive sandwiches in a second room.

Along with suffrage groups, probably every city also had an organization of women opposed to equal suffrage. They also tried to gain support through teas and lunches, though these tended to be occasional events held at the antis’ headquarters or in someone’s home. In February 1917, the District of Columbia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, for instance, created a pink tea room – pink being the antis’ color — at their Pennsylvania Avenue offices for visitors attending the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. In Des Moines IA, the local anti-suffrage association held a tea reception at Younker’s Department Store to host a prominent anti-suffragist from Pennsylvania.

Just how helpful suffrage eating places were in boosting the cause is impossible to assess, but they surely must have helped build bonds among feminist activists such as Mildred Olmsted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under alternative restaurants, lunch rooms, patrons, tea shops, women