Category Archives: alternative restaurants

Slumming

The word slumming had several meanings when it came into use in the 1880s. Basically it meant visiting the slums. But the purpose for elite and middle-class white Americans might vary, from charity to data collection, curiosity, a sexual escapade, or general entertainment.

Apart from ministers, reformers, and city officials, those who went on slumming tours (with guides) in the late nineteenth century usually were motivated by curiosity or a wish for entertainment.

In 1884, the New York Times ran a story about British actress Lillie Langtry and her party visiting the city’s slums, noting, “So far the mania here has assumed the single form of sight-seeing – the more noble ambition of alleviating the condition of the desperately poor visited has not animated the adventurous parties.”

Following the vogue begun in London, slumming became a mark of worldly sophistication among some Americans in the late 19th century.

Although most newspaper accounts of slumming focused on New York’s Bowery and Tenderloin or San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, there were in fact areas of interest to slumming parties in many parts of the U.S. For example, a group of conventioneers from Omaha visiting Dakota Territory in 1889 took an excursion to Deadwood’s Chinese settlement. They were disappointed it was so tame.

Tours often involved stopping at a restaurant or café, particularly if a group was visiting a Chinese area, as was often the case especially as Chinese populations increased in the Eastern U.S. beginning in the later 1880s. Many of the first white, middle-class customers of Chinese restaurants were “slummers.” Such excursions increased around the turn of the century. A 1900 account described how Chinese restaurant keepers had learned that it paid to accommodate slumming parties who “would spend more money in their places in an hour than their regular customers would spend all day.”

But Chinese restaurants weren’t the only ones “discovered” by slummers. King’s Handbook of New York listed slumming restaurants under the category of “Novelty in Restaurants” in 1892. In addition to Chinese (“dirty, foul-smelling and cheaply furnished”), the handbook mentioned Hebrew restaurants of the East Side, a Japanese restaurant, Russian restaurants, Polish restaurants, a place with Spanish cooking, and “Italian restaurants of a low order” on Mulberry Street. Of a higher order, according to King’s, were Austrian, Swiss, Hungarian, and German eating places.

In addition to Chinese, Italian and Hungarian restaurants were top choices of slummers. Coppa’s, particularly before San Francisco’s great fire of 1906, drew many who were curious about “bohemian” lifestyles.

Postcards from New York’s Little Hungary around 1906-1908 illustrate customers’ thrilled reactions. Anna & Will mailed their card to Arlington NJ, while Marge, who apparently left out a word, sent hers to a woman in Syracuse.

A common interpretation of the appeal of immigrant restaurants was the aridity of mainstream American culture, with its emphasis on the strict rules of proper behavior. Italian and Hungarian restaurants, by contrast, were enjoyed as places where patrons might sing along with the band or talk to their neighbors without being introduced. James Harvey wrote in his 1905 book In Bohemia, “By the time you get to the roast, it is eight o’clock and the evening is in its prime. Everybody seems to love everybody else, thanks to the heavy Hungarian wines.”

In some cases nostalgia played a role. According to a 1997 article by Beth S. Wenger subtitled “The Invention of the Lower East Side,” that part of New York became a destination for Jews who had moved uptown. She quoted a 1926 Jewish Daily Forward story that said “the crowds come nightly to Delancy and Rivington Streets to drink selzer, eat Roumanian Broils and listen to sentimental ballads.” Wenger saw visits to the East Side as symbolizing “the uneasy social adjustment of second-generation Jewish Americans” who were not satisfied with “the ‘strained and sterile’ dining spots in their new neighborhoods.”

Though it was regarded as daring to venture into immigrant restaurants in the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, it became less so as the restaurants responded by exaggerating their “foreignness” to attract suburbanites and tourists. In 1905, according to Town & Country, “to eat spaghetti in the backyard is a pet fad,” especially for wealthy conservatives in search of “thrills at the strangeness of it all.” The proprietor played up to them by dressing as a ferocious bandit, “his head bound up in a gay bandanna with large rings in his ears.”

In a 1914 Sinclair Lewis novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, the protagonist takes a woman to a restaurant run by “Papa Gouroff” who wears a fez in hopes that “the place would degenerate into a Bohemian restaurant where liberal clergymen would think they were slumming . . .”

Menus, too, were tailored to the tastebuds of outsiders, producing dishes such as chop suey and chili con carne.

Slumming really hit the mainstream before and after World War I, probably due to a number of movies and novels whose plots included exciting scenes of people on tours. In the 1913 “New York’s Society Life and Underworld,” a group is set to visit the Port Arthur restaurant in Chinatown [pictured] just as they hear a woman’s scream. Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford both starred in 1918 films with slumming scenes; Pickford’s included slumming in San Francisco’s red light district, the Barbary Coast.

At this time just about anyone might venture into the slums, whether a group of clayworkers visiting New Orleans in 1914, or soldiers from Seattle on leave in New York. One soldier admitted, “I was never so disappointed in my life as I was in the Bowery. I expected to see several murders and gun fights but all I could see was foreign merchants with hair all over their faces.” Their big thrill, as it turned out, was going to the Automat.

In fact the Bowery wasn’t what it used to be, having been sanitized in the war period. According to the book Slumming (Chad Heap, Univ. Chicago Press, 2008), counterculture tea rooms in places such as NY’s Greenwich Village and Towertown in Chicago became the bohemian “thrillage” sites of the 1920s. [verse from The Quill, 1919]

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Find of the day: the Double R Coffee House

It gets harder and harder to turn up anything interesting at flea markets – even on the sprawling fields of Brimfield. But luck was with me this past week when I found the little menu from The Double R Coffee House.

It didn’t look terribly interesting in itself until I remembered that my restaurant collection contained a cartoon-style postcard with the same name that I especially liked.

Turns out that the two Double R Coffee Houses had an interesting history. They were established and funded by sons, daughters, cousins, and others related by blood or marriage to Theodore Roosevelt. The impetus for the coffee houses came from Theodore’s son Kermit, who had spent time in South America and Arab countries. He mentions coffee repeatedly in his book War in the Garden of Eden. The book describes his experiences while serving with the British forces in Iraq and other countries involved in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I.

The initial business incorporation in 1919 was called Café Paulista after a café in Buenos Aires that Kermit had frequented years before. The corporation launched the first coffee house, then located at 108 West 44th Street, calling it The Brazilian Coffee House as inscribed above the door in this 1919 photo.

The coffee house got a fair amount of press due to the Roosevelt connection, but the family did not involve themselves in running it, nor were they known to frequent it. However, in one instance President Roosevelt’s widow did visit the 44th street location. A widely publicized news story in 1923 told of how she had saved two oil paintings of her late husband when a minor fire broke out in the kitchen.

What was truly unusual about the coffee house was not so much its owners or its decor, but how serious it was about coffee. The manager, Brazilian Alfredo Salazar [shown above], declared it was not a restaurant. Although it served light food including empenadas, he insisted the focus was on serving “real” coffee. He declared that Americans, New Yorkers included, did not know how to roast, grind, brew, or for that matter, drink coffee. Coffee that was boiled or percolated and left to sit around for over 30 minutes was equivalent to “tannic acid soup” in his estimation. He advised drinking it black, but allowed that the coffee house would provide cream, milk, and sugar since it was not a “propaganda establishment.”

The coffee house roasted coffee beans on the site and everyone commented on the wonderful aroma this produced.

Shortly after opening, the 44th Street coffee house moved to larger quarters nearby at #112. It was popular from the start, particularly with Brazilians, American business men – and business women — as well as surrounding theater-district performers.

Another characteristic of the coffee house that was appreciated was that patrons could linger as long as they liked, even if they ordered very little. Imprinted stationery was provided along with some reading materials – including an abridged version of the U.S. Constitution — and the place soon extended its hours to 1 a.m.

In February of 1921 the name was changed to Double R Coffee House due to a conflict with another business claiming that name and also because a cousin named Robinson was the corporation’s new president. In May a second coffee house on Lexington was opened with an exhibit of paintings by members of the Art Students League curated by realist painter John Sloan. Because of the art connection, it seems as though this coffee house had a more bohemian aspect. In a letter to Chicago poet and editor of Poetry Magazine Harriet Monroe, poet Wallace Stevens wrote that he had visited the new coffee house in August and “had a dash of maté.”

In 1923 there was talk of opening another Double R on 45th street in Times Square, but I could find no trace of it. Vague ideas about expanding to Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, talked about in 1919, never materialized and in 1928 one or both of the coffee houses were sold to new owners. What happened after that is unknown.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Crazy for crepes

The crepes craze, which began in the 1960s, became intense in the 1970s. By the late 1980s it had all but disappeared..

But before crepes achieved popularity, they were almost unknown in the U.S. The exception was Crepes Suzette, thin, delicate pancakes with an orange-butter sauce and liqueurs that were often dramatically lit aflame at the diners’ table. Like Cherries Jubilee, Crepes Suzette usually only appeared on high-priced menus, such as the Hotel Astor [1908 quotation].

Before 1960 even fewer restaurants served savory crepes, and those that did would also seem to have been expensive restaurants. In 1948 the Colony in New York City served Crepes Colony with a seafood filling. And in the late 1950s New York’s Quo Vadis offered Crepes Quo Vadis, filled with curried seafood and glazed with a white sauce, as hors d’oeuvres.

Although few Americans had ever eaten Crepes Suzette, it’s likely that the fame of this prized dish helped pave the way for the creperie craze, with restaurants primarily featuring crepes. Crepes were regarded as an exotic luxury dish that, by some miracle, was affordable to the average consumer, sometimes costing as little as 60 or 75 cents apiece around 1970.

Crepes enjoyed a mystique, offering a link to European culture and a break from the meat and potatoes that dominated most restaurant menus in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At a time when America was seen as the world leader in modern ways of living – including industrially efficient food production — Europe was imagined as a romantically quaint Old World where traditional ways were preserved and many things were still handmade.

American creperies catered to their customers’ wish for a taste of Europe. With country French decor, servers in folk costumes, and names such as Old Brittany French Creperie and Maison des Crepes [pictured at top, Georgetown], diners were imaginatively transported to a delightfully foreign environment quite unlike the brand new shopping malls in which many creperies were located. Another exotic touch employed by quite a few creperies was to use the French circumflex mark in crêpes (which I have not done in this blogpost).

Filled with creamed chicken, ratatouille, or strawberries and whipped cream (etc.), crepes soon became a favorite lunch, dinner, and late-night supper for college students, dating couples, shoppers, and anyone seeking “something different.” Along with crepes, menus typically included a few soups, most likely including French onion soup, a spinach-y salad, and perhaps a carafe of wine.

San Francisco’s Magic Pan Creperie led the trend and, after being acquired by Quaker Oats in 1969, spread to cities across the country, with the chain eventually totaling about 112. The first Magic Pan, a tiny place on Fillmore Street, was opened in 1965 by Paulette and Laszlo Fono, who came to this country in 1956 after the failed anti-Communist uprising in their native Hungary. A few years later they opened another Magic Pan in Ghirardelli Square and Laszlo patented a 10-pan crepe-maker capable of turning out 600 perfectly cooked crepes per hour [pictured here].

As Quaker opened Magic Pans, they invariably received a warm welcome in newspaper food pages. It was as though each chosen city had been “awarded” one of the creperies, usually situated in upscale suburban shopping malls such as St. Louis’s Frontenac Plaza or Hartford’s West Farms Mall. When a Magic Pan opened in Dallas’ North Park shopping center in 1974, it was called “as delightful a restaurant as one is likely to find in Dallas.”

Among Magic Pan amenities (beyond moderate prices), reviewers were pleased by fresh flowers on each table, good service, delicious food, pleasant decor, and late hours. Many of the Magic Pans stayed open as late as midnight – as did many independent crepe restaurants. [Des Moines, 1974]

In hindsight it’s apparent that creperies responded to Americans’ aspirations to broaden their experiences and enjoy what a wider world had to offer. It was a grand adventure for a high school or college French class or club to visit a creperie, watch crepe-making demonstrations, and have lunch. [below: student at the Magic Pan, Tulsa, 1979] But what one Arizona creperie owner called the “highbrow taco” did not appeal to everyone. The operator of a booth selling crepes at Illinois county fairs reported that hardly anyone bought them and that some fairgoers referred to them as creeps or craps.

I would judge that crepes and creperies reached the pinnacle of popularity in 1976, the year that Oster came out with an electric crepe maker for the home. Soon the downward slide began.

Quaker sold the Magic Pans in 1982 after years of declining profits. The new owner declared he would rid the chain of its “old-lady” image, i.e., attract more male customers. Menus were expanded to include heartier meat and pasta dishes.

Even though new creperies continued to open here and there – Baton Rouge got its first one in 1983 – there were signs as early as 1980 that the crepe craze was fading. A visitor to a National Restaurant Association convention that year reported that crepes were “passé” and restaurants were looking instead for new low-cost dishes using minimal amounts of meat or fish. A restaurant reviewer in 1986 dismissed crepes as “forgotten food” served only in conservative restaurant markets. Magic Pans were closing all over, and by the time the 20-year old Magic Pan on Boston’s Newbury Street folded in 1993, very few, if any, remained.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Find of the day: Aladdin Studio Tiffin Room

It is a rare day when I find a tea room postcard that I don’t already own or that I strongly want to buy. The Aladdin Studio Tiffin Room is an exception, a wonderful discovery.

The story of the Aladdin Studio and its owners, Hattie and Minnie Mooser [pictured seated on the postcard], turns out to be quite fascinating. The senior Moosers, the sisters’ parents, were German Jews who were part of the 1840s-1860s immigration, and who evidently inspired their four children to take up rather daring careers in the entertainment industry.

The San Francisco tea room combined many functions. In the daytime it was a fairly conventional tea room with lunch and afternoon tea, hosting women’s groups, bridal parties, and card parties. Patrons could also have their palms read by a “seeress” named Mme. Rabbas, learn to play mah-jongg, dance, take Charleston and St. Louis Hop lessons, and buy hats, batiks, and lingerie in the gift shop. In the evening, visiting performers from stage and screen offered entertainment or simply gathered there for dinner.

The Aladdin employed African American women cooks and young women from San Francisco’s Asian community as servers. The decor had a Chinese theme with lanterns and dragons, but the cuisine was strictly American. The photo postcard above shows the two sisters ca. 1927/1928, sitting under what I believe was used as the tea room’s “stage.”

It opened on Sutter Street, its main location, in 1920, after having spent several years as part tea room and part children’s theater on Post Street. In 1925 it proclaimed itself a “Nite Club” of the sort found in NYC, Paris, and London, despite the fact that it was Prohibition and no alcoholic beverages were sold, nor even allowed on the premises. Increasing competition with bootleg places was identified as the reason for the Aladdin’s closure in 1929.

Years after its closing, in 1941, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen saluted the Aladdin, writing, “When THE spot-around-town for celebrities was the Aladdin Studios run by Hattie and Minnie Mooser, the jernt was for performers and their pals only, and man the shows they used to put on are still being gabbed about.”

Their main attraction was the celebrities who dropped by the Aladdin Studio. Hattie and Minnie were well connected to the entertainment world, since their brother George Mooser, as well as their late brother Leon, were tightly enmeshed in it as producers whose careers were anchored in Shanghai and New York City. In addition to bringing Chinese entertainers to the U.S., the brothers organized Western entertainments, such as circuses, in China. And they also brokered film distribution deals and a lawsuit against piracy in Asia for California motion picture studios.

As a result of their connections – and Hattie’s and Minnie’s skill as hostesses – many show business celebrities visited the Aladdin, among them Houdini, Douglas Fairbanks, and the Marx brothers.

Although the never-married sisters had other occupations to fall back on such as stenography and other secretarial services, they continued serving as hostesses in other clubs after the Aladdin Studio closed, among them the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park and the Club Trouville at the old Aladdin location. In 1931 they opened a new place, modeled on the Aladdin Studio but called Aladdin Tavern, on Van Ness Avenue. Now in their 50s [(l) Hattie and (r) Minnie in 1936], though still referred to by the columnists as “the delightful Mooser girls,” they could not make a go of it.

In 1965, a reporter found the sisters, now in their 90s, living in Daly City CA and reflecting about their friendship with Harry Houdini.

I’d love to find the Aladdin’s guest book, which Hattie and Minnie claimed contained “the signatures of practically all the ‘tops’ of stage, screen and radio.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Reading the tea leaves

Although “gypsy” tea rooms could be found in the 1920s, and occasionally even now, their heyday was in the 1930s Depression.

They represented a degree of degeneration of the tea room concept in that they built their allure on tea leaf reading as much as – or more than — food. The menus in some of them consisted simply of a sandwich, piece of cake, and cup of tea, typically costing 50 cents. A drug store in New Orleans reduced the menu to a toasted sandwich and tea for the low price of 15 cents.

Gypsy tea rooms were often located on the second or third floor of a building, reducing the rent burden. Downtown shopping districts were popular places to attract customers, with about twenty near NYC stores located in the 30s between 6th and 7th Avenues. Los Angeles had a Gypsy Tea Room across the street from Bullock’s department store, while Omaha’s Gypsy Tea Shop, affiliated with another one in Council Bluffs IA, was across from the Brandeis store.

Times were hard, and Gypsy, Mystic, or Egyptian tea rooms, as they were known, offered a diversion from the concerns of the day and a way to prop up tottering businesses.

Usually it was all in fun. Gypsy tea rooms dressed waitresses in peasant costumes with bandana headdresses and adopted brilliant color schemes such as orange and black with yellow candles, and red tables and chairs. Such decor was a formula worked out by a New York City woman who by 1930 had opened 25 such places all over the country. Evidently after opening each one she sold it to a new owner.

Most customers, almost always women, saw the readings as light entertainment suitable for clubs and parties. Sometimes, though, an advertisement suggested that patrons’ reasons for having their tea leaves read were not so happy. A 1930 advertisement for the Mystic Tea Room, in Kansas City MO, asked “Have You Worries? Financial, domestic or otherwise? Our gifted readers will help you solve your problems.”

Many tea leaf readers had names suggesting they were “real gypsies” but that is unlikely, despite the Madame Zitas, Estellas, and Levestas. In fact, the reason that tea rooms advertised free readings was because many states and cities had laws prohibiting payment for fortune telling so as to keep genuine gypsies from settling there. A Texas law of 1909 declared “all companies of Gypsies” who supported themselves by telling fortunes would be punished as vagrants.

New York state passed a law in 1917 that made fortune telling in New York City illegal. In the 1930s police conducted raids of tea rooms advertising tea leaf readings. The raids did little to reduce their ranks and tea rooms continued to announce readings. A “gypsy princess” on site was an undeniable attraction — “Something New, Something Different,” according to an advertisement for Harlem’s Flamingo Grill and Tea Room on 7th Avenue.

In 1936 an attempt was made to organize tea leaf readers but it didn’t seem to amount to much. Members of the National Association of Fortune Tellers were required to be “scientific predictors,” just as good at forecasting as Wall Street brokers. The group’s organizer said she wanted to professionalize fortune telling. Because 32 states had laws against it, she said, tea room readers were forced to work for tips only, to the benefit of tea room owners.

Tea leaf readers seemed to move around quite a bit, perhaps because tea room proprietors wanted to keep things interesting. It was supposed to generate excitement when a “seer” from abroad or a larger city visited a small town tea room. A male clairvoyant such as Pandit Acharjya of Benares, India, was bound to enliven the atmosphere at the Gypsy Tea Room in New Orleans in 1930. And to the River Lane Gardens in Jefferson City MO, even the week-long appearance of “Miss Ann Brim of St. Louis, Famous Reader of Cards and Tea Leaves” was worth billing as a major attraction.

In Boston, the Tremont Tea Room has been doing business in sandwiches and tea leaf readings since 1936. Proving, as if proof is needed, that no “restaurant” concept ever totally dies away.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Is “ethnic food” a slur?

This question has come up over the past few years among those who write about food and restaurants. The gist of the complaint is that the term “ethnic food” implies it is inferior to European-based cuisines, and sometimes even to pseudo-ethnic fast food. The issue is entwined with the question of whether patronizing restaurants run by immigrant or other non-white proprietors demonstrates or promotes multicultural understanding.

The terms “ethnic food” and “ethnic restaurant” did not really show up to any significant extent until the 1960s. Before that references would have been to foreign restaurants or to “food of the world.” Until the 1860s, French restaurateurs were the main departure from the English-influenced norm.

After the Revolution of 1776, there were a number of French eating places in this country. For example, Michael Marinot advertised in 1789 that he ran a Traiteur Francois in Philadelphia. And of course, there was Julien in Boston, and as of 1823 the Swiss-Italian confectionery of Delmonico in New York. From the start French restaurateurs were appreciated for producing delicate cuisine and following a higher standard than other eating places.

Much more common were the eating houses that served food similar to what would be found in England, consisting mainly of meat and game, simply prepared, with little in the way of sauces or seasonings. [see NYC Bowery restaurant, 1887] Oyster cellars provided the fast food of the day.

Things began to change in the 1850s. When gold was discovered near San Francisco, men (mostly) from all over the world converged there. An account published in 1855 notes, “There were American dining-rooms, the English lunch-houses, the French cabarets, the Spanish fondas, the German wirtschafts, the Italian osterie, the Chinese chow-chows, and so on . . . There were cooks, too, from every country; American, English, French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Chileno, Kanaka, Italian, Peruvian, Mexican, Negro, and what not.” In 1854 New York City boasted of having restaurants representing the food of America, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Hungary, Denmark, Spain, and Cuba.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, people living in cities who had refined tastes but little money sought out small restaurants run by European immigrants known as “table d’hotes.” They offered a complete meal for a low fixed price, wine included. In these places, it was said, patrons could avoid the clatter, sloppiness, bad food, and complete lack of aesthetics associated with cheap American eating places. Europeans understood “the art of living,” according to a story in the Boston Globe in 1877. Only “foreigners” ran good restaurants in San Francisco, wrote the city’s chronicler Hubert Howe Bancroft. “American restaurants are invariably second, third, or fourth rate,” he pronounced.

With the large number of immigrants arriving in the late 19th and early 20th century, it is hardly surprising that many of them took up restaurant keeping. But this did not necessarily mean that they offered anything other than standard American fare. World War I revealed an undercurrent of prejudice against foreign eating places that had earlier been aimed at Asian restaurants on the West Coast. The negative attitudes may have driven some non-natives to “Americanize” their names and menus. Other restaurant owners, probably of American birth, played to nativist prejudice. [See 1918 ADV; Turner’s chef was born in France but naturalized shortly before the advertisement appeared.]

The 1920s through the 1950s saw the proliferation of restaurant types that were definitely non-ethnic such as tea rooms, cafeterias, steak houses, hamburger and hot dog stands, fried chicken places, lunch counters, diners, drive-ins, and chain restaurants. Many Greek-American proprietors avoided putting any remotely Greek dishes on their menus until the 1960s. Other restaurants serving “foreign” food added sections with American dishes to their menus [menu above, Chicago, 1941], while others dished up a stereotyped version of ethnicity [see Milwaukee’s Schwaben-Hoff shown above].

During the all-American era, a few “foreign” dishes were naturalized, among them chili, tamales (in the West), spaghetti, and pizza. [re Simon’s Sweet Shop, Salt Lake City, 1917] Even chop suey could sometimes be found on drug store menus. Some cities had especially few foreign restaurants. In 1940s Atlanta restaurant goers wanted fried chicken, while in Omaha they demanded steaks, according to the National Restaurant Association. In fact chicken, steak, and chops dominated dinner menus throughout the U.S.

It is scarcely surprising there would be a reaction to the blandness and lack of variety in restaurants. In 1961, even Chicago — where prime rib was No. 1 — presented alternatives, among them European, Middle Eastern, Oriental, Polynesian, and South and Central American restaurants. Still, a Chicago restaurant reviewer revealed in 1971 that she got letters complaining she was “preoccupied” with ethnic restaurants and ignored the steak and potato fans.

Nonetheless the ethnic restaurant trend continued to grow. Neil Simon’s 1963 play (and 1967 movie) Barefoot in the Park featured a newlywed wife who wanted to break free of convention. One scene showed her jumping up to join a belly dance at an Albanian restaurant hidden away on Staten Island. Her character prefigured the hippies to come — young people eager for new experiences. In the 1890s or 1910s she would have been called a bohemian and would have dined in the backyard of a French table d’hote. Another sign of change was the 1966 publication of The Underground Gourmet that listed inexpensive restaurants in NYC, most of them representing a cuisine from afar.

For those critics of the term ethnic restaurant who object to it only being applied to non-European restaurants of dark-skinned people: that has not always been true. The Underground Gourmet noted nationality restaurants that were Belgian, Dutch, Hungarian, Norwegian, and Ukrainian. San Diego, a city not known for its ethnic restaurants earlier, in 1979 counted among them ones that were Swedish, Hungarian, Russian, Serbian, Basque, Portugese, Irish – and British! And cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky classified Jewish, New England, Pennsylvania German, and Southern U.S. restaurants as ethnic in 1985.

The trend intensified in the 1970s. By the 1980s, a major city lacking diversity in its restaurants was considered culturally deficient and of lesser interest to gourmets and tourists. The counterculture, too, was an important factor in the rising popularity of ethnic restaurants. As Warren Belasco explained in a 1987 issue of Food and Foodways, the counterculture preferred “peasant or ‘folk’ cuisines to the ‘junk food’ found in . . . fast food restaurants. . . . The countercuisine’s infatuation with ethnic foods linked the personal and political . . . eating un-American dishes could be interpreted as a protest against American cultural imperialism.”

It could also be taken as a status marker – which has become more evident over time. It can be proof of extensive foreign travel, a spirit of adventurousness, a discerning palate, esoteric knowledge possessed by the few – and sometimes a degree of haughtiness about mainstream American tastes.

Nonetheless, a fondness for non-American cuisines is not usually linked with xenophobia and nativism. On the other hand, it by no means guarantees respect for other cultures nor does it overcome prejudices of various kinds. A 2008 article, “‘Going for an Indian’: South Asian Restaurants and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Britain,” made this clear. But I think I’ll save that argument for another time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Find of the day, almost

Over the weekend I went to Brimfield to see what the postcard dealers had to offer. As usual I was determined to come home with a “find.” But, no. The card that I thought might qualify turns out to be that of a tourist café in Montmartre that is enmeshed in dubious lore and still in business today just down the street from a Starbucks.

The Mère Catherine [Mother Catherine] looks so unpretentious on the ca. 1950s postcard that I wanted to believe it was a relatively unknown little café. I doubted I could learn much about it through research. However, instead I found many stories, most of them glorified puff pieces starting in the late 1920s.

The stories I rounded up are full of contradictions. Mère Catherine was established either in 1793 or in the 1830s. Mère Catherine herself was either the restaurant’s founder in 1793 and died in 1844 or she was the owner in 1939.

As I continued to search for Mère Catherine’s history the more confused I became. It appears that for much of its history Mère Catherine was more of a drinking place than the eating place it became in the 20th century. One article said it hosted impoverished singers who were allowed to bring food there to eat.

An image of the restaurant from 1897 shows the name then as Maison Catherine Lamothe. Might its founder have been the same Catherine La Mothe who was born in 1766 in Bourges, France? Or was there ever an actual Catherine Lamothe at all? An 1897 publication about Montmartre’s history suggested that Catherine and Lamothe were two different women, both wine merchants on Rue du Tertre once upon a time. After I read that I started to think I could make out a nearly invisible hyphen between the two names on the sign shown on the ca. 1897 photograph above. But maybe I was seeing things.

A brief mention of the restaurant at the end of the 19th century described it as an “ancient”, low-ceilinged cabaret that was popular with artists. The same paragraph reported that Mère Catherine left the business to her son who then sold it to someone else. At one point it was owned by a man nicknamed “Gros Guillaume.” In the late 1920s, when it was first publicized by newspaper columnists in the U.S., it was known as Chez Lemoine, and was popular for its billiards tables. [image] During the German occupation of World War II and into the 1960s it was owned by people named Meriguet.

The restaurant appeared in a 1928 Swedish film by the name of “Sin” (Synd), directed by Gustaf Molander who also directed Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo. The two movies have remarkably similar plots. In Sin, Mère Catherine is living in the 1920s and running a Montmartre restaurant with the same checkered tablecloths as are visible in my newly acquired postcard. She tries to prevent a young playwright with a wife and daughter from falling for a femme fatale who seduces him while she is starring in his play. [see above]

In the end, I am skeptical of the legend of Mère Catherine, but don’t know what the real story is either.

At least I have one small consolation. The postcard I bought at Brimfield for $2 is being offered on e-Bay for 79 Euros ($86.80). But I’ll be surprised if it gets a bid at that price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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