Category Archives: atmosphere

Dirty by design

Given the general fear of unclean restaurants, it’s hard to understand the fascination with cobwebs and dirt in eating and drinking places of the 19th century and early 20th. File this under “the past is a foreign country.”

One of the famous places known for its decades’ worth of dust and grime was Old Tom’s in New York City. In the judgment of its fond patrons, it only got better with time.

According to witnesses, the shabby building that housed Old Tom’s on Thames Street a block west of Broadway was dark and dingy and its windows had never been washed. In the corners were stacks of boxes and barrels. Its walls were adorned with dusty letters from old patrons, ancient notices for boxing matches, and somewhat repulsive relics such as a mummified bat and “a pair of shoes taken off a little forlorn waif found wandering in the streets.”

Although customers liked Old Tom’s chops, Welsh rarebits, and ale well enough, the fame of the place rested on its cobwebs (barely visible in this 1872 illustration). By the 1870s they had been allowed to grow quite luxurious for at least 30 years. One visitor compared them to an “air-plant” which absorbed fibers and floating dust along with ale fumes and the aroma of cooking. The webs hanging from the ceiling were so long that the owner trimmed them “like a garden hedge” so they didn’t catch on men’s hats. If the restaurant had wanted to move to a new location, it would have failed. Without Old Tom’s cobwebs “the soul of his business would vanish,” said a newspaper story in 1877.

Old Tom’s went out of business in 1880 but the name was so famous that another Old Tom’s popped up nearby. It was dowdy, but sadly lacking in cobwebs.
Old Tom’s had its match in San Francisco, at a dive known as the Cobweb Palace, established in 1855. Such places were as much saloon as eating place, yet the Cobweb Palace, located on Meigg’s Wharf (now the site of Fisherman’s Wharf), was known in its better days for its clam chowder, cracked crab, and mussels. By the time it was demolished in 1893, it was a near-total wreck.

The Cobweb Palace was decorated with spider webs, South Sea island clubs and masks, and a totem pole, among many other curios both valuable and worthless. Though it was hardly a family spot, children liked to stop by and see the parrots, magpies, and parakeets flying around. Roaming monkeys greeted patrons while outside the door was a caged bear.

Old Tom’s and the Cobweb Palace lived in lore long after they were gone, but many other cobwebbed saloon-style eateries disappeared into the mist and little is known but their names.

There had been a place called Cobweb Hall in New York and another in Detroit, both operated by men from Scotland. The owner of the New York saloon/chophouse on Duane Street died in 1868, putting an end to his menagerie of spiders, Siberian wolfhounds, and canaries. In Detroit, Tom Swan’s Cobweb Hall began in 1869, lasting into the 20th century. He attracted business men and actors to his web-filled restaurant whose walls were also adorned with old playbills.

The West had quite a few Cobweb Saloons, some serving food or adjoining a restaurant whose cook often was a Chinese immigrant. Some were in mining towns such as Prescott AZ, where Ben Butler’s Chop House, run by Fong, Murphy & Co., “the Finest Restaurant in Prescott,” was next to, or connected to the Cobweb Saloon.

I’ve also found Cobweb Saloons in Las Vegas NM, Lincoln NE, Spokane and Tacoma WA, San Antonio and Beaumont TX, Albany OR, New Orleans LA, and Honolulu HI [advertisement, 1905].

Alas, I don’t know whether these saloons and cafes were draped with cobwebs. Seems like those in the West would not have had enough decades to grow them. I’m guessing it was more of a declaration of manly, no-frills comforts.

The patrons of cobweb cafes, saloons, and chop houses were regarded as victims of the devil by Christian preachers and their flocks who thought the name Cobweb Saloon was just about perfect for a place that entrapped heavy-drinking men. In 1903 a Sunday School group in Roswell NM planned a temperance discussion to include topics such as “Do men drink whiskey for the taste or effect?” and “‘Cobweb Saloon’ – Why is this an appropriate name?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, odd buildings, Offbeat places, sanitation

Clown themes

Have you ever felt that clown themes, characters, and motifs in restaurants were a mistake? A good number of Americans – estimated as many as 12% of children and adults — experience fear that clowns are deranged maniacs in disguise.

But that wasn’t always true. The 1950s and 1960s were the era of jolly clowns. Several clowns, particularly Bozo, won a children’s audience on TV, redeeming a character that had a sometimes dark history in past centuries. In 1963 Ronald McDonald got his start on television, played by Willard Scott who became better known in subsequent years as a weather forecaster.

Scott’s Ronald, a character he claims to have created, was costumed differently than later and more familiar Ronalds. Ronald has, in fact, gone through numerous costume changes over the years — as have many corporate mascots.

Whether because of clowns’ popularity on TV or some other source of inspiration, quite a few drive-in restaurants (and some drive-in movies) of the 1950s and 1960s adopted clown names, signs, and motifs. Taking on a clown theme suggests a wish to attract children in hopes they might bring the whole family along. The drive-ins’ menus of hamburgers and ice cream were certainly in tune with children’s tastes.

As was true of drive-ins generally, clown-themed drive-ins got their start in the warmer climates of California and Texas. The original Jack In The Box, previously called Oscar’s, was one of the first, opening in 1951 in San Diego, California, with the Jack figure looming over a low roof.

Another early California drive-in of the 1950s was the Big Clown Drive-In, again describing itself as a “hamburger operation.” The Clown Burger, in Fort Worth TX, opened in 1959 serving what are now regarded as surprisingly small, thin burgers and fries.

The innocent appeal of clowns began to wane in the 1970s.

It was a blow to the clown image when juvenile and teen-age murder victims of John Wayne Gacy began to be discovered in 1978. Gacy sometimes wore a Bozo the Clown costume to aid in luring his victims. After his conviction he sold crude paintings of himself dressed as Bozo that he painted in prison.

The disclosure of Gacy’s crimes didn’t put a total end to the clown theme, but it may have accelerated its decline. A year earlier Jack In the Box had already simplified and stylized its clown logo which had been in use for nearly a decade (shown here as a charm).

Somehow, though, Ronald McDonald survived. In 2011 the chain’s mascot was criticized for peddling an unhealthy diet to children, but the company decided to keep him nonetheless.

In the 2000s, around two dozen movies with scary clowns were released. Then, in 2016 clown fears increased due to a number of incidents where knife wielding men wearing clown masks marauded in public. After that Ronald became less visible.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under atmosphere, chain restaurants, drive-ins, family restaurants, restaurant fads

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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Dining in a garden

Pleasure gardens of the 18th and early 19th centuries, sometimes called tea or mead gardens, typically opened on May 1 and offered relief from summer heat. Garden dining could be as simple as a tent in the back yard of an eating place or as elaborate as a larger garden with walkways, fruit trees, and arbors. A Philadelphia tea garden of 1798 furnished “tables, benches, boxes, bowers, etc.” The “etc.” might have included colored lights, or even small rustic cabins.

Garden guests ranged from families and young couples to “gentlemen farming parties.” In many of the gardens, menus were limited to delicacies such as ice cream, confectionery, lemonade, iced drinks, teas and coffees, and of course wines and liquors.

But others served more substantial food that fell under the heading “relishes.” Today relishes are condiments but then the word referred to a wide range of hot or cold edibles, including steaks and chops, oysters, rarebits, poached eggs, omelets, kidneys, sardines, anchovies, sandwiches, savory patties, tripe, pigs’ feet, and soup. Relishes tended to be salty, no doubt to encourage drinking, and were usually “available any time.”

The early 19th-century gardens were meant to attract genteel folks, though I’ve run across a couple of advertisements suggesting it wasn’t so easy to discourage problem guests. The owner of a garden in Wilmington DE advertised in 1803 that he was opening his “elegant Mead and Flower Garden” for those who would “observe the strictest order and decorum” and not “injure his garden or molest his flowers.” Nicholas Pierson, in 1827, was evidently concerned that unaccompanied women (understood to be prostitutes) would want to enter his mead garden.

Unlike other drinking places, gardens were acceptable for women (if escorted). According to one report, mead — a sweet concoction of fermented honey and spices — was one of their favorite drinks. Mead gardens were more popular before the temperance movement took hold in the 1830s.

Tea and mead gardens were fading when German beer gardens appeared on the scene in the 1850s and 1860s, usually consisting of rows of tables in an open air setting amidst groves of trees, but not really a garden — and not usually providing food.

Dining in a garden once again became popular in the early 1900s, only now, in addition to outdoor gardens such as New York’s Terrace Garden and others on the roofs of tall buildings, there were many indoors, making them available year round. Natural touches included pendulous boughs draped from ceiling lattices, burbling fountains, potted palm fronds that threatened to tickle guests’ necks, and sometimes blue-painted ceilings twinkling with tiny stars.

Department stores adopted garden motifs as did tea rooms where one could dine in an actual garden or, in rural New England, on the front lawn of the proprietor’s home. Tea rooms that chose a garden theme for indoors leaned heavily toward a Japanese style invoked rather simply with flower-strewn trellises and a bit of wicker or paper lanterns, as did Schrafft’s in Syracuse NY and the tea room at the Vantine store in NYC [above photo, 1906]. Actual Asian restaurants, on the other hand, were likely to include the word garden in their name, but that did not necessarily imply they had an actual garden.

Undoubtedly, one of the most flamboyant indoor garden restaurants was Clifton’s “Pacific Seas” Cafeteria in Los Angeles [pictured]. Indoor palm trees are always impressive, as are neon flowers, multiple waterfalls (12), and volcanic rock. Clifton’s was but one of the many restaurants with indoor gardens that proved eye-catching yet less than totally convincing in terms of their relation to nature. [below, Stouffer’s Top of the Mart, Atlanta]

Today a restaurant garden, while in many cases still a popular place to eat in nice weather, is as likely to be a place where vegetables or herbs are grown and harvested.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Sawdust on the floor

Reformers of the 1910s would not have believed anyone who predicted that sawdust floors would make a comeback later in the century. But come back they did.

In the early 20th century, sawdust floors were seen as a vestige of disappearing filthy low-class eating places. Earlier they had been found in a great variety of places – English chop houses, French bistros, German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants, and saloons of every kind. In New York sawdust dealers of the 1880s made daily rounds selling 25-cent barrels to restaurants, saloons, and butcher shops (where sawdust collected blood).

But things were starting to change in the early 1900s as chains of sanitary lunch rooms with scrubbed white tile floors and walls became popular. In 1911, the Edison Monthly – a magazine devoted to promoting the use of bright lighting – confidently declared, “The old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor, is a thing of the past.”

City health departments warned that cheap lunch rooms of the old sort rarely replaced sawdust, often covering one dirty layer with another and rarely cleaning the wood flooring below.

Concern with sanitation caused many municipalities to adopt ordinances forbidding the use of sawdust on floors anyplace food was produced or sold. San Antonio’s 1914 ordinance was typical, stating, “No person owning or managing any such business shall permit the use of sawdust, shavings, or other dust-creating or filth-collecting covering on the floor of any such room.”

Nonetheless sawdust had a strange appeal at the same time it was denounced as brimming with bacteria and vermin. Visitors to San Francisco were drawn to places such as Sanguinetti’s where they could earn cultural credits back home for inhaling its wild and crazy bohemian atmosphere. As a 1906 article put it, “No tourist could feel that he had really taken in all the sights of the city until he had sat at one of its tables and eaten of the very indifferent fare served there, and dropped his cigar ashes on the sawdust covered floor.”

And that was another thing about sawdust floors – they tended to catch on fire when cigar and cigarette butts were dropped on them.

Through the decades sawdust floors acquired strong associations with beef and beer – and male patrons. These associations formed a reservoir of meaning that theme restaurants of the future were destined to draw upon.

Steak houses were especially attracted to the winning beef-beer-men combination. The first inklings of sawdust’s return came with the legalization of beer in 1933. The Palm steak house in Manhattan, a man’s restaurant frequented by newspapermen, was one to use it. Steak houses were so strongly associated with men that it was newsworthy in 1947 when a woman restaurateur departed from their standard rough-edged ambiance which she characterized as “A smoke-filled room, too-bright lights and sawdust on the floor.” In order to please women customers, she instead chose oak paneling, sound-proofed ceilings, soft lighting, and window boxes with green plants.

Unsurprisingly, she did not start a trend. By the 1960s, if not earlier, the bad old days had been transformed into cheery “bygone days” when life was truer and simpler. Americans of the era hungered for amusement with their meat. “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ . . . all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out,” observed industry consultant George Wenzel, who also recommended sawdust floors.

Restaurants with sawdust floors proliferated, many adopting other nostalgic (might we say hackneyed?) decor features such as red-checkered tablecloths, gas lights, pseudo-Tiffany lamps, pot-bellied stoves, and elaborate dark wood bars. O’Henry’s in NYC used a “fun” butcher shop theme, with real carcass hooks hanging from the ceiling and butcher blocks for tables. In Phoenix AZ the notion of a “hole in the wall” was redeemed from the ash pit of history by a 1970s resort where everything in sight was designed to appeal to men. At the resort’s café named The Hole in the Wall there was sawdust on the floor, tintypes on the wall, fires in the fireplaces, mugs of beer, and a manly menu of beef and buffalo steaks, rattlesnake meat, “cowboy beans,” and corn on the cob.

Along with steak houses, versatile sawdust floors turned up at Gay Nineties restaurants, English pubs, Wild West eateries, barbecue joints, even Mexican restaurants.

It’s hard to figure just how many states and municipalities issued ordinances prohibiting sawdust floors. In 1976 the federal Food and Drug Administration banned sawdust in restaurants, yet the ban was not universally followed. Sawdust floors were permitted in San Francisco, but not in Washington, D.C., for instance. Some restaurant owners strenuously resisted health departments that advocated for a ban. In Arizona, the battle over sawdust became intense when state and county health departments cracked down on several dozen restaurants in Phoenix. The restaurants countered that they replaced sawdust daily and had never experienced problems with patrons becoming ill.

Today? I believe that restaurants are not allowed to use sawdust on the floors in the U.S. today – but I am not 100% sure about this. It seems that patrons who still long for that kind of atmosphere must content themselves with throwing peanut shells on the floor.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under atmosphere, decor, lunch rooms, restaurant controversies, sanitation

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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Famous in its day: the Public Natatorium

Sometimes a brilliant idea hits you, but then you wake up the next day and see why it won’t work. But other times you don’t see why it won’t work until much, much later – after you’ve lost a lot of money.

That’s what seems to have happened with John and Margaret Garlic’s plan to turn a 19th-century public bathhouse in Milwaukee into a restaurant with dolphin shows. The future looked bright when they bought the building from the city for a mere $4,000, but then things became more complicated.

They hoped to open the restaurant one year after their January 1978 purchase, but the actual opening date was delayed by a year by city regulations, trade unions, and late equipment deliveries. Gutting the building and reconstructing the interior purportedly cost upwards of $800,000. And then there were unexpectedly high costs of leasing dolphins and providing for their care and feeding, as well as for federal inspections and trainers’ salaries.

It was not the Garlic’s first foray into the food and restaurant business. Around 1976 they had opened J. J. Garlic’s, a casual restaurant that soon gained popularity in Milwaukee for its cheese fondue, soups, burgers, and jumbo shrimp. Around 1973 the Garlics had pioneered the industrial production of the now-ubiquitous gyro cone, beef and lamb scraps blended and pressed into a Spam-like substance supplied to concessionaires, roadside carts, and restaurant operators.

But then in 1978 J. J. Garlic’s received a devastating review by none other than the celebrated writer Herbert Kubly who wrote restaurant reviews for The Milwaukee Journal from 1970 to 1984. According to G&G Enterprises, Ltd., the official owner of Garlic’s, the review caused a 25% drop in business, amounting to a loss of half a million dollars.

As it happened, the menu at the Public Natatorium – as the new 1979 restaurant was named — borrowed heavily from J. J. Garlic’s. This was especially the case on the Natatorium’s “gourmet” second level where prices ran considerably higher than on the lower level.

While the lower-level menu had sandwiches in the $4 to $5 range, the upper level was meant to provide an elegant dining experience, with chilled golden salad forks, marble-topped tables, and a parchment-like menu. Yet even the lower level was deemed too expensive by some Milwaukeeans. A review that appeared shortly after the opening pointed to skimpy servings such as the Peel & Dip Shrimp at $7.50 which a reviewer described as “five small shrimp . . . with cocktail sauce, a slice of lemon and a lot of ice.” The writer also grumbled about a $1 entrance fee assessed on all customers.

Nonetheless, the Public Natatorium became a must for tourists attracted by the dolphin shows and as far as I can tell did reasonably well overall. At some point after its opening, G&G Enterprises opened a third place with the characteristically jocular 1970s name Fried Eggs & Tootsies, aka F.E.A.T.S. Located near the Milwaukee campus of the state university, F.E.A.T.S. was mostly a drinking spot with bands.

Still, the fine dining concept at the Public Natatorium showed signs of consumer resistance. A 1980 review in a Racine WI paper titled “Taking a bath at the Natatorium” was extremely negative. It described in great detail how, despite high prices, the wine glasses were dirty as were some raw appetizer mushrooms, while several main dishes were submerged in thick, tasteless sauces. The reviewer also cited a shrimp dish that “reeked of the freezer.” He found a small loaf of warm bread the best food served to his table. A 1982 Los Angeles Times story about places to visit in Milwaukee advised visitors to take the children there for the dolphin show but “certainly don’t go for the food, which is mediocre.”

It’s likely that the Natatorium was not doing too well by 1983, the year in which G&G Enterprises filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against The Milwaukee Journal for the 1978 Kubly review of J. J. Garlic’s and to forestall a forthcoming review of the Natatorium by Kubly which they believed would be negative. The suit, which went nowhere, claimed that the paper, an editor, and Kubly were “engaged in a conspiracy to put plaintiff out of business with yet another defamatory article.”

Kubly’s review came out anyway and was indeed negative, detailing slow service, cold food, and a high degree of inept pretentiousness. He included inauspicious quotations from the menu such as “Wild Boar Chasseur, cousin of the domestic sow” and “Hippopotamus Bordelaise, chewier than beef.” What was appealing about Lion le Blanc, Buffalo Navajo, or Veal Chop Andrea Doria (“once served on the famous ship that had the unfortunate collision”)? Kubly must have recognized some of the same dishes he had been served at J. J. Garlic’s, namely the cold fondue (“incorrigible, starch-laden, over salted”), cold consomme (“contained tough bits of meat, a few peas and carrot lumps”), and baked potatoes (“cold and had an unappetizing scorched taste”). A lengthy two and a half hours after arriving, he and his companions made their way out of the then-empty restaurant as the staff brought out a cake – which they took home in its Pepperidge Farm box supplied by the waitress.

The following year John Garlic announced he would sell J. J. Garlic’s and F.E.A.T.S. and move to Florida, while The Public Natatorium would remain open under a manager. But that didn’t last long. By January 1985 the remaining dolphin, Soda, was in peril due to a heating breakdown. A bankruptcy judge ordered that he and two sea lions be sold immediately as part of the restaurant’s liquidation proceedings.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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