Category Archives: atmosphere

Christian restaurant-ing

christianrestaurant1976riversidecajpgThere are a lot of reasons why a restaurant might choose not to sell liquor that have nothing to do with religious beliefs. But restaurants that brand themselves as Christian absolutely never serve alcoholic drinks. This has always been their defining characteristic.

In the U.S. Christian invariably means Protestant. Catholics, though doctrinal Christians, don’t consider drinking alcohol sinful, nor does its avoidance confer holiness.

christianrestaurantin-n-outjpgAlthough their predecessors date back to the 1870s when white Protestant women and men fought saloons by creating inexpensive, alcohol-free lunch rooms for low-income working men, Christian restaurants made their more recent return in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Some contemporary examples do not make a big display of their orientation. The Western burger chain In-N-Out, for example, prints a small biblical reference on the bottom of its soft drink cups that many customers probably never notice. The Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A chain has a religious mission statement and is closed on Sundays; but its religiosity was not known to all until a few years back when its late founder declared support for conservative family values.

christianrestaurant1980dec19Other common characteristics of Christian restaurants have included banning smoking and, like Chic-fil-A, closing on Sundays. Most have made an effort to offer some kind of ministry, ranging from offering religious pamphlets to preaching or providing live or recorded gospel music. Some have made free meals available for the poor. Typically they have had “biblical” names such as The Fatted Calf, The Ark, or The Living Bread. In some cases, the staff has been asked to assemble for daily prayers. Proprietors tend to be deeply religious, some having been redeemed from a troubled past. And, finally and not surprisingly, many (but not all) have been located in the “bible belt” where evangelistic religion thrives.

Some Christian restaurants went a little bit further. The Praise The Lord Cafeteria in Cleveland TN was unusual for a cafeteria in that it featured gospel singing, preaching, and testifying on weekend evenings. Waitresses at Seattle’s Sternwheeler often greeted customers with “Praise the Lord.” The owner of Heralds Supper Club in 1970s Minneapolis MN grilled prospective singers until he was convinced that they were genuine Christians. The owners of the Fatted Calf Steak House in Valley View TX, whose specialty was a 24-ounce T-bone, were more trusting: they let patrons pay whatever they could and even allowed them to remove money from the payment jar if they were in need. But the honor system was strenuously abused and the restaurant closed in heavy debt after just 1½ years.

christiankozycountrykitchenI became interested in this phenomenon when I noticed that a postcard in my collection – the Kozy Country Kitchen in Kingsville OH — said on the back, “Family dining in A Christian Atmosphere.” As shown on the card, it’s a highway restaurant with a big sign and parking lot looking as though it serves truckers, and was not the kind of place that would be likely to offer beer, wine, or cocktails even if it was run by licentious pagans. So what, I wondered, made its atmosphere Christian?

christianrestauranthaybleshearth1980Now that I’ve done some research I think I know the answer. It was probably an overtly friendly place, but one that frowned on swearing or arguing. Maybe it was similar to Hayble’s Hearth Restaurant in Greensboro NC. Hayble’s was very successful compared to most Christian restaurants, staying in business for nearly 20 years. In 1975 its manager said that she found Hayble’s a nice place to work because, “There’s no fightin,’ no fussin,’ no cussin.’” This made me realize that not everyone’s experiences with restaurants are like my own in which the norm is a focus on food and socializing, with moderate drinking in a cordial atmosphere.

A special type of Christian restaurant developed out of the more-urban Christian coffeehouse movement that had been aimed at a teenaged clientele. It was the Christian supper club which served a buffet-style dinner followed by a show featuring singing groups performing gospel hymns. Some were run under church sponsorship, but many were commercial ventures. The first was the Crossroads Supper Club organized as a non-profit in Detroit in 1962 by an association of churches and businessmen. Its manager, who had formerly worked as an assistant to Billy Graham, said it was called a supper club because “night club” had unsavory connotations. Its initial success inspired a Methodist minister associated with Crossroads to suggest that one day there might be a “Pray-Boy Club” whose members held keys to individual chapels. (He was joking, wasn’t he?) However, like many Christian restaurants and supper clubs, Crossroads soon fell on dark days.

christianrestaurant1977nashvillejpgThe heyday of the Christian supper club was in the late 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s it was fading. One of the more ambitious-sounding ventures was Gloryland in Hot Springs AR. The project rallied investors to transform a former nightclub called The Vapors — famed for being colorful in a non-Christian way — into a supper club. Slated to open in 1991, the venture never got off the ground.

Undoubtedly the most successful of the Christian supper clubs, the one that served as a model for others, was The Joyful Noise, with two locations in the Atlanta GA metropolitan area. The first was financed with contributions from 500 stockholders who, according to president Bill Flurry, wanted “clean entertainment” in a place without smoking or drinking. The Joyful Noise(s) enjoyed about 20 years in business, from 1974 to 1994.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

9 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, chain restaurants, family restaurants, night clubs, Offbeat places, patrons

Spooky restaurants

spookycolumbusohnightclub

Montmartre in Paris was the birthplace of what would come to be known in the U.S. as the theme restaurant. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Parisian entrepreneurs conjured up fantasy atmosphere in strange and unsettling forms. Themes included assassination, imprisonment, death, hell, and that harbinger of bad luck, the black cat.

As much devoted to drinking and entertainment as food, Montmartre’s ghoulish restaurants, cafes, and cabarets inspired Americans to duplicate them. Needless to say, both in France and in America such places were heavily geared to tourists and considerably short of good taste.

One Paris establishment, the Cabaret du Néant, deliberately transgressed the boundaries of decency serving wine in skulls (thankfully artificial), using coffins for tables and x-rays to turn patrons into skeletons, and – worst of all, in 1915 – digging trenches in the backyard so patrons could experience World War I warfare conditions while dining by candlelight.

spookycabaretduneantIn 1896 the Cabaret du Néant, renamed the Restaurant of Death, had been recreated in the Casino in New York’s Central Park, right down to a candelabra made of “skulls and bones.”

spookymoulinrougecavequillsept1921

 

Greenwich Village’s Moulin Rouge used coffins and skulls in its advertising, though whether it carried the theme over to its interior is unknown. It was padlocked in 1924 for serving liquor illegally. Columbus OH had a nightclub known as The Catacombs in the Chittenden Hotel [at top of page] but I was not able to learn anything about it other than that it was doing business in 1941.

spookyblackcatgreenwichvillageOn the whole, black cats and jails gained greater popularity in the U. S., both themes inspired by Montmartre. New York City’s Black Cat had many lives [shown above], being declared dead with regularity and then reappearing. San Francisco also had a Black Cat, opened in 1911, but it sounds as though it was quite tame, filled with ferns and potted palms and an orchestra hidden behind a screen. Perhaps another Black Cat Café in San Francisco, or maybe this one transformed, operated from the 1930s into the 1960s as a center for bohemians and beats as well as a gay clientele.

As sinister animals go, rats and bats were also celebrated. Greenwich Village’s café, The Bat, was said to have a “macabre interior” similar to Paris’s famed Le Rat Mort (The Dead Rat). It’s likely that the advertising of both made them out to be far more sinister than they were.

spookysfjailrestaurant1921

As for jail restaurants and cafés, they were fairly numerous in this country. The first, labeled dungeons, opened in New York City and were places where patrons sat on crude boxes in cellars and ate steaks with their hands. They were particularly popular with men’s groups and conventioneers. In the 1920s and 1930s, restaurants and drinking places with jail themes, often with servers dressed as jailers or prisoners, appeared in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and even a small town in Iowa. Strangely, San Francisco’s Dungeon restaurant of the 1920s, complete with cells and wardens, etc., served waffles rather than steak. But then sometimes it’s hard to keep themes on track.

I’ve been working on a future post on truly scary restaurants, ones where outbreaks of food poisoning have occurred.

Meanwhile, whether or not you find a spooky restaurant to hang out in for Halloween, have a good holiday!

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, night clubs, Offbeat places, restaurant decor, theme restaurants

The “mysterious” Singing Kettle

singingkettlepcA veil of ominous mystery has spread over the remains of a California roadside tea room once known by the homey name Singing Kettle.

It was located near the summit of Turnbull Canyon, high above the San Gabriel Valley, on a winding road running through the Puente Hills in North Whittier. The road was completed in 1915, opening up a route filled with what many regarded as the most impressive views on the entire Pacific Coast.

singingkettle3781tcrstreetview

Today young people drive into the “haunted” canyon at night determined to be frightened to death. Gazing out car windows they eagerly tell each other tales they’ve heard of satanic rituals, murders, and human sacrifice, hoping that behind that fence are unspeakable horrors they might be lucky enough to witness. Even the Singing Kettle tea room, perhaps because remnants of its entrance are visible from the road, has become enmeshed in dark fantasies.

Why am I laughing?

Because it strikes me as funny that a tea room from the 1920s and 1930s could be associated with horror and paranormal events. Or even that people would find its existence mysterious, wondering why it was ever there or what it really was.

I suppose that given enough time and imagination mysterious auras can envelop any mundane place, even a deserted mall or a parking garage. But still, finding a tea room scary is like being frightened by a club sandwich.

I have experienced a somewhat similar attitude before. I gave a talk on tea rooms of New York City when my book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn came out in 2002. Afterwards a man in the audience came up and asked me why I didn’t mention the darker aspects of tea rooms. He was certain that a lot of them had been speakeasies and houses of prostitution.

Really? If that had indeed been the case, why would I not have mentioned it? It would be a good story. I’ve found no evidence of prostitution in tea rooms. Only rarely were tea room proprietors found selling liquor during Prohibition. A few places in Greenwich Village were raided in the early 1920s, and here and there the mob would open a joint and call it a tea room, though that was purely a ruse. I feel certain it was impossible to order a diet plate or a Waldorf salad in a mob tea room.

singingkettleentireproperty

The dining area of the Singing Kettle tea room was up the hill from the pergola entrance shown on the black and white postcard above. As can be seen from a bird’s-eye view of the property, terraced stairs with fountains and shrubbery led up to the main tea room which today appears to be a residence. The view while dining would have been spectacular.

The tea room was frequented by students and staff from Whittier College, the Whittier Chamber of Commerce, and women’s clubs. It was a popular place for business meetings, card parties, wedding receptions, and bridal showers. Weddings were held in the inner courtyard of its entrance pergola.

singingkettlehartwhittierheights1927I have not been able to discover the identity of the Singing Kettle’s proprietor. The area was filled with citrus and avocado groves and it’s possible that it was run by the wife of a grower. It’s even possible that major Southern California agricultural land developer, Edwin G. Hart, was involved in the business. That might explain why he promoted the tea room in a 1927 advertisement for his new residential development, Whittier Heights. (When he developed Vista CA he built an inn where prospective customers could stay.)

The Singing Kettle was in business from 1927 until at least 1936, but probably not much longer. It surely would not have survived gasoline rationing during WWII.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

With many thanks to the reader who told me about the Singing Kettle.

13 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, odd buildings, Offbeat places, roadside restaurants, tea shops

Faces on the wall

caricaturessardis

People love seeing celebrities in a restaurant. Trouble is, celebrities can’t sit around in restaurants all the time. Solution: put a photograph or a cartoon of them on the wall, suggesting that they are regulars, liable to walk in at any moment.

In the United States the custom developed first in urban theater districts, in places visited frequently by publicity-seeking performers after the show.

Sardi’s in New York City [shown above] is still famous for its walls of caricatures of stars of the moment and of the past. Sardi’s tradition began in 1927, reportedly inspired by the custom in Parisian cafes. But Vincent Sardi could have found precedents in the United States too.

An early instance was Chicago’s Chapin & Gore’s of the 1870s. Located in the vicinity of McVicker’s Theatre, it was a place where “exceedingly well dressed, fast-looking men” hung out with women suspected of questionable character (a suspicion that applied to any woman without a male escort). Not only did actors make it onto Chapin & Gore’s wall but also the city’s mayor, newspaper publishers, and leading industrialists. Another room displayed what temperance advocates described as “indecent and obscene” caricatures of European notables, which a court ordered removed in 1878.

Another 19th-century precedent, dating back to at least the early 1890s, was Otto Moser’s café in Cleveland, still in business today but not at its original location. Once within walking distance of seven theaters, its walls were lined with playbills and autographed photos of performers.

caricaturesblueribbonIn New York City, as early as 1910 Joel’s Bohemian Refreshery adorned its walls with cartoons and photographs of entertainers, some drawn by Carlo de Fornaro. The café was not only popular with Broadway performers but also with Mexican rebels and others opposed to the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, aided by de Fornaro’s pen and brush. The Blue Ribbon, opened near Times Square in 1914 and closed in 1975, was also decorated with caricatures and photographs.

caricaturesbrownderbynvineChallenging Sardi’s for nationally-known wall fame was Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant, which opened in 1929 and closed in 1985. Lore has it that caricatures of movie star patrons from the nearby studios began to go on the walls after a Polish artist agreed to exchange his artwork for meals. He achieved fame as “Vitch,” later mailing his sketches from London where he had a career as a pantomimist. Like Sardi’s, the Brown Derby employed many a sketch artist over the decades, however few restaurant artists stayed on the job as long as the Detroit London Chop House’s Hy Vogel [“Prince” Mike Romanoff shown below].caricaturesromanoff2

Today, a repro Brown Derby lives on, so to speak, on the grounds of Disney Studios, complete with caricatures (of course). Which reminds me of the inquiring reporter exploring a number of Dallas restaurants adorned with celebrity photos. He asked the manager of a national chain restaurant in 1982 whether it was really true that Cary Grant had eaten there, in Dallas. Not exactly, admitted the restaurant’s publicity director, but the actor had been to one of the chain’s other units. Somewhere.

It’s rather surprising that Cary Grant’s picture was even on a restaurant wall in 1982 since he made his last movie in 1966. Given that fame doesn’t last long, those who manage picture walls tend to rearrange them from time to time. What to do with outdated celebrities, stars no one has heard of? In the 1970s Sardi’s moved old-timers to “memory lane” on the second floor, while the owner of Miller’s Coffee Shop in Little Rock AR admitted at the restaurant’s closing in 1970 that a few years earlier many of its caricatures had been given away or simply papered over.

caricaturespalm4

An equally sad fate has befallen regular patrons of Palm steak houses. The tradition of drawing and painting caricatures of famous and faithful customers directly on the walls began at the original Palm on 45th street in New York City [shown above] during the Depression. Later, it continued at locations around the country, but in recent years many of the images have been destroyed due to remodeling and closures.

When you think about it, restaurants’ fortunes are as shaky as those of celebrities.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

10 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, patrons, restaurant decor

Find of the day: Hancock Tavern menu

hancocktaverndoublemenu

When I found this menu from Boston’s Hancock Tavern [shown front & back] at a flea market my first question was how old it was. As soon as I began researching I learned that proprietor Wadsworth & Co. had taken over in 1897 and that the building pictured was torn down in the spring of 1903. That narrowed things down.

At that point I thought I knew enough to consider the question of the tavern’s history, starting with “Built 1634″ as noted on the menu.

Then, everything began to unravel, including the menu’s date.

hancocktavern1867corncourtI discovered that Edward & Lucina Wadsworth had reopened the Hancock Tavern in 1904 at “the identical site of the original historic structure.” Which had been razed. It took a while to figure that one out but I eventually determined that the reborn Hancock Tavern was located in the rear, Corn Court side, of a new office building facing on State Street. [sketch of map fragment shows Corn Court and Hancock Tavern in 1867]

Then I found a story about a menu like mine found in a collection of items related to the Hancock Tavern — similar except that it said “Visit the Historic Tea Room Up Stairs. In this room the ‘Boston Tea Party’ made their plans, and dressed as Mohawk Indians to destroy the tea in Boston harbor, Dec. 16, 1773.” Since mine simply says “Private Supper Rooms Up Stairs for Ladies and Gentlemen,” I decided that it probably dates from the reincarnated Hancock Tavern, which would put it between 1904 and approximately 1910.

Much bigger mysteries surrounded the history of Hancock Tavern. By the late 19th century legends about the tavern abounded, beginning with the notion that it dated from 1634 as the continuation of a tavern begun by Samuel Coles. It was also said to have hosted John Hancock, exiled French king Louis Philippe, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and French foreign minister Talleyrand. But the grandest legend concerned the conspirators in the “Boston tea party.” Beginning in the 1880s, the various proprietors of the Hancock Tavern spun historic tales about this.

hancocktaverndec1898In December of 1898, the Daughters of the American Revolution, dressed as Colonial maids, met at the Hancock Tavern to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the tea party. On the wall was a somewhat more detailed inscription, likely put there by the Wadsworths: “In this room the Boston tea party made their plans and dressed as Mohawk Indians, and went to Griffin’s (now Liverpool) wharf, where the ships Beaver and Eleanor and Dartmouth lay, and threw overboard 342 chests of tea, Dec. 16, 1773.” Later, the Wadsworths produced a souvenir booklet of historic lore.

But the link between the tavern and the Revolution, as well as its ancient status, were thrown into doubt in 1903 when City Registrar Edward W. McGlenen announced that the just-razed building that had housed the Hancock Tavern had been erected between 1807 and 1812. Furthermore, he said, its predecessor on the same site, a two-story house, had not been granted a tavern license until 1790, ruling out any associations with the Revolution. He also showed that Samuel Coles’ Inn, reputedly built in 1634, was an entirely separate property, thereby demolishing the Hancock Tavern’s claim to be Boston’s oldest tavern. The legends, he said, had developed from a number of fanciful books and articles from the 19th century that were in conflict with town records.

And so my menu, though still more than 100 years old, lost some of its charm.

On the bright side, though, I learned a few things about the operation of 19th-century taverns. I learned that Mary Duggan, widow of the first licensee, ran the tavern for a number of years after her second husband died. In addition to supplying the finest liquors, she advertised in 1825 that she had engaged a “professed COOK” who would have soup ready from 10 to 12 o’clock (then the standard time to eat soup), and would prepare supper parties “at the shortest notice.”

I also realized how much turnover there was in the tavern business. During most of the 19th century the Hancock Tavern was leased out to a succession of proprietors who either handled its alcohol and food service or the entire operation, which included lodging.

It fell on hard days sometime before the Wadsworths took over in 1897. Their energetic attempts to raise its historic value may have sprung in part from the fact that it had spent some years as a gambling den. In a city with many old buildings, most Bostonians did not care about it.

Having the bad luck to be located in what was fast becoming Boston’s financial district, the building was doomed, but the legend of Hancock Tavern’s link to the tea party lived on. The Arkansas Gazette reported in 1976:

hancocktavern1976© Jan Whitaker, 2016

6 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, history, menus, odd buildings, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers

Coppa’s famous walls

coppa'sBlackCat2

The San Francisco restaurant Coppa’s became legendary in the early 20th century as a gathering spot for bohemian artists and writers, especially after they decorated its walls with curious and intriguing murals. Though the murals remained in existence for scarcely a year, because of the devastating fires that followed the earthquake of April 1906, they have been forever tied to the restaurant’s mystique.

coppaincoppa'sBlackCatOver the course of months in 1905 the murals were drawn in chalk crayon by artists who frequented the restaurant on Montgomery Street. Legend has it that proprietor Giuseppe “Joseph” Coppa papered (or painted) his walls a hideous red that offended their esthetic sensibilities, impelling them to mask it with their humorous, nonsensical drawings. An alternative explanation is that Coppa asked the artists to draw on the walls and that he chose red as a good backdrop. I find this more convincing since Coppa himself was a painter.

A row of stenciled black cats at the original location, by Xavier Martinez, was inspired by Le Chat Noir in Paris, the city where Martinez had studied painting. They gave the restaurant its nickname, The Black Cat, which was also used at its new post-fire location.

While I was at the Library of Congress a few weeks ago I had a chance to look at the hard-to-find book The Coppa Murals, by Warren Unna (1952). He interviewed some of the artists involved and also Felix Piantanida, Coppa’s early partner who was responsible for preserving the photographs shown in the book. It’s likely the photos were taken for use in an article by Mabel Croft Deering not published until June 1906 in The Critic, but written before April’s destruction caused Coppa’s closure. The murals themselves were at some point scrubbed off or painted over by the landlord.

coppa'sphoto1906

Though the restaurant was looted by vandals, the building Coppa’s restaurant was in actually somehow escaped destruction [shown above]. With few buildings intact, its value rose and Coppa’s landlord raised the rent, leading Coppa to vacate and open another Black Cat on Pine Street in November. He and Piantanida split up, and for a short time Piantanida conducted a restaurant called La Boheme in the space formerly occupied by Coppa’s.

The artists and illustrators who contributed drawings included some who would become prominent, such as Maynard Dixon, Xavier Martinez, and Gelett Burgess. The artists, along with poets and writers, contributed puzzling sayings and quotations that adorned the walls, fascinating – and insulting – customers (“Philistines”) who came to gawk at the bohemians.

coppa'sbook

The cover of Unna’s book shows a crude rendering of a mural by Xavier Martinez depicting the restaurant’s core group of regulars. Martinez is seated at the far right. Standing behind him is poet Bertha Brubaker, wife of Perry Newberry, smoking a cigarette. Her nickname “Buttsky,” which referred to her habit of saving cigarette butts, appears in the “hall of fame” of names that run beneath the black cats. The names of Coppa’s regulars are interspersed with those of famous writers such as [Johann Wolfgang] Goethe, [François] Villon, and [Guillaume] Apollinaire. The few women named are hard to identify since their last names do not appear, but Maisie was freelance writer Mary Edith Griswold and Isabell was allegedly a newspaper writer.

coppa'sMaynardDixonSimpleLifeinBohemiaWhen Coppa moved to Pine Street, a new row of cats appeared, but now marching in the opposite direction. Maynard Dixon also contributed several new images. One of his shows Coppa unfurling a scrolled menu to a crowd that includes regulars who were violinists, writers, poets, and artists. On another wall Dixon commemorated Coppa’s “Last Supper” at his old location, celebrated soon after the fire and necessitating official approval and protection from a marshal who stood guard outside. Another notable feature of the Pine Street murals were two works by a woman, painter and jewelry designer May Mott-Smith.

coppa'sredpaint

Coppa’s second Black Cat closed in 1913, after which Joseph and his son Victor launched Neptune Palace, a more commercial cabaret restaurant. In 1916 Joseph returned to a bohemian theme with The Red Paint, a short-lived restaurant on Washington Street that went out of business at the start of Prohibition, stopping the flow of “red paint,” i.e., wine. It too had murals, never completely finished and lacking the inspiration of those at the earlier Black Cats, despite Maynard Dixon’s participation once again. Many in the old gang had moved to Carmel by the Sea and things were not the same.

coppasaug231933In 1922 Coppa opened yet another restaurant, at 120 Spring Street, offering “old-time dinners,” possibly so-called because they were paired with illicit wine. Joseph was often arrested in raids by prohibition agents, and Victor once escaped by running out the back door. It’s possible the restaurant was officially padlocked for a time because in 1933 it “re-opened,” with the unveiling of a painting by the ever-faithful Maynard Dixon of a nude woman dressed only in shoes, stockings, and a large-brimmed hat with her legs crossed atop the table, toasting an obese man opposite her [see 1933 advertisement]. The same image was used on the cover of the restaurant’s menu at its final location, 241 Pine. That closed in December 1939, marking the end of Joe Coppa’s long culinary career.

Joseph’s wife, Elizabeth, who had been the dining room manager and cashier, died in 1938. After his retirement he took up painting, focusing on portraits of men such as business magnates, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and poet George Sterling.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

3 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, Offbeat places, restaurant decor

The dining room light and dark

lightingcongresshotel

Diners are not usually aware of lighting in restaurants but it plays an important role in making them comfortable – or not – and in conveying a sense of what kind of space they are in.

Although psychologists say that humans, like other animals, prefer to eat in a dim, safe space like a cave, darkness has not always been prized. The specific meaning of lightness and darkness in restaurants is encoded in history and has varied through the decades.

Here is the simplified version: In the 19th century darkness in an eating place usually signaled that it was disreputable, that it entertained the sort of guests who would not be welcome in polite society. But this equation changed in the 20th century as it became easier and cheaper to provide light. Places with bright lights, first thought attractive, became viewed by many as garish and cheap. Darkness, or at least a degree of dimness, now became associated with fashionability and “atmosphere.”

Through much of the 19th century darkness was associated with poverty and vice. The average oyster cellar was a below-ground dive possessing the three Ds: darkness, dampness, and dirt. A visitor to one of these places in New York in 1845 described rickety chairs and walls blackened with smoke. Overall, he wrote, it was “so dark and damp that the bivalves might have fancied themselves in their native mud.” By contrast a first-class oyster house was set apart from the rest by its bright gaslights, damask draperies, marble topped tables, crystal decanters, large mirrors, and paintings of scantily clad women.

The notion that dark equals dirty has not vanished even today. Unless a restaurant is in the luxury or upscale class, darkness is suspicious. Starting in the teens, inexpensive chain restaurants specializing in fast food were always bright, not only to prove to customers that they were clean but also because bright lights kept customers from lingering.

A few restaurants installed electric lighting in the 1880s, though it was unreliable. On Feb. 27, 1885, Edmund Hill proudly recorded in his diary that his Trenton NJ restaurant, “Had the electric light running for the first time.”

lightingPickensSC

Many more restaurants had electricity by the early 20th century though it had not yet achieved universal status. Some regions of the country still lacked electrification. Even in areas that were lucky enough to have electricity, a single naked bulb dangling from a wire might provide the only illumination in lowly rural cafes. Brightness continued to be equated with good times, especially if a restaurant hired musicians and catered to a late night crowd.

But as inexpensive “quick lunch” urban restaurants installed electric lighting, the glamour of brightness began to fade. Discerning customers at the forefront of taste trends rejected bright, noisy places, viewing them as vulgar. They preferred quiet intimacy in dining, with low lights, or shaded candles.

A widespread belief held that it was women who especially preferred dim lighting since it was more flattering. True or not, tea rooms, quintessential women’s haunts, often used candles. On the other hand, restaurants that advertised bright lighting, such as the 1960s chain Abner’s Beef House (“lighted brightly to let you see what you’re eating – like hunks of steak in a long fun bun”) pitched to male customers.

lightingfritzel's1950By the 1920s lighting had become an art. The best lighted restaurants were carefully designed using various types of illumination. Emphasis shifted from fancy light fixtures such as chandeliers to the quality of light that fixtures gave. The goal espoused by modern lighting experts and designers became to have adequately bright, but not glaring general illumination, with soft, warm lighting focused on the table. Around 1950 Fritzel’s in Chicago was designed using sophisticated lighting which combined ceiling and wall fixtures with recessed lighting from an architectural feature. [pictured]

Designers hated fluorescent lighting. As a lighting designer wrote in 1950: “Aesthetically, the worst development probably in the whole history of lighting is the fluorescent tube, which emits its eerie cold glare in unknown thousands of public rooms all over America.” Many small town cafes, however, continued to use fluorescent lighting since it was more economical. Equally common in 20th-century lunch rooms were plain white globes descending from chains.

lightingX-Cel

Although lighting experts say it’s all about the light, that has not stopped restaurants from using eye-catching novelty fixtures. Nothing stands out like the “light trees” used in luxurious dining rooms such as one in the Congress Hotel ca. 1915 [pictured above]. Wagonwheels also come to mind as one of the most overused examples, but there have been many others, such as Japanese lanterns, glass footballs, and battered brass buckets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

5 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, restaurant decor, technology