Category Archives: atmosphere

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

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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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, Offbeat places, restaurant controversies, tea shops, uniforms & costumes, women

Training department store waitresses

It is said that department stores of the 20th century offered “luxury for the masses.” This was nowhere as evident as in the stores’ tea rooms.

A shining example was the tea room at Younkers Department Store in Des Moines, Iowa. Although residents of large coastal cities might imagine that their stores were the most luxurious and elegant, this was not strictly true. Department stores in smaller cities often had much higher status and influence in the eyes of their customers. In the case of Younkers, the flagship store was located near the middle of the state, making the store accessible to the entire population of Iowa. It is hardly surprising that it adopted the motto “Iowa’s Foremost Mercantile Establishment.”

And so the store’s tea room absolutely had to be a superior eating place, one that drew countless individuals, clubs, families, sororities, and professional organizations from every point in the state.

Although a tea room was first opened in 1913 in the original Younkers building, the one familiar to Iowans living today was opened in the mid-1920s after Younkers acquired the neighboring Wilkins Department store and built a narrow 4-story bridge between the two buildings in 1924. The new tea room on the 6th floor of the Wilkins building had ceilings over 18 feet tall, chandeliers, grand columns, and large arched windows. Patrons sat on federal-style urn-back chairs at tables with white tablecloths and stemmed water glasses. In addition to the main tea room seating 350 persons, there were several party and meeting rooms. A lounge outside the main tea room was decorated in Spanish revival style.

Recently I found a Tea Room Waitress Service Manual for Younkers, probably dating from the 1930s. [part of page 1 shown] It reveals the high standard of service expected from the staff, despite the fact that prices were moderate. Though undoubtedly predominantly white and culturally homogeneous, Younkers patrons represented a cross-section of ordinary Iowans. Yet in many ways the tea room aspired to the quality of appointments and service only found in certain expensive restaurants today.

The manual instructs waitresses that they must wear plain black shoes without “fancy stitching” or buckles. Uniforms were colored and came with a white apron, white collar, cuffs, and headband. Perfect alignment was required in all things. When dressing, for example, the “collar must fit in exact V in front, black bow straight at point of V.” The servers were to stand straight, “never . . . with hands on hips.” Light makeup was permitted but no jewelry other than a wedding ring.

Alignment in setting the tables was equally critical. The two creases of a tablecloth had to “come together in center of table.” Knives were to be placed to the right of the plate with the sharp edge facing inward, “one inch from edge of table.” Salt and pepper shakers were to be “placed straight with lines of table.” When doilies were used for parties, servers were to “Be careful to place linen straight, if round doilies, thread of linen should run parallel to edge of table.” The tip of a slice of pie had to point “directly to customer.”

Of course great care was demanded in all things. Fingerbowls were to be presented on a saucer. Dishes were to be served holding a folded towel underneath. After filling water glasses before guests arrived for a party, the waitress was instructed to “Check the chairseats for any drops of water.” And of course, “Make as little noise as possible in handling silverware, dishes, and trays at all times.” To insure silence, trays were to be set down upon pads, particularly in the evening.

It is easy to see why so many Iowans were sad to see Younkers flagship store close in 2005.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under atmosphere, decor, department stores, popular restaurants, tea shops, uniforms & costumes

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

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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

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