Category Archives: chain restaurants

Runaway menu prices

Restaurant prices are rising during the current inflationary period, but this is scarcely the first time. In fact it’s at least the fourth in little more than a century.

The first was during World War I, particularly after the war ended. In response, many restaurants teamed up for cooperative buying to keep costs under control to a degree. Drugstore soda fountains and other inexpensive eating places gained a thriving lunch business, while first-class restaurants raised prices as they whisked away frills including cloth tablecloths and napkins. The average restaurant operator’s motto became “simpler, cheaper, faster.” In New York, the venerable Mouquin’s hiked steak prices, charging $4.50 for a porterhouse steak with mushrooms that had historically been only $1.00.

The tough business climate combined with Prohibition caused the closure of droves of fancy restaurants such as Delmonico’s, which had been sliding for a while.

Complaints mounted. In 1920 Chicago’s city hall called restaurateurs on the carpet to explain their high charges, as the “Carry-Your-Lunch” movement grew. Boston put a U.S. District Attorney on the job to investigate prices at the city’s popular restaurants, including The Puritan and The Pilgrim.

Restaurant workers wanted raises, but it was a bad climate for strikes. Chicago’s 1000-seat faux-luxe North American Restaurant sacked their striking waiters and installed a cafeteria line. Their advertising copy assured customers they didn’t need to tip because “There was no one there to tip.” At the same time the North American’s advertising championed low prices, the ballyhooed bargain-priced “whole baby lobster” shrank to half a baby lobster. Did they think customers wouldn’t notice?

Although World War II also raised restaurant prices, that did not dampen patronage by war workers who enjoyed higher wages than ever. The president of the Society of Restaurateurs reported that from 1941 to 1944 New York City’s 19,000 restaurants went from serving 3 million to 8 million meals a day.

Soon the federal Office of Price Administration tried to control prices at restaurants across the country by freezing them to April 4-10, 1943, levels. Restaurateurs found ways to skirt regulations by reducing portions and substituting “blue plate” specials for what had previously been a regular meal including appetizer and dessert. In addition to reducing food costs, the move also saved a lot of dishwashing. Quality and sanitation went down as patrons mobbed restaurants severely short staffed due to military recruitment and the lure of defense industry jobs. High prices continued through 1948 as did meat rationing. [Britling advertisement, 1942]

The “stagflation” of the 1970s was still to come, with inflation accompanying a stagnating economy – a situation similar to what some economists see looming today.

In 1970 consumer prices rose steadily, especially for food and restaurant meals. Soon New York maitre d’s became friendlier and even the city’s rich began to complain about costs. A wealthy woman who had never paid attention to prices and customarily ate out six or more times a week became angry at being charged over $4 for a melon wrapped with prosciutto at the Plaza’s Oak Room. A nationwide Gallup survey found that a substantial percentage of restaurant goers had cut back on evening dinners out.

A few years later famous NYC restaurants including the Colony and Le Pavillon failed. At the same time Chinese restaurants were prospering. Across the country, salad bars became popular as did fast food outlets and restaurants specializing in dishes such as pizza, pasta, and tacos. Books recommending inexpensive restaurants did well. By 1974 three chains – McDonalds, Colonel Sanders, and Burger King — were furnishing 13% of all food eaten outside the home nationwide. Five years later there were 66,000 franchise outlets in the U.S., nearly double the number in 1973. Elsewhere, doggie bags soared in popularity and some customers began packing away anything edible on the table. A few restaurants went so far as to remove tops from ketchup bottles to discourage patrons from carting off their ketchup. [above: 1970s fast food streetscape]

Printing houses could barely keep up reprinting menus as prices went up, up, up. And still the restaurant industry experienced heavy, some said “booming,” business – even though patrons were eating more hamburgers than steaks. Analysts thought it was due to the number of working wives, along with the fact that the hike in supermarket prices outdid restaurant price increases. The president of the National Restaurant Association reported that the country’s half million restaurants enjoyed rising sales throughout the mid-1970s, with 1975’s take 16% higher than the year before. Nonetheless the industry fought a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage from $2.30 to $3.00 an hour.

Despite continuing challenges, the economy began to improve in 1982, ushering in a period of gastronomic innovation in restaurants.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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True confessions

Through the years a number of writers have described deceptive practices and foul scenes in restaurant kitchens where they have worked. Probably the best known authors are George Orwell (Down and Out in London and Paris, 1933) and Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential, 2000).

In those books, and in periodicals, I’ve read many reports of bad restaurant food, along with dishes misrepresented on menus. But I’m still a bit stunned after reading Restaurant Reality: A Manager’s Guide by Michael M. Lefever (1989). One of the biggest surprises is that he reveals his own willing involvement in kitchen tricks and horrors inflicted on guests — even in restaurants he and his wife owned and operated.

The book has a puzzling disclaimer on the copyright page: “This book is a composite of the author’s own experiences. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is purely coincidental.” But, whether absolutely factual or not, and despite being aimed at college students interested in restaurant management, the book seems to sanction questionable activities.

In his preface to Restaurant Reality the author makes several statements that seem to undermine the disclaimer somewhat. He says that he tried to present “an authentic overview” that was “a real eye-opener for anyone who has ever eaten in a restaurant.” He adds that while the content may be shocking, “that’s how things really are.”

Starting at age 14, Lefever had at least a 23-year career in a number of restaurant roles, including dishwasher, server, cook, and bartender for an Italian restaurant, followed by unit manager and district manager for a fast-food chain, and regional manager for a dinner-house chain. Plus, in between the chains, he and his wife were owner-operators of three independent restaurants. Following his restaurant career, he held academic positions both as Associate Dean of the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston and as head of the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Travel Administration at UMass Amherst.

Although no names of individuals, places, or restaurants are given in the book, I have discovered that the third restaurant the Lefevers owned briefly was The Balcony in Folsom, CA. According to a 1983 story in the town’s paper, their two previous restaurants were in Bend OR and Salt Lake City, probably in that order.

How things really were

At age 16 Lefever became head cook at an Italian restaurant. It was before microwave ovens were common so hot water was used for parboiling and defrosting items such as lobster tails. The same water might be used for multiple items, such as pasta, chicken, and fish, as well as frozen steaks before they went on the broiler. He remarks, “This may be of some interest to readers who are strict vegetarians.”

No matter what the customer ordered at the Italian restaurant, all steaks were delivered to guests rare and cooked further only if they complained. If the customer insisted on a well-done steak the kitchen took revenge by putting it in a deep-fat fryer, followed by treatment with a blowtorch which caused it to burst into flames. Just before it burned to a crisp they would throw it on the floor and smother it in salt, then shake off the salt, put it on a platter and brush it lavishly with butter. He claims – and maybe it was true – that customers loved these steaks and some started asking for theirs charred.

As a fast-food unit manager, he oversaw (or witnessed? or heard about?) some truly disgusting practices. For instance, afternoon employees hired mainly to clean toilets and dispose of trash often did some off-hour cooking as well — but they weren’t always terribly sanitary. If no fresh lettuce was available, he writes, “the afternoon employee might fish out of the garbage can some discarded outer leaves.” They were oversized with tough spines, so the worker would “simply place his palm on the assembled sandwich and smash it downward.” When condiments squished out, he would “take a dirty cleaning rag” and wipe off the bun.

Since Lefever’s monthly bonus was based on keeping costs down, he recycled sandwiches that had officially expired as often as he could, even though this subverted the chain’s system. Eventually they began to look inedible. Then the workers would replace limp lettuce, spray the dry bun with water, and make other repairs. If that didn’t work they would disassemble the sandwiches and salvage the valuable parts for remakes during the off-hours, and so much the better if the customers were nighttime drive-thrus who had spent their evenings in a bar.

At the Lefevers’ own restaurant, The Balcony, servers were instructed to tell customers that all dishes — Veal Piccata, Beef Wellington, and so on — were prepared on site though they actually came from a supplier of frozen entrees. The cooks were highschool students who defrosted them in a microwave while doing their homework.

He declares that customers who found eggshells in their omelets should have been grateful since this meant the restaurant used fresh eggs rather than processed omelet mixes. But it could also mean that they came from the bottom of containers they used to store hundreds of cracked eggs in water. And, he reveals, “The bottom also collected the heavier eggs, which result when hens are sick, given a strange diet, or frightened.” Customers requesting decaffeinated coffee didn’t necessarily get it, since servers randomly grabbed the handiest pot, switching the red or green plastic bands that indicated type of coffee.

In discussing food spilled on the floor, he writes, “I have served . . . entrees spilled and then salvaged such as lasagne, beef stew, chili, pasta, and scrambled eggs. Steaks and chops are no problem at all. Simply put them back on the grill or in the pan to freshen them, after washing them under the faucet.” But he advises cooks to inspect the entree “looking for hairs and foreign pieces of food that do not complement the dish.”

Lately I’ve found myself eager to eat at home.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Basic fare: pancakes

After a start in the 1950s, pancake houses made it big in the following decade.

Of course pancakes were not new to eating places. Far from it. They had long been a staple of short order restaurants, known variously as flapjacks, hoecakes, hot cakes, griddle cakes, flannel cakes, batter cakes, butter cakes, and just plain cakes. The mighty Childs chain had built its business by transfixing pedestrians with women flipping pancakes in its windows.

Cheap yet filling, it’s hardly surprising that pancakes grew in popularity during the 1930s Depression. The Childs Corporation reported in 1931 that pancakes with butter and syrup ranked as “the most typical American dish.” Pancakes were once again in the spotlight in the film Imitation of Life (1934) in which a white woman’s Black cook runs Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Shop which makes a hit on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The 1930s was also the decade in which The Pancake House opened in Portland OR – a restaurant which James Beard playfully nominated in the 1950s as one of the 10 best in America.

But what was new in the 1960s, with the spread of economic prosperity through (white) America, was the popularity of the “family restaurant.” Children, who had earlier been a minor element in eating out, became a new factor in restaurant success. Now included in dining plans, they often ascended to the role of lobbyist and de facto decision maker. And, while Mom might frown on high-calorie menus and Dad might wish for steak, the kids loved pancakes.

Pancake restaurants of the 1960s welcomed children with bright primary colors, cartoonish figures on menus and walls, and at least in one case with a rather alarming-looking costumed clown. If a child had not fully satisfied their sweet tooth with pancakes, they could raid the “old-time” candy barrels at Florida’s Kissin’ Cousins Pancake Inns. Meanwhile, an adjoining cocktail lounge beckoned parents with beer and bourbon.

What else was new about pancake restaurants? They were part of the advent of eating places focused on single foods, such as hamburgers or pizza. Like pizza, pancakes held special charm for restaurant owners because their ingredients were cheap and no skilled cooks were needed. Plus, they weren’t just for breakfast — customers were ready to order them all day and through the night. The trade journal American Restaurant mused in 1960, “Who ever dreamed that the lowly pancake would build a fortune . . .?”

Restaurant consultant George Wenzel asserted that pancake houses proved “that any one item, prepared with great care, and basically popular, can lead to fortunes especially if the menu price is reasonably low.” While regular service restaurants had food costs up to 48%, he figured they were only 35% in specialty restaurants such as pancake houses.

Chains built around pancakes spread rapidly. By 1961 the International House of Pancakes had opened 25 units in just three years, and was poised to expand into the Northeast. Uncle John’s Pancake Houses, begun in 1956, were doing business with 60 units in more than 20 states. Each of these chains may have been inspired by Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House that opened in Disneyland in 1955.

Despite the development of dozens and dozens of pancake varieties and their high profit margins, pancake restaurants gradually broadened their menus. The trade magazine Cooking for Profit noted in 1964 that pancake restaurants had found it necessary to put steak on the menu. The growing menus meant that the pancake restaurant boom would soon give way to a more general sort of family restaurant in the 1970s. Like pancake restaurants, full-service family restaurant chains such as Denny’s and Country Kitchen were also expanding.

Eating in restaurants continued to be popular with families in the 1970s. Reporting on a Gallup survey in 1975, Food Service Magazine observed that more working mothers, increased family income, and smaller families suggested “a more profitable family market than ever before.” The survey also found that preferences included table service restaurants that welcomed children, had moderate prices – typically $1.00 to $1.99 per person for breakfast — and a menu with a wide range of selections.

A 1978 New York Times story titled “Family Restaurant Booming” noted that dining out is extremely sensitive to economic conditions, a situation that is likely to be especially true for family dining.

So the current economy should favor patronage at IHOP, the reigning pancake kingdom.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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The Mister chains

Sometimes I feel the need to focus on ridiculousness in restaurants, maybe because I run across so many instances of it when I’m meandering through old sources. Lately I’ve been exploring franchising and have encountered numerous silly concepts expressed in the names of chains. Many businesses across the country adopted “Mister” or “Mr.” as part of their names, and this seems to have been particularly true of restaurant chains. [For now, I’m calling all of them Mister.]

There are also scores of restaurants with names such as Mister Mike’s or Mister T’s, but those are usually not part of franchise chains and the letter or nickname refers to an actual person, usually the owner, who may be known by that name in real life. I’m not including those here.

I’m more interested in the Misters that are not named for actual humans. At least I’m hoping that there is no real-life Mister Beef, Bun, Burger, Chicken, Drumstick, Fifteen, Hambone, Hamwich, Hofbrau, Pancake, Quick, Sandwich, Sirloin, Softee, Steak, Swiss, or Taco.

There were also Sir chains, such as Sir Beef, plus Kings and Senors. Were they in their own way an expression of multiculturalism? Being “continental,” Sir Beef was classier than most of the Misters.

For quite a while I believed there could be no Mister Chicken. That seemed obvious to me – who wants to be called a chicken? But then it occurred to me that I should do a little more research. I was proven wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Surrounding the logo shown here were the words: Home of America’s Best Barbecue Chicken Since 1966!” Although there were restaurants by the same name in Rockford IL and Atlanta GA, I don’t know if they were related.

I find Mister Pancake’s face somehow threatening, but never mind that – he was a hit in his hometown of Indianapolis. He came into the world there in 1959, but I don’t know if he appeared anywhere else.

I especially like the logos that attempt to humanize food, particularly unlikely items such as hambones. Sadly for him and his girlfriend, Mister Hambone International – aka Hammy — really didn’t catch on. Starting out in Virginia in 1969, he opened at least one place in North Carolina, but nothing, I think, internationally.

Mister Softee with his natty bow tie, born in New Jersey, was mainly peddled out of ice cream trucks, but there were also restaurants of the same name that served hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs, fish, etc., along with the creamy guy. In 1967 a mobile franchise cost $2,500 while a restaurant was ten times that, which may account for why there were then 1,600 trucks — even as far off as the French West Indies — but only 5 restaurants. Overall, Mister Softee, like Mister Steak, had a more successful life than most of the Misters.

Mister Drumstick, born in Atlanta, offered the World’s Best Fried Chicken. I can’t help but wonder why he is holding a hamburger rather than a chicken leg. Maybe it was because his franchise was sold in connection with Mister Sirloin, a roast beefery, as well as Mister Hamwich, a ham sandwich purveyor. So far I’ve found four Mister Drumsticks in Atlanta and a few in Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri. Nino’s Mister Drumstick in Sandusky OH looks more athletic than Atlanta’s, but of course he has the advantage of legs. Was he a go-go dancer in an earlier phase of his career?

I like the Drumsticks, but my favorites are Mister Bun and Mister Sandwich (of New York City!). They are so versatile. They can handle anything that goes between two slices of bread. I don’t know what Mister Sandwich looked like but Mister Bun was a strange one, with his extremely short legs, his six-guns, and his 10-gallon hat. I can’t really figure him out. Is he trying to compensate for being nothing but bread?

The three Florida creators of Mister Bun had high hopes in 1968 when they opened their first location in Palm Beach, with plans to add more outlets in Florida as well as a number of other states where investors were interested. They advertised for franchisees by telling them that Mister Bun featured “the eight most popular food items in this nation.” It was true that Mister Bun could hold almost anything, so they settled on roast beef, cold cuts, roast pork, frankfurters and fish, accompanied by french fries and onion rings, and washed down with a range of beverages, including beer. Alas, Mister Bun had a rather unhappy life, experiencing little growth, abandonment by his primary creator, and time in court.

Females seemed to stay out of the game, so there are no Mrs. Buns, Mrs. Beefs, Mrs. Tacos . . . or Miss Steaks. Maybe theirs was the wiser course.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Celebrity restaurants: Here’s Johnny’s

Restaurant chains whose owners and franchisees hope to succeed based on a connection with a celebrity are often disappointed. It’s clear that a famous name is not enough, leading to the failure of many that have depended too heavily on this while ignoring other elements of what makes for restaurant success.

Here’s Johnny’s, with Johnny Carson as its namesake, is a vivid example of the inability of a name to build a chain’s fortunes. The same was true of many other chains, such as those affiliated with Pat Boone, Minnie Pearl, James Brown, and Mahalia Jackson.

The fact that the would-be national restaurant chain Here’s Johnny’s barely got off the ground had nothing to do with Johnny Carson. The bad timing for fast-food start-ups then, 1969, had something to do with it. But so did the initial concept – gourmet hamburgers – and the poor implementation and direction of the chain’s development.

Rather than Johnny Carson, it was the Swanson brothers, grandsons and wealthy heirs of the frozen food empire that introduced Swanson TV dinners, who were responsible for the chain.

Johnny Carson, a popular host of the Tonight Show, was already a television fixture when he agreed to lend his name and engage in publicity for Here’s Johnny’s. He accepted the position of nominal chairman of the board of the parent company, Johnny’s American Inn, Inc. His duties were to appear at five or more restaurant openings a year. In exchange he was to receive $37,500 a year and what amounted to about 15% of stock in the parent company.

Carson insisted publicly that he was more than a figurehead: “I’m going to be active in it. . . . I’m not going into one of those get rich quick things that you just lend your name to and strike gold.” But, of course, the business was under the direction of the Swansons, primarily the elder brother Gilbert Jr. Carson was right, though, in saying it wasn’t a “get rich quick thing.”

The Swansons had been overly optimistic about how many franchisees they could sell. Even before the prototype opened in Omaha in 1969, they announced that they were hoping to sell 375 franchises in the next 18 months, including four or five in Omaha. An advertisement for franchises that appeared in Esquire magazine less than a year after the grand opening claimed “more than 300 have been sold.” However many may have been sold, few actually made it into operation. When the parent company declared bankruptcy in 1974, only 13 were in business.

The original concept was of restaurants with booths, each furnished with a telephone for placing orders (a setup shared by the King’s Food Host chain, based in Lincoln NE). The menu was fairly limited, with hamburgers, fried chicken, steak, fish sandwiches, and hot dogs. However, in October of 1971, a little more than two years after opening, the two Omaha restaurants, described in the Esquire ad as having a “luxurious atmosphere,” were redesigned and the entire concept was changed to that of a family-style restaurant. The telephones that enabled each booth to call in their order were scrapped. Reportedly they had never worked properly.

All franchising was to halt until the new program was in place, but the changes were made only in the two company-owned Here’s Johnny’s in Omaha. The company acknowledged that it would be unable to carry out the makeovers for the franchised units. Needless to say the revamp did not save the chain, though it did improve business at the initial Omaha restaurant. [pictured: advertisement, 1972, for the only two Omaha locations ever opened]

The final blow for the Swanson brothers was a lawsuit brought by the Louisiana franchiser, who charged numerous problems with the chain, such as shoddy kitchen equipment, inadequate training, and little help with financing and site selection. The franchiser was awarded damages. Altogether, the brothers ended up having lost millions.

In 1976 the last Here’s Johnny’s, the first to be opened, closed its operation on S. 72nd Street in Omaha.

At the same time that Here’s Johnny’s was launched, the Swansons also opened the first of what was to be a chain of 100 Time Out fast food eateries meant to serve as financial boosters for the Black community. The brothers partnered with two Black sports figures, Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer, and other backers. The North Omaha location, opened in 1969, was the only one ever built. It failed in 1972 and was then taken over by new owners. It is still in business today, in the original building.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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The long life of El Fenix

In 1958, an advertisement celebrating 40 years in business made the claim that El Fenix was “The Oldest Mexican Restaurant Chain in the U.S.” According to the family of founder Miguel Martinez, he opened his first restaurant in 1918 in Dallas TX. [El Fenix on McKinney Ave. pictured above, ca. 1954]

Of course Mexican eating places, including stands, were not a new thing in Texas. They had been around throughout the 19th century in San Antonio – which of course was part of Mexico for part of that time. A Mexican man and his French wife in Los Angeles were serving tamales, enchiladas, carne con chile, and albondigas in 1881 — along with French dishes!

Martinez had come to the U.S. around 1911 during the upheaval of the Mexican revolution. Then about 21 years old, he left behind a life of hard labor that began early in childhood, with no time for school. Before opening a small café in Dallas, he had worked as a streetcar track layer, a dishwasher, cook, pool hall operator, and barber.

It’s remarkable that he was so successful in the restaurant business – where failure within five years is the norm — and that he and his family altogether carried on the business for 90 years. But I am not convinced that El Fenix was the first Mexican restaurant chain in the U.S., since its true chain development took place after WWII.

Miguel’s first café – not yet named El Fenix — was located in the center of Dallas’ “Little Mexico” barrio, a part of the city virtually abandoned in terms of city services, without paved streets, and full of poorly constructed rental properties, many of which lacked plumbing.

About seven years later, Miguel — who adopted the name Mike – moved his restaurant to a new location, in a brick building that had been a food market. Although I’ve seen earlier dates quoted, the 1926 advertisement shown here suggests it was that year that the restaurant moved to 1608 McKinney Street, an address that would be a primary location until 1965 when construction of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway necessitated moving – across the street. The name Phoenix/Fenix referred to the mythical bird associated with rebirth and survival.

By the 1930s, Mike Martinez was regarded as the big success story of Little Mexico. According to a 1931 account his restaurant had become quite popular with visiting Northerners who came to Dallas to escape cold winters and were looking for something different in the form of enchiladas and chicken mole.

Within five years he had three restaurants. In addition to the El Fenix Café on McKinney [pictured] there was an El Fenix Coffee Shop on Oak Lawn Ave. and a Mexico City Café on Pacific Ave. However, within a few years, the group was down to just one, the McKinney Street address. The manager of the Mexico City Café had bought the business and moved to a new address. About the same time, the Coffee Shop’s manager joined rival El Chico and a grocery store took over its location.

Until the mid-1940s, when Mike Martinez turned over El Fenix to his eight children, the McKinney Street location remained the sole restaurant. It had become a popular place, equipped with a large banquet room and a ballroom annex and hosting many civic and social groups. The restaurant’s owners, now the second Martinez generation, soon began to build El Fenix into a chain. [Oak Cliff location, opened 1948]

Despite the popularity of Mexican food with certain Texans and out-of-town visitors, it appears that many patrons were not fans. El Fenix, like other Mexican places, found it necessary to offer standard American restaurant fare as well. Judging from advertisements, the American menu was often promoted more actively than the Mexican, suggesting that it took a while for many Dallasites to develop a taste for Mexican food, even when it was prepared to appeal to “Tex-Mex” preferences. Although the McKinney café redecorated with a Mexican theme in the mid-1930s, the menu featured standard American restaurant fare such as steak, fried chicken, fish, and shrimp, spaghetti and meat balls, combination salads, and french fries in addition to Mexican dishes. With the end of Prohibition, it began to offer alcoholic drinks, which no doubt expanded its appeal as a dinner venue.

In 1950 the family opened the first Oklahoma City restaurant [see above advertisement], then came new locations in shopping plazas. Meanwhile, the chain also produced much of its own food for sale, including candies, tacos, tamales, and canned chili. [below, Casa Linda Plaza El Fenix, ca. 1957]

By the 1960s, Mexican dishes formed a more prominent place in El Fenix advertising, with specialties such as “crispy” puffed tortillas filled with spiced beef, chili con quezo, or fried beans. With the opening of their restaurant at Lemmon and Innwood in 1960, tagged the “most elegant Mexican restaurant in the Southwest,” an advertisement touted its fare as “the ultimate in authentic . . . extraordinary Mexican cuisine.”

The chain continued to grow. By 1984 there were 18 El Fenix-owned/franchised restaurants, 11 of them in Dallas, 4 in other Texas cities, and 3 in Oklahoma City. Two went by other names: Don Miguel’s, in Addison TX; and Taco Burrito, in Oklahoma City. [pictured above, Galleria Mall, Houston]

In 1998 newspapers reported that the other venerable Dallas chain, El Chico, was set to buy El Fenix, but the deal fell through. Ten years later El Fenix – then consisting of 15 restaurants — was sold to the Firebird Restaurant Group which continues to own it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

Thanks to Daniel Arreola for lending the postcard of El Fenix in Houston’s Galleria Mall.

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Restaurant ware

Fine table settings were not to be taken for granted in pre-Civil War American eating places. In 1843 an English visitor was delighted to find a Charleston hotel with “clean table cloths and silver forks.” He recommended the Jones Hotel, run by a Black proprietor named Jehu Jones, the son of a freed slave. Thick dishes, often chipped, and crude forks were more typical of many hotels then.

According to Junius Henri Browne’s The Great Metropolis, in 1869 there were many restaurants in New York City but only in the most expensive, such as Delmonico’s, did the diner find “silver, and porcelain, and crystal, and fine linen.” Common basement eateries, on the other hand, had “broken earthen-ware, soiled table-cloths, and coarse dishes.”

Coarse dishes had become the definitive sign of a cheap restaurant. But in the later 19th century, when early fast-food chains began to form, they attempted to break the equation that thick dishes and bowls indicated filth by being insistent about cleanliness. They stuck with thick dishes that didn’t break or chip simply because they were more practical.

The Baltimore Dairy Lunch

Founded in the late 1880s, Baltimore Dairy Lunch was an early challenger to the old assumptions about thick chinaware. The first unit was opened in Baltimore by a postal clerk. By 1920 there were about 140 locations in large cities through much of the Northeastern U.S. Menus were simple and prices were low. Customers went to a counter to get their food, and consumed it quickly, either while standing at a high counter-type table or sitting in a one-arm chair similar to a school desk. This thick, shallow bowl – possibly used for milk toast – expresses the spartan simplicity of Baltimore Lunches. Despite some yellowing along the edges, it has held up well over the decades.

Ontra Cafeteria

The Ontra (pronounced “on tray”) was a cafeteria begun as a working women’s lunch club, one of four operated by Mary Dutton in Chicago in the 1910s. Like the Baltimore Dairy Lunches they were meant to be affordable and appealed to those who did not want to spend much for a noonday meal. Undoubtedly, like most women cafeteria owners who had studied home economics, Mary Dutton put a high stock on practicality and thrift. This Ontra plate, date unknown, is sturdy but not as thick as dairy lunch dishware.

Steak n Shake and Demos Café

These sturdy glasses are typical of mid-century restaurant glassware with their non-chip rims and their dents and bulges that make them slip proof as well. It’s likely they were produced by Libbey, a major advertiser of glassware in mid-century restaurant trade journals. An advertisement assured restaurant buyers that “Libbey Safedge glassware offers you a wide selection of patterns in all sizes, for beverage and bar service. And because of its durability, you are assured of economy in operation . . . with every glass backed by the famous Libbey guarantee: ‘A new glass if the rim of a Libbey ‘Safedge’ glass ever chips.’”

Woolworth’s lunch counter

The Woolworth plate came from my local dime store when it was closing for good in 1990. Its pattern is one of the endless variations on a theme of this sort, one that could appear in any of a number of colors. Again, a sturdy plate for customers who never gave it a second look.

The Craftsman restaurant

Cheap dishes, glasses, and flatware simply wouldn’t do for upscale restaurants. The better-off classes demanded finer table settings. This had always been true for the wealthy, but in the early 20th century, the middle-class also raised its expectations.

Good taste expressed in restrained design suggestive of nature was the motto of The Craftsman in New York City from 1913 to 1916. Lunch and dinnerware was Onondaga white china with a light brown pinecone design forming a border. For afternoon tea, Lenox furnished an off-white china featuring the Stickley “Als Ik Kan” symbol and motto that promised integrity of method and materials.

Alice Foote MacDougall coffee shops

Women’s tea shops tended to stress individuality. This meant rejecting standardized restaurant ware, instead establishing a unique identity with decor and tableware. Alice Foote MacDougall — who called her tea shops coffee shops to attract men — complained loudly about thick cups and dishes. In her 1929 book, The Secret of Successful Restaurants, she described how, formerly, she had to eat in restaurants “where china, white, thick, and hideous was used.” In them, food was served “naked on a bold, pitiless plate half an inch thick and consumptive in its whiteness . . .” By contrast, she said, the plates in her restaurants were colorful with shades of yellow, blue, turquoise, and lilac.

Shown above is the Graziella pattern used in her Italian-themed coffee shops. Like all the imported china in her restaurants it was also for sale ($2.50 for a dinner plate or a cup and saucer).

The Four Seasons

In 1966 a well-known restaurant consultant explained how people with good incomes preferred to dine when they went out. They liked fine restaurants, appreciated good food, and ate out often. “They expect the restaurant decor to be as nice as the decor in their own homes!,” he explained, adding, “They like fine china.”

Given that The Four Seasons was a power-lunch site, I’m sure there were some guests who paid absolutely no attention to the fine design of the hundred items designed by Garth and Ada Huxtable, nor did they notice that unlike the glasses used in dime stores and lunch counters, their wine glass had no reinforced edges. Others guests no doubt were pleased with the elegant simplicity of the designs.

When the restaurant closed and the furnishings and serving pieces were auctioned in 2018, bidders paid goodly sums for items such as the bread servers (as much as $6,250) and cream and sugar sets (more than $2,000) shown above. I do find it humorous that the cream and sugar set included so plebeian an object as a container for packets of sugar substitutes.

Today, collectors of restaurant ware value a wide range of china, including the thick kind often bearing the logo of a once-popular eating place.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, lunch rooms, restaurant customs, tea shops

An early French restaurant chain

Sometimes you need to leave your own country in order to get some perspective on it. Along with going back in time, that is what I’ve done. I’ve gone to France — though only through texts and pictures — to explore a restaurant chain begun in the 19th century known as Bouillon Duval.

I tend to think of the United States as the home of restaurant chains, and that they are quintessentially American. There is some truth to this, but it is also full of blind spots as the existence of the Duvals shows. They came before American chains, and showed that a highly rationalized, business-like approach to running restaurants is not solely American. [pictured, rue Poissonniere, 1882]

Looking at Bouillon Duval, which began as a soup restaurant, also dispels a bit of romanticism about French restaurants. As much as Duvals emphasized quality, they were eating places for the frugal masses, not temples of haute cuisine. In the beginning they were meant for poor workmen, but soon they became popular with the middle class. To put it in the language of the day, the “black coats drove out the blouses” who were embarrassed to be in the presence of the better dressed.

The Bouillons were the idea of Baptiste Adolphe Duval. He had a butcher shop in Paris and came from a family that ran a brasserie in the north of France. According to legend, around 1857 he opened a small soup restaurant near his shop using the unsalable meat scraps, and went on from there to become fabulously successful and wealthy. By 1867 he had eight Bouillons Duval in the city as well as at least one at that year’s world’s fair.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, and he might have failed if it hadn’t been for his wife’s assistance. According to the most thorough account of the chain’s development, the business was headed for failure as soon as it expanded beyond the small shop. With an enlarged menu and a lot of ideas, M. Duval had moved to a location in a former ballroom on the rue Montesquieu [shown at top of page in 1882, when it had reinstated male waiters]. There he installed a steam-heat system of cooking, along with elaborate piping that served every table with seltzer water. Both innovations were disastrous failures that cost a fortune to tear out. Add to this the lack of an accounting system that made it hard to calculate sales and permitted chiseling on the part of employees and the business was soon drowning in debt.

His wife Ernestine helped set up an accounting system and suggested replacing the questionable male servers with married women of irreproachable character who she dressed in uniforms resembling nuns’ habits [pictured, 1902]. The business began to show a profit and soon expansion was underway. Not surprisingly, when M. Duval died in 1870 shareholders chose Ernestine to take over the corporation and expand it further.

The Duval company had incorporated in 1868, by then consisting not only of eating places but also its own butcher shops, slaughter houses, bakery [pictured, 1882], large laundry, and caves that stored wine.

The company achieved heroic status in 1870 when it somehow managed to stay open during the “Siege of Paris” when German forces surrounding the city cut off food supplies. Their continuing in operation was significant not only for providing meals but also in boosting morale. In 1900 the French government awarded the Duvals’ son Alexandre, then manager, with the medal of the Legion of Honor. By then the company ran 32 restaurants.

The Duval system was based on keeping prices low while serving a large volume of customers quickly and efficiently. It was thoroughly a la carte right down to an extra charge for a tablecloth if wanted. During the Siege a London man recorded what he ordered at one of the 14 Duvals. He and his companion ordered bread for 1 cent, potato soup for 2 cents, as well as roast mutton, puréed potatoes, green beans in white sauce, and a pint of Mâcon wine. The total bill – with tablecloth – came to 18 cents. [Above, a menu that was to be filled out by the customer, ca. 1882; See The American Menu blog for several Duval menus.]

Needless to say, the fact that wine and other alcoholic beverages appeared on menus set the Bouillons Duval apart from most early chains that later developed in the U.S., such as Childs.

Numerous Americans as well as English citizens frequented the Bouillons when visiting Paris [above, diners at the 1878 Paris International Exposition; the objects with handles on the tables are menus], and expressed a wish to have something like them in their own countries. In addition to serving quality food and decent wine at low prices they were known to be spotlessly clean, quite unlike most of the cheap fixed-price cafes that working people had frequented before the Bouillons came along. The major criticism against them was that portions were small. Some critics said that if a hungry diner ordered all they wanted they would find that their bill was as expensive as in a finer restaurant. Other guests complained about the crowds and the “deafening din of knives and forks clinking against plates and dishes.”

Nonetheless the Bouillons Duval were invariably recommended in guide books for visitors to the international fairs held in Paris in 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. In 1878 the Duval restaurants were said to have served 5M meals that year. Pictured above is one of several Duval locations at the 1889 Exposition.

At some point a Bouillon Duval was opened in London, and in the 1880s there was one advertised in Los Angeles that offered “hot soup and schooner lager beer, five cents.” I couldn’t determine whether it was connected to the Paris restaurants or not.

The last mention of the Paris Bouillons Duval I found was in 1924, when the chain was still said to be all over the city.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under chain restaurants, patrons, proprietors & careers, restaurant prices, waiters/waitresses/servers, women

Dinner and a movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under alternative restaurants, chain restaurants, Offbeat places

Restaurant-ing in 1966

Every month in 1966 – 55 years ago — the Gallup organization surveyed about 1,600 Americans to find out what they thought about restaurants. The surveys were conducted for and published in Food Service Magazine.

Then, as now, dining out took place at a time of upheaval. It was a year of turmoil, with the U.S. bombing Hanoi as the Vietnam war raged on and protestors spilling into the streets. Black Americans pushed civil rights to the forefront, often meeting resistance from whites.

Gas cost 32 cents a gallon. The minimum wage was stuck at $1.25 despite attempts to raise it. Gallup divided the population into five income categories, with yearly family income under $3,000 at the bottom, and $10,000 and over at the top.

The restaurant industry was growing rapidly, led by lower-priced chains such as Denny’s, McDonald’s, and Jack in the Box. According to the National Restaurant Association, by 1966 annual restaurant volume had grown to $20 billion, compared to about $3 billion in 1940.

That year a steak dinner at a Bonanza Steak House came to $1.39. Very much at the opposite pole was Voisin in New York City where a dinner of Foie Gras, Consommé, English Sole, Squab Chicken, Fresh Peas and Asparagus, finished with Almond Soufflé, accompanied by wine, would come to $25 plus tip. Of course most restaurant meals were priced much closer to Bonanza’s then.

What did Americans want in a restaurant? The loudest and clearest message received by Gallup’s pollsters was that restaurant goers valued cleanliness more than atmosphere or appearance and almost as much as good food. “If there is anything Americans want, it is a restaurant that is clean, clean, clean!” the January report exclaimed. Diners had an eagle eye for sticky menus, flatware with water marks, waitresses with grimy fingernails, and dirty rags for wiping tables.

The most common answer to why eat out? was to have a change in routine, an attraction in itself far more appealing than getting a special kind of food, such as “Italian, Chinese, seafood, etc.” At a time when (white) married women were supposed to shun employment, it was hardly surprising that many commented that they wanted relief from cooking or just to get out of the house.

It is especially interesting that it seemed as if not all Americans had been won over to frequent restaurant meals. Pollsters were surprised to learn that many respondents actually preferred home cooking to restaurant food. The report noted that “many patrons really look down their noses at restaurant-prepared hamburger, roast beef, fish, chicken, baked potato and soup.” Grasping for an explanation, it asked: “Is the apparent preference for home cooking really a protest against the drab presentation of food in so many restaurants . . .?”

I find it somewhat surprising that the 1966 Gallup reports as published by Food Service Magazine candidly expressed criticisms of American restaurants. Another area they identified as in need of improvement was the lack of atmosphere. They noted: “Too many American restaurants have no personality – offer nothing that will give patrons a sense of participating in the exciting adventure that eating out really ought to be.”

But looking at the twelve monthly survey reports of 1966, I wonder just how much excitement in dining Americans actually wanted. According to the survey focused on atmosphere, the characteristic liked best about respondents’ favorite restaurant was “pleasant atmosphere,” (42%) followed by cleanliness (40%). Unsolicited comments referred to positive attributes such as “good-looking waitress,” “not too dark [lighting],” and “they leave me alone once I have been served.”

Clearly patrons weren’t looking for adventures in dining or in food. When asked “If you were going out to dinner tonight, which two of the foods on this list would you most likely select to go with your favorite meat dish?” most preferred baked potatoes and green beans. As for appetizers, 55% of respondents chose tomato juice as their favorite, although those with incomes over $10,000 preferred shrimp cocktail.

A short article prepared as part of a 12-page newspaper insert on the occasion of the 1966 opening of a new Forum Cafeteria in Miami remarked about the restaurant’s music: “Music by Muzak was designed to be unobtrusive and require no active listening. It avoids distracting musical devices and has a uniquely distinctive character which never forces itself on the conscious minds of its audience.”

I wonder whether the average American restaurant of 1966 achieved the same effect in dining.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under atmosphere, chain restaurants, family restaurants, patrons, restaurant industry, restaurant issues