Category Archives: decor

Sawdust on the floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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

High-volume restaurants: Hilltop Steak House

Until I moved to Boston in the 1980s and took a whale watch tour I hadn’t heard the boastful term “biggest grossing” thrown around. In pointing out the highlights of the Boston Harbor, the tour operator singled out several booming enterprises including Anthony’s restaurant. Had we been on a tour of Route 1 north of Boston, I’m sure he would have shouted the praises of the Hilltop Steak House, another mega-volume eatery, where a team of in-house butchers carved up millions of steaks a year, the parking lot held 1,000 cars, and customers waited in long lines outside the door.

I never went there. I was not one of the 2,350,000 or so customers who patronized the Hilltop in 1985, for example, one of a number of years when it ranked as the #1 independent restaurant in the USA from a high-grossing perspective, with over $24 million in annual sales.

Established in 1961 with seating for 125, the Western-themed restaurant continued to grow in subsequent years, with more dining rooms brightened with the standard steakhouse blood red color scheme, seating 1,100 by 1970, with an enlarged parking lot, and a huge 68-foot high lighted cactus sign out front.

Dining rooms were adorned with totem poles, reproductions of Remington and Russell paintings, and life-size Indian figures. The rooms had names meant to conjure up the Wild West such as Sioux City and Kansas City. No doubt the names rang true to diners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts but would have amused residents of those Iowa and Missouri cities which are conspicuously lacking in Western symbology.

Guests appreciated big steaks, low prices, and free parking. Prices were premised on sales volume, rapid table turns, cash-only payment, no reservations, and limited menu choices. Steaks could vary in grade, customers could not send back too-well-done steaks, orders could not be split, and there were no tablecloths. There was only one salad dressing and appetizers and desserts were uninspired – Jello was one of the three desserts on a 1981 menu. “I have nothing against lobster thermidor,” owner Frank Giuffrida told a reporter in 1984, “but don’t come to the Hilltop Steak House and expect to find it.”

The restaurant was prominently visible on Route 1’s tacky, wacky restaurant row where other high-grossing restaurants were also located, making the roadway a New England phenomenon in its own right. The Hilltop’s location was conveniently near the Mystic Bridge, the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels, Logan Airport, the Southeast Expressway, and Routes. 128, 28, 3, and 93. Busses were welcome!

The Hilltop’s founder, Frank Giuffrida, owned the restaurant until 1988, retiring as a rich man despite never having attended high school. In 1940, when Frank was 23, he was a butcher in the family meat market. His parents were born in Italy and had once toiled in a Lawrence MA woolen mill. In the 1950s he owned a tavern-style eatery called the Hilltop Lounge not far from where the steakhouse would be located.

Frank sold the Hilltop corporation in 1988 though he held onto the building and the large plot of land it occupied. The sale came with an agreement that the Giuffrida family would eat at the restaurant for free for the rest of their lives and that they would never have to wait in line for a table.

By the late 1990s restaurant competition on Route 1 had grown fierce. Weylu’s, another Route 1 top-grosser serving as many as 5,000 meals a day at its peak, went into bankruptcy in 1999 and closed. The Hilltop shrank its seating capacity to a mere 850 guests, but carried on until 2013. Both Weylu’s and the Hilltop have been demolished.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Americans in Paris: The Chinese Umbrella

“Why do Americans stick to their own kind of food in France?” wondered an American aviator in Paris in 1917.

Good question, given that the Americans he was referring to were able to afford dining in the finest Paris restaurants. And that French cuisine had long enjoyed prestige in large American cities.

Perhaps it was simply longing for home that brought Americans to The Chinese Umbrella in the early 20th century. The Umbrella was a tea room serving American food that was located near the Bon Marché department store on Rue du Bac.

When it opened in 1905 it served only afternoon tea but soon expanded the menu and became a popular lunch spot. Shortly after its debut American newspapers took note and a story traveled around stating boldly that its luncheons “represent the finest cooking that can be obtained in Paris.” Although this seems unjustifiably boastful, The Chinese Umbrella was recommended in Baedeker and other travel guides.

Among its specialties were homey dishes, many associated with the American South where the proprietor’s mother was from. A journalist writing about The Umbrella in 1908 hailed its okra soup, chicken a la king, tomato and cucumber salad, fried hominy, sweet potatoes, roast lamb, corn fritters, cold asparagus, strawberry ice cream, and waffles with maple syrup. He declared, “Not one of these dishes, apart from the cold asparagus, can be had in any of the famous Paris restaurants.” [advertisement from NY Sun, 1907]

The Chinese Umbrella was the creation of Edith Fabris and her younger sisters, born in Shanghai of a father who was a British consul in Tientsin, China. While in China Edith gathered together a collection of Chinese artifacts that included embroidered satin hangings, delicate porcelain, and a four-yard-wide umbrella that formed a ceiling in one room of the restaurant. Her brother, who served with American-English forces to defeat the Boxer Rebellion, “picked up the valuable loot” that formed the tea room’s decorations. “Loot” is the correct word, since the aftermath of the anti-colonial, anti-Christian-missionary uprising has been described as “mad scenes of pillage.” [Douglas Rigby, The American Scholar, 1944]

Perhaps the looted items on display in The Chinese Umbrella explain why China’s ambassador to France who presided over the tea room’s opening was described in one account as seeming “a little bit dubious as to the dignity of the affair.”

Fabris also brought to Paris a recipe for Chinese vegetable curries that she described – with an authenticity claim that may strike us as odd today — as “true English-American colony China curries.” Fabris said that chefs from top Paris restaurants begged for her recipes. When she told them they could not be made without ingredients sent by her brother from China, they came to her tea room to sample curries and try to analyze how they were made.

Although most of the tea room’s customers were apparently American or English it also did a good business selling baked goods such as mincemeat pies, plum puddings, and gingerbread to French families. During World War I Fabris supplied cakes to American soldiers in French hospitals.

At some point the tea room moved to a new location as shown on the blue postcard shown above. I could find no trace of it after 1920.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Reading the tea leaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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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. Finger bowls 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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Higbee’s Silver Grille

higbeessilvergrillemyphoto

Friday the 13th of September, 1935, seemed like an ordinary day at the Higbee department store in Cleveland’s Public Square. Marzipan bon bons were on sale at the store’s first floor candy counter. On the fifth floor women modeled hand-knitted costumes while the ninth-floor employment office interviewed men for part-time furniture and rug sales.

higbeessilvergrillemenufridaysept131935In the Silver Grille on the tenth floor, diners sat down to lunch. Yet, the specials on the 60c luncheon menu that day were a bit dull. The featured dishes didn’t sound especially delicious, but even stranger, there was no listing of the kind of things the Silver Grille usually spotlighted, namely desserts.

Perhaps the unexciting menu had nothing to do with it but it was not, in fact, an ordinary day.

The store’s future hung in the balance. It had just been announced around the country that on September 30 J. P. Morgan would put the Higbee Company on the auction block along with the rest of the railroad and real estate empire of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen brothers. In addition to over 28,000 miles of railroad, the properties to be auctioned were the 52-story Terminal Tower and its associated buildings which included the store as well as the Medical Arts Building, the Midland Bank Building, and the Cleveland Hotel.

higbeediamondjubileadvjan11935Ironically 1935 was Higbee’s 75th anniversary, its diamond jubilee. In retrospect, the drawing that announced the jubilee year in the Plain Dealer on January 1, 1935, looks ominous in the way it yokes the store, one side blacked out, to the Terminal Tower.

Higbee’s was an old Cleveland business that was bought out by the “Vans” in 1930 after they failed to attract other stores to move into their “city within a city” complex then under construction. Exactly who they asked is unknown, except for one outstanding store that turned them down, Marshall Field in Chicago. The new Higbee store opened in September of 1931. Its crown jewel on the top floor was the art deco Silver Grille, designed by local architect Philip L. Small and a prominent Cleveland decorating and interior design firm, the Rorimer-Brooks Studios.

A 1931 Higbee advertisement described the Silver Grille as “modern” and “gracious.” In the center of the room was a rather austere fountain of red Rojo alicante marble, the same red reflected in the room’s columns and carpeting. Grillwork punctuated the walls which were shades of green with silver leaves. From the ceiling hung specially designed light fixtures of bronze. Designers with Louis Rorimer’s studio created the aluminum tables and chairs shown in the photograph at the top of the page taken a few weeks after the store opened.

The tea room’s early, possibly first, manager was Mrs. Kenneth McKay (whose unusual first name was often erroneously taken to be her husband’s). In the 1920s she had been a supervisor for Schrafft’s restaurants in New York and had taught restaurant management at Columbia University. She retired in the 1950s, having established the Silver Grille tradition of serving homey food with occasional exotic touches such as a curried dish or a salad of Puerto Rican mangoes, avocados, and dates.

Miraculously, Higbee’s survived the Depression in fairly good shape. In 1937 the store was rescued by two executives affiliated with the Van Sweringen empire who bought it from a holding company created by the then-deceased brothers. The new owners announced they would keep the store local and under the direction of Asa Shiverick, Higbee’s president since 1913. In another stroke of bad luck Shiverick died three days after the announcement, leaving the new owners to take over.

higbeessilvergrillestove1980sThings settled down then and the Silver Grille grew in popularity, boosted by added attractions such as frequent fashion shows to the music of a resident orchestra. One of its most popular customs was delivering children’s meals in little tin stoves, later replaced with cardboard stoves, as well as cardboard trucks, teepees, and space capsules.

higbeesmenu1938fashionshowOn May 12, 1938, the store presented a summer fashion show and luncheon on a newly constructed runway in the Silver Grille, with a short but sweet menu costing 5 cents more than usual.

Although patrons enjoyed the Silver Grille’s food – and still seek its recipes — it was equally known for its art deco design, which also underwent ups and downs over the decades. Once the Depression ended, the decor fell out of favor. Higbee’s tried to soften the original look by adding banquettes, painting over German silver grilles along the ceiling and floor, and placing a decorative gazebo over the fountain. A 1962 makeover adopted a hideous-sounding color scheme of pink, green, and red.

In 1982 some of the room’s original art deco elements were restored. The grilles were polished and the fountain was repaired and restocked with goldfish. However the gazebo remained and the dining chairs were reupholstered with multi-colored patterned fabric, either an Ikat design or stripes. Gone were the original black marble tabletops, re-topped with what looks in photographs like a white laminate. (Possibly the tables were not original at all or had been altered, as the diagonal struts underneath are also different.) Recessed lighting had replaced the hanging fixtures, either at this time or earlier.

higbeessilvergrilleteepeeA change of a different sort, one that I think took place in the 1970s, was the addition of wine and cocktails to the menu. Traditionally, alcoholic drinks did not appear on the menus of department store “tea rooms” for women, but Higbee’s was not the only store to adapt to modern conditions around this time.

Despite declining business at Higbee’s, the Silver Grille stayed afloat until after Christmas in 1989 when the store was downsized and the upper floors closed off.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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