Category Archives: decor

Digesting the Madonna Inn

The Madonna Inn complex in San Luis Obispo CA, including a fantasyland motel, wedding venue, shops, and restaurants, represents the genius and determination of a rugged male individual – assisted by his wife — conquering all obstacles to build a dream.

Alex Madonna had been planning his project from 1953 if not earlier. The motel opened in the full sense of the word in early 1959, but it was not until a couple of years later that the complex was furnished with eating facilities.

Although all along it has had plenty of overnighters, honeymooners, lunch and dinner patrons, banqueters, and gawkers who love it, the place has also had detractors. Among their assessments: “a fantasy run amok,” “the epitome of lousy taste,” and “a crazy, outrageous Hansel-and-Gretel complex.”

Madonna Inn lore credits its unorthodox design to Alex and Phyllis Madonna’s untutored creativity. Alex, according to legend, speedily dismissed the architects he initially consulted. Yet, up until the end of 1958 Madonna worked with plans developed by Beverly Hills architect Louis Gould, a former Hollywood film set designer. And as late as 1966 an advertisement for an apartment complex Gould designed credited him with other “outstanding landmarks . . . including the famed Madonna Inn.” To the extent that the Inn’s exterior achieved any coherence, it may be due to his early influence.

Yet there was a point where no professionals guided the design, as revealed especially in the striking – to me jarring – use of large stones and boulders. The two most celebrated rooms – a men’s public bathroom with a urinal flushed by a waterfall and the Caveman Room [shown above] – prominently feature these materials.

Throughout the interior, the combination of stones and boulders with bright primary colors, artificial flowers and vines, gilded cupids, figured textiles, and plush carpeting is disturbing. The Inn’s eating places exemplify the common observation that many American restaurants are more about decor than food. This was especially true of the primary dining room, the Gold Rush Room [shown below]. Its jangling decor, superficially suggesting luxury but not allowing the eye to rest, is out of keeping with fine dining where food is the star.

A Los Angeles Times reviewer said he lost his appetite in the Gold Rush Room after viewing the giant tree with “fat, glossy, grinning cherubs, spray-painted gold and swimming in Pepto-Bismol.” Alex Madonna responded with a letter defending the room’s centerpiece. The 25-foot tall tree, he pointed out, had been “hand-crafted” on the spot out of “electrical conduit and copper remnants left over from building projects.” The pink, he wrote, was inspired by a visit to Hawaii where it was used lavishly in hotels and restaurants. At one point, even the Inn’s bread and sugar were pink.

The images of the Madonna Inn shown here are difficult to date, but most are probably from the 1960s and 1970s. Everything was subject to change and frequently overhauled. As a 1973 story in the Los Angeles Times observed, Alex Madonna perpetually thought up new ideas, one being an indoor lake featuring a floating cocktail bar that patrons would reach by canoe. The room would have been furnished with a snowflake machine and a three-story fireplace that burned entire trees. That dream did not materialize, nor did the plan to build another motel complex atop the San Luis Mountain behind the Inn that he bought from the city of San Luis Obispo in1972.

The Inn’s basement Wine Bar below the Gold Rush Room featured boulders incongruously festooned with vines and blooming flowers, a beamed ceiling, and chairs fashioned from barrels. If the wine list was anything like the coffee shop’s, it too would have specialized in Lancers and Paul Masson selections such as Rosé and Sparkling Burgundy, along with Port and Sherry aperitifs.

Lunch and supper specials on a ca. 1960s coffee shop menu were also uninspired. They included low-calorie choices such as Ground Beef Patty with Cottage Cheese, and entrees like Top Sirloin Steak with Cottage Cheese and Peaches. “Chilled” Tomato Juice as an appetizer.

The 1960s and 1970s were not distinguished decades gastronomically, and in that sense the Inn was typical. Patrons might be thrilled with the oversized pastries available in the coffee shop, but otherwise the fare did not receive many comments. A few observed that it was nothing special and overpriced. Recent photos taken by guests are not flattering, though it’s only fair to admit that they may reflect Covid-era staffing issues.

The Inn was hailed in the 1970s by fans of vernacular roadside architecture, such as John Margolies, as well as some influential writers and scholars. Not only did Margolies declare the Inn’s meals “delicious,” he considered the complex “a labor of love” designed to make people happy” and “a place where things that don’t go together go together.”

Hmm. I’d say that in the Gold Rush Room’s Christmas scene, among others, things could never go together.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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What were they thinking?

I have often been struck by how many postcards fail to present restaurants at their best. Most of those I’ve chosen for this post are from popular restaurants, some of which stayed in business for a very long time and were well loved.

But the whole idea behind postcards was to extend the appeal of a restaurant beyond its regular patrons, to those who perhaps never even heard of it. What would strangers think about the places associated with these self-presentations?

Why show an exterior like this?

I don’t know what explains the sad appearance of the Olympia Oyster House. It was a popular spot that had been around for decades, but the front of the building in 1971, with its high-school-gym style and blanked out window, does not seem attractive even to the people in the photo. It seems they can’t quite bring themselves to enter.

Apparently the Hilltop Restaurant, shown here in 1960, was listed for sale for an extended period of time. Years and years — all the while doing business. Nothing like a patch of weeds to set off a place.

The names!

Please, no more Squat-N-Gobbles! Such a strange name for a white-tablecloth restaurant advertising “Dinner by Candlelight.”

And yet, having no name at all doesn’t work well either.

Identity crisis

As names go, Mammy’s Kitchen is offensive, and, in the case of this 1970s Myrtle Beach restaurant, does not seem to have anything to do with either the food or the strange atomic symbol hovering overhead. Its cuisine is likewise heterogeneous, covering the usual steaks and chicken, but also offering “Italian Kitchen and KOSHER SANDWICHES.” New management took over in the mid-1980s but the objectionable name from an earlier age was still in use as late as 2019.

The Wolf’s Den in Knox, Pennsylvania, opened in 1972 in a very old barn that had been decorated with plows, saddles, old rifles and such. The section called the Hay Mow is shown on this card. Something about the dusty appearance of dried out straw and the chains and hooks does not convey an enjoyable dining experience. According to a 1977 review, the restaurant was expensive and served “standard American fare” such as escargot and French onion soup. I’m confused.

Do these look delicious?

German pancakes have been a favorite at Pandl’s Inn in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, for decades. The trouble is they don’t photograph at all well. It is also a mystery to me why anyone would accompany a large pancake with a basket of bread and rolls.

A similar problem afflicts the specialty ice cream pie at Tripp’s Restaurant in Bar Harbor, Maine.

The postcard was almost certainly created to celebrate the opening of the Sirloin Room at Dallas’ Town and Country Restaurant in 1951. Of course steaks are brown, plus this one seems to be resting in a pool of its own juices. I can see that some touch of color was needed, but maybe this parsley is a bit much.

Threatening interiors

Probably when you’re actually in King Arthur’s Court, a room at the Tower Steak House in Mountainside, New Jersey, the deadly implements wielded by the suits of armor recede into the distance and the blood red carpeting is barely noticeable. But in this shot they loom disturbingly.

No, the lion is not actually holding a gun, but she is showing her teeth in a menacing way. Likewise those antelope horns look sharp at the Kenya Club in Palm Beach, Florida.

This light fixture? sculpture? installation? might just be the ugliest I’ve ever seen. Let’s hope that it was well connected to the ceiling of the William Tell Restaurant in Chicago. Then there are the inset wall displays, and . . .

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Restaurant murals

It’s likely that most Americans are familiar with restaurant murals. They have appeared in a range of restaurants, from sandwich shops to expensive dining resorts. They reveal how much restaurants are related to the arts, not only as producers of fine food but as patrons of the visual arts.

Admittedly, many of them are artistically tame. As someone quipped in 1976, “Talk about murals and most people think of Greek ruins or Venetian canal scenes in Italian restaurants.” I could add scenes of Switzerland, Paris, or of any city or town. And then there are generic mountains, seascapes, and rolling plains. In most cases, restaurant murals have served as upbeat but unobtrusive decorative backgrounds, filling blank walls, often in windowless rooms.

Nevertheless, some murals portraying local scenes have managed to rise above the norm. That was certainly true of one commissioned by a McDonald’s at the request of a local Hawaiian artist, Martin Charlot [portion shown here], in the mid 1980s. It featured lively portraits of over 100 area residents in poses that illustrated proverbs (but in ways that are far from obvious). Despite its popularity with customers at the Kane’ohe shopping center McDonald’s, it was removed in a 2010 remodel.

Occasionally a mural will illustrate controversy. In 1991, after disputes with the Pasadena CA’s bureaucracy over a neon sign at the Rite Spot café, artist Kenton Nelson created a portrait of the city that included scenes of city workers shoveling money into a truck and a doughnut-eating policeman ignoring a mugging. In Northampton MA, owners of the Green Street Café anticipated its coming 2012 closure with a 30-ft long last-supper-themed mural by children’s book author and illustrator Jeff Mack [shown above]. It vanished when the landlord — with whom the restaurant had been wrangling for years – demolished the building.

Mack’s mural has a humorous tone, a quality shared by others such as those at Chicago’s Normandy House, by Edgar Miller; The Waverly Inn, by Edward Sorel; The Waldorf-Astoria, by Tony Sarg; The Carlyle Hotel, by Ludwig Bemelmans; and those by artistic patrons of the early-20th century Coppa’s in San Francisco.

In the late 1930s a dozen or more artists were hired and given freedom to create satirical murals at NYC’s left-leaning Café Society, including Anton Refregier, Ad Reinhardt, and William Gropper. The mural shown above on a graytone postcard was by Alice Stander for the original Greenwich Village location. It depicts a customer in a typical nightclub besieged by a photographer, cigarette “girl,” and others trying to make a sale. Café Society’s mural artists were paid relatively small amounts supplemented by equal payment in free meals.

Quite a number of well-known artists have created restaurant murals over the course of the 20th century, among them Howard Chandler Christy (The Café des Artistes, NYC), Guy Pène du Bois (The Jumble Shop, NYC), Edgar Miller (Normandy House, Chicago), and Maxfield Parrish (Hotel Knickerbocker, moved to Hotel Regis, NYC).

Beginning in the late 19th century, hotels were the sort of businesses especially likely to hire muralists. Before World War I, the murals were usually meant to convey a sense of luxury in the style of baroque European palaces. Nudes and near-nude nymphs and goddesses from myth, with titles such as “The Daughters of Hesperia,”and “The Sirens Beguile Odysseus,” were almost taken for granted in New York’s grand pre-war hotels.

By 1948 a very different sense of luxury was evident in the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, designed by the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. In the lobby was an Alexander Calder mobile, while one dining room had a mural of Cincinnati buildings by Saul Steinberg and another had a surrealist mural by Joan Miró which is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Perhaps because they were often windowless, restaurant and hotel bars were the most likely locations for murals. Not only was this true of Maxfield Parrish’s Old King Cole mural [above], but also of the fourteen murals by Greenfield MA’s Thurston Munson. He was commissioned in the 1940s to adorn the walls of a basement barroom at Hartford CT’s popular Adajian’s Restaurant. [sample below] As was so often the case with barroom murals, some of the paintings included female nudes.

It seems as though murals with nudes evaded the censors in the 19th century, but the country’s uneasy relation to alcohol after Prohibition often brought official crackdowns when they appeared in bars and restaurants. In the 1970s a Hackensack NJ restaurant was threatened with cancellation of its liquor license unless it covered up a nude in a mural illustrating classical Greek mythology. I doubt this was an isolated case.

I can’t say whether there was a golden age of restaurant murals, or just how many restaurants have them now or have had them in the past. But it is worth taking notice when a restaurant hires an artist to create original art for the enjoyment of its guests.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Your favorite restaurant?

What was your favorite restaurant of the past? One that is no longer around, but that you think of all the time with fond memories. And what was it about it that you especially liked? The food, the atmosphere, the staff – or maybe all of those. Tell us all about it, including where it was and give a rough idea of when you used to patronize it.

One of my favorites was Duff’s in St. Louis’ Central West End. Oddly, I have no memories of what I ate there at all, though I know I was happy with their menu. What I liked about it was that it represented a new trend in eating places in St. Louis, occurring in the 1970s. (It opened in 1972 and closed in 2013.) The new breed – also represented by others in the Central West End and University City — were at least somewhat more adventurous with their cuisine, but the big difference was their laid-back, offbeat “vibe.” At Duff’s this was due in large part to the mismatched tables, chairs, dishware, silverware — just about everything. It was friendly but not in an invasive, scripted way. A great place to meet friends for lunch.

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Added attractions: cocktail lounges

Neither cocktail lounges nor cocktails were new in the 1930s when both became quite popular. Far back into the 19th century, men enjoyed lounging at bars and tables in hotels and other places while they imbibed cocktails, along with cobblers, fixes, fizzes, flips, juleps, punches, slings, smashes, sours, and toddies. Cocktails became popular after the Civil War and a regular pre-dinner habit in the 1890s.

In those times drinking in public was a male enterprise. Later, during Prohibition in the 1920s when it became illegal to sell alcoholic beverages, drinking in the home, formerly rare, became common. Women who had generally shunned drinking in public began to indulge. Since bootleggers made more money from concentrated alcohol than wine or beer, cocktails rose in favor with both sexes.

Upon repeal of Prohibition in the early 1930s, hotels and restaurants made plans to capitalize on cocktail drinking, ushering in the era of luxurious cocktail lounges that could attract women as well as men. According to one report in 1934 the new spaces attained a level of respectability by avoiding the old term “bar room,” preferring instead to be called cocktail bars, cocktail lounges, Persian rooms, palm rooms, and tap rooms. Cocktail “hours,” often accompanied by a tinkling piano, were instituted to encourage patronage.

In some senses, though, Prohibition hung around for years, even decades. Some states and towns did not permit cocktail lounges, while others only allowed men to be served at bars. The latter rules favored having a lounge with tables.

Hotels were prominent among the places where cocktail lounges were installed, and they still remain in many today, providing meeting places for socializing with friends or doing business with associates. Some, such as the new lounge at the Hotel Jermyn in Scranton PA in 1935, were quite glamorous with their bright colors, shiny surfaces, and over-the-top interpretations of art deco motifs.

It isn’t too far fetched to say that in the 1930s New York cocktail lounges were swankier than the restaurants they accompanied. Creative uses of materials such as metals, glass and leather, modern furniture, murals, and clever lighting set a tone quite unlike earlier decades. Color choices were striking, especially on surfaces not usually painted brightly such as tabletops and ceilings.

But women didn’t really love the hard, smooth yet cold, ultra-modern look. According to a 1934 article in Restaurant Management titled “The Ladies Must Be Pleased,” they actually preferred Colonial themes, something that designers would have realized if they had paid attention to the tea rooms of the 1920s.

The bold styling of the Jermyn was passé by the 1940s, when the oh-so-glamorous and romantic cocktail lounge at the Town and Country Restaurant in NYC opened on Park Avenue. It seemed to epitomize the very concept of lounging with its high-back tufted banquettes.

The Keys restaurant, in Indianapolis, had the informal look of a living room in the 1950s.

The advantages of setting off a space for a cocktail lounge made good sense for restaurants because it drew people in. And there was always a good chance that some who came in for a drink would decide to stay for dinner. Plus the lounge served as a waiting place for diners. Liquor offered higher profits than food, and having an attractive lounge extended the flow of traffic both before and after the dinner hours. Of course space was at a premium, with high rents in some cities, New York in particular. Anyone attending Goldie’s supper club in New York in 1955 [shown at top] was going to be crammed into a tight space with the club’s owner, pianist Goldie Hawkins. How servers maneuvered around his piano without spilling drinks on the well-dressed patrons is a mystery.

Cocktail lounges were rarely found in small cafes, and pretty much never in commonplace lunch rooms. But they were found in a number of Chinese restaurants that adopted a nightclub style, as well as some California drive-ins, a restaurant type quite different than the standard drive-in, and often referred to as the California coffee shop. The Tiny’s drive-in chain in the San Francisco area had it all: carhops, a dining room, and a cocktail lounge.

Yet, clearly, America was never totally comfortable with cocktail lounges, or bars, and regulated their numbers. Even as the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn eased its liquor law, allowing restaurants to serve mixed drinks, it capped cocktail lounge seating to 25% of seating in a restaurant’s dining areas. The 1980s saw the cocktail lounge recede somewhat as a restaurant feature when movements to reduce drunk driving took hold and the cost of liability insurance rose. Consumption of cocktails and hard liquor generally shrank as wine grew in popularity. These trends continued into the 1990s as cities restricted the number of liquor licenses granted.

In recent years cocktails have become popular once again. Many restaurants have bars, but I really haven’t noticed that cocktail lounges have reappeared.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Dirty by design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Dining in a garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Sawdust on the floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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Filed under decor, family restaurants, food, menus, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers, signs

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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Filed under decor, food, tea shops, women