Category Archives: elite restaurants

Learning to eat (in restaurants)

Eating in restaurants is so common today that it is hard to imagine that it in the past many people found it confusing and embarrassing, especially in more formal restaurants.

They had trouble figuring out menus, felt nervous and self-conscious, worried about their manners, and generally didn’t know how to act.

One solution was to avoid public eating places. That way no one would witness your poor manners, no haughty waiter would sneer at you, other patrons would not stare and examine your clothes as you walked in.

Restaurants were primarily men’s turf in the 19th century. Until the 1890s when affluent women began entertaining their friends at restaurant luncheons, restaurants were often seen as undesirable locations for women. High society was very private. Dinner parties were held in the home, outside public view. In a culture that was completely the opposite of today’s celebrity whirlpool, being seen in public was demeaning, especially for women. Additionally, many women of the 19th century disliked eating in a room with strangers.

Even men and women who enjoyed restaurants found ordering from a menu entirely in French difficult. When menus were in English, they were still daunting to unworldly Americans who had never experienced many of the dishes served. Books and articles offered advice but many diners gave up the struggle and instead let the waiter select their meal.

An observer commented in 1899 that “it is a severe trial for many women, and some men, to enter a hotel dining room and particularly hard if it must be done without a companion. Some that march in with boldest front and utmost nonchalance are but actors, trembling within while brave to outward seeming.” Actors aside, other people unfamiliar with restaurants could be identified by their behavior. Some rushed in, going straight to a table without being escorted there by the head waiter. Others might give themselves away by accidentally ordering a ridiculous set of dishes such as fruit and pickles or by being overly chummy with the waiter. According to an 1890 account, going to a high class New York restaurant solo led waiters to conclude that the patron “is a countryman or unused to restaurant life.”

For the poor or the newly arrived immigrant, a restaurant could be a terrifying challenge. Two period novels illustrate this beautifully. In A Daughter of the Tenements (1895), the son of a tenement janitor goes to a restaurant for the first time:

Tom had never, for an instance, had a table napkin in his hand; had never seen more than one knife and fork placed beside a plate; had actually never been served at table by any person other than one who was eating with him; had never seen wine drunk at meals.

In The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the main character experiences his first visit to a “high-class restaurant”:

The immense restaurant, with its rows and rows of table-cloths, the crowd of well-dressed customers, the glint and rattle of knives and forks, the subdued tones of the orchestra, and the imposing black-and-white figures of the waiters struck terror into my . . . heart. The bill of fare was, of course, Chinese to me, though I made a pretense of reading it. The words swam before me. . . . The worst part of it all was that I had not the least idea what I was to say or do. The occasion seemed to call for a sort of table manners which were beyond the resources . . . of a poor novice like myself.

African-Americans rarely experienced embarrassment in restaurants for the simple reason that they were not welcome in most of them before the 1960s Civil Rights era. Even those who attained success in the restaurant business reported an unfamiliarity with restaurants in their early lives. Sylvia Woods, founder of Sylvia’s in New York City, disclosed that when she moved to New York from South Carolina at age 28 she had never been in a restaurant. Renowned chef and cookbook author Leah Chase, of Dooky Chase in New Orleans, said she had never set foot in a restaurant until she got a job waiting on tables. “Black people didn’t go to restaurants,” she said. “That’s the way it was.”

By the 1920s it was considered acceptable for young (white) women to go to a restaurant on a date. But this could be hazardous, as “C. S.” confessed to a Boston newspaper in 1927. “Having never eaten in a restaurant before,” she wrote, “imagine my surprise when I picked up the square of butter from the butter dish, thinking it was cheese! That was my first and last date with him.”

In 1970 an etiquette expert reported that she frequently encountered young middle-class women who had never eaten in a restaurant other than a hamburger stand and said they were unsure how to order or to use silverware.

Has discomfort with restaurants disappeared? While writing this post I’ve started to wonder if my opening sentence is wrong. Maybe achieving a feeling of assurance in restaurants is actually an ongoing project.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under elite restaurants, menus, patrons, racism, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette, women

Taste of a decade: the 1830s

Although the U. S. population exceeded 12 million, only about 5% lived in the ten largest cities in 1830. Most Americans lived in sparsely populated areas where they rarely encountered restaurants — nor could they afford them.

Nonetheless, those who did patronize “restaurants” – then more likely to be called restorators, refectories, restaurats, eating houses, coffee houses, or victualing cellars – noticed a growing French influence grafted onto the predominant plain English style of cooking. The word “restaurant,” when used in this decade, usually had the modifier “French” preceding it.

To the relief of diners, it was becoming easier to find eating places that would serve dishes a la carte at the hour the diner wished to eat rather than having a pre-determined meal served only at set hours.

At most eating places the three F’s dominated menus: Fish, Flesh, and Fowl. And, of course, oysters were tremendously popular with all social classes. Occasionally, a restaurant offering a more varied bill of fare could be found, such as that at Robert G. Herring’s American Coffee House in Philadelphia that includes Green “Pease,” String Beans, Lobsters, Frogs, Sardines, Anchovy Toast, Omelet with Asparagus, and Strawberries and Cream.

Patrons of wealth and sophistication indulged in the finest foods that could be found in major cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. According to one observer, worldly young men were becoming knowledgeable about “culinary details” in the early 1830s. “It has become wonderfully fashionable lately in discoursing upon eatable matters,” wrote the author of A Short Chapter on Dining, “to parade the names of a dozen or two of French dishes.”

At the same time a spirit of abstemiousness was spreading as people rejected “ardent spirits” such as gin, rum, whiskey, and brandy. Temperance followers also condemned restaurants themselves, viewing most of them as “grog shops.” During the cholera pandemic of 1832, some temperance advocates went so far as to blame the high death rate among the poor not on urban filth and polluted drinking water, but on alcohol consumption, particularly by Irish immigrants.

In the larger cities, New York especially, many couples and families chose to live in hotels and boarding houses rather than run their own households, finding it both cheaper and easier. Others, who lived in their own residences, took their meals in nearby hotels or had them delivered by a restaurateur.

Two English women who visited this country wrote scathing accounts of life here, painting Americans as shallow, grasping, and dull. In Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, she observed how American conversation frequently included the word “dollar,” and also noted, “They consume an extraordinary quantity of bacon.” The actress Fanny Kemble’s Journal (1835) included among its “vituperative remarks” criticism of New York hotels and their rigid meal schedules.

As railroads and waterways were extended, newly settled areas of the country gained access to more oysters, seafood, and exotic fruits. In 1832 a traveler recorded that he ate “fine sea fish and oysters one hundred and fifty miles inland – drank punch from fruit imported from the Indies, at Pittsburg, and sat down to a dessert in Cincinnati, the ingredients of which were the delicacies of every clime.”

Highlights

1831 After visiting the dining room of the recently opened Tremont House in Boston, a Baltimore man writes that he finds it an “essential improvement in tavern keeping” that everyone dining there receives a bill of fare listing all dishes to be served at that meal. Otherwise, he comments, a diner departing from the dining hall usually discovers favorite dishes placed on another part of the long shared table that never made it to him.

1832 In Domestic Manners of the Americans, Frances Trollope asks why Americans are so fond of boarding in residential hotels: “What can induce so many . . . citizens to prefer these long, silent tables, scantily covered with morsels of fried ham, salt fish and liver, to a comfortable loaf of bread with their wives and children at home?” she writes.

1833 Harvey D. Parker – who will establish the luxury Parker House and Restaurant in 1855 — takes over the Tremont Restorator in a cellar on Boston’s Court Street and publishes the protein-rich bill of fare shown here.

1833 The owner of a new refectory on Whale Street in Nantucket advertises that he will provide Pies, Tarts, Custards, Oysters, Fish Chowder, Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Mush & Milk, Beer, and Cider, but that he has promised his landlord he will “keep no ardent spirits of any description for sale” even though he knows it will mean lower profits.

1834 Francois Parrot, “French Cook, Restaurateur & Confectioner” in Philadelphia, announces “that after a long residence with the Count of Survilliers, he has, with recommendations from him for professional capacity and moral character (which he will be happy to shew any one), determined to set up a Cooking Establishment and Eating House in Philadelphia.”

1835 The popular Alexander “Sandy” Welsh, president of the Hoboken Turtle Club and famous for his green turtle soup, expands his Terrapin Lunch in New York City and is now able to accommodate 150 seated in small groups.

1836 After the opening of the Merchant’s Exchange Lunch on Broadway, a patron sends a glowing review to the editor of the New York Herald citing its fine cooking, clean tablecloths, damask napkins, excellent ventilation, and cheerful servers. “Only think,” he writes, “a plate of the best meat, including four kinds of vegetables, and the best butter also, in these dear times too, is only eighteen pence.”

1837 Following the destruction of their restaurant on William Street in the great fire of 1835, the Delmonico brothers open a new 4-story restaurant on the corner of Beaver and William Streets. [1880 photo shown at top, demolished 1890] Visitors are overwhelmed with its magnificence, particularly its wine vaults that extend 180 feet under the streets and hold 20,000 bottles of imported French and German wine. The restaurant’s resplendence is all the more striking as the city suffers bank failures, worthless currency, and economic depression.

1837 Outrage erupts when New Yorker Samuel E. Cornish, editor of The Colored American, discloses that he was refused service at a temperance eating house run by an abolitionist Scottish immigrant. Explaining that he has never before encountered discrimination of this sort, Cornish writes, “It remained for a foreigner, in a cellar cook-room, to insult a native citizen, of 17 years residence in this city; and to deny a minister of Christ, of gray hairs, and twenty-five years’ standing in the Presbyterian church, a cup of Tea.”

1837 As a result of economic collapse, businesses distrust paper money and refuse to give coins [aka “specie”] as change. When they do agree to accept bills they return change in the form of tickets good for future purchases. A patron of a NYC eating house becomes indignant when “a negro named Downing,” “a black villain,” refuses to accept his dollar bill. But the newspaper to which he has complained defends the proprietor, asking, “Why should any man be compelled to take worthless paper money for his goods and wares? When I visit Downing’s, I never give or take paper money. I pay in specie entirely.”

1839 At a “restaurat” in New Orleans, patrons attending summer balls are warned not to bring their guns.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under elite restaurants, food, menus, patrons, proprietors & careers, racism, restorators

Between courses: secret recipes

Once again, what I thought would be a simple post has required a crash course in the unfamiliar, this time the technicalities of trade secrets, confidentiality agreements, lawsuits, and settlements.

What I have learned is how complex the restaurant industry has become. A restaurateur’s simple claim to have one or more secret recipes, either from a revered family member or an “exotic” cuisine, has given way to extremes of self protection aimed at stemming not only competitive use of signature recipes but also their novel names, plating, and menu descriptions.

Around 1900 a secret recipe was little more than one that the restaurant declined to give out to customers. But now, in extreme cases, restaurants hire what could be called “simulacrum chefs” whose main role is to build the restaurant’s identity and give it celebrity chef chic. Often chefs must sign agreements to abandon their rights to the recipes they develop while in the restaurant’s hire.

This can lead to ugly confrontations down the road. As happened, for instance, in clashes between Chef Laurent Tourondel and Jimmy Haber, owner of the BLT string of restaurants. Haber called the restaurants’ recipes “work product” belonging to the company, that could not be used in the new restaurant Tourondel opened. In the case of “Chef Bee,” a Miami restaurant company, 50 Eggs, claimed that the chef, whose legal name is Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, refused to cook once the restaurant opened, then quit and took recipes and all he had learned during training back to his family-owned restaurant. In the suit, 50 Eggs made it sound as though the chef’s standing as well as “Thai street food” itself were their products.

Fast food chains were among the first to widely advertise their special recipes for “11 herbs and spices” and “secret sauces.” Given that, upscale restaurants today are less likely to advertise their secret recipes. (Besides, all their recipes may be secret.)

In earlier years it seemed that the real value of secret recipes lay in their advertising potency. Some restaurants went so far as to concoct silly stories about spies trying to buy their wonderful chili formula, or, in the case of Eberett’s in Charleston SC, how they obtained their homely-sounding recipe for pot roast from a German spy. In the 1980s, a New Orleans Chinese restaurant claimed its “Singapore Fried Chicken” was based on a secret recipe “from the Orient.”

In the case of fast food, successful competition – to the extent it is based on food at all – depends upon a few products with “unique” tastes that can be produced faithfully over and over. The protection of secret recipes is essential and it seems clear that the recipes do not belong to the low-paid personnel who work on the assembly line.

But fine – or trendy – restaurants, on the other hand, are expected to pioneer or at least keep up with the latest sensations. Yet the chef who develops the recipes often must leave them behind. Citing “the restaurateur’s dilemma,” bloggers Denise M. Mingrone and Roland Chang asked in 2014: “Doesn’t society benefit from allowing chefs . . . to create culinary delights and publish their recipes without fear of legal reprisal?”

It is scarcely surprising that some chefs refuse to accept positions that require them to surrender ownership of recipes they develop, or that they aspire to open their own restaurants where they can be autonomous “chiefs.”

Meanwhile,“Nondisclosure and noncompete agreements in employment contracts have become increasingly popular in the restaurant industry,” noted Sarah Segal in “Keeping It in the Kitchen” in 2016.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, food, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies, restaurant industry

Taste of a decade: 1980s restaurants

1980srestaurantsfourseasonshotellosangelesDespite an off-and-on economy, the 1980s was a decade in which Americans ate out more often than ever before. Gone were the days when people indulged in a nice restaurant dinner only when traveling or celebrating a birthday or anniversary. Now no reason was needed at all. Restaurants were for convenience, but also for entertainment, pleasure, new experiences, and sometimes only incidentally for nourishment.

A food elite emerged, composed of frequent restaurant-goers with insatiable hunger for new cuisines and unfamiliar foods. Paralleling the growth of the food elite were chefs who became famous as they gave interviews, dashed off cookbooks, and demonstrated cooking techniques on the dais and the small screen. “Food is now the stuff of status,” said wine and restaurant critic Robert Finigan in 1983, comparing the public’s adoration of chefs to their awe of fine artists.

1980srestaurantfoodA growing interest in healthier diets influenced restaurant menus, which began to feature less red meat and more pasta, fish, and chicken dishes. Concern with smoking and drunk driving brought changes too, as restaurants set aside non-smoking sections and saw their liability insurance premiums rise even as drink orders declined.

The food fashion cycle quickened as diners discovered a taste for arugula, radicchio, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, sushi, crab cakes, Pad Thai, mesquite grilling, and fresh ingredients. Meanwhile old favorites such as steak and baked potato, tossed salad, and cheesecake seemed dull.

1980svictoriastn1981morechoiceterryakichickensalmonstuffedchickThough shunned by the food elite, corporate chain restaurants continued to grow and thrive. By the middle of the decade 540 chains managed 60,000 fast-food restaurants, employing over half of the nation’s restaurant workforce. Restaurant groups proliferated, ranging from those that owned a dozen or fewer restaurants in one city to groups controlling hundreds of franchises throughout a region. Independent restaurateurs, too, found it increasingly attractive to operate more than one restaurant.

Traditional eating places, from the humblest to the grandest, suffered from intense competition. Losers included coffee shops, Cantonese Chinese and red-checkered Italian restaurants, and even sanctums of haute French cuisine.

Black men, who formed the basic waiter corps of the 19th century, largely disappeared from restaurant dining rooms and kitchens, replaced by immigrants, white college students, and white women. A 1981 study conducted in NYC found that Black workers rejected the low pay and poor conditions typically found in restaurant kitchens, preferring to take better jobs in industry if they could. Racial discrimination also kept them from waiting jobs in some instances and the limited number of Black-owned restaurants prevented widespread training in kitchen skills and entrepreneurship.

Though conditions were improving, women also faced continuing discrimination in restaurant work. Many luxury restaurants rejected them as waitstaff in the belief that patrons attributed higher status to male servers. Other objections were their alleged “boyfriend problems” and lack of “tableside” skills such as meat carving and salad making. An article in the trade journal Restaurant Hospitality noted that while more women had become bartenders, chefs, and managers by end of the decade, “For women, the American foodservice industry is still rife with barriers.” In the kitchen, women tended to be confined to pastry and pantry. Some women chefs said the solution was to open their own restaurants even though they might have to take on a male partner to get financing.

Highlights

1981 Social indicators – small families, working women, projected long-term increases in real income and leisure, and more single-person households — promise growth in restaurant going according to a Bank of America Small Business report.

1980srestaurantsspagomenu19811982 Having introduced nouvelle cuisine at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, Chef Wolfgang Puck presents “California cuisine” to patrons of his new chic-casual Sunset Strip restaurant, Spago. Pizza with Duck Sausage wins quick stardom.

1983 The Food Marketing Institute reports that 2/3 of all fish consumed in the U.S. is eaten in restaurants. In Seattle, Colonial-themed 1980srestaurantsmadanthonysMad Anthony’s executes a style and cuisine turnabout, replacing a beefy Steak & Kidney Pye-style menu with seafood. Onto the auction block go pewter plates, crocks, jugs, and replica muskets, along with a Nacho Cheese Dispenser.

1984 With the opening of Spiaggia in Chicago, Chicagoans learn that Italian doesn’t inevitably mean spaghetti and candles in Chianti bottles, as they sample pumpkin-stuffed pasta and goose carpaccio with shaved white truffles. With dinner for two easily totaling $100 [about $228 now], they learn it often means higher prices too.

1985 Even as restaurant patrons in much of the country search out new restaurants and cuisines, Southerners remain loyal to cafeterias, with five major chains operating from 84 to 149 units each. In Milwaukee, taverns continue to do brisk business serving deep fried fish on Friday nights.

1980srestaurantsmariani1986 Most restaurant reviewers contributing to John Mariani’s Coast-to-Coast Dining Guide report that their towns have better restaurants and a wider selection of ethnic cuisines than ten years earlier. A number of cities lag behind, though, including Minneapolis and Chicago where many cling to meat and potatoes, and Columbus OH which has the dubious distinction of serving as a test market for fast food chains.

1987 With new laws holding restaurants responsible for customers who cause drunk driving injuries, rising numbers of liability lawsuits against restaurants, and ballooning insurance premiums, American Express promises protection to restaurants that accept its charge card.

1980sshoneysmenucover1989 The “largest ever” bias lawsuit involving a restaurant chain is filed against the 1,500-unit Shoney’s and its head Ray Danner. The suit by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund charges that Shoney’s sets limits on how many Black workers can be hired in each outlet, keeps them in jobs out of public view, and punishes white supervisors who refuse to go along with the program.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under cafeterias, chain restaurants, elite restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, menus, patrons, racism, women

Dining with Diamond Jim

diamondjimchurchills

In the early 1900s with the growth of Broadway’s fame as a place for flashy people to see and be seen, no one stood out from the crowd like James Buchanan Brady. Known across America for his large collection of diamonds which he boldly wore in public, he inspired others to display trappings of wealth. In the words of Parker Morell, author of a 1934 book about Brady, “Jim was the diamond studded decoy duck that filled the coffers of New York’s merchants.”

Those merchants included not only the jewelers of Maiden Lane, but also the restaurateurs of Broadway. Among his favorites were Rector’s, Churchill’s, Shanley’s, Healy’s, Murray’s Roman Garden, [see below] and others on and off Broadway. In 1917 he gave a talk at a dinner of the New York Society of Restaurateurs where he contrasted Broadway’s restaurants with the downtown places of his much poorer early days where a plate of corned beef and beans cost 10 cents.

diamondjimrectors

Brady was a highly visible regular in restaurants and so-called “lobster palaces.” The proprietor of Rector’s, the reigning palace of lobsterdom, referred to Jim as “our ten best customers” due to his frequent visits coupled with the vast amount of food he was alleged to consume. And of course his presence in hot dining spots attracted celebrity hunters galore.

diamondjimmurrays1908

But did his celebrity also win him a get-out-of-trouble ticket – or did he simply live in a time when being super rich brought immunity from scandal? As “America’s greatest salesman,” James Brady frequently hosted parties of visiting businessmen whose contracts he was courting as a major player in the railroad equipment business. He could spend up to $3,000 (in 1904, equal to $82,000 now) for an evening’s entertainment which might also include the company of well-paid chorus girls or visits to women on the shady side of town. He freely poured wine for his guests, but he did not drink. Orange juice was his preferred accompaniment to meals – at a time when it was not considered a customary beverage.

diamondjimphotoDespite the expensive dinners he gave, he showed a contradictory attitude toward restaurant spending. According to George Rector, Jim swore he would not come back to Rector’s after it levied a 10-cent cover charge. Of course he did return, but why argue over such a minuscule fee? And when he was charged with extravagance, he countered defensively that extravagance meant spending money you didn’t have or wasting it on worthless things. He, on the other hand, spent his well-earned money on simple dinners such as what he called his “one-two-three”: Lynnhaven oysters, terrapin, and canvasback duck. Expensive, yes, but not extravagant “because you get your money’s worth.”

He could be generous. According to gossip columnist O. O. McIntyre, when Brady died in 1917 he had a number of elderly waiters on pensions.

He began acquiring and wearing diamond jewelry in the 1880s when he became a traveling salesman for a railroad equipment company. According to Morell’s book Diamond Jim, it was common then for traveling men to wear diamonds, and to gamble with them too. Brady was able to build a collection by winning at cards and dice. Displaying his collection to business associates and clients proved to be a good way to impress them and make sales. By 1893 he was ordering diamond-crusted pieces and sets that were custom designed exclusively for him. When he attended meetings of railroad directors he often wore his “transportation set” that included cufflinks resembling tank and coal railcars, and shirt studs in the forms of a bicycle, auto, and airplane.

diamondjim1908jpgAccording to some accounts, his jewels may have made him a nationally known celebrity and an effective salesman, but failed to win him acceptance by genteel society. Perhaps he regretted his glittering reputation. Headwaiters bowed down to him but he was sometimes ridiculed in newspapers. The Baltimore Sun ran a story in 1913 titled “Reckless Money Spenders of America in a Delirium of Extravagance Rival Rome’s Profligates” that spotlighted Diamond Jim and implied he bribed railroad purchasing agents.

He faced further unfavorable scrutiny the following year when testimony before the Interstate Commerce Commission revealed that the inexplicably debt-ridden New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Co. had, among other transgressions, bought railcars and equipment from Brady totaling $37 million without competitive bidding. In his ICC testimony Jim freely admitted that he had been very generous to the company’s officials – but simply because they were old friends. He also told the commissioners that he kept no books because “I don’t propose that anybody else shall know how I have built my business.”

Well, at least he could eat. Though it was often recounted that he consumed prodigious quantities of oysters, lobsters, and game, I am skeptical about this since the accounts seemed to be part of legend-making after his death. Nonetheless, his diet, which included half a pound of candy daily after he cut down following a diagnosis of diabetes, seemed to have a disastrous effect on his health. In 1912, and later in his will, he donated a large sum of money to Johns Hopkins Hospital for surgery he said gave him a “new stomach.”

When he died, James Brady’s fortune, including his diamond collection – though quite substantial — turned out to be smaller than expected. Obviously “Diamond Jim” was largely a media creation. The man vanished in 1917, most of the restaurants failed with Prohibition, but the fantastic stories have persisted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Restaurant wear

dinnerdresses1912

Although affluent women of the upper classes patronized restaurants in the 19th century, they usually did not do so unless they had a male escort, preferably a brother, father, or husband. Respectable women were not supposed to appear too much in public view, and only in select eating places such as the dining rooms of leading hotels.

But as the century ended the situation began to change. Dining and entertaining in restaurants became fashionable and women appeared in public during the daytime without an escort, whether at lunch or afternoon tea. And they wanted to be seen.

The idea that there was a certain type of clothing right for these occasions began to take hold. Around 1900 the terms restaurant wear, restaurant gown, and restaurant frock proliferated in newspaper stories that reported on what stylish women were seen wearing in Paris restaurants.

dinnerdresses1907philinqnov7gownshatswrapsforrestwear-2

It was a sign that restaurant-going had truly arrived. It no longer inevitably carried the stigma of vice and moral peril. Even though the majority of American women, especially those living in small towns and rural areas, might never see the inside of a swank tea room or café, those reading the society pages could imagine all eyes on them as they entered an elegant restaurant dressed in the latest style.

In 1903 women of Tacoma WA who followed their paper’s “Fashion Hints from the Shops” learned that black silk costumes for restaurant going were “quite the thing.” The prettiest gowns had skirts with flouncy semi-trains and a pleated top with velvet bows in front worn with a long fringed silk scarf.

Top tea rooms and restaurants became stages for virtual fashion shows. Clever dressmakers were said to “haunt” tea rooms to get ideas of the latest styles. In New York, Delmonico’s and Sherry’s were prime spots to see the pleats, flounces, laces, scallops, eyelets, and ribbons of the much be-decked outfits of 1905. The wisdom of the day had it that women went to such places not for the food, but to see what other women were wearing.

dinnerdresses1909frockThose traveling in the open autos of 1909 wore heavy, unattractive coats to protect them from road dirt and grime. But the bright side, pointed out the Philadelphia Inquirer, was that the coats were loose enough around the shoulders that “really elaborate costumes may be worn beneath them without harm.” The example, hard to appreciate in the black and white drawing here, was a coral pink restaurant frock with braided trim and crocheted buttons topped with a hat sporting what were mysteriously described as “vivid coral wings.”

Enormous attention was paid to women’s necklines with the new interest in restaurant wear. Time and again readers were warned not to confuse restaurant wear with formal wear. The rules were firm. Formal wear meant revealingly plunging necklines, bare arms, and no hat. Restaurant wear, by contrast, meant a frontal coverup, with a moderate neckline or even a high choker-style collar. The dress must have sleeves and the costume was to be topped off with a hat.

But rules are often broken. According to Julian Street’s 1910 magazine article titled “Lobster Palace Society,” gauche gold-trimmed Babylonian restaurants such as the Café de l’Opera in New York’s Times Square made every effort to seat women with low necklines prominently on the ground floor.

dinnerdresses1922franksederphilThe 1920s featured a new silhouette, as shown in this advertisement for glamorous gowns in 1922 as sold in Philadelphia’s Frank & Seder department store. Hats were getting smaller in the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes replaced with hair ornaments.

dinnerdresses1933repealFar from the Depression dampening the wish to get dressed up and go out on the town, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 introduced a new fashion category, the cocktail dress. Tailored looks prevailed, and in 1938 a fashion columnist chided women who instead chose “luscious, romantic, billowy” frocks to wear to restaurants and nightclubs, sternly telling them that “such fragile, pale bits of formality are not worn!”

dinnerdresses1945cotillionrmhotelpierreThe trend toward simplification and informality continued in the 1940s with a wartime preference for plain, dark dresses as shown here. By the mid-1950s many women reportedly tried to pass off sundresses as appropriate for the cocktail hour (verdict: “Nothing could be more incorrect for after-five-wear.”) while teens couldn’t see why they shouldn’t wear jeans to a restaurant. Not nearly special enough, reasoned the columnist Dorothy Dix. Advice thrown aside, the casual trend continued.

Since the 1970s “restaurant wear” has come to refer mainly to uniforms for restaurant staff.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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“Come as you are”

ComeasyouAreFayettevilleNC

Before restaurants adopted the expression, it was used by churches, with a double meaning that referred both to dress and to the shame of past deeds.

However, in restaurants it simply meant that patrons could wear their everyday casual clothes.

In the hospitality field, the slogan took hold first in the West. In the teens and 1920s, it was commonly used by hotels and resorts. It may seem odd that a resort where people swim, golf, and play tennis would require women to wear dresses and men to wear jackets to dinner, but that was not uncommon in the 1920s, especially in the East. In fact, the custom can still be found today, but it stands as a quaint re-enactment of past times as much as anything.

comeasyouareLeaderMC

The western attitude toward casual dress in hotels, resorts, and restaurants spread slowly and was not without some resistance. Oddly, it met the greatest resistance from a business operating in the West: the Fred Harvey company that ran eating houses for the Santa Fe railroad.

The Harvey company required men to wear jackets in its dining rooms – even before electric fans and regardless of hot weather. If a man refused to wear a jacket, he would be served only at an adjoining lunch counter. In the early 1920s the Harvey company fought an Oklahoma Corporation Commission decision that threw out Harvey’s jacket rule. But Oklahoma’s supreme court ruled in favor of Harvey, declaring that the company had the right to require jackets. “Unlike the lower animals, we all demand the maintenance of some style and fashion in the dining-room,” said the decision.

Full-scale formal dress – white tie and tails for men and women wearing long evening gowns – was never common in this country. Nonetheless etiquette advisors who wrote for women’s magazines liked to suggest the opposite, flattering (and confusing) their readers with rules followed only by the upper, upper reaches of high society. However, even if formal wear was rarely necessary, there was an expectation that diners in a nice restaurant or hotel dining room would at least wear what we now refer to as business attire. The St. Regis Hotel in New York City advertised widely in 1908 that it was a comfortable, homey hotel opposed to snobbish dress rules, yet making it clear that “The wearing of a business suit bars no one from admission or service.”

As widely as she was published and read, etiquette maven Emily Post never seemed to be in tune with most Americans. During the depths of the Depression she continued to insist that women should wear suits, hats, and gloves to a restaurant lunch and dinner dresses in the evening. Even at a summer resort, she declared, women should wear cover-up shoes when dining out. “Bare-toed sandals with evening dresses are too revolting to mention,” she wrote.

comeasyouarePortland1952

Following World War II as young families were established and the suburbs spread, things began to change radically. The restaurant industry realized that finding a babysitter or dressing up the whole family was a barrier to restaurant going for many. Instead families were turning to informal roadside places. “Drive-ins, with their motto of ‘Come as You Are, Eat in Your Car,’ have a siren call for parents with insoluble sitter problems,” observed the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1960.

Chains also got the message. A 1963 Bonanza advertisement proclaimed low-priced steak dinners plus “No tipping – Children ½ price – Come as you are – Western atmosphere.”

comeasyouarelittleblackdressMeanwhile, in the late 1960s, in the midst of the hippie upheaval, Gloria Vanderbilt recommended the “little black dress” as always correct for dining in a fine restaurant. But informality was winning as women wearing pants gained acceptance even in luxury New York City restaurants in the early 1970s, a rule change stimulated no doubt by a damaging recession.

By the late 1970s dress codes had been relaxed to the point that many upscale restaurants were minimally satisfied if their customers at least wore “dressy casual,” which usually meant designer jeans, shirts with collars, and no short-shorts, tank tops, or halter tops. Some chains accepted t-shirts as long as they weren’t white, but everyone agreed that patrons had to wear some kind of shirt and shoes.

Today, as Alison Pearlman has written in her fine book Smart Casual, the bond between fancy formal restaurants and gourmet dining has been loosened further by affluent young professionals in the creative industries. If they wear hoodies and jeans to work they expect to do the same as they sample innovative dishes at a hip restaurant.
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And yet, along with the relentless trend toward casual dress, the tendency to show off in public persists, possibly as strongly as in the late 1890s when women of New York’s “smart set” took to the cafes to display the latest fashions.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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