Category Archives: elite restaurants

Odors and aromas

It is said that the sense of smell became less important when proto-humans began to walk upright. Yet it has played a significant role in restaurant history, for better and for worse.

While not limited to the 19th century, complaints about bad odors in eating places abounded then. In that century, unwanted smells might come from the building itself, accumulated cooking odors, or the humans in the rooms. Worst of all were the cheap eating places located in damp and windowless basements where all three perils came into play.

A self-styled researcher in 1849 cancelled a plan to visit common eating houses in New York City, writing, “We once undertook to count these establishments in the lower part of the City, but got surfeited on the smell of fried grease before we got half through the first street, and were obliged to go home in a cab.”

Even Taylor’s, Broadway’s mid-19th-century hot spot where fashionable ladies went to consume fricandeaus and meringues, failed the smell test. It had a deluxe interior with 18-ft-high ceilings, gold leaf, fountains, and mirrors, leading journalist Fannie Fern to exclaim, “What a display of gilding and girls.” And yet, upon its close in 1866, a critic put things straight, admitting “there was always the restaurant odor, the mingled essence of many past dinners, and precisely the same from month to month and year to year.”

If Taylor’s wasn’t free of bad odors, what restaurant was? Well, according to a British visitor, the answer was just about none! In 1868 the author, after visiting New York, gave 99.9% of the city’s eating places a no-star rating when it came to smelliness. “The restaurants, with the exception of Delmonico’s on Fifth Avenue, generally speaking, are dingy and warm, and have a sickly smell about them,” he wrote. Not much later the Prince of Wales traveled to the U.S. and quickly grew sick of the sight and smell of one of the country’s most beloved foods: oysters. “During his sojourn he was always endeavoring to escape from the smell of them,” according to one chronicler. Obviously, one person’s bad odor might be another’s delicious aroma.

Old-fashioned chophouses, revered as hyper-masculine shrines to meat-eating, also came in for criticism. One critic denounced New York’s Old Tom’s, a venerable dining spot, as “the humbug of the century.” He characterized its atmosphere as “fat and greasy,” adding, “You breathe it, smell it, taste it.”

On the whole, though, it was unusual for men to criticize the smell of meat cooking. It was so enticing that the owner of an 1890s NYC ballroom arranged to pipe in the kitchen’s odor of steaks being grilled at the end of the night’s entertainment, ensuring a crowd for his dining room a floor below.

The restaurant foods usually singled out as unacceptably smelly tended toward fried, greasy things, as well as garlic, onions, cabbage, and, in certain cases — when they perfumed residential neighborhoods — hamburgers and hot dogs. Los Angeles regarded tamale wagons as “odor factories” and Scarsdale fought to remove a “smelly” stand operated by Castel Hitaltakides, aka ‘Hot Dog Joe.’

But it wasn’t until after the first world war that real improvements were made with ventilation and kitchen design. Wood surfaces were replaced with harder materials such as “Monel metal,” forerunner to stainless steel. And the use of vents and exhaust systems grew commonplace except in the poorest eating places. Air conditioning in the 1930s also made a big difference. However, improvements in air quality were always in order. A 1946 customer survey revealed that restaurant patrons’ biggest complaint after noise and clatter was still bad odors. They almost certainly would have included cigars and cigarettes, which would draw even more complaints as the movement to ban smoking in restaurants grew.

What could restaurants do to control odors? There were range hoods as far back as the 1880s, though I don’t know enough about them to judge their effectiveness. Another method employed by restaurateurs who could afford it was to locate their kitchen on the top floor of a building, with the dining room a floor below so the kitchen’s greasy hot air and odors would float inoffensively skyward.

But then attitudes to food smells began to shift. An overlooked feature of the food “revolution” taking place in the late 1970s and 1980s was that cooking aromas – which, apart from beef, had rarely been regarded as a positive attraction in restaurants – became a plus, particularly when they emanated from the kitchens and platters of ethnic restaurants. Fast food smells, such as the pizza-burger’s, were also redeemed as pleasant.

At Joe’s, yes, but not so much in luxury restaurants.

Remember that smelling was long associated with lowly creatures. And for decades the standard had been that proper middle class homes should be entirely free of cooking smells, even if this required a series of doors between kitchen and dining room as well as frequent daily airings of the kitchen. In the 1920s a genteel residential hotel in Cleveland went so far as to design suites in its new building with no kitchenettes “so that one family will not inconvenience other occupants with cooking odors.”

It seems this standard was adopted by luxury restaurants as well. I have been unable to find any reviews of elite restaurants that mentioned odors or aromas. Evidently the only time customers’ noses were allowed to come into use was in sniffing wine offered by the sommelier.

What would Julia (Child) have thought about this? In a 1972 interview, she was asked how, when traveling, she identified a good restaurant. Her answer: “If you poke your nose in, the smell will tell you something. A good restaurant smells good – of fresh food and butter and fresh olive oil.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Famous in its day: Le Pavillon

Alternative headings for this post could be Former Busboy Becomes Famous Restaurateur, Best Mid-Century French Restaurant in the U.S., or The Restaurant that Set the Standard for Fine Dining.

In other words, everyone who has known or researched Le Pavillon agrees that it produced this country’s finest French cuisine for most of its 22 years under Henri Soulé. It’s also significant that throughout that time numerous employees of the restaurant left to found some of New York’s other top French restaurants.

Not that the city was devoid of fine French restaurants when Le Pavillon arrived on the scene. French restaurants were well established and plentiful, both as independents and in hotels. Among those competing for the most discriminating and well-heeled diners were Voisin, Café Chambord, and La Belle Meunière. But they were soon outdone.

Because its story has been written about so often and so well, it is challenging to approach Le Pavillon as a topic. For a thorough history that gives a good appreciation of its cuisine, I recommend Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman.

Le Pavillon opened in New York City in 1941, after a spectacular two-year run at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Located near the top of the Fair’s French Pavilion, it had a dramatic spot overlooking the Lagoon of Nations where a light and fireworks show took place each night at 9 p.m. Despite being the Fair’s most expensive eating place, it was wildly popular and booked for weeks in advance. Because the Fair was difficult to get to by car, New Yorkers had to want to go there badly enough to take public transportation. Yet many returned again and again to dine at the Restaurant Français.

The French Pavilion’s restaurant was provisioned with food and wines brought from France and was staffed by French cooks, maitre d’s, and waiters. It was backed by the French Line and a number of prominent Paris restaurants owned by the Drouant family. Jean Drouant ran the show, hiring Soulé [pictured here], a maitre d’ at one of his Paris restaurants, to manage the dining room.

During the Fair’s tenure, Germany advanced on France, occupying Paris. When the Fair ended, Soulé decided to stay in New York. It has been said that he did not want to return to France under enemy occupation, but it’s likely he was also swayed by the stunning success of the Restaurant Français.

Since many of the restaurant’s French waiters had decided to return to France, Soulé had to hire a good number of French waiters already living in New York. He would soon become known for disputes with his staff, some resulting in resignations of chefs and temporary closure of the restaurant. His authoritarian attitudes may have been shaped by his history with Drouant, who occupied a powerful position in the French restaurant industry. He was president of the Syndicate of French Restaurants as well as the General Owners Union and was not sympathetic to waiters’ rights. He had fully supported military force used to stop a 1938 workers’ strike in response to elimination of the 40-hour week in France. He was critical of French waiters working in America, describing them as “contaminated.”

Soulé’s negative attitudes also included dislike of smoking at the table, women drinking, and the widespread American habit of eating quickly rather than slowly savoring the meal. Perhaps because of his general air of disapproval, regular patrons sought signs of his favor, which he gave sparingly. His was a notable ability to confer status on people who were as hungry for that as they were for Chateaubriand with sauce Béarnaise. One of his ways of winning the loyalty of valued patrons was to offer them special dishes not on the menu. [Note that his dislike of smoking in his restaurant did not keep him from appearing in a Luckies’ advertisement in 1954.]

In a 1962 review of a book about Le Pavillon, a clever journalist summed up how to become approved by Soulé. She wrote: “When you go to Le Pavillon you should be famous, if you can manage it, if not, you should at least be rich, elegant, chic and witty. Beautiful, if a woman, dintingué, if a man. If you can’t manage that, then maintain a balance between hauteur and quiet rapture and for heaven’s sake be careful of your manners and careless of your money.”

Yes, the restaurant was exceedingly expensive, beginning at the Fair. According to Craig Claiborne, in 1960 it was possible to spend as little as $6 there for a meal without drinks, equivalent to about $52 today. But with drinks it could cost ten times that. However, in the era of expense accounts, it was standard that a power lunch would be written off as a business expense.

1960 was the year that a dispute between chef Pierre Franey and Soulé over working hours resulted in Franey’s resignation, followed by that of seven of the kitchen staff and leading to a temporary closure of the restaurant. It was not the first time the restaurant closed in response to a dispute. [1955 notice above]

Soulé died in 1966, at age 62. I find it interesting that he willed his watch to frequent patron and “dear friend” J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, whose favorite dishes included Filet of Beef Periogourdine accompanied by a bottle of vintage Romanée Conti.

After Soulé’s death, attempts were made to keep Le Pavillon going but it closed for good in 1971.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Restaurant ware

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

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

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

The Baltimore Dairy Lunch

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

Ontra Cafeteria

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

Steak n Shake and Demos Café

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

Woolworth’s lunch counter

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

The Craftsman restaurant

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

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

Alice Foote MacDougall coffee shops

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

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

The Four Seasons

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Dining at the Centennial

In 1876, one hundred years after independence, Philadelphia held America’s first world’s fair to celebrate the country’s growing importance in industry, trade, and the arts, and perhaps implicitly to recognize of the end of the Civil War.

It is notable, though, that no Southern states elected to participate. According to a historian who studied the South’s attitudes toward the Centennial, it’s likely that relatively few visitors from the South attended [“Everybody is Centennializing”: White Southerners and the 1876 Centennial, Jack Noe, 2016]. This was due both to inability to afford it and a widespread opinion reflected in Southern newspapers that the whole thing was another Yankee scam meant to benefit the North.

Another problem was that the entire country was moored in a severe six-year-long depression. Despite the drawbacks, however, the Centennial Exhibition was judged a big success, based on its efficient organization, the participation of many other countries, the range of exhibits, and the attendance over its six-month span which was reported as nearly 10 million.

When I began to think about exploring the topic of eating places at the Centennial I imagined that its restaurants and cafes would have been a novelty to many visitors who would have been delighted to experience them, with many having their first restaurant meal.

I was not prepared for the large number of criticisms, ranging from offense at snooty European waiters to complaints about menu prices and tacked on service charges. They began to pour out as soon at the Centennial began. High prices were the main target. A widely circulated Chicago Tribune story claimed that a meal could easily cost $4, with $1 charged for asparagus, and 50¢ for mashed potatoes. These were prices that rivaled fine restaurants in New York City such as Delmonico’s.

There were at least 20 restaurants and cafés on the grounds. Several seated thousands. George’s Hill Restaurant, a Kosher eating place, was capable of serving an astounding 5,000 patrons at a time. Of course most fair goers could not begin to afford these grand restaurants, each of which occupied its own massive building. Many probably found it difficult to pay even the 50¢ admission fee.

The complaints about restaurant prices leveled off a bit over time, and it may be that the Centennial Commission forced managers to lower them. Or, perhaps there was a compromise leading the big restaurants to devote part of their space to lower-priced cafes, as seems to be reflected on the menu from the La Fayette Lunch Garden shown above, part of the La Fayette Restaurant complex. There a sandwich was a mere 10¢.

Regardless, one effect of all the publicity about high prices was that many fair goers brought their own picnic lunches [see cartoon above]. Soda and popcorn stands also proved to be very popular, as did the Vienna Model Bakery which furnished no meals but served coffee and freshly baked bread, both of a quality Americans had not experienced before. Another popular eating place was a moderately priced rustic café called The Dairy [shown below] where milk, fruit, biscuits, and pies were available.

Actually, the entire organization of the Centennial discouraged working people from attending. From the start the Commissioners decided against Sunday openings and half-price Saturdays, both of which had been operative at recent world’s fairs in Paris and Vienna. Only after disappointing attendance in the unusually hot summer months did they relent and declare a handful of Saturdays eligible for discounted fares. When the weather cooled off and attendance increased, they eliminated the discounts.

The dominance of elite restaurants at the Centennial may have been part of the same plan of discouraging, or simply ignoring, working class patrons. Perhaps the restaurant that was most resented was the “Parisian” restaurant, Aux Trois Frères Provencaux [shown here and at top]. It had a famed past dating back to the 18th century, though, unbeknownst to most Americans (if they even vaguely knew of it), it had changed hands many times, lost much of its splendor, and closed several years before the Centennial.

The Trois Frères Provencaux and the five other big restaurants at the Centennial were set up much like first-class restaurants and hotels of that time. They had large main dining rooms, a big banquet hall, a number of smaller private dining rooms, and a café. It’s likely that some of the buildings also included living quarters for the staff.

Most of the big six restaurants came in for some degree of criticism, with only George’s Hill and Lauber’s being largely exempt. George’s Hill Restaurant, on a breezy hill with a beautiful view, may have offered relief from the heat, and perhaps its customers appreciated having a kosher restaurant on the grounds. Lauber’s was already a popular Philadelphia German restaurant and it promised that its prices at the fairgrounds were identical to downtown’s.

Faring less well in public opinion were The Grand American Restaurant (disliked for its employment of foreign waiters) and The La Fayette [shown here]. The latter was perceived as a French import despite the fact that the proprietor had a restaurant in New York City. Its building was considered unattractive and its waiters were alleged to cheat customers. As was also said of the Trois Frères Provencaux, a critic claimed that its French management was unable to “comprehend America.”

The other large eating place, the Restaurant of the South [shown here], seemed to be predicated on a fascination that Northerners would have with Southern culture (including an “Old Plantation Darkey Band”), along with the belief that Southern visitors to the Centennial would want to group together in their own place. But if it was the case that few Southerners visited the fair [Noe, cited above], this would probably have taken a quite a toll on the Restaurant of the South.

In addition to meals, most restaurants and cafés also served beer and wine, despite the attempt by temperance organizations to prevent this. A California winemaker brought his wine to the Centennial to introduce it to Easterners. For $1 he also offered a “copious luncheon” with a half pint of his “California Golden Wine,” which was considered quite a bargain by the standards of the fair. Although it seems that all the cafés and restaurants had beer and wine, it’s probable that beer sales far outstripped wine sales, judging from the final report of the Centennial Commission which reported no royalties on wine.

Which was the most American restaurant? Not the Grand American, which Scribner’s magazine declared had “nothing especially American about it,” but the American Lunch Counter. Associated with railroads – where lunch counters were the norm in stations – it was ridiculed by elite critics such as one in The Nation who pointed out “the excessive liberality of the bill-of-fare as compared with the actual resources of the kitchen, the negro or nondescript waiters, the unlimited pickles,” etc. The Nation’s account included the other two restaurants advertised as American — The Grand American Restaurant and The Restaurant of the South — in its complaint.

I’m left with questions about the restaurants at the fair and the fair itself. How many people actually attended? Each person had to pass through a turnstile that counted them, but since many people made multiple visits, it leaves the question whether there were 10M visitors, or 10M visits. Given that the Commissioners’ detailed final report did not show any royalties from restaurants or cafés, I can’t help but wonder if the restaurants lost money.

But surely, since many thousands ate at the fair’s restaurants, there must have been some who had good experiences.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

For more images of the Centennial buildings and exhibits, visit the collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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Appetizer: words, concepts, contents

Appetizers became a prelude to a meal when many Americans suffered digestive problems in the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea was that appetizers were various items of fare that would help stimulate an appetite in those who were out of sorts. They could be foods, medicinal tonics, or alcoholic drinks.

Due to the strong influence of English customs in early America, the notion of taking something before a meal as a digestive stimulant more often than not meant an alcoholic drink rather than food. So the English term most often used – whets – referred primarily (though not exclusively) to drinks before dinner. The French equivalent of whets would be aperitifs.

As a term, however, “whets” did not appear on printed menus as far as I’ve discovered.

Drinks that usually served as whets/appetizers/aperitifs included rum, brandy, sherry, vermouth, champagne, and Dubonnet. In the 20th century especially, cocktails became a favorite pre-dinner drink.

While many diners began their restaurant meals with a cocktail, the drink itself was rarely referred to as an appetizer or whet after the 19th century. So I was quite surprised to find a Louisiana roadhouse restaurant listing Martinis, Old Fashion[ed]s, and Manhattans as appetizers in a 1956 advertisement!

As food, appetizers were usually lighter things consumed before the heavier Fish, Entrées, and Roasts courses typical of formal meals of the 19th century.

The word “Appetizer” itself though does not seem to have come into common use in American restaurants until the early 20th century. The term “Hors d’Oeuvres” was also used, as was “Relishes.” The French “Hors d’Oeuvre” tended to be used by higher-priced restaurants, such as New York’s Cafe Martin [1903], that sought to create an aura of continental elegance and sophistication.

Relishes initially referred to light vegetable foods, sometimes sauces. In the mid-19th century they were sometimes served just before the sweet courses, but by the early 20th century the category had risen to near the top of menus. Over time, the foods that had once appeared separately as Relishes tended to become included under the heading Appetizers.

But it’s almost impossible to firmly settle the question of what kinds of foods are found in the various categories – Relishes, Hors d’Oeuvres, Canapes, Appetizers, etc. The categories are loose and highly variable. One restaurant’s Relishes are another’s Hors d’Oeuvres.

A distinction is often made between Hors d’Oeuvres and Appetizers, stressing that the latter are eaten at the table in restaurants while Hors d’Oeuvres are one-bite morsels offered by servers to standing guests before they are seated. This distinction may hold for catered events but not for restaurants where there is no hesitation about using Hors d’Oeuvres as a general category.

Also confusing are the menus listing “Hors d’Oeuvres” as a selection under the headings Appetizers or Relishes. In 1917 a menu from San Francisco’s Portola Louvre actually put Hors d’Oeuvres under the heading Hors d’Oeuvres, along with caviar, sardines, celery, etc. Imagine a waiter asking, “Would you like some Hors d’Oeuvres for your Hors d’Oeuvres?

Until the 1960s and 1970s, the food items that were most commonly offered as beginnings to restaurant dinners were prepared simply and usually served cold. They have included: Fresh vegetables such as celery, radishes, artichoke hearts, and spring onions. Fresh fruits, including grapefruit and melons. Pickled and preserved vegetables, whether olives, beets, peppers, or traditional cucumber pickles. Preserved fruit combinations such as chutney and chow chow. Juices of tomato, grapefruit, pineapple, sauerkraut, and clams. Fresh seafoods — oysters, shrimp, lobster, scallops, and crab. And cured, smoked, pickled, deviled, and marinated meats and seafood/fish, including Westphalia ham, sausages, prosciutto, caviar, paté de foie gras, eels, herring, sardines, salmon, anchovies, and whitefish.

I am impressed that celery – en branche, hearts, a la Victor, a la Parisienne, Colorado, Kalamazoo, Pascal, Delta, stuffed, etc. – stayed on menus from the 19th century until long after World War II.

Heavier, more substantial, and often heated Appetizers seem to have been introduced post-WWII mainly by restaurants designated as Polynesian, Cantonese, and Mexican/Latin. In 1960 New York’s La Fonda del Sol offered appetizers such as Avocado Salad on Toasted Tortillas, Little Meat and Corn Pies, Grilled Peruvian Tidbits on Skewers, and Tamales filled with chicken, beef, or pork. A 1963 menu from a Polynesian restaurant called The Islander dedicated a whole page to its “Puu Puus (Appetizers)” that included ribs, chicken in parchment, won tons, and fried shrimp. The assortment was quite similar to the offerings at Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant in Chicago shown above.

By the 1980s, many restaurants featured appetizers that would now likely be called “Small Plates” or items for “grazing.” Two or three were substantial enough to make up a dinner in themselves, as demonstrated here by a rather expensive Spago menu from 1981.

If grazing was a form of “light eating,” that could not be said of the appetizers introduced in the 1970s and 1980s by casual dinner house chains such as TGI Friday, Chili’s [1987 menu above], and Bennigan’s. Now the idea of an appetizer was completely turned on its head. Far from a light morsel that would induce appetite in someone with digestive issues, it became a digestive issue in its own right — deep fried and loaded with fat. The menus of leading casual dinner chains overflowed with “Starters” such as deep-fried breaded cheese, “loaded” potato skins, cheese fries [pictured at top of post], and heaping piles of nachos laced with pico de gallo and cheese. Diners might need a 19th-century digestive tonic after dinner.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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America’s finest restaurant, revisited

In the 19th century and well into the 20th there was absolutely no doubt that Delmonico’s was the nation’s finest restaurant, for decades the only one with a worldwide reputation. It was one of the few places in this country that European visitors compared favorably with the glittering restaurants of Paris’s “super mall” of the 19th century, the Palais Royal. [above: cafe section of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street Delmonico’s]

Founded by two Italian-Swiss immigrants in 1823 as a small confectionery shop in New York City, it soon grew into a “restaurant Français” occupying various New York City locations over its nearly 100-year run under family ownership. The Delmonico restaurants of the 1830s and subsequent decades were favored by foreign visitors, but soon Americans came to appreciate them too as their fame spread. As a form of homage — sometimes tongue-in-cheek — restaurants high and low, all over the USA, christened themselves Delmonico’s.

During much of the 19th century, most of America’s restaurants were located in hotels; up to the Civil War most operated on the American plan. This meant that everyone sat at large tables with others not necessarily of their choosing while bowls and platters of whatever was being served that day were set on the table to be shared – or not — by the diners. The Delmonicos introduced the European plan which allowed guests to have their own table and order just what they wanted, prepared the way they wanted.

An 1838 menu revealed that fine preparation was only part of Delmonico’s appeal. It also offered a profusion of dishes including 12 soups, 32 hors d’oeuvres, 28 entrées of beef, 46 of veal, 22 of game, 48 of fish, plus 51 vegetable or egg choices, and 45 pastries, cakes, and other desserts. (That 11-page menu is replicated in Lately Thomas’s classic book Delmonico’s, A Century of Splendor.) [Beaver street location shown above]

The number of dishes offered at Delmonico’s is overwhelming proof that the abbreviated reproduction menu that is commonly displayed and offered for sale online is a fake.

The original Delmonico brothers’ mission was what one observer writing in The Nation in 1881 characterized as establishing “a little oasis of civilization in the vast gastronomic waste which America at the time of their arrival presented.” For many Americans, the enjoyment of food bordered on sinfulness. Not only was it viewed as a monetary extravagance, claimed the essay, but there was a feeling among reform-minded people “that all time devoted to the table must be subtracted from that dedicated to spiritual improvement.”

So lauded was Delmonico’s that it’s necessary to point out that it had its critics who disliked the extravagant balls and banquets it hosted. In 1865, a year in which the newly Civil-War-rich were pouring into Delmonico’s, Morton Peto, a British railway and real estate developer, held a banquet for 100 guests. The cost was an astounding $250 a head. For comparison, as much as sixteen years later, the restaurant paid its waiters $30 a month. Another banquet that drew public disapproval was the dinner for James G. Blaine, a Presidential candidate in 1884. His backers, wealthy men who stood to gain from his election, were mocked in a front page cartoon in The World, which named the event after a Babylonian prince who tried to engineer his ascension to the throne. [above: front page of The World, 1884]

For a long time the Delmonico’s menu was entirely in French, without translation, a problem for English-only guests. If a guest ordered badly he (only men were given this task) imagined he could hear his waiter snickering. As a New York Times reporter put it in 1859, “we are made nervous by the sneerful smirk of the waiter, if we order the wrong wine in the wrong place . . .” And he might end up with a dinner of pickles and brandied peaches as happened to one hapless patron. The solution was to throw yourself on the mercy of the waiter and ask for his recommendations. [above: Fifth Avenue and 14th Street]

It’s interesting to note that Charles Delmonico, who ran the family empire following the death of Lorenzo, was said to be fond of the Italian restaurant Café Moretti. There he ordered risotto, a favorite dish that his restaurant’s French cooks did not know how to prepare. [above: Delmonico’s, Fifth Avenue and 26th Street]

Over time Delmonico’s moved from their initial “society” restaurant on the corner of Beaver, William, and South William streets [shown above, third from top] to three successive Fifth Avenue locations. Like all wise businesses, they were following in the path of their wealthy patrons. In 1862 they moved into an elegant mansion at Fifth Ave and 14th Street and in 1876 jumped up to 26th. In 1897 they settled in their final Fifth Avenue location at 44th Street, facing off with arch-rival Sherry’s. [above: Fifth Avenue and 44th Street]

Through the years the Delmonicos always kept at least one other location farther downtown for businessmen and politicians. The restaurant at 22 Broad Street served Stock Exchange brokers and speculators. It was said that for them “not to go to Delmonico’s for one’s lunch or tipple was to lose caste on ‘the Street.’”

In 1897 Delmonico’s yielded to music and smoking in its hallowed halls, a sign many regarded as evidence of a downhill slide. By then the 44th Street Delmonico’s was the last one doing business. It closed in 1923, a victim of weak management, increasingly informal dining customs, and Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

Delmonico’s was one of my early posts, and I realized I hadn’t given the subject its full due. This is an enhanced version.

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Maitre d’s

As the name suggests, “maitre d’hotel” (hotel master) tended to be used most often in hotels. In a large enterprise a maitre d’hotel would supervise multiple headwaiters, each of whom had charge of service in one of its multiple dining spaces. Those could include a formal dining room, a supper-room, a grill room, banquet rooms, and/or a café lounge. Over time, the positions of maitre d’hotel and headwaiter were collapsed into one, yet both terms remained in use.

The man (99.9% of the time) playing that role became the public face of a restaurant or hotel dining room. Like celebrities, he was often known by one name only. A counterpart of the chef who ruled the kitchen, he ruled the front of the house. In addition to being completely in charge of the dining room and its service, he might hire, train, and supervise the entire waitstaff as well as plan private dinners and banquets, take reservations, admit and seat guests, make recommendations and take orders, and prepare special dishes at the table.

Whether called maitre d’hotel or headwaiter, historically the person filling this role was an imposing physical figure, large, tall, and very well dressed. In this country during the 19th century the role was most often filled by a Black man, usually working in an American-plan hotel where meals were included in the cost of lodging. [L. D. Houston, shown here in 1904, worked in New York and for a time in Hong Kong where he went to escape U. S. racism.] Dressing the part was essential. During the 1930s Depression a nightclub performer in Paris entertained his audience by describing a headwaiter as “The only man in the place whose clothes fit.”

The maitre d’hotel (shortened to maitre d’ over time) or headwaiter could have a wide variety of duties depending upon the size of the dining facilities. An expensive, full-service restaurant that was French or international might have captains, waiters, wine stewards, and busboys in addition to a maitre d’. In the 20th century, a popular maitre d’, having reached the pinnacle of the waiting profession while working for someone else, might look for partners or backers and become the host of his own restaurant.

A prominent example of someone who worked his way up from waiter to owner/maitre d’ was the late Sirio Maccioni of New York’s famed Le Cirque. Other well known maitre d’s — who stayed at their posts for about 50 years each — were “Oscar” and “Hoxter.” Oscar Tschirky of the Waldorf was said to be the first to rope off a doorway, while Stansbury Hoxter of Boston’s Parker House was known for his smile and his infallible memory. [Portrait of Stansbury Hoxter courtesy of his great, great, great nephew James Bell.]

Although some maitre d’s who had immigrated from Europe arrived with hotel school training, usually the headwaiter/maitre d’ reached his position after considerable time working his way up the dining room hierarchy. He may have begun as a busboy or waiter, then advanced to captain of a group of waiters, and finally to headwaiter. Along the way he would have proved his ability to judge a guest’s social status, underwritten by his astute understanding of human behavior. It was expected that he not only remembered regular guests’ names and faces, but also knew their favorite dishes.

Although many Americans probably never encountered a maitre d’, he became a figure in popular culture. In 1927 the debonair Adolphe Mange played one in a silent-era rom-com.

While it’s true that favored guests at luxury restaurants appreciate the services of a maitre d’ who saves them “their” table, treats them with great care, and knows their likes and dislikes, many Americans have not reacted well to what they regard as haughty judges of their social rank who may treat them poorly or even turn them away. Despite the geniality of well-liked headwaiters, to many people the overall impression created by this personage is a feeling of cold formality. According to a 1940 opinion piece in a restaurant industry journal, diners did not like bowing nor “that type of waiter service that constantly rearranges your bread-and-butter-plate and water glass . . . and then frequently walks by your table to see if you are eating properly.”

That may be why in more recent times even an upscale, expensive restaurant probably does not have a formally dressed maitre d’ greeting guests. That role is more likely to be filled by a younger person, frequently a woman, who probably does not run the entire dining room nor hire the staff. She may nod her head as she hands guests a menu but does not bow.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

 

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Ham & eggs by any other name

Usually I avoid topics that others have written about repeatedly. The origin of Eggs Benedict is certainly one of those.

I have a problem with origin stories in general because usually they are too neat. But that’s not actually true of Eggs Benedict (a poached egg and ham slice on a toasted English muffin with Hollandaise sauce poured over). The stories about how it appeared in the 1890s are contradictory. There are variations about who it is named after and which famous, usually New York, restaurant produced it first. Among the contending dining spots are Delmonico, the Waldorf-Astoria, and Sherry’s. Of course for an origin story to work, it almost has to involve a well-known, prestigious person/place.

An essay from American Food by Rachel Wharton discusses the numerous conflicting reports of the dish’s origin. It concludes with “Maybe it doesn’t matter who the first Benedict really was. The real point, as has been said by many others in the past, is that this was a rich dish devised for rich people . . .”

With all the butter and egg yolks in Hollandaise sauce, it is certainly a rich dish but was it really devised for “rich people”? That would be, of course, another significant factor in giving the dish panache.

My version of the dish’s fame doesn’t focus on its origin but on its later status and how it became well known long after the 1890s. I suspected that Eggs Benedict was marketed as having an elite past so that it could become a “special” dish. Is it necessary to say that a restaurant could charge more for Eggs Benedict than they could for ham and eggs – and use less ham to boot?

The early days of Eggs Benedict do not seem to have been especially glamorous. At the start of the 20th century the recipe for the dish was featured in newspapers’ “women’s pages.” It seems it was more of a home dish than a restaurant dish. A 1906 woman’s column deplored the food served by society women and wished they would instead serve things such as good old scrapple, mincemeat pie, or Eggs Benedict. During World War I Eggs Benedict appeared on menus as a patriotic meat-conserving dish. A low point in its glamorousness may have occurred in the 1920s when a Beaumont TX newspaper recommended a casserole of baked tomato on toast with cheese sauce and breadcrumbs as “a nice change from eggs Benedict.”

When Eggs Benedict was listed on restaurant and hotel menus in the teens and 1920s it was usually as a breakfast or lunch entree. An early example was at a Boston restaurant that featured luncheon specials in a 1915 advertisement [shown here]. As can be seen below, Du Pont of Paris was a white tablecloth restaurant, certainly fancier than the average working men’s lunch room but a long way from the deluxe world of the Waldorf.

The dish’s fame and fortune began to rise after World War II when the middle class grew larger and more people began to go to restaurants for recreation. In 1946 the New York columnist Gaynor Maddox introduced readers to a creation tale of Eggs Benedict which had a hungover Waldorf guest coming to breakfast in 1894 and asking for toast, bacon, two poached eggs, and a pitcher of Hollandaise. The famed Waldorf host, Oscar, came into the story too, by later substituting ham and English muffin for the bacon and toast.

A year after Maddox’s column, the dish appeared on the brunch menu of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel for the high price of $2.50 (the average daily gross income in 1947 was about $12).

Its reputation continued to be burnished by others. Chef Pierre Franey retold the Waldorf origin tale, while Duncan Hines had it coming from France via New Orleans. Chef Louis Szathmary credited a wealthy Bostonian and a chef at the Ritz Carlton. But all seemed to agree it was indeed a ritzy dish.

For some reason – maybe to make Eggs Benedict sound even ritzier – some restaurants renamed it Eggs Benedictine. They were probably unaware that Benedictine refers to an entirely different egg dish of the almost 500 egg recipes that have been recorded. It is a poached egg on a puree of salt codfish with cream sauce and truffles.

Even though it had formerly been served mainly for lunch or supper, Eggs Benedict found its true calling in the 1960s and 1970s, when it became the classic brunch order. [Molly Maguire’s, 1977, New Orleans] Perfect for Mother’s Day and best accompanied by a glass of champagne followed by Crepes Suzette.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Behind the scenes at the Splendide

Ludwig Bemelmans, well known author and illustrator of the Madeline books for children, began his life in the United States in hotel food service. In the book Life Class (1938), he reveals how perceptive an observer he was of the workings of a deluxe hotel’s dining operations in the early decades of the 20th century.

With a few strokes, he paints a vivid portrait of the “Hotel Splendide,” otherwise known as the Ritz-Carlton on Madison Avenue between 46th & 47th streets in New York. The hotel was part of a worldwide chain of luxury hotels that defined “ritziness” by providing fine food and service that attracted people of wealth and social status, some with aristocratic titles that dazzled wealthy Americans. [shown above, Palm Court, 1914]

Bemelmans arrived in this country from Rotterdam in December, 1914, with letters of introduction from his European hotelier uncle. He was only 16 years old, but with a troubled past. Had he been from a family of lesser stature he might well have been classed as a juvenile delinquent. He had a rocky start in New York, too; he was fired by the first two hotels that hired him in New York, the Astor and the McAlpin. But, despite some perilous incidents at the Ritz, he managed to hang on there for years, working in the restaurant, the café, and the banquet department before leaving for a career as an artist and author around the late 1920s.

In Life Class he frequently observes how the hotel’s gatekeepers sorted out patrons by social class. The hotel’s restaurant manager, Monsieur Victor, “knew who was in Society, who was almost in Society, and, what is most important, who was not” and treated them accordingly. Those with the highest status gave him no tips or honor, but at the other end of the social spectrum he collected handsome tolls from those who wanted a decent table. Bemelmans judged that Victor took in a fabulous sum for that time, about $40,000 a year.

However, those who slipped Victor a too-small bill found themselves among the “untouchables” seated at an awkward table near a service station or in a drafty corner. Although Bemelmans can be warmly egalitarian about the hotel’s staff, he can be as dismissive as Victor when describing guests. Among the untouchables are “Westchester housewives in gray squirrel coats and galoshes on rainy days. They order an oeuf Bénédict and a glass of milk before going to a matinee.” A woman who he imagines is “the wife of some street-car magnate,” he writes, is “dressed with costly despair.”

Faring worse than the untouchables were “innocents” who didn’t understand how things worked at all, such as those who “just walked in off the street, thinking that this was a restaurant.” They were soundly humiliated and turned away with great haughtiness by Monsieur Victor who then watched them depart “with the detachment of a bullfighter who has done his routine work and waits until the horses have dragged the animal out, ready to start on the next.”

Since I have always thought that hotels were among the most likely businesses to follow Prohibition laws, I was surprised how much trade the Ritz did with bootleggers in the 1920s. Bemelmans explains that banquets were furnished with high quality alcohol from the “most reputable bootleggers” who delivered cases clearly marked Champagne and Whisky during the daytime while the police blandly looked on. More surprising, the police did not demand a payoff, settling instead for a few late-night drinks and leftover food after banquets ended, along with maybe a couple of bottles at Christmas.

The serving staff was expert at squirreling away food and drinks in their own private icebox for later use. In some cases they cleverly “rescued” cases of booze during parties, yet still received lavish tips from satisfied guests who had paid for far more wine than they consumed. As the manager remarked, the banquet business at the Ritz was a “goldmine.”

Even while in the midst of serving, waiters managed to enjoy delectable snacks. They snatched “little fried things” such as scallops, frogs’ legs, and fried potatoes from serving platters and ate them in the middle of the dining room without anyone noticing. According to Bemelmans, they had “learned to eat so that their cheeks and jaws do not move.”

After he left the Ritz-Carlton, the epicurean Bemelmans stayed closely connected to fine food and restaurants. He painted murals for several restaurants, illustrated menus and wine cards, depicted them in advertisements and on New Yorker covers, and owned or was closely associated with four places (all of which may be the subject of a future post).

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Restaurant design and decoration

In the second half of 19th century restaurant decoration – in restaurants that had any — was mainly the work of painters who created baroque fantasies on walls and ceilings. Rooms reserved for female diners seemed to be more likely to be well decorated. An example was a ladies’ Refreshment Saloon on Broadway in New York in 1853 painted by someone simply referred to as Delamano. It’s likely he was the same Signor Delamano who painted scenery for a minstrel production with tableaux featuring Uncle Tom and Little Eva five years later.

Unfortunately I don’t know what the women’s decor of 1853 looked like. But for men, a standard decorative focal point was a painting over the bar of a reclining nude woman. Presumably men enjoyed these paintings, though one dissenter in 1884 declared barroom artwork a tasteless and degraded “decorative nightmare” aimed at “gamblers and the swell-mob.” To little effect – such paintings survived well into the 20th century, continuing to define spaces as male turf.

Along with friezes and murals, a full-service painting and decorating firm was likely to be able to handle plaster ceiling decorations and room moldings. In the case of the excessively ornate, carved and gilded Tosetti Restaurant opened in Chicago in 1895, decorators were aided by metal grillwork attached to the ceiling which was then covered with elaborate plaster work and lunettes painted to depict historic scenes.

Magnificence had become more attainable in the 1880s with the availability of Lincrusta-Walton, a thin version of linoleum that was embossed and paintable. It was waterproof and altogether superior to papier maché reliefs that had been used earlier. An era of exuberant gorgeousness was about to begin.

Theatrical decor reached a peak in the work of Henry Erkins, who designed the short-lived, Babylonian-styled Café de l’Opera and the opulently ridiculous Murray’s Roman Gardens in New York, shown here in 1908.

Decorative materials such as Lincrusta [shown here] were especially popular in the decades when restaurants were designed as empty boxes, ready for a decorator. As explained in Interiors Book of Restaurants (1960), architects from earlier eras had “designed buildings from the outside in, often giving no more thought to the appearance of the interior than the use of appropriately designed moldings, paneling, stairways, and other architectural details which would relate the style of the interior to that of the exterior.” The rest was left to a decorator who would finish the interior in the period style selected.

Later, particularly around the mid-20th century, the process was reversed, with architects working from the inside out, often in collaboration with an integrated design team that might include lighting and kitchen consultants along with interior designers. The integrated inside-out process was manifested in the California coffee shop of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Of course hiring a professional design team presumes a well-capitalized restaurant. Many restaurants, of course, had no architect, designer, or decorator unless it was the owner or an associate, and this remains the case today. In stark contrast to restaurants designed by prominent designers and decorators such as Raymond Loewy Associates or Dorothy Draper [see top, coffee shop at The Greenbrier], were the everyday 20th-century cafes and lunchrooms that had no decor whatsoever other than advertising calendars and soft drink posters.

For a long time, only luxury restaurants enjoyed the services of professionals, but that had begun to change with the emergence of chain lunchrooms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They adopted functional designs meant to make the most of a storefront location from a business standpoint. Rather than beauty or faux-luxury, they built their reputations on cleanliness, efficiency, and brisk, moderately priced food service.

Although there have been some well-known restaurant designers, they tend to remain behind the scenes, largely unknown to the dining public. Certainly the designers of lunchroom and cafeteria chains were not celebrated. It’s likely that some of them were employees of restaurant supply companies, such as Vulcan Equipment and Supply Co. of Birmingham AL, which claimed in the 1950s to be “One of the South’s Finest Restaurant Designers,” specializing in “beautiful and serviceable” restaurants.

After World War II restaurant design came into its own, with firms that specialized in just that, handling not only dining room decor, but kitchen layouts, lighting, furnishings, and even the design of distinctive uniforms, tableware, and menus. In the case of restaurants owned by New York’s Restaurant Associates – such as the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, Leone’s, the Four Seasons [see below], La Fonda del Sol, and others, each restaurant had its own logo appearing on menus, matchbooks, ashtrays, and in advertisements.

Although New York City had many restaurants by top designers, California proved a strong rival in the 1960s when restaurant patronage soared there. A new restaurant type had evolved, the “California coffee shop,” combining elements of drive-ins, coffee shops, cocktail lounges, and dinner houses. They occupied specially designed structures that used novel angles and signage, with modern interiors that were said to reduce labor costs and speed up service. Among the leading designers were IRS, Inc., responsible for designing and developing more than 2,200 California coffee shops by the mid-1960s, and Armet & Davis, hailed by Alan Hess (Googie, Googie Redux) as responsible for making “Coffee Shop Modern . . . a major popular modern style.” Hess identifies a specialized architectural vocabulary applicable to these styles, one that includes terms such as boomerangs, dingbats, folded eaves and plates, and hyperbolic paraboloids. [Biffs, Los Angeles, Dougles Honnold architect]

The Four Seasons, opened in 1959 in NY’s Seagram Building, represented the height of luxury restaurant design, not only because it employed a top flight of designers but also because everything in it was custom designed to the tune of $5.5 million. The decor changed with the seasons, from the interior trees and plants right down to the color of waiter uniforms and matchbooks. The recreated Four Seasons, about to open at a new address, reportedly cost $30 million, which works out to $6.2 million less than the present-day value of the 1959 project [measuringworth.com].

In the 1970s and 1980s, the growing popularity of theme restaurants brought about new kinds of decorating services, as well as a growing industry of collectors who amassed warehouses full of objects of all sorts, ranging from antiques to wagon wheels and dentists’ chairs. One such business, originating in the late 1950s, was Oceanic Arts in suburban Los Angeles which grew to be a major supplier and manufacturer of Tiki decor.

By the later 20th century anyone opening a first-class restaurant faced a host of requirements beyond heightened customer expectations of decor. They ranged from managing utility demands, fire and health regulations, accessibility issues, and, in California, earthquake proofing. By 1990 costs began in the hundreds of thousands, easily escalating into the millions, even when dealing with a location in pre-existing building.

Restaurant design has come a long way from Lincrusta and potted palms.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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