Category Archives: food

All the salad you can eat

The salad bar most likely developed from the Americanized version of the smorgasbord which, by the 1950s, had shed its Swedish overtones and turned into an all-you-can-eat buffet. The smorg concept lingered on for a while in the form of salad “tables” holding appetizers and a half dozen or so complete salads typically anchored by three-bean, macaroni, and gelatin. Eventually someone came up with the idea of simply providing components in accordance with the classic three-part American salad which structurally resembles the ice cream sundae: (1) a base, smothered with (2) a generous pouring of sauce, and finished with (3) abundant garnishes. Or, as a restaurant reviewer summarized it in the 1980s, “herbage, lubricant and crunchies.”

Whatever its origins, the salad bar as we know it – with its hallmark cherry tomatoes, bacon bits, and crocks full of raspberry and ranch dressings — became a restaurant fixture in the 1970s. Introduced as a novelty to convey hospitable “horn-of-plenty” abundance and to mollify guests waiting for their meat, it became so commonplace that the real novelty was a restaurant without one. Though strongly associated with steakhouses, particularly inexpensive chains, salad bars infiltrated restaurants of all sorts except, perhaps, for those at the pinnacle of fine dining. Salad bars were positively unstoppable at the Joshua Trees, the Beef ’n Barrels, and the Victoria Stations, some of which cunningly staged their salad fixings on vintage baggage carts, barrels, and the like.

Although industry consultants advised that a salad bar using pre-prepared items could increase sales while eliminating a pantry worker, restaurant managers often found that maintaining a salad setup was actually a full-time task. Tomatoes and garbanzos had a tendency to roll across the floor, dressings splashed onto clear plastic sneeze-guards, and croutons inevitably fell into the olde-tyme soup kettle.

The hygienic sneeze-guard came into use after World War II, first in schools and hospital cafeterias. Although a version of it had made its appearance in commercial restaurants in the early 20th century with the growth of cafeterias, many restaurants served food buffet style into the 1950s and 1960s without using any kind of barrier. The Minneapolis Board of Health required that uncovered smorgasbords either install sneeze-guards or close down in 1952, but it seems that their use did not become commonplace nationwide until the 1970s. Eklund’s Sweden House in Rockford IL thought it was novel enough to specifically mention in an advertisement in 1967. Massachusetts ordered them to be used in restaurants with buffets or salad bars in 1975.

On the whole salad bars went over well with the public – and still do — but by the late 1970s professional restaurant critics were finding it hard to hide their disdain. Judging them mediocre, some blamed customers who were gullible enough to believe they were getting a bargain. Others were wistful, such as the forbearing reviewer in Columbia, Missouri, who confessed, “It would be a nice change to get something besides a tossed make-it-yourself salad, and to have it brought to the table.” The trend at the Missouri college town’s restaurants, however, was in the opposite direction. In the 1980s Faddenhappi’s and Katy Station ramped up competition by offering premium salad makings such as almonds and broccoli while Western Sizzlin’ Steaks pioneered a potato bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Famous in its day: The Bakery

Louis Szathmary’s restaurant, The Bakery, opened in Chicago at a time when restaurant going in that city was not a very exciting proposition. Amidst the steak and potatoes of 1963, its pâté, bouillabaisse, Wiener schnitzel, and Viennese tortes stood out as exotic. Despite its storefront location in a run-down neighborhood – and no decor to speak of — the 25-seat neighborhood restaurant became an instant success. A little more than a year after it opened it was given a distinguished dining award by Holiday magazine. Reservations became hard to get.

The first review of The Bakery described it as a table d’hôte offering a set dinner that began with pâté, possibly followed by celery soup, shredded celery root salad with handmade mayonnaise, and Filet of Pike with Sauce Louis. By 1975 the number of entree choices for the then-$12 five-course dinner had extended to ten, with Beef Wellington and Roast Duckling with Cherry Glaze [pictured] among the most popular. Even as Beef Wellington lost its fashionability in the 1970s and 1980s, it continued as a Bakery mainstay. In 1989, as the restaurant was about to close, Szathmary said that although current food writers made fun of it, “they all raved about it once, and I know 50 percent of our sales after 26 years is still beef Wellington.”

Szathmary, who claimed a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Budapest, had learned to cook in Hungary during WWII when he was conscripted into the Hungarian army. He arrived in the US in 1951, working as a chef in several institutional settings in the Northeast before moving to Chicago in 1960 to join Armour & Co. in product development. As executive chef at Armour he helped launch the company’s Continental Cuisine line of frozen entrees for the home and commercial market that came in polybags that could be immersed in boiling water and served.

Among the first eating places to serve entrees from Armour’s Continental Cuisine and American Fare lines were Holiday Inn motels and the Seagram Tower at Niagara Falls. Dishes available in the two lines included beef burgundy, chuck wagon beef stew, turkey and crabmeat tetrazzini, chow mein, shrimp creole, and barbecued pork fried rice. Only months before opening The Bakery, Chef Louis (as he was popularly known) had been training the staff of a Michigan gas-station-restaurant complex aptly named The American Way how to heat and serve Armour’s bagged entrees.

After he left Armour to concentrate on The Bakery, Chef Louis continued to praise the use of convenience foods in restaurants. He published a column titled “Use Psychology on Your Customers” in a trade magazine in 1965 in which he urged restaurant managers to be honest about the food they served. He conceded that because he knew many of his guests were suspicious of frozen foods, he did not apologize when he took them on a tour of his storage areas. Although he sometimes used frozen foods, he said he always revealed that on his menus. In a July 1968 column for the trade magazine Food Service, he insisted that the restaurant industry should welcome factory-produced food because of the shortage of help at a time when restaurant patronage was on the rise.

That column brought forth a protest from fellow Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang of the elegant Four Seasons in NYC. Lang wrote, “I would very much like to preserve the level of cooking and the niveau [peak] of gastronomy that we practice at the Four Seasons.” To this Chef Louis replied that he was simply trying to be provocative. Not much later he boasted that he had the distinction of being fired as a consultant to Restaurant Associates (owner of the Four Seasons) – as well as caterer to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

With his fingers in many pies, Chef Louis was assisted by his wife Sada and a contingent of relatives, not to mention quite of few of his compatriots from Hungary who served in The Bakery’s kitchen and dining room (one going so far as to grow his own handlebar mustache). No doubt it was his loyal staff who made it possible for him to run a restaurant while producing books and copious newspaper and magazine articles, appearing frequently on TV and radio, teaching and lecturing at colleges, and conducting sideline restaurant consulting and cooking school businesses [shown above training waiters]. Always a showman, the flamboyant Chef Louis gave talks with titles such as “The Naked Ape and the Frying Pan,” and another in which he compared his ex-wives unfavorably to a bottle of Angostura bitters that had lasted longer and never got spoiled.

In addition to The Bakery, he owned or co-owned two other restaurants managed by his wife’s sister and brother-in-law, the Kobatas. The Cave, in Old Town, opened shortly after The Bakery. Its interior of papier mache simulated the walls of a cave covered with prehistoric drawings as researched by Chef Louis. In 1970 he opened Bowl & Roll, another family-wide venture drawing in not only the Kobatas but also the mothers of both Louis and Sada, plus Louis’ brother and sister-in-law. In an opening advertisement Bowl & Roll promised a range of unusual soups such as Hungarian sour cherry soup, Scandinavian fruit soup, and kohlrabi soup.

In the mid-1970s The Bakery’s reputation began to sag somewhat along with “continental cuisine” generally. Critic John Hess, in 1974, questioned the high regard that Holiday magazine bestowed on The Bakery and declared its Beef Wellington “the quintessence of the pretentious gourmet plague.” Patrons sent letters to Chicago newspapers saying the Roast Duckling was as “tough as an auto tire,” and charging that the restaurant’s acclaim was based on “mass hysteria” whipped up by Chef Louis himself. Chicagoans were sharply divided into lovers and haters. For two years in the 1970s readers polled by Chicago Magazine voted The Bakery as one of both the city’s 10 favorite and 10 least favorite restaurants. Still, in 1977 Cornell University named it one of the country’s six great restaurants, and, despite its loudly banging front door, too-brisk service, lack of decor, and awkward layout, its loyal patrons stuck by it and it remained profitable to the end.

At the 1989 closing Chef Louis said that the restaurant business had changed so much he could not have successfully created a restaurant such as The Bakery then, partly because of the public’s growing preference for lighter food. He declared he was proud that he “never served one kiwi fruit.”

Chef Louis stayed busy in retirement and donated his vast cookbook and culinary arts collection to libraries at the University of Iowa and Johnson & Wales University.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Chocolate on the menu

Chocolate concoctions have always been found in the dessert section of restaurant menus. Right? You’ve already figured out that I’m going to say no. But, naturally, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Until the later 19th century the main form in which Americans consumed chocolate in public eating places was not as a dessert but as a hot beverage.

Confusion arises over the meaning of dessert, which is used in various ways on American menus. In the 19th century, dessert often was the very last course, coming after “Pastry,” which included pies, cakes, puddings, and ice cream. In this case dessert meant fruit and nuts. But sometimes ice cream was listed under dessert. For example, the Hancock House hotel in Quincy MA displayed the following on a menu in June of 1853:

Puddings & Pastry
Sago Custards, Apple Pies, Mince Pies, Rhubarb Pies, Custards, Tarts
Dessert
Blanc Mange, Oranges, Almonds, Raisins, Strawberries, Ice Cream

In cheaper eating places, there was no fruit or nuts and dessert came closer to what we mean  today, which is how I will use it for the rest of this post – referring to sweet dishes that come toward the end of the meal and are rarely nuts and usually other than simple fruit.

The absence of anything chocolate on the Hancock House menu was not unusual for that time. I looked at quite a lot of menus – of course only a fraction of those still existing – and the first instance of chocolate other than as a beverage that I found was chocolate ice cream in the 1860s. It was not too unusual to find chocolate eclairs on a menu in the later 19th century, and chocolate cake turned up in the 1890s. According to an entry in The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink, however, chocolate cake in the late 1800s could refer to yellow cake with chocolate frosting.

By the early 20th century chocolate appeared on menus in various forms: as pudding, layer cake, devil’s food cake, ice cream, eclairs, and ice cream sodas and sundaes. In the 1920s, chocolate shops appeared and were similar to tea shops. They offered light meals, desserts, and chocolate as a drink or as candy, and other desserts. They were popular with women, as were department store tea rooms, another type of eating place that was heavy on sweet things. In the case of Shillito’s department store in Cincinnati, a 1947 menu offered quite a few chocolate treats.

Toasted Pecan Ice Cream Ball with Hot Fudge Sauce 35
Apple Pie 20
Black Raspberry Pie 20
Banana Cream Pie 20
Pineapple Layer Cake 20
Shillito’s Special Fudge Cake 20
Chocolate Doublette with Mint Ice Cream and Fudge Sauce 35
Chocolate Luxurro 35
Hot Fudge Sundae 25
Vanilla Ice Cream with Nesselrode Sauce 25
Fresh Peach Parfait 30
Pineapple or Orange Sherbet 15
Vanilla, Fresh Peach, Chocolate or Mint Ice Cream 20

Starting in the 1970s and reaching a high point in the 1980s began a chocolate frenzy that continues today. With the help of restaurant marketing, millions of Americans discovered they were “chocoholics.”

If you stepped into San Francisco’s Pot of Fondue in 1970 you could do Cheese Fondue for an appetizer, Beef  Bourguignonne Fondue as a main dish, and Chocolate Fondue for dessert. But the Aware Inn in Los Angeles pointed more forcefully at dessert trends to come with its 1970s “dangerous Chocolate Cream Supreme” costing $2 and described as “somewhere between chocolate mousse and fudge.”

Adjectives such as “dangerous” continued the sinful metaphor conveyed earlier by “devil’s food.” Soon “special” chocolate desserts were named for immoral inclinations (“decadence”) or perhaps fatal pleasures (“death by chocolate,” “killer cake”). All this led at least one journalist to protest against the unsubtle marketing of chocolate desserts in the 1980s. She pleaded with servers: “Do not expect me to swoon when you roll back your eyes in ecstasy as you recite a dessert list that offers nothing but chocolate, via cheesecake, chip cake, profiterols, madeleine, mousse, bombe, eclair, napoleon, torte, tart or brownie.”

From restaurant reviews from the 1980s it’s noticeable that most reviewers jumped on the chocolate bandwagon with descriptions along the lines of “scrumptious” chocolate desserts “to die for.” But quite a few were critical, especially of chocolate mousse, which was readily available to restaurants powdered or wet, even “pipeable.” After a 1978 visit to a restaurant expo overflowing with convenience food products, the Washington Post’s restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman observed, “The final insult of your dinner these days could be chocolate mousse made from a mix, but that is only another in the long line of desecrations in the name of chocolate mousse.” Often critical reviewers deplored chocolate mousse that tasted as if made of instant pudding mix combined with a non-dairy topping product, which very likely it was.

“Chocolate Decadence” cake took a beating in a review by Mimi Sheraton who in 1983 no doubt irritated many chocolate lovers when she referred to the prevalence of “dark, wet chocolate cake that seems greasy and unbaked, the cloying quality of such a sticky mass being synonymous with richness to immature palates.” More recently, what I call a “fantasy escape” restaurant in upstate New York was cited unfavorably for serving a boxed cake provided by a national food service that it merely defrosted, sprinkled with fresh raspberries, grandly named “Towering Chocolate Cake,” and placed on the menu for a goodly price.

Let the buyer aware, but no doubt many restaurant patrons do in fact realize that they are willing co-conspirators in fantasy meals. Along these lines, nothing can be too chocolate-y, triple obviously outdoing double. Decorations of some sort are de rigeur. Along with whipped cream, ultra-chocolate desserts might be adorned with orange rind slivers, raspberry sauce, or dripping frosting. In 1985 the Bennigan’s chain brought their “Death by Chocolate” into the world, consisting of two kinds of chocolate ice cream, chopped up chocolate candy bars, a chocolate cracker crust, with the whole thing dipped in chocolate and served with chocolate syrup on the side.

One theory about what brought about restaurants’ chocolate dessert blitz relates it to declining sales of mixed drinks in the 1980s as patrons became aware of the dangers of drinking and driving. Then, according to a 1985 Wall Street Journal story, elaborate, expensive desserts offered a way to make up for lost cocktail sales. Fancy desserts are undoubtedly higher-profit items than many entrees, but I suspect that another major factor favoring the rise of ultra-chocolate desserts was the culture of consumer indulgence that increased restaurant patronage in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Diet plates

Dieting for weight loss began to attract attention in the 1920s, reversing the preference for somewhat chubby bodies that preceded it. Before World War I, the word “diet” could equally well refer to a plan of eating designed for gaining weight. Then — and now — the notion of dieting contained contradictions.

A 1905 newspaper story described the phenomenon of the “jiu jitsu girl,” a modern being who took a rational attitude toward her food, either for the purpose of adding or losing pounds. If she wanted to lose weight she drank a lot of water, did gymnastics, and ate only fish, poultry, fresh vegetables, and fruit.

But the weight-losing version of the jiu jitsu girl must have been a rarity in 1905 because restaurant menus took no notice of her. Most of their offerings were more likely to add pounds. Which must be why, when she went into a restaurant, JJ girl tossed aside the menu as she gave her order.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the so-called Hollywood Diet became the rage, restaurants made a few concessions to dieters by providing the regimen’s staple food, grapefruit. But few if any provided diet menus or special low-calorie dishes.

Whether restaurant patrons tried to cut calories with grapefruit, salads, or zwieback in the 1920s and 1930s, European chefs deplored the trend. Critics said dieting was one of the causes of the downfall of restaurant cuisine in those Prohibition years. Alas, they sighed, art had gone out of restaurant cooking and weight-conscious women were largely to blame.

However, those who took a more businesslike attitude toward restaurants, such as industry publisher J. O. Dahl, recommended that restaurants get with the times. Look through popular magazines, he counseled, and see how very often dieting is discussed. He urged progressive restaurateurs to develop diet menus for their women guests – whose numbers were drastically increasing.

Yet, it wasn’t until the 1950s that dieters received widespread recognition with the arrival of the restaurant diet plate. Shown in all its glory at the top of this page, it was stereotypically a hamburger patty – sometimes referred to as chopped steak – accompanied by cottage cheese topped with canned peach and a limp lettuce leaf on which reposed a wan slice of tomato.

Slight variations happened. Gelatin might accompany or replace canned fruit. Steak houses such as Bonanza and Golden Corral added toast to the plate. Woolworth tucked in saltines (see 1971 Woolworth advertisement below).

To be absolutely fair, some restaurants were a bit more creative in designing diet plates. The National Restaurant Association, recognizing that about 10% of customers were on diets at any given moment in the 1950s, helped develop menus. Perhaps a menu of consommé, celery hearts, 4 oz. minute steak, green beans, and unsugared fruit was one of their suggestions. In 1962 the Town Room in the Sheraton-Dallas relieved diet boredom with “hefty” slimming lunches of Goulash and Shrimp Hawaii.

Putting everything into perspective, even the dispiriting classic diet plate was superior to the liquid diet products that some restaurants put on menus in the early 1960s. For 50 to 75 cents a glass dieters could sip Metrecal (a product of the same company that made Drano and Windex). “Some drugstores find it is giving the hamburger competition,” reported a 1960 story.

By some bizarre logic, places that seemed as though they were havens for non-dieters also offered diet plates. Such as pancake houses and sweets shops. The DoNut Shop in Edwardsville IL had a Weight Watchers Diet Plate and Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in Seattle advertised a Low Calorie Diet Plate. Were these nothing but conscience-soothers for customers prepping for ice cream and doughnut binges?

Although I have no doubt you can still find the occasional classic diet plate on a menu today, the hamburger-cottage cheese-peach lunch fell into deep disfavor in the 1980s. Long regarded as boring, by the mid-1980s they were commonly referred to as “old style,” “so-called,” or “1950s diet plates.” Critics argued that in most cases they were not only insipid, but also contained more calories than other menu items.

But it was not the critics who sunk them as much as it was changes in restaurant culture of the late 20th century. Many restaurants upgraded their menus with fresher and lighter food that (usually) had the virtue of being lower in calories. Restaurants specializing in salads became popular.

A sign of changing times was the Chapman Sisters Calorie Counter on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. With a decor that signified “natural,” the casual restaurant had a brick floor, hanging plants, butcher block tables, and walls painted with large apples. Calories were given for each dish on the menu. Even the highest-calorie item, a Spinach and Mushroom Quiche, topped out at about 200 fewer calories than the classic diet plate, and a Tostada Salad came in at 395.

Another example was the 1980s “Light Balance” menu at Tumbledown Dick’s in Cos Cob CT  where no dish had more than 380 calories, whether it was a Vegetable-Stuffed Pita, Chicken Florentine, or Pasta Primavera. The Light Balance menu gave not only calories but also fat, sugar, and sodium content.

In retrospect, as unappetizing, calorie-rich, and unbalanced as the 1950s diet plate was, the irony is that the average American was slimmer during its time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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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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Higbee’s Silver Grille

higbeessilvergrillemyphoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Bulgarian restaurants

bulgarianrestaurantcafesofiadcIn 1985 an eminent cultural geographer, Wilbur Zelinsky, published an article on American ethnic restaurant cuisines. In it he said that the foods of some places stirred little interest in the U.S., among them Great Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.

And he wrote that he had never found a single Bulgarian restaurant in metropolitan North America.

Actually, though, there were a few Bulgarian restaurants — either in the sense that they served Bulgarian dishes or at least were run by Bulgarian-born proprietors. From 1910 through the 1960s I’ve found at least one Bulgarian restaurant or café in St. Louis MO; Anaconda MT; Indianapolis IN; Midland and Allegheny PA; Niagara Falls and NYC; Portland OR; Los Angeles and San Francisco CA; Seattle WA; Hillsdale & Kalamazoo MI; and in Cincinnati, Youngstown, and Toledo OH.

bulgarianrestaurantboteffscincinnati1956

However, they might not meet Zelinsky’s definition. He considered a restaurant ethnic only if it predominantly served people not belonging to the ethnicity the restaurant represented. It’s true that there have been very few of those, and most of them after 1985. Also, I cannot be certain that restaurants owned by those born in Bulgaria always served Bulgarian cuisine, especially after the 1940s.

It’s likely that the customers of early 20th-century Bulgarian-owned restaurants were fellow countrymen. The majority of the Bulgarians in this country before WWII were men. Many lived in cheap hotels and rooming houses while working as laborers for railroads, steel mills, meat packing houses, and coal and copper mines. I ran across a want ad looking for a woman to cook meals for a group of Bulgarian men, but eating in restaurants was probably the fate of most single Bulgarian men.

Like the Greeks, Bulgarian restaurant and lunch room operators didn’t always get a warm welcome. A case in point was Racho Evanoff who was among those denied a soft drink license by authorities in Portland OR in 1921 on the grounds that they were suspected of using soft drinks as a cover for liquor sales. The newspaper didn’t mince words in a story about bootleggers in the city’s north end who it referred to as “liquor banditti from mid-Europe.” It identified them as “aliens” from Austria, Dalmatia, the Slavic nations, Roumania, Greece, and Bulgaria. However, Evanoff evidently escaped the curse over time. He renamed himself Robert and in 1927 his restaurant was still in business with a rating of “excellent” from the health department.

Saying just what is and what isn’t Bulgarian cuisine is not easy, particularly since Bulgaria is a multi-cultural country, but it resembles the food of other Balkan countries. A 1924 story about a Bulgarian restaurant mentioned lamb stew, eggplant, okra, and chicken soup seasoned with lemon. I haven’t been able to find a restaurant menu but have read about the types of food served in Bulgarian restaurants in restaurant reviews and advertisements. Examples include cured sausages, grilled meats, pierogi, shish kebab, moussaka, stuffed grape leaves, yogurt, chopped lettuce salads with feta cheese, and baklava. In the U.S. the cuisine in Bulgarian restaurants seems to have been similar to that of Greek restaurants that served other than American dishes.

bulgarianrestaurantbbqpeteca

bulgarianrestaurantboteffsadvtext1956After the second World War it looks like the few Bulgarian restaurants and cafés in business then gained a wider range of customers, partly by including on their menus more familiar American dishes such as barbecue, fried chicken, and steaks. A restaurant operator in Los Angeles went from coal miner to lunch wagon operator, and then succeeded in building up a small chain of BBQ Pete’s in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1950s Cincinnati Daniel Boteff, who had formerly run a shoe repair shop, opened a couple of Bulgarian restaurants [pictured above and right, 1956] serving Shish Kebab Dinners for $2.25, along with BBQ Chicken, Fried Chicken and “Boteff’s Cut” Sirloin Steaks. He advertised in 1957 that his restaurant was one of very few restaurants in the US serving “authentic Bulgarian foods.”

It’s my impression that today there may be slightly more Bulgarian restaurants though they still remain rare.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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