Category Archives: food

The Mister chains

Sometimes I feel the need to focus on ridiculousness in restaurants, maybe because I run across so many instances of it when I’m meandering through old sources. Lately I’ve been exploring franchising and have encountered numerous silly concepts expressed in the names of chains. Many businesses across the country adopted “Mister” or “Mr.” as part of their names, and this seems to have been particularly true of restaurant chains. [For now, I’m calling all of them Mister.]

There are also scores of restaurants with names such as Mister Mike’s or Mister T’s, but those are usually not part of franchise chains and the letter or nickname refers to an actual person, usually the owner, who may be known by that name in real life. I’m not including those here.

I’m more interested in the Misters that are not named for actual humans. At least I’m hoping that there is no real-life Mister Beef, Bun, Burger, Chicken, Drumstick, Fifteen, Hambone, Hamwich, Hofbrau, Pancake, Quick, Sandwich, Sirloin, Softee, Steak, Swiss, or Taco.

There were also Sir chains, such as Sir Beef, plus Kings and Senors. Were they in their own way an expression of multiculturalism? Being “continental,” Sir Beef was classier than most of the Misters.

For quite a while I believed there could be no Mister Chicken. That seemed obvious to me – who wants to be called a chicken? But then it occurred to me that I should do a little more research. I was proven wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Surrounding the logo shown here were the words: Home of America’s Best Barbecue Chicken Since 1966!” Although there were restaurants by the same name in Rockford IL and Atlanta GA, I don’t know if they were related.

I find Mister Pancake’s face somehow threatening, but never mind that – he was a hit in his hometown of Indianapolis. He came into the world there in 1959, but I don’t know if he appeared anywhere else.

I especially like the logos that attempt to humanize food, particularly unlikely items such as hambones. Sadly for him and his girlfriend, Mister Hambone International – aka Hammy — really didn’t catch on. Starting out in Virginia in 1969, he opened at least one place in North Carolina, but nothing, I think, internationally.

Mister Softee with his natty bow tie, born in New Jersey, was mainly peddled out of ice cream trucks, but there were also restaurants of the same name that served hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs, fish, etc., along with the creamy guy. In 1967 a mobile franchise cost $2,500 while a restaurant was ten times that, which may account for why there were then 1,600 trucks — even as far off as the French West Indies — but only 5 restaurants. Overall, Mister Softee, like Mister Steak, had a more successful life than most of the Misters.

Mister Drumstick, born in Atlanta, offered the World’s Best Fried Chicken. I can’t help but wonder why he is holding a hamburger rather than a chicken leg. Maybe it was because his franchise was sold in connection with Mister Sirloin, a roast beefery, as well as Mister Hamwich, a ham sandwich purveyor. So far I’ve found four Mister Drumsticks in Atlanta and a few in Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri. Nino’s Mister Drumstick in Sandusky OH looks more athletic than Atlanta’s, but of course he has the advantage of legs. Was he a go-go dancer in an earlier phase of his career?

I like the Drumsticks, but my favorites are Mister Bun and Mister Sandwich (of New York City!). They are so versatile. They can handle anything that goes between two slices of bread. I don’t know what Mister Sandwich looked like but Mister Bun was a strange one, with his extremely short legs, his six-guns, and his 10-gallon hat. I can’t really figure him out. Is he trying to compensate for being nothing but bread?

The three Florida creators of Mister Bun had high hopes in 1968 when they opened their first location in Palm Beach, with plans to add more outlets in Florida as well as a number of other states where investors were interested. They advertised for franchisees by telling them that Mister Bun featured “the eight most popular food items in this nation.” It was true that Mister Bun could hold almost anything, so they settled on roast beef, cold cuts, roast pork, frankfurters and fish, accompanied by french fries and onion rings, and washed down with a range of beverages, including beer. Alas, Mister Bun had a rather unhappy life, experiencing little growth, abandonment by his primary creator, and time in court.

Females seemed to stay out of the game, so there are no Mrs. Buns, Mrs. Beefs, Mrs. Tacos . . . or Miss Steaks. Maybe theirs was the wiser course.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, restaurant fads, restaurant names, signs

Pizza by any other name

Driving around Connecticut a while back I noticed signs with the unfamiliar terms “lapizza” and “apizza.” Occasionally since then I’ve wondered what accounted for the deviation from the commonplace word “pizza.”

Thanks to a recent round of fundraising on Connecticut Public Television, when they featured showings of Pizza, A Love Story, I found out why pizza was spelled that way. Watching the show, I heard the word apizza pronounced – repeatedly – for effect. Can you say ah-BEETS? That pronunciation is Neapolitan dialect, a simplification of la pizza. New Haven CT is hailed as today’s apizza center of the U.S. by its dedicated fans who probably would refuse to even enter a pizza chain’s parking lot.

In fact, it’s impressive that in 1978, when Pizza Hut had expanded to over 3,000 units nationwide, none was listed in New Haven’s City Directory. However, there were at least 31 pizza places in that city then, ten of them with apizza as part of their name. One of the pizza restaurants in New Haven was that of Fancesco “Frank” Pepe, initially a baker, who started making pizza in 1925. [1960s postcard shown at top of page] Today Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana is a small New England chain that has won many awards.

Although the word apizza came into common usage in advertisements in Connecticut newspapers in the 1930s – not just in New Haven but also Bridgeport, Meriden, and other cities – it remains in use today in many of the state’s Italian restaurants. I haven’t run across any descriptions of the Connecticut apizza of earlier days, but it’s unlikely that it was the cheese-delivery vehicle that most Americanized pizza has become. In the early 20th century Neapolitan pizza was described as a somewhat puffy, foldable crust typically topped with cooked tomatoes, grated cheese, oregano, and/or anchovies.

From the start in Connecticut and a few other parts of the Northeast, as well as California, pizza was take-out food, often bought at a bakery. But after Prohibition ended, it expanded into casual eating spots in Connecticut cities. Many of its purveyors ran taverns or other night spots, some of which featured it only on weekends. [below, Club Crystal, Bridgeport, 1940s] It was more of a snack than a meal, something to enjoy with friends. Beer was the favorite liquid accompaniment. As Meriden CT restaurant owner Vincent Verdolini put it in 1939, “beer to a lover of la pizza is like whipped cream to strawberry shortcake.”

Until the 1950s, most apizza consumers were Italian-Americans, many of them workers in Connecticut’s factories. Happily for them, pizza was inexpensive (in 1940, roughly 25¢ for small ones and 45¢ for large) and sellers delivered to workplaces. Early advertisements aimed at Italian speaking customers appeared in Italian-language newspapers such as La Sentinella in Bridgeport.

As I searched for the history of apizza in Connecticut, I happened upon another name for pizza, one that really surprised me because its meaning has shifted: pizzeria. Now a common name for a pizza parlor, at one time it was a word for pizza itself, as is evident in the advertisement for “delicious pizzeria, 25¢” at Frieda’s in Asbury Park NJ in 1936, shown above, or at the Paradise Bar and Grill on Staten Island in 1947 below.

For several decades restaurant chains have dominated the pizza market, making it all the more interesting that apizza, the word and the food, has survived.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under ethnic restaurants, food, patrons

Women’s lunch clubs

Lunch clubs for working women appeared in American cities in the 1890s and early 20th century. In a fairly short time they stimulated the development of commercial cafeterias, as well as employee cafeterias in large companies.

Chicago was regarded as a prime incubator of the lunch club idea. In 1891 a group of alumnae of the prestigious Ogontz finishing school near Philadelphia opened a space for women workers on an upper floor of Chicago’s Pontiac Building. At the start the club charged 10 cents a year for membership, and sold sandwiches for 4 cents and milk, tea, or coffee for 2 cents each.

By the end of the nineteenth century, women’s lunch clubs could be found in other major cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, and San Francisco, but not in the South. Some, such as three in NYC, were affiliated with churches. In Indianapolis, temperance supporters – members of the W.C.T.U. — ran a lunch club.

The lunch clubs were meant to provide not only inexpensive noontime meals for working women, but also to give them a place to enjoy a little leisure in “rest rooms” supplied with sofas, rocking chairs and desks, as well as libraries and other amenities. Some offered evening lecture series.

The clubs came at a time when the number of office workers in cities was on the increase. The clubs mainly catered to “business women,” which then meant young white-collar workers in offices and department stores. Although women factory workers had a greater need for restful and inexpensive lunches than did office workers, their shorter lunch breaks and lower pay made it difficult to accommodate them.

The earliest lunch clubs were launched by elite women as philanthropic projects to assist workers with affordable lunches, give them a place to hang out at noon, and to uplift them culturally. The food was not cooked on site, but supplied by other kitchens, such as that at Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago. To avoid the cost of hiring servers, food was set out on counters and diners selected what they wanted, a novel arrangement in the 1890s. [Above: Chicago’s Ursula lunch club, 1891] Prices were meant to cover costs but not to make a profit.

Lunch clubs had to tread a fine line in terms of how philanthropic backers related to the working women. At least one of the philanthropic lunch clubs made its lunchers feel pitied and failed to attract enough women. Those who had stuck with it then took it over as their own co-operative enterprise. Some other lunch clubs were begun as co-operatives. [Above: postcard of a commercial lunch club that admitted men]

A humorous turn-of-the-century story characterized the uneasy feeling of some working women toward philanthropy. In it, a wealthy man approaches a young sales clerk in a department store to say that he is thinking of starting a Noon-Day Rest Club, “where you and the others may come and drink Tea and listen to me read Advice to the Young.” She replies, “That would be lonely Billiards, wouldn’t it? We don’t want to be rounded up and sozzled over. Not on your Leaflards. The Poor Working Girl draws a line on having a kind-hearted Gentleman pull the Weeps on her. I think I can struggle along without having you come around to hold my Hand.”

Despite this obstacle, lunch clubs proliferated. The Klio Club’s Noon-Day Rest expanded its menu, adding dishes such as soup, baked beans, and salmon salad. In 1899 a sample menu in one of Chicago’s six lunch clubs might have looked like this:
Two slices of bread or two rolls, with butter 5c
With jam or cold meat 6c
Extra butter 1c
Tomato soup, beef hash, Spanish stew 5c
Potato salad, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, cottage cheese 5c
Tea or coffee, with cream 5c
With milk 3c
Iced tea, buttermilk 3c
Raspberry ice, lemon ice 5c
Vanilla ice cream, tutti-frutti ice cream 5c

The success of serve-yourself lunch clubs spurred the development of commercial cafeterias. Over time it became harder for lunch clubs to attract large numbers of women patrons. Some began to accept men who, after all, tended to spend more for lunch. For-profit help-yourself businesses proliferated. In one case, a dispute at Klio’s Noon-Day Rest led its caterer, Kate Knox, to leave and start her own self-service lunch club business. [Mrs. Knox’s lunch club pictured above] Another enterprising woman, Mary Dutton, operated four cafeterias by 1915 after beginning with a single lunch club.

But the lunch clubs made an impact, for a time at least. Boston’s original noon-day lunch club closed because it felt it had elevated the standards of common restaurants. And businesses borrowed ideas from the lunch clubs. For example, The Harmony Cafeteria in Chicago, a commercial business, advertised in 1913 that it featured a basement rest area, with a drawing showing two women in rocking chairs reading books.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under cafeterias, food, Offbeat places, patrons, restaurant prices, women

The long life of El Fenix

In 1958, an advertisement celebrating 40 years in business made the claim that El Fenix was “The Oldest Mexican Restaurant Chain in the U.S.” According to the family of founder Miguel Martinez, he opened his first restaurant in 1918 in Dallas TX. [El Fenix on McKinney Ave. pictured above, ca. 1954]

Of course Mexican eating places, including stands, were not a new thing in Texas. They had been around throughout the 19th century in San Antonio – which of course was part of Mexico for part of that time. A Mexican man and his French wife in Los Angeles were serving tamales, enchiladas, carne con chile, and albondigas in 1881 — along with French dishes!

Martinez had come to the U.S. around 1911 during the upheaval of the Mexican revolution. Then about 21 years old, he left behind a life of hard labor that began early in childhood, with no time for school. Before opening a small café in Dallas, he had worked as a streetcar track layer, a dishwasher, cook, pool hall operator, and barber.

It’s remarkable that he was so successful in the restaurant business – where failure within five years is the norm — and that he and his family altogether carried on the business for 90 years. But I am not convinced that El Fenix was the first Mexican restaurant chain in the U.S., since its true chain development took place after WWII.

Miguel’s first café – not yet named El Fenix — was located in the center of Dallas’ “Little Mexico” barrio, a part of the city virtually abandoned in terms of city services, without paved streets, and full of poorly constructed rental properties, many of which lacked plumbing.

About seven years later, Miguel — who adopted the name Mike – moved his restaurant to a new location, in a brick building that had been a food market. Although I’ve seen earlier dates quoted, the 1926 advertisement shown here suggests it was that year that the restaurant moved to 1608 McKinney Street, an address that would be a primary location until 1965 when construction of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway necessitated moving – across the street. The name Phoenix/Fenix referred to the mythical bird associated with rebirth and survival.

By the 1930s, Mike Martinez was regarded as the big success story of Little Mexico. According to a 1931 account his restaurant had become quite popular with visiting Northerners who came to Dallas to escape cold winters and were looking for something different in the form of enchiladas and chicken mole.

Within five years he had three restaurants. In addition to the El Fenix Café on McKinney [pictured] there was an El Fenix Coffee Shop on Oak Lawn Ave. and a Mexico City Café on Pacific Ave. However, within a few years, the group was down to just one, the McKinney Street address. The manager of the Mexico City Café had bought the business and moved to a new address. About the same time, the Coffee Shop’s manager joined rival El Chico and a grocery store took over its location.

Until the mid-1940s, when Mike Martinez turned over El Fenix to his eight children, the McKinney Street location remained the sole restaurant. It had become a popular place, equipped with a large banquet room and a ballroom annex and hosting many civic and social groups. The restaurant’s owners, now the second Martinez generation, soon began to build El Fenix into a chain. [Oak Cliff location, opened 1948]

Despite the popularity of Mexican food with certain Texans and out-of-town visitors, it appears that many patrons were not fans. El Fenix, like other Mexican places, found it necessary to offer standard American restaurant fare as well. Judging from advertisements, the American menu was often promoted more actively than the Mexican, suggesting that it took a while for many Dallasites to develop a taste for Mexican food, even when it was prepared to appeal to “Tex-Mex” preferences. Although the McKinney café redecorated with a Mexican theme in the mid-1930s, the menu featured standard American restaurant fare such as steak, fried chicken, fish, and shrimp, spaghetti and meat balls, combination salads, and french fries in addition to Mexican dishes. With the end of Prohibition, it began to offer alcoholic drinks, which no doubt expanded its appeal as a dinner venue.

In 1950 the family opened the first Oklahoma City restaurant [see above advertisement], then came new locations in shopping plazas. Meanwhile, the chain also produced much of its own food for sale, including candies, tacos, tamales, and canned chili. [below, Casa Linda Plaza El Fenix, ca. 1957]

By the 1960s, Mexican dishes formed a more prominent place in El Fenix advertising, with specialties such as “crispy” puffed tortillas filled with spiced beef, chili con quezo, or fried beans. With the opening of their restaurant at Lemmon and Innwood in 1960, tagged the “most elegant Mexican restaurant in the Southwest,” an advertisement touted its fare as “the ultimate in authentic . . . extraordinary Mexican cuisine.”

The chain continued to grow. By 1984 there were 18 El Fenix-owned/franchised restaurants, 11 of them in Dallas, 4 in other Texas cities, and 3 in Oklahoma City. Two went by other names: Don Miguel’s, in Addison TX; and Taco Burrito, in Oklahoma City. [pictured above, Galleria Mall, Houston]

In 1998 newspapers reported that the other venerable Dallas chain, El Chico, was set to buy El Fenix, but the deal fell through. Ten years later El Fenix – then consisting of 15 restaurants — was sold to the Firebird Restaurant Group which continues to own it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

Thanks to Daniel Arreola for lending the postcard of El Fenix in Houston’s Galleria Mall.

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Filed under chain restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

Pausing to reflect

I prepared a new post for today, but with the grotesque events happening in Ukraine, the invasion worsening by the hour as Russia attacks daycare centers and residential housing, it seems so wrong to post it.

For that matter, I feel that over the past couple of years I haven’t seriously acknowledged the effects of Covid on restaurants. When it all began – which now seems long ago – I wrote a post on the effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic on restaurants, noting a number of responses similar to what has happened recently. But since then I haven’t really dealt with the difficulties contemporary restaurants have been having, with staff miseries and shrinkage, shifts to carry out, disappearance of printed menus, mass closings, etc. I hope to come up with some new themes that touch upon historical precedents. For example, there was terrific difficulty in hiring restaurant kitchen and dining room staff during WWII. I could look at how restaurants dealt with that problem.

If you want to read something new today, I recommend some of my “old” posts that still seem to hold up. Since I’ve been doing this since 2008, there are many to choose from. Some have few likes which is because when I started blogging there was no “like” button!

Here are some of my personal favorites:

The (partial) triumph of the doggie bag
Once upon a time it was embarrassing to ask for a doggie bag.

That glass of water
Visitors from other countries are always surprised at getting a glass of water without asking.

No smoking!
Ending smoking in restaurants was a long struggle.

Deep fried
Where would restaurants be without deep frying?

You want cheese with that?
Everything’s better with cheese, right?

Chocolate on the menu
It all started with cups of hot chocolate.

Basic fare: club sandwiches
How a mere sandwich became a classic.

Take care,

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Filed under blogging, food, restaurant customs

Sugar on the table

Probably most patrons never give sugar a thought when they are visiting cafes and restaurants, but it is a subject that has been somewhat vexing for proprietors and guests over time.

Sugar in restaurants has figured as a health concern, an aesthetic concern, a monetary concern – and just a plain old nuisance.

For decades in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when tables were shared by strangers, a bowl of sugar was put on the table to be used by all. In the average eatery of 1830s Boston, as elsewhere, a table would typically hold a sugar bowl along with salt, butter, and other condiments.

By the late 19th century, the new-style help-yourself lunchrooms had a novel way of grouping condiments together. These were three-tier revolving trays placed in the center of round tables and holding napkins, silverware, sugar and salt, etc. They looked prim and neat – at least before the “quick lunchers” arrived.

But whether the sugar bowl resided on an 1830 oak table or a “modern” nickel-plated “Waldorf” revolving tray in a 1910s lunch room, it posed a sanitation problem.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how shared sugar bowls could go wrong. The salty journalist who wrote under the name Fanny Fern expressed her disgust vividly in the 1850s when she described a scene at New York’s popular and well-known Taylor’s Saloon. “J-u-l-i-u-s C-ae-s-a-r! look at that white-aproned waiter pulling out his snuff-box and taking a pinch of snuff right over that bowl of white sugar, that will be handed to me in five minutes to sweeten my tea!” she exclaimed.

Along the same lines, complaints about sugar bowls that had signs of careless use were common. The cheaper the restaurant, the better the odds that the ugly cracked bowl of sugar would have coffee stains or fly specks. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, sugar bowls usually had no lids and often customers used their own spoons to dip into them. When lump sugar was used, as was often the case, diners would take pieces out of the bowl with their fingers.

Concerns about public health brought changes in the 20th century. In 1912 the U.S. Surgeon General suggested that if people would not use tongs to remove lump sugar from bowls then restaurants should switch to loose sugar, which required a spoon.

During World War I, many restaurants removed sugar bowls from their tables. Not for sanitary reasons but because they were severely restricted in the amount of sugar they were allotted. Some restaurants served no sugar while others served it only if asked, limiting the amount to one teaspoon per customer. In others, the staff put the sugar in diners’ coffee or served it in small paper packets.

By the end of the war municipal health departments around the country began to order restaurants to use covered sugar bowls, a move probably made more urgent by the nation’s deadly flu epidemic. The postwar years marked several other changes in restaurants’ ways of handling sugar, partly because prices were higher than before. Some introduced wrapped sugar cubes that were often smaller than the lumps of old, while others set out shakers rather than bowls, another method meant to discourage overuse.

Meanwhile, though, tea rooms – and fine restaurants — continued to use sugar bowls, often matching their china patterns, suggesting this was considered more refined and attractive than shakers. During the Depression a tea room consultant advised proprietors who wanted to attract male customers not to use wrapped sugar cubes because “somehow they do not know what to do with that bit of paper.” Likewise, a columnist in 1941 pitied the tired businessman seeking a restaurant meal who couldn’t “dip his spoon into a good old sugar bowl.” Instead he had to fumble with unwrapping a cube and waiting for it to dissolve in his coffee, wasting time and fraying his nerves. Poor guy, who knew?

Another age-old issue with sugar was that when its price went up, customers stole it. No doubt this occurred in the 19th century but it became a focus in news reporting beginning in World War II when sugar was rationed. Waitresses began to notice diners dumping bowls of sugar cubes into their pockets and purses. Some came prepared to steal sugar, bringing along paper bags. It didn’t take long before managers decided not to use lump sugar or discontinued placing any sugar on tables. Some began to furnish saccharin.

Stealing occurred again in 1963 and in the fall of 1974 when sugar prices tripled. The fact that many restaurants were using sugar packets by then actually made stealing easier. This time, many restaurants returned to using loose sugar. A few began to have servers provide sugar only when asked, occasionally going so far as to add a charge on the customers’ checks. [cartoon, 1975]

Things have changed since then. Sugar shakers continue to be associated with diners and lunch counters. But cubes have come up in the world. In the late 1980s a restaurant critic expressed dismay when he went to Justine’s, a restaurant that had long been regarded as one of the finest in Memphis. Among the disappointing details he noticed was the restaurant’s sugar delivery system. “Do people spending hundreds on food and wine really want to use sugar from a paper packet rather than sugar cubes?” he asked.

Today I suspect that the reduced custom of drinking coffee with meals means that restaurants provide far less sugar to customers than they used to.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

Wishing you a sweet Valentine’s Day!

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Filed under food, patrons, restaurant customs, sanitation

Native American restaurants

Although there has been growing interest in exploring native foodways in the past twenty or so years, it seems there’s been little research into the history of Native American restaurants, that is, those serving traditional Indian dishes and/or those run by Indians.

The earliest one with a Native American proprietor that I found was in Coweta, Oklahoma, around 1906. It was run by Frank Oliver, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. A very brief newspaper item reported, “There are few Indians in the restaurant business but Mr. Oliver likes to feed ‘em and is prosperous.” It was not unusual for Indian restaurants in the Southwest to serve Mexican dishes, especially in later decades.

That same year another Indian proprietor was running a restaurant in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. His name was given simply as Antoine, born a Mohican in New York state but adopted into the Creek tribe. Sometime later a woman named Elizabeth Sapulpa, probably the wife of the tribe’s chief, also had a restaurant in Sapulpa where she served Sofky (corn soup made of hominy, bits of meat and blue corn dumplings) as well as cornbread made of cornmeal soaked overnight in buttermilk.

Many of the references to Indian restaurants I found did not lead anywhere. For instance, despite much searching, I could not determine if the Santa Fe movie studio, opened in Monrovia CA in 1927, ever established its planned Hopi Indian restaurant. And I’d love to know how the Hollywood actor Don Porter fared with his restaurant. It was to be built in Hollywood in 1951 with an open firepit vented through a hole in the roof. For years he had collected recipes from many tribes and planned to feature buffalo, bear, venison, wild greens, wild rice, and corn – along with cook-it-yourself fish wrapped in leaves and mud. Also, I wondered if the plans reported about a 1970s graduate of a culinary training program in Albuquerque had succeeded. She hoped to establish a restaurant on her reservation serving game such as quail, rabbit, and deer, along with blood pudding and her tribe’s oversized homemade tortillas.

Her endeavor would have been in contrast to many Indian-run restaurants on reservations that featured mainstream American fast food. As Ruben Silverbird would observe in the 1980s, “On the reservation we have restaurants run by Indians, but they sell hot dogs, hamburgers, ham and eggs.” Similarly, at the Tigua reservation’s cultural center in El Paso TX in 1986, a restaurant called Wyngs drew non-Indian tourists and served fajitas, seafood platters, and barbecued ribs.

It has been said that Native Americans don’t have a restaurant culture, but I have the sense that there were many native people who for decades wished there were more Indian restaurants. Especially among Indians living in cities there was a strong desire for gathering places and ways to stay connected to their culture, including foods. In 1968 a Queens resident, an Otoe-Pawnee from Oklahoma, observed, “There’s no place for Indians to gather in New York (City) – no Indian restaurants or anything like that.” Buoyed by the Black Power movement, she and other native women had recently joined together to promote their Indian identities.

In the mid-1960s, a food court representing many different cuisines in a Phoenix shopping mall included “The Hogan,” which was claimed – somewhat unconvincingly – to serve the only authentic Indian food in Arizona outside a reservation. It was run by a Scandinavian proprietor who served corn on the cob impaled on arrows. The second incarnation of an Indian restaurant there was named Tiny Teepee where posole, a hominy and pork stew, was prepared and served by Native Americans.

Also in the 1960s Native Americans began to urge the creation of cultural centers that would honor their heritage. By decade’s end a number of Indian restaurants began to open as part of complexes that included motels and cultural centers with museums and craft demonstrations. The Cherokee Heritage Center opened in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1967 with an associated restaurant, the Restaurant of the Cherokees shown here. Although hamburgers and other common “American” dishes dominated the menu, the restaurant also served traditional Indian food such as shuck bean bread (corn and bean dough, steamed in cornhusks), sorrel, watercress from local streams, poke salad, fried huckleberries, crawdads, and “squaw” bread made with sour milk. In the spring, it hosted wild onion dinners.

Building Indian community took a hit in Baltimore when an Indian restaurant failed to open, despite being fully set up and ready to open its doors. The problem was that the U. S. Labor Department claimed it had been a mistake to permit the grantee to buy restaurant equipment with a 1974 job training grant for an American Indian Study Center. The government removed the equipment, sinking what would have been the only Native American restaurant in the Washington-Baltimore area.

1986 marked the opening of what claimed to be New York City’s first Native American restaurant, Silverbird. Its proprietor, Ruben Silverbird Ortiz, a professional singer and entertainer of Indian/Mexican/white heritage, said it would serve New Mexico food, including “green and red chile, blue corn chips, salsa, all that good stuff.” As was true of most Indian restaurants, the menu accommodated non-Indian patrons with American dishes, but held weekly dinners serving rattlesnake stew. The restaurant employed a diverse crew, with servers and kitchen staff made up of Comanches, Navajos, Blackfeet, Italians, Irish, and Mexicans.

Some Indian restaurants were decorated with Southwestern art or murals of buffaloes and teepees. Silverbird was decorated with Kachina dolls and tables inlaid with sand paintings. However, some, such as Dovecrest [shown at top], gave little visual indication they were Indian.

Probably the most celebrated Indian restaurant of the 20th century was Loretta Barrett Oden’s Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that ran from 1993 to 2001. Before opening her fine-dining restaurant, Oden, a member of the Citizen Patawatomi Nation, spent three years researching tribal recipes and cooking methods, which can vary considerably according to region. She is a proponent of healthier dishes such as bison, wild-caught salmon, trout, quail, venison, corn, beans, and squash. She has also been a vocal critic of deep-fried fry bread, a popular Indian item in itself as well as serving as the bottom layer of “Navajo tacos,” popular in eating places throughout the Southwest. She has tried to convince Indian-run casinos to offer native dishes, but has found that a hard sell considering the strong attachment of their patrons, both white and Indian, to steak, hamburger, pizza, etc.

The 2000s seem to have raised interest in indigenous chefs and restaurants, but they have continued to face a rocky road in terms of widespread acceptance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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January 16, 2022 · 12:47 pm

Thanksgiving dinner at a hotel

In 1843, when the most enthusiastic celebrators of Thanksgiving were New Englanders, the Sons of New England – who were living in Philadelphia — decided to hold a Thanksgiving dinner at a hotel there. They chose the Washington House, which had recently been taken over by a new manager who emphasized that he provided recherché fare.

What little is known about the dinner gives a peak at a strange, lost holiday custom.

The Sons of New England were men from the two states that were known for their enthusiastic celebrations of Thanksgiving, Connecticut and Massachusetts. As evidence, in 1817 a report circulated about the lavishness of Thanksgiving dinners in Connecticut. The source of the story’s figures listing the quantities of food is a mystery, but it’s impressive how much Wine, Brandy, Gin, Rum, Cider, and Whiskey was said to be consumed. It’s also interesting how the most popular food items mentioned differ from those regarded as traditional today. Geese outnumbered turkeys by a factor of 10, and apple sauce was 12 times more plentiful than cranberry sauce.

The Washington House dinner was held at 4:30 p.m. on November 30, with about 130 in attendance. The Sons were said to be men of prominence in Philadelphia. Obviously they were not poor if they could pay the $3 ticket charge, easily equal to $100 today.

The bill of fare for the 1843 dinner is unfortunately not available, but a newspaper story describing it revealed that it included red onions cultivated in Connecticut and baked beans — then practically the official dish of Boston.

The beans seem like an odd dish for Thanksgiving, but the big surprise was that bowl of molasses passed around so everyone could take a lick! I puzzled over how it might have reminded them of “other times.” What could that mean? Turns out I guessed right — that it brought back memories of childhood. According to accounts from that time, young children would go to wharves with small sticks that they would insert repeatedly into molasses barrels and then lick them off.

Have a wonderful holiday and be thankful that your dinner won’t include sharing a bowl of molasses.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Romanian restaurants

Historically, the Romanian* restaurants that received the greatest attention from the press have been those in New York City. In 1901 the population of Romanians in New York City as a whole was estimated to be 24,000, with about 15,000 of those in the Romanian quarter on the Lower East Side. There were said to be 150 restaurants, 200 wine cellars, and 30 coffee houses kept by Romanian Jews. Favorite foods included broiled meats, goose pastrami, cabbage rolls, polenta, and spicy skinless sausage. Seltzer and red wine figured largely as drinks.

Not all Jewish-operated Romanian restaurants followed kosher law, but they were unlikely to have pork on the menu, the principal meat of Romanian cuisine and used in cabbage rolls (sarmale).

Immigration to this country began in the 1880s. It’s likely that the earliest Romanian restaurant in New York was one that began as a wine cellar in 1884 on Hester Street, and soon evolved into an eating place. Romanian immigrants were disproportionately male, working during the day and renting crowded floor space to sleep at night. Restaurants and coffee houses were not only places for meals and refreshment, but also community centers for these men, who were essentially homeless.

In his memoir An American in the Making (1917), Marcus Ravage explained that when he arrived in New York City in 1901, as soon as he made a few cents peddling on the streets he headed for a Romanian restaurant on Allen Street, where he ordered a ten-cent dinner of “chopped eggplant with olive-oil, and a bit of pot-roast with mashed potato and gravy.” Ravage expressed the difficulty he had in accepting American food and eating habits. When he went to college in Missouri in 1905, he reported that everything tasted “flat” to him, and that he “missed the pickles and the fragrant soups and the highly seasoned fried things and the rich pastries made with sweet cheese” he grew up with.

A Romanian dish from an East Side restaurant described in 1905 was a “hot and very piquant” round steak with peppers. The steak was cut into 3-inch-wide strips, slashed with a knife and marinaded in lemon juice and oil before being pan fried. Small red peppers were fried with it. Each diner took a pepper, opened it, and sprinkled the seeds on the meat.

According to author Konrad Bercovici in Around the World in New York (1924), many of New York City’s Romanian restaurants were run by Jews, but often the proprietors were Greeks, Hungarians, or Germans, as was the case in Romania’s capital, Bucharest. Over time, it seems as though the fare served in these restaurants merged with what was becoming known as Jewish cuisine rather than remaining strictly Romanian. (Of course Romanian cuisine itself strongly reflected a blend of traditions.)

Some of New York’s Romanian restaurants developed into night clubs, with a grab-bag of acts bordering on vaudeville. Joseph Moskowitz was a world-famous cymbalom player, who began his restaurant career in 1913 with a wine cellar on Rivington street. Later he had restaurants with music and dancing on Houston, and then on 2nd Avenue in 1938 at Moskowitz & Lupowitz where dinners began at 85 cents. He sold his share in that restaurant a short time later and moved to Akron OH, where he often played at Gruhler’s Romany Restaurant.

Other popular East coast night spots included Old Roumanian on Allen Street in New York and Shumsky’s Roumanian Restaurant and Bar in Atlantic City, established 1925, which advertised “New Kishka (sausage) Room” and “Dinner ‘Muscat’ Music” in 1952. At Sammy’s, on NY’s Chrystie street, which opened in 1975 and closed quite recently, entertainment was mainly in the form of extras placed on the table. They included a pitcher of chicken fat, fizz-your-own-seltzer, and for dessert a bottle of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, milk and two glasses for making an egg cream.

A bohemian version of a Romanian Restaurant was operated by Romany Marie in Greenwich Village. Sculptor Isamu Noguchi characterized it as “a sort of a transfer of the Paris café life to New York.” It’s likely this was true to some degree of many Romanian eating places which tended to exude a sense of good cheer and camaraderie all their own. [above: 1924 advertisement]

Many Romanian restaurants had prices in the reasonable range, with full dinners running from $1.00 to $1.25, but that was far from the case for the elegant restaurant in the Romanian House at the 1939 NY World’s Fair [shown above]. There the menu was in French, fresh caviar was $2.50, and a dinner was priced at $3.50, minus wine.

Outside of New York – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before many Romanians dispersed into the larger population – there were Romanian colonies in other cities, both in the East and in the upper Midwest. Some were composed of Romanian Jews, but others, perhaps most, were communities whose members belonged to Catholic and Orthodox religions. Immigration to the U.S., almost nil from 1920 until the 1940s, resumed after World War II when the Soviets took over and continued through the 20th century and into the present.

It becomes harder to track Romanian restaurants in the later 20th century since they became less inclined to use Romanian as part of their names. But they certainly existed in Trenton, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Los Angeles, and many other cities. One reason they might not have been clearly identified as Romanian was expressed in 1990 by Felicia Zanescu, proprietor of Mignon European Restaurant in Los Angeles. When asked why she called it European rather than Romanian, she replied, “Who ever heard of Romania?” Nonetheless the menu was convincingly Romanian with its carp roe dip, eggplant paté, dill-accented white bean broth, fried cheese, sausages, cabbage rolls, etc.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

* Before 1975 Romania was usually spelled Roumania or Rumania.

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Filed under atmosphere, ethnic restaurants, food, kosher, menus, night clubs

Fish & chips & alligator steaks

The menu shown here caught my eye as I was browsing the internet. Of course, I wanted to know more about it. The first thing I discovered was that it is available as a reproduction.

Evidently the Trebor Dinner was a specialty menu for complete dinners of multiple courses. Three dollars was a steep price for the Depression when this menu was introduced, at least double what a comparable meal would have cost in a moderately-priced good restaurant then.

The illustrated menu shows 14 entrees. But the restaurant almost certainly did not have all the exotic items available at all times. Another fish & chips, inc. menu from 1937, for example, offered one appetizer, one soup, and only four entrees.

The menu could date any time from the opening of the restaurant in 1936 into the 1940s. Its clever design may have been due to owner Bob Winter’s background in advertising. Why the menu is named “Trebor Dinner” is a mystery. It’s possible that Trebor is a play on the owner’s name Robert.

Fish & chips, inc. was conveniently located in the Loop, across the street from the central Chicago library, now the Chicago Cultural Center. It was a handy location for a 1943 dinner of the literary members of the Boswell club, admirers of Doctor Samuel Johnson. In their honor the restaurant posted one of Johnson’s quotations over their table in which he criticized French menus, requesting “thy knaves to bring me a dish of hog’s pudding, a slice or two from the upper cut of a well roasted sirloin, and two apple dumplings.”

It was a popular restaurant, said to be especially well liked by male patrons. In 1944, during World War II, lines formed at the door. The following year it was enlarged to seat 300. [1949 advertisement shown]

With no meat on the menu, the restaurant would have had the advantage of escaping wartime food restrictions and shortages.

Advertising that it had 50 varieties of fish on hand daily, a lunch or dinner could include sunfish, crappies, smelts, cod, brook trout, sea bass, shrimp, and lobster among many others. The restaurant advertised heavily during the Lenten season.

Bob Winter died in 1953 and the entire contents of the restaurant were auctioned, including groceries.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, menus, Offbeat places, patrons, popular restaurants