Category Archives: lunch rooms

Multitasking eateries

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For centuries people have grabbed something to eat wherever they happened to be. Maybe they bought a baked potato from a roving street peddler, got tamales from a lunch cart, or stopped at a stand for a hot dog.

The places they got their food were usually not full-scale restaurants with waiters, complete meals, and sit-down service. The food and surroundings were often rudimentary. In the 20th century, and now, many catch-as-catch-can eateries were combined with other types of businesses.

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Gas stations are a prime example. But only once have I come across a lunchcounter installed inside the garage itself as shown here. Along with coffee and grub, it looks like customers could just grab a fanbelt off the wall at this homespun Arkansas café.

As was true of gas stations, eateries were often provided to serve people who stopped to take care of other chores, whether filling up their gas tank – or getting a haircut. Combining a quick lunch stand with a barber shop was outlawed in Duluth MN in the 1920s, perhaps because customers were finding hairs in their soup?

But I have to admit it was handy that the W-Bar-W Steak Ranch in Kennesaw GA was combined with a pawn shop in the 1960s. If hungry diners’ appetites exceeded their funds, they could pawn their watches.

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And certainly it was convenient to have your shoes shined while you ate.

restaurantanddentistofficeHow about some tea or bouillon while you wait for the dentist to work on your teeth? Unlike most other providers of refreshments, Dr. Arthur Cobb of Buffalo NY did not try to make money from his color-coordinated Japanese Tea Room.

Of course it has always been common to combine places of amusement with opportunities to eat a bite. In the 1850s men looking for an evening of entertainment might go the Washington Hall Restaurant and Pistol Gallery. After consuming “Beverages and Edibles” guests could enjoy rifle and pistol practice upstairs. Given the “beverages,” it sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

Bowling, pinball, and billiards were also frequently accompanied by eats as the following images show.

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© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Taste of a decade: 1880s restaurants

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In the 1880s a wider range of foods became available to people living in cities, allowing restaurant menus to became more varied. Cold storage warehouses and refrigerated rail cars brought cheaper Chicago beef and out-of-season produce. Mechanically frozen ice, free from the impurities of lake ice, became available. Cheese and butter, once made on farms, now came from factories. Fresh fruits and vegetables remained luxuries for most people, however, and meat and potatoes dominated menus.

Larger, better capitalized restaurants installed electric plants that provided brighter lighting and badly needed ventilation systems.

1882HartfordHalfDimeLunchThe public demanded, and began to get, lower restaurant prices, quicker service, and more flexible meal times. The dining public expanded. Boarding houses that furnished meals as part of the rent were replaced by kitchenless rooming houses whose residents went to restaurants for dinner. More hotels switched to the European plan, freeing guests to eat wherever they chose rather than pay an inclusive charge for room and meals. New types of ready-to-eat food purveyors came on the scene, such as all-night lunch wagons and dairy cafes that specialized in simple, inexpensive meals such as baked beans and cereal with milk.

New ethnic groups arrived on American shores, among them Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians. Many settled in the East but others spread to cities throughout the westward-growing nation. They brought with them new cuisines, tempting the more adventurous eaters among the settled population.

Temperance coffee houses and soda fountains continued to thrive, particularly in Boston where authorities were always looking for ways to curb drinking.

As the rise of department stores and downtown retail shops brought women into city centers, restaurants catering specifically to them appeared on the scene.

But not everyone was welcome at restaurant tables, or in the society at large. Southern states made segregation the law, keeping Black Americans out of white-owned restaurants. Racially motivated legislation cut off Chinese immigration to the U.S. and encouraged hostility toward Chinese already in the country, mostly in the West, motivating many to move eastward and  introduce curious diners to new foods.

Highlights

1883Macy'sNY1880 On the second floor of its newly expanded NYC department store, Macy’s restaurant for shoppers seats 200. [pictured] – In the silver-mining town of Virginia City NV, restaurants serve food from all over the world, including “fruits from every country and clime.”

1881 In December, Edmund Hill, proprietor of Hill’s confectionery restaurant in Trenton NJ totals up the proceeds of what he calls a “very satisfactory” year in which the business took in $18,146, netting him the handsome sum of $677.33 in wages and profit.

1880sRichmondCafe1882 Richmond’s Café in New Bedford MA informs customers that “The Café will be in charge of a lady . . . who will bestow especial pains upon lady patrons, taking charge of whatever parcels may be left in her care while the owners are out shopping.” – In Boston Charles Eaton and a partner open a temperance soda fountain and lunch room called Thompson’s Spa which goes on to become a local institution.

1883 One year after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rockaway Oyster and Chop House in Fresno CA advertises to prospective customers that it has “all white help.” Everyone, of course, understands that white means “not Asian.”

1889Chicago1885 In Boston and other large cities customers flood into cheap restaurants near railroad depots and wharves for 10-cent noon meals. Menus are chalked up on boards and customers eat rapidly without removing coats or hats.

1886 It is considered newsworthy when a federal judge orders a restaurant in Little Rock AR to serve a Black juror along with his fellow white jurors. A report notes that it was “the first time a negro enjoyed his repast at the leading hotel in the state and among white people.”

1887 After gathering menus from 40 prominent hotels from all over the country, a collector determines that salmon is the fish most often listed, and that it is found on menus across the United States, including Knoxville TN, Detroit MI, Milwaukee WI, Salt Lake City UT, and Cheyenne WY.

1883brooksdiningroom1888 At Chicago’s New York Kitchen, where a nickel buys Ham and Beans Boston Style or “One-third of a Pie, any kind,” the dining room is lighted by a Mather Incandescent Electric System and cooled by a steam-powered exhaust fan. — In Boston Brooks’ Dining Rooms is equipped with a telephone.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under lunch rooms, patrons, racism, technology, women

Famous in its day: Thompson’s Spa

thompson'sSpa782Beverages have played a big role in the operation of restaurants. I even tend to sort them mentally by what kind of drinks they featured. That is, by whether they had a bar or dealt in alcoholic beverages or were based around coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Throughout history many restaurants began as saloons, coffee houses, or soft drink stands.

Thompson’s Spa, a long-gone chain in Boston that grew to about a dozen units in the 1930s, began as a soda fountain – a “spa” — selling non-alcoholic “temperance drinks.” Open year round, it provided both cold and hot drinks such as these from its 1895 menu:Thompsons'SpaTemperanceDrinks1895In case anyone wandered in thinking they were going to get a whiskey, a sign hanging on the wall set them straight: “This is a temperance bar.” Not a big problem since they could duck around the corner and into the alley where the Bell in Hand stood, looking to all appearances like an old London tavern.

Before very long Thompson’s proprietor, Charles Eaton, added sandwiches, doughnuts, and pie to the menu, ALL of which counted as basic foodstuffs – not desserts — to Bostonians then.

thompson'sSpaNewspaperRow1929Eaton was a graduate of MIT who in 1880, after briefly practicing as an architect in his home town of Lowell MA, had invented an electric telephone signaling device that he sold to Bell Telephone. For some odd reason he chucked that career and joined his brother-in-law (named Thompson) in running a wholesale drug store in Boston. Perhaps selling was in his genes; his father had done well peddling snacks to railroad passengers, thereby earning the title “popcorn king of Lowell.” The drug business must have been slow because in 1882 Eaton and Thompson decided to install a soda fountain for non-alcoholic beverages.

The original Thompson’s Spa was located on the corner of Washington and Court streets in Newspaper Row where the city’s newspapers were located and also home to many of their employes. Near Thompson’s was Pi Alley, aka Pie Alley and officially Williams Court, where many printers, compositors, and pressmen lived in rooming houses and, undoubtedly, ate in restaurants. Eating places were accordingly plentiful in the neighborhood, among them Gridley’s Coffee House and Mrs. Atkinson’s.

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Thompson’s kept the appellation “spa” even as it gradually expanded into a regulation restaurant. It added a fuller menu plus much-appreciated amenities such as seats for customers, who had previously had to stand while they ate. Women were finally admitted in 1909. [1933 dinner menu shown]

Although Thompson’s had servers, the spa exhibited some of the earmarks of an automat. Like the early German automat which was primarily a delivery system for beverages, Thompson’s had an elaborate piping system to supply chilled liquids to serving counters. With the decision to add ice cream to the menu in 1915, a new soda fountain was installed that permitted syrups to flow through pipes as well. A bonus was that the soda clerks could prepare an entire ice cream soda or sundae while facing the customers rather than turning their backs.

Thompson'sSpa4GuardsmenBillSamArthurGiffordAfter Eaton’s death in 1917, followed by a bitter battle with his widow, his three sons took over the business and began to expand it beyond the sprawling Washington street edifice it had become. By 1939 it occupied eleven locations in downtown Boston. In addition to soda fountains the Spas had air conditioning, sound proofing, table service, and wall murals. But the company’s finances were not in good shape, due partly to overexpansion during the Depression. In 1946 it was acquired by the Sheraton (hotel) Corporation which daringly installed a cocktail bar at the Washington Street location. In 1949 Sheraton sold the company to New York’s Exchange Buffet Corporation which also failed to make a go of it and began closing units in 1952.

In 1958 the two Spas that remained, one of them on Washington street near the original location, were closed. Former executives and employees tried to carry on at one location for a few years.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Down and out in St. Louis

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Restaurants for those short of money are not always hospitable places like those I wrote about in my last post about community restaurants that feed the poor. The photo above looks unfriendly to me. Diners like it are often viewed through a haze of nostalgia that softens the edges – but that’s not how I see it.

I know this place though I’ve never been there, probably never even seen it before. I used to wait for a bus on a desolate corner in St. Louis, the city where I bought this photograph at a yard sale for 5¢. There sat a diner much like this one. My feet and hands might turn to ice from the cold winter wind on that corner but it never would have occurred to me to go inside to warm up. That’s how uninviting it was.

STLBrains25cWmStageIt had no parking lot. Probably, like me then, its patrons didn’t have cars. Assuming there were any patrons, that is. I don’t remember any. The location was a no-man’s land where nobody lived or spent any more time than they had to. Down the street was a place selling Brains, 25¢. A photo of it by William Stage has achieved a measure of fame. As an image I like it, but as a place to eat or hang out, no.

The photograph of the snack shop exudes a Not Welcome feeling. Mean-spirited signs warn “No loitering,” “No shoes, no shirt, no service, ” and “Relish, 10¢ extra.” Did people try to make a free meal out of relish?

All the menu cards posted on the walls are homemade by someone who lacked both lettering skill and a good, dark marking pen. There are other signs of neglect and failure. Stale looking pies, poorly wrapped. Jumbled electrical cords behind the milkshake machine. A sales tax cheat sheet taped on the cash register. A kitchen passthrough no longer in use. Because they fired the cook?

I’m guessing that the photograph dates from the late 1970s. The prices are not especially low for then . . . considering how unwonderful the fare must have been. Three Pieces Chicken, French Fries, Cole Slaw, 2.99. Baconburger, 1.95. As though they couldn’t decide the most basic pricing dilemma: 99¢ or 95¢.

I haven’t been able to learn much about the D&W Snack Shop whose name I guessed despite the Pepsi clock that awkwardly hides part of it. It was a Missouri chain incorporated in the mid-1950s.

I found a nice night scene photo of the exterior of a D&W in South St. Louis on Cherokee and California (in a fascinating blog on bricks). It could even be the same place.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Early chains: Baltimore Dairy Lunch

baltimorelunchDetroitAPeople liked to say that the names of lunch room chains in the early 20th century offered a lesson in geography. There were Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Iowa, Manhattan, Maryland, Milwaukee, New York, Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, St. Louis, and Utica Lunches, or Dairy Lunches as some were known. Los Angelenos patronized a New York Lunch in 1905, while customers in Duluth MN, Lexington KY, and San Francisco enjoyed their sandwiches in a Boston Lunch. Detroit had its Manhattan Lunch, while Manhattan had a Detroit Lunch. And so on.

baltimorelunchDetroitBBut before the 1920s no lunchroom chain was as popular as the Baltimore Dairy Lunch which at that time outnumbered Childs. Founder James A. Whitcomb began the business in the late 1880s in Washington, D.C., where he was a federal postal clerk, then opening a lunch room in Baltimore. Along with four quasi-franchisers, he controlled about 140 units by 1920. The largest branch, under the ownership of Harry Bowles in Springfield MA, consisted of a couple dozen units. Few large cities were without a Baltimore Dairy Lunch, as Whitcomb’s were named, or a Baltimore Lunch, the name used by Bowles.

baltimorelunchDetroitCWhether they belonged to large or small chains or were independents, Baltimores or Buffalos,  all Lunches were similar. As someone put it, “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.” A humorous story in Everybody’s Magazine in 1914 featured a cranky elderly man who went around from lunch room to lunch room asking the local wits, “What is the difference between a Hartford Lunch and a Baltimore Lunch.” Their answer was always the same, “Search me.”

Regardless of their similarity, dairy lunches were regarded as characteristically and proudly American, so much so that during battle in World War I, after U.S. soldiers took control of an improvised clubhouse used by German troops, they tore down a sign the Germans had posted over the door that said “Hindenburg Rathskeller” and replaced it with “Baltimore Lunch.”

baltimorelunchDetroitBaltimore Lunches shared many features in common with the fast food chains that arrived in the 1960s. Their offerings were simple and inexpensive. No alcohol was served. Customers got their food at a counter and carried it to their seats. Seating – one-armed wooden chairs — was uncomfortable and did not encourage lingering. Patrons didn’t mind, though, because they were interested in expediting the entire getting and eating process so they could go about their business.

baltimorelunchDetroit710Unlike fast food architecture of the 1960s, though, Baltimore Lunches were built as solidly and luxuriously as Grecian temples. Interiors used marble lavishly for counters and fixtures. Was it because both Whitcomb and Bowles were natives of Vermont, the state where so much marble is quarried? Maybe, but I think that marble was an expression of cleanliness and investment in a growing economy’s ability to efficiently mass produce affordable, nutritious meals. A standard feature of the Baltimore Lunch – a large marble bowl filled with sugar set on a marble pedestal — can easily be seen as a representation of democratic abundance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms

B.McD. (Before McDonald’s)

ArmstrongMOcafe

In most towns and cities across the USA the landscape is filled with fast food eateries that belong to chains, McDonald’s obviously being only one. Chain restaurants make up close to half of all restaurants today, and many of them can be classed as fast food places. A large proportion of the meals people eat away from home come from this type of eating place.

Where did people grab a quick bite before the fast food chains came along? What was the ordinary, inexpensive eating place like for so much of the last century, B.McD.?

Let’s peer back into the first half of the 20th century. There were some “quick lunch” chains in existence, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Although high-traffic locations in larger cities were quickly grabbed up by chains such as Baltimore Lunch or John R. Thompson, less desirable sites in cities and on Main Streets in smaller towns were populated with small independent eateries.

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Many, perhaps most, lunch rooms and cafes – not likely to be called restaurants then – occupied storefronts or freestanding one-story buildings of very basic construction. Often they were “mom & pop” operations with one of the pair handling the cooking, the other running the food service side of things. Very likely the proprietors knew most of their customers on at least a first name basis.

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Most lunch rooms shared a basic floor plan in a standard storefront space 18 to 25 feet wide and 75 to 100 feet deep. About 2/3 to 3/4 of the space was devoted to the dining room, the rest making up the kitchen which was hidden behind a wall, partition, or just a curtain.

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Usually seating would include both a counter and some tables or booths along the side or arranged toward the back. Very narrow storefronts had counter seating only. Shelves behind the counter or glass display cases might hold baked goods, packaged groceries, cigars, or candy. A cash register was often a prominent feature.

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In many cases during Prohibition, a café’s or lunch room’s previous status as a barroom was plainly evident.

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Decor, such as it was, was frequently provided by posters and stand-up signs advertising national brands, particularly soft drinks.

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What was gained and what was lost when the old lunch rooms disappeared? It’s a mixed picture. I doubt that their food was much to brag about. Some were clean, some were dirty. Often their menus were limited — but rarely as limited as the fast food chains. Food was served on dishes, not in paper wrappings. They provided service and often friendliness and a sense of community, though it was sometimes circumscribed by race, gender, and familiarity.

I recall walking into a local café in Hannibal MO about ten years ago. The few customers at the counter all turned to stare openly as we came though the door. The proprietor screeched, “Where are YOU from?” We were horrified when the chili came with a big scoop of sour cream on top. She seemed offended when we failed to order pie. I hate to admit it but, all in all, I would have preferred the anonymity of a chain for lunch that day. On the other hand, if we had gone to a chain I wouldn’t remember being in Hannibal at all.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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What would a nickel buy?

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At a self-service restaurant in the town where I live, the menu includes a simple dish of beans and rice for only $1.25. It’s not steak but it’s better than a candy bar for anyone who is hungry but short of money.

It’s interesting to see typical restaurant prices from the past and to try to figure out if their prices were low or high. I remembered running across old advertisements for 5-cent dishes which I estimate might equal the $1.25 rice and beans of today. What, I wondered, did 5 cents buy in lunch rooms and restaurants of the past?

1869 – One quarter of a pie costs 5 cents in cheap and lowly New York City restaurants. (Five cents then would equal 87 cents today.)

1878 – Boston’s saloon eateries charge 5 cents for a schooner of beer. In some places the beer entitles the purchaser to free cheese and crackers. (Five cents then would equal $1.25 today.)

1880s – At the Old Albany Oyster & Eating House, patrons can take their choice of vegetable soup, meat stew, 1 dish of pickles, 4 slices of bread, or 1 dish of butter, each for a nickel.

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1880s – Visitors to the circus in Hartford CT can get a meal very cheaply [see menu], just as they can at Frank’s Dining Rooms in Boston [see above].

halfdime1890 – At the Half-Dime Lunch in Springfield MA, as in Hartford, every dish costs only a nickel. Half dimes were replaced by nickels in 1866 and are suggestive of the olden days.

1894 – Chicago’s sandwich wagons sell ham and egg sandwiches for 5 cents to patrons who don’t mind eating on the curb. In Worcester, night lunch wagons price all sandwiches at 5 cents except for sardine sandwiches which cost double. (Five cents then would equal $1.38 today.)

1894 – Five cents doesn’t buy much except a little something to eat. A Boston restaurant that covers its walls with folksy signs has one that says, “No napkins served with 5¢ orders. See?”

1905 – Five cents at the J.S. Mill’s Lunch and Sandwich Room in St. Paul MN will buy a sandwich of egg, wienerwurst, cheese, or pigs’ feet. (Five cents then would equal $1.35 today.)

1914 – About 1/4 of drug store soda fountains charge 5 cents for an ice cream soda.

1921 – At Thornton’s Cafeteria in Atlanta, fried oysters are 5 cents apiece. (Five cents then would equal 64 cents today.)

1929 – Following the stock market crash, a roadside stand in Great Falls MT named The Barrels slashes the price of a 10-cent glass of root beer in half.

1950 – The Horn & Hardart Automats finally raise the price of a cup of coffee from 5 to 10 cents. (Five cents then would equal 48 cents today.)

1979 – At a New Jersey surf & turf barn called The Wooden Nickel, nickels are valued only for their nostalgic aura. The Wooden Nickel’s specialty dish costs $12.95.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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