Category Archives: lunch rooms

Lunch in a bus station, maybe

In November, 1961, new Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) rules took effect requiring all interstate bus terminals to integrate their lunch and waiting rooms. The new regulations went against Jim Crow laws in the South that required separate “white” and “colored” facilities.

Although travel on interstate buses had been integrated by the ICC in 1955, the regulations had not covered restaurants or restrooms in the terminals.

The new rules were issued just months after the Congress of Racial Equality organized “Freedom Rides” with groups of Black and white members who rode buses to Southern states — Alabama and Mississippi in particular — with the intention of challenging segregated bus station facilities. In May, 1961, the Freedom Riders were attacked by violent white mobs who beat them and firebombed one of their buses while it was stopped with a flat tire outside Anniston AL. [photo above]

Twelve days after the ICC rules took effect a Black journalist, Bettye Rice Hughes, set out on a bus trip through the South to observe firsthand what had changed – and what hadn’t. She was a graduate of Lincoln University in Jefferson City MO where she majored in journalism. She and her husband, Albert Hughes, a photographer for the Associated Negro Press [ANP], lived in Los Angeles. She was a reporter for the ANP, but it is unclear if that was her job at the time of her tour. In 1964 she was editor of the women’s page of the San Francisco Sun-Reporter. That year she took part in a panel at a conference on Black writers sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley. In 1966 she left the Sun-Reporter and may have moved to New York City. I was not able to trace her any further than that. [photo: Bettye Jean Hughes at 1964 conference, talking with LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)]

Her six-week tour took her through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and part of Mississippi. Her story, “A Negro Tourist in Dixie,” was published in April, 1962, and continues to be read today.

The bus she took avoided going through all but a corner of Mississippi – where it made no stops – and her tour did not include Louisiana, the birthplace of segregated railroad travel.

In her report of the bus tour it’s clear that she is a close observer, paying attention not only to the reaction of white people to her, but also to the reaction of other Black people, on the bus and in the stations, including kitchen workers. Clearly she is an object of curiosity, but also hostility. “I felt that the threat of violence was always there – particularly in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama – but somehow it never erupted,” she writes. She is served in the lunch rooms, though often grudgingly. On a couple of occasions she has to insist on her right to eat in what were still considered by many to be “white” lunch rooms.

The first direct challenge to her presence in a lunch room came at a Greyhound station in Florence, South Carolina. There, the white cashier as well as a white counterman yelled at her to go to the station’s other lunch room, “the one for you.” She stood her ground, despite her growing fear, and succeeded in getting served, but the episode filled her with dread about the next stops. During the encounter, white patrons, she noted, were silent and “pointedly staring at their food.” In Tallahassee FL, the “problem” of serving her was solved by having a Black cook do it.

Throughout her experiences in lunch rooms she felt the eyes of Black travelers on her as much as those of whites, though evidently few dared to order food. She concluded her essay expressing hope that Black passengers would assert their rights in the future and that white Southerners would become accustomed to eating in lunch rooms with them.

I was curious about how lunch room integration proceeded in other parts of the South that she did not visit, and how things developed after her tour. I found that in quite a few cities officials refused to integrate, insisting that local Jim Crow laws took precedence over ICC rulings. The major of Shreveport LA put it bluntly: “We don’t care about the ICC.”

In Birmingham, the manager of the Greyhound cafeteria was fined and given a suspended sentence for allowing Black and white people to be served together. The manager of the lunch counter in the McComb MS bus station took down the signs indicating separate lunch rooms but refused to serve five Black customers in what had been the white room. When they began banging on the counter for service, a gang of white males ran in and attacked them as well as chasing off a TV cameraman.

In some cities and towns local authorities closed their bus stations’ eating facilities rather than integrate. Federal authorities stepped in and prevented Birmingham from closing its Greyhound restaurant. But in Crossett AR a lunch room closure left a Black woman traveling with a 2-year old stuck on a Continental Trailways bus with little food for two days in a snow storm. White passengers had found rooms in a local hotel, but the hotel told the Black woman they were full. After a radio station ran a story about their plight, Black families offered a room and neighbors brought “enough food for a banquet.”

By the time Bettye Hughes’ essay came out, it was generally possible for Black travelers to get a meal in a Southern bus station, though resistance continued in some places. An Associated Press story declared that Virginia and the Carolinas had accepted bus station integration, but Birmingham had integrated “in name but not in practice.” It also reported that Black people were staying away from bus station restaurants generally. They knew they still were not welcome.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under atmosphere, lunch rooms, racism, restaurant issues, waiters/waitresses/servers

Suffrage tea & lunch rooms

In roughly the ten years preceding passage of the 19th amendment giving women the vote in 1920, suffragists ran tea rooms and lunch rooms to raise funds for the cause and to publicize their arguments for why women should have the right to vote.

Most major cities – New York, Boston, Baltimore, Hartford, Charleston, Atlanta, D.C. [see above illustration], etc. – had a suffrage tea or lunch room, many located in the local suffrage headquarters. In smaller towns they might be temporary, running only for a week or so in order to get money for something such as sending a delegate to a meeting out of town. There were other related ways to make money: in San Francisco suffragists sold a specially packaged Equality Tea, with a booth in the Emporium department store.

Some groups served only tea but in larger cities tea and lunch rooms also provided food. When a suffrage tea room opened in Chicago in 1914, it offered a variety of salads and sandwiches with a beverage for 35 cents. Desserts could be added for another 15 cents, but evidently pie a la mode was reserved for male guests. Men were warmly invited to patronize suffrage tea and lunch rooms, and treated very well, since they would be the ones deciding whether women would get the vote. Lifelong peace activist Mildred Scott Olmsted [shown here at age 29], interviewed at age 97, said she had been a volunteer waitress at Philadelphia’s suffrage tea room, where they “lured men in for a good cheap business lunch.” “Then,” she said, “you could hand them literature and talk.” No doubt she did a lot of talking. Over and over she heard the argument that women should rely on husbands, fathers, and brothers to vote for them.

At Boston’s suffrage lunch room on Tremont Street [shown below] substantial meals were available, such as corned beef hash with beets and a muffin or boiled salmon with egg sauce and potatoes, both for about 30 cents. The back of the menu was used to inform diners that if the lunch room succeeded in adding another 40 daily patrons to its usual 160, it would make enough profit to cover its office rent. Yellow was the color most often associated with the suffrage cause, explaining the Sunflower name adopted by the Boston suffragists.

Undoubtedly, the most eye-catching of the pro-suffrage tea and food dispensaries was the yellow and black lunch wagon that showed up in the Bronx near Fordham College in the summer of 1911. Suffrage volunteers worked in it, selling lemonade and sandwiches. The plan was to have one wagon in each of the five boroughs; one showed up in Brooklyn in 1915, though I couldn’t determine if there were others.

The lunch wagon was only one of New York’s suffrage eating places. At 70 Wall Street was the Votes for Women lunch room run by the Empire State Suffrage Campaign Committee, in a space donated by the husband of one of the suffragists. When a promise of homemade food was made on September 16, 1915, the place was mobbed, with men crowding the tables and “against the walls.” A menu published later promised “Real Home Cooking,” featuring Chicken Salad, Corn Bread, Waffles with Real Maple Syrup, and Home-made Ice Cream.

The offer of “homemade” food was politically strategic in that it reinforced the idea that suffragists were feminine women, not pseudo men as argued by the anti-suffragists. Using the same logic a suffrage group in Washington state put out a cookbook with 700 recipes. [1917 ad for Philadelphia’s lunch room show here]

Multi-millionaire Alva Belmont financed another New York City suffrage lunch room on East 41st street, at the headquarters of her Political Equality League. There middle-class women who could afford to spend 50 cents for lunch ate in one room, while working-class women ate inexpensive sandwiches in a second room.

Along with suffrage groups, probably every city also had an organization of women opposed to equal suffrage. They also tried to gain support through teas and lunches, though these tended to be occasional events held at the antis’ headquarters or in someone’s home. In February 1917, the District of Columbia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, for instance, created a pink tea room – pink being the antis’ color — at their Pennsylvania Avenue offices for visitors attending the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. In Des Moines IA, the local anti-suffrage association held a tea reception at Younker’s Department Store to host a prominent anti-suffragist from Pennsylvania.

Just how helpful suffrage eating places were in boosting the cause is impossible to assess, but they surely must have helped build bonds among feminist activists such as Mildred Olmsted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under alternative restaurants, lunch rooms, patrons, tea shops, women

Lunching in a laboratory

Bertha Stevenson was born at a time when a woman’s interest in chemistry, or any scientific field, could only be channeled into the limited confines of women’s realm. That was the same era in which Ellen Richards, the first woman admitted to MIT, became “the mother of home economics.”

Even though Stevenson was younger than Richards, she ended up directing her postgraduate study of chemistry to bread making. On the bright side, she was quite successful, not only at marketing bread but also in creating a string of high-quality lunch rooms with prices low enough that young working women could afford them.

She began making bread in Cambridge MA around 1902. Her shop was quite fashionable in a refined way. According to one description, “The furniture is of the hand made order, simple in line, artistic in design. A few big copper vessels, gleaming red, a few palms, a rug or two, good, but not extravagant, a Ruskin portrait in a black oak frame, one or two Millet pictures, numerous quotations from Ruskin, Tolstoy, Morris.” About a year later, stories appeared in newspapers around the country describing her Samore Bread Laboratory, and congratulating her and her female associates for finally showing the world that college-educated women were good for something after all.

The following year they moved the bakery to Boston. A lunch room was opened with it, sponsored by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU), a non-profit organization in Boston founded in 1877 to advance the well-being of women.

The lunch room, known as the Laboratory Kitchen, was on Temple Place in Boston’s shopping district where it could serve women workers and shoppers. It carried over the Arts & Crafts style of the former Cambridge bakery, with muted greens and browns and touches of copper and brass. Servers dressed in Puritan costumes with white caps and kerchiefs. In addition to producing bread and inexpensive lunches, the plan was to set up a hot dinner delivery service that would free homemakers from kitchen drudgery.

Problems cropped up almost immediately. The Laboratory Kitchen was located on the 2nd and 3rd floors of an elevator building. Unfortunately the elevator often was out of service. Next, another restaurant physically resembling the Laboratory Kitchen opened on the ground floor, causing many lunchers to patronize it thinking they were in the Laboratory Kitchen. Meal delivery turned out to be much more difficult than expected and the delivery zone had to be cut back. As far as I could determine the delivery project was abandoned after the three-year WEIU contract expired.

But the lunchrooms proved to be successful. When Temple Place started up, a second Laboratory Kitchen, not under WEIU sponsorship, was opened on Bedford St. It was operated as a cafeteria, a type of eating place popular in Chicago but then unknown to Bostonians. Ellen Richards and a group of Boston’s progressive women pioneers attended an opening luncheon there where they learned how to handle a cafeteria tray.

Subsequent lunchrooms of the chain – of which there were eventually five or six — were all based on self service or counter service and were less expensive than the full-service Temple Place location. Stevenson used technological advances to cut costs and speed service. At one address outfitted with a lunch counter [location shown above on Bedford St., viewed from Kingston St.], guests ordered by number. Waitresses then relayed the number to kitchen workers on the floor below by punching the number in a machine and the order was sent up via a dumbwaiter under the counter. At another of the lunch rooms, she employed a simplified “Automat”-style set of heated or cooled boxes that she patented. Workers filled them from the back while patrons lifted a glass window in front and removed what they wanted. [see patent illustration]

I stumbled across a story of someone who was a regular at one of the Laboratory Kitchens in the early days. She began working at the Filene’s department store at age 15, getting $4 a week, which barely allowed her to pay for a ride on the “T” and a 15-cent lunch at the Laboratory Kitchen. Eventually she became a department store buyer and a women’s rights activist.

As popular as the lunch rooms were with women, they also attracted men, particularly after one opened in 1919 on Washington Street in the stretch then known as Newspaper Row.

The dishes served at Laboratory Kitchens, such as vegetable plates, chowders, and beefsteak pies, were not fancy. Bertha Stevenson was dedicated to providing lunches that were hot, healthful, and hygienically prepared. In one of the articles she wrote for Good Housekeeping magazine she chided young office workers who ate sweets for lunch, asking, “How can a girl who feeds herself on cream puffs be anything but mercurial?”

She retired in the 1940s but the last Laboratory Kitchen, on Lincoln St., survived until the late 1960s, still advertising its “real lunch without frills.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under alternative restaurants, cafeterias, lunch rooms, proprietors & careers, women

Boston’s automats

I have written quite a lot about automats, their origins in Germany, and where they have appeared around the country and the world. The automats run by the Horn & Hardart Company in New York, which began in Philadelphia in 1902, were undoubtedly the most successful and best known.

But automats did not do so well in other places. In Boston, The Automat Company of New England is pretty much completely unknown and I could not find a single illustration. (Boston’s automats were not part of Horn & Hardart Co.)

In 1916 the Automat Co. of New England’s first automat opened in a renovated building at 255-257 Washington, occupying the first floor and basement.

It’s difficult to say exactly who was behind this business, but evidently there were numerous investors, including a NYC bond merchant, a New England hotelier, Harvard College, a Philadelphia trust company, and a Boston realty company.

The company began advertising in Boston papers for help, running hundreds of advertisement for chefs, cooks, buss boys, dishwashers, porters, bakers, pie men, and mechanics. Applicants were directed to 40 Winchester Street, which was the central office and commissary where food was to be prepared for the branches that would soon open.

Next, the company hired a general manager and began running advertisements for leases on new locations containing “not less than 4,300 square feet floor space with basement preferred.” Soon it had five: 2 High st., 40 Court st., 234 Huntington ave., 255 Washington, and 32 Franklin, as well as its headquarters on Winchester. As might be expected, the cost of installing automat equipment in the five locations was high.

By early 1919, the company was insolvent and operating only three locations. Receivers were appointed by the court. A story in March revealed that the company owed a serious amount of money to its creditors: $103,789. In August, the commissary and the remaining four locations were auctioned, including all equipment, furniture, stock, and patent rights.

The Waldorf Lunch System, which ran about 24 lunchrooms in the Boston area, acquired the assets of the Automat Company. They continued to run at least one of the locations as an automat, 234 Huntington, until they auctioned the restaurant in June 1924.

Waldorf ran a second automat in the 12-story Little Building on Boylston Street. Since this had not been a location of the Automat Company, Waldorf must have moved automat equipment they acquired in the auction to this address. But, in 1924 they converted this automat into a “modern cafeteria,” saying that they would now be able to handle an additional 50 customers at a time, as well as to expand the menu to include steaks, chops, roasts, and even oysters, cooked by “special chefs” who would provide “regular first-class hotel cooking.” The change was seen as a substantial upgrade.

It sounded as though Bostonians weren’t shedding tears over the disappearance of automats in their city.

It seems to beg the question of why NYC’s automats were celebrated and became objects of nostalgia.

Automat is a word still in use in Germany, meaning a vending machine. And if you think about it, weren’t the old H&H automats simply large vending machines with people working inside of them?

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms

Lunching at the dime store

Waves of nostalgia about lunch counter menus, low prices, friendly waitresses, and non-pretentious hospitality surged when dime stores began closing their counters in the 1970s and 1980s. [photo ca. 1930]

Nostalgia was mostly confined to former patrons who were white and not involved in the 1960s protests to integrate variety store lunch counters. In fact, some black activists still had criminal records on the books for participating in sit-ins.

It isn’t surprising that dime store lunch counters were chosen as sites of protest in 1960 and 1961 if you realize that they were among the top food service chains in the country then. A report from 1964 showed that F. W. Woolworth Co. and McDonald’s Systems, Inc. were neck and neck in the chain restaurant race. McDonald’s was ahead in sales with $114M while Woolworth was at $100M, but Woolworth dominated the landscape with 1,950 units across the country as compared to McDonald’s 611. And though not in the top ten, other dime store chains also had notable lunch counter sales, particularly Kresge, Grant, Newberry [shown below, 1940], and McCrory.


Dime store lunch counters dated back to the 1910s. The earliest lunch counters were probably the ones associated with the railroads, going back at least several decades into the 19th century. But dime stores added something new to their lunch counters – soda fountains — giving them wider appeal and the ability to attract customers between mealtimes.

Their installation involved significant capital investment. As dime store advertisements proclaimed, they were modern and sanitary. Through the first half of the 20th century, the stores constantly reminded the public that they were outfitted with the latest in modern gas and electric appliances for cooking, refrigeration, cleaning, and sterilization. [Kresge, Louisville, 1922]

When a new Woolworth store opened in Abilene TX in 1939, a lengthy story reported that “All utensils touched by food are of stainless, seamless steel.” Plus, it said, the food was kept at the correct temperatures at all times, dishes were washed and sterilized automatically, and the kitchen was lit by fluorescent fixtures.

I have no doubt that due to their expensive kitchen and counter equipment, dime store food service far exceeded the typical under-capitalized independent lunch room or restaurant of the same time in terms of sanitation.

Another modernizing feature was promoting women into lunch counter management. Although I’ve seen no numbers, Woolworth’s claimed that the majority of their lunch counters and bakeries had women managers. When a new Woolworth store opened in Butte MT in 1928, the opening of the lunch counter was under the supervision of a woman who managed a busy lunch counter in a Denver Woolworth store. This was surely a role not often played by women in the world of business then. She predicted that with 62 stools and quick service, the Butte store should easily be able to serve 1,000 persons at lunch.

Dime store lunch counters have been seen as early versions of fast food restaurants and to a degree this is true. They depended on fast delivery of food, high turnover of each counter stool, and price breaks for quantity buying. But there were also many ways in which they were not like the fast food chains that helped put them out of business.

Baking on the premises and selling baked goods in the store certainly set them apart from burger chains of the later 20th century.

So did using fresh produce and buying locally. When a new counter at the Newberry store was opened in Fremont OH in 1941, an advertisement stated, “Daily there arrives, fresh from the finest markets, a big assortment of garden vegetables and fruits; from the best local dairies come rich milk and cream and palate-tempting butter . . .” Local dairies and food purveyors often co-sponsored advertising when a new store was built or a new counter installed. A new Kresge store in St. Louis acknowledged its suppliers in 1919, “reliable firms, such as Freund Bakeries, Carpenter’s Ice Cream, Thomas L. Tierney Tea and Coffee Co., Sixth Street Grocery Co., Bentzen Commission Co., Harry E. Grafeman, Foerstel Bros. Meat Co., Herz-Oakes, Swift.”

Their menus included sandwiches and desserts, but also substantial hot meals. A remodeled Kress store in Fort Worth TX announced its menus for April 1931 would include a number of 25c plate lunches such as Roast Chicken with Dressing, Cranberry Sauce, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. There was also a vegetable plate with Mustard Greens, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. [Woolworth menu, 1959 — click to enlarge]

Woolworth had a love affair with turkey, serving it on plate lunches throughout the year. The explanation, according to Karen Plunkett-Powell in Remembering Woolworth’s, was that the store bought up farm surpluses for good prices – whether vegetables, dairy products, or turkey. Turkey seemed to appear frequently at Kress and Kresge also.

As dime stores experienced declines in business, their lunch counters were often the first sign of cutbacks, with the last ones closing in the late 1990s. Among the mourners were older patrons who took part in informal lunch counter coffee clubs. [Northampton MA, 1990]

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, lunch rooms, menus, popular restaurants, sanitation

Restaurant design and decoration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, lunch rooms, restaurant decor, uniforms & costumes

Dining on a dime

To celebrate my blog’s 10th anniversary, I’m looking at what a dime would buy in American restaurants of the 19th and 20th centuries.

It’s not too surprising that a meal could be bought for a dime through much of the 19th century. BUT, does that mean that a restaurant meal was much cheaper then than today?

Not necessarily. For example, compare the situation of unskilled laborers in 1869 and now.

In New York City in 1869, when the average hourly wage for an unskilled laborer was about 15 cents, a meal of meat or fish with two slices of bread and a potato could be had for 10 cents. Adding pie, the bill came to 15 cents. A laborer had to work one hour to pay for this meal. And, any restaurant with prices this low – most were more expensive – was almost certainly dirty and smelly.

Today, by contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that $16.60 is the median hourly wage for an unskilled construction worker, meaning half of workers surveyed make less than that and half make more. Using this as a typical wage, we also have to consider that various taxes are taken out resulting in a smaller net amount, something that was not the case in1869. Subtracting $5.00 gives a net wage of $11.60. At McDonald’s a regular hamburger costs .95, but let’s make it a double for $1.89; small fries are $2.09, and an apple pie is $1.14. The total comes to $5.12. So a laborer has to work less than one-half hour to pay for what is probably a more substantial meal than in 1869. And – this is not intended as an advertisement for McDonald’s — the restaurant is undoubtedly cleaner.

Before Prohibition cheap restaurants had a hard time competing with saloons’ free lunches in many parts of the country. According to research on urban working-class saloons (Jon M. Kingsdale, American Quarterly, October 1973), along a 4-mile section of a major street in Chicago in the 1890s there were 115 saloons with free lunches, but only five 10-cent restaurants and twenty five charging 20 to 35 cents. Brewers bought food cheaply in large quantities and furnished it to saloons at cost.

Not surprisingly, it became harder to find 10-cent meals, or even single dishes, in 20th-century restaurants. And, of course, even in the Depression people who had jobs made more per hour than they did in the 19th century, making a 10-cent sandwich, for example, a better deal.

But in the 1970s it was basically impossible to find anything on a menu for ten cents. (But, keeping in mind the McDonald’s example above, it was possible to find something in a restaurant that cost no more than one hour’s wages.)

Here are some samples of what you could get for a dime in American eating places over the years:

1854 A New York City temperance restaurant tried to lure patrons away from strong drink with plates of meat for 10 cents, as well as tea, coffee, and cocoa for 3 cents a cup. Since a typical laborer’s wage was even lower then than in 1869, this was a bargain only in the sense that prices were higher in most other restaurants.

1869 In contrast to New York City, a workman could do pretty well in San Francisco, according to one newspaper account that asked, “Where else in the world can a man sit down to green-turtle steak, bread and butter, celery, sauces, etc., . . . with but ten cents in his pocket? A very popular cheap eatery was in the What Cheer House which served over 1,000 patrons a day in dining rooms crowded with people waiting to grab a vacated seat. On average, workers in California made 60% more than New Yorkers, about $2.00 a day.

1884 At the Novelty Lunch Room in Grand Rapids MI a hungry worker could get Hot Griddle Cakes and Maple Syrup or Pork and Beans for 10 cents. A nickel more bought pie or cake. Michigan’s median daily wage for a laborer was then $1.42.

1889 Boston was said to be the home of sandwiches of all kinds, with Wyman’s taking credit as originator of the Fried Egg Sandwich. As noted on this trade card from the 1880s, Wyman’s specialty was a ten-cent lunch. At this time Massachusetts’ median daily wage for a laborer was only $1.22, about 12 cents an hour.

1895 Eating places known as “Beefsteak Johns” in NY sold single dishes such as roast beef and potato for 10 cents, while a regular dinner costing 20 cents had meat and potato plus soup, tea or coffee, and pie or pudding. But a few years later a letter to the editor of the Daily People signed “Hamburger Steak” charged Beefsteak Johns with paying low wages and serving bad food. It ended with “Forward! To the days of the Socialist Republic when the food of the workers will not be adulterated by the little business man in the restaurant line.”

1904 Fairgoers generally expected high prices for food at world’s fairs, but at the St. Louis World’s Fair the Universal Lunch Co. ran barbecue stands selling hot beef sandwiches for ten cents.

1910 Prices were lower in self-service eating places such as the newly opened Servself Lunch in Detroit’s Majestic Building which billed itself as the finest quick lunch in America. Most items, including soup, corned beef hash, pork and beans, macaroni and cheese, chicken pie, boiled eggs, sandwiches, corn flakes, baked apples, griddle cakes, and pastry, cost a dime each.

1922 Cooper’s Cafeteria in the college town of Champaign IL offered weekend specials such as Veal Loaf with Tomato Sauce or Creamed Chicken on Toast for 10 cents, while most side dishes and desserts cost 5 cents.

1928 and 1929 At Macy’s Department Store in New York, where it was “Smart to Be Thrifty,” the store shaved a penny off items that would have been 10 cents in most restaurants, such as Vegetable Soup, almost all pies and cakes, and a variety of beverages including Coca-Cola and Orange or Raspberry Phosphate. Each cost 9 cents. But a 1929 menu from Schrafft’s at 181 Broadway in New York listed absolutely nothing for 10 cents. The average hourly wage for manufacturing workers before taxes was about 56 cents in both years.

1932 The White Castle chain adopted a promotion to attract women customers (who generally avoided the restaurants). They were mailed coupons by a hostess named “Julia Joyce” that offered five small hamburgers to carry out for only a dime. The economy was depressed and the average hourly pre-tax wage for factory workers had dropped to 47 cents.

1941 With the U.S. supplying food to Great Britain for the war effort, the cost of food went up. Restaurants responded by raising prices. In Springfield IL a Wimpy’s hamburger stand increased the price of its 10-cent burgers to 12 cents.

1950 In New York City the Automat raised the price of coffee from 5 to 10 cents. At the Children’s Milk Bar in the Lord & Taylor department store, children could snack on milk and crackers for 10 cents.

1951 In Beaumont TX the Pig Stand was selling hamburgers that cost 10 cents before WWII for 25 cents. The average hourly pre-tax wage for manufacturing workers was $1.59.

1962 Even at inexpensive restaurants and drive-ins, beverages such as coffee or a small soda were usually the only items priced at 10 cents.

1965 A Burger Chef in Baton Rouge LA celebrated its 6th anniversary with 10-cent hamburgers. Ordinarily they cost 15 cents.

1974 See cartoon.

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Sawdust on the floor

Reformers of the 1910s would not have believed anyone who predicted that sawdust floors would make a comeback later in the century. But come back they did.

In the early 20th century, sawdust floors were seen as a vestige of disappearing filthy low-class eating places. Earlier they had been found in a great variety of places – English chop houses, French bistros, German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants, and saloons of every kind. In New York sawdust dealers of the 1880s made daily rounds selling 25-cent barrels to restaurants, saloons, and butcher shops (where sawdust collected blood).

But things were starting to change in the early 1900s as chains of sanitary lunch rooms with scrubbed white tile floors and walls became popular. In 1911, the Edison Monthly – a magazine devoted to promoting the use of bright lighting – confidently declared, “The old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor, is a thing of the past.”

City health departments warned that cheap lunch rooms of the old sort rarely replaced sawdust, often covering one dirty layer with another and rarely cleaning the wood flooring below.

Concern with sanitation caused many municipalities to adopt ordinances forbidding the use of sawdust on floors anyplace food was produced or sold. San Antonio’s 1914 ordinance was typical, stating, “No person owning or managing any such business shall permit the use of sawdust, shavings, or other dust-creating or filth-collecting covering on the floor of any such room.”

Nonetheless sawdust had a strange appeal at the same time it was denounced as brimming with bacteria and vermin. Visitors to San Francisco were drawn to places such as Sanguinetti’s where they could earn cultural credits back home for inhaling its wild and crazy bohemian atmosphere. As a 1906 article put it, “No tourist could feel that he had really taken in all the sights of the city until he had sat at one of its tables and eaten of the very indifferent fare served there, and dropped his cigar ashes on the sawdust covered floor.”

And that was another thing about sawdust floors – they tended to catch on fire when cigar and cigarette butts were dropped on them.

Through the decades sawdust floors acquired strong associations with beef and beer – and male patrons. These associations formed a reservoir of meaning that theme restaurants of the future were destined to draw upon.

Steak houses were especially attracted to the winning beef-beer-men combination. The first inklings of sawdust’s return came with the legalization of beer in 1933. The Palm steak house in Manhattan, a man’s restaurant frequented by newspapermen, was one to use it. Steak houses were so strongly associated with men that it was newsworthy in 1947 when a woman restaurateur departed from their standard rough-edged ambiance which she characterized as “A smoke-filled room, too-bright lights and sawdust on the floor.” In order to please women customers, she instead chose oak paneling, sound-proofed ceilings, soft lighting, and window boxes with green plants.

Unsurprisingly, she did not start a trend. By the 1960s, if not earlier, the bad old days had been transformed into cheery “bygone days” when life was truer and simpler. Americans of the era hungered for amusement with their meat. “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ . . . all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out,” observed industry consultant George Wenzel, who also recommended sawdust floors.

Restaurants with sawdust floors proliferated, many adopting other nostalgic (might we say hackneyed?) decor features such as red-checkered tablecloths, gas lights, pseudo-Tiffany lamps, pot-bellied stoves, and elaborate dark wood bars. O’Henry’s in NYC used a “fun” butcher shop theme, with real carcass hooks hanging from the ceiling and butcher blocks for tables. In Phoenix AZ the notion of a “hole in the wall” was redeemed from the ash pit of history by a 1970s resort where everything in sight was designed to appeal to men. At the resort’s café named The Hole in the Wall there was sawdust on the floor, tintypes on the wall, fires in the fireplaces, mugs of beer, and a manly menu of beef and buffalo steaks, rattlesnake meat, “cowboy beans,” and corn on the cob.

Along with steak houses, versatile sawdust floors turned up at Gay Nineties restaurants, English pubs, Wild West eateries, barbecue joints, even Mexican restaurants.

It’s hard to figure just how many states and municipalities issued ordinances prohibiting sawdust floors. In 1976 the federal Food and Drug Administration banned sawdust in restaurants, yet the ban was not universally followed. Sawdust floors were permitted in San Francisco, but not in Washington, D.C., for instance. Some restaurant owners strenuously resisted health departments that advocated for a ban. In Arizona, the battle over sawdust became intense when state and county health departments cracked down on several dozen restaurants in Phoenix. The restaurants countered that they replaced sawdust daily and had never experienced problems with patrons becoming ill.

Today? I believe that restaurants are not allowed to use sawdust on the floors in the U.S. today – but I am not 100% sure about this. It seems that patrons who still long for that kind of atmosphere must content themselves with throwing peanut shells on the floor.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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The Lunch Box, a memoir

There is little glamour surrounding the operation of most restaurants. They demand hard work, long hours, and relentless determination. Few stay in business long or bring their owners great riches.

All of these observations apply to the Lunch Box. Except one. The Lunch Box stayed in business for 35 years, becoming a well-loved stopping place along the road in the small Western Massachusetts town of Williamsburg.

But, glamour? As its owner, Anthony “Tommy” Thomas, writes in his recently published book, “the happiest day of owning the Lunch Box was the day that we hooked up to the sewer line.”

After that, he no longer had to worry about overuse of the restrooms.

In 1968 Thomas bought the small roadside restaurant that had begun in 1949 as a hot dog stand. Since then it had been enlarged [see below], never quite meeting the building standards he would have liked.

Thomas, like the owners of so many modest eating places, had been disappointed working for others and was strongly attracted to the risky idea of having his own business. Given the woeful condition of the restaurant, along with considerable misery in the lives of previous owners, the Lunch Box seemed overrun with risk and negative vibes. But that didn’t stop him.

In addition to hooking up to a sewer line, he also discovered in the early years that he needed to install a grease trap. For 35 years he cleaned it himself, an arduous task since it was located in a crawlspace under the building. “I had to crawl under and take the trap apart, take the pieces that needed to be cleaned and drag them outside, clean them and then crawl back under to put the trap back together,” he explained. He also spent many an hour defrosting frozen water pipes.

The small kitchen, with a ceiling “so low that a person six feet tall would have to bend over to use the stove,” was equipped with an “apartment size gas stove.” The original cash register could not ring up an order over $5, and had to be supplement with an adding machine to total checks. Shortage of capital meant that major improvement projects had to be deferred, particularly when it came to solving the building’s heating and cooling problems. “We were always cold on really cold days and hot on the very hot days,” he wrote.

Eventually he was able to rebuild the Box, adding a second story and a peaked roof [see book cover above]. And, he and his wife were able to raise four children, though it must have been tough at times. As he says, “There were years when my tax returns showed hardly any income and I was fortunate that I was in the food business so I could feed my family.”

Thomas took great pride in his other roles, admitting – rather surprisingly — that “The most rewarding in my judgment and the most important aspect of my life outside of my family was my time serving as a firefighter/EMT.” I was surprised that he did not cite the restaurant. He worked as a firefighter and EMT in both Williamsburg, where the Lunch Box was located, and in neighboring Goshen, where he lived. And he served as a Goshen Selectman for years.

He inherited the cafe’s reputation as a “woodchopper’s diner,” but he improved the quality of its comfort food menu by using fresh local produce whenever possible. He took great care in testing brands of coffee before selecting one. He saw to it that soups and pies, previously purchased, were made in house. The Box’s comfort foods, such as shepherd’s pie, macaroni and cheese, and meat loaf, drew locals, public officials, police, truck drivers, woodsmen, and a wide range of others including a few who traveled some distance to eat there regularly.

As is often the case with roadside diners, over the years the Lunch Box became a community hub where business was conducted, friends met up, and local news was exchanged. In a book with plenty of anecdotes, it becomes clear that each day promised new adventures with the Lunch Box right in the middle of it all. [photo: The Lunch Box float in Williamsburg’s 225th anniversary parade]

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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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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