Category Archives: menus

Taste of a decade: the 1830s

Although the U. S. population exceeded 12 million, only about 5% lived in the ten largest cities in 1830. Most Americans lived in sparsely populated areas where they rarely encountered restaurants — nor could they afford them.

Nonetheless, those who did patronize “restaurants” – then more likely to be called restorators, refectories, restaurats, eating houses, coffee houses, or victualing cellars – noticed a growing French influence grafted onto the predominant plain English style of cooking. The word “restaurant,” when used in this decade, usually had the modifier “French” preceding it.

To the relief of diners, it was becoming easier to find eating places that would serve dishes a la carte at the hour the diner wished to eat rather than having a pre-determined meal served only at set hours.

At most eating places the three F’s dominated menus: Fish, Flesh, and Fowl. And, of course, oysters were tremendously popular with all social classes. Occasionally, a restaurant offering a more varied bill of fare could be found, such as that at Robert G. Herring’s American Coffee House in Philadelphia that includes Green “Pease,” String Beans, Lobsters, Frogs, Sardines, Anchovy Toast, Omelet with Asparagus, and Strawberries and Cream.

Patrons of wealth and sophistication indulged in the finest foods that could be found in major cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. According to one observer, worldly young men were becoming knowledgeable about “culinary details” in the early 1830s. “It has become wonderfully fashionable lately in discoursing upon eatable matters,” wrote the author of A Short Chapter on Dining, “to parade the names of a dozen or two of French dishes.”

At the same time a spirit of abstemiousness was spreading as people rejected “ardent spirits” such as gin, rum, whiskey, and brandy. Temperance followers also condemned restaurants themselves, viewing most of them as “grog shops.” During the cholera pandemic of 1832, some temperance advocates went so far as to blame the high death rate among the poor not on urban filth and polluted drinking water, but on alcohol consumption, particularly by Irish immigrants.

In the larger cities, New York especially, many couples and families chose to live in hotels and boarding houses rather than run their own households, finding it both cheaper and easier. Others, who lived in their own residences, took their meals in nearby hotels or had them delivered by a restaurateur.

Two English women who visited this country wrote scathing accounts of life here, painting Americans as shallow, grasping, and dull. In Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, she observed how American conversation frequently included the word “dollar,” and also noted, “They consume an extraordinary quantity of bacon.” The actress Fanny Kemble’s Journal (1835) included among its “vituperative remarks” criticism of New York hotels and their rigid meal schedules.

As railroads and waterways were extended, newly settled areas of the country gained access to more oysters, seafood, and exotic fruits. In 1832 a traveler recorded that he ate “fine sea fish and oysters one hundred and fifty miles inland – drank punch from fruit imported from the Indies, at Pittsburg, and sat down to a dessert in Cincinnati, the ingredients of which were the delicacies of every clime.”

Highlights

1831 After visiting the dining room of the recently opened Tremont House in Boston, a Baltimore man writes that he finds it an “essential improvement in tavern keeping” that everyone dining there receives a bill of fare listing all dishes to be served at that meal. Otherwise, he comments, a diner departing from the dining hall usually discovers favorite dishes placed on another part of the long shared table that never made it to him.

1832 In Domestic Manners of the Americans, Frances Trollope asks why Americans are so fond of boarding in residential hotels: “What can induce so many . . . citizens to prefer these long, silent tables, scantily covered with morsels of fried ham, salt fish and liver, to a comfortable loaf of bread with their wives and children at home?” she writes.

1833 Harvey D. Parker – who will establish the luxury Parker House and Restaurant in 1855 — takes over the Tremont Restorator in a cellar on Boston’s Court Street and publishes the protein-rich bill of fare shown here.

1833 The owner of a new refectory on Whale Street in Nantucket advertises that he will provide Pies, Tarts, Custards, Oysters, Fish Chowder, Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Mush & Milk, Beer, and Cider, but that he has promised his landlord he will “keep no ardent spirits of any description for sale” even though he knows it will mean lower profits.

1834 Francois Parrot, “French Cook, Restaurateur & Confectioner” in Philadelphia, announces “that after a long residence with the Count of Survilliers, he has, with recommendations from him for professional capacity and moral character (which he will be happy to shew any one), determined to set up a Cooking Establishment and Eating House in Philadelphia.”

1835 The popular Alexander “Sandy” Welsh, president of the Hoboken Turtle Club and famous for his green turtle soup, expands his Terrapin Lunch in New York City and is now able to accommodate 150 seated in small groups.

1836 After the opening of the Merchant’s Exchange Lunch on Broadway, a patron sends a glowing review to the editor of the New York Herald citing its fine cooking, clean tablecloths, damask napkins, excellent ventilation, and cheerful servers. “Only think,” he writes, “a plate of the best meat, including four kinds of vegetables, and the best butter also, in these dear times too, is only eighteen pence.”

1837 Following the destruction of their restaurant on William Street in the great fire of 1835, the Delmonico brothers open a new 4-story restaurant on the corner of Beaver and William Streets. [1880 photo shown at top, demolished 1890] Visitors are overwhelmed with its magnificence, particularly its wine vaults that extend 180 feet under the streets and hold 20,000 bottles of imported French and German wine. The restaurant’s resplendence is all the more striking as the city suffers bank failures, worthless currency, and economic depression.

1837 Outrage erupts when New Yorker Samuel E. Cornish, editor of The Colored American, discloses that he was refused service at a temperance eating house run by an abolitionist Scottish immigrant. Explaining that he has never before encountered discrimination of this sort, Cornish writes, “It remained for a foreigner, in a cellar cook-room, to insult a native citizen, of 17 years residence in this city; and to deny a minister of Christ, of gray hairs, and twenty-five years’ standing in the Presbyterian church, a cup of Tea.”

1837 As a result of economic collapse, businesses distrust paper money and refuse to give coins [aka “specie”] as change. When they do agree to accept bills they return change in the form of tickets good for future purchases. A patron of a NYC eating house becomes indignant when “a negro named Downing,” “a black villain,” refuses to accept his dollar bill. But the newspaper to which he has complained defends the proprietor, asking, “Why should any man be compelled to take worthless paper money for his goods and wares? When I visit Downing’s, I never give or take paper money. I pay in specie entirely.”

1839 At a “restaurat” in New Orleans, patrons attending summer balls are warned not to bring their guns.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Dining & wining on New Year’s Eve

I haven’t found evidence that people celebrated New Year’s Eve in restaurants or hotels much in the 19th century. But in the early 20th century it became a more popular thing to do. Having a reservation at a swanky place conferred status, as the 1912 drawing above is meant to illustrate.

If one dish ruled New Year’s Eve menus in the early 20th century it was roast turkey. It was the main dish at the Techau Tavern, “San Francisco’s Busiest and Handsomest High-Class Café,” shown here in 1909. Turkey with Cranberry Dressing and Chestnut Stuffing was preceded by Toke Point Oysters from Washington, Cream of Chicken Soup, Striped Bass, and Sweetbreads.

Turkey also dominated the 1912 New Year’s Eve menu at The Fern in Scranton PA, “An Eating Place of Refinement and Respectability.” The Fern featured a $1 dinner that was similar but even heftier than the Techau Tavern’s, with Blue Point Oysters, Cream of Chicken Soup, Baked Bluefish, Croustade of Lobster, Tenderloins of Beef, Roast Turkey, Sweetbreads, Banana Fritters, as well as all kinds of vegetables, salad, and pie. The Alt Heidelberg Café in Fort Wayne IN, and Tait’s in San Francisco provided similar menus.

Through the 1920s, it was not hard to find a place where one dollar or a little more would buy an elaborate dinner with an orchestra and dancing. In Seattle WA, New Year’s Eve entertainment at the Hotel Washington Annex included dinner plus a “lady vocalist” and the Whangdoodle Quartet, all for $1.25. The absence of (legal) alcohol in the 1920s did not dim festivities in Chicago nightspots in the Loop or on the South Side, where “handling a flask has never been considered flagrant.”

Despite tight economic times in the 1930s and war in the 1940s – or maybe because of these conditions — Americans showed continuing enthusiasm for celebrating the new year in restaurants and clubs. The repeal of Prohibition at the end of 1933 brought about heightened levels of good cheer. Not even higher prices at the end of 1934 discouraged revelers who paid from $7.50 to $15 per plate in NYC. Yet there were still bargains to be had as the accompanying 1935 menu from Kolb’s in New Orleans shows. Low prices also prevailed in Canton OH where sauerkraut and wieners were traditional.

After the war, menus reflected the growing importance of beef on New Year’s Eve – and throughout the year. The 1958 menu at Pike’s Verdugo Oaks in Glendale CA is representative, and not terribly different than menus found throughout the U.S. in later decades. The Raintree Room at the Continental Regency in Peoria IL in 1978, for example, offered beef or lobster, with salad, baked potato or french fries, and the ubiquitous cheesecake for dessert, a standard menu for a restaurant dinner in the last decades of the 20th century.

Whether you have steak or hot dogs this New Year’s Eve, have a good time and best wishes for 2018!

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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High-volume restaurants: Hilltop Steak House

Until I moved to Boston in the 1980s and took a whale watch tour I hadn’t heard the boastful term “biggest grossing” thrown around. In pointing out the highlights of the Boston Harbor, the tour operator singled out several booming enterprises including Anthony’s restaurant. Had we been on a tour of Route 1 north of Boston, I’m sure he would have shouted the praises of the Hilltop Steak House, another mega-volume eatery, where a team of in-house butchers carved up millions of steaks a year, the parking lot held 1,000 cars, and customers waited in long lines outside the door.

I never went there. I was not one of the 2,350,000 or so customers who patronized the Hilltop in 1985, for example, one of a number of years when it ranked as the #1 independent restaurant in the USA from a high-grossing perspective, with over $24 million in annual sales.

Established in 1961 with seating for 125, the Western-themed restaurant continued to grow in subsequent years, with more dining rooms brightened with the standard steakhouse blood red color scheme, seating 1,100 by 1970, with an enlarged parking lot, and a huge 68-foot high lighted cactus sign out front.

Dining rooms were adorned with totem poles, reproductions of Remington and Russell paintings, and life-size Indian figures. The rooms had names meant to conjure up the Wild West such as Sioux City and Kansas City. No doubt the names rang true to diners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts but would have amused residents of those Iowa and Missouri cities which are conspicuously lacking in Western symbology.

Guests appreciated big steaks, low prices, and free parking. Prices were premised on sales volume, rapid table turns, cash-only payment, no reservations, and limited menu choices. Steaks could vary in grade, customers could not send back too-well-done steaks, orders could not be split, and there were no tablecloths. There was only one salad dressing and appetizers and desserts were uninspired – Jello was one of the three desserts on a 1981 menu. “I have nothing against lobster thermidor,” owner Frank Giuffrida told a reporter in 1984, “but don’t come to the Hilltop Steak House and expect to find it.”

The restaurant was prominently visible on Route 1’s tacky, wacky restaurant row where other high-grossing restaurants were also located, making the roadway a New England phenomenon in its own right. The Hilltop’s location was conveniently near the Mystic Bridge, the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels, Logan Airport, the Southeast Expressway, and Routes. 128, 28, 3, and 93. Busses were welcome!

The Hilltop’s founder, Frank Giuffrida, owned the restaurant until 1988, retiring as a rich man despite never having attended high school. In 1940, when Frank was 23, he was a butcher in the family meat market. His parents were born in Italy and had once toiled in a Lawrence MA woolen mill. In the 1950s he owned a tavern-style eatery called the Hilltop Lounge not far from where the steakhouse would be located.

Frank sold the Hilltop corporation in 1988 though he held onto the building and the large plot of land it occupied. The sale came with an agreement that the Giuffrida family would eat at the restaurant for free for the rest of their lives and that they would never have to wait in line for a table.

By the late 1990s restaurant competition on Route 1 had grown fierce. Weylu’s, another Route 1 top-grosser serving as many as 5,000 meals a day at its peak, went into bankruptcy in 1999 and closed. The Hilltop shrank its seating capacity to a mere 850 guests, but carried on until 2013. Both Weylu’s and the Hilltop have been demolished.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Famous in its day: the Public Natatorium

Sometimes a brilliant idea hits you, but then you wake up the next day and see why it won’t work. But other times you don’t see why it won’t work until much, much later – after you’ve lost a lot of money.

That’s what seems to have happened with John and Margaret Garlic’s plan to turn a 19th-century public bathhouse in Milwaukee into a restaurant with dolphin shows. The future looked bright when they bought the building from the city for a mere $4,000, but then things became more complicated.

They hoped to open the restaurant one year after their January 1978 purchase, but the actual opening date was delayed by a year by city regulations, trade unions, and late equipment deliveries. Gutting the building and reconstructing the interior purportedly cost upwards of $800,000. And then there were unexpectedly high costs of leasing dolphins and providing for their care and feeding, as well as for federal inspections and trainers’ salaries.

It was not the Garlic’s first foray into the food and restaurant business. Around 1976 they had opened J. J. Garlic’s, a casual restaurant that soon gained popularity in Milwaukee for its cheese fondue, soups, burgers, and jumbo shrimp. Around 1973 the Garlics had pioneered the industrial production of the now-ubiquitous gyro cone, beef and lamb scraps blended and pressed into a Spam-like substance supplied to concessionaires, roadside carts, and restaurant operators.

But then in 1978 J. J. Garlic’s received a devastating review by none other than the celebrated writer Herbert Kubly who wrote restaurant reviews for The Milwaukee Journal from 1970 to 1984. According to G&G Enterprises, Ltd., the official owner of Garlic’s, the review caused a 25% drop in business, amounting to a loss of half a million dollars.

As it happened, the menu at the Public Natatorium – as the new 1979 restaurant was named — borrowed heavily from J. J. Garlic’s. This was especially the case on the Natatorium’s “gourmet” second level where prices ran considerably higher than on the lower level.

While the lower-level menu had sandwiches in the $4 to $5 range, the upper level was meant to provide an elegant dining experience, with chilled golden salad forks, marble-topped tables, and a parchment-like menu. Yet even the lower level was deemed too expensive by some Milwaukeeans. A review that appeared shortly after the opening pointed to skimpy servings such as the Peel & Dip Shrimp at $7.50 which a reviewer described as “five small shrimp . . . with cocktail sauce, a slice of lemon and a lot of ice.” The writer also grumbled about a $1 entrance fee assessed on all customers.

Nonetheless, the Public Natatorium became a must for tourists attracted by the dolphin shows and as far as I can tell did reasonably well overall. At some point after its opening, G&G Enterprises opened a third place with the characteristically jocular 1970s name Fried Eggs & Tootsies, aka F.E.A.T.S. Located near the Milwaukee campus of the state university, F.E.A.T.S. was mostly a drinking spot with bands.

Still, the fine dining concept at the Public Natatorium showed signs of consumer resistance. A 1980 review in a Racine WI paper titled “Taking a bath at the Natatorium” was extremely negative. It described in great detail how, despite high prices, the wine glasses were dirty as were some raw appetizer mushrooms, while several main dishes were submerged in thick, tasteless sauces. The reviewer also cited a shrimp dish that “reeked of the freezer.” He found a small loaf of warm bread the best food served to his table. A 1982 Los Angeles Times story about places to visit in Milwaukee advised visitors to take the children there for the dolphin show but “certainly don’t go for the food, which is mediocre.”

It’s likely that the Natatorium was not doing too well by 1983, the year in which G&G Enterprises filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against The Milwaukee Journal for the 1978 Kubly review of J. J. Garlic’s and to forestall a forthcoming review of the Natatorium by Kubly which they believed would be negative. The suit, which went nowhere, claimed that the paper, an editor, and Kubly were “engaged in a conspiracy to put plaintiff out of business with yet another defamatory article.”

Kubly’s review came out anyway and was indeed negative, detailing slow service, cold food, and a high degree of inept pretentiousness. He included inauspicious quotations from the menu such as “Wild Boar Chasseur, cousin of the domestic sow” and “Hippopotamus Bordelaise, chewier than beef.” What was appealing about Lion le Blanc, Buffalo Navajo, or Veal Chop Andrea Doria (“once served on the famous ship that had the unfortunate collision”)? Kubly must have recognized some of the same dishes he had been served at J. J. Garlic’s, namely the cold fondue (“incorrigible, starch-laden, over salted”), cold consomme (“contained tough bits of meat, a few peas and carrot lumps”), and baked potatoes (“cold and had an unappetizing scorched taste”). A lengthy two and a half hours after arriving, he and his companions made their way out of the then-empty restaurant as the staff brought out a cake – which they took home in its Pepperidge Farm box supplied by the waitress.

The following year John Garlic announced he would sell J. J. Garlic’s and F.E.A.T.S. and move to Florida, while The Public Natatorium would remain open under a manager. But that didn’t last long. By January 1985 the remaining dolphin, Soda, was in peril due to a heating breakdown. A bankruptcy judge ordered that he and two sea lions be sold immediately as part of the restaurant’s liquidation proceedings.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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“Wop” salad?

People living along the Gulf of Mexico are probably familiar with this designation but I remember being quite surprised the first time I came across it. Given that “wop” is an offensive slang name for Italians, my first reaction was, Please don’t tell me it means that!

It does. It’s another way of saying Italian salad.

“Wop salad” could be found on menus from the 1930s even into the 1980s in certain regions. Its use was frequent in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, especially along the Gulf. It was most closely identified with New Orleans, but was also used in Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Corpus Christi, Galveston, San Antonio, Biloxi, and to a lesser extent Little Rock, Arkansas. I have also found the term in use by restaurants in various other states, but quite rarely.

The salad had many variations. Among the possible ingredients [some pictured above] are iceberg lettuce, endive, escarole, white onions, tiny pearl onions, shallots, garlic, boiled eggs, black olives, green olives, pickles, celery, radishes, sweet peppers, pimientos, avocados, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, asparagus, anchovies, and grated cheese. Dressings could contain combinations of some of the following: olive oil, vinegar, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon.

Even a single restaurant might not always compose the salad in quite the same way. Larry Platt’s Italian Village in Corpus Christi TX advertised wop salads with differing ingredients in 1954. In one ad the salad had “pimientos, olives, anchovies and sauce, Italian peppers and sauce, pickles, eggs, garlic, onions, fresh lemons and salad dressing” while in another it contained “anchovies, olives, lettuce, tomatoes, Italian pepper, radishes, celery, with our Famous Dressing.”

An indication of the popularity of the salad, however construed, is its inclusion in the American food section of a 1950 Chinese menu from The Chinese Dragon in New Orleans. [pictured here]

Despite my negative response to the name, the general reaction today seems to be mild amusement coupled with dismissal of the notion that it could be taken as truly offensive. Most defenders will quickly point out that Italian-Americans in New Orleans used it too and it could be found as often on the menus of Italian restaurants as any others.

I have read the claim that Joe Brocato’s restaurant in Shreveport LA – which advertised it was “Home of the Wop Salad” — was the owner of the term and that anyone else who used it had to pay royalties.

Call me skeptical. I’ve heard similar arguments about how Afro-Americans didn’t mind dressing up like mammies, loved working and eating at Sambo’s, etc.

Historically New Orleans had more residents of Italian origin than other cities in the South. It was a port of entry into the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many Italians disembarked there. One day in October 1907, for instance, 1,300 Italians arrived, some of them wives and children of men in various parts of the country, but others migrants who came to work in Louisiana sugar cane fields; taking jobs once held by slaves and poor Blacks, they were very much looked down upon. And how long did Italians in New Orleans remember the lynching of eleven Italians there in 1891? The murders brought condemnation nationally and internationally and caused riots in Italian communities in NYC and Cincinnati.

Yet Italians who settled in New Orleans went on to found successful businesses and become professionals and civic leaders there. Quite a few opened restaurants.

To many people “wop salad” began to sound wrong in the 1980s. Journalists writing about restaurants in Southern papers became rather squeamish about using it, distancing themselves by putting it in quotation marks or referring to the term as “unfortunate.” But I cannot help but wonder how others, particularly those of Italian ancestry, felt about it during the decades it was commonly used. Did they think nothing of it? Did they find the name annoying but not worth making a big deal about? Did they feel insulted by it?

I have found very little evidence of protest. Someone calling themselves “Italian-American” wrote to a columnist of the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1961 complaining of her use of ‘wop salad,’ and stating, ‘There is no such thing as ‘wop salad.’ Did you mean ‘Italian salad’?” The columnist defended her usage, concluding, ‘Everybody loves ‘wop salad.’ We English-German-Scandinavians all try to copy it.” In 1972 the paper received a complaint from a New Jersey Italian-American man who had visited the city and found “wop salad” on menus everywhere, including “better restaurants.” Perhaps Commander’s Palace was one of them. [see ca. 1950s menu fragment] He was especially offended by a sandwich shop with a sign in front saying, “Bigga Woppa Sandwich.” He concluded that New Orleans was only pretending to be “a genuinely cosmopolitan city.”

With the present cultural climate I halfway expect “wop salad” to resurface.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Chocolate on the menu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Diet plates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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