Category Archives: menus

America’s finest restaurant, revisited

In the 19th century and well into the 20th there was absolutely no doubt that Delmonico’s was the nation’s finest restaurant, for decades the only one with a worldwide reputation. It was one of the few places in this country that European visitors compared favorably with the glittering restaurants of Paris’s “super mall” of the 19th century, the Palais Royal. [above: cafe section of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street Delmonico’s]

Founded by two Italian-Swiss immigrants in 1823 as a small confectionery shop in New York City, it soon grew into a “restaurant Français” occupying various New York City locations over its nearly 100-year run under family ownership. The Delmonico restaurants of the 1830s and subsequent decades were favored by foreign visitors, but soon Americans came to appreciate them too as their fame spread. As a form of homage — sometimes tongue-in-cheek — restaurants high and low, all over the USA, christened themselves Delmonico’s.

During much of the 19th century, most of America’s restaurants were located in hotels; up to the Civil War most operated on the American plan. This meant that everyone sat at large tables with others not necessarily of their choosing while bowls and platters of whatever was being served that day were set on the table to be shared – or not — by the diners. The Delmonicos introduced the European plan which allowed guests to have their own table and order just what they wanted, prepared the way they wanted.

An 1838 menu revealed that fine preparation was only part of Delmonico’s appeal. It also offered a profusion of dishes including 12 soups, 32 hors d’oeuvres, 28 entrées of beef, 46 of veal, 22 of game, 48 of fish, plus 51 vegetable or egg choices, and 45 pastries, cakes, and other desserts. (That 11-page menu is replicated in Lately Thomas’s classic book Delmonico’s, A Century of Splendor.) [Beaver street location shown above]

The number of dishes offered at Delmonico’s is overwhelming proof that the abbreviated reproduction menu that is commonly displayed and offered for sale online is a fake.

The original Delmonico brothers’ mission was what one observer writing in The Nation in 1881 characterized as establishing “a little oasis of civilization in the vast gastronomic waste which America at the time of their arrival presented.” For many Americans, the enjoyment of food bordered on sinfulness. Not only was it viewed as a monetary extravagance, claimed the essay, but there was a feeling among reform-minded people “that all time devoted to the table must be subtracted from that dedicated to spiritual improvement.”

So lauded was Delmonico’s that it’s necessary to point out that it had its critics who disliked the extravagant balls and banquets it hosted. In 1865, a year in which the newly Civil-War-rich were pouring into Delmonico’s, Morton Peto, a British railway and real estate developer, held a banquet for 100 guests. The cost was an astounding $250 a head. For comparison, as much as sixteen years later, the restaurant paid its waiters $30 a month. Another banquet that drew public disapproval was the dinner for James G. Blaine, a Presidential candidate in 1884. His backers, wealthy men who stood to gain from his election, were mocked in a front page cartoon in The World, which named the event after a Babylonian prince who tried to engineer his ascension to the throne. [above: front page of The World, 1884]

For a long time the Delmonico’s menu was entirely in French, without translation, a problem for English-only guests. If a guest ordered badly he (only men were given this task) imagined he could hear his waiter snickering. As a New York Times reporter put it in 1859, “we are made nervous by the sneerful smirk of the waiter, if we order the wrong wine in the wrong place . . .” And he might end up with a dinner of pickles and brandied peaches as happened to one hapless patron. The solution was to throw yourself on the mercy of the waiter and ask for his recommendations. [above: Fifth Avenue and 14th Street]

It’s interesting to note that Charles Delmonico, who ran the family empire following the death of Lorenzo, was said to be fond of the Italian restaurant Café Moretti. There he ordered risotto, a favorite dish that his restaurant’s French cooks did not know how to prepare. [above: Delmonico’s, Fifth Avenue and 26th Street]

Over time Delmonico’s moved from their initial “society” restaurant on the corner of Beaver, William, and South William streets [shown above, third from top] to three successive Fifth Avenue locations. Like all wise businesses, they were following in the path of their wealthy patrons. In 1862 they moved into an elegant mansion at Fifth Ave and 14th Street and in 1876 jumped up to 26th. In 1897 they settled in their final Fifth Avenue location at 44th Street, facing off with arch-rival Sherry’s. [above: Fifth Avenue and 44th Street]

Through the years the Delmonicos always kept at least one other location farther downtown for businessmen and politicians. The restaurant at 22 Broad Street served Stock Exchange brokers and speculators. It was said that for them “not to go to Delmonico’s for one’s lunch or tipple was to lose caste on ‘the Street.’”

In 1897 Delmonico’s yielded to music and smoking in its hallowed halls, a sign many regarded as evidence of a downhill slide. By then the 44th Street Delmonico’s was the last one doing business. It closed in 1923, a victim of weak management, increasingly informal dining customs, and Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

Delmonico’s was one of my early posts, and I realized I hadn’t given the subject its full due. This is an enhanced version.

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Sunny side up?

In the 19th century it was common for eating places to offer breakfast, along with dinner and supper (as the meal sequence ran then). That was because so many of their patrons were travelers or people (mostly men) who did not have households and ate all their meals away from their lodgings.

A Baltimore coffee house proprietor advertised in 1812 that from 7 until 10 in the morning he would have “every sort of cold Breakfasts, a la Parisienne, or warm ones, such as Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, &c. served up in the best style.” Unlike most, he specialized in “elegance,” with food produced by a French cook.

All kinds of things were eaten for breakfast then. An Englishman traveling around the country in the early 1840s was surprised by the wide range of dishes available. Beyond a selection of meats, he listed rolls, toast, eggs, chicken, gravy, and “cakes of buckwheat and Indian corn.” He was disgusted by a favorite do-it-yourself concoction at one hotel he stayed at — a raw or near-raw egg whipped with butter and condiments and spooned or drunk from a wineglass.

Breakfast all day, in the form of bacon and eggs, was not unknown. And it was also common to offer the same dishes for breakfast and supper, particularly outside the East. At San Francisco’s Popular Dining Saloon, in 1887, patrons had many choices, including quail on toast, a “family porterhouse,” eggs and oysters, hot cakes, corned beef hash with an egg, waffles, boiled corn in cream, and more. [pictured is a somewhat similar menu from St. Louis, 1875]

Oysters for breakfast? Why not? Anyone living today might gasp at the breadth of offerings on an 1880 advertisement for a Portland OR restaurant bill of fare: Codfish balls, Family Porterhouse, Salmon bellies, Brains, German Pancakes, Oysters, Waffles, etc. What might “etc.” even mean?

Some of the most elaborate breakfasts were those served to butchers by Mme. Begue after closing time of the big New Orleans market. Breakfast one day in 1905 included successive courses of shrimp salad, oysters a la Newberg, omelette filled with sweetbreads, cauliflower with egg dressing, broiled mutton chops and peas, and fruit and cheese. All accompanied by wine and coffee aflame with brandy. Those were truly the olden days. By contrast, the 20th century would be known for the light breakfast, nothing like Madame’s (though maybe the popularity of brunch comes closest, regarding both the variety of foods and the alcoholic beverages).

Cereals played a role in lightening breakfasts. Branded cereals had their start in the later 19th century, but were not heavily promoted until the early 20th. Marketing campaigns featured eating places. In 1902 Hotel Monthly noted that promoters of shredded wheat had been successful in getting it onto menus in “hotels, restaurants, clubs, dining cars, steamships and lunch rooms,” to the point where an estimated 5,000 hotels and restaurants were serving it to patrons. The rising demand for cleanliness in food launched the popularity of single-serving cereal packages. Counter seating in lunchrooms meant that display shelves offered opportunities for promoting branded products. It didn’t take long for companies such as Post and Kellogg to begin providing handy display cases. [Kellogg’s ad in American Restaurant Magazine, 1946]

Despite the trend toward lighter and more standardized breakfasts, as late as 1921 Boston stood out with breakfast menus that catered to local demand for oysters, baked beans, and pie. Another oddity was the breakfast item that appeared in the 1926 Edgewater Beach Hotel Salad Book. Named “Eight-Fifteen,” it was lettuce and watercress with ham and hard-boiled eggs.

By the 1930s light breakfasts had beaten out the old favorite, ham & eggs. Also, time spent eating the morning meal was on its way down from half an hour to ten minutes. Breakfast was looking like a losing deal for restaurants, even with the additional lures of waffles and pancakes. Although restaurant patronage was on the rise in 1960, a survey by the National Restaurant Association and General Foods showed that 61% of meals eaten out were lunch, 28% were dinner, and only 11% were breakfast.

However, in the 1960s and 1970s the number of restaurant breakfasts seemed to be on the rise and by the middle of the 1970s McDonald’s had begun trying out breakfast items. Breakfast menus became widely popular at fast food outlets in the 1980s, driving up the number of breakfasts eaten out. Among breakfast menus’ other advantages for burger chains then was relief from the rising price of beef. [McDonald’s postcard, 1979]

Another interesting breakfast development that spread across the U.S. in the 1980s was the so-called power breakfast. An occasion for an informal meeting of power brokers and business executives, it was said to have begun with those in the world of finance who gathered in the late 1970s at the Regency Hotel’s Le Restaurant in NYC. More meeting than meal, power breakfasters ate little and drank even less, in striking contrast to the legendary but largely fictitious three-martini lunch. Though often hosted by hotels, an interesting effect of the power breakfast was to induce some elite restaurants to open for breakfast.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Ham & eggs by any other name

Usually I avoid topics that others have written about repeatedly. The origin of Eggs Benedict is certainly one of those.

I have a problem with origin stories in general because usually they are too neat. But that’s not actually true of Eggs Benedict (a poached egg and ham slice on a toasted English muffin with Hollandaise sauce poured over). The stories about how it appeared in the 1890s are contradictory. There are variations about who it is named after and which famous, usually New York, restaurant produced it first. Among the contending dining spots are Delmonico, the Waldorf-Astoria, and Sherry’s. Of course for an origin story to work, it almost has to involve a well-known, prestigious person/place.

An essay from American Food by Rachel Wharton discusses the numerous conflicting reports of the dish’s origin. It concludes with “Maybe it doesn’t matter who the first Benedict really was. The real point, as has been said by many others in the past, is that this was a rich dish devised for rich people . . .”

With all the butter and egg yolks in Hollandaise sauce, it is certainly a rich dish but was it really devised for “rich people”? That would be, of course, another significant factor in giving the dish panache.

My version of the dish’s fame doesn’t focus on its origin but on its later status and how it became well known long after the 1890s. I suspected that Eggs Benedict was marketed as having an elite past so that it could become a “special” dish. Is it necessary to say that a restaurant could charge more for Eggs Benedict than they could for ham and eggs – and use less ham to boot?

The early days of Eggs Benedict do not seem to have been especially glamorous. At the start of the 20th century the recipe for the dish was featured in newspapers’ “women’s pages.” It seems it was more of a home dish than a restaurant dish. A 1906 woman’s column deplored the food served by society women and wished they would instead serve things such as good old scrapple, mincemeat pie, or Eggs Benedict. During World War I Eggs Benedict appeared on menus as a patriotic meat-conserving dish. A low point in its glamorousness may have occurred in the 1920s when a Beaumont TX newspaper recommended a casserole of baked tomato on toast with cheese sauce and breadcrumbs as “a nice change from eggs Benedict.”

When Eggs Benedict was listed on restaurant and hotel menus in the teens and 1920s it was usually as a breakfast or lunch entree. An early example was at a Boston restaurant that featured luncheon specials in a 1915 advertisement [shown here]. As can be seen below, Du Pont of Paris was a white tablecloth restaurant, certainly fancier than the average working men’s lunch room but a long way from the deluxe world of the Waldorf.

The dish’s fame and fortune began to rise after World War II when the middle class grew larger and more people began to go to restaurants for recreation. In 1946 the New York columnist Gaynor Maddox introduced readers to a creation tale of Eggs Benedict which had a hungover Waldorf guest coming to breakfast in 1894 and asking for toast, bacon, two poached eggs, and a pitcher of Hollandaise. The famed Waldorf host, Oscar, came into the story too, by later substituting ham and English muffin for the bacon and toast.

A year after Maddox’s column, the dish appeared on the brunch menu of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel for the high price of $2.50 (the average daily gross income in 1947 was about $12).

Its reputation continued to be burnished by others. Chef Pierre Franey retold the Waldorf origin tale, while Duncan Hines had it coming from France via New Orleans. Chef Louis Szathmary credited a wealthy Bostonian and a chef at the Ritz Carlton. But all seemed to agree it was indeed a ritzy dish.

For some reason – maybe to make Eggs Benedict sound even ritzier – some restaurants renamed it Eggs Benedictine. They were probably unaware that Benedictine refers to an entirely different egg dish of the almost 500 egg recipes that have been recorded. It is a poached egg on a puree of salt codfish with cream sauce and truffles.

Even though it had formerly been served mainly for lunch or supper, Eggs Benedict found its true calling in the 1960s and 1970s, when it became the classic brunch order. [Molly Maguire’s, 1977, New Orleans] Perfect for Mother’s Day and best accompanied by a glass of champagne followed by Crepes Suzette.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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The puzzling St. Paul sandwich

Despite a cloud of confusion surrounding the history of the St. Paul sandwich, I think I can add some interesting dimensions to the story.

For a long time it hasn’t been clear where the sandwich came from or even exactly what it is.

In recent decades St. Louis has claimed the St. Paul as its own, even though most St. Louisans probably never ate one. Supposedly it cannot be found in its namesake city of St. Paul (Minnesota), where it is said no one ever heard of it.

It’s not entirely certain how – or if – it is different from a Denver or a Western sandwich. One thing is certain: It’s an egg sandwich, based either on an omelet or egg foo yong. The sandwich would also have some combination of the following ingredients: chopped onion, chopped green pepper, tomato slice, lettuce, dill pickle chip, parsley, scallions, mushrooms, mayonnaise, chopped beef, chopped ham, deviled ham, sliced chicken, pork, shrimp, or crab.

Whatever goes inside is placed between two pieces of white bread – or double-decked on four pieces of white bread — or a roll.

The St. Louis version, found in unpretentious Chinese chop suey restaurants, consists of egg foo yong with mayonnaise on white bread, with the possible addition of a tomato slice, dill pickle chip, and lettuce. Its unlikely combinations make it ripe for ridicule. And, yet, . . . despite its utter failure to satisfy health or authenticity standards, its critics seem to agree that it tastes quite good.

Accounts of the sandwich’s history often cite Chinese cooks who provided food for Western railroad construction workers in the mid-19th century. The story goes that the cooks improvised the sandwich with what they had on hand, including egg foo yong.

A 2006 story in the St. Louis Riverfront Times attributes the city’s St. Paul sandwich to a St. Louis Chinese restaurant operator of the 1970s who named it for his home town of St. Paul MN.

After a lot of looking, I found the sandwich on a St. Paul MN menu in 1904. In an advertisement it is referred to as “the new and popular St. Paul sandwich.” Along with many other puzzling sandwich names, the Mills Lunch and Sandwich Room offered both a St. Paul sandwich and a Denver sandwich, indicating they were not the same thing as is sometimes argued. That same year lunch wagons in Kansas City MO were selling St. Paul sandwiches described as chopped ham, chopped egg, and onions. They also offered a Minneapolis sandwich made of chopped ham and chopped egg, but without the onions. The St. Paul also turned up in Ottawa KS in 1913 and in 1915 at a restaurant in Columbia MO popular with students at the University of Missouri.

In 1916 and again in 1933 a St. Louis newspaper published recipes for the St. Paul sandwich, which showed no connection with egg foo yong. In both recipes the sandwich was made with scrambled eggs, chopped ham, and onions and parsley.

Evidently the St. Paul was known in the East also. In 1933 a NYC paper ran a short story on how artists were making a living in the Depression. One painter was also a short order cook whose specialty was making St. Paul sandwiches.

The earliest connection with a Chinese restaurant I’ve found was in Minneapolis, run by Woo Yee Sing but popularly referred to as John’s Place. In 1937, a newspaper column recommended the restaurant’s “Egg Foo Yung sandwich” served with French fries, beverage, and dessert for 40c. How long the restaurant, established in 1905, had been serving that sandwich is unknown. The fact that it was not called a St. Paul sandwich is not too surprising since a Denver sandwich was called a Denver in Chicago but a Western in Denver.

By the 1940s and 1950s St. Paul sandwiches could be found in many places, including Seattle WA, Amarillo TX, and Greensboro NC, though exactly what they consisted of is obscure. Finding Chinese restaurants advertising them is harder, though I did find one in Canton OH in 1954 which referred to the sandwich as Egg Foo Yong [Sue Ming, shown above]. I find it interesting that the restaurant also advertised a Chop Suey sandwich. According to Haiming Liu (From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express), its cousin, the Chow Mein sandwich, became popular in Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the 1930s.

If you like stories about odd sandwiches, see the amusing PBS documentary Sandwiches That You Will Like.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Franchising: Heap Big Beef

The 1960s was the decade when franchising frenzy began. Franchising was hailed as a chance to be your own boss and make a comfortable income with a moderate investment.

Fast food drive-ins and other low-priced eateries with limited menus were in the forefront of the franchised businesses springing up everywhere. As is typical with franchised restaurants, owners needed no particular experience, or even interest, in food or food preparation. Because, in a sense, someone might just as well choose a franchise in wigs or roto-rooters as chicken or hamburgers.

One of the interesting franchising business careers was that of the originator of Bonanza and Heap Big Beef. The principal creator of both was an ambitious man named Don Pruess. He was a true believer in a franchising formula that paired a celebrity name with a chain of small businesses run by people who put up the capital. In 1956 he signed up Esther Williams to lend her fame as a movie star and champion swimmer to the sale of backyard in-ground, vinyl-lined pools. However, as has often been true of businesses with celebrity figureheads, the company was soon in bankruptcy.

A few years later, in 1963, Pruess began licensing local distributors to sell franchises for Bonanza Sirloin Pit Steak Houses. An advertisement for franchise applicants proclaimed, “It’s America’s hottest food franchise,” saying net profits ranged from $2,500 up to $7,000 a month with a $20,000 cash investment. The following year the first restaurant in the chain opened in Westport CT with Dan Blocker, who played ‘Hoss’ Cartwright on the TV show Bonanza, enlisted as the chain’s celebrity mascot.

As it developed, Preuss’ business was more than simply a franchisor of restaurants. As a 1973 law brief put it, his corporation, Franchises International (F. I.), “was the ultimate in franchising” because it “franchised the right to sell franchises.”

Serious expansion of the Bonanza chain actually did not happen until its acquisition by a Texas company in 1965. The following year F. I. began seeking franchisors and franchisees for Heap Big Beef. The first units in the HBB chain opened in 1967, with a menu of “giant” beef sandwiches for 59 and 99 cents.

In addition to franchising for Heap Big Beef, F. I. did the same for a beauty salon chain named Edie Adams’ Cut & Curl and Mary’s Drive-Thru Dairies. At one point F. I. revealed plans to move into franchising for more than 50 other types of businesses including nursing homes and diet centers.

At the same time, F. I. was seeking capital from a large investing company called City Investing Co. Starting in 1967, Heap Big Beef franchising advertisements identified F. I. as a subsidiary of City Investing. But the relationship was fraught from day one. The president of City Investing did not approve of F. I.’s sales tactics, including misrepresenting how many units had been opened. For example, City Investing objected to the false implications of F. I.’s claim that Heap Big Beef #32 had opened, suggesting that the number was not in fact a tally of how many had been opened. City’s subsequent failure to supply F. I. with enough capital led to the resignation of Pruess and the other officers of his corporation.

Beginning in 1969 there was a die-off of Heap Big Beef outlets. Though it had been advertised as the hottest thing going, it turned out the chain had never exceeded 60 units nationwide. The latest date I could find one in operation was 1971.

Maybe there are fans out there that still sorely miss Heap Big Beef, but I doubt it. Given its theme, it was a chain that could not exist today. The American Indian theme had no relevance, having been adopted solely because of the popularity of western TV shows at the time. The A-frame buildings were meant to suggest tepees, although they were used by other chains, including Der Wienerschnitzel. There was little about the menu that differed from 19th-century lunchroom fare except for the paucity of items and the offensive “Hollywood Injun English” used. Consider: “You’ll let out a war whoop” when you eat a Heap Big Beef (or Ham, Fish, or Corned Beef) sandwich. How about a Warrior Burger, a Shawnee Shake, or a Pawnee Pie?

File Heap Big Beef under failed restaurant chains.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Entree — from side dish to main dish

Menus from the 19th century, often called bills of fare, can be very confusing. One of the more puzzling aspects is the word “entree” (a French word whose accent is usually omitted in the U.S.).

In more recent times the word has been interchangeable with “main dish,” but that is not what it used to mean. To a large extent it was mainly a way to bring a bit of French culture to a cuisine that was rather plain and unsophisticated.

The way the term was used on old menus varies quite a lot and reveals some confusion on the part of menu makers.

Two menus from New York’s fashionable hotel, Astor House, are revealing. One is from the men’s dining room in 1841 and the other from the women’s dining room in 1845. The menu used in the men’s dining room has the following headings: Soup, Fish, Boiled, Entrees, Roast, Pastry, and Dessert. Under Entrees are 17 dishes, all in French, while the rest of the menu is in English.

The 1845 menu for the women’s dining room is entirely in English, with almost the same headings, and many of the same dishes under each heading. But instead of Entrees, the women’s menu says “Side Dishes” of which there are 10. They include Eels, cold sauce; Small oyster pies; Small birds, Port wine sauce; Wild Ducks, Game sauce; and also Beans and Pork and Baked Macaroni.

A variation is found at Brown’s Hotel, in Washington, D.C. in 1847. On Brown’s Bill of Fare for the men’s dining room, everything is in English. The heading Entrees is used, but the order of the various listings is quite different, with Entrees coming after Roasts but before Game and Boiled. The same ordering is found on the Bill of Fare of a San Francisco hotel in 1849 which, again, is entirely in English other than the world Entree itself.

Other dining rooms, such as that of Boston’s Revere House in 1851 preferred “Side Dishes” to Entree, as did many other hotels. It isn’t perfectly clear to me what they were side dishes for, although I’ve seen explanations saying they were to go with the first course. In most cases this was Fish, so that can’t be right.

Shown at the top is a portion of an 1853 menu from Boston’s Swiss Republic which uses a two-column format with English on the left and French on the right. On it, Entree is equated with Baked!

On the strange little 1889 menu for Sunday dinner at Kilburn’s, in Rockford IL, Entrees come last as though an afterthought.

Entrees, and presumably Side Dishes too, were supposed to be more delicate than Boiled or Roast items. Entrees were things such as Fricassees, Croquettes, Meat Pies, or Stews, while Boiled and Roasts were such as Leg of Mutton, or Ham, or Veal, the latter two presumably presented as large chunks. Entrees usually had sauces. In some places a French chef would be hired to prepare the Entrees. It is odd, though, to imagine a French chef making pork and beans. It occurs to me that in some cases Entrees might have been made of leftover roasts. For instance, it would be a short trip from Roast Mutton to a Mutton Omelet.

An article in Harper’s Bazaar in 1898 explained the appeal of “savory entrees and made dishes as a variation upon the eternal roast and boiled.” The author, Christine Terhune Herrick, considered the preference for entrees, salads, and delicate desserts as evidence of a much-needed evolution of American cookery. Herrick referred to entrees and made dishes as two different things, but other cooking experts claimed they were the same.

In the 7th edition of his Hotel Meat Cooking, in 1901, Chef Jessup Whitehead recommended the term made dishes be used since it was clearer. He noted that making entrees called upon a cook’s creativity, and was a good way to use up scraps. He also explained that entree in France historically referred to the first dishes to enter a dining room and that for a small dinner party entrees might replace roasts altogether.

Entree as a separate course largely went out of use in the 1920s, during Prohibition when fine dining and French influence on cooking were scaled back. It came to mean “main course” and included fish, duck, and roast meat as well as made dishes. Still, it is interesting that the earlier meaning did not totally vanish. In 1966 restaurant consultant George Wenzel’s Menu Maker advised that “A balanced menu has: One roast, One solid (chop, cutlet, etc.), One fish, One prepared dish [i.e., entree], One meatless dish.” History lives on!

Nevertheless, most people now think of the entree simply as the main dish. Although it is still a familiar term, I find it interesting how many menus have eliminated the word entirely.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Lobster stew at the White Rabbit

On the menu shown here a bowl of lobster stew cost 70 cents and came with crackers, pickles, and chips. Oyster stew was 50 cents, while fried clams with french fries, cole slaw, and coffee cost 60 cents.

The menu is undated but is probably from the 1940s. Fried lobster was one of the White Rabbit’s most popular dishes, according to Duncan Hines’ 1947 guide book, Adventures in Good Eating. With a fruit cup, tomato, pineapple, french fries, rolls, dessert, and tea or coffee, it came to $1.35. And, of course, they threw in pickles and chips.

In addition to lobster fried, sautéed, or stewed, it was also available as a salad.

Admiring patrons quoted in the 1948 edition of Gourmet’s Guide to Good Eating explained that the reason the Rabbit was always mobbed with people on their way to and from Cape Cod was due to its high standards, excellent food, and, specifically, “plates of hot buttered rolls.”

On Saturday nights the White Rabbit offered a traditional Massachusetts dinner of baked beans for 50 cents. Other interesting dishes on the menu include a vegetable salad sandwich (35¢), a sardine and horseradish sandwich (25¢), and a side order of tomato and cucumbers (15¢).

The tea room got its start in 1931, in West Chatham on the Cape, about 37 miles from the Buzzards Bay location which became its long-term home. Prior to its beginning, owner Nate Nickerson was a taxi driver in Brockton MA, where co-owner Mildred Ring may have worked as a waitress.

Nickerson’s two sons were waiters at the restaurant which was open only from April through November.

In 1966, the final year in which I found advertisements for it, the White Rabbit had evidently abandoned the tea room theme. It then featured liquor and steaks. Nickerson had died in 1950 and it’s likely that it was under different management.

A few years ago I received a nice surprise when a stranger sent me this bowl by Syracuse china used in the tea room.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Soul food restaurants

Before the 1960s, the term “soul food” wasn’t used in reference to food. Until then the words had religious connotations for Protestants.

What became known as edible soul food, such as chitterlings, pigs’ feet, greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and cobbler (to name just a few), had been popular in the South long before the words soul food were applied. But the diet gained a charged meaning in the 1960s when proponents of Black Power affirmed eating soul food as a political statement.

By any name, soul food was not often found in restaurants outside the South until African-Americans began migrating northward before, during, and after World Wars I and II. Walker’s Café in Wichita KS advertised chitterlings and catfish in 1910. That same year the Gopher Grill in St. Paul MN claimed to be “headquarters for chitterlings and corn bread.” Similar menus were often found at dinners at Black churches and homes. Women belonging to the Social and Literary society of a Baptist church in St. Paul MN dressed in Colonial costumes and hosted a chicken and chitterlings dinner in 1916 to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, an event where the identity politics were quite different than what would develop in the Black Power movement.

There were also numerous restaurants owned and patronized by Blacks in the North that did not serve soul food, or at least didn’t specialize in it. It’s difficult to find menus from restaurants of the migration periods, but when their advertisements mentioned specialties, they were often similar to dishes in white restaurants. A Chester PA restaurant specialized in oysters in 1910. In Black’s Blue Book for 1923-1924 — which listed Chicago’s prominent African-American citizens, along with recommended businesses — there were only four restaurants that advertised what kinds of dishes they served. Those dishes were Barbecued Chicken, Duck, and Squab; Chicken Salad; Club Sandwiches; Sea Foods; and Chili Con Carne (at two restaurants).

The spectrum of eating places found in New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s Black Belt, and Black urban neighborhoods across the North ranged from down-home, all-night eateries serving factory shift workers to elegant tea rooms lodged in old mansions that hosted patrons with more money and leisure. In Chicago, leaders of the N.A.A.C.P., the Urban League, and visiting foreign dignitaries were inevitably entertained with dinners at top Black tea rooms such as The Ideal, the Bird Cage [pictured, 2018], and the University tea rooms. In Spring 1923, the University Tea Room (“The Most Beautiful Spot in Chicago”) advertised the following menu:

65c – Special Table de Hote Dinner – 65c
Cream of Tomato Soup
Roast Chicken with Dressing
Spring Lamb with Peas
Snowflake Potatoes
June Peas in Cases
Salad
Head Lettuce and Tomatoes
French Dressing
Dessert
Apple Pie with Cheese
Rice Pudding
Coffee
Strawberry Shortcake, 25c
Ice Cream, 10c

Strangely enough, the 1966-1967 version of the Green Book failed to list some prominent Black restaurants with barbecue such as Arthur Bryant and Gates in Kansas City, and soul food places such as Soul Queen and H & H in Chicago. For New York City, it broke restaurant listings into the categories Steaks, American Specialties, Seafood, and Chinese – but not Soul Food.

While some Northern Blacks slowly accepted soul food, others were more resistant. This seemed to hold especially true for those higher in social status. Some of Chicago’s Bronzeville residents who held themselves superior to migrants expressed criticism of newcomers’ food customs, such as eating chitterlings. A journalist writing in the New York Amsterdam News in 1931 claimed that Harlemites rejected the “Fried Chicken, Pork Chop, Hog Maw and Chitterlings Theories” that assumed all Blacks liked rural Southern food. He also disavowed any special attraction to watermelon.

In 1945 another reporter from the Amsterdam News set out to find chitterlings in Harlem restaurants. He found only one restaurant serving them (Rosalie’s and Frances’ Clam House and Restaurant). He reported that Harlemites were just as likely to eat Chock Full O’ Nuts’ nutted cream sandwiches, Chicken Fricassee, Weiner Schnitzel, or Oysters Casino. At the same time, he observed that whites visiting Harlem enjoyed spare ribs with red beans, concluding, “there are no fundamental points of difference between eating habits of Harlemites and those of the lighter-skinned folk downtown.”

Most soul food histories note that some prominent Black leaders have rejected soul food, pointing to Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. In his book Soul Food, Adrian Miller observed that Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice (1968), “The emphasis on Soul Food is counter-revolutionary black bourgeois ideology.” Instead, wrote Cleaver, “The people in the ghetto want steaks. Beef Steaks.” Elijah Muhammad denounced soul food as a legacy of slavery that should be decisively rejected.

Miller laments the decline of restaurants that serve soul food, marked by the closure of landmarks such as Army and Lou’s and Soul Queen in Chicago. “Across the country, legendary soul food restaurants are disappearing at an alarming pace,” he writes, attributing it to health concerns and reduced business prospects due to the scattering of African-American communities and the popularity of fast food.

With a few exceptions, I don’t think the views of critics such as Cleaver are seen as valid now. And there seems to be a renaissance of interest in soul food among Black chefs and restaurateurs who celebrate it as part of a heritage of resilience and creativity under slavery. Somewhat surprisingly, even vegan soul food restaurants can be found now.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under food, menus, patrons, restaurant controversies, tea shops

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

Tea rooms for students

College and high school students of the 20th century led many eating-out trends and customs. Not only did they help make certain foods popular, they also influenced meal habits and adopted frequent restaurant-going as part of their social lives.

Drive-ins, coffee houses, and vegetarian restaurants were some of the types of eating places heavily shaped by student patrons in the middle and later decades of the last century. But a bit earlier, in the early 20th century, the eating places of choice for many college students were tea rooms that attracted women students. Not that men students didn’t also like tea rooms. An example was The Cactus Tea Room, built in 1917 with weird carvings of university types adorning its eaves, and serving both male and female students at the University of Texas in Austin.

Although tea rooms were more likely to be found near residential colleges, high school students also enjoyed them for after-school stops. In the 1920s students at Decatur High School in Decatur GA hung out at the Elite Tea Room, while Haverling High School students in Bath NY gravitated to the Chat-A-Wile Tea Room.

Rather than being stuffy and proper, many tea rooms that catered to students were relaxed and informal. They carried on college traditions such as midnight “spreads,” at which foods pilfered from the school’s dining halls were remade into chafing dish repasts. The feasts were occasions for casual attire, sprawling on the floor, and high spirits at the thought of evading detection while breaking college rules. [shown here is an Oberlin College dorm room spread, 1905]

Tea rooms also carried on the tradition of college dining clubs, which involved groups of friends joining together to hire a local woman to prepare their meals. The clubs adopted humorous names such as Vassar College’s Nine Nimble Nibblers, Grubbers, and Gobbling Goops of the late 19th century.

For example, a popular spot for students from Smith College was the Copper Kettle, which played a role much like the coffee shops of today. Students hung out there, read, chatted, and snacked on popcorn, ice cream, and tea. Its decor was cosy, shabby-chic style with mismatched furniture, wicker lounge chairs, posters, and window seats. Smith students were also enamored of the Rose Tree Inn, where full meals were served in a Bohemian atmosphere created by the intriguing Madame Anna de Naucaze.

Some colleges were almost surrounded by tea rooms. That was true in Western Massachusetts where both Smith College and Mount Holyoke College are located. Northampton, home of Smith College, was described in 1922 as having “more tea-houses than churches.” Not so far away, Mount Holyoke College was also well supplied with tea rooms, among them The Croysdale Inn, The Mary-Elin Tea Shop, and The Art Nook. I find it interesting that the Mary-Elin advertised in 1921 that it would stay open until 10 p.m., which was quite late for a tea room.

Parents did not always approve of their free-wheeling daughters’ behavior. In 1912, a mother wrote a critical article titled “One Disintegrant of Our Home Life,” about the typical college girl who socialized constantly, ignored rules of proper dress, and loved going to “the Green Coffee Pot or the Carnation Tea Urn.” “I tell my husband that college doesn’t breed home-building girls,” she wrote.

Among the most notable changes that tea rooms brought was simply that of providing a welcoming and friendly place for unescorted women to gather. This, of course, encouraged women and girls to spend more time eating away from home.

As for food, apart from popularizing eating cake and ice cream at any time of day or night, tea room food was a departure from typical lunch rooms and restaurants of the early 20th century that served fairly heavy meals based around meat. Although meat was certainly served in tea rooms, patrons also had many other choices. A 1920s menu from The Quinby Inn (shown above) — popular with students at Goucher College near Baltimore — offers Tenderloin Steak and Roast Pork, but also many other choices, with quite a few of them revealing the popularity of sweet food. Among them are 12 desserts, 22 salads, many of which involved mixed fruits and whipped cream, and 22 sandwiches, including Olive & Egg and Sliced Pineapple (no, not together!).

The list of specials clipped onto a 1920s menu from The Mary-Elin Tea Shop near Mount Holyoke College also shows its patrons’ fondness for sweets [thanks to Donna Albino for scans of the menu from her Mount Holyoke College collection].

A number of college women opened tea rooms of their own either as a summer project or after graduation. But that will be another post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, menus, patrons, restaurant customs, restaurant fads, tea shops, women