Category Archives: miscellaneous

Who was the mystery diner?

Jamescover795I am now the happy owner of Rian James’ Dining in New York published in 1930. When I opened it, I discovered a nice surprise: someone had penciled notes next to many of the restaurants described in the book.

This is a big deal to a restaurant historian because it is so hard to find out what consumers thought about restaurants in the past. Today it is easy, but in 1930, for instance, few people recorded their restaurant experiences and opinions in writing, possibly because it seemed trivial.


As I looked at the comments I wondered who wrote them. Was it the person whose name is inside the cover? And just what is that name? M. Z. Mells? Or, were the notes made by someone other than the book’s owner?


I puzzled over whether the writer was a man or a woman. There seems to be conflicting “evidence.” I find the handwriting ambiguous. As for content, on the one hand MZM used words such as “delightful” and “yummy,” went to lunch with Mother, Aunt Frances, and Mother’s friend Mrs. Claggett, and enjoyed the Gypsy Tea Shop (“Went here often with Mother – lots of fun”), all suggesting that MZM was female. But, then again, MZM loved the thick lamb chops at Keen’s Chop House, appreciated the Maitre d’ at the Roosevelt Grill, and often went to ice hockey games with Uncle Frank after dining at the Hotel Astor, hinting at maledom.

JamesrooseveltgrillThe surname Mells is uncommon. I found no M. Z. Mells, but did find a few women named Mells in NYC whose first names began with M. The strongest candidate was Mildred Mells. Born in New York City around 1910, in 1930 she worked as a model for a dress manufacturer and lived with her widowed mother and an older sister who was a supervisor for the telephone company. Her age meshed with the book’s publication and with the comment next to Enrico and Paglieri’s: “went there from childhood till 1945.”

JamesDivanParisienMZM added glowing comments, not only about the Roosevelt Grill (above), but also Keen’s (“Loved this place!”), The Lafayette and The Brevoort (both “old N.Y.C. landmarks”), Cavanagh’s (“A favorite place!”), Divan Parisien (“So good!”), and Charles French restaurant (“Excellent food and service”). In MZM’s minus column were The Wivel (“I liked other Swedish restaurants better.”), Luchow’s (“This was a very famous place but I didn’t care much for it or its food.”), and the Brass Rail, which merited the only comment written in the present tense (“don’t like this place”).

The writer couldn’t remember if s/he ever went to the Village Barn or Billy the Oysterman. S/he had eaten at Sardi’s, Zucca’s, Barney Gallant’s, The Commodore Grill, and Feltman’s on Coney Island but had no comments on them. And MZM regretted never making it to The Marguery or The Claremont Inn on Riverside Drive and 126th Street (“Went by this place hundreds of times but never got there. It looked so inviting.”)

I wonder why MZM passed by the Claremont Inn so often. Is that a clue? Now you know almost as much as I do. Any ideas about this little mystery?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under miscellaneous

Eating, dining, and snacking at the fair


Fifty years ago the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was underway, with thousands going through the turnstiles. Sooner or later they had to eat. Some brought a picnic but others patronized the roughly 110 restaurants in operation the first season, up to nearly 200 in 1965.

The Fair was not officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions nor supported by governments (for the most part); it was a commercial enterprise filled with corporate pavilions such as Johnson’s Wax, General Motors, and Travelers Insurance. Most of the restaurants were run by private entrepreneurs who were not necessarily from the country represented by the pavilion. Restaurant Associates, which operated Mamma Leone’s, The Four Seasons, and others in NYC, ran the restaurant in the Indonesian Pavilion and five others. New York’s Sun Luck chain ran the Cathay Chinese Restaurant in the Hong Kong Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairBrassRailsnackbarBiggest of all, the Brass Rail operated six moderate-priced restaurants, each offering a single complete meal for $3. In the International Plaza they ran both a cold Danish buffet and the Garden restaurant offering Southern fried chicken dinners. The company, a subsidiary of Interstate Vending Co. in Chicago, also had 25 freestanding snack bars with balloon-shaped roofs that looked as though they could lift off and float away.

Most of the eating places at the Fair supplied casual food and snacks, whether strawberry and whipped cream filled Bel-gem waffles (the hit of the Fair), Wienerwald hot dogs, or Chicken Delight(s). Providing plentiful fast food was based on the belief that non-New Yorker Americans would accept nothing else. Keep in mind too that it was the mid-1960s before the culinary revolution came along with its hopes of replacing industrially produced convenience food.

There was also no shortage of exotic cocktails served at tiki bars and lounges, and American and imported beers flowing in beer gardens. During groundbreaking for the Schaefer Brewing Company Center, which contained Schaefer’s Restaurant of Tomorrow and a beer garden, Fair president Robert Moses advanced a surprising perspective on the Fair’s theme, Peace through Understanding, by declaring that beer was probably “the thing that holds the world together.”

International edibles ranged from the passably authentic to the thoroughly Americanized. Yet however tame the Fair’s version of world cuisine often was, those fairgoers daring enough to go beyond burgers and dogs found a wide selection of food unknown to most Americans then. Among the many unfamiliar dishes were smoked reindeer at the Swedish Pavilion, spicy Korean spareribs, and stewed meat with peanuts and couscous at the Tree House restaurant in the African Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairChunKingRepresenting American-style Chinese food was the Chun King Inn, whose mission was not so much to run a profitable restaurant as to familarize people with Chun King products sold in supermarkets. It won over the public — who often complained about high restaurant prices at the Fair — by serving full meals consisting of seven items for only 99 cents. The Inn also featured a double-patty Hong Kong Burger with cheese, lettuce, special sauce – and bean sprouts for an Asian touch. Many restaurants did poorly at the Fair, but Chun King’s president reported that the Inn served 5 million customers the first year.

Probably the most successful restaurants were those directed by veterans of earlier Fairs, particularly Seattle’s in 1962 and New York’s in 1939. Repeaters from 1939 included the operator of the Century Grill who had run the Aviation Grill in 1939 and Schaefer Brewing Co.  Seattle businessmen subleased a restaurant in the Fine Arts Pavilion named the Bargreen Buffet to Roy Peterson, proprietor of Seattle restaurants including the Norselander. Another restaurateur from Seattle, William Moultray, did so well with his Polynesian restaurant in 1964 that Fair officials asked him to set up a restaurant complex in another pavilion.


The Belgian Village [shown above in part] consisted of 100 buildings and 20 eating places, some of them outdoor cafes, but was not completed until the end of 1964. A similar village with some of the same buildings had been at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933.

Although critics were disappointed that there was nothing to equal Henri Soulé’s 1939 French restaurant (origin of NYC’s Le Pavillon), everyone agreed that the restaurants in the Spanish Pavilion came closest. Unlike most, it was officially supported by Spain’s government, headed at that time by dictator Francisco Franco. Two restaurants in the pavilion, the moderately priced Granada and the expensive Toledo, were under the management of Madrid’s Jockey Club which imported its chef and 40 of his assistants. So popular was the pavilion’s outdoor seafood bar, the Marisqueria, that it was enlarged in 1965. It was under the direction of Alberto Heras who opened a Spanish Pavilion restaurant on Park Avenue in NYC in 1966.

1964World'sFairFiveVolcanoesRestHeras was one of several restaurateurs who tried to extend their success beyond the Fair. The Spanish Pavilion building was removed to St. Louis by then-mayor Alfonso Cervantes, where it housed three restaurants that met a rapid demise. The maestro of Wienerwald, Friedrich Jahn, extended the Europe-based chain into this country. It had grown to 880 units by the early 1980s when it failed. The Petersons of the Bargreen Buffet took over management of New York’s venerable Janssen’s restaurant. The Wisconsin Pavilion’s Tad’s Steaks, with its popular $1.19 sirloin steak dinners, became a fixture with bargain-meal hunters in NYC.

Although the Fair fell short of meeting its attendance goal of 70 million, drawing only 52 million fairgoers, it’s likely that millions of them carried away lasting food memories.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, miscellaneous, odd buildings, outdoor restaurants, theme restaurants

Nothing but the best, 19th cen.

wanamakerRestaurantTCRestaurant advertising in newspapers of the 19th century tended to be very wordy, often using conventional phrasing such as “best the market provides” and “available on the shortest notice.” Once in a while a stereotyped line drawing of oysters would appear in an advertisement but usually they were all text. (This post is illustrated with business cards of the kind that came into use in the 1870s and 1880s.)

What follow are examples of advertisements that depart from convention and give a glimpse of the sometimes humorous claims and boasts of their times.

Epicurean Wit, 1803
“In choosing an appellation for his Hotel, he has endeavored to attract the notice of gentlemen of elegant leisure, or of delicate health; and he trusts he shall, in pursuance of his Motto [“Tam Epicuro, Quam Momo”] be enabled to combine in his social retreat, all the invitations which the politest palate may require, with all the wit-inspiring ingredients of intellectual festivity.”
– Othello Pollard’s Hotel, Cambridge MA

Indulge Yourself, 1815
“Persons inclined to indulge in the height of European luxury may be accommodated to their wishes. Chicken, Eel, and Game Pies; Puff Pastry, in variety; sweet and savory Jellies; plain and ornamented Omelettes; Creams; Blancmanges; almond, caramel, and gum Paste Ornaments; Italian Sallads; potted and collard Meats; Fish Sauces; cold ornamented Hams, Tongues, Fowls, and savory Cakes.”
– Mrs. Poppleton, Restaurateur, Pastry Cook, and Confectioner, NYC

habensteinHartfordNo Ruffians, 1820
“John Sherlock … respectfully acquaints epicures and connoisseurs that he is constantly receiving a fresh supply of that palatable, salutary and invigorating diet – Oysters, at his residence Washington Street opposite the Union Tavern … where he hopes to receive the resident citizens of this part of the District, or strangers; assuring them, that not only the quality of the Oysters will be attended to, but the cleanliness and neatness of the entertainment – no unpleasant company being admitted to his house.”
– Sherlock’s Oyster House, District of Columbia

Best of Both Worlds, 1822
“Being an entire stranger in Boston, though well known to individuals to whom he can refer, he may have occasion for some indulgence and allowances in little matters, until he can become perfectly acquainted with the local and prevailing taste – But no pains will be spared to gratify all – and to reconcile the fantaisies de Paris with the Boston notions . . .”
– Bertrand LaTouche’s Restaurateur, Boston

Rudolph'sTCNew Murals, 1843
“While his palate is being tickled with a nice piece of delicious salmon, [the diner] may jump off Passaic Falls with Sam Patch, and while his eye gloats upon the juicy quarter of a savory canvas back, he may indulge in a promenade through Broadway, and as he discusses the merits of a cup of coffee, he may stand like Asmodeus upon the summit of the highest shot tower of the Monumental city. It is really a rich arrangement and worth double the price of a dinner to take a peep at it.”
– Ford’s Restaurant, Boston

As Good as Any, 1847
“His motto is ‘Let Brooklyn take care of itself!’ Why go to New York to dine? His table is every day furnished with the same delicacies of equal quality to any in New York, no matter how high the standing of the establishment.”
– Bell’s Refreshment Saloon, Brooklyn

Nick Nacks, 1850
“All the Nick Nacks of the Season, Green Turtle Soup Three Times a Week, Callapee and Calapash, West India fashion.”
– Pic Nic Saloon at the Bowery Reading Room, NYC

Best People, 1852
“Here meet daily the wits, fast men, and bloods of the town, to whose enjoyment it is his pleasure to cater. A Free Lunch is served daily, and every evening may be obtained a Supper, for which is expressly prepared all the delicacies of the season.”
– Charley Abel’s, NYC

henry'sOysterParlorSFA Treat, 1856
“The Dinner at Winn’s, oh my! Another of the Same Sort before I die! Husbands take their Wives, Lovers their Sweethearts, and Old Bachelors themselves, to Winn’s for a Good Breakfast, Dinner or Supper.”
– Winn’s Fountain Head, San Francisco

“Pro-Bono Publico,” 1861
When Fainting with Hunger, how pleasant to meet
With a friend who’ll provide us with something to eat;
Refreshed, with new zeal we life’s journey pursue,
As thousands attest who their meals take of – TRUE.
– Lewis P. True’s Montgomery Dining Saloon, Boston

No Horsemeat, 1869
“One of the most Central, clean and best kept establishments of this sort in the State of Michigan, is the ‘Metropolitan,’ under the First National Bank. It has two heads, (which are better than one, we don’t say which,) and they belong to the brothers HODGE. Bon vivants, get an appetite and give Hodge Brothers a chance to get you up a lunch. They won’t ask you to ‘eat a horse.’ You bet.”
– Metropolitan Restaurant, Bay City, Michigan

1870temperancelunchUnusual Fare, 1869
This café has now become one of the popular institutions of the city. A new Turkish drink, called ‘Salepp,’ will be sold. This is a novelty in this country, and is made from a root grown in Asia Minor. It both healthful and pleasant to the taste. The only pure Mocha coffee in the city is sold here.”
– The Turkish Restaurant, Chicago

Natural Attractions, 1871
“Among the many attractions in Liberty is a natural one in the way of a pair of large Gold Fish, which attracts the attention of many, to look at them. All are invited to step in and look at them. The Subscriber has converted his Ice Cream Saloon into a first class Restaurant and Oyster Room where he will serve up Oysters in many ways, and guarantees satisfaction in every thing sold by him.”
– Pierson’s Restaurant, Liberty, Missouri

Clean and Neat, 1872
“It would take a microscope inspection to discover a spot on any of his immaculate linen. All about the little house, from the quaint French pictures, to the bright and burnished cooking range, is as neat as a pin. All Peter wants is a trial. His motto is Excelsior! And all other caterers must look to their laurels, or he will be perforce the ‘king of the roost.’”
– Peter Loiselles, Galveston, Texas

1883brooksdiningroomDon’t Sneer, 1873
“Hi You Muck-A-Muck And Here’s Your Bill of Fare: Three Kinds of Meat for Dinner; Also for Breakfast and Supper. Ham and Eggs every day, and Fresh Fish, Hot Rolls and Cake in abundance. Plenty of Tea and Coffee every day for Dinner and Hiyou Sike’s Ale on Sunday. Hurry up, and none of your sneering at Cheap Boarding Houses. Now’s the time to get the wrinkles taken our of your bellies, after the hard winter.”
– Thompson’s Two-Bit House, Portland, Oregon

Boston’s Taste, 1884
“After fifteen years of laborious study, Mr. Louis P. Ober believes he has found the pulse of the public taste of Boston. He responds to the long-felt want of a salon where gentlemen will feel at home.”
– Ober’s Restaurant Parisien, Boston

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under miscellaneous

We burn steaks


While most restaurant advertising tends to exaggerate the subject’s merits, some takes the opposite tack, declaring that the restaurant’s food and service are horrid. The reason is simple, a wish to stand out from the crowd.

ToughSteaksShermanOaks1950How well this works is questionable. If a restaurant has nothing going for it in food quality or service, a gimmicky promotional attitude isn’t going to make it successful. For instance, the humor of Hawley’s Tough Steaks, Sherman Oaks Ca, displayed in the slogan “Famous for Dining Discomfort” wears thin almost instantly. After you have read through the menu once, and maybe smiled wanly at its jokiness – Tired T-Bone, 25 cents, With Meat, 2.25 – you might not ever want to see it again. I haven’t been able to determine how long Hawley’s stayed in business.

I sense a degree of desperation in the advertisement for The Garret in Greenwich Village. In 1922 when this ad appeared, The Garret’s proprietor was Grace Godwin, single mother of four who ran it to support her family. It was located near the spot in the Village where all the tour buses parked, which should have given it an edge despite the fact that it was housed on the second floor of a dumpy old building. The ad played off the Village’s reputation for zaniness that was so attractive to tourists. Grace gave up the business not much later.


But sometimes it seems to work.

Ptomaine Tommy’s in Los Angeles fared quite well and was around at least from 1913 to 1940 if not longer. It multiplied, “dotting California roadsides,” according to newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre who mentioned the restaurant’s name often enough even if he wasn’t terribly flattering. He called them “hastily constructed” and comparing them to the Shanties, Shacks, and Food Hutches that sprang up in the Depression serving bean soup and hash.

Perhaps partly because McIntyre made the name known, it became a popular one. Ptomaine Tommy’s appeared in San Francisco, Portland OR, Reno NV, and even Eau Claire WI. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if restaurants with that name are in business today.

I think that the self-denigrating approach appeals to a sense of humor among those, historically men, who aren’t especially fond of eating out unless they can be reassured that they won’t be expected to pay much, dress up, or display refined manners.

Restaurants that make fun of themselves give off a message that they aren’t pretentious. Patrons can be sure they won’t meet up with haughty servers. Or, as Newman’s in Amarillo and Dalhart, TX, put it, “Terrible Service, But We’re Friendly.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under miscellaneous

2013, a recap

recapWolfie'sMBI think of the past twelve months as the year of Wolfie’s.

Although it was two years ago that I wrote Famous in its day: Wolfie’s, about a former Florida coffee shop, 2013 was the year when the post broke records, becoming my top post devoted to an individual restaurant. It also became the all-time most popular post on a single restaurant since I began blogging in 2008. I’d love to think it was my sparkling writing that made Wolfie’s so hot, but I suspect it was due to interest stirred up by two seasons of the TV show Magic City about mobsters in 1960s Miami.

As for other single-restaurant posts, Miss Hulling’s, published in January 2012, came in second. It was followed by Schrafft’s, John R. Thompson, and Pig ’n’ Whistle.

My Recipes page actually topped Wolfie’s by a thousand or so, demonstrating that day and night there are legions of recipe hunters searching for their favorite bygone restaurant dishes. I fear they are usually disappointed. Through the generosity of a friend I just obtained Miss Hulling’s cook book. No split layer cakes, but I can do Country Gravy or Miss Ethel’s Scalloped Potatoes.

The Prices page was another click magnet. Yes, it’s true that in 1964 Howard Johnson’s ran a special on one-plate turkey dinners for $1.49.

Other notables

Evergreen posts: The Decades stayed strong, in this order: 1920s, 1960s, 1950s.

recap1970sRuth'sHickoryMtnRestaurantMy biggest achievement: Finally completing the decade of the 1970s, which takes the 20th century right up to 1980. I expect it will eventually move into second place among the Decades.

“Fastest out of the gate”: B.McD, which was the fastest to accumulate page views, maybe because of great images.

recapWoolworth67cheeseburgerPerennially most popular post not about an individual restaurant: You want cheese with that? Alas, it is sadly lacking in “likes” maybe because that feature didn’t exist when it came out in 2009. Once no likes, always no likes?

recapShambarger'sDMy personal favorites of 2013: Writers’ favorites never quite seem to mesh with readers’ favorites. Mine were Greek-American restaurants and Restaurant as fun house: Shambarger’s.

Most deserving 2013 post that didn’t click with readers: Charge it! Boo hoo. Was it because it has no color pictures, or because it came out in summer?

Coming up: There are many posts on the drawing board and quite a few already moving down the production line for 2014. I’m determined to tackle fearsomely big topics such as oysters, and Chinese and Mexican restaurants. And then there are lunch wagons, smorgasbords, celebrity restaurants, tableside preparation, restaurants at world’s fairs, and . . . (fill in the blank). Any requests?

Thanks for reading and best wishes for happy restaurant-ing through 2014,signature168


Filed under miscellaneous

Books, etc., for restaurant history enthusiasts

TURNING THE TABLES: RESTAURANTS AND THE RISE OF THE AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS, 1880-1920, by Andrew P. Haley, University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

turningthetables666In the time that has elapsed since my reading this fine book — and getting to meet Andrew in person — and now, he has gathered numerous glowing reviews plus a 2012 James Beard Award. Proving he didn’t need any help from me to get the attention he deserved for this well-researched and highly readable book. Still, I’d like to see him get even more.

Turning the Tables is an investigation of the role of the American middle class in the creation of restaurants that suited their tastes, values, and habits: in other words, in creating the kinds of restaurants we patronize today, where the menu is streamlined and written in plain English, where women and children are welcome, and where food of many ethnicities is enjoyed. The book investigates in detail what it was about elite restaurants of the late Victorian age that average Americans disliked. And I must say it is refreshing to read an account of the making of our culture that portrays average people “turning the tables” and spreading access to the good things of life rather than aspiring to become privileged exclusivists.

HISTORIC RESTAURANTS OF WASHINGTON D.C., by John DeFerrari, The History Press/American Palate, 2013.

HistoricRestsDC664John is a preservationist and an authority on Washington. He is the author of Lost Washington and of the well-illustrated blog Streets of Washington. His book on the city’s restaurants is carefully researched and beautifully illustrated with postcards from his collection and photographs from the Library of Congress. There are eight pages of color illustrations, the remainder in black and white. Reading the book makes clear that even if Washington’s restaurants – like those of many cities across the nation – were long considered of little culinary interest, that doesn’t mean that their histories are any less significant. John has ferreted out plenty of evidence of the important role they played in the life of the city.

I particularly liked his chapters “Black Washington’s Restaurants” and “Power Lunches and Dinners.” And, of course, I appreciated that he included a chapter on tea rooms. I know I will be dipping back into his book many times as I write my own posts.

REPAST: DINING OUT AT THE DAWN OF A NEW AMERICAN CENTURY, 1900-1910, by Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer, W. W. Norton & Company, 2013

repast665Michael Lesy is of course the author of the newly reissued, haunting classic Wisconsin Death Trip, as well as numerous other books. In Repast he has teamed up with his wife Lisa Stoller to write about turn-of-the-century dining, high and low, American, French, and other ethnicities. Splitting the task between them almost 50-50, Michael authored the Introduction and the chapters Pure Food, Quick Food, and Other People’s Food while Lisa wrote Her Food, Splendid Food, and the Afterword. Together the chapters create a vivid portrait of how people lived as reflected through their eating habits.

The book makes great use of the New York Public Library’s Buttolph menu collection which is particularly strong in the first decade of the 20th century. Many of the photographs shown in the book are from the incomparable Byron Company collection at the Museum of the City of New York. As a consequence, the book tends to favor New York particularly in the illustrations, which are printed beautifully in this handsome, full-color book.

Note cards by Cool Culinaria

coolculinaria670The sprightly image of a menu from McDonnell’s Drive-In shown here, in 1940s Los Angeles, is from CC’s mixed set of ten cards, the American Collection. Other note card sets in their lineup include those of the Old West and the cities of Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco. I like how the inside left side of each card gives a glimpse of the  menu’s interior.

And, in case you were wondering what that brown bottle is that the female carhop carries on the tray, it is indeed beer. In addition to colas, ice cream sodas, and “churned buttermilk,” McDonnell’s served bottled beer and beer by the glass (10 cents), with a higher charge for Eastern beers than those brewed in the West! So let’s drink a toast to California’s unique concept of the drive-in and to Cool Culinaria’s mission of “Rescuing Vintage Menu Art from Obscurity.”


Filed under miscellaneous

The case of the mysterious chili parlor

Historical research sometimes goes nowhere. I saw the following advertisement in a 1903 Denver newspaper and was intrigued. Chinese noodle and chili parlor? Another strike at the idea of ethnic authenticity in cuisine. I wondered, was the owner Chinese or Mexican or neither? What did “no opposition” mean? I hoped I could find out more.

The ad says “old established trade.” I was unable to verify that. I discovered that in 1890 a man named Reuben Newhart ran a restaurant at 909 18th street, but I could find nothing about him. In the early part of 1902 a restaurant at that address was under the management of Mrs. Lizzie Albin. She also proved to be a cipher. Otherwise Denver city directories for the intervening years showed no restaurants at #909.

I searched for additional advertisements. What I found made everything more confusing.

Can you, dear reader, create a scenario which explains the following series of advertisements?

The earliest I found was September 15, 1902, when the business is described as a chile parlor. (Note: chile was often used instead of chili.)


In October it is put up for sale. Clearing $100 a month, about $6,000 today – not too bad for a chili parlor.


October 24, it is no longer described as a chile parlor but as an “all new” Short Order and Oyster House.

It is on November 19, 1902, that the restaurant is first described as a “chile and noodle parlor.”

But on December 13 it is doing business as “The Orient” and serving Chinese Noodles and Chop Suey. Western Chinese restaurants were often located in the rear of saloons but, the advertisement announces, this is not true of The Orient. Now we discover the asking price: $160.

Eight days later, December 21, and the Chile, Noodle and Lunch Parlor is clearing $125 a month. But is that true? The owner must be pretty desperate to sell if s/he is willing to raffle it at 1 cent a chance.

Well, it’s January 25, 1903, and evidently the raffle was not successful. The owner must sell in the next few days. The profit picture seems to have dimmed a little – but maybe the new owner could collect on those invoices, which I’m guessing had been figured into previous profit estimates. Price dropped to $125.

The advertisement that got me interested in the first place, January 28, 1903. Why is no one buying it if it’s doing big business and has a fine location and low rent? The owner isn’t around much.

Six days later, the price drops to $100, but now the place is clearing only $90 a month.

March 11, 1903. Makes no sense at all.

Chile parlor gone! Looks like selling faucet filters is a better deal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under miscellaneous

Picky eaters: Helen and Warren


Helen and Warren liked eating in restaurants in the early 20th century when it was a rare experience for most Americans. They kept up with the trends and they tried restaurants of every format. They were affluent New Yorkers, somewhat jaded and always seeking the new thing.

Helen wanted to avoid expense and ostentation but was uncomfortable in offbeat places. Warren was cynical and alternately a cheapskate or big-spender. Both were distrustful. They feared they’d be taken advantage of, and sometimes were.

In the 1920s Helen and Warren were the best known couple in the U.S.A.

But they were fictional. They were the creation of Mabel Herbert Urner who wrote a column about the pair for over thirty years, from 1910 until the early 1940s.  The column was widely syndicated in newspapers from Boston to Los Angeles as well as in Canada and England. Though fiction, the column presents a fascinating subjective view of dining out, particularly in the 1910s and 1920s.

HelenandWarrenLathropandMabelHelen’s and Warren’s experiences likely had some resemblance to Mabel’s own life, particularly when the couple visited restaurants in Paris, London, and other European capitals. After marrying rare book dealer and collector Lathrop Colgate Harper in 1912, Mabel traveled with him around the world. In New York they lived in an apartment at 1 Lexington Avenue across from Gramercy Park from which they surely forayed into restaurants regularly.

Did Mabel and Lathrop, like her famous pair, have a preference for out-of-the-way restaurants such as the French and Italian tables d’hôtes in NYC? One starlit summer night in 1913 Helen dragged Warren to a backyard café run by three sisters. Helen exclaimed “Why, it’s a bit of Paris!” when she stepped into the garden. They were surrounded by writers, artists, and illustrators, including a “queerly dressed” literary woman. (Mabel’s inside joke?) Warren, a successful businessman, scoffed at the artists but even he had to admit afterward, “That [was] the best dinner in New York for the money.” They paid 65 cents each for soup, beef tongue with piquant sauce, squab, and salad, finished with fresh pears, Camembert, and coffee – wine included. The café was clearly modeled on that run by the Petitpas sisters on W. 29th in conjunction with a boarding house where artist John Butler Yeats lived. A dinner with Yeats and friends about this time was memorialized in a painting by John Sloan.


The Petitpas dinner was one of the couple’s few positive experiences. As much as Helen was drawn to offbeat restaurants, she was often squeamish about unsanitary conditions. She refused to eat ground meat. Usually she wiped her silverware with her napkin. She had problems in a Chinese restaurant, an Italian place, an “anarchist restaurant,” probably Maria’s, as well as at the Pink Parrot in Greenwich Village (probably the Pepper Pot, shown here). When she pushed away her plate there, Warren reprimanded her, saying, “You’re a bum bohemian.”

Helen and Warren visited cafeterias, tea rooms, pre-war cabarets, hotel dining rooms, roadhouses, and shoreline resorts in the NYC metro area. Helen was often embarrassed by Warren’s behavior when he showed off or spent too much money. They bickered. He declared a tea room she liked “a sucker joint.” She was critical of the decor and pomp of expensive restaurants, but her attempts to put a brake on Warren’s spending often backfired.

In 1913 they went to a restaurant in the throes of a waiters’ strike. Somewhat surprisingly, considering the bourgeois lifestyles of both Mabel and Helen, the story presents a case for the strikers. Helen questions their server about the goals of the strike, and he says, “They want decent food, m’am; clean food and a clean place to eat it. They want to be treated like men – not dogs! And they want a living wage.” Warren asks about tips and the waiter replies, “Why does he have to depend on tips thrown at him?”

In many ways Helen’s and Warren’s restaurant adventures and complaints seem relevant today. Has it happened to you that a server tries to remove your meal in progress? Have you been charged extra for bread? Welcome to the 1910s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under miscellaneous, patrons

The fifteen minutes of Rabelais

Watch me wipe that smile off his face.

Watch me wipe that smile off his face.

François Rabelais was a French writer, an eccentric, and a joker who lived centuries ago. Based on a prank he pulled to get out of paying a dinner bill, the phrase “quarter hour of Rabelais” has come down through history to refer to the unhappy time when diners are confronted with the bill for their restaurant meal.

Personally, I am someone who always has a rough estimate of what I’ll have to pay at the end, so I am scarcely in the same boat as Rabelais. All the more so because I definitely would not go into a restaurant (in his case, an inn) and order a meal knowing I had no money.

But, it is a well known fact that some people order freely – and drink freely – to the point that they have no idea what their total bill will come to. And, in the olden days, there was no written menu so it wasn’t always clear what everything cost.

According to lore, Rabelais was penniless yet ate and drank as though there would be no reckoning. When the bill came, he held up a flask and announced he planned to poison the king with its contents. He was arrested and carried off to the palace. The king took the whole incident as a big joke. An unlikely story if I ever heard one.

Nevertheless the phrase survived and is, or was, well known in France as a moment of letdown when you realize you’ve got to pay the bill. Maybe in modern times credit cards have distanced us from that feeling. Or, is it simply that not that many people sit around restaurant tables drinking all night anymore?

Obviously misery about paying the bill is worsened if the diner is short of money. Or if his or her companions have departed without leaving enough money for their shares – something that can still be counted on to happen from time to time. Perhaps that is a modern example of the “quart d’heure de Rabelais” as it was memorialized in the following bad poetry from 1887.


The question of who pays is an associated issue. Though it isn’t well known, the law considers everyone at the table responsible for the check. If there are four and three leave, and all the orders are on one check, the last person remaining must pay the total bill.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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As the restaurant world turned, July 17


July 17 being the anniversary of my blog, I’m celebrating. In the beginning I thought a blog would be so easy. I’d browse over my notes, grab a few things, and write a post in half an hour. Hah! That was approximately true of the first few posts — one of which I’ve revised repeatedly and another of which I’ve deleted. In memory of that happy delusion I present a quick rundown of restaurant happenings on random July 17ths.

1890 – Waiters walking off the job close down three more restaurants as they join a St. Louis waiters’ strike. The Waiters’ Union is further heartened when it learns that members of the city’s Typographical Union have pledged not to eat anywhere non-union servers are employed.

July17Clamshellpearl1907 – A Bangor ME restaurant worker grinding clams for chowder runs into a hard substance which turns out to be a pearl. She rejects a local jeweler’s offer of $250 ($5,000 or $6,000 today) saying she will instead send it to New York for appraisal.

1916 – Taylor’s Exchange Restaurant opens in a new building in Charleston SC promising there will be “no odors” since the kitchen is upstairs from the dining room. Taylor signs his advertisement, “I remain, Yours When Hungry.”

1930 – Despite his claims that he does not run a “booze joint” and had no idea liquor was hidden in his lunchroom’s walls, a judge fines the operator of Holyoke MA’s Washington Lunch $150.

1936 – Admitting she only took a restaurant job to escape “that darn farm” in Florida where she grew up, an Atlanta waitress announces she has won a scholarship to Louisiana State and will be quitting to study music there.


1950 – Fifteen members of the Washington, D.C. Interracial Workshop are arrested for holding up the line at Sholl’s Cafeteria after Afro-Americans in the group are denied service.

July17Embassymgr1958 – Although she has been threatened with bodily harm, Beverly Sturdevant, a manager of the Embassy Restaurant in Cicero IL, testifies against mobsters inside Local 450 of the Chicago Hotel and Restaurant Employes Union to the US Senate Rackets Investigating Committee.

1962 – “Reverse Freedom Rider” David Harris announces he will open a barbecue and chili restaurant in Hyannis MA, summer home of the Kennedys. Harris arrived a few months earlier with a busload of Afro-Americans sent North by an Arkansas segregationist Citizens’ Council. The action was meant to embarrass President John F. Kennedy, who had recently taken a harder line on segregation.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


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