Category Archives: odd buildings

Digesting the Madonna Inn

The Madonna Inn complex in San Luis Obispo CA, including a fantasyland motel, wedding venue, shops, and restaurants, represents the genius and determination of a rugged male individual – assisted by his wife — conquering all obstacles to build a dream.

Alex Madonna had been planning his project from 1953 if not earlier. The motel opened in the full sense of the word in early 1959, but it was not until a couple of years later that the complex was furnished with eating facilities.

Although all along it has had plenty of overnighters, honeymooners, lunch and dinner patrons, banqueters, and gawkers who love it, the place has also had detractors. Among their assessments: “a fantasy run amok,” “the epitome of lousy taste,” and “a crazy, outrageous Hansel-and-Gretel complex.”

Madonna Inn lore credits its unorthodox design to Alex and Phyllis Madonna’s untutored creativity. Alex, according to legend, speedily dismissed the architects he initially consulted. Yet, up until the end of 1958 Madonna worked with plans developed by Beverly Hills architect Louis Gould, a former Hollywood film set designer. And as late as 1966 an advertisement for an apartment complex Gould designed credited him with other “outstanding landmarks . . . including the famed Madonna Inn.” To the extent that the Inn’s exterior achieved any coherence, it may be due to his early influence.

Yet there was a point where no professionals guided the design, as revealed especially in the striking – to me jarring – use of large stones and boulders. The two most celebrated rooms – a men’s public bathroom with a urinal flushed by a waterfall and the Caveman Room [shown above] – prominently feature these materials.

Throughout the interior, the combination of stones and boulders with bright primary colors, artificial flowers and vines, gilded cupids, figured textiles, and plush carpeting is disturbing. The Inn’s eating places exemplify the common observation that many American restaurants are more about decor than food. This was especially true of the primary dining room, the Gold Rush Room [shown below]. Its jangling decor, superficially suggesting luxury but not allowing the eye to rest, is out of keeping with fine dining where food is the star.

A Los Angeles Times reviewer said he lost his appetite in the Gold Rush Room after viewing the giant tree with “fat, glossy, grinning cherubs, spray-painted gold and swimming in Pepto-Bismol.” Alex Madonna responded with a letter defending the room’s centerpiece. The 25-foot tall tree, he pointed out, had been “hand-crafted” on the spot out of “electrical conduit and copper remnants left over from building projects.” The pink, he wrote, was inspired by a visit to Hawaii where it was used lavishly in hotels and restaurants. At one point, even the Inn’s bread and sugar were pink.

The images of the Madonna Inn shown here are difficult to date, but most are probably from the 1960s and 1970s. Everything was subject to change and frequently overhauled. As a 1973 story in the Los Angeles Times observed, Alex Madonna perpetually thought up new ideas, one being an indoor lake featuring a floating cocktail bar that patrons would reach by canoe. The room would have been furnished with a snowflake machine and a three-story fireplace that burned entire trees. That dream did not materialize, nor did the plan to build another motel complex atop the San Luis Mountain behind the Inn that he bought from the city of San Luis Obispo in1972.

The Inn’s basement Wine Bar below the Gold Rush Room featured boulders incongruously festooned with vines and blooming flowers, a beamed ceiling, and chairs fashioned from barrels. If the wine list was anything like the coffee shop’s, it too would have specialized in Lancers and Paul Masson selections such as Rosé and Sparkling Burgundy, along with Port and Sherry aperitifs.

Lunch and supper specials on a ca. 1960s coffee shop menu were also uninspired. They included low-calorie choices such as Ground Beef Patty with Cottage Cheese, and entrees like Top Sirloin Steak with Cottage Cheese and Peaches. “Chilled” Tomato Juice as an appetizer.

The 1960s and 1970s were not distinguished decades gastronomically, and in that sense the Inn was typical. Patrons might be thrilled with the oversized pastries available in the coffee shop, but otherwise the fare did not receive many comments. A few observed that it was nothing special and overpriced. Recent photos taken by guests are not flattering, though it’s only fair to admit that they may reflect Covid-era staffing issues.

The Inn was hailed in the 1970s by fans of vernacular roadside architecture, such as John Margolies, as well as some influential writers and scholars. Not only did Margolies declare the Inn’s meals “delicious,” he considered the complex “a labor of love” designed to make people happy” and “a place where things that don’t go together go together.”

Hmm. I’d say that in the Gold Rush Room’s Christmas scene, among others, things could never go together.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under decor, food, odd buildings, Offbeat places, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

Restaurant-ing with John Margolies

The multi-talented John Margolies spent nearly 40 years on the road taking tens of thousands of photographs of roadside businesses. He focused particularly on those with bright paint, unusual signs, or odd shapes. Often the buildings were amateurish constructions, sometimes abandoned and forlorn looking [above, Orange Julep, Plattsburgh NY, 1978].

Restaurants and ice cream stands were frequently his subjects, as were motels and gas stations. The photos were notable for the absence of people, which tended to give them a strangely monumental appearance as well as a degree of pathos. The sky was always blue, often cloudless, even if he had to wait for days to take the shot. It is clear that his involvement with these subjects was highly personal. [Daisy Queen, Greenville SC]

He produced at least a dozen books using his photographs and ephemera from his and other collections. Among them were The End of the Road: Vanishing Highway Architecture in America (1981), Pump and Circumstance: Glory Days of the Gas Station (1994), and Home Away from Home: Motels in America (1995). An elegiac tone concerning the buildings and businesses made obsolete by interstate highways, fast-food chains, and big box stores suffused his project.

Rejecting the distinction between good and bad taste, he was determined to put popular culture on a par with elite high culture. For example, he admired the flamboyant architecture of San Luis Obisbo’s Madonna Inn, designed by its owners who were untrained as architects. His photographic choices reflect his dedication to this mission.

How fortunate that nearly 12,000 color slides of Margolies’ work have been acquired by the Library of Congress and can be viewed online.

I have selected a few of the hundreds of restaurants whose images he captured. For the most part, these restaurants were not the sort to do much advertising or to be reviewed in newspapers, so they are difficult to research. For example, little is recorded about the barrel-shaped eateries he photographed, such as The Beef Burger in Amarillo TX. I suspect it may have once served as an A&W rootbeer stand.

The Fish Inn of Coeur d’Alene ID, on the other hand, often cropped up in local newspapers. It was designed by its husband-and-wife owners in the mid 1930s. It changed hands often and probably stood empty for a time, yet amazingly enough has survived into the present, primarily as a roadhouse with live bands.

A Spokane WA newspaper columnist in 1936 described it as “a grotesque structure, made in the shape of the fish, with its shingled sides representing scales and the huge mouth the main entrance.” That attitude would change. By the time Margolies photographed it in 1987, appreciation for what became known as “roadside America” had spread across the land and the Fish Inn had been noted as one of its gems. There were other odd structures in the greater Spokane area such as a creamery’s 38-ft tall milk bottles, the Miner’s Hat in Kellogg ID, a giant Paul Bunyan, a tavern in the form of a prairie schooner, and a number of pseudo-windmills.

After standing empty for several years The Boat Restaurant in Vernon NY was reopened in 2008, but possibly later closed and demolished. According to a brief note on the Oneida County History Center site, a longtime former owner dated it to 1923. Margolies photographed it in 1988, by which time it had lost a few of its original features. Why the restaurant was built as a boat is unclear other than to attract the attention of passersby. Many eating places have adopted the shape of boats over the years.

As a storefront restaurant built in an alleyway in the 1930s or 1940s, the 12-foot-wide Town Talk Diner was a “greasy spoon” notable for its cheap burgers, cream pie, and giant modernistic sign. Because of its front it is not strictly a piece of vernacular architecture, but it no doubt captured Margolies’ interest in 1984 because of its sign. Located on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, it — along with many other businesses in the vicinity — was burned to the ground during protests against the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

In 2017 it had been taken over by new owners who renamed it the Town Talk Diner & Gastropub. Noticing that most of their guests came from out of town, they were puzzled about the lack of local customers. They discovered through social media that many thought it was still a diner, mainly because of the sign. How odd that what attracted Margolies kept customers away.

Powers Hamburgers, built before WWII, has survived fast-food competitors and thrives to this day in Fort Wayne IN. It even has a Facebook page. Like the Town Talk Diner, it seems quite different than vernacular buildings such as the Fish Inn and The Boat. Rather than whimsy, Powers and the Town Talk both display the influence of European moderne design as interpreted by professional designers. Powers Hamburgers reminds me of the architect-designed units of the White Tower chain in the 1930s with their white porcelain paneled exteriors.

In his later tours Margolies photographed fast food chain units, including a few McDonald’s, Bennigan’s, Papa John’s, and a Del Taco. Buildings by corporate chains with staff architects do not seem to have much in common with his earlier subjects, especially considering that their rise was responsible for the failure of so many “mom and pop” businesses. I’m still puzzling over that.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under diners, odd buildings

What were they thinking?

I have often been struck by how many postcards fail to present restaurants at their best. Most of those I’ve chosen for this post are from popular restaurants, some of which stayed in business for a very long time and were well loved.

But the whole idea behind postcards was to extend the appeal of a restaurant beyond its regular patrons, to those who perhaps never even heard of it. What would strangers think about the places associated with these self-presentations?

Why show an exterior like this?

I don’t know what explains the sad appearance of the Olympia Oyster House. It was a popular spot that had been around for decades, but the front of the building in 1971, with its high-school-gym style and blanked out window, does not seem attractive even to the people in the photo. It seems they can’t quite bring themselves to enter.

Apparently the Hilltop Restaurant, shown here in 1960, was listed for sale for an extended period of time. Years and years — all the while doing business. Nothing like a patch of weeds to set off a place.

The names!

Please, no more Squat-N-Gobbles! Such a strange name for a white-tablecloth restaurant advertising “Dinner by Candlelight.”

And yet, having no name at all doesn’t work well either.

Identity crisis

As names go, Mammy’s Kitchen is offensive, and, in the case of this 1970s Myrtle Beach restaurant, does not seem to have anything to do with either the food or the strange atomic symbol hovering overhead. Its cuisine is likewise heterogeneous, covering the usual steaks and chicken, but also offering “Italian Kitchen and KOSHER SANDWICHES.” New management took over in the mid-1980s but the objectionable name from an earlier age was still in use as late as 2019.

The Wolf’s Den in Knox, Pennsylvania, opened in 1972 in a very old barn that had been decorated with plows, saddles, old rifles and such. The section called the Hay Mow is shown on this card. Something about the dusty appearance of dried out straw and the chains and hooks does not convey an enjoyable dining experience. According to a 1977 review, the restaurant was expensive and served “standard American fare” such as escargot and French onion soup. I’m confused.

Do these look delicious?

German pancakes have been a favorite at Pandl’s Inn in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, for decades. The trouble is they don’t photograph at all well. It is also a mystery to me why anyone would accompany a large pancake with a basket of bread and rolls.

A similar problem afflicts the specialty ice cream pie at Tripp’s Restaurant in Bar Harbor, Maine.

The postcard was almost certainly created to celebrate the opening of the Sirloin Room at Dallas’ Town and Country Restaurant in 1951. Of course steaks are brown, plus this one seems to be resting in a pool of its own juices. I can see that some touch of color was needed, but maybe this parsley is a bit much.

Threatening interiors

Probably when you’re actually in King Arthur’s Court, a room at the Tower Steak House in Mountainside, New Jersey, the deadly implements wielded by the suits of armor recede into the distance and the blood red carpeting is barely noticeable. But in this shot they loom disturbingly.

No, the lion is not actually holding a gun, but she is showing her teeth in a menacing way. Likewise those antelope horns look sharp at the Kenya Club in Palm Beach, Florida.

This light fixture? sculpture? installation? might just be the ugliest I’ve ever seen. Let’s hope that it was well connected to the ceiling of the William Tell Restaurant in Chicago. Then there are the inset wall displays, and . . .

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under decor, food, odd buildings

Restaurant-ing on wheels

Will more people turn to food trucks for away-from-home meals this summer? With the cancellation of so many outdoor festivals and events, food truck operators may want to set up on city streets instead.

But in many places they may face obstacles that go back more than 100 years, to the era of the horse-drawn lunch wagon.

Selling ready-to-eat food on the street originated long ago. As far back as the 1830s, and again in the 1850s, “omnibuses” outfitted as cafes appeared on the streets of Paris and Lyons. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that some American sellers of prepared food graduated to vehicles. Following Chicago’s disastrous fire of 1871, “wagons gaily painted and covered with awnings” showed up on street corners supplying homeless crowds with basics such as sausages, fish, oysters, boiled onions, baked potatoes, pie, and coffee.

Early lunch wagons could be found in other states too. The oldest advertisement I’ve found is from Connecticut in 1877. In the 19th century they were usually referred to as night lunch wagons since night was their busy, sometimes only, time of business.

In the 1880s the number of lunch wagons grew. Temperance groups in Chicago and the Northeast adopted them as a way to lure late-night drinkers with coffee and rolls, naming their vehicles “owl wagons.”

The first wagons tended to be cobbled together out of spare parts, but it wasn’t long before enterprising New Englanders realized the potential for profit in manufacturing them. Worcester, Massachusetts, became a center of production for a number of companies, as detailed in the classic book American Diner by Richard Gutman. By 1892, Worcester lunch wagon maker Charles Palmer was supplying his patented lunch wagons to many parts of the country. Some of them had elaborately painted exteriors that made them resemble circus wagons. Larger ones tended to have enough room inside to allow a few customers to sit at narrow side counters, while in older and homemade models orders were handed out a window.

Except for in Southern states where they were rare, their numbers continued to grow in the 1890s. It’s likely that the economic depression of that decade expanded their popularity. The low prices lunch wagons charged for humble food such as hamburger sandwiches made them favorites of the poor who formed their main customer base along with heavy drinking saloon patrons. In some places they were known as sandwich or frankfurter wagons, and in California as tamale wagons. Whatever they served, it was inexpensive.

Some lunch wagon proprietors made a decent profit but there were costs to doing business in addition to supplies. These could include wagon rental, hiring a horse to haul the wagon back and forth, rental of a garage to store the wagon during off time, and sometimes various payoffs to authorities and saloon owners.

It didn’t take long for opposition to lunch wagons to emerge, particularly from all-night restaurant keepers who became angry when wagons took a stand outside their doors. In 1893 restaurant keepers in Hartford CT petitioned the city for an ordinance that would limit how many hours lunch wagons could be on the streets. Complaints against the wagons were extensive. Restaurant owners declared that their businesses built up the town by supporting taxable properties, while the lunch wagons did not. They also argued that city streets were not intended as business sites.

Other complaints — from city officials and the public at large — focused on traffic congestion, gaudy and ugly appearance, unsanitary conditions, and rough customers who got into fights. In Los Angeles in the early 1900s, wagon proprietors were criticized for serving “embalmed” beef dosed with chemical preservatives. There were complaints about cooking odors. In Fort Worth TX, a paper reported, “Some people simply don’t like the idea of seeing a man take a big greasy hamburger sandwich and standing on the sidewalk munching away, while ladies and children pass and cannot avoid seeing him.” (Hamburger was seen as undesirable poor people’s food then.)

Fancier lunch wagon designs may have been intended to win greater acceptance. “White House” lunch wagons, produced by Thomas Buckley in Worcester and regarded as the finest made, were not only painted a clean-looking white but had colored glass windows with images of presidents and military figures. By 1899 the Buckley company was said to operate and control the lunch wagon business in 25 cities. The company sent wagons all the way to the Pacific Coast. However, despite their finery, Buckley wagons in Chicago operated in the poor parts of the city, where payoffs to property owners and police were often necessary.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th more regulations and limitations were forced on lunch wagon operators. Some required restaurant licenses or limited the number any one owner could operate. Chicago was among the cities that banned wagons on main streets, while others such as Albany NY and Lynn MA banned them on all streets. Operators began to look for alleyways or permanent locations they could settle on, often hiding their wheels behind dummy foundations. Over time the prefab eateries – now called diners – were produced in larger sizes, without wheels, and with better seating and cooking facilities.

But, now-motorized portable restaurants on wheels did not go away – rather they adapted to the restrictions by going on the move. They traveled to factories for shift changes, or to fairs and carnivals. As long as they were moving all day and had a peddler’s license, they were legal. Then, in the 2000s, food trucks became somewhat upscale, appealing to customers interested in exploring dishes from a wide range of the world’s cookbooks.

Yet some of the issues that plagued early lunch wagons lingered on. Complaints today no longer target brawling customers or spoiled food, but not all cities welcome the trucks. Fumes from gasoline powered generators that many trucks use can be obnoxious. And of course restaurants still don’t want them parked outside. Regulation of food trucks has increased considerably since the olden days (see Wikipedia) and some locations are off limits.

But, with the threat of the spread of disease and some diners’ hesitations about indoor seating, I wonder if we’ll see some relaxation of regulations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under alternative restaurants, diners, food, odd buildings, patrons, restaurant issues, roadside restaurants

Almost like flying

There’s something so crazy about restaurants and cocktail lounges in airplanes that I thought it had to be a purely American idea. Turns out I was wrong. In the past and up to this day they have been all over the world, as was true of revolving restaurants atop high buildings.

But why not a restaurant in an airplane? It was bound to happen, given the modern fascination with flight. Already in 1942 there were said to be a chain of drive-in theaters for airplanes in Flushing NY, and another one opening in Asbury Park, NJ, in 1948. In Elwood IN a drive-in restaurant for both airplanes and cars debuted in 1954.

The first restaurant in a converted commercial airplane in the U.S., according to Hospitality Magazine, was in Chicago on Cicero Ave.

Chicago’s Sky-Hi Drive-In and Restaurant, operated in a salvage-yard DC-7, was opened in late 1963 by the Dimas brothers, Jim, John, and Chris, who evidently spent way too much money renovating and outfitting the 110-foot long plane with all-electric cooking facilities. They perched it on top of a small luncheonette that served as the drive-in part. The fuselage was to provide a fine dining experience, though it’s doubtful that happened. Located on a lot that previously held an auto body shop, it may not have been in the most favorable site. Whatever the problem, less than two years after opening it was out of business.

A longer lasting airplane restaurant appeared in Penndel, PA in 1968. It got off to a tragic start when a hot air balloon hired to publicize the opening hit wires and crashed, killing both occupants. One of them was to be a server in Jim Flannery’s Constellation Cocktail Lounge that hovered over his Route 1 restaurant. As was true of the Sky-Hi Drive-in, servers were dressed as airline stewardesses. Flannery was bankrupt by 1982, but the restaurant continued onward with two other owners before it closed for good in 1995.

Meanwhile in a small town in Yugoslavia, guests sipped sodas in an old Ilyushin 14 Soviet passenger plane. A short time later another restaurant was set to open in a Lockheed Constellation in Japan, likely in the same type of plane as in Penndel. Both of the planes were veterans of WWII. Once again, servers dressed as stewardesses.

Although it might seem that the notion of using old airplanes for restaurants would have died out rapidly, it did not go away, despite various failed plans. In Opa Locka FL a Lockheed Constellation remained parked on an empty lot for years, abandoned by the businessmen who had hoped to make it into a restaurant. And yet in 1980 an airplane restaurant opened in a Convair 990 in Denver. In Georgia, someone tried to unload a battered 60-seat restaurant in a DC-7 for nearly $60,000 in 1984; never mind that moving costs would have also been in the tens of thousands. The plane may well have been the one previously used as a steakhouse in Byron GA shown here.

To bring things up to date, recent years have seen a McDonald’s in an airplane in New Zealand and, just this past March, “Connie,” a 1958 Constellation plane, passed through Times Square on its way to become a cocktail lounge for the new TWA hotel at JFK airport.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under alternative restaurants, odd buildings, Offbeat places

Christmas dinner in the desert

A red-and-white-striped restaurant named the Christmas Tree Inn located on a desolate stretch of road in the Arizona desert makes a little bit more sense when you learn that its creators were Los Angeles real estate developers.

The Christmas theme was, of course, a publicity gimmick, and one that worked rather well, at least at the beginning.

Ninon Rivé Talbott, a well known “subdivider” in L.A., opened the restaurant in 1939 with her husband Edward. It was intended to kick off an associated project, a housing development called Santa Claus Acres on the road leading to the newly completed Boulder Dam (renamed Hoover Dam in 1947).

The Talbotts had moved from Los Angeles to Kingman AZ in the early 1930s with an interest in developing tourist facilities. In 1929 they formed a corporation to build hotels along The Old Trails Highway (U.S. Highway 66), which went through Kingman. The road’s creation had been promoted by the Automobile Club of Southern California since the mid-teens, was officially designated in 1926, with paving beginning in 1931. The corporation’s first hotel was to be in Kingman, with others in Nevada, Utah, and California. (I could not determine whether any were built.)

The housing development scheme was undoubtedly spurred not only by the budding Route 66 but also the concurrent U.S. government plan to build Boulder Dam. After checking out a number of locations the government auctioned off some of the properties in the vicinity, including a 80-acre parcel acquired by the Talbotts.

However, although Santa Claus Acres building lots were sold, the housing development was foiled when it proved impossible to drill deep enough to access water.

Needless to say, the absence of water was quite a hindrance to the restaurant complex as well. Water had to be trucked in from Kingman, 14 miles away. However, the absence of water did not entirely defeat the Christmas Tree Inn, with its associated gas station and playhouses for children.

The Christmas Tree Inn complex, which comprised the entirety of “Santa Claus, Arizona,” was a classic do-it-yourself mid-century roadside attraction. Characteristically, it occupied an isolated spot in the wilderness, was garishly eye-catching, and somewhat makeshift. Still, the sight of it was so striking in the vast and empty desert that vacationing families with bored children were almost certain to stop there.

Despite the red and white stripes and the Christmas name, the complex had more of an overall story-book feel, with its Cinderella playhouse, Three Little Pigs hut, and indoor murals with goose girls and other characters. A second dining area, devoid of any theme decor, was inexplicably called the French Room.

Any early success was due primarily to Ninons’ initial efforts and those of the couple who acquired it next. Ninon dubbed herself “Mrs. Santa Claus,” claiming in 1939 that this was a character who seemed “to have been neglected up to this time.” Presumably it is a be-wigged Ninon depicted on the 1940 postcard above.

She was evidently quite a high-powered personality capable of motivating others and making deals. Married four times and mother of five children, she somehow managed to build a career as a realtor in the 1920s and 1930s. Additionally, she was said to be a fine cook who produced surprisingly delicious food for a small roadside eatery. A listing in Duncan Hines’ 1941 edition of Adventures in Good Eating recommended the Inn, saying “Perhaps the best rum pie you ever ate, chicken a la North Pole and lots of other unusual things.”

The war years had to be tough ones. Traffic must have been light due to gasoline rationing and elimination of public access to Boulder Dam from 1941 to September, 1945.

By 1946, the Inn seemed to be doing somewhat poorly judging from the listing in Hines’ guide, which tersely stated: “Serve cold sandwiches.” In 1947 and 1948 want ads appeared in Phoenix and Salt Lake City papers offering the restaurant complex for sale at $35,000, citing the seller’s ill health and that it had cost $60,000 to build. Ninon was 50 years old at that time. According to a 2008 article in The Journal of Arizona History by Douglas C. Towne, Ninon weighed 300 pounds and had a gambling addiction.

The second owners, Erma and “Doc” Bromaghim, carried on some of Ninon’s traditions such as answering children’s letters to Santa. The Bromaghins revealed in 1954 that December was a poor month for business, so they would close then, as well as January and February. Soon they gave up running the business completely, defeated in part by their renewed failure to find water.

Although the Christmas Tree Inn survived until about 1994, its later history was rocky, involving at least 10 owners and or lessees and managers. It was advertised for sale almost continuously.

Today, what is left of the complex is boarded up and covered with graffiti. As a quick internet search will demonstrate, it is an ever-popular subject for photographers fascinated by roadside ruins.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under alternative restaurants, family restaurants, odd buildings, Offbeat places, roadside restaurants, women

Dirty by design

Given the general fear of unclean restaurants, it’s hard to understand the fascination with cobwebs and dirt in eating and drinking places of the 19th century and early 20th. File this under “the past is a foreign country.”

One of the famous places known for its decades’ worth of dust and grime was Old Tom’s in New York City. In the judgment of its fond patrons, it only got better with time.

According to witnesses, the shabby building that housed Old Tom’s on Thames Street a block west of Broadway was dark and dingy and its windows had never been washed. In the corners were stacks of boxes and barrels. Its walls were adorned with dusty letters from old patrons, ancient notices for boxing matches, and somewhat repulsive relics such as a mummified bat and “a pair of shoes taken off a little forlorn waif found wandering in the streets.”

Although customers liked Old Tom’s chops, Welsh rarebits, and ale well enough, the fame of the place rested on its cobwebs (barely visible in this 1872 illustration). By the 1870s they had been allowed to grow quite luxurious for at least 30 years. One visitor compared them to an “air-plant” which absorbed fibers and floating dust along with ale fumes and the aroma of cooking. The webs hanging from the ceiling were so long that the owner trimmed them “like a garden hedge” so they didn’t catch on men’s hats. If the restaurant had wanted to move to a new location, it would have failed. Without Old Tom’s cobwebs “the soul of his business would vanish,” said a newspaper story in 1877.

Old Tom’s went out of business in 1880 but the name was so famous that another Old Tom’s popped up nearby. It was dowdy, but sadly lacking in cobwebs.
Old Tom’s had its match in San Francisco, at a dive known as the Cobweb Palace, established in 1855. Such places were as much saloon as eating place, yet the Cobweb Palace, located on Meigg’s Wharf (now the site of Fisherman’s Wharf), was known in its better days for its clam chowder, cracked crab, and mussels. By the time it was demolished in 1893, it was a near-total wreck.

The Cobweb Palace was decorated with spider webs, South Sea island clubs and masks, and a totem pole, among many other curios both valuable and worthless. Though it was hardly a family spot, children liked to stop by and see the parrots, magpies, and parakeets flying around. Roaming monkeys greeted patrons while outside the door was a caged bear.

Old Tom’s and the Cobweb Palace lived in lore long after they were gone, but many other cobwebbed saloon-style eateries disappeared into the mist and little is known but their names.

There had been a place called Cobweb Hall in New York and another in Detroit, both operated by men from Scotland. The owner of the New York saloon/chophouse on Duane Street died in 1868, putting an end to his menagerie of spiders, Siberian wolfhounds, and canaries. In Detroit, Tom Swan’s Cobweb Hall began in 1869, lasting into the 20th century. He attracted business men and actors to his web-filled restaurant whose walls were also adorned with old playbills.

The West had quite a few Cobweb Saloons, some serving food or adjoining a restaurant whose cook often was a Chinese immigrant. Some were in mining towns such as Prescott AZ, where Ben Butler’s Chop House, run by Fong, Murphy & Co., “the Finest Restaurant in Prescott,” was next to, or connected to the Cobweb Saloon.

I’ve also found Cobweb Saloons in Las Vegas NM, Lincoln NE, Spokane and Tacoma WA, San Antonio and Beaumont TX, Albany OR, New Orleans LA, and Honolulu HI [advertisement, 1905].

Alas, I don’t know whether these saloons and cafes were draped with cobwebs. Seems like those in the West would not have had enough decades to grow them. I’m guessing it was more of a declaration of manly, no-frills comforts.

The patrons of cobweb cafes, saloons, and chop houses were regarded as victims of the devil by Christian preachers and their flocks who thought the name Cobweb Saloon was just about perfect for a place that entrapped heavy-drinking men. In 1903 a Sunday School group in Roswell NM planned a temperance discussion to include topics such as “Do men drink whiskey for the taste or effect?” and “‘Cobweb Saloon’ – Why is this an appropriate name?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, odd buildings, Offbeat places, sanitation

Image gallery: eating in a hat

In an earlier post I wrote about buildings shaped like what they sell – known as “ducks.” Usually they sold simple foods rather than entire meals. They were often located on busy roads where it wasn’t easy to get cars to stop. But proprietors realized that even the most humble shed, if masquerading as a giant dog or coffee pot, just might get speeding motorists to stop for closer examination.

Ducks, which became popular in the 1930s, could be found all over the country but their birthplace is usually cited as Southern California, the land of fantasy and car culture.

The slogan “eat in the hat” was, in fact, created in Los Angeles for the Brown Derby restaurant that opened in 1926 on Wilshire Blvd, shown above a few years later after it enlarged and added a patio.

To be considered a genuine duck, the Brown Derby should have been selling hats, but it was a restaurant, and one with a standard menu rather than just grab-and-go food. Its fame derived from its successful courtship of gossip columnists and film stars.

Copying, I am convinced, is one of the most common business tactics. Eating places love to borrow a little bit of the glamour of far-off restaurants that have achieved fame. As Los Angeles’ Brown Derby became famous, taverns and eateries across the land adopted Brown Derby, Green Derby, and related names. As shown in the images that follow, some also created a variety of hat-shaped buildings, signs, and menus.

Brown Derby Drive-in, Southern CA – Something went terribly wrong with the shape of this derby.

Brown Derby, Tyler TX – Ditto.

Brown Derby, Evansville IN – The Hat had loomed impressively larger atop an earlier, one-story building. As humorist S. J. Perelman wrote in 1936, “. . . the flood waters of the Ohio River weren’t far away, but the Brown Derby went unscathed. Such is the irony of nature.”

Brown Derby, Olympia WA – Menu on which a waffle with “wild blackberry syrup” was 40 cents.

Miner’s Hat, Kellogg ID – Why stick to derbies? This Hat had odd hours, from 10:00 A.M. to 1:00 A.M., possibly to mesh with work shifts of area miners.

Hat-O-Mat, between Warren and Youngstown OH – Maybe it was too hard to build a derby shaped drive-in? A 1950 advertisement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer sought franchisees for the Hat-O-Mat’s unnamed “new idea in feeding the public.”

El Sombrero Drive-In, Albuquerque NM – A sombrero on top just in case people didn’t realize this was a restaurant serving Mexican food. A sombrero is without doubt one of the most hackneyed of restaurant symbols.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Famous in its day: The Pyramid

I was initially attracted to The Pyramid Supper Club because of its kooky architecture and its surprising location on a rural Wisconsin road next to a cornfield. I admit I thought it was a joke.

As a 1991 advertorial noted, “The Pyramid Supper Club on Highway 33 east of Beaver Dam is surrounded by a bare, flat-land setting much like the original pyramids depicted in the interior wall paintings.”

Flat it is, I thought, but Wisconsin is a long way from ancient Egypt. Like Wild West-theme restaurants in New England and Polynesian restaurants in Arizona, it struck me as absurd.

Not only its location, but dining in a replica of a tomb? With murals depicting slaves at work? “Dine amidst the splendors of The Pharaohs – Have Cocktails in fabulous Egyptian lounges,” read the copy on the back of a postcard. I pictured the wives of Lutheran pastors, 4-H officials, fertilizer dealers, and goose hunters – all of whom gathered there at various times – clinking glasses of Yummy Mummies.

Why did the owners, who helped design the building, want their restaurant to resemble a pyramid? It opened in 1961 as the Tutankhamun Treasures exhibition toured the United States, so that’s one obvious source of inspiration. But I was surprised by the explanation that owners Gini and Dick Beth gave to a reporter, that in addition to “visual appeal” the building style had “no association with any particular food.”

Doesn’t that apply to most buildings that house restaurants? It takes no special architecture to lure lovers of steak and prime rib, the all-American cuisine the restaurant was based on.

I counted at least 27 main dishes on a 1984 Pyramid menu, suggesting that the restaurant must have had a mighty big freezer. Along with beef, chicken, and seafood specials was the puzzler, “Spearamid – on bed of rice.” Slowly it dawned on me that the word rhymed with pyramid, and was their coining. I then discovered it was beef, onion, peppers, and tomatoes grilled on a skewer.

To be fair, not all the Pyramid’s meat was frozen. The restaurant bought locally raised animals that won prizes at fairs. In 1991, for instance, they bought a lamb that won grand champion honors, paying $1,050 for it.

The Pyramid was a popular place, with a staff that was renowned for their friendliness and long tenure. It was heavily patronized by surrounding townspeople and community organizations of all sorts. Counting party rooms, the restaurant seated 500. On Sundays they served up to 300 meals, a number that jumped up as high as 800 during goose hunting season.

As I continued to learn about the Pyramid I realized a restaurant that at first I took as a joke wasn’t that at all. It was a true community institution.

Its originators, the Beths, sold it in 1994, and it subsequently had a couple of owners who ran it under different names. It closed in 2009, looking rather forlorn as shown here on Google Earth.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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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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Filed under atmosphere, food, guides & reviews, menus, odd buildings, Offbeat places