Category Archives: odd buildings

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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The history of the restaurant of the future

Starting in the early 20th century, most futuristic thinking about restaurants involved technological inventions. Many envisioned replacing waiters with mechanical devices that would send orders straight to the kitchen, then deliver the food to customers. Others foresaw the day that electricity could be used in restaurant kitchens to power every kind of tool for peeling, slicing, heating, etc.

In the teens, in fact, major hotels installed pneumatic tube systems that swooshed restaurant orders from guests in bedrooms and dining rooms to hotel service pantries. [1916 image]

The arrival of electronics with the end of World War II inspired dreams of near-instant cooking, and led to imagined scenarios in which waitresses shouted directions to the kitchen meant to produce a soft-boiled egg and crisp bacon: “One egg, hundred and thirty megacycles, six seconds – bacon, two hundred and forty megs, eleven seconds.”

The late 1950s, perhaps a wackier decade than it is usually portrayed, brought forth two curious predictions. Don Roth of Chicago’s Blackhawk Restaurant probably gave his prediction as a publicity stunt when he suggested that in the future gourmet meals by famous chefs would arrive by rocket ship from all over the world. Arrive, that is, after diners ordered via 3-D television on which they watched a chef prepare it. A columnist writing “Astro-Guide” under the name “Ceean” predicted that restaurants patronized by advertising and television executives would soon be equipped with table jacks permitting portable TVs and earphones to be used to monitor programs during lunch.

Watching a little screen at your restaurant table while eating? What a silly idea.

Still, in one way or another, most of the predictions eventually came true. Of course it helped if a prediction was made when the trend was already well underway. It wasn’t too daring in 1969 to predict that chains and franchising would grow. On the other hand, the same analysts considered the possibility that as people ate out more, future restaurants might offer special pricing for anyone who planned to eat five or more dinners a month at the same place. They did not seem to know that as far back as the 1870s it had been commonplace for restaurants to sell discounted weekly meal tickets.

Also in the 1960s, food scientists and industry gurus dreamed of frozen pre-prepared meals that needed only to be heated and served. That happened too.

The 1960s also produced a semblance of futuristic dining at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at the gas industry’s Pavilion Restaurant [shown above], and at Disney’s Tomorrowland [shown here, 1967]. It was heralded as “Tomorrowland Terrace – A restaurant of the future where excellent food and entertainment are served daily. Presented by COCA-COLA.” The Pavilion Restaurant had walls of blown air, while the futuristic aspects of Tomorrowland Terrace escape me. Later TT was remodeled and renamed Club Buzz, and then in 2006 was semi-restored and once again became Tomorrowland Terrace.

A hospitality management professor once told me that the restaurant industry is not interested in the past, only the future. That attitude can produce some strange predictions, such as those of a professor of hotel management in 1976. He anticipated push button ordering with pneumatic tube delivery (turn of the century ideas, partly realized in the teens), boiling bag entrees (see 1964 image), pictorial menus (already in use by then), and scratch ‘n’ sniff menus (which, thankfully, never materialized).

In the mid-1970s, some thought that restaurants that implemented energy-conservation measures were models of restaurants of the future. In 1976 a new Jolly Tiger restaurant opened outside Albany NY, designed as a test site for energy reclamation and conservation, and monitored by the State University of New York, with funding from the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (later the Department of Energy). Given that restaurants are huge energy users, energy conservation has been recommended by the National Restaurant Association and implemented to varying degrees in some restaurants. However, as of 2013 only 38 U.S. restaurants out of a total of over 600,000 had been granted LEED certification, signifying that they had made a serious commitment to reducing energy consumption.

That future has yet to arrive.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Multitasking eateries

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For centuries people have grabbed something to eat wherever they happened to be. Maybe they bought a baked potato from a roving street peddler, got tamales from a lunch cart, or stopped at a stand for a hot dog.

The places they got their food were usually not full-scale restaurants with waiters, complete meals, and sit-down service. The food and surroundings were often rudimentary. In the 20th century, and now, many catch-as-catch-can eateries were combined with other types of businesses.

restaurantandservicestationint

Gas stations are a prime example. But only once have I come across a lunchcounter installed inside the garage itself as shown here. Along with coffee and grub, it looks like customers could just grab a fanbelt off the wall at this homespun Arkansas café.

As was true of gas stations, eateries were often provided to serve people who stopped to take care of other chores, whether filling up their gas tank – or getting a haircut. Combining a quick lunch stand with a barber shop was outlawed in Duluth MN in the 1920s, perhaps because customers were finding hairs in their soup?

But I have to admit it was handy that the W-Bar-W Steak Ranch in Kennesaw GA was combined with a pawn shop in the 1960s. If hungry diners’ appetites exceeded their funds, they could pawn their watches.

restaurantandshoeshineherefordtx1920

And certainly it was convenient to have your shoes shined while you ate.

restaurantanddentistofficeHow about some tea or bouillon while you wait for the dentist to work on your teeth? Unlike most other providers of refreshments, Dr. Arthur Cobb of Buffalo NY did not try to make money from his color-coordinated Japanese Tea Room.

Of course it has always been common to combine places of amusement with opportunities to eat a bite. In the 1850s men looking for an evening of entertainment might go the Washington Hall Restaurant and Pistol Gallery. After consuming “Beverages and Edibles” guests could enjoy rifle and pistol practice upstairs. Given the “beverages,” it sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

Bowling, pinball, and billiards were also frequently accompanied by eats as the following images show.

restaurantand-pool1914

restaurantandpinballmaybetx

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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The “mysterious” Singing Kettle

singingkettlepcA veil of ominous mystery has spread over the remains of a California roadside tea room once known by the homey name Singing Kettle.

It was located near the summit of Turnbull Canyon, high above the San Gabriel Valley, on a winding road running through the Puente Hills in North Whittier. The road was completed in 1915, opening up a route filled with what many regarded as the most impressive views on the entire Pacific Coast.

singingkettle3781tcrstreetview

Today young people drive into the “haunted” canyon at night determined to be frightened to death. Gazing out car windows they eagerly tell each other tales they’ve heard of satanic rituals, murders, and human sacrifice, hoping that behind that fence are unspeakable horrors they might be lucky enough to witness. Even the Singing Kettle tea room, perhaps because remnants of its entrance are visible from the road, has become enmeshed in dark fantasies.

Why am I laughing?

Because it strikes me as funny that a tea room from the 1920s and 1930s could be associated with horror and paranormal events. Or even that people would find its existence mysterious, wondering why it was ever there or what it really was.

I suppose that given enough time and imagination mysterious auras can envelop any mundane place, even a deserted mall or a parking garage. But still, finding a tea room scary is like being frightened by a club sandwich.

I have experienced a somewhat similar attitude before. I gave a talk on tea rooms of New York City when my book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn came out in 2002. Afterwards a man in the audience came up and asked me why I didn’t mention the darker aspects of tea rooms. He was certain that a lot of them had been speakeasies and houses of prostitution.

Really? If that had indeed been the case, why would I not have mentioned it? It would be a good story. I’ve found no evidence of prostitution in tea rooms. Only rarely were tea room proprietors found selling liquor during Prohibition. A few places in Greenwich Village were raided in the early 1920s, and here and there the mob would open a joint and call it a tea room, though that was purely a ruse. I feel certain it was impossible to order a diet plate or a Waldorf salad in a mob tea room.

singingkettleentireproperty

The dining area of the Singing Kettle tea room was up the hill from the pergola entrance shown on the black and white postcard above. As can be seen from a bird’s-eye view of the property, terraced stairs with fountains and shrubbery led up to the main tea room which today appears to be a residence. The view while dining would have been spectacular.

The tea room was frequented by students and staff from Whittier College, the Whittier Chamber of Commerce, and women’s clubs. It was a popular place for business meetings, card parties, wedding receptions, and bridal showers. Weddings were held in the inner courtyard of its entrance pergola.

singingkettlehartwhittierheights1927I have not been able to discover the identity of the Singing Kettle’s proprietor. The area was filled with citrus and avocado groves and it’s possible that it was run by the wife of a grower. It’s even possible that major Southern California agricultural land developer, Edwin G. Hart, was involved in the business. That might explain why he promoted the tea room in a 1927 advertisement for his new residential development, Whittier Heights. (When he developed Vista CA he built an inn where prospective customers could stay.)

The Singing Kettle was in business from 1927 until at least 1936, but probably not much longer. It surely would not have survived gasoline rationing during WWII.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

With many thanks to the reader who told me about the Singing Kettle.

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