Category Archives: Offbeat places

Nan’s Kitchens

In 1919 two women opened a small tea room in Boston with just four tables. It was something of a lark. They had virtually no money to outfit it so they bought used furnishings. The location was a candlelit basement on Oxford Terrace in Boston, a romantic name for what would generally be known as an alley.

Anyone reading about their opening might have predicted they would fail spectacularly – especially after noting their rather boastful claims: “Such a place as we are about to open to the public is rare in New England. We are just trying out an idea and are seeking an answer to it by actual experiment rather than to obtain profits. If this is a success we will open others in large cities of the country.”

Despite being in an unpretentious building in a lowly area it turned out to be a very favorable location, in walking distance of the central Boston Public Library and Copley Square with all its hotels and nearby shops.

They named it Nan’s Kitchen after Nan Gurney, one of the founders. The two had met while in the Navy during World War I. Before that Nan had been married, but left her husband behind to join the service. Claiming desertion, he divorced her. Nan’s partner Thellma McClellan had worked as an astrologer before joining the Navy. Both enjoyed performing and were involved with vaudeville and amateur theatrics.

Nan’s Kitchen was an instant success, popular with members of the Professional Women’s Club to which they belonged. It also attracted fellow vaudeville performers. Publicity helped, particularly newspaper stories that made the tea room sound like a haven for romantic trysts at lunch and afternoon tea. They added more tables, but continued to specialize in one dish, chicken and waffles.

They must not have made much in the way of profits initially because they continued their side jobs as freelance teachers of music and elocution for several years. They were generous with the servers (who wore smocks, Oriental pantaloons, and artists’ caps), giving them a share of profits and paying them over the summer when the tea room closed.

In 1925 the pair seemed to become more serious about the restaurant business, opening a second tea room called Nan’s Kitchen Too at 3 Boylston Place. The next year the original Nan’s remained open all summer for the first time. The following year it was remodeled to resemble an outdoor garden containing a small cabin where a Black woman prepared the waffles, an arrangement also in use at the Boylston Place Nan’s. (Shades of Georgia’s Aunt Fanny’s Cabin? I would hope that Nan’s Black cooks were not costumed as Mammys!)

Although Nan and Thellma lived together in the 1920s, in 1930 they no longer did. In 1931 Nan went to New York where she worked as steward in an “exclusive Manhattan club,” according to an advertisement for Birds-Eye frozen foods. From 1934 to 1936 she ran Nan Gurney’s Inn, in her home town of Patchogue, Long Island, where she had grown up as Lettie L. Smith. After that, in 1937, she opened Nan Gurney’s Restaurant on Northern Blvd. in Flushing NY, specializing in “Long Island food.” [Flushing restaurant shown below later when it was Villa Bianca]

In 1932 Thellma, who had managed Nan’s Kitchen Too, was living in Connecticut. A version of Nan’s moved to the Motor Mart Building on Park Square and remained in business until 1935, but whether Thellma or Nan had any connection with it then is unknown.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers, tea shops, women

Fish & chips & alligator steaks

The menu shown here caught my eye as I was browsing the internet. Of course, I wanted to know more about it. The first thing I discovered was that it is available as a reproduction.

Evidently the Trebor Dinner was a specialty menu for complete dinners of multiple courses. Three dollars was a steep price for the Depression when this menu was introduced, at least double what a comparable meal would have cost in a moderately-priced good restaurant then.

The illustrated menu shows 14 entrees. But the restaurant almost certainly did not have all the exotic items available at all times. Another fish & chips, inc. menu from 1937, for example, offered one appetizer, one soup, and only four entrees.

The menu could date any time from the opening of the restaurant in 1936 into the 1940s. Its clever design may have been due to owner Bob Winter’s background in advertising. Why the menu is named “Trebor Dinner” is a mystery. It’s possible that Trebor is a play on the owner’s name Robert.

Fish & chips, inc. was conveniently located in the Loop, across the street from the central Chicago library, now the Chicago Cultural Center. It was a handy location for a 1943 dinner of the literary members of the Boswell club, admirers of Doctor Samuel Johnson. In their honor the restaurant posted one of Johnson’s quotations over their table in which he criticized French menus, requesting “thy knaves to bring me a dish of hog’s pudding, a slice or two from the upper cut of a well roasted sirloin, and two apple dumplings.”

It was a popular restaurant, said to be especially well liked by male patrons. In 1944, during World War II, lines formed at the door. The following year it was enlarged to seat 300. [1949 advertisement shown]

With no meat on the menu, the restaurant would have had the advantage of escaping wartime food restrictions and shortages.

Advertising that it had 50 varieties of fish on hand daily, a lunch or dinner could include sunfish, crappies, smelts, cod, brook trout, sea bass, shrimp, and lobster among many others. The restaurant advertised heavily during the Lenten season.

Bob Winter died in 1953 and the entire contents of the restaurant were auctioned, including groceries.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, menus, Offbeat places, patrons, popular restaurants

Bicycling to lunch and dinner

In the 1890s old wayside inns and roadhouses removed the horse troughs and replaced them with bicycle stands. A new day was dawning!

For years, ever since railroads had reduced horse-and-carriage traffic on the old colonial turnpikes, roadside eating and drinking places outside cities had been in serious decline. After the Civil War they were visited mostly by farmers and marketmen taking their produce to the city by horse and wagon. But, due to the popularity of bicycling beginning in the late-1880s, city people became the favored customers, both because they came in larger numbers and because they spent more.

Bicycling was fast becoming the favorite leisure-time activity of the American public. They couldn’t wait to take a spin in their free time, often on a route with wayside inns and roadhouses. The oldest inns were in the East, mostly found in states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The Red Lion inn at Torresdale PA, for example, was built in 1730.

For those preferring shorter rides, city parks were attractive, perhaps none so much as Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. It was well supplied with places to stop for a bite [such as The Dairy, shown here]. New Yorkers liked to tour the good roads on Staten Island or pedal out to Long Island and Coney Island, often making a stop at the beach. Bicyclists in Oregon were drawn to a rose farm outside Portland, site of the Ah Ben roadhouse where chicken dinners were served.

There were also eating places set up in homes along the wayside, and homemade refreshment stands in fields. Often these eating and drinking places were dubbed “Wheelman’s Rest.” One in Malden MA was offering light snacks in 1896, but apparently no beer or liquor, an activity that landed many proprietors who had no liquor licenses in jail.

Californians boasted that bicycling was possible year round in “the land of sunshine.” Country trips might be planned around visits to old missions. Pictured above are members of San Diego’s Crown City club, wearing white suits and sombreros on a tour in 1896.

Bicycling was popular across the country with men and women, both white and Black. Black cyclists, however, were banned from some local clubs and, after 1894, from membership in the national League of American Wheelmen. That did not stop them from cycling, but I can’t help but wonder whether they were welcome at most inns and roadhouses.

White women, however, were welcome, despite those who criticized them for showing their ankles or adopting non-ladylike postures. For years feminists had tried and failed to reform constricting women’s clothing. Almost overnight, opposition faded as bicycling women began wearing split skirts and bloomers. Beyond clothing, it seemed as though the new past time had a freeing effect. A journalist visiting a Bronx beer garden one evening wrote: “The bicycle has made ‘new women’ of them. They lean their elbows on the table and call for beer, or, leaning back, cross their legs man fashion and sip from the foaming mug.”

Bike paths were crowded from April through October, especially on Sundays, the most popular day of the week for cycling. Christian ministers were horrified, particularly if stopping at roadhouses was involved. As one wrote in 1897, this inevitably led to “blunting the moral sense, dulling the moral perceptions, and tainting the purity of the moral character . . .”

Ministers disliked Sunday bicycling no matter where riders stopped along the way. More conventional “wheelwomen” might prefer tea-roomy places serving nothing alcoholic where menus included milk, root beer, and lemonade, along with sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and cakes. Servers there were women who, according to one account, were ready to repair a sagging hem, brush dirt off a costume, or attend to a minor wound. The short-lived Greenwich Tea Room in Connecticut, operated by two young society women, offered dainty sandwiches of tongue, ham, chicken, or lettuce, plus home-made cake and ice cream. Drinks included café frappe and café mousse, both 10 cents.

Shore dinners also attracted bicyclists. In 1899 a cyclist traveling along the shore from New York City to Boston stopped at Hammonasset Point in Madison CT for a dinner that included clam chowder, bluefish, steamed clams, boiled lobster, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, pudding, ice cream, coffee, and milk – all for 50 cents. And an abandoned church turned restaurant and bowling alley in Undercliff NJ [pictured] did a brisk summer business in clam chowder with cyclists traveling along the Hudson River cliffs.

In the early years of the 1900s, the fad began to slow somewhat. Bicycling on roads became more dangerous as the number of cars multiplied. Through the years bicycling organizations had lobbied ceaselessly for improvement of the nation’s roads, most of which were unpaved. But they did not reap full benefit. As roads were improved, cars soon took over and bicycling accidents, often fatal, increased. However, automobile drivers continued the Sunday habit of heading out to country inns, tea rooms, and roadhouses that bicyclists had begun.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under Offbeat places, patrons, roadside restaurants, tea shops

The Automat goes country

What happened when Horn & Hardart went outside the densely populated city and into the countryside?

“The Automat in the Forest” was located in Sterling Forest Gardens, a 125-acre private park filled with attractions such as huge floral displays, children’s playgrounds, fountains, and a meditation garden. The enterprise, created by a NYC investment company, was a one-hour drive outside New York City.

The Gardens presented a highly-engineered version of nature achieved with imports such as 1.5M tulip bulbs and 300 robins for the grand opening in spring of 1960. (The robins arrived by plane.) There were swans, peacocks, cranes, and flamingos, while native wildlife was strongly “discouraged” from participating. There were even special “picture-taking spots” where a sample photograph was displayed along with precise instructions on how to get the same results.

At the time of the 1960 opening a wire-service story disclosed a jarring fact: “The setting is so romantic that few visitors would guess that the Union Carbide Corporation’s laboratory is constructing an atomic reactor over the nearest hill.” That did not seem to deter visitors.

Into this surreal wonderland came the Automat in 1962. That summer a promotional photo showed children feeding a deer in front of a wall of vending cubicles – which was odd since deer were forbidden in the gardens. The photo’s caption explained that the Automat was the first to be located outside a city, and described it as having redwood planks and pastel panels rather than the usual marble facing “in keeping with its surroundings.” In the postcard above, the vending wall looks oddly out of place in the high-ceilinged building and has little feel of an urban Horn & Hardart.

At the same time that the Automat moved into the Sterling Forest Gardens, Horn & Hardart’s Food Service and Management Division was advertising that it could furnish In-Plant ‘Automats for Industry’. I suspect the factory installations were very similar to the array in the Gardens.

The Automat was not the first eating place in the Garden’s International Pavilion. A 1961 postcard described the original eating place, a buffet, as “tastefully decorated in international motifs.” Nor was it the last restaurant in the Pavilion. It was there only two years, continuing in business through the 1964 season. By the 1965 Spring Festival the Automat in the Forest had been replaced by the Sterling Farms Restaurant. Later, in 1968, there was a Schrafft’s occupying the Pavilion.

Horn & Hardart also operated a second eating place in the Gardens, Peacock Patio, that had a cafeteria and barbecue. Not far from the park, it ran a Country Store where, ironically, H&H frozen prepared dishes were sold. It’s not clear how long either remained in business under Horn & Hardart’s ownership.

As might be imagined, Sterling Forest Gardens was popular with garden clubs, groups of older adults, and bus tours generally. Without doubt its most unusual guests were Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia and his wife who visited in summer 1963, one day after Tito enemies had infiltrated the Waldorf Towers where the Titos were staying in NYC. Distrustful of the city’s ability to protect him, Marshall Tito cancelled plans to attend a 1,100-person dinner at the United Nations, asking instead to visit a farm. He was taken to Sterling Forest Gardens, where he and his wife lunched at the Automat. Walking through the Automat’s cafeteria line, he chose a hamburger steak, french fries, and macaroni while she accompanied her ground meat with fries, carrots, and spinach.

After several years of slumping attendance, the Gardens closed in 1976. Later, it became a site for medieval jousting.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Dining on a roof

Roof-garden restaurants have had something of a vogue in recent years and may see many more visitors this summer. Their history goes back at least to 1879 when St. Louis restaurant owner Tony Faust created a terrace adorned with boxed shrubs and flowers and lit by gaslights. It was a roof garden of sorts, but on a low roof incapable of giving diners a magnificent view. The terrace remained in operation until at least the mid-1880s, and was commemorated in the ca. 1906 postcard shown here.

In the 1890s, a few places of entertainment in New York City added roof gardens atop tall buildings, primarily as sites for drinking, dancing, and listening to music. The Casino built a garden around 1890, with lanterns, palm trees, and a small stage. Another appeared atop Madison Square Garden [shown here, 1894], then at Koster & Bial’s. These did not serve dinner, but it soon appeared there was a demand for that and it was added to the attractions.

By 1905, New York had dozens of rooftop restaurants during the summer, mostly on hotel roofs. But some restaurants joined in, such as Clyde’s on Broadway and 75th street, famed for its “beefsteak dungeon” which transitioned to the roof in warm weather. Delmonico had a rooftop restaurant in 1920, a few years before it closed for good. Jack Delaney’s ca. 1940 garden appears in a postcard to be rather cramped and lacking a view of the city but it was at least outdoors.

One of the most impressive earlier rooftop restaurants was the one set to open in 1905 on top of New York’s Astor Hotel which was designed to resemble a Tuscan garden. Unlike some others furnished by hotels it was entirely in the open air, with a pergola running down the center that was adorned with moonflowers that only opened after dark.

Other New York hotels that opened roof garden restaurants in the early 1900s included the Hoffman House, The Vendome, the Belle Claire, the Majestic, and the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn. The Waldorf-Astoria had a roof garden but according to a 1905 account only salads and desserts were served there.

Rooftop restaurants in hotels were not limited to New York. They could be found all over the country – at the Grunewald in New Orleans, the St. Anthony in San Antonio, the Hotel Nortonia in Portland OR, the Bingham in Philadelphia, and the McKenzie Hotel which was intended to “boost Bismarck and North Dakota.” Philadelphia had a number of hotel roof gardens, including an unusual-looking one at the Continental Hotel [shown above].

In researching this topic it was often difficult to figure out exactly what was meant by a rooftop restaurant. It might be entirely in the open-air, as was true of the famous Astor roof, or it might be partially or entirely enclosed, occupying part of a roof or the entire roof in which case it was actually the top floor. The Continental’s garden restaurant appeared to be at least partially under a roof, as did the one at Hotel Breakers in Lynn MA shown here.

Most outdoor rooftops opened at the beginning of June, advertising “cool breezes.” Not surprisingly, rooftop restaurants were in vogue mainly before air conditioning came into use in the 1930s. After World War II, when it became more common, it seems the number of open-air rooftops declined.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under Offbeat places, outdoor restaurants, restaurant decor

Good eaters: “bohemians”

There were certain segments of society that helped to build restaurant culture through their patronage. Bohemians were one. They enjoyed food, drank wine, and were more adventurous in experiencing new dishes. It was said that the average American restaurant was a place “where records in fast eating are the order of the day.” By contrast, bohemians enjoyed gathering with their friends in offbeat cafes and restaurants and lingering, deep in conversation.

They rejected the joyless aspects of American culture and tended to ignore accepted rules of behavior. Nor did they care that conventional people – “the Philistines” – judged them harshly, considering them practically bums.

Most were drawn from occupations in the arts – actors, painters, writers, musicians, and journalists. Men predominated but they were joined by women who dared to flaunt the bounds of ladyhood [example shown here, 1895]. Their most famous “member” was Walt Whitman, who for a time in the late 1850s and early 1860s gathered with friends at Pfaff’s, on Broadway in New York. Run by German immigrant Charles Pfaff, the cellar café served German pancakes, liver and bacon, and untold quantities of Rhine wine and beer.

Apart from the distinctly non-American cuisine furnished in most restaurants favored by bohemians, these places were also free of rigid social rules of etiquette. Proprietors were tolerant, some might break out singing, servers weren’t haughty, and in contrast with bourgeois etiquette it was perfectly acceptable to speak to strangers at a nearby table.

The lifestyle associated with bohemians was first depicted by French writer Henri Murger, whose 1840s Scenes of Bohemian Life (basis for Puccini’s opera La Bohème) launched the use of the word and its mystique. But that way of living undoubtedly existed earlier, even in this country. A NYC saloon opened in 1832 by Ned Windust called The Shakspeare surely qualified. In 1847 it was described as attracting “wits and men about town,” many from the arts. It was known for fine fare.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were other places in New York and elsewhere, the world capital being Paris. Bohemian subculture survived into the 1920s, but in weakened and commercialized form, feeding on past glory. Once it was “discovered”– in the 1880s — it was denounced as a thing of the past: each generation pronounced the next generation’s bohemianism inauthentic.

As someone noticed, whether genuine or fake, bohemians enjoyed out of the way places “where the cooking is in any style but the American.” That preference often led them to French and Italian table d’hotes. In New York City of the 19th century they gravitated to the city’s French section, to the Restaurant du Grand Vatel [shown above] and the Taverne Alsacienne. Although Boston was a city with few bohemians, it had Marliave’s and Arrouët Mieusset Frères, both on Van Rensselaer Place at one point. Italian table d’hotes such as Moretti’s, Gonfarone’s, and Viano’s also thrived in New York. In San Francisco, bohemians patronized Italian restaurants such as Coppa’s, Sanguinetti’s, as well as Matias’ Mexican café. A rare Mexican restaurant in New York, Joel’s, was also popular.

In the early 20th century it’s likely that most major cities had something like a “little bohemia” section attractive to night owls. Among the better known were New York’s Greenwich Village and Chicago’s Towertown. San Francisco had so many bohemian restaurants that an entire book was devoted to describing them in 1914. By the 1920s, it was said that “the prosperous middle classes went bohemian on a bigger and better scale.” As suburbanites sought out offbeat restaurants and cafes it is not surprising that many cafes vying for their trade adopted catchy names such as The Dirty Spoon and Mary’s Little Lamb in San Francisco, The Purple Pup and The Hell Hole in Greenwich Village, or the Den of 40 Thieves in Detroit.

It’s clear in retrospect that the bohemians of the 19th century were apostles of the future. Their wish to enjoy sociable meals in restaurants would gradually become nearly universal as the 20th century continued.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Coffee and cake saloons

When it came to cheap ready-to-eat food that was available around the clock, butter cakes sold in coffee and cake saloons were king. By the mid-19th century they had become food of urban lore. They were said to be favorites of people of the night such as newsboys, newspaper printers, policemen, volunteer firemen, and prostitutes.

Until the 1880s when they widened their menus, coffee and cake saloons served nothing but those two items. Although called saloons, they were not drinking places. Saloon then simply meant a room.

There was no hint of elegance in these places. Many were run by Irish proprietors, at a time when the Irish were pretty much at the bottom of the class order. Usually they were in basements, but those were the more established coffee and cake saloons. Other sellers occupied market stands or peddled butter cakes on the streets with trays strapped over their shoulders.

The lack of niceties in coffee and cake saloons was celebrated in a joke that described a waiter’s shock when asked for a napkin in one of these places. He had a quick comeback, inquiring whether the patron wanted his napkin fringed or unfringed. (Surely there were no tablecloths as in this 1889 illustration.)

Among the well-known proprietors of New York City were George Parker, who opened a place on John street in 1832 and “Butter-cake Dick,” whose full name was Dick Marshall. Oliver Hitchcock took over from Dick, who turned to a life of crime. Pat Dolan, starting business in the 1860s, reputedly invested in real estate and had amassed a quarter of a million by his death in 1889, while a couple of the Meschutt brothers later opened hotels.

Lore surrounding these establishments grew as they became rarer in the late 19th century. By the early 1900s the memory of coffee and cake saloons was tinted with nostalgia. It was often said that proprietors retired with fortunes — an unlikely story in the majority of cases. Another notion was that they were “peculiar to New York.” This, too, is inaccurate. I have found them in St. Louis, Sacramento, New Orleans, San Antonio, and San Francisco. Undoubtedly they could be found in most large cities.

Just what was a butter cake? That isn’t totally clear. They are described differently, to the point where it’s anyone’s guess what they really were. Sometimes they sound like doughnuts, sometimes griddle cakes, sometimes like carnival-style fried dough – but without sugar. In St. Louis waiters referred to them as a “stack of whites.” Often they are referred to as biscuits. Sometimes they are called short cakes, as in the 1850s recipe shown here. I believe that initially they were made of little more than dough and were nearly indigestible, leading to the nickname “sinkers.” After bakers started adding yeast, they became lighter.

An 1890 story in the New York Sun explains that butter cakes could be either “wet” or “dry.” It said that the wet ones “were saturated with lard or grease of some sort, called butter for the purposes of trade.” But possibly some places really did use butter. A San Francisco restaurant advertised in 1856 that they used “none other than California Butter, fresh from the best Petaluma Ranches.” Their menu called them “New York Butter Cakes,” selling for the high price of 12 cents. In New York an order cost 3 cents. Butter-cake Dick was said to make his sinkers on the griddle and to store them in a kettle of melted butter until orders came in. The three Meschutt brothers sampled Dick’s but found a way to lighten them by adding yeast, splitting the cakes (biscuits?), and letting customers add the butter.

Although coffee and cake saloons were just about extinct by the 20th century, Lewis Hine managed to capture a view of newsboys exiting one in 1908. [shown at top]

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, Offbeat places, patrons, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

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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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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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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