Category Archives: Offbeat places

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

9 Comments

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

Slumming

The word slumming had several meanings when it came into use in the 1880s. Basically it meant visiting the slums. But the purpose for elite and middle-class white Americans might vary, from charity to data collection, curiosity, a sexual escapade, or general entertainment.

Apart from ministers, reformers, and city officials, those who went on slumming tours (with guides) in the late nineteenth century usually were motivated by curiosity or a wish for entertainment.

In 1884, the New York Times ran a story about British actress Lillie Langtry and her party visiting the city’s slums, noting, “So far the mania here has assumed the single form of sight-seeing – the more noble ambition of alleviating the condition of the desperately poor visited has not animated the adventurous parties.”

Following the vogue begun in London, slumming became a mark of worldly sophistication among some Americans in the late 19th century.

Although most newspaper accounts of slumming focused on New York’s Bowery and Tenderloin or San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, there were in fact areas of interest to slumming parties in many parts of the U.S. For example, a group of conventioneers from Omaha visiting Dakota Territory in 1889 took an excursion to Deadwood’s Chinese settlement. They were disappointed it was so tame.

Tours often involved stopping at a restaurant or café, particularly if a group was visiting a Chinese area, as was often the case especially as Chinese populations increased in the Eastern U.S. beginning in the later 1880s. Many of the first white, middle-class customers of Chinese restaurants were “slummers.” Such excursions increased around the turn of the century. A 1900 account described how Chinese restaurant keepers had learned that it paid to accommodate slumming parties who “would spend more money in their places in an hour than their regular customers would spend all day.”

But Chinese restaurants weren’t the only ones “discovered” by slummers. King’s Handbook of New York listed slumming restaurants under the category of “Novelty in Restaurants” in 1892. In addition to Chinese (“dirty, foul-smelling and cheaply furnished”), the handbook mentioned Hebrew restaurants of the East Side, a Japanese restaurant, Russian restaurants, Polish restaurants, a place with Spanish cooking, and “Italian restaurants of a low order” on Mulberry Street. Of a higher order, according to King’s, were Austrian, Swiss, Hungarian, and German eating places.

In addition to Chinese, Italian and Hungarian restaurants were top choices of slummers. Coppa’s, particularly before San Francisco’s great fire of 1906, drew many who were curious about “bohemian” lifestyles.

Postcards from New York’s Little Hungary around 1906-1908 illustrate customers’ thrilled reactions. Anna & Will mailed their card to Arlington NJ, while Marge, who apparently left out a word, sent hers to a woman in Syracuse.

A common interpretation of the appeal of immigrant restaurants was the aridity of mainstream American culture, with its emphasis on the strict rules of proper behavior. Italian and Hungarian restaurants, by contrast, were enjoyed as places where patrons might sing along with the band or talk to their neighbors without being introduced. James Harvey wrote in his 1905 book In Bohemia, “By the time you get to the roast, it is eight o’clock and the evening is in its prime. Everybody seems to love everybody else, thanks to the heavy Hungarian wines.”

In some cases nostalgia played a role. According to a 1997 article by Beth S. Wenger subtitled “The Invention of the Lower East Side,” that part of New York became a destination for Jews who had moved uptown. She quoted a 1926 Jewish Daily Forward story that said “the crowds come nightly to Delancy and Rivington Streets to drink selzer, eat Roumanian Broils and listen to sentimental ballads.” Wenger saw visits to the East Side as symbolizing “the uneasy social adjustment of second-generation Jewish Americans” who were not satisfied with “the ‘strained and sterile’ dining spots in their new neighborhoods.”

Though it was regarded as daring to venture into immigrant restaurants in the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, it became less so as the restaurants responded by exaggerating their “foreignness” to attract suburbanites and tourists. In 1905, according to Town & Country, “to eat spaghetti in the backyard is a pet fad,” especially for wealthy conservatives in search of “thrills at the strangeness of it all.” The proprietor played up to them by dressing as a ferocious bandit, “his head bound up in a gay bandanna with large rings in his ears.”

In a 1914 Sinclair Lewis novel, Our Mr. Wrenn, the protagonist takes a woman to a restaurant run by “Papa Gouroff” who wears a fez in hopes that “the place would degenerate into a Bohemian restaurant where liberal clergymen would think they were slumming . . .”

Menus, too, were tailored to the tastebuds of outsiders, producing dishes such as chop suey and chili con carne.

Slumming really hit the mainstream before and after World War I, probably due to a number of movies and novels whose plots included exciting scenes of people on tours. In the 1913 “New York’s Society Life and Underworld,” a group is set to visit the Port Arthur restaurant in Chinatown [pictured] just as they hear a woman’s scream. Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford both starred in 1918 films with slumming scenes; Pickford’s included slumming in San Francisco’s red light district, the Barbary Coast.

At this time just about anyone might venture into the slums, whether a group of clayworkers visiting New Orleans in 1914, or soldiers from Seattle on leave in New York. One soldier admitted, “I was never so disappointed in my life as I was in the Bowery. I expected to see several murders and gun fights but all I could see was foreign merchants with hair all over their faces.” Their big thrill, as it turned out, was going to the Automat.

In fact the Bowery wasn’t what it used to be, having been sanitized in the war period. According to the book Slumming (Chad Heap, Univ. Chicago Press, 2008), counterculture tea rooms in places such as NY’s Greenwich Village and Towertown in Chicago became the bohemian “thrillage” sites of the 1920s. [verse from The Quill, 1919]

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

4 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, ethnic restaurants, Offbeat places, patrons

Find of the day: the Double R Coffee House

It gets harder and harder to turn up anything interesting at flea markets – even on the sprawling fields of Brimfield. But luck was with me this past week when I found the little menu from The Double R Coffee House.

It didn’t look terribly interesting in itself until I remembered that my restaurant collection contained a cartoon-style postcard with the same name that I especially liked.

Turns out that the two Double R Coffee Houses had an interesting history. They were established and funded by sons, daughters, cousins, and others related by blood or marriage to Theodore Roosevelt. The impetus for the coffee houses came from Theodore’s son Kermit, who had spent time in South America and Arab countries. He mentions coffee repeatedly in his book War in the Garden of Eden. The book describes his experiences while serving with the British forces in Iraq and other countries involved in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I.

The initial business incorporation in 1919 was called Café Paulista after a café in Buenos Aires that Kermit had frequented years before. The corporation launched the first coffee house, then located at 108 West 44th Street, calling it The Brazilian Coffee House as inscribed above the door in this 1919 photo.

The coffee house got a fair amount of press due to the Roosevelt connection, but the family did not involve themselves in running it, nor were they known to frequent it. However, in one instance President Roosevelt’s widow did visit the 44th street location. A widely publicized news story in 1923 told of how she had saved two oil paintings of her late husband when a minor fire broke out in the kitchen.

What was truly unusual about the coffee house was not so much its owners or its decor, but how serious it was about coffee. The manager, Brazilian Alfredo Salazar [shown above], declared it was not a restaurant. Although it served light food including empenadas, he insisted the focus was on serving “real” coffee. He declared that Americans, New Yorkers included, did not know how to roast, grind, brew, or for that matter, drink coffee. Coffee that was boiled or percolated and left to sit around for over 30 minutes was equivalent to “tannic acid soup” in his estimation. He advised drinking it black, but allowed that the coffee house would provide cream, milk, and sugar since it was not a “propaganda establishment.”

The coffee house roasted coffee beans on the site and everyone commented on the wonderful aroma this produced.

Shortly after opening, the 44th Street coffee house moved to larger quarters nearby at #112. It was popular from the start, particularly with Brazilians, American business men – and business women — as well as surrounding theater-district performers.

Another characteristic of the coffee house that was appreciated was that patrons could linger as long as they liked, even if they ordered very little. Imprinted stationery was provided along with some reading materials – including an abridged version of the U.S. Constitution — and the place soon extended its hours to 1 a.m.

In February of 1921 the name was changed to Double R Coffee House due to a conflict with another business claiming that name and also because a cousin named Robinson was the corporation’s new president. In May a second coffee house on Lexington was opened with an exhibit of paintings by members of the Art Students League curated by realist painter John Sloan. Because of the art connection, it seems as though this coffee house had a more bohemian aspect. In a letter to Chicago poet and editor of Poetry Magazine Harriet Monroe, poet Wallace Stevens wrote that he had visited the new coffee house in August and “had a dash of maté.”

In 1923 there was talk of opening another Double R on 45th street in Times Square, but I could find no trace of it. Vague ideas about expanding to Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, talked about in 1919, never materialized and in 1928 one or both of the coffee houses were sold to new owners. What happened after that is unknown.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

10 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, menus, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers

Delicatessing at the Delirama

The gigantically oversized menu shown here from Jack & Marion’s Delirama in Brookline MA is 21.5 inches tall, 34 inches wide fully opened, and contains over 230 items not counting drinks, desserts, or carry-out Delicacy Platters. It was probably in use from the mid to late 1950s.

Digesting its pink and white interior is a dizzying, yet entertaining, exercise. Some items, such as the Hot Roumanian Pastromi Sandwich, are marked with a red star indicating “good profit item for Jack and Marion’s (Please order).” The Empire State Skyscraper Sandwich comes with a warning “Sissies, Please Don’t Order!” There is a “Jewish Dictionary” that explains that a “Zedeh” is “a grandchild’s press agent” while “Mein Bubbe’s Tahm” means “chopped herring at Jack’s and Marion’s.”

Patrons might join the “Fressers Fraternity” if they cared to admit that they had gluttonous appetites.

Hungry patrons could feast on bowls of sour cream with banana, fresh vegetables, or cottage cheese. Or on “Forshpies (before getting serious . . . a treat!”), in other words appetizers ranging from a dish of Sweet Gherkins (.35) to Chopped Herring (.65) or a Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail (.95). Along with shrimp, the deli also served non-kosher dishes such as Canadian Bacon Steak and Lobster Surprise, one of the most expensive choices at $5.95. Parties of six could feast on a $25 “Sandwich Supreme, served on a sterling silver platter (which remains our property.)” Like delis generally, sandwiches formed the bulk of menu offerings.

The deli on Harvard Street in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner was owned by Jack and Marion Solomon who opened it in 1950, advertising themselves as “designers and builders of the famous Skyscraper Sandwiches.” Jack, who had previously operated a deli in Brighton, explained that he modeled the Delirama on the famous Raymond’s on Boston’s Washington Street. Raymond’s was a bargain store that used corny advertising by a fictitious Unkle Eph who coined the store’s slogan “Where U Bot the Hat.” Jack Solomon said he, much like Raymond’s, had “done everything to make this the most talked-about restaurant.”

For a number of years the deli kept late hours, staying open until 3 a.m. It drew celebrities doing shows in Boston, such as players from the musical revue Bagels and Yox, who performed songs in Yiddish and other languages. In the 1950s it was often mentioned in entertainment columns in Boston newspapers. It was also a popular place for college students and couples on dates.

Despite suffering two bad fires and having the safe stolen, the Delirama persisted. It did, however, eventually withdraw from the entertainment scene and begin to keep earlier hours. The business did not survive long after the death of Jack Solomon in 1971. Despite attempts by his second wife, Valda, to keep it going, it went bankrupt and closed around the mid-1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

3 Comments

Filed under food, menus, Offbeat places, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

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

19 Comments

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

Find of the day: Aladdin Studio Tiffin Room

It is a rare day when I find a tea room postcard that I don’t already own or that I strongly want to buy. The Aladdin Studio Tiffin Room is an exception, a wonderful discovery.

The story of the Aladdin Studio and its owners, Hattie and Minnie Mooser [pictured seated on the postcard], turns out to be quite fascinating. The senior Moosers, the sisters’ parents, were German Jews who were part of the 1840s-1860s immigration, and who evidently inspired their four children to take up rather daring careers in the entertainment industry.

The San Francisco tea room combined many functions. In the daytime it was a fairly conventional tea room with lunch and afternoon tea, hosting women’s groups, bridal parties, and card parties. Patrons could also have their palms read by a “seeress” named Mme. Rabbas, learn to play mah-jongg, dance, take Charleston and St. Louis Hop lessons, and buy hats, batiks, and lingerie in the gift shop. In the evening, visiting performers from stage and screen offered entertainment or simply gathered there for dinner.

The Aladdin employed African American women cooks and young women from San Francisco’s Asian community as servers. The decor had a Chinese theme with lanterns and dragons, but the cuisine was strictly American. The photo postcard above shows the two sisters ca. 1927/1928, sitting under what I believe was used as the tea room’s “stage.”

It opened on Sutter Street, its main location, in 1920, after having spent several years as part tea room and part children’s theater on Post Street. In 1925 it proclaimed itself a “Nite Club” of the sort found in NYC, Paris, and London, despite the fact that it was Prohibition and no alcoholic beverages were sold, nor even allowed on the premises. Increasing competition with bootleg places was identified as the reason for the Aladdin’s closure in 1929.

Years after its closing, in 1941, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen saluted the Aladdin, writing, “When THE spot-around-town for celebrities was the Aladdin Studios run by Hattie and Minnie Mooser, the jernt was for performers and their pals only, and man the shows they used to put on are still being gabbed about.”

Their main attraction was the celebrities who dropped by the Aladdin Studio. Hattie and Minnie were well connected to the entertainment world, since their brother George Mooser, as well as their late brother Leon, were tightly enmeshed in it as producers whose careers were anchored in Shanghai and New York City. In addition to bringing Chinese entertainers to the U.S., the brothers organized Western entertainments, such as circuses, in China. And they also brokered film distribution deals and a lawsuit against piracy in Asia for California motion picture studios.

As a result of their connections – and Hattie’s and Minnie’s skill as hostesses – many show business celebrities visited the Aladdin, among them Houdini, Douglas Fairbanks, and the Marx brothers.

Although the never-married sisters had other occupations to fall back on such as stenography and other secretarial services, they continued serving as hostesses in other clubs after the Aladdin Studio closed, among them the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park and the Club Trouville at the old Aladdin location. In 1931 they opened a new place, modeled on the Aladdin Studio but called Aladdin Tavern, on Van Ness Avenue. Now in their 50s [(l) Hattie and (r) Minnie in 1936], though still referred to by the columnists as “the delightful Mooser girls,” they could not make a go of it.

In 1965, a reporter found the sisters, now in their 90s, living in Daly City CA and reflecting about their friendship with Harry Houdini.

I’d love to find the Aladdin’s guest book, which Hattie and Minnie claimed contained “the signatures of practically all the ‘tops’ of stage, screen and radio.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

4 Comments

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

Reading the tea leaves

Although “gypsy” tea rooms could be found in the 1920s, and occasionally even now, their heyday was in the 1930s Depression.

They represented a degree of degeneration of the tea room concept in that they built their allure on tea leaf reading as much as – or more than — food. The menus in some of them consisted simply of a sandwich, piece of cake, and cup of tea, typically costing 50 cents. A drug store in New Orleans reduced the menu to a toasted sandwich and tea for the low price of 15 cents.

Gypsy tea rooms were often located on the second or third floor of a building, reducing the rent burden. Downtown shopping districts were popular places to attract customers, with about twenty near NYC stores located in the 30s between 6th and 7th Avenues. Los Angeles had a Gypsy Tea Room across the street from Bullock’s department store, while Omaha’s Gypsy Tea Shop, affiliated with another one in Council Bluffs IA, was across from the Brandeis store.

Times were hard, and Gypsy, Mystic, or Egyptian tea rooms, as they were known, offered a diversion from the concerns of the day and a way to prop up tottering businesses.

Usually it was all in fun. Gypsy tea rooms dressed waitresses in peasant costumes with bandana headdresses and adopted brilliant color schemes such as orange and black with yellow candles, and red tables and chairs. Such decor was a formula worked out by a New York City woman who by 1930 had opened 25 such places all over the country. Evidently after opening each one she sold it to a new owner.

Most customers, almost always women, saw the readings as light entertainment suitable for clubs and parties. Sometimes, though, an advertisement suggested that patrons’ reasons for having their tea leaves read were not so happy. A 1930 advertisement for the Mystic Tea Room, in Kansas City MO, asked “Have You Worries? Financial, domestic or otherwise? Our gifted readers will help you solve your problems.”

Many tea leaf readers had names suggesting they were “real gypsies” but that is unlikely, despite the Madame Zitas, Estellas, and Levestas. In fact, the reason that tea rooms advertised free readings was because many states and cities had laws prohibiting payment for fortune telling so as to keep genuine gypsies from settling there. A Texas law of 1909 declared “all companies of Gypsies” who supported themselves by telling fortunes would be punished as vagrants.

New York state passed a law in 1917 that made fortune telling in New York City illegal. In the 1930s police conducted raids of tea rooms advertising tea leaf readings. The raids did little to reduce their ranks and tea rooms continued to announce readings. A “gypsy princess” on site was an undeniable attraction — “Something New, Something Different,” according to an advertisement for Harlem’s Flamingo Grill and Tea Room on 7th Avenue.

In 1936 an attempt was made to organize tea leaf readers but it didn’t seem to amount to much. Members of the National Association of Fortune Tellers were required to be “scientific predictors,” just as good at forecasting as Wall Street brokers. The group’s organizer said she wanted to professionalize fortune telling. Because 32 states had laws against it, she said, tea room readers were forced to work for tips only, to the benefit of tea room owners.

Tea leaf readers seemed to move around quite a bit, perhaps because tea room proprietors wanted to keep things interesting. It was supposed to generate excitement when a “seer” from abroad or a larger city visited a small town tea room. A male clairvoyant such as Pandit Acharjya of Benares, India, was bound to enliven the atmosphere at the Gypsy Tea Room in New Orleans in 1930. And to the River Lane Gardens in Jefferson City MO, even the week-long appearance of “Miss Ann Brim of St. Louis, Famous Reader of Cards and Tea Leaves” was worth billing as a major attraction.

In Boston, the Tremont Tea Room has been doing business in sandwiches and tea leaf readings since 1936. Proving, as if proof is needed, that no “restaurant” concept ever totally dies away.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

5 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, Offbeat places, restaurant controversies, tea shops, uniforms & costumes, women

Tea-less tea rooms

Tearooms thrived during national Prohibition when they didn’t have to compete with eating places serving more spirited beverages. With their delicate china, tiny portions, female clientele – and tea — they had a reputation for being too genteel, too precious, and too proper.

Since the Victorian era, it had been well established that respectable women didn’t drink alcohol, except maybe a little wine at dinner parties in the home. Never in public.

As with anything that is ever so proper, of course, skeptical watchdogs took their posts to keep a close eye on tea rooms from the beginning, not entirely trusting women out on their own. In 1912 the New York Times ran a story in which it was alleged that society women could and did enjoy whiskey, gin, and vodka in six out of eighteen Manhattan tea rooms visited. Though liquor selling was not illegal at this time, the tea rooms were not licensed to sell it. [Pergola Tea Room shown above]

I wonder: Could it be possible that places such as Vanity Fair and Mary Elizabeth’s, both in business in 1912, slipped forbidden drinks to their elite patrons? Perhaps “The Scotch Tea Room” implied a different meaning than I thought.

Some years later, with liquor now illegal, New York City’s law-breaking tea rooms spread across town. To all appearances, though, police were harder on avant-garde “bohemian” tea rooms than they had been on bourgeois society’s unlicensed haunts. In the 1920s, Greenwich Village places such as the Black Parrot, the Blue Bird, and the Witch Cat were easy targets.

New York City was scarcely the only city with liquored-up tea rooms. The Moulin Rouge in Baltimore, the Welcome Tea Room in Long Branch NJ, even the Lady Ann Cavendish Tea Room in the upscale Wilshire District of Los Angeles where society women sipped, were all found serving cocktails.

In 1923 the trade magazine Tea Room and Gift Shop felt compelled to state that although a New Jersey tea room proprietor had recently been fined $1,000 for selling liquor, “the percentage [of tea rooms] doing this is very small – in fact we feel certain that none of the better class are violating the law.” Mostly, but not entirely, true.

Pictured here is former star of the musical theater, May Yohe, in 1926, two years after liquor was found in her Marlow NH tea room, The Blue Diamond. How her fortunes had declined. The tea room was named after the Hope diamond, which she had once possessed (by virtue of marriage).

As the 1920s wore on, many of the tea rooms that were found violating the law seemed to be tea rooms in name only. It certainly sounds suspicious that The Chimney Corner, in Scotch Plains NJ, was destroyed by fire only a few days after its two proprietors – both men – were arrested in a raid. Based on an advertisement in 1921, it may have originally been a legitimate tea room.

Other places, often run and patronized by men, that offered drugs and prostitutes in addition to liquor, were not genuine tea rooms, no matter what they pretended. When the Raritan Township NJ police chief raided the Triangle Tea Room in unincorporated Potters NJ, he found seven male patrons, none drinking tea. When he happened to touch what he thought was a light switch a wall swung open revealing two nude young women who rather unconvincingly claimed to be the proprietors.

At the same time the police chief of Raritan Township was raiding criminally inclined tea rooms, his counterpart in Union Township NJ was investing in one. He was arrested in 1929 and charged with being a partner with two other men in a disorderly house. Called The Blue Lantern (a name which, coincidentally, is in the title of my book), it also provided patrons with liquor and a slot machine.

All in all, it’s not clear that running a tea room actually provided that much cover for illicit activity. Nor did the illegal booze and the raids do much to dent the reputation of tea rooms as feminine spaces where women gathered, played bridge, and ate fancy desserts. Once Prohibition ended in the early 1930s, a tamer form of tea room entertainment, fortune-telling, soared in popularity.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

7 Comments

Filed under Offbeat places, patrons, tea shops, women

Find of the day, almost

Over the weekend I went to Brimfield to see what the postcard dealers had to offer. As usual I was determined to come home with a “find.” But, no. The card that I thought might qualify turns out to be that of a tourist café in Montmartre that is enmeshed in dubious lore and still in business today just down the street from a Starbucks.

The Mère Catherine [Mother Catherine] looks so unpretentious on the ca. 1950s postcard that I wanted to believe it was a relatively unknown little café. I doubted I could learn much about it through research. However, instead I found many stories, most of them glorified puff pieces starting in the late 1920s.

The stories I rounded up are full of contradictions. Mère Catherine was established either in 1793 or in the 1830s. Mère Catherine herself was either the restaurant’s founder in 1793 and died in 1844 or she was the owner in 1939.

As I continued to search for Mère Catherine’s history the more confused I became. It appears that for much of its history Mère Catherine was more of a drinking place than the eating place it became in the 20th century. One article said it hosted impoverished singers who were allowed to bring food there to eat.

An image of the restaurant from 1897 shows the name then as Maison Catherine Lamothe. Might its founder have been the same Catherine La Mothe who was born in 1766 in Bourges, France? Or was there ever an actual Catherine Lamothe at all? An 1897 publication about Montmartre’s history suggested that Catherine and Lamothe were two different women, both wine merchants on Rue du Tertre once upon a time. After I read that I started to think I could make out a nearly invisible hyphen between the two names on the sign shown on the ca. 1897 photograph above. But maybe I was seeing things.

A brief mention of the restaurant at the end of the 19th century described it as an “ancient”, low-ceilinged cabaret that was popular with artists. The same paragraph reported that Mère Catherine left the business to her son who then sold it to someone else. At one point it was owned by a man nicknamed “Gros Guillaume.” In the late 1920s, when it was first publicized by newspaper columnists in the U.S., it was known as Chez Lemoine, and was popular for its billiards tables. [image] During the German occupation of World War II and into the 1960s it was owned by people named Meriguet.

The restaurant appeared in a 1928 Swedish film by the name of “Sin” (Synd), directed by Gustaf Molander who also directed Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo. The two movies have remarkably similar plots. In Sin, Mère Catherine is living in the 1920s and running a Montmartre restaurant with the same checkered tablecloths as are visible in my newly acquired postcard. She tries to prevent a young playwright with a wife and daughter from falling for a femme fatale who seduces him while she is starring in his play. [see above]

In the end, I am skeptical of the legend of Mère Catherine, but don’t know what the real story is either.

At least I have one small consolation. The postcard I bought at Brimfield for $2 is being offered on e-Bay for 79 Euros ($86.80). But I’ll be surprised if it gets a bid at that price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

7 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers, women

Famous in its day: The Bakery

Louis Szathmary’s restaurant, The Bakery, opened in Chicago at a time when restaurant going in that city was not a very exciting proposition. Amidst the steak and potatoes of 1963, its pâté, bouillabaisse, Wiener schnitzel, and Viennese tortes stood out as exotic. Despite its storefront location in a run-down neighborhood – and no decor to speak of — the 25-seat neighborhood restaurant became an instant success. A little more than a year after it opened it was given a distinguished dining award by Holiday magazine. Reservations became hard to get.

The first review of The Bakery described it as a table d’hôte offering a set dinner that began with pâté, possibly followed by celery soup, shredded celery root salad with handmade mayonnaise, and Filet of Pike with Sauce Louis. By 1975 the number of entree choices for the then-$12 five-course dinner had extended to ten, with Beef Wellington and Roast Duckling with Cherry Glaze [pictured] among the most popular. Even as Beef Wellington lost its fashionability in the 1970s and 1980s, it continued as a Bakery mainstay. In 1989, as the restaurant was about to close, Szathmary said that although current food writers made fun of it, “they all raved about it once, and I know 50 percent of our sales after 26 years is still beef Wellington.”

Szathmary, who claimed a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Budapest, had learned to cook in Hungary during WWII when he was conscripted into the Hungarian army. He arrived in the US in 1951, working as a chef in several institutional settings in the Northeast before moving to Chicago in 1960 to join Armour & Co. in product development. As executive chef at Armour he helped launch the company’s Continental Cuisine line of frozen entrees for the home and commercial market that came in polybags that could be immersed in boiling water and served.

Among the first eating places to serve entrees from Armour’s Continental Cuisine and American Fare lines were Holiday Inn motels and the Seagram Tower at Niagara Falls. Dishes available in the two lines included beef burgundy, chuck wagon beef stew, turkey and crabmeat tetrazzini, chow mein, shrimp creole, and barbecued pork fried rice. Only months before opening The Bakery, Chef Louis (as he was popularly known) had been training the staff of a Michigan gas-station-restaurant complex aptly named The American Way how to heat and serve Armour’s bagged entrees.

After he left Armour to concentrate on The Bakery, Chef Louis continued to praise the use of convenience foods in restaurants. He published a column titled “Use Psychology on Your Customers” in a trade magazine in 1965 in which he urged restaurant managers to be honest about the food they served. He conceded that because he knew many of his guests were suspicious of frozen foods, he did not apologize when he took them on a tour of his storage areas. Although he sometimes used frozen foods, he said he always revealed that on his menus. In a July 1968 column for the trade magazine Food Service, he insisted that the restaurant industry should welcome factory-produced food because of the shortage of help at a time when restaurant patronage was on the rise.

That column brought forth a protest from fellow Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang of the elegant Four Seasons in NYC. Lang wrote, “I would very much like to preserve the level of cooking and the niveau [peak] of gastronomy that we practice at the Four Seasons.” To this Chef Louis replied that he was simply trying to be provocative. Not much later he boasted that he had the distinction of being fired as a consultant to Restaurant Associates (owner of the Four Seasons) – as well as caterer to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

With his fingers in many pies, Chef Louis was assisted by his wife Sada and a contingent of relatives, not to mention quite of few of his compatriots from Hungary who served in The Bakery’s kitchen and dining room (one going so far as to grow his own handlebar mustache). No doubt it was his loyal staff who made it possible for him to run a restaurant while producing books and copious newspaper and magazine articles, appearing frequently on TV and radio, teaching and lecturing at colleges, and conducting sideline restaurant consulting and cooking school businesses [shown above training waiters]. Always a showman, the flamboyant Chef Louis gave talks with titles such as “The Naked Ape and the Frying Pan,” and another in which he compared his ex-wives unfavorably to a bottle of Angostura bitters that had lasted longer and never got spoiled.

In addition to The Bakery, he owned or co-owned two other restaurants managed by his wife’s sister and brother-in-law, the Kobatas. The Cave, in Old Town, opened shortly after The Bakery. Its interior of papier mache simulated the walls of a cave covered with prehistoric drawings as researched by Chef Louis. In 1970 he opened Bowl & Roll, another family-wide venture drawing in not only the Kobatas but also the mothers of both Louis and Sada, plus Louis’ brother and sister-in-law. In an opening advertisement Bowl & Roll promised a range of unusual soups such as Hungarian sour cherry soup, Scandinavian fruit soup, and kohlrabi soup.

In the mid-1970s The Bakery’s reputation began to sag somewhat along with “continental cuisine” generally. Critic John Hess, in 1974, questioned the high regard that Holiday magazine bestowed on The Bakery and declared its Beef Wellington “the quintessence of the pretentious gourmet plague.” Patrons sent letters to Chicago newspapers saying the Roast Duckling was as “tough as an auto tire,” and charging that the restaurant’s acclaim was based on “mass hysteria” whipped up by Chef Louis himself. Chicagoans were sharply divided into lovers and haters. For two years in the 1970s readers polled by Chicago Magazine voted The Bakery as one of both the city’s 10 favorite and 10 least favorite restaurants. Still, in 1977 Cornell University named it one of the country’s six great restaurants, and, despite its loudly banging front door, too-brisk service, lack of decor, and awkward layout, its loyal patrons stuck by it and it remained profitable to the end.

At the 1989 closing Chef Louis said that the restaurant business had changed so much he could not have successfully created a restaurant such as The Bakery then, partly because of the public’s growing preference for lighter food. He declared he was proud that he “never served one kiwi fruit.”

Chef Louis stayed busy in retirement and donated his vast cookbook and culinary arts collection to libraries at the University of Iowa and Johnson & Wales University.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

27 Comments

Filed under food, guides & reviews, Offbeat places, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers