Category Archives: patrons

Restaurant-ing on wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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

Dining during an epidemic: San Francisco

After spending time isolated or constrained in any way people tend to become impatient and want to break loose. That’s what happened in San Francisco during the “Spanish” flu of 1918, especially as the number of cases began to decline.

It was understandable, especially when World War I ended. Everyone wanted to celebrate. Unlike most U.S. cities, San Francisco – with about 500,000 residents — was a city with a flourishing nightlife. Restaurants remained open throughout, even in October when flu ravaged the city, but the music and dancing that was often featured was banned when the number of cases rose sharply in the middle of October. Solely for the week ending October 26, reported cases had reached 8,682.

Because of the increase in cases, the city ordered all waiters and bartenders to wear masks [see above October 27 advertisement], shortly thereafter urging everyone to wear them. But then the number of cases began to decline. For the week ending November 9 they were down to 2,200. Although that seems like quite a lot, San Franciscans were beginning to relax.

On Armistice Day, November 11, the city went wild. In a story headlined “San Francisco Romps Through Greatest Joyfest World Has Ever Known,” the Chronicle reported that hundreds of thousands had poured into the streets parading with noise makers, spontaneous singing, even improvised costumes. The city lifted the flu ordinance that had canceled music and dancing. But whether they had music or not, restaurants and bars were packed. Glamour spots such as Tait’s, the St. Francis Hotel, and the Palace Hotel [shown above] overflowed as did the non-glamourous eatery Coffee Dan’s.

Oddly enough, it appears that despite the overflow crowds in the streets, bars, and restaurants, a surge in flu cases did not occur. On November 21 the Board of Health authorized the removal of masks with a whistle blast at noon. People drank toasts in hotels and restaurants, while others crowded into ice cream shops. On November 25 the city declared the epidemic officially ended. People planned for Thanksgiving as usual and looked forward to the Christmas season.

But it wasn’t over. With war’s end, troop ships began returning to the city. Among the troops were enough new cases that on December 7 the mayor reinstituted the wearing of masks. This time most people ignored the order. Merchants hoping for a strong shopping season wanted the threat downplayed. The masking order was lifted 11 days later, even as cases continued to rise. On a single day, December 30, 540 new flu cases and 31 related deaths were reported. Then came . . . New Year’s Eve.

As was true on November 11, there was no stopping the celebrations. Packed trains brought revelers from neighboring towns and states where wartime alcohol bans were still in effect. San Francisco’s hotels were booked, its restaurants fully reserved. The next day the Examiner reported that the celebration was the “Greatest in History of Bay Region,” calling it a “Victory New Year’s Eve” with thousands from out of town. It was almost as if “the whole Pacific Coast and interior neighboring states sent their quotas,” said the Examiner. Among the crowds were many thousands of soldiers and sailors. Hotel dining rooms were full. The Palace had three orchestras, as did Tait’s and Techau Tavern, each of which took 1,500 reservations. The States, Portola [1918 advertisement], Solari’s, and the Odeon [1918 advertisement] were also packed and the same was true in the Latin quarter and other neighborhoods. Dancing continued until 5 a.m.

By January 8, 2,969 new cases had been reported just since the start of the new year. Two days later a new masking order was issued by the mayor who told the newspapers, “After San Francisco had successfully stamped it out the infection was brought to us once more by persons coming here from other cities.” It wasn’t until March 1919 that the city’s death rate returned to its usual level.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under night clubs, patrons, waiters/waitresses/servers

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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Women drinking in restaurants

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sight of women drinking in public brought up the same kind of issues about women’s status in society as did the struggle to get the vote. According to deep-seated beliefs about gender roles that had been forged in the 19th century, the proper realms for women were church and home.

Engaging in politics and drinking alcohol were definitely not approved of for women, particularly women of the middle and upper classes.

But in the late 19th century the prevailing gender rules seemed to be threatened, especially in New York City where “fashionable” women were drinking in public view in first-class restaurants such as Delmonico’s and the Brunswick Hotel. “No Longer a Sly Nip,” reported the New York Herald in 1894, stating that women who used to conceal their drinking with “cocktail opera glasses” and “creme de menthe fans” now were brazenly drinking openly, even at daytime shopping lunches. “Is this an evidence of the so-called ‘emancipation of women?’” the writer asked.

The supposed wickedness of wealthy New York women would become a popular topic in succeeding decades. Stories indulged an interest in the doings of privileged women of fashion and at the same time allowed readers to feel morally superior.

Opposition to women drinking grew stronger. In 1901 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) declared a crusade against women drinking in restaurants. New York president Ella Boole made an in-person survey of New York restaurants with a reporter from the Sunday World, who concluded that women’s “range of tipples is identical with that of men, and include the cocktails, the ‘Scotch highball,’ the sherry cobbler, absinthe and liqueurs. They drink at luncheon, at dinner, at supper, and frequently in between times.” According to the story, drinking went on in public restaurants and cafes, hotel table d’hotes, and just about anywhere.

Taking an inventory of women drinking in public spread. The pastor of a Congregational church in Chicago led a tour where his group tallied 269 “boozing women” out of a total of 463 women encountered in restaurants.

But even more alarming to the anti-drinking forces than the fact that “women of high grade and their imitators” drank liquor was the fact that they did it in public restaurants – and no one seemed to care! Where was the outrage, the shame? The head of the Daughter of Temperance thought women who drank “without shame in public places” should be ostracized. Otherwise, she feared, Womanhood, The Home, and The Race were in peril.

There was a lot of sermonizing. Actress Lillian Russell advised women that they would ruin their looks if they drank. But the most interesting observations on the subject came from an experienced New York hotel proprietor (alas, unnamed). Yes, women were drinking in public, he said, but they were freeing themselves from their old bad habits. He named fainting, hysteria, and using opiates like morphine. He found that women rarely got drunk in public, and saw their drinking as a sign that they were becoming more engaged in public life. Over the years, he said, he had witnessed women taking better care of themselves, becoming “healthier and happier,” and growing more companionable with their husbands.

Not even Prohibition could put an end to women’s drinking. True, it was not observable in public restaurants, but women continued to drink in speakeasies and private homes. By the early 1930s when alcohol again became legal, at least in most cities, it had become perfectly respectable for women to drink in public. Although women were still not welcome to stand at the bar in taverns, it was just fine if they ordered a before-dinner cocktail in a restaurant. What was once a privilege found only among women of the leisure class had become a commonplace custom.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under patrons, restaurant controversies, restaurant issues, women

New Year’s Eve at the Latin Quarter

Anyone who wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve at New York City’s nightclub The Latin Quarter in the 1940s and 1950s had to plan ahead. Way ahead, as in July or August.

The club – its name suggestive of Paris — seated 600 patrons. It took a lot of effort to fill it Like New York’s other nightclubs of that era, it was highly dependent upon out-of-towners.

Packing the house for two or three shows nightly meant that every travel agency in America had the LQ on its list, as did every convention planner. In 1956 it was said that there was scarcely an insurance company anywhere that didn’t include a night at the Latin Quarter among its prizes for top-selling agents.

The most ordered dinners were favorites of the time. Nightclubs weren’t known for the best food in town. Obviously, patrons were not there for the food, but for the show with lightly clad women. In the mid-1950s roast beef was tops. Then, somewhat surprisingly, came turkey, then steak.

The Latin Quarter opened in 1942, with Lou Walters as manager-owner and E. M. Loew’s of Boston’s Loew’s theaters as a financial backer. Walters (father of Barbara Walters) also had interests in LQ clubs in Boston, Miami, and Detroit, along with other nightclubs in New York and Florida.

In addition to the nearly nude performers and big name bands and comedy acts, the LQ threw in some trick performances such as a waiter who unexpectedly squirted guests with water and a drunk photographer who would stumble onto the stage taking pictures of performers and creating a noisy ruckus. He was so convincing that guests (and sometimes even waiters) would try to shush him or have him arrested.

The Latin Quarter closed just before New Year’s Eve in 1968, marking the end of New York’s nightclub era. The building went through various identities after that, as a porn theater, a disco, and a hip-hop club.

Best wishes to everyone for happiness in 2020. Have fun, plan ahead, and don’t be fooled!

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Chinese for Christmas

Readers may be familiar with the custom among many Jews of going to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. Hard as I tried I could not determine when this custom began, although based on advertisements I did get the sense that the tradition of going to the movies on Christmas Day may have begun in the 1920s.

That is the same decade for which I found the earliest advertisements by Chinese restaurants in Jewish newspapers. [Wong Yie, American Israelite, 1922, Cincinnati] I didn’t find any Chinese restaurant ads that invited readers to visit on Christmas Day, though I saw some that reminded them to make reservations for New Year’s Eve. Some also mentioned that they were near movie theaters. In the 1930s some wished readers of Jewish papers happy new year at Rosh Hashanah.

So, even though I don’t know when Jews began going to Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day, I suspect that the affinity between Jews and Chinese restaurants became notable in the 1920s.

While the 1920s may have marked the blossoming of Jewish patronage of Chinese restaurants, I did find one earlier example of a Chinese restaurant said to be patronized by Jewish businessmen. According to a New York Tribune story of 1907, Chinese Delmonico’s on Pell Street near the wholesale center was kosher. At “Kosher Delmonico’s,” as it was called in the story, a French chef prepared mushroom delicacies, lotus lily seed soups, and other dishes for lunch using no dairy products or “game of the kind that is shot.”

Bernstein-on-Essex, a deli that opened in the 1920s on New York’s lower East Side, is often credited with being the first restaurant serving kosher Chinese food – a 1959 addition to the menu [above menu fragment from a later date]. But it may not have actually been the first: Aside from Chinese Delmonico’s, there was said to be a kosher Chinese restaurant on Temple Street in the Jewish section of Los Angeles in 1929.

What Bernstein’s might have been an early example of, though, was a Jewish restaurant that served kosher Chinese food – in contrast to a Chinese restaurant that was kosher, which was rarer. Although Chinese restaurants generally did not feature dairy dishes, typically they would serve pork, as well as shellfish, meat that wasn’t from kosher butchers, and noodles cooked in lard.

For the most part Jews had to be willing to make whatever adjustments they found necessary in order to enjoy Chinese restaurants. This could mean not ordering pork, shrimp, or lobster dishes, or, as many writers have pointed out, accepting dishes with pork that had been minced and “hidden” in wontons. Nonetheless, not everyone was so careful. According to Haiming Leu, author of A History of Chinese Food in the United States, one of the most popular dishes with American Jews was moo shu pork. Such behavior brought an angry comment from a rabbi writing in Newark’s Jewish Chronicle in 1929: “The writer has seen families leaving an orthodox synagogue on Sabbath noon and taking the new Bar Mitzvah, who has just pledged his allegiances to Jewish tradition, into a Chinese restaurant for a salt-pork chop suey meal.”

While the topic of Jews and Chinese restaurants has been a popular one with scholars and journalists, it’s worth noting that historically Jews were not the only non-Chinese cultural group that heavily patronized Chinese restaurants. Even though in the early 1930s Jews were estimated to make up 60% of the white clientele of Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, the estimate was that white customers totaled a minority of patrons. The rest of non-Chinese customers were Black.

After WWII Jews began moving from the inner cities and into the suburbs. Meanwhile, most African-Americans stayed behind. Many Chinese proprietors courted their Jewish customers, often opening suburban restaurants with pleasant interiors. In Black neighborhoods often the facilities tended to be poorer, many for carry-out only, and some even outfitted with protective bars and orders taken and delivered through small hatches.

Another change in the postwar years was the increase in the number of kosher Chinese restaurants, some, such as Sabra and the popular Moshe Peking, with Jewish owners. The 1970s and 1980s saw a rise of kosher Chinese restaurants adhering to what appeared to be a stricter standard in how food was obtained and prepared and also in hours of operation, being closed on the Jewish Sabbath as well as holidays. Additionally, they had a rabbi on hand to inspect food preparation.

Happy Holidays to readers, whatever you may be eating on December 25!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, kosher, patrons, restaurant customs

Early bird specials

Recently I read a story that originated on Eater.com about the decline of early bird specials in parts of Florida populated by retirees. It said that fewer and fewer restaurants were offering these deals. Partly this was because the retirees who had once patronized early bird dinners were passing away, but also because baby boomer retirees rejected the custom which they associated with an antiquated idea of old age.

Early bird restaurant-going is popularly associated with Florida, but by no means has been confined to that state. A 1973 story about restaurants in Palm Springs CA commented that “early dining is almost a city ordinance in Palm Springs,” with 6:00 p.m. being the popular dinner hour and restaurants deserted by 9:30.

Jaya Saxena, who wrote the Eater story, talked with historian Andrew Haley, author of the book Turning the Tables. He said he knew of restaurants that had offered early bird specials as early as the 1920s and 1930s, but that the custom had really become popular in the 1970s.

I found scarcely any trace of early bird restaurant specials before the 1950s, but agree that the 1970s was when the custom became popular. It increased in the 1980s but may have declined somewhat after that, possibly because of the ever-growing competition of cheap meals in chain eateries.

The term early bird special itself was in use in the early 1900s if not before, almost always referring to morning clothing sales in stores. Of course the concept could be – and was – extended to almost anything including sparkplugs at Western Auto or family portraits at discounted prices if made before the Christmas rush.

Stores, especially drug chains, were probably the first to offer early bird meals, usually breakfasts or pre-noon lunches. This was clearly a tactic to draw customers into the store at times when it was least busy. The Owl Drug store in Riverside CA offered Early Bird Breakfast Specials at its soda fountain in 1951. About the same time Walgreen’s in Lexington KY had a similar before-11:00 a.m. deal on two pancakes and an egg for 29 cents.

Nightclubs were some of the first to use early bird specials to attract patrons for dinner. Their business seemed to need a lot of boosting, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when night clubs were not doing well. Often part of the bargain was that early diners who came before showtime were allowed to stay on for the night’s entertainment without paying an additional charge. In the case of San Diego’s Shalimar Club, the time for early diners is not specified but evidently was before 8:00. [shown below]


Discounting meals for early customers might seem mainly to be a way for restaurants to spread out dinner business rather than turning away customers at rush times. In 1967 Wolferman’s Biftec Room in Kansas City found that daylight savings time inclined customers to eat later, when it became dark, but that by offering discounts for earlier dinners, they could correct this tendency. Although it makes good sense to try to spread the arrival of customers, it is notable that it is rarely, if ever, fashionable restaurants that offer early bird specials. There is at least a hint that some restaurants adopting this tactic were simply trying to improve a generally lagging business.

It’s interesting to note what times have been considered early for dinner. Usually it meant before 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. The understanding was/is that fashionable dining began at 8:00, an hour generally considered late by older diners – as well as by families, who have also made up a portion of the early bird flock. Early bird dining often began as early as 4:00 p.m. and I’ve found one restaurant chain, JB’s Big Boy restaurants in Nebraska, where it started at 2:00 p.m.

I can’t help but reflect on 19th-century dining hours, when dinner was a midday meal. Then 2:00 p.m. was when dinner time in restaurants and eating houses typically ended. The fashionable hour for dining out for the few who had the luxury of arising late in the morning was 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., though they might have a lighter repast, supper, later in the evening.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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