Category Archives: popular restaurants

Digesting the Madonna Inn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

14 Comments

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

Halloween soup

Although the food-page story in a New Orleans newspaper said that this photo showed a jack-o-lantern just carved by Chef Gunter Preuss for his children, I can’t help feeling a little bit spooked by it. Is it how he’s holding that knife, or his serious gaze?

Never mind, because the story was about the Harvest Cream Soup he makes out of the pumpkin’s insides. (See recipe below.)

At the time of this story, 1976, Gunter Preuss and his wife Evelyn were owner-operators of the Versailles Restaurant in New Orleans. Eight years later they acquired a part interest in Broussard’s, which they took over from 1993 to 2013.

The Versailles received a glowing review in Richard Collin’s “Underground Gourmet” column in 1978 — although it was definitely not a restaurant for the price-conscious diner. Collin declared it “spectacular,”and “about as fine a restaurant as one can imagine.” He singled out many dishes as “platonic,” meaning they could not be more perfect. Among them were Bouilabaisse Marseillaise, Rack of Lamb Persillades, Ris de Veau Grenobloise, and Pears Cardinal. Chef Preuss was also featured on the show Great Chefs of New Orleans.

The recipe for pumpkin soup does not give amounts for every ingredient. It calls for a pumpkin’s interior, seeds removed, to be cubed and washed. Then sauté the cubes with onions and celery until glazed. Add flour and a half quart of chicken stock. Simmer the mixture over medium heat for 45 to 60 minutes, seasoning with salt, white pepper, powdered ginger, and white wine. Then strain the soup and add three eggs yolks and a cup of light cream. Simmer on low flame for five minutes, then pour into cups and serve with a whipped cream topping and a touch of ginger. Serves six.

Enjoy Halloween!

Leave a comment

Filed under chefs, food, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

Restaurant as community center

The first Salad Bowl restaurant, at 4100 Lindell in St. Louis, was established in 1948 by two former employees of Miss Hulling’s Cafeteria downtown. The husband and wife owners were mainly concerned with making a living for their family and had little idea that, like Miss Hulling’s, their venture was destined to become a celebrated local institution and landmark. [above: final and primary location, 1989]

The Salad Bowl’s founders were Elmer and Anna Sewing, whose three sons would one day take over the cafeteria, having gained plenty of hands-on experience working there in their younger years. At its final location at 3949 Lindell Blvd. the sons, David and his twin brothers Norman and Norbert, took full charge after their father’s death in 1976. Knowing they had to expand the business, they encouraged greater use of the banquet rooms. To draw customers during the day the sons made the rooms available for free to clubs and organizations for meetings and talks if their members and attendees went through the cafeteria line. [Norbert and Norman Sewing at the bakery counter, 1989]

The cafeteria was located about halfway between two universities, making it possible for the cafeteria’s banquet rooms to become popular sites for talks and lecture series by professors. The Salad Bowl had the unique distinction of being the only eating place that I know of that advertised “seminars” among its attractions. [1988 advertisement] A few of the topics covered over time were homelessness, children’s mental health, the working poor, the global economy, and the Jewish sanctuary movement.

News conferences took place regularly at the Salad Bowl. In 1986 a speaker from Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen group discussed the rapidly rising rates of liability insurance, blaming it on greed in the insurance industry. The event was sponsored by the Missouri Public Interest Research Group and the Missouri Citizen-Labor Coalition.

Although, like many restaurant owners, Elmer Sewing had turned away Black diners at a time when he judged that white customers would not accept them, he often said that he was opposed to segregation. According to his grandson Stephen, who privately published a memoir-style history of the Salad Bowl* after its closure in December of 2005 [title page above], his grandfather was personally opposed to segregated eating facilities. He was said to be eager to welcome Black customers once the Civil Rights Act had passed, making it illegal to refuse service to patrons based on race. Stephen wrote that the cafeteria was one of the first in St. Louis to integrate.

Black organizations, clubs, and events by Black activists were included in the Salad Bowl mix, as were prayer breakfasts in honor of Martin Luther King. Another example was a news conference held by well known activist Ivory Perry who denounced President Ronald Reagan’s introduction of housing vouchers in 1982, calling it a step in federal abandonment of public housing and urging people to join a protest rally in Washington. A St. Louis section of the National Council of Negro Women held its 5th annual awards dinner there in 1986.

Both Black and white politicians gave talks at the cafeteria, and Jessie Jackson visited there. According to Stephen Sewing’s book, “Every state senator, state representative and governor has known the Salad Bowl because of all the political parties, press conferences, meetings and rallies held at the Salad Bowl over the years.” Organizations holding regular meetings included the Book Lovers Club, the League of Women Voters, the Press Club, Retail Druggists, Weight Watchers, the Worker’s Rights Board, the Women’s Coalition for the Democratic Party, and locals of the St. Louis Teachers Union and the Service Employees Union.

Scrolling through the notices of talks and public events held at the cafeteria made me realize how impossible it is to give more than a partial idea of how many and varied they were.

In the 1990s the cafeteria was also used as a site for flu shots, blood pressure tests, and school children’s immunizations.

The Salad Bowl menu focused on standard cafeteria comfort food such as Kidney Bean Salad, Whiting, Beef Brisket, Banana Cream Pie, and the St. Louis specialties, German Potato Salad and Toasted Ravioli. Customers could also stop at the bakery counter to buy baked goods to take home. A tavern room called Bits and Saddles operated for ten years as part of the complex and there was an underground parking garage, a remnant of the car dealership that had occupied the site before the Salad Bowl took it over. [shown below, 1952]

The restaurant also served as a special gathering spot for the extended Sewing family who used banquet rooms for their own wedding dinners and receptions as well as major holiday feasts. With the three fathers working long days, sometimes six days a week, often the only way to see them was for their families to come to dinner at the cafeteria. Their wives and children also put in time as spare hands for serving banquets, helping with bookkeeping, and other chores.

Now, when restaurants tend to be ranked and rated mainly for the quality and novelty of their cuisine and interior appointments, I find it refreshing to review a restaurant from the past that was so deeply a part of city life, and valued for that by thousands of St. Louisans.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

  • Two copies of the 90-page booklet are available at the main St. Louis Public Library.

4 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, cafeterias, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

The long life of El Fenix

In 1958, an advertisement celebrating 40 years in business made the claim that El Fenix was “The Oldest Mexican Restaurant Chain in the U.S.” According to the family of founder Miguel Martinez, he opened his first restaurant in 1918 in Dallas TX. [El Fenix on McKinney Ave. pictured above, ca. 1954]

Of course Mexican eating places, including stands, were not a new thing in Texas. They had been around throughout the 19th century in San Antonio – which of course was part of Mexico for part of that time. A Mexican man and his French wife in Los Angeles were serving tamales, enchiladas, carne con chile, and albondigas in 1881 — along with French dishes!

Martinez had come to the U.S. around 1911 during the upheaval of the Mexican revolution. Then about 21 years old, he left behind a life of hard labor that began early in childhood, with no time for school. Before opening a small café in Dallas, he had worked as a streetcar track layer, a dishwasher, cook, pool hall operator, and barber.

It’s remarkable that he was so successful in the restaurant business – where failure within five years is the norm — and that he and his family altogether carried on the business for 90 years. But I am not convinced that El Fenix was the first Mexican restaurant chain in the U.S., since its true chain development took place after WWII.

Miguel’s first café – not yet named El Fenix — was located in the center of Dallas’ “Little Mexico” barrio, a part of the city virtually abandoned in terms of city services, without paved streets, and full of poorly constructed rental properties, many of which lacked plumbing.

About seven years later, Miguel — who adopted the name Mike – moved his restaurant to a new location, in a brick building that had been a food market. Although I’ve seen earlier dates quoted, the 1926 advertisement shown here suggests it was that year that the restaurant moved to 1608 McKinney Street, an address that would be a primary location until 1965 when construction of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway necessitated moving – across the street. The name Phoenix/Fenix referred to the mythical bird associated with rebirth and survival.

By the 1930s, Mike Martinez was regarded as the big success story of Little Mexico. According to a 1931 account his restaurant had become quite popular with visiting Northerners who came to Dallas to escape cold winters and were looking for something different in the form of enchiladas and chicken mole.

Within five years he had three restaurants. In addition to the El Fenix Café on McKinney [pictured] there was an El Fenix Coffee Shop on Oak Lawn Ave. and a Mexico City Café on Pacific Ave. However, within a few years, the group was down to just one, the McKinney Street address. The manager of the Mexico City Café had bought the business and moved to a new address. About the same time, the Coffee Shop’s manager joined rival El Chico and a grocery store took over its location.

Until the mid-1940s, when Mike Martinez turned over El Fenix to his eight children, the McKinney Street location remained the sole restaurant. It had become a popular place, equipped with a large banquet room and a ballroom annex and hosting many civic and social groups. The restaurant’s owners, now the second Martinez generation, soon began to build El Fenix into a chain. [Oak Cliff location, opened 1948]

Despite the popularity of Mexican food with certain Texans and out-of-town visitors, it appears that many patrons were not fans. El Fenix, like other Mexican places, found it necessary to offer standard American restaurant fare as well. Judging from advertisements, the American menu was often promoted more actively than the Mexican, suggesting that it took a while for many Dallasites to develop a taste for Mexican food, even when it was prepared to appeal to “Tex-Mex” preferences. Although the McKinney café redecorated with a Mexican theme in the mid-1930s, the menu featured standard American restaurant fare such as steak, fried chicken, fish, and shrimp, spaghetti and meat balls, combination salads, and french fries in addition to Mexican dishes. With the end of Prohibition, it began to offer alcoholic drinks, which no doubt expanded its appeal as a dinner venue.

In 1950 the family opened the first Oklahoma City restaurant [see above advertisement], then came new locations in shopping plazas. Meanwhile, the chain also produced much of its own food for sale, including candies, tacos, tamales, and canned chili. [below, Casa Linda Plaza El Fenix, ca. 1957]

By the 1960s, Mexican dishes formed a more prominent place in El Fenix advertising, with specialties such as “crispy” puffed tortillas filled with spiced beef, chili con quezo, or fried beans. With the opening of their restaurant at Lemmon and Innwood in 1960, tagged the “most elegant Mexican restaurant in the Southwest,” an advertisement touted its fare as “the ultimate in authentic . . . extraordinary Mexican cuisine.”

The chain continued to grow. By 1984 there were 18 El Fenix-owned/franchised restaurants, 11 of them in Dallas, 4 in other Texas cities, and 3 in Oklahoma City. Two went by other names: Don Miguel’s, in Addison TX; and Taco Burrito, in Oklahoma City. [pictured above, Galleria Mall, Houston]

In 1998 newspapers reported that the other venerable Dallas chain, El Chico, was set to buy El Fenix, but the deal fell through. Ten years later El Fenix – then consisting of 15 restaurants — was sold to the Firebird Restaurant Group which continues to own it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

Thanks to Daniel Arreola for lending the postcard of El Fenix in Houston’s Galleria Mall.

7 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

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

15 Comments

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

French fried onion rings

It’s hard to say just how long french fried onion rings have been on restaurant menus. But it’s likely that they were served at the Grove Park Inn, in Asheville NC, shortly after it opened in 1913. A few years later politician William Jennings Bryan’s recipe for them appeared in a Boston newspaper in which he said that the inn was the first place he – a frequent traveler – had ever encountered them.

Women had been preparing them in their homes before that. A recipe appeared in Women’s Home Companion in 1905, but I’m sure they were known earlier.

Bryan’s recollection as well as the 1905 recipe settle the question of whether french fried onion rings were the 1920s invention of a Pig Stand in Texas as frequently claimed on the internet. They were not.

In the 1930s onion rings became more common in restaurants, probably aided by improvements in cooking oil (though many used lard) and deep fryers. Then, and for several decades later, they were usually featured as an accompaniment to a steak. In the heart of the Depression Schrafft’s advertized its Sizzling Steak Combination, saying, “With it you get generous helpings of French fried potatoes, onion rings or a fresh vegetable, a green salad, and a pot of Schrafft’s coffee, $1.50.” It ended with the tagline, “A Man’s Meal.”

They were often specifically marketed to men. Whether women shied away from them because of fear of breath contamination or some other stigma is unclear. Or maybe they enjoyed them just as much as men did, but were less likely to order steak because of price.

Despite the fact that men liked onion rings, onions in general carried a stigma. At various times in the last century they were characterized as “ordinary and even common,” as breath contaminators, and as food that restaurant kitchen workers did not like to handle. A 1966 handbook recommended that restaurant operators drawing up menus “shun” onions, along with lamb kidneys, pig’s knuckles, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas. In 1969 a Gallup Poll found that potatoes were Americans’ favorite vegetables, followed by green beans, asparagus, corn, and tomatoes. French fried onions were ranked as slightly more popular than broccoli, lima beans, and peas.

Prejudices aside, onion rings grew more popular over time.

The arrival of pre-breaded frozen onion rings, which saved kitchen labor, was almost certainly part of their rising popularity. Their production began in the early 1950s when food companies contracted with fish processors who had learned the art of breading and freezing. Contra the Gallup poll, in 1969 one writer acknowledged that, after french fries, onion rings “must be the all time favorite accompaniment to hamburgers.”

Use of the ready-to-heat rings increased in the 1970s when fast food chains began to serve them. Some, such as those sold at Burger King, were made of ground onions that had been extruded through tubes in factories. Their uniform size and shape, suited for “portion control,” did not sit well with a restaurant reviewer in 1977. He complained that a Burger King in Seattle served onion rings that were “those pressed-onion jobs that come out all one size and lacking a great deal of onion taste.” What an ingrate! Didn’t he realize that extrusion meant he could count on always receiving the exact same number of grams of breading and ground onion as the next customer?

In 1978 McDonald’s began test-marketing their own version of deep fried onions, using chunks instead of rings and calling their “french fried chopped onion product” Onion Nuggets. But the nuggets didn’t make it past the test stage, reputedly because they got cold too quickly. Restaurant onion rings, in general, were often criticized for being served cold – as well as for being limp and greasy.

Overall, the historic trajectory of onion rings in restaurants seems to be:

  1. Beginning in the early 20th century primarily as a garnish or accompaniment to a steak
  2. Especially as onion prices rose, becoming a separately priced side order, often where hamburgers were popular such as drive-ins and fast food outlets.
  3. Ascending to the top of the menu — with inflated prices — as appetizers at dinner-house chains such as TGI Friday.

Though not ring-shaped, Outback Steakhouse’s “Bloomin’ Onion” may have propelled deep fried onions to their historic pinnacle both in terms of fat and calorie load as well as price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

17 Comments

Filed under food, popular restaurants, technology

Lunching at the drug store

I’ve often noticed how the history of some institution or object does not quite mesh with the nostalgic haze that eventually envelops it. To a significant extent this is true of now-vanished drug store soda fountains, many of which became places for lunches as well as for sweet fountain treats before they vanished.

Independent soda fountains date as far back as the 1810s. Decades later some druggists began adding soda fountains to their apothecaries, mainly as a favor to their customers. Soda fountain drinks, whether plain carbonated water or water mixed with syrups, were viewed as healthful and in accord with the temperance movement of the 19th century.

Soda fountains emphasized the elaborate beauty of their fountain apparatus, especially after a marble soda fountain went on display at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia. A soda fountain in Boston in 1886 was described as made of “black and chocolate marble, surmounted by a statue of purest marble, representing a dancing girl.” In addition to the artistic features, customers were attracted by the technical aspects of fountains with their tubes and faucets.

Fads in drinks meant that there was a constant search for newness, with Easter punch the first choice in 1890, but surpassed in 1891 by orange phosphates and Creme de Russe. The number of concoctions was endless. The Standard Manual of Soda and Other Beverages, published in 1897, promised more than 1,500 “formulas,” including how to mix “Coloring Agents, Foams, Extracts, Essences, Fruit Juices, Syrups, Meads, Beers, Ales, Phosphates, Lactarts, Egg Drinks, Ades, Milk and Cream Drinks, Medicinal Drinks, Popular Fancy Drinks, Hot Soda Drinks, Ice Creams, Ciders, Fruit Wines, Liqueurs, Cordials, Bitters, [and] Cremes.”

In the 1890s druggists began to feel economic pressure to install soda fountains. Apart from drawing people into the store, soda fountains produced good profits at a time when department stores were taking away some of druggists’ business by selling over-the-counter medicines. Plus, the complex range of possible drinks did call upon mixing skills in a way that was at least somewhat similar to what druggists did in compounding medicines. They could reassure themselves — if need be — that they were using “formulas” rather than “recipes.”

In the 1910s, many druggists took a step further and began offering light lunches along with fountain drinks. According to one account, this was a way of ensuring that soda fountain traffic did not die away during lunchtime as it had been doing.

The added profits from selling sandwiches and a few other edibles were welcome but, having spent many years learning their trade, many druggists were depressed about needing to go into what became known as the luncheonette business. A 1914 survey of pharmacists found that most respondents were not thrilled about selling food. Replies included, “Let the hash houses have the pie business.” Some called the situation degrading and asked, “Can we still claim the right to class our calling as a profession?” and “When a man finds it necessary to make a living selling hot dogs, he had better pull in the sign ‘Druggist.’”

Nevertheless the luncheonette business spread and grew, as did druggists’ dependence on this source of revenue. In the 1920s it was not at all unusual to find a luncheonette in a drug store, some even selling hot dishes such as chop suey and tamales. By 1931 an estimate was that nearly half of the 25,000 drug stores nationwide served fountain lunches, with 2,800 doing so in NYC alone. And it was said that some druggists were taking in more money from food service than from everything else combined.

As popular as they were with customers, soda fountain luncheonettes were deeply disliked by catering employee unions, as well as restaurateurs and lunch room owners who viewed them as illegitimate competitors. A 1926 article in the trade magazine Cafeteria Management argued for higher national standards for restaurants, pointing out drug stores as examples of businesses that should not be in the feeding business. To gourmets who mourned the loss of fine restaurants in the 1920s when the sale of alcohol was banned, drug store food exemplified the worst of the worst. Duncan Hines, who began to rate restaurants across the entire country in the 1930s, pointed to the drug store lunch counter as a “sinister influence” and asked, “How in God’s name can anyone who regularly eats drugstore snacks ever be expected to recognize a good meal when it’s served?” Much of the food sold in drug store luncheonettes in the 1920s, was in fact bought ready-to-eat or nearly so from commercial commissaries.

Given all the criticism of drug store lunches, it’s rather surprising to see a menu attachment from Walgreen’s in 1948 and note how closely it resembles a full-scale restaurant, both because it offers 8 “complete dinners” with soup, potatoes, vegetables, roll and butter, desert, and beverage and because it describes the sauces for two fish dishes à la française! Of course it’s likely that the big drug store chains met a higher standard of cleanliness and food quality than many of the small stores had in earlier decades.

Drug store lunch counters were still sufficiently popular in the early 1960s that they, along with dime store counters, were sites of Black protestors claiming a right to patronize them. Notably, a 1951 report of the Congress for Racial Equality cited Walgreen’s stores as among the very few eating places in St. Louis that served Black customers.

By the 1970s drug stores were beginning to close their lunch counters. As early as 1970 Walgreen’s operated only one in New York City, down from 17. Whelan’s too had closed most of its counters there. The trend swept across the country and by the 1980s, nostalgia attached to the few left, most of which were limited to serving sodas and ice cream concoctions. Bitterness among druggists is long forgotten, along with other complaints. Now the best way to find any still in existence is to search for “old-fashioned soda fountain.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

14 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, popular restaurants, restaurant issues

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

3 Comments

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

Lobster stew at the White Rabbit

On the menu shown here a bowl of lobster stew cost 70 cents and came with crackers, pickles, and chips. Oyster stew was 50 cents, while fried clams with french fries, cole slaw, and coffee cost 60 cents.

The menu is undated but is probably from the 1940s. Fried lobster was one of the White Rabbit’s most popular dishes, according to Duncan Hines’ 1947 guide book, Adventures in Good Eating. With a fruit cup, tomato, pineapple, french fries, rolls, dessert, and tea or coffee, it came to $1.35. And, of course, they threw in pickles and chips.

In addition to lobster fried, sautéed, or stewed, it was also available as a salad.

Admiring patrons quoted in the 1948 edition of Gourmet’s Guide to Good Eating explained that the reason the Rabbit was always mobbed with people on their way to and from Cape Cod was due to its high standards, excellent food, and, specifically, “plates of hot buttered rolls.”

On Saturday nights the White Rabbit offered a traditional Massachusetts dinner of baked beans for 50 cents. Other interesting dishes on the menu include a vegetable salad sandwich (35¢), a sardine and horseradish sandwich (25¢), and a side order of tomato and cucumbers (15¢).

The tea room got its start in 1931, in West Chatham on the Cape, about 37 miles from the Buzzards Bay location which became its long-term home. Prior to its beginning, owner Nate Nickerson was a taxi driver in Brockton MA, where co-owner Mildred Ring may have worked as a waitress.

Nickerson’s two sons were waiters at the restaurant which was open only from April through November.

In 1966, the final year in which I found advertisements for it, the White Rabbit had evidently abandoned the tea room theme. It then featured liquor and steaks. Nickerson had died in 1950 and it’s likely that it was under different management.

A few years ago I received a nice surprise when a stranger sent me this bowl by Syracuse china used in the tea room.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

10 Comments

Filed under food, menus, popular restaurants, roadside restaurants, tea shops

Lunching at the dime store

Waves of nostalgia about lunch counter menus, low prices, friendly waitresses, and non-pretentious hospitality surged when dime stores began closing their counters in the 1970s and 1980s. [photo ca. 1930]

Nostalgia was mostly confined to former patrons who were white and not involved in the 1960s protests to integrate variety store lunch counters. In fact, some black activists still had criminal records on the books for participating in sit-ins.

It isn’t surprising that dime store lunch counters were chosen as sites of protest in 1960 and 1961 if you realize that they were among the top food service chains in the country then. A report from 1964 showed that F. W. Woolworth Co. and McDonald’s Systems, Inc. were neck and neck in the chain restaurant race. McDonald’s was ahead in sales with $114M while Woolworth was at $100M, but Woolworth dominated the landscape with 1,950 units across the country as compared to McDonald’s 611. And though not in the top ten, other dime store chains also had notable lunch counter sales, particularly Kresge, Grant, Newberry [shown below, 1940], and McCrory.


Dime store lunch counters dated back to the 1910s. The earliest lunch counters were probably the ones associated with the railroads, going back at least several decades into the 19th century. But dime stores added something new to their lunch counters – soda fountains — giving them wider appeal and the ability to attract customers between mealtimes.

Their installation involved significant capital investment. As dime store advertisements proclaimed, they were modern and sanitary. Through the first half of the 20th century, the stores constantly reminded the public that they were outfitted with the latest in modern gas and electric appliances for cooking, refrigeration, cleaning, and sterilization. [Kresge, Louisville, 1922]

When a new Woolworth store opened in Abilene TX in 1939, a lengthy story reported that “All utensils touched by food are of stainless, seamless steel.” Plus, it said, the food was kept at the correct temperatures at all times, dishes were washed and sterilized automatically, and the kitchen was lit by fluorescent fixtures.

I have no doubt that due to their expensive kitchen and counter equipment, dime store food service far exceeded the typical under-capitalized independent lunch room or restaurant of the same time in terms of sanitation.

Another modernizing feature was promoting women into lunch counter management. Although I’ve seen no numbers, Woolworth’s claimed that the majority of their lunch counters and bakeries had women managers. When a new Woolworth store opened in Butte MT in 1928, the opening of the lunch counter was under the supervision of a woman who managed a busy lunch counter in a Denver Woolworth store. This was surely a role not often played by women in the world of business then. She predicted that with 62 stools and quick service, the Butte store should easily be able to serve 1,000 persons at lunch.

Dime store lunch counters have been seen as early versions of fast food restaurants and to a degree this is true. They depended on fast delivery of food, high turnover of each counter stool, and price breaks for quantity buying. But there were also many ways in which they were not like the fast food chains that helped put them out of business.

Baking on the premises and selling baked goods in the store certainly set them apart from burger chains of the later 20th century.

So did using fresh produce and buying locally. When a new counter at the Newberry store was opened in Fremont OH in 1941, an advertisement stated, “Daily there arrives, fresh from the finest markets, a big assortment of garden vegetables and fruits; from the best local dairies come rich milk and cream and palate-tempting butter . . .” Local dairies and food purveyors often co-sponsored advertising when a new store was built or a new counter installed. A new Kresge store in St. Louis acknowledged its suppliers in 1919, “reliable firms, such as Freund Bakeries, Carpenter’s Ice Cream, Thomas L. Tierney Tea and Coffee Co., Sixth Street Grocery Co., Bentzen Commission Co., Harry E. Grafeman, Foerstel Bros. Meat Co., Herz-Oakes, Swift.”

Their menus included sandwiches and desserts, but also substantial hot meals. A remodeled Kress store in Fort Worth TX announced its menus for April 1931 would include a number of 25c plate lunches such as Roast Chicken with Dressing, Cranberry Sauce, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. There was also a vegetable plate with Mustard Greens, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. [Woolworth menu, 1959 — click to enlarge]

Woolworth had a love affair with turkey, serving it on plate lunches throughout the year. The explanation, according to Karen Plunkett-Powell in Remembering Woolworth’s, was that the store bought up farm surpluses for good prices – whether vegetables, dairy products, or turkey. Turkey seemed to appear frequently at Kress and Kresge also.

As dime stores experienced declines in business, their lunch counters were often the first sign of cutbacks, with the last ones closing in the late 1990s. Among the mourners were older patrons who took part in informal lunch counter coffee clubs. [Northampton MA, 1990]

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

11 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, food, lunch rooms, menus, popular restaurants, sanitation