Category Archives: proprietors & careers

An early restaurateur’s rise & fall

Life in the 19th century was chaotic and unpredictable in so many respects, but the weird and eventful life and restaurant career of the highly enterprising Mark Langdon Winn, with its succession of ups, downs, and strange twists, would stand out in any century.

As far as his many business schemes went, he never stuck with any of them for long, restaurants included. He bounced around Maine, Boston, New York City, Albany NY, San Francisco, Virginia City NV, and finally back to New York City where he died in 1881. His San Francisco restaurants were the most successful of his enterprises, but despite their promise he held onto them only for about six years.

Before going to California he owned two grocery stores in Boston. Next he went to New York City where in 1843 and 1844 he manufactured and sold a cure-all product called Winn’s Irish Vegetable Relief Candy, good for “weakness of the chest and lungs, liver complaint(s), asthmatic affection, impurities of the blood, dyspepsia and all bowel complaints.”

Maybe restless, disappointed by candy sales, or lured by gold, he took off for San Francisco in 1849, age 34, after leaving Albany where his wife and children remained for another couple of years. Borrowing money from a shipmate upon arrival, he began making candy and peddling it in the streets. After a short time he had enough money to open a confectionery with a partner. Before long he was running the business solo and had added bakery goods and simple meals to his offerings.

Fires were frequent occurrences in San Francisco and he was burned out at both of his initial locations in less than a year. In 1851 he opened his principal restaurant on Long Wharf, calling it Winn’s Fountain Head. Despite the abundance of eating places in the city, it rose to prominence rapidly due to its respectability, cleanliness, and relatively low prices. It was unique in heavy-drinking San Francisco for providing no alcoholic beverages. Winn was a dedicated temperance advocate, always emphasizing the cause in his frequent, wordy newspaper advertisements that often contained sermons on the evils of drink.

The Fountain Head was not fancy. Long Wharf (aka Commercial Street) was hardly a fine location. It was a busy street without sidewalks, filled with liquor saloons, gambling dens, and all-night stores. It vibrated with “a heterogeneous crowd” of carriages, horses, carts, and pedestrians. A writer in the March 1854 issue of The Pioneer wondered “Why there are not a dozen or two broken necks there daily.”

The Fountain Head was open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to midnight, with a menu that included a wide range of meats and vegetables, along with puddings bearing such homely names as Aunt Sally’s and Cousin Jane’s. According to a ca. 1853 menu, an order of roast beef, veal, or corned beef and cabbage cost 25c, while most vegetables were 12c.

According to the city’s Commercial Advertiser in April, 1854, the Winn enterprises — by then comprising the main Fountain Head restaurant and a more elegant “Branch” welcoming women with fancy desserts – had attained the pinnacle of success. Together, the story reported, the two places served 3,000 patrons daily, taking in $57,000 a month, and paying out monthly as much as $1,600 for advertising, $8,000 for meat, $4,000 for milk, $3,000 for potatoes, and $2,000 for ice.

But this account was misleading because only a few months later Winn went into bankruptcy.

Following bankruptcy he started up at a new address, combining the Fountain Head and its Branch into one. But things soon turned sour again. In Spring 1856, he and his new business partner dissolved their partnership with the partner taking over the business. Almost immediately after that, Winn’s wife Eliza took advantage of a California law that allowed women to run businesses independently, declaring that she would carry on the “Fountainhead Confectionery and Steam Candy Manufactory” in her name. It appears she continued to run the business of making and selling baked goods and confectionery until 1859. He may have briefly tried to make a comeback at his original address, but in 1859 the Fountain Head on Commercial Street and a confectionery run by Eliza Winn were put up for sale.

Years later, in a Poughkeepsie NY newspaper story of 1878, Mark Winn would blame the failure of his San Francisco restaurants on employees who robbed him. “Every man I employed was a thief,” he said, singling out his secretary, cashier, and cook. With honest help, he claimed, “I would have been worth a half a million of dollars.”

But the Winns’ western odyssey wasn’t over after leaving San Francisco. In 1860 they moved to the boomtown Virginia City, Nevada, where silver had just been discovered. There, Mark Winn struck silver, opened a restaurant and confectionery called Winn’s Fountain Head, Jr., and invested in a hotel. The hotel soon relocated to another city in Nevada and he lost his investment. The fate of the restaurant is unknown but it did not achieve fame as he had done in San Francisco [1864 advertisement]. He tried to sell shares in his silver mine, advertising that “there is no doubt that within the next six months a fair dividend will be made to the stockholders.”

Apparently he didn’t strike it rich, though, because after five years in Virginia City he filed for insolvency and the Winns returned to San Francisco where he began work on the invention of a shampooing device that was patented in 1871 [shown above].

Next, the couple moved to New York City where he deteriorated rapidly, living in destitution and displaying signs of paranoia that had been in evidence as far back as 1854 when he referred to his “enemies” in an advertisement for the Fountain Head. On one occasion he was arrested as a public nuisance, wandering the streets of New York wearing “armor” and a tin helmet (possibly the shampooing device?) while distributing religious tracts. He spent his final days in the Alms House on Blackwell Island where he was described as suffering from “religious mania.” It also came out that his father had been an alcoholic.

Despite the uneven contours of his career as a restaurateur, Winn’s Fountain Head has become a subject of interest, often mentioned positively in a number of books and articles that tell of San Francisco’s early history. It’s presented as a triumphal success, when really it’s a boom and bust story sadly common in the restaurant business.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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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

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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!

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True confessions

Through the years a number of writers have described deceptive practices and foul scenes in restaurant kitchens where they have worked. Probably the best known authors are George Orwell (Down and Out in London and Paris, 1933) and Anthony Bourdain (Kitchen Confidential, 2000).

In those books, and in periodicals, I’ve read many reports of bad restaurant food, along with dishes misrepresented on menus. But I’m still a bit stunned after reading Restaurant Reality: A Manager’s Guide by Michael M. Lefever (1989). One of the biggest surprises is that he reveals his own willing involvement in kitchen tricks and horrors inflicted on guests — even in restaurants he and his wife owned and operated.

The book has a puzzling disclaimer on the copyright page: “This book is a composite of the author’s own experiences. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is purely coincidental.” But, whether absolutely factual or not, and despite being aimed at college students interested in restaurant management, the book seems to sanction questionable activities.

In his preface to Restaurant Reality the author makes several statements that seem to undermine the disclaimer somewhat. He says that he tried to present “an authentic overview” that was “a real eye-opener for anyone who has ever eaten in a restaurant.” He adds that while the content may be shocking, “that’s how things really are.”

Starting at age 14, Lefever had at least a 23-year career in a number of restaurant roles, including dishwasher, server, cook, and bartender for an Italian restaurant, followed by unit manager and district manager for a fast-food chain, and regional manager for a dinner-house chain. Plus, in between the chains, he and his wife were owner-operators of three independent restaurants. Following his restaurant career, he held academic positions both as Associate Dean of the Conrad Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston and as head of the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Travel Administration at UMass Amherst.

Although no names of individuals, places, or restaurants are given in the book, I have discovered that the third restaurant the Lefevers owned briefly was The Balcony in Folsom, CA. According to a 1983 story in the town’s paper, their two previous restaurants were in Bend OR and Salt Lake City, probably in that order.

How things really were

At age 16 Lefever became head cook at an Italian restaurant. It was before microwave ovens were common so hot water was used for parboiling and defrosting items such as lobster tails. The same water might be used for multiple items, such as pasta, chicken, and fish, as well as frozen steaks before they went on the broiler. He remarks, “This may be of some interest to readers who are strict vegetarians.”

No matter what the customer ordered at the Italian restaurant, all steaks were delivered to guests rare and cooked further only if they complained. If the customer insisted on a well-done steak the kitchen took revenge by putting it in a deep-fat fryer, followed by treatment with a blowtorch which caused it to burst into flames. Just before it burned to a crisp they would throw it on the floor and smother it in salt, then shake off the salt, put it on a platter and brush it lavishly with butter. He claims – and maybe it was true – that customers loved these steaks and some started asking for theirs charred.

As a fast-food unit manager, he oversaw (or witnessed? or heard about?) some truly disgusting practices. For instance, afternoon employees hired mainly to clean toilets and dispose of trash often did some off-hour cooking as well — but they weren’t always terribly sanitary. If no fresh lettuce was available, he writes, “the afternoon employee might fish out of the garbage can some discarded outer leaves.” They were oversized with tough spines, so the worker would “simply place his palm on the assembled sandwich and smash it downward.” When condiments squished out, he would “take a dirty cleaning rag” and wipe off the bun.

Since Lefever’s monthly bonus was based on keeping costs down, he recycled sandwiches that had officially expired as often as he could, even though this subverted the chain’s system. Eventually they began to look inedible. Then the workers would replace limp lettuce, spray the dry bun with water, and make other repairs. If that didn’t work they would disassemble the sandwiches and salvage the valuable parts for remakes during the off-hours, and so much the better if the customers were nighttime drive-thrus who had spent their evenings in a bar.

At the Lefevers’ own restaurant, The Balcony, servers were instructed to tell customers that all dishes — Veal Piccata, Beef Wellington, and so on — were prepared on site though they actually came from a supplier of frozen entrees. The cooks were highschool students who defrosted them in a microwave while doing their homework.

He declares that customers who found eggshells in their omelets should have been grateful since this meant the restaurant used fresh eggs rather than processed omelet mixes. But it could also mean that they came from the bottom of containers they used to store hundreds of cracked eggs in water. And, he reveals, “The bottom also collected the heavier eggs, which result when hens are sick, given a strange diet, or frightened.” Customers requesting decaffeinated coffee didn’t necessarily get it, since servers randomly grabbed the handiest pot, switching the red or green plastic bands that indicated type of coffee.

In discussing food spilled on the floor, he writes, “I have served . . . entrees spilled and then salvaged such as lasagne, beef stew, chili, pasta, and scrambled eggs. Steaks and chops are no problem at all. Simply put them back on the grill or in the pan to freshen them, after washing them under the faucet.” But he advises cooks to inspect the entree “looking for hairs and foreign pieces of food that do not complement the dish.”

Lately I’ve found myself eager to eat at home.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Catering to airlines

After the early years of serving cold box lunches, U.S. airlines tried to improve their in-flight food service, sometimes through alliances with restaurants and restaurant chefs. As early as the 1930s, the decade in which transcontinental flights began, hot meals were becoming common. In 1939 George Rector, formerly of the swank and swinging Rector’s of pre-prohibition Broadway in New York City, advised Braniff Airways on their menus. He gave his blessing for a Thanksgiving menu that year that included roast turkey with oyster sauce and chestnut dressing, pickled watermelon rind, and other select dishes.

It’s fair to ask why airlines switched from cold box lunches, given how difficult and expensive it was to provide full-scale hot meals. A large part of the answer is that in the beginning they wanted to distinguish themselves in comparison with train travel. Over time, though, planes would become bigger and faster, offering cheaper fares and attracting many more passengers. Through all of this, meals would go from an attraction to a target for cost reduction.

It’s hard to know exactly what Rector’s role entailed. It may have been devising menus and training chefs rather than getting his hands dirty. Decades later that was probably equally true of another well-known chef, Wolfgang Puck of Spago in Los Angeles. In 1983 he advised luxury Regent Air Corp. on suitably impressive meals for its flights between LA and Newark. After being delivered to the airport via Regent’s limousine, passengers were treated to Beluga caviar, smoked salmon, and lobster fresh from Maine, washed down with fine wines. Within three years the airline had racked up $36 million in debt and was sold.

United Airlines was one of the few airlines that maintained their own flight kitchens. Starting in 1947 they were headed by Swiss chefs. Trained in European kitchens, they came to United with experience in major hotels and restaurants in the capital cities of Europe and America. Nonetheless United’s menus, whether in English or Franglais, were less than thrilling, especially when the various courses were all grouped together on a tray as depicted on this late 1960s postcard. Even though I’ve seen many United menus, I remain stumped about the ingredients in the “salad” that look remarkably like asparagus spears reposing on a bed of orange gelatin (though, to be fair, I’ve never seen gelatin on a United menu).

There were no Swiss chefs at the D.C. area’s Hot Shoppes drive-ins in 1937 when that company began to supply Eastern and Capital airlines with in-flight meals. Eventually the Hot Shoppes would become the Marriott Corp., a major airline caterer that became one of the largest, as did another that evolved from a restaurant chain, Dobbs House.

Meals in the 1950s may have been somewhat ho-hum (despite the fact that almost all flights were still first class only), but alcoholic beverages brightened the trip for some passengers. Despite the failed efforts of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who introduced legislation in 1957 to outlaw the sale of alcohol on airplanes citing both safety and moral issues, nine domestic airlines began serving it in the 1950s, and the number grew from there. [Above, Delta, 1959]

Two free drinks became an attraction offered by a number of airlines as they ramped up their meals. Competition in cuisine became intense among the major carriers in the 1960s, in some cases involving the participation of fine, or at least famous, restaurants. This was perhaps inspired by Pan Am who recruited Maxim’s to supply meals for flights departing from Paris. Soon airlines in the U.S. began to conjure intriguing flight names such as Famous Restaurant Flights, Captain’s Table, and Royal Dining Service. American Airlines enlisted “21″ to supply flights leaving NYC, while Eastern – once catered by the Y.M.C.A. – signed up the elite Voisin for first-class flights from New York and the Pump Room for those from Chicago. Eastern discarded its humdrum serving pieces [at top of page] of old for Rosenthal china and stylish silverware [shown below]. As a commentator said in 1967, “ Practically every airline worthy of the name also calls itself a flying five-star restaurant.” [above, Voisin chefs preparing food for Eastern Airlines, 1965]

The peak of competition in food probably occurred in the early 1970s, when airlines offered champagne breakfasts, a variety of hors d’oeuvres, lobster plus steak dinners, and prime rib sliced on a rolling cart for each guest — ditto for displays of salad tossing. Passengers could request special meals designed to suit taste, health, or cultural/religious requirements.

Through all of this, though, there were always complaints about food. Almost everyone agreed that warmed-up meals could never match good home cooking or fine restaurant fare. And, of course, there were those who preferred to make their own arrangements and have the cost of meals subtracted from the cost of their ticket.

They got their wish in 1978 with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. Airlines were freed to compete in terms of fares and routes. New airlines were created. Some old ones grew mightier while others, such as Braniff and Eastern, disappeared in the 1980s recession. “Frills” were eliminated. Snack packs came into being, making the sandwich and apple of the 1930s seem almost generous. In the 1990s United began offering McDonald’s meals for children.

While hot meals did not completely disappear, they tended to be limited to first class passengers whose proportionate numbers had shrunk drastically since the 1950s. Today, meals by foreign carriers get the highest ratings.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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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.

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Celebrity restaurants: Here’s Johnny’s

Restaurant chains whose owners and franchisees hope to succeed based on a connection with a celebrity are often disappointed. It’s clear that a famous name is not enough, leading to the failure of many that have depended too heavily on this while ignoring other elements of what makes for restaurant success.

Here’s Johnny’s, with Johnny Carson as its namesake, is a vivid example of the inability of a name to build a chain’s fortunes. The same was true of many other chains, such as those affiliated with Pat Boone, Minnie Pearl, James Brown, and Mahalia Jackson.

The fact that the would-be national restaurant chain Here’s Johnny’s barely got off the ground had nothing to do with Johnny Carson. The bad timing for fast-food start-ups then, 1969, had something to do with it. But so did the initial concept – gourmet hamburgers – and the poor implementation and direction of the chain’s development.

Rather than Johnny Carson, it was the Swanson brothers, grandsons and wealthy heirs of the frozen food empire that introduced Swanson TV dinners, who were responsible for the chain.

Johnny Carson, a popular host of the Tonight Show, was already a television fixture when he agreed to lend his name and engage in publicity for Here’s Johnny’s. He accepted the position of nominal chairman of the board of the parent company, Johnny’s American Inn, Inc. His duties were to appear at five or more restaurant openings a year. In exchange he was to receive $37,500 a year and what amounted to about 15% of stock in the parent company.

Carson insisted publicly that he was more than a figurehead: “I’m going to be active in it. . . . I’m not going into one of those get rich quick things that you just lend your name to and strike gold.” But, of course, the business was under the direction of the Swansons, primarily the elder brother Gilbert Jr. Carson was right, though, in saying it wasn’t a “get rich quick thing.”

The Swansons had been overly optimistic about how many franchisees they could sell. Even before the prototype opened in Omaha in 1969, they announced that they were hoping to sell 375 franchises in the next 18 months, including four or five in Omaha. An advertisement for franchises that appeared in Esquire magazine less than a year after the grand opening claimed “more than 300 have been sold.” However many may have been sold, few actually made it into operation. When the parent company declared bankruptcy in 1974, only 13 were in business.

The original concept was of restaurants with booths, each furnished with a telephone for placing orders (a setup shared by the King’s Food Host chain, based in Lincoln NE). The menu was fairly limited, with hamburgers, fried chicken, steak, fish sandwiches, and hot dogs. However, in October of 1971, a little more than two years after opening, the two Omaha restaurants, described in the Esquire ad as having a “luxurious atmosphere,” were redesigned and the entire concept was changed to that of a family-style restaurant. The telephones that enabled each booth to call in their order were scrapped. Reportedly they had never worked properly.

All franchising was to halt until the new program was in place, but the changes were made only in the two company-owned Here’s Johnny’s in Omaha. The company acknowledged that it would be unable to carry out the makeovers for the franchised units. Needless to say the revamp did not save the chain, though it did improve business at the initial Omaha restaurant. [pictured: advertisement, 1972, for the only two Omaha locations ever opened]

The final blow for the Swanson brothers was a lawsuit brought by the Louisiana franchiser, who charged numerous problems with the chain, such as shoddy kitchen equipment, inadequate training, and little help with financing and site selection. The franchiser was awarded damages. Altogether, the brothers ended up having lost millions.

In 1976 the last Here’s Johnny’s, the first to be opened, closed its operation on S. 72nd Street in Omaha.

At the same time that Here’s Johnny’s was launched, the Swansons also opened the first of what was to be a chain of 100 Time Out fast food eateries meant to serve as financial boosters for the Black community. The brothers partnered with two Black sports figures, Bob Gibson and Bob Boozer, and other backers. The North Omaha location, opened in 1969, was the only one ever built. It failed in 1972 and was then taken over by new owners. It is still in business today, in the original building.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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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.

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Famous in its day: Le Pavillon

Alternative headings for this post could be Former Busboy Becomes Famous Restaurateur, Best Mid-Century French Restaurant in the U.S., or The Restaurant that Set the Standard for Fine Dining.

In other words, everyone who has known or researched Le Pavillon agrees that it produced this country’s finest French cuisine for most of its 22 years under Henri Soulé. It’s also significant that throughout that time numerous employees of the restaurant left to found some of New York’s other top French restaurants.

Not that the city was devoid of fine French restaurants when Le Pavillon arrived on the scene. French restaurants were well established and plentiful, both as independents and in hotels. Among those competing for the most discriminating and well-heeled diners were Voisin, Café Chambord, and La Belle Meunière. But they were soon outdone.

Because its story has been written about so often and so well, it is challenging to approach Le Pavillon as a topic. For a thorough history that gives a good appreciation of its cuisine, I recommend Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman.

Le Pavillon opened in New York City in 1941, after a spectacular two-year run at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Located near the top of the Fair’s French Pavilion, it had a dramatic spot overlooking the Lagoon of Nations where a light and fireworks show took place each night at 9 p.m. Despite being the Fair’s most expensive eating place, it was wildly popular and booked for weeks in advance. Because the Fair was difficult to get to by car, New Yorkers had to want to go there badly enough to take public transportation. Yet many returned again and again to dine at the Restaurant Français.

The French Pavilion’s restaurant was provisioned with food and wines brought from France and was staffed by French cooks, maitre d’s, and waiters. It was backed by the French Line and a number of prominent Paris restaurants owned by the Drouant family. Jean Drouant ran the show, hiring Soulé [pictured here], a maitre d’ at one of his Paris restaurants, to manage the dining room.

During the Fair’s tenure, Germany advanced on France, occupying Paris. When the Fair ended, Soulé decided to stay in New York. It has been said that he did not want to return to France under enemy occupation, but it’s likely he was also swayed by the stunning success of the Restaurant Français.

Since many of the restaurant’s French waiters had decided to return to France, Soulé had to hire a good number of French waiters already living in New York. He would soon become known for disputes with his staff, some resulting in resignations of chefs and temporary closure of the restaurant. His authoritarian attitudes may have been shaped by his history with Drouant, who occupied a powerful position in the French restaurant industry. He was president of the Syndicate of French Restaurants as well as the General Owners Union and was not sympathetic to waiters’ rights. He had fully supported military force used to stop a 1938 workers’ strike in response to elimination of the 40-hour week in France. He was critical of French waiters working in America, describing them as “contaminated.”

Soulé’s negative attitudes also included dislike of smoking at the table, women drinking, and the widespread American habit of eating quickly rather than slowly savoring the meal. Perhaps because of his general air of disapproval, regular patrons sought signs of his favor, which he gave sparingly. His was a notable ability to confer status on people who were as hungry for that as they were for Chateaubriand with sauce Béarnaise. One of his ways of winning the loyalty of valued patrons was to offer them special dishes not on the menu. [Note that his dislike of smoking in his restaurant did not keep him from appearing in a Luckies’ advertisement in 1954.]

In a 1962 review of a book about Le Pavillon, a clever journalist summed up how to become approved by Soulé. She wrote: “When you go to Le Pavillon you should be famous, if you can manage it, if not, you should at least be rich, elegant, chic and witty. Beautiful, if a woman, dintingué, if a man. If you can’t manage that, then maintain a balance between hauteur and quiet rapture and for heaven’s sake be careful of your manners and careless of your money.”

Yes, the restaurant was exceedingly expensive, beginning at the Fair. According to Craig Claiborne, in 1960 it was possible to spend as little as $6 there for a meal without drinks, equivalent to about $52 today. But with drinks it could cost ten times that. However, in the era of expense accounts, it was standard that a power lunch would be written off as a business expense.

1960 was the year that a dispute between chef Pierre Franey and Soulé over working hours resulted in Franey’s resignation, followed by that of seven of the kitchen staff and leading to a temporary closure of the restaurant. It was not the first time the restaurant closed in response to a dispute. [1955 notice above]

Soulé died in 1966, at age 62. I find it interesting that he willed his watch to frequent patron and “dear friend” J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, whose favorite dishes included Filet of Beef Periogourdine accompanied by a bottle of vintage Romanée Conti.

After Soulé’s death, attempts were made to keep Le Pavillon going but it closed for good in 1971.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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An early French restaurant chain

Sometimes you need to leave your own country in order to get some perspective on it. Along with going back in time, that is what I’ve done. I’ve gone to France — though only through texts and pictures — to explore a restaurant chain begun in the 19th century known as Bouillon Duval.

I tend to think of the United States as the home of restaurant chains, and that they are quintessentially American. There is some truth to this, but it is also full of blind spots as the existence of the Duvals shows. They came before American chains, and showed that a highly rationalized, business-like approach to running restaurants is not solely American. [pictured, rue Poissonniere, 1882]

Looking at Bouillon Duval, which began as a soup restaurant, also dispels a bit of romanticism about French restaurants. As much as Duvals emphasized quality, they were eating places for the frugal masses, not temples of haute cuisine. In the beginning they were meant for poor workmen, but soon they became popular with the middle class. To put it in the language of the day, the “black coats drove out the blouses” who were embarrassed to be in the presence of the better dressed.

The Bouillons were the idea of Baptiste Adolphe Duval. He had a butcher shop in Paris and came from a family that ran a brasserie in the north of France. According to legend, around 1857 he opened a small soup restaurant near his shop using the unsalable meat scraps, and went on from there to become fabulously successful and wealthy. By 1867 he had eight Bouillons Duval in the city as well as at least one at that year’s world’s fair.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, and he might have failed if it hadn’t been for his wife’s assistance. According to the most thorough account of the chain’s development, the business was headed for failure as soon as it expanded beyond the small shop. With an enlarged menu and a lot of ideas, M. Duval had moved to a location in a former ballroom on the rue Montesquieu [shown at top of page in 1882, when it had reinstated male waiters]. There he installed a steam-heat system of cooking, along with elaborate piping that served every table with seltzer water. Both innovations were disastrous failures that cost a fortune to tear out. Add to this the lack of an accounting system that made it hard to calculate sales and permitted chiseling on the part of employees and the business was soon drowning in debt.

His wife Ernestine helped set up an accounting system and suggested replacing the questionable male servers with married women of irreproachable character who she dressed in uniforms resembling nuns’ habits [pictured, 1902]. The business began to show a profit and soon expansion was underway. Not surprisingly, when M. Duval died in 1870 shareholders chose Ernestine to take over the corporation and expand it further.

The Duval company had incorporated in 1868, by then consisting not only of eating places but also its own butcher shops, slaughter houses, bakery [pictured, 1882], large laundry, and caves that stored wine.

The company achieved heroic status in 1870 when it somehow managed to stay open during the “Siege of Paris” when German forces surrounding the city cut off food supplies. Their continuing in operation was significant not only for providing meals but also in boosting morale. In 1900 the French government awarded the Duvals’ son Alexandre, then manager, with the medal of the Legion of Honor. By then the company ran 32 restaurants.

The Duval system was based on keeping prices low while serving a large volume of customers quickly and efficiently. It was thoroughly a la carte right down to an extra charge for a tablecloth if wanted. During the Siege a London man recorded what he ordered at one of the 14 Duvals. He and his companion ordered bread for 1 cent, potato soup for 2 cents, as well as roast mutton, puréed potatoes, green beans in white sauce, and a pint of Mâcon wine. The total bill – with tablecloth – came to 18 cents. [Above, a menu that was to be filled out by the customer, ca. 1882; See The American Menu blog for several Duval menus.]

Needless to say, the fact that wine and other alcoholic beverages appeared on menus set the Bouillons Duval apart from most early chains that later developed in the U.S., such as Childs.

Numerous Americans as well as English citizens frequented the Bouillons when visiting Paris [above, diners at the 1878 Paris International Exposition; the objects with handles on the tables are menus], and expressed a wish to have something like them in their own countries. In addition to serving quality food and decent wine at low prices they were known to be spotlessly clean, quite unlike most of the cheap fixed-price cafes that working people had frequented before the Bouillons came along. The major criticism against them was that portions were small. Some critics said that if a hungry diner ordered all they wanted they would find that their bill was as expensive as in a finer restaurant. Other guests complained about the crowds and the “deafening din of knives and forks clinking against plates and dishes.”

Nonetheless the Bouillons Duval were invariably recommended in guide books for visitors to the international fairs held in Paris in 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. In 1878 the Duval restaurants were said to have served 5M meals that year. Pictured above is one of several Duval locations at the 1889 Exposition.

At some point a Bouillon Duval was opened in London, and in the 1880s there was one advertised in Los Angeles that offered “hot soup and schooner lager beer, five cents.” I couldn’t determine whether it was connected to the Paris restaurants or not.

The last mention of the Paris Bouillons Duval I found was in 1924, when the chain was still said to be all over the city.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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