Category Archives: restaurant controversies

America’s finest restaurant, revisited

In the 19th century and well into the 20th there was absolutely no doubt that Delmonico’s was the nation’s finest restaurant, for decades the only one with a worldwide reputation. It was one of the few places in this country that European visitors compared favorably with the glittering restaurants of Paris’s “super mall” of the 19th century, the Palais Royal. [above: cafe section of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street Delmonico’s]

Founded by two Italian-Swiss immigrants in 1823 as a small confectionery shop in New York City, it soon grew into a “restaurant Français” occupying various New York City locations over its nearly 100-year run under family ownership. The Delmonico restaurants of the 1830s and subsequent decades were favored by foreign visitors, but soon Americans came to appreciate them too as their fame spread. As a form of homage — sometimes tongue-in-cheek — restaurants high and low, all over the USA, christened themselves Delmonico’s.

During much of the 19th century, most of America’s restaurants were located in hotels; up to the Civil War most operated on the American plan. This meant that everyone sat at large tables with others not necessarily of their choosing while bowls and platters of whatever was being served that day were set on the table to be shared – or not — by the diners. The Delmonicos introduced the European plan which allowed guests to have their own table and order just what they wanted, prepared the way they wanted.

An 1838 menu revealed that fine preparation was only part of Delmonico’s appeal. It also offered a profusion of dishes including 12 soups, 32 hors d’oeuvres, 28 entrées of beef, 46 of veal, 22 of game, 48 of fish, plus 51 vegetable or egg choices, and 45 pastries, cakes, and other desserts. (That 11-page menu is replicated in Lately Thomas’s classic book Delmonico’s, A Century of Splendor.) [Beaver street location shown above]

The number of dishes offered at Delmonico’s is overwhelming proof that the abbreviated reproduction menu that is commonly displayed and offered for sale online is a fake.

The original Delmonico brothers’ mission was what one observer writing in The Nation in 1881 characterized as establishing “a little oasis of civilization in the vast gastronomic waste which America at the time of their arrival presented.” For many Americans, the enjoyment of food bordered on sinfulness. Not only was it viewed as a monetary extravagance, claimed the essay, but there was a feeling among reform-minded people “that all time devoted to the table must be subtracted from that dedicated to spiritual improvement.”

So lauded was Delmonico’s that it’s necessary to point out that it had its critics who disliked the extravagant balls and banquets it hosted. In 1865, a year in which the newly Civil-War-rich were pouring into Delmonico’s, Morton Peto, a British railway and real estate developer, held a banquet for 100 guests. The cost was an astounding $250 a head. For comparison, as much as sixteen years later, the restaurant paid its waiters $30 a month. Another banquet that drew public disapproval was the dinner for James G. Blaine, a Presidential candidate in 1884. His backers, wealthy men who stood to gain from his election, were mocked in a front page cartoon in The World, which named the event after a Babylonian prince who tried to engineer his ascension to the throne. [above: front page of The World, 1884]

For a long time the Delmonico’s menu was entirely in French, without translation, a problem for English-only guests. If a guest ordered badly he (only men were given this task) imagined he could hear his waiter snickering. As a New York Times reporter put it in 1859, “we are made nervous by the sneerful smirk of the waiter, if we order the wrong wine in the wrong place . . .” And he might end up with a dinner of pickles and brandied peaches as happened to one hapless patron. The solution was to throw yourself on the mercy of the waiter and ask for his recommendations. [above: Fifth Avenue and 14th Street]

It’s interesting to note that Charles Delmonico, who ran the family empire following the death of Lorenzo, was said to be fond of the Italian restaurant Café Moretti. There he ordered risotto, a favorite dish that his restaurant’s French cooks did not know how to prepare. [above: Delmonico’s, Fifth Avenue and 26th Street]

Over time Delmonico’s moved from their initial “society” restaurant on the corner of Beaver, William, and South William streets [shown above, third from top] to three successive Fifth Avenue locations. Like all wise businesses, they were following in the path of their wealthy patrons. In 1862 they moved into an elegant mansion at Fifth Ave and 14th Street and in 1876 jumped up to 26th. In 1897 they settled in their final Fifth Avenue location at 44th Street, facing off with arch-rival Sherry’s. [above: Fifth Avenue and 44th Street]

Through the years the Delmonicos always kept at least one other location farther downtown for businessmen and politicians. The restaurant at 22 Broad Street served Stock Exchange brokers and speculators. It was said that for them “not to go to Delmonico’s for one’s lunch or tipple was to lose caste on ‘the Street.’”

In 1897 Delmonico’s yielded to music and smoking in its hallowed halls, a sign many regarded as evidence of a downhill slide. By then the 44th Street Delmonico’s was the last one doing business. It closed in 1923, a victim of weak management, increasingly informal dining customs, and Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

Delmonico’s was one of my early posts, and I realized I hadn’t given the subject its full due. This is an enhanced version.

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Street food: tamales

As a recently excavated site in Pompeii has demonstrated so beautifully, street food is ancient. Both sold on the street and usually consumed on the street, it is food that is inexpensive, easy to handle, and aligned with popular tastes.

For many years tamales occupied a prominent role as street food in the U.S., starting in the 1880s in parts of the country where many Mexican-Americans lived such as California and Texas. [above photo, Sacramento CA, 1937]

While Mexicans remained prominent in the tamale trade, both producing and selling them, people with a range of ethnic backgrounds joined in. Sellers might also be U.S. born or recent immigrants of Irish, German, even Danish ancestry. A NY Tribune story described a NYC tamale vendor with red hair and a brogue. Italian immigrants seem to have been particularly prominent among street sellers. And, a story in Overland Monthly reported that in the copper region of Idaho in the early 20th century “the Syrian quarter . . . is the seat of the hot tamale industry.”

Chicken was the favorite tamale filling, though critics often wondered if that was what they were eating. The filling was surrounded by a corn mush mixture that was rolled in a corn husk and steamed. Most tamales were sold in cities and towns where finding a supply of corn husks could be a problem. But by the early 1900s, a market in husks had developed, with some farmers finding them quite profitable.

The corn husk specialty grew as companies got into the canned tamale business, beginning around in the early 1900s. Some, such as the X. L. N. T. Company of Los Angeles, delivered tamales to homes [above, 1908]. A publication of the California State Federation of Labor claimed that by 1916 canned tamales had become so popular that the leading packing company was selling 4,000,000 cans of its I. X .L. brand annually. In Mexico, tamales were wrapped in the white inner husks; the packing industry, by contrast, bleached the green husks. Still, bleaching was better than unsanitary tamale production such as that uncovered in Ohio in 1900 where the corn husks were obtained from old mattresses. As might be expected the canned tamale business cut into street trade.

Certainly there were people who regarded tamales sold on the street as unsanitary, acceptable only to drunken men (no doubt revealing a bias against immigrants). Sellers were criticized for disrupting the peace at night as they called out their wares. Cities and towns tried to regulate them out of existence, sometimes succeeding. It was not an easy business overall. Selling tamales on the street was a rough job, conducted mainly after dark. Vendors risked frequent encounters with attackers and robbers, and it was not unusual for them to be seriously injured or killed.

During their peak popularity extending from the 1890s up to WWII, tamales spread across the U.S., but they were always most common in the West. Originally sold out of kettles in which they were kept warm by a separate hot water basin at the bottom, they soon migrated to lunch wagons and stands. [above, Brownsville TX, 1938] Unlike chop suey, spaghetti, chili, frankfurters, and hamburgers, they did not quite win full American “citizenship,” and were not often found on restaurant menus outside of the West and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest and South.

Tamales figured on menus a bit differently than they would today when a restaurant serving them is almost certainly run by someone of Mexican descent or is a corporate Mexican-themed chain. In either case, the menu is dominated by what are regarded as Mexican dishes. It wasn’t always this way. Although proprietors with ties to Mexico have always been prominent, the owners of many earlier tamale grottoes, parlors, shops, and stands were, like the street peddlers, a diverse lot. I have found proprietors named Mohamed, Truzzolino, and Stubendorff. Menus could also be diverse and include lobster tails, oysters, or banana cream pie. A Klamath Falls OR tamale parlor combined Mexican dishes with those of Italy and China [advertisement pictured above, 1921]. Tamales turned up in unexpected places, such as the California Pig ‘n’ Whistle confectionery chain and, in 1909, the Marshall Field department store tea room in Chicago.

The custom of selling tamales from kettles, carts, and stands might have largely died out sooner if it hadn’t been for the 1930s Depression, when many people were desperate for even a trickle of income. The 1937 Roadman’s Guide, a little booklet full of ideas for money-making schemes that could be launched out of the home, gave a detailed recipe for making tamales.

Not that tamales have entirely disappeared today. They can be found as part of family holiday celebrations, at Western tamale festivals, and for sale by street vendors here and there.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Name trouble: Aunt Jemima’s

Of all the Black representations found in American white-owned restaurants, the mammy figure has been by far the most common. Many women in the restaurant business of the past have been known as Mama or Mother, but Mammy was reserved for Black women.

The mammy figure, usually grinning broadly in its corporate version, was meant to be a symbol of hospitality universally appreciated by white Americans. Early restaurants using Mammy as part of their name and/or as a visual trademark started appearing in the 1920s in Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania, and Florida, among other states, with the word Mammy often paired with Shanty, Shack, or Log Cabin. The name and trademark continued in use through the 1970s.

In 1955, probably the best known of all the mammy restaurants opened in Disneyland as Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House, using the sponsorship and trademark of the Quaker Oats Company. The other eating places in Frontierland – among them Pepsi-Cola Golden Horseshoe, Swift’s Chicken Plantation, and Casa de Fritos – also reflected name-brands.

In 1960 Quaker Oats began to franchise Aunt Jemima’s Kitchens, a name variant that signaled wider menu offerings. The first opened in the Chicago suburb of Skokie IL. In 1963 there were 21 in operation in the U.S., plus one each in England and Canada. Among the states, New York led with seven Aunt Jemima’s in the first few years. Pancake restaurants, largely inspired by the high profit potential of pancakes, were the latest food trend in chain eateries at that time, with an estimated 150 around the country. One Aunt Jemima’s franchisee, Pancake Kitchens, Inc., had optimistic plans to open 36 units in the Eastern U.S. I doubt that they were all built, or that the total number of Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Houses and Kitchens across the country ever topped 100.

Protests against Aunt Jemima’s restaurants began in 1962. But there had been objections to the Aunt Jemima image on pancake mix boxes much earlier. Black newspapers ran an editorial in 1937 saying that Aunt Jemima was an “insulting caricature,” in particular criticizing the bandanna she wore over her hair, saying, “The fight against ‘Aunt Jemima’s’ bandanna is one of self-respect.” (Quaker did not get rid of Aunt Jemima’s bandanna until 1968.) Yet, apparently not all Black people were offended by the Aunt Jemima portrayal. In 1952 the Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore hired a marketing company to research the use of Aunt Jemima pancake mix by their Black readers. The company surveyed 501 Black families and 501 white families whose house values or rents were similar. Both groups chose Aunt Jemima pancake mix as their favorite, but it was preferred by a higher proportion of Black respondents (38.1%) than white (31.7%).

It would be interesting to know whether the results would have been the same if the survey had been carried out in the 1960s. The NAACP led the protests, joined by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The biggest victory seems to have been in an affluent suburb of Rochester NY, Brighton, where an Aunt Jemima’s restaurant was proposed in 1963. The two organizations criticized Aunt Jemima for her degrading costume, calling her “a negative stereotype of a Negro subservient to a white family.” The restaurant was not built but once again opinion was not unanimous in Rochester’s Black community. The editor of a city paper, The Frederick Douglass Voice, contended that “These symbols are part and parcel of our heritage.”

The Rochester protest was widely ridiculed in opinion pieces in the white press that characterized protestors as humorless and oversensitive. Writing in Chapel Hill NC’s Daily Tar Heel, author Armistead Maupin called it “comical” and “absurd,” arguing that the mammy was not a negative stereotype but a historical figure to be proud of.

Still, the tide was turning. In 1966 members of the American Federation of Teachers voted at their annual convention at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel to picket the hotel’s Aunt Jemima restaurant unless it agreed to allow its workers to unionize and get rid of the mammy costume worn by the Black hostess. The delegates then resolved to urge Quaker Oats to drop the Aunt Jemima symbol on its products or face a possible boycott. According to an article in Jet magazine, the restaurant’s hostess expressed unhappiness that her heritage was attacked and that she could no longer wear the Aunt Jemima costume, which she had designed. Obviously the AFT was unsuccessful in asking Quaker to get rid of the Aunt Jemima trademark, which did not happen until this year.

In 1968 and 1969 a number of Aunt Jemima restaurants closed. The restaurant in Grand Rapids MI became Colonial Kitchen, while one in Mount Prospect IL was renamed Village Inn Pancake House. Many across the country became part of the Calico Kitchens chain. In 1970 Disneyland ended its contract with Quaker Oats and renamed its Aunt Jemima restaurant Magnolia Tree Terrace, changing that in 1971 to River Belle Terrace.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Women drinking in restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Women chefs not wanted

Unless, maybe, they wear swimsuits to work?

Until the later 20th century when women began to break the stronghold of the male chef, it was said women simply could not handle the job of running a restaurant kitchen. What follows are the reasons given by people associated with restaurants of the 20th century.

Most of the opinions recorded here were expressed by men, but a few were by women (sigh).

1906 – Women lack accuracy using flavorings and condiments – Women do not have the right temperament, they lose their heads. – Women could not stand the strain of hard work. – They are not managers. – They do not practice economy. – They lack patience and delicacy. – They are not as orderly as men in the kitchen. – They cannot rise to the occasion in a crisis. – They cannot organize the work of a kitchen.

1908 – The work of a chef is unsuited to her physique.

1912 – Women are not particular enough to make a perfect dish.

1913 – They would become rattled and go to pieces if they had to handle the responsibilities of chef. – They go off on a tangent when things are not as they should be.

1931 – The duties are too strenuous for them. – They could not handle an elaborate menu. – They cut meat the wrong way. – They don’t make gravies and sauces properly.

1932 – Their taste is inferior to men’s.

1942 – The great chefs have always been men . . . [so there must be a good reason why] – There are scarcely any women gourmets.

1952 – Women can only do about 15% or 20% of the jobs in a restaurant kitchen as well as men.

1957 – Women can’t handle work in a restaurant kitchen either physically or mentally. – They lack discipline. – They make changes based on their own likes and dislikes.

1965 – Men have more of an inner potential for good cooking then women. – If cooking for a very large number of people a woman would probably break down crying and run away.

1968 – Heat in restaurant kitchens makes women nervous.

1975 – Women lack the instinct for great cooking.

1981 – Men seem to have more derring-do in the kitchen.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Soul food restaurants

Before the 1960s, the term “soul food” wasn’t used in reference to food. Until then the words had religious connotations for Protestants.

What became known as edible soul food, such as chitterlings, pigs’ feet, greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and cobbler (to name just a few), had been popular in the South long before the words soul food were applied. But the diet gained a charged meaning in the 1960s when proponents of Black Power affirmed eating soul food as a political statement.

By any name, soul food was not often found in restaurants outside the South until African-Americans began migrating northward before, during, and after World Wars I and II. Walker’s Café in Wichita KS advertised chitterlings and catfish in 1910. That same year the Gopher Grill in St. Paul MN claimed to be “headquarters for chitterlings and corn bread.” Similar menus were often found at dinners at Black churches and homes. Women belonging to the Social and Literary society of a Baptist church in St. Paul MN dressed in Colonial costumes and hosted a chicken and chitterlings dinner in 1916 to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, an event where the identity politics were quite different than what would develop in the Black Power movement.

There were also numerous restaurants owned and patronized by Blacks in the North that did not serve soul food, or at least didn’t specialize in it. It’s difficult to find menus from restaurants of the migration periods, but when their advertisements mentioned specialties, they were often similar to dishes in white restaurants. A Chester PA restaurant specialized in oysters in 1910. In Black’s Blue Book for 1923-1924 — which listed Chicago’s prominent African-American citizens, along with recommended businesses — there were only four restaurants that advertised what kinds of dishes they served. Those dishes were Barbecued Chicken, Duck, and Squab; Chicken Salad; Club Sandwiches; Sea Foods; and Chili Con Carne (at two restaurants).

The spectrum of eating places found in New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s Black Belt, and Black urban neighborhoods across the North ranged from down-home, all-night eateries serving factory shift workers to elegant tea rooms lodged in old mansions that hosted patrons with more money and leisure. In Chicago, leaders of the N.A.A.C.P., the Urban League, and visiting foreign dignitaries were inevitably entertained with dinners at top Black tea rooms such as The Ideal, the Bird Cage [pictured, 2018], and the University tea rooms. In Spring 1923, the University Tea Room (“The Most Beautiful Spot in Chicago”) advertised the following menu:

65c – Special Table de Hote Dinner – 65c
Cream of Tomato Soup
Roast Chicken with Dressing
Spring Lamb with Peas
Snowflake Potatoes
June Peas in Cases
Salad
Head Lettuce and Tomatoes
French Dressing
Dessert
Apple Pie with Cheese
Rice Pudding
Coffee
Strawberry Shortcake, 25c
Ice Cream, 10c

Strangely enough, the 1966-1967 version of the Green Book failed to list some prominent Black restaurants with barbecue such as Arthur Bryant and Gates in Kansas City, and soul food places such as Soul Queen and H & H in Chicago. For New York City, it broke restaurant listings into the categories Steaks, American Specialties, Seafood, and Chinese – but not Soul Food.

While some Northern Blacks slowly accepted soul food, others were more resistant. This seemed to hold especially true for those higher in social status. Some of Chicago’s Bronzeville residents who held themselves superior to migrants expressed criticism of newcomers’ food customs, such as eating chitterlings. A journalist writing in the New York Amsterdam News in 1931 claimed that Harlemites rejected the “Fried Chicken, Pork Chop, Hog Maw and Chitterlings Theories” that assumed all Blacks liked rural Southern food. He also disavowed any special attraction to watermelon.

In 1945 another reporter from the Amsterdam News set out to find chitterlings in Harlem restaurants. He found only one restaurant serving them (Rosalie’s and Frances’ Clam House and Restaurant). He reported that Harlemites were just as likely to eat Chock Full O’ Nuts’ nutted cream sandwiches, Chicken Fricassee, Weiner Schnitzel, or Oysters Casino. At the same time, he observed that whites visiting Harlem enjoyed spare ribs with red beans, concluding, “there are no fundamental points of difference between eating habits of Harlemites and those of the lighter-skinned folk downtown.”

Most soul food histories note that some prominent Black leaders have rejected soul food, pointing to Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. In his book Soul Food, Adrian Miller observed that Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice (1968), “The emphasis on Soul Food is counter-revolutionary black bourgeois ideology.” Instead, wrote Cleaver, “The people in the ghetto want steaks. Beef Steaks.” Elijah Muhammad denounced soul food as a legacy of slavery that should be decisively rejected.

Miller laments the decline of restaurants that serve soul food, marked by the closure of landmarks such as Army and Lou’s and Soul Queen in Chicago. “Across the country, legendary soul food restaurants are disappearing at an alarming pace,” he writes, attributing it to health concerns and reduced business prospects due to the scattering of African-American communities and the popularity of fast food.

With a few exceptions, I don’t think the views of critics such as Cleaver are seen as valid now. And there seems to be a renaissance of interest in soul food among Black chefs and restaurateurs who celebrate it as part of a heritage of resilience and creativity under slavery. Somewhat surprisingly, even vegan soul food restaurants can be found now.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Sawdust on the floor

Reformers of the 1910s would not have believed anyone who predicted that sawdust floors would make a comeback later in the century. But come back they did.

In the early 20th century, sawdust floors were seen as a vestige of disappearing filthy low-class eating places. Earlier they had been found in a great variety of places – English chop houses, French bistros, German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants, and saloons of every kind. In New York sawdust dealers of the 1880s made daily rounds selling 25-cent barrels to restaurants, saloons, and butcher shops (where sawdust collected blood).

But things were starting to change in the early 1900s as chains of sanitary lunch rooms with scrubbed white tile floors and walls became popular. In 1911, the Edison Monthly – a magazine devoted to promoting the use of bright lighting – confidently declared, “The old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor, is a thing of the past.”

City health departments warned that cheap lunch rooms of the old sort rarely replaced sawdust, often covering one dirty layer with another and rarely cleaning the wood flooring below.

Concern with sanitation caused many municipalities to adopt ordinances forbidding the use of sawdust on floors anyplace food was produced or sold. San Antonio’s 1914 ordinance was typical, stating, “No person owning or managing any such business shall permit the use of sawdust, shavings, or other dust-creating or filth-collecting covering on the floor of any such room.”

Nonetheless sawdust had a strange appeal at the same time it was denounced as brimming with bacteria and vermin. Visitors to San Francisco were drawn to places such as Sanguinetti’s where they could earn cultural credits back home for inhaling its wild and crazy bohemian atmosphere. As a 1906 article put it, “No tourist could feel that he had really taken in all the sights of the city until he had sat at one of its tables and eaten of the very indifferent fare served there, and dropped his cigar ashes on the sawdust covered floor.”

And that was another thing about sawdust floors – they tended to catch on fire when cigar and cigarette butts were dropped on them.

Through the decades sawdust floors acquired strong associations with beef and beer – and male patrons. These associations formed a reservoir of meaning that theme restaurants of the future were destined to draw upon.

Steak houses were especially attracted to the winning beef-beer-men combination. The first inklings of sawdust’s return came with the legalization of beer in 1933. The Palm steak house in Manhattan, a man’s restaurant frequented by newspapermen, was one to use it. Steak houses were so strongly associated with men that it was newsworthy in 1947 when a woman restaurateur departed from their standard rough-edged ambiance which she characterized as “A smoke-filled room, too-bright lights and sawdust on the floor.” In order to please women customers, she instead chose oak paneling, sound-proofed ceilings, soft lighting, and window boxes with green plants.

Unsurprisingly, she did not start a trend. By the 1960s, if not earlier, the bad old days had been transformed into cheery “bygone days” when life was truer and simpler. Americans of the era hungered for amusement with their meat. “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ . . . all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out,” observed industry consultant George Wenzel, who also recommended sawdust floors.

Restaurants with sawdust floors proliferated, many adopting other nostalgic (might we say hackneyed?) decor features such as red-checkered tablecloths, gas lights, pseudo-Tiffany lamps, pot-bellied stoves, and elaborate dark wood bars. O’Henry’s in NYC used a “fun” butcher shop theme, with real carcass hooks hanging from the ceiling and butcher blocks for tables. In Phoenix AZ the notion of a “hole in the wall” was redeemed from the ash pit of history by a 1970s resort where everything in sight was designed to appeal to men. At the resort’s café named The Hole in the Wall there was sawdust on the floor, tintypes on the wall, fires in the fireplaces, beer in the mugs, and beef and buffalo steaks, rattlesnake meat, “cowboy beans,” and corn on the cob on the manly menu.

Along with steak houses, versatile sawdust floors turned up at Gay Nineties restaurants, English pubs, Wild West eateries, barbecue joints, even Mexican restaurants.

It’s hard to figure just how many states and municipalities issued ordinances prohibiting sawdust floors. In 1976 the federal Food and Drug Administration banned sawdust in restaurants, yet the ban was not universally followed. Sawdust floors were permitted in San Francisco, but not in Washington, D.C., for instance. Some restaurant owners strenuously resisted health departments that advocated for a ban. In Arizona, the battle over sawdust became intense when state and county health departments cracked down on several dozen restaurants in Phoenix. The restaurants countered that they replaced sawdust daily and had never experienced problems with patrons becoming ill.

Today? I believe that restaurants are not allowed to use sawdust on the floors in the U.S. today – but I am not 100% sure about this. It seems that patrons who still long for that kind of atmosphere must content themselves with throwing peanut shells on the floor.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under atmosphere, decor, lunch rooms, restaurant controversies, sanitation

Check your hat

The topic of hat checking in restaurants, nightclubs, and hotels, a popular subject in early 20th-century journalism, is so full of lore that it’s hard to know what to believe. Here’s what seems to be the story as best I can determine.

Hat checking in restaurants started as an independent money-making enterprise around 1900, beginning in New York City and gradually spreading westward. Before that, men took their hats into dining rooms, placing them under their chairs. (In cheap restaurants they kept them on while eating.)

It was considered perfectly fine for women to wear their hats at the table.

But hat checking for men wasn’t really new. It was common at fancy-dress balls in the 1800s. Many regarded it as a scam. An organization or group would throw a ball in a large venue such as Madison Square Garden. Tickets were advertised at the high price of $5. However, hardly anyone bought a ticket, getting them free instead from saloon keepers. When guests arrived at the ball they were required to check their hats, for which they were charged $2, the true price of admission. Those in the know referred to these balls as “hat check affairs.”

Around 1900 restaurants began granting concessions to entrepreneurs who offered to pay them substantial sums to run a hat checking service. At first many were staffed with immigrant boys who were rudely persistent in demanding that male guests surrender their hats before entering the dining area. Gradually, the boys were replaced with attractive young women who used honey rather than vinegar to induce men to give up their hats. Upon exiting the restaurant patrons were expected to leave a tip of at least 10 cents, up to 25 cents by the 1930s.

Concession owners paid thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of running a hat check service and, often, of supplying washroom attendants as well. In nightclubs they provided women to sell cigarettes and flowers. In the early years the amounts paid for these concessions allegedly figured as important contributors to nightclub profits.

All the tips collected by hat checkers went to concession owners, while the attendants received a low hourly wage. Newspaper stories revealing this set-up were perennials from 1910 into the 1950s, suggesting that there were always plenty of people for whom it was news that hat check “girls” didn’t keep the tips.

The menial job of hat checker was infused with glamour by gossip columnists and a number of Hollywood movies [top photo: Hat Check Girl, 1932]. This no doubt helped attract fresh recruits – including aspiring actresses who hoped to be “discovered” — in what was a high turnover, dead-end occupation. Want ads sought “attractive girls with pleasing personalities.” Meeting daily tip quotas through appearance and demeanor was a key to survival in what today is recognized as a “pink collar” job, i.e., one supposedly requiring no special abilities but demanding strenuous emotional labor. Acting talent came in handy. Occupants of the job became quite adept in shading the meaning of “Sir!” and “Thank you.”

Among the stresses of the job was the necessity to be gracious with patrons who flirted, pinched, left poor tips, and sometimes grew angry and slung insults. Hearing over and over how men had paid more in tips than their hats were worth became tiresome. So did laughing at jokes. Cartoonist W. E. Hill perfectly captured the facial expression of a woman preparing to respond hilariously to a bad joke.

Some hat checkers went to court to claim tips as theirs, but did they ever win? I doubt it. Many hotels and restaurants avoided the stigma associated with hat checking by running their own services while making it clear that tips were unnecessary. The Exchange Buffet chain advertised in 1914, “No hat-boy to hold you up.” Schraffts’ deposited tips in an employee sick benefit fund. Legislation was offered in some cities and states requiring that hat check stations either post a notice stating that tips went to a concession owner or turn them over to the attendants.

Overall, hat checking thrived best in big-city nightclubs visited mainly by tourists.

One of the rare hat checkers who beat the system was Renee Carroll, who ran her own concession at Sardi’s. The daughter of a New York City rabbi, she changed her name from Rebecca Shapiro and became part of the entertainment world, a Broadway personality known for witty quips. She appeared in movies, published a book about her experiences with celebrity customers, authored a gossip column, and backed theatrical productions.

By the mid-1920s, with many people going to restaurants and nightclubs by car, hat checking declined as hats were left in the car. By the mid-1930s fewer men wore hats, especially the young. Hat checking in restaurants can still be found but no one is forced to use it and the glamourous hat check girl is no longer a figure of popular culture.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under night clubs, patrons, restaurant controversies, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette, women

How Americans learned to tip

Tipping began in the U.S. in the 1840s, probably imported from Europe by Americans who began traveling abroad on the new trans-Atlantic steamships. By the end of the 19th century all the aspects of tipping we know today were widely practiced – and widely criticized..

Before that, people believed, Americans considered themselves social equals no matter what their economic circumstances and wouldn’t demean another person by treating them as an inferior (excepting, of course, slaves, Indians, and indentured servants), nor would any self-respecting person accept a gift of money for a helpful act.

Tipping wasn’t so much linked to restaurants as to hotels, applying to porters and doormen as much as to dining room waiters. There were few restaurants outside hotels then, especially when it came to places patronized by the rich.

Affluent Americans initiated tipping, beginning at summer resorts. The custom was to tip hotel staff upon arrival at a “crack watering hole” such as Saratoga or Newport, guaranteeing good treatment for the stay — and an expectation of more before the guest’s departure.

The word tip was British English and many critics blamed England for the custom, but it wasn’t purely English. It had many names, such as fee, gratuity, honorarium, and the French douceur and pourboire – plus the loaded terms bribe and baksheesh. But, overall, fee was used more often than tip in the 19th century, inspiring a popular quip in the 1870s, “When you have feed the waiter of the summer resort, then he will feed you.”

Tipping had many critics. But who to blame? At first public opinion singled out the rich for unfairly using their wealth to get special favors from waiters, leaving everyone else to suffer neglect – or even abuse. Failure to tip in the dining room could mean pointed rudeness, slow service, small portions, or even having food spilled on you.

Waiters came in for plenty of blame, with criticism often devolving into bigotry. According to an 1873 editorial, Black and Irish waiters comprised “two classes of imported persons in this country whose insolence and absolute indifference to the wants of those whom they are well paid to serve is sufficient to make this country stink in the nostrils of any tourist.” Another opinion piece stated that, if not tipped, insolent “ebony” waiters would “spill soup down the back of [a customer’s] neck, and ‘swipe’ his beefsteak over a dish which has recently held a broiled mackerel.”

Coney Island, where waiters were said to regard tips as “the sole absorbing object of existence,” was also singled out, particularly its fancier eating spots such as at The Oriental Hotel with its turrets and 480 rooms. In the 1880s as many as 3,000 waiters worked at Coney Island, some making as much as $25 a week in tips, about double the weekly wages of male office clerks at that time.

As waiters began to expect to be tipped – or else! – more customers began leaving tips. Some employers refused to permit tipping saying it eroded their control over the standard of service. But, according to critics, a more typical reaction was for restaurant owners to take advantage of the situation by reducing waiters’ pay. An 1883 reader’s letter to a Cleveland paper voiced a quite modern view of waiters’ pay: “Until the hotels pay living prices the waiters must look to well-disposed guests who have the means, to give them extra money, for which they will receive extra attention.”

It was also alleged that some restaurant owners stopped paying waiters any wages at all, sometimes even charging them a fee to work at places where tips were large. This is quite believable considering that some drive-ins of the mid-20th century did the same.

Tipping first became common in the Northeast, New York City especially. In 1883 Charles Delmonico, then head of NY’s Delmonico restaurants, told the NY Tribune that tipping had become so well established throughout the U.S. that it could not be stopped.

But that wasn’t quite true – yet. It was not often found across the country until the end of the century, particularly not in the West where the “spirit of independence” reportedly caused hotel, restaurant, and railroad employees to refuse tips. A Portland OR paper reported in 1886 that tipping had not “obtained any very strong foothold on this coast.”

How much to tip changed over the century. An early consideration was how big the dining group was. Since it was more trouble to serve a table of four than a table of two, the latter was supposed to leave proportionately more. By the end of the century it was based mainly on check size, 10% generally viewed as the right amount.

A writer in 1877 asked plaintively, “How many centuries do you suppose it will require to eradicate the custom of ‘tipping’ waiters?” By now we can answer “definitely more than one, going on two.” Attempts to eradicate tipping failed, including those by waiters’ unions in the 1890s. Instead, some clever individuals experimented with mechanical contraptions that eliminated the need for waiters.

Self-service restaurants offered another alternative. Near the end of the century many people cheered the emergence of waiterless eating places such as Chicago’s cafeteria-style lunch clubs and European automats. These and “quick lunch” eateries would become popular after the turn of the century – and still are.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under patrons, restaurant controversies, restaurant customs, waiters/waitresses/servers

Between courses: secret recipes

Once again, what I thought would be a simple post has required a crash course in the unfamiliar, this time the technicalities of trade secrets, confidentiality agreements, lawsuits, and settlements.

What I have learned is how complex the restaurant industry has become. A restaurateur’s simple claim to have one or more secret recipes, either from a revered family member or an “exotic” cuisine, has given way to extremes of self protection aimed at stemming not only competitive use of signature recipes but also their novel names, plating, and menu descriptions.

Around 1900 a secret recipe was little more than one that the restaurant declined to give out to customers. But now, in extreme cases, restaurants hire what could be called “simulacrum chefs” whose main role is to build the restaurant’s identity and give it celebrity chef chic. Often chefs must sign agreements to abandon their rights to the recipes they develop while in the restaurant’s hire.

This can lead to ugly confrontations down the road. As happened, for instance, in clashes between Chef Laurent Tourondel and Jimmy Haber, owner of the BLT string of restaurants. Haber called the restaurants’ recipes “work product” belonging to the company, that could not be used in the new restaurant Tourondel opened. In the case of “Chef Bee,” a Miami restaurant company, 50 Eggs, claimed that the chef, whose legal name is Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, refused to cook once the restaurant opened, then quit and took recipes and all he had learned during training back to his family-owned restaurant. In the suit, 50 Eggs made it sound as though the chef’s standing as well as “Thai street food” itself were their products.

Fast food chains were among the first to widely advertise their special recipes for “11 herbs and spices” and “secret sauces.” Given that, upscale restaurants today are less likely to advertise their secret recipes. (Besides, all their recipes may be secret.)

In earlier years it seemed that the real value of secret recipes lay in their advertising potency. Some restaurants went so far as to concoct silly stories about spies trying to buy their wonderful chili formula, or, in the case of Eberett’s in Charleston SC, how they obtained their homely-sounding recipe for pot roast from a German spy. In the 1980s, a New Orleans Chinese restaurant claimed its “Singapore Fried Chicken” was based on a secret recipe “from the Orient.”

In the case of fast food, successful competition – to the extent it is based on food at all – depends upon a few products with “unique” tastes that can be produced faithfully over and over. The protection of secret recipes is essential and it seems clear that the recipes do not belong to the low-paid personnel who work on the assembly line.

But fine – or trendy – restaurants, on the other hand, are expected to pioneer or at least keep up with the latest sensations. Yet the chef who develops the recipes often must leave them behind. Citing “the restaurateur’s dilemma,” bloggers Denise M. Mingrone and Roland Chang asked in 2014: “Doesn’t society benefit from allowing chefs . . . to create culinary delights and publish their recipes without fear of legal reprisal?”

It is scarcely surprising that some chefs refuse to accept positions that require them to surrender ownership of recipes they develop, or that they aspire to open their own restaurants where they can be autonomous “chiefs.”

Meanwhile,“Nondisclosure and noncompete agreements in employment contracts have become increasingly popular in the restaurant industry,” noted Sarah Segal in “Keeping It in the Kitchen” in 2016.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, food, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies, restaurant industry