Category Archives: restaurant customs

Take your Valentine to dinner

Dinner in a romantic restaurant is a popular way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But that would have been far from true in the nineteenth century when going to what was known as a romantic restaurant meant something entirely different. Something disreputable.

It took decades before a romantic restaurant dinner became part of an evening primarily meant to please the woman rather than the man.

As late as the 1920s young single women had to guard their reputations closely when they went out in public, especially in restaurants in the evening. Emily Post advised in 1923 that “It is not good form for an engaged couple to dine together in a restaurant, but it is all right for them to lunch, or have afternoon tea . . . They should take a chaperon if they motor to road-houses for meals.”

Things loosened up not long after Emily’s edict, and celebrations in romantic restaurants increased in the 1960s. Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s that the typical Valentine’s Day restaurant experience we know today with its wine, candlelight, and soft music became popular. [see London House, Fort Worth TX, 1971] In the late 1970s and 1980s February ads for candlelit dinners “for lovers only” appeared frequently.

But earlier, when many married women were primarily homemakers, it was enough just to get a night off from cooking, even if the destination restaurant was nothing more than a cafeteria or a drive-in. How odd now to see a 1930s advertisement saying, Take Your Valentine to Dinner at Mrs. Adkins’, a cafeteria where “we never embarrass your pocketbook!” What? no service, no splurging, no Champagne, no tableside theatrics?

Even that pedestrian cafeteria meal was a celebration of sorts then. Being taken out for a Valentine’s dinner was still fairly unusual in the 1940s and 1950s. For many women, the day meant more cooking, not less. Newspaper food columns of the 1950s and even the 1960s gave the impression that mothers were expected to show love for their families by making special dinners for them.

But by the late 20th century, newspapers had changed their focus from family dinners at home to romantic couples-only dinners in restaurants. Even readers living in a city less blessed with romantic restaurants could find a hotel that filled the need. A writer in the Huntsville Times admitted that “the selection of truly romantic restaurants . . . is limited in Huntsville,” but at least there was a Radisson, or a Marriott offering a Sweetheart Dinner for Two consisting of Chateaubriand, Champagne, and Strawberries Romanoff.

In 1979 a Cleveland journalist convinced his wife to travel with him all over the U.S. to verify the romantic value of ten of the country’s restaurants as recommended in an airline magazine. Several failed the test, but they were delighted with Maxim’s de Paris in Chicago, with its “beautiful wall sconces and tiny, rose-colored table lamps, all imported from Paris, and gold service plates that were originally designed for Sarah Bernhardt.” They ate Rack of Lamb that “looked like a picture from a gourmet magazine.”

Guess what kind of food was deemed most romantic – at least by those newspaper food writers who assembled lists of best places to celebrate the day? It certainly wasn’t beef stew or mixed vegetables. Better to be served something sauced, stuffed, or puffed. Many restaurants, in fact, stuck to the old standbys, steak and prime rib, but they didn’t score as high on the romance scale as did those purveying food with French names. Ah, bisque, terrine of lobster, pommes duchesse, tournedos de beef, and Grand Marnier soufflé!

Champagne and long-stemmed roses aside, could it be that the ladies especially enjoyed that their dinners had been fretted and fussed over by male chefs?

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under atmosphere, food, restaurant customs, women

Square meals

It’s likely that the term square meal originated in the restaurant culture of the California Gold Rush.

Most of the single men that were drawn to California then were temporary dwellers dependent on restaurants and hotels for their meals, so it is not surprising that “square meal” would first be applied to meals served in restaurants.

One of the earliest uses of the phrase I’ve found was in an advertisement for the What Cheer House in Marysville CA in 1858. The What Cheer said it offered three square meals a day for a moderate charge.

The term evidently was not known in the East. Most of the news about life in California was delivered by newspaper correspondents who wrote long stories about their experiences. One of those was J. Ross Browne, a frequent contributor to Harper’s magazine, who wrote in 1863 about a small shanty eatery called “The Howling Wilderness Saloon” that offered “a good square meal” for fifty cents. Browne explained that a square meal “is not, as may be supposed, a meal placed upon the table in the form of a solid cubic block; but a substantial repast of pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles of sustenance that will serve to fill up the corners of a miner’s stomach.” [Above advertisement, California, 1861]

Other writers also felt it was necessary to explain to faraway readers what square meal meant. In the mid-1860s the term was often included in lists of colorful and unfamiliar Western slang such as shebang, grub, and muk-a-muk, plus sayings such as You bet, or Bet your bottom dollar.

By the end of the Civil War, the term had begun to spread across the country. A Union soldier from Wisconsin referred in summer of 1865 to enjoying his first square meal since joining the regiment. The reporter asked what he meant by that and he answered, “Four cups of coffee, all the ham I can eat, with bread, butter, pies, cakes, pickles and cheese . . .”

A few years later a restaurant in Memphis TN celebrated the opening of a new eating saloon where “A ‘square meal’ is served up smoking hot for fifty cents.”

What is most revealing about the slang term – suggesting what the mainstream American idea of a good meal was – is what did NOT qualify as a square meal.

For many diners, a meal in a Chinese restaurant did not qualify. Samuel Bowles, publisher of the esteemed Springfield (MA) Republican, who wrote of his travels to the West in 1865, explained that a square meal was “the common term for a first rate one.” He described a Chinese dinner he attended in San Francisco where the “the universal odor and flavor soon destroyed all appetite.” He was rescued from the situation by the chief of police who took him to an American restaurant where he enjoyed mutton chops, squab, fried potatoes, and a bottle of champagne.

Another New England paper ratified Bowles’ disdain for a Chinese dinner, stating, “An American generally has to go and get a ‘square meal’ after thus dining.” A possible reason for the rejection of Chinese food may lie in an editorial in 1872 in the New York Evening Post that referred to a political campaign amounting to a “dish of hotch-potch, instead of a square meal of honest viands.” In other words, people wanted chunks of meat [i.e., viands], not bits of food mixed together.

It was also clear that a square meal was not the same thing as a lunch. Back in 1858 the What Cheer House advised that in addition to three squares a day, regular diners there might also get “a lunch between meals, if they can keep on the right side of the Cook.” A lunch was regarded then almost as a snack. Boston’s Lindall “Dining & Lunch Rooms” had three departments, one “for the ‘regular square meals,’ one an oyster counter, and one “devoted to hot lunches of smaller orders of almost every dish.”

Guests from abroad were not always pleased with the squareness of American meals. The Londoner Walter Scott wrote in Our American Cousins (1883) about struggling with square meals in hotels where typically an enormous number of dishes of food were served, not in courses but all at once. As a waiter told another visitor, “What people want here is a good square meal; they are not particular about what they eat, if only they have a lot of things placed in front of them.” This style of service reportedly led to huge amounts of dumped food floating in the NY harbor.

In the 20th century some people began to mourn the loss of the good old pre-modern square meal – which was increasingly seen as the opposite of “fancy food.” A street reporter in Chicago in 1924 asked a woman whether she preferred home cooking to what was served in a “high class” restaurant and she answered that she preferred a good square meal with “fewer fancy frills.”

I think her answer would still resonate today, and I’d guess that many would say a diner was the best place to get a square meal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Tea rooms for students

College and high school students of the 20th century led many eating-out trends and customs. Not only did they help make certain foods popular, they also influenced meal habits and adopted frequent restaurant-going as part of their social lives.

Drive-ins, coffee houses, and vegetarian restaurants were some of the types of eating places heavily shaped by student patrons in the middle and later decades of the last century. But a bit earlier, in the early 20th century, the eating places of choice for many college students were tea rooms that attracted women students. Not than men students didn’t also like tea rooms. An example was The Cactus Tea Room, built in 1917 with weird carvings of university types adorning its eaves, and serving both male and female students at the University of Texas in Austin.

Although tea rooms were more likely to be found near residential colleges, high school students also enjoyed them for after-school stops. In the 1920s students at Decatur High School in Decatur GA hung out at the Elite Tea Room, while Haverling High School students in Bath NY gravitated to the Chat-A-Wile Tea Room.

Rather than being stuffy and proper, many tea rooms that catered to students were relaxed and informal. They carried on college traditions such as midnight “spreads,” at which foods pilfered from the school’s dining halls were remade into chafing dish repasts. The feasts were occasions for casual attire, sprawling on the floor, and high spirits at the thought of evading detection while breaking college rules. [shown here is an Oberlin College dorm room spread, 1905]

Tea rooms also carried on the tradition of college dining clubs, which involved groups of friends joining together to hire a local woman to prepare their meals. The clubs adopted humorous names such as Vassar College’s Nine Nimble Nibblers, Grubbers, and Gobbling Goops of the late 19th century.

For example, a popular spot for students from Smith College was the Copper Kettle, which played a role much like the coffee shops of today. Students hung out there, read, chatted, and snacked on popcorn, ice cream, and tea. Its decor was cosy, shabby-chic style with mismatched furniture, wicker lounge chairs, posters, and window seats. Smith students were also enamored of the Rose Tree Inn, where full meals were served in a Bohemian atmosphere created by the intriguing Madame Anna de Naucaze.

Some colleges were almost surrounded by tea rooms. That was true in Western Massachusetts where both Smith College and Mount Holyoke College are located. Northampton, home of Smith College, was described in 1922 as having “more tea-houses than churches.” Not so far away, Mount Holyoke College was also well supplied with tea rooms, among them The Croysdale Inn, The Mary-Elin Tea Shop, and The Art Nook. I find it interesting that the Mary-Elin advertised in 1921 that it would stay open until 10 p.m., which was quite late for a tea room.

Parents did not always approve of their free-wheeling daughters’ behavior. In 1912, a mother wrote a critical article titled “One Disintegrant of Our Home Life,” about the typical college girl who socialized constantly, ignored rules of proper dress, and loved going to “the Green Coffee Pot or the Carnation Tea Urn.” “I tell my husband that college doesn’t breed home-building girls,” she wrote.

Among the most notable changes that tea rooms brought was simply that of providing a welcoming and friendly place for unescorted women to gather. This, of course, encouraged women and girls to spend more time eating away from home.

As for food, apart from popularizing eating cake and ice cream at any time of day or night, tea room food was a departure from typical lunch rooms and restaurants of the early 20th century that served fairly heavy meals based around meat. Although meat was certainly served in tea rooms, patrons also had many other choices. A 1920s menu from The Quinby Inn (shown above) — popular with students at Goucher College near Baltimore — offers Tenderloin Steak and Roast Pork, but also many other choices, with quite a few of them revealing the popularity of sweet food. Among them are 12 desserts, 22 salads, many of which involved mixed fruits and whipped cream, and 22 sandwiches, including Olive & Egg and Sliced Pineapple (no, not together!).

The list of specials clipped onto a 1920s menu from The Mary-Elin Tea Shop near Mount Holyoke College also shows its patrons’ fondness for sweets [thanks to Donna Albino for scans of the menu from her Mount Holyoke College collection].

A number of college women opened tea rooms of their own either as a summer project or after graduation. But that will be another post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, menus, patrons, restaurant customs, restaurant fads, tea shops, women

Picturing restaurant food

Restaurants have long tempted the public with displays of food, but in the 20th century it became possible to replace actual food with images of desirable dishes on colored postcards and illustrated menus.

Color photochrome postcards became standard after WWII, yet it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that menus illustrated with full-color photographic images of food came into common usage.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, before photochrome postcards came into widespread production, linen-finish postcards were the norm. Their cartoonish coloring often lacked realism. For example, the grayish shrimp topping stuffed flounder at Manuel’s in Galveston TX look distressingly like worms.

Even as quality photography and printing became more available in the 1950s, restaurants weren’t always successful in portraying food attractively. Professional food stylists had yet to arrive on the scene to solve problems such as poor plating, monochromatic food combinations, and runny gravies.

Regarding poor plating, a large portion is all very fine but should an order of meat or fried fish be bigger than the plate?

Gargantuan food itself can be questionable, not only to consume but also to look at. How attractive are french fries almost as big as baked potatoes? Is a two-pound burger eight times better looking than a quarter pounder?

On menus, photos of food play multiple roles, providing information about “exotic” dishes, invoking desire, and steering choices. In the case of restaurants whose dishes – or drinks in the case of Polynesian theme restaurants — might be unfamiliar to some patrons, pictures serve as visual description.

As far back as the 1930s, some restaurants used illustrated menus but with images that appeared to be hand drawn and colored and almost comical compared to the realistic photographs that dominated chain restaurant menus by the 1980s. Full-color, laminated menus are most often found in 24-hour coffee-shop restaurants and present all the meals and dishes that are available; breakfast, lunch, and dinner often have no clear demarcation.

Laminated menus cost more to produce than others yet are relatively long-lasting because they can be wiped off — though, as often noted, rarely are. Their lifespan is about 3 to 6 months, after which prices and dishes need updating.

Unlike Indian, Chinese, or Mexican restaurants (especially in the years when they were new to many diners), dishes found on illustrated menus of chain restaurants – such as bacon and eggs, pancakes, or burgers — are not the least bit unfamiliar. Quite the opposite.

Which seems to raise the question of why such ordinary food needs to be illustrated at all.

Not too surprisingly the main role of photos is to encourage customers to order the restaurant’s more profitable dishes. It’s always possible to order a single pancake or fried egg, but it is certain that what will be pictured is instead a stack of three pancakes or two eggs with sausage or bacon.

Featured dishes are positioned to follow the paths typically taken by customers’ eyes. Prized locations include the menu’s center and top right. Another tactic, one that turns the whole menu into an eye-catching circus, is to place featured dishes inside brightly colored boxes.

As for dishes that don’t get top billing, a Denny’s advertising director observed that a hopelessly slow seller like a grilled cheese sandwich would be line-listed, no photograph. On a 1970 Tops Big Boy menu [shown here], beef and shrimp achieved center feature status but ham and fish dinners failed to make the cut, languishing in a line-list.

I am still left wondering why many dishes on illustrated menus look so unattractive, especially considering that the menus are often produced after extensive research and consultation with experts. On a three-panel 1985 Friendly’s menu a “100% Sirloin Steak Burger” looms over the center column at a scale larger than other features such as a Clamboat Platter and a Seafood Salad Plate, yet it utterly fails to project charisma.

Contrary to wished-for results, many diners view laminated, illustrated menus as a signal that a restaurant’s offerings are going to be bland and uninteresting. An Orlando FL restaurant reviewer complained in 1988 that many restaurants there used laminated menus: “It seems that no matter what type of restaurant I go to, or how much is charged for the average meal, the menu is plastic coated. It reminds me of the people who buy really nice furniture and then cover it in plastic.”

Really? Nice?

Illustrated menus have become so strongly associated with mediocre food that it is a huge mistake for an establishment aiming for the fine-dining category to use such a menu, even temporarily. But, believe it or not, such a restaurant existed in Phoenix AZ in 1983, with expensive entrees pictured in shiny plastic while the wine list was calligraphied and covered in velvet.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, menus, restaurant customs

Catering

The catering business is closely related to restaurants, though many caterers work from a rented or home-based kitchen. Frequently caterers have been – and are — cooks or waiters; many later enter the restaurant business as proprietors. Then as now catering provides an important financial supplement to restaurants.

In the 18th and 19th centuries many coffee houses, taverns, eating houses, refectories, etc., not only catered to groups in their own banquet rooms or off-site, but also delivered food to homes and workplaces. Monsieur Lenzi, recently arrived in New York from London advertised in 1773 that he could provide jams, preserved fruits, pâtés, and “sugar plumbs” and could handle balls and masquerades as he had done in “most of the principal cities of Europe.” The early Delmonico café of the 1830s supplied meals to residents of a small hotel located next door on Broad street in New York.

Confectioners, who often ran eating places too, were especially likely to be in the catering business because, unlike many restaurant proprietors, they were skilled in turning out elegant cakes and ice cream. For most of the 19th century ice cream could only be obtained from a confectioner.

African-Americans were quite prominent in the catering business until the latter part of the 19th century. They could be found in Boston, Salem, New York, Washington, Baltimore, Charleston, and other cities along the East Coast, but especially in Philadelphia. Quite a few earned prestige catering to elite white patrons, often being referred to as “princes.” They were often rumored to have become quite wealthy.

According to W. E. B. DuBois in The Philadephia Negro (1899), “the triumvirate [Henry] Jones, [Thomas] Dorsey and [Henry] Minton ruled the fashionable world from 1845-1875.” Dorsey had been a slave, as had the celebrated caterer Joshua B. Smith, who was Boston’s top man in the field. At the opening of Smith’s new restaurant in 1867, the entire city government was present and former mayor Josiah Quincy gave a speech.

But despite the prominence and success of Black caterers, the fact that they served clients in high society, and the praise heaped upon them for their astute management and taste, they were still regarded as second-class citizens banned from public transportation in Philadelphia as well as theaters and cemeteries there and elsewhere.

According to the 1870 U.S. federal census, there were then about 154 caterers (undoubtedly an undercount), 129 of whom were born in the U.S. The majority of those born in this country whose race was identified were Black (56) or Mulatto (29). But by the end of the 19th century, Black caterers had become less numerous, with much catering having been taken over by the big hotels that by then were dominant in the field, particularly for large banquets.

Only two caterers identified in the 1870 census were women, both white. I feel certain, however, that many more women were caterers in the 19th century. Catering was common among women tea room proprietors of the early 20th century whose clients included civic organizations, women’s clubs, and wedding parties. Harriet Moody was a very successful caterer in Chicago of the 1890s, with a remarkable career that included opening a notable restaurant, Le Petit Gourmet, decades later when she was at an advanced age.

In addition to food, caterers usually supplied linens, china, and silver, as well as decorations, even when the dinner was held in a client’s home. In his book Catering for Private Parties, Jessup Whitehead explained that caterers obtained most of their linens and table ware at auctions, being careful not to acquire monogrammed pieces. A prized item was a large epergne which made a grand appearance on a table. Trenton NJ caterer Edmund Hill spent a good deal of time traveling to other cities to keep up with the latest trends in his field. He recorded in his diary on September 26, 1883: “Went to Wilmington, Del. to see about a Vienna Bread baker. Did not get him. Stopped in Phila on way home. Bought a silver epergne $20.00.”

Hotel catering, with its backstage mishaps, staffs of curious characters, and endless haggling over costs and contracts was described with humor by Ludwig Bemelmans who worked as a busboy at the fictitiously named New York “Hotel Splendide” before World War I. In the book Life Class (1938) he described how a group of well-bred but penniless blue bloods bargained for reduced rates based on their status and decrepitude, while accepting a simple supper menu of nothing but consommé and scrambled eggs.

After World War II catering continued on as before, distributed among hotels, restaurants, and independent caterers, the main change being the incorporation of frozen convenience canapes and better equipped kitchens to simplify and speed up the work. Some restaurants, and especially deli restaurants, such as Wolfie’s in St. Pete FL, offered party platters. By then large hotel banquets tended to lose their appeal for many people who had experienced too much Chicken a la King. Thanks to glittering parties thrown by Hollywood stars, it become clear that status accrued to the host or hostess who hired a famed restaurant’s celebrity chef to present novelties that piqued guests’ interest.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under food, patrons, proprietors & careers, restaurant customs

Dining in a garden

Pleasure gardens of the 18th and early 19th centuries, sometimes called tea or mead gardens, typically opened on May 1 and offered relief from summer heat. Garden dining could be as simple as a tent in the back yard of an eating place or as elaborate as a larger garden with walkways, fruit trees, and arbors. A Philadelphia tea garden of 1798 furnished “tables, benches, boxes, bowers, etc.” The “etc.” might have included colored lights, or even small rustic cabins.

Garden guests ranged from families and young couples to “gentlemen farming parties.” In many of the gardens, menus were limited to delicacies such as ice cream, confectionery, lemonade, iced drinks, teas and coffees, and of course wines and liquors.

But others served more substantial food that fell under the heading “relishes.” Today relishes are condiments but then the word referred to a wide range of hot or cold edibles, including steaks and chops, oysters, rarebits, poached eggs, omelets, kidneys, sardines, anchovies, sandwiches, savory patties, tripe, pigs’ feet, and soup. Relishes tended to be salty, no doubt to encourage drinking, and were usually “available any time.”

The early 19th-century gardens were meant to attract genteel folks, though I’ve run across a couple of advertisements suggesting it wasn’t so easy to discourage problem guests. The owner of a garden in Wilmington DE advertised in 1803 that he was opening his “elegant Mead and Flower Garden” for those who would “observe the strictest order and decorum” and not “injure his garden or molest his flowers.” Nicholas Pierson, in 1827, was evidently concerned that unaccompanied women (understood to be prostitutes) would want to enter his mead garden.

Unlike other drinking places, gardens were acceptable for women (if escorted). According to one report, mead — a sweet concoction of fermented honey and spices — was one of their favorite drinks. Mead gardens were more popular before the temperance movement took hold in the 1830s.

Tea and mead gardens were fading when German beer gardens appeared on the scene in the 1850s and 1860s, usually consisting of rows of tables in an open air setting amidst groves of trees, but not really a garden — and not usually providing food.

Dining in a garden once again became popular in the early 1900s, only now, in addition to outdoor gardens such as New York’s Terrace Garden and others on the roofs of tall buildings, there were many indoors, making them available year round. Natural touches included pendulous boughs draped from ceiling lattices, burbling fountains, potted palm fronds that threatened to tickle guests’ necks, and sometimes blue-painted ceilings twinkling with tiny stars.

Department stores adopted garden motifs as did tea rooms where one could dine in an actual garden or, in rural New England, on the front lawn of the proprietor’s home. Tea rooms that chose a garden theme for indoors leaned heavily toward a Japanese style invoked rather simply with flower-strewn trellises and a bit of wicker or paper lanterns, as did Schrafft’s in Syracuse NY and the tea room at the Vantine store in NYC [above photo, 1906]. Actual Asian restaurants, on the other hand, were likely to include the word garden in their name, but that did not necessarily imply they had an actual garden.

Undoubtedly, one of the most flamboyant indoor garden restaurants was Clifton’s “Pacific Seas” Cafeteria in Los Angeles [pictured]. Indoor palm trees are always impressive, as are neon flowers, multiple waterfalls (12), and volcanic rock. Clifton’s was but one of the many restaurants with indoor gardens that proved eye-catching yet less than totally convincing in terms of their relation to nature. [below, Stouffer’s Top of the Mart, Atlanta]

Today a restaurant garden, while in many cases still a popular place to eat in nice weather, is as likely to be a place where vegetables or herbs are grown and harvested.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under atmosphere, decor, department stores, food, outdoor restaurants, restaurant customs, tea shops

Learning to eat (in restaurants)

Eating in restaurants is so common today that it is hard to imagine that it in the past many people found it confusing and embarrassing, especially in more formal restaurants.

They had trouble figuring out menus, felt nervous and self-conscious, worried about their manners, and generally didn’t know how to act.

One solution was to avoid public eating places. That way no one would witness your poor manners, no haughty waiter would sneer at you, other patrons would not stare and examine your clothes as you walked in.

Restaurants were primarily men’s turf in the 19th century. Until the 1890s when affluent women began entertaining their friends at restaurant luncheons, restaurants were often seen as undesirable locations for women. High society was very private. Dinner parties were held in the home, outside public view. In a culture that was completely the opposite of today’s celebrity whirlpool, being seen in public was demeaning, especially for women. Additionally, many women of the 19th century disliked eating in a room with strangers.

Even men and women who enjoyed restaurants found ordering from a menu entirely in French difficult. When menus were in English, they were still daunting to unworldly Americans who had never experienced many of the dishes served. Books and articles offered advice but many diners gave up the struggle and instead let the waiter select their meal.

An observer commented in 1899 that “it is a severe trial for many women, and some men, to enter a hotel dining room and particularly hard if it must be done without a companion. Some that march in with boldest front and utmost nonchalance are but actors, trembling within while brave to outward seeming.” Actors aside, other people unfamiliar with restaurants could be identified by their behavior. Some rushed in, going straight to a table without being escorted there by the head waiter. Others might give themselves away by accidentally ordering a ridiculous set of dishes such as fruit and pickles or by being overly chummy with the waiter. According to an 1890 account, going to a high class New York restaurant solo led waiters to conclude that the patron “is a countryman or unused to restaurant life.”

For the poor or the newly arrived immigrant, a restaurant could be a terrifying challenge. Two period novels illustrate this beautifully. In A Daughter of the Tenements (1895), the son of a tenement janitor goes to a restaurant for the first time:

Tom had never, for an instance, had a table napkin in his hand; had never seen more than one knife and fork placed beside a plate; had actually never been served at table by any person other than one who was eating with him; had never seen wine drunk at meals.

In The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the main character experiences his first visit to a “high-class restaurant”:

The immense restaurant, with its rows and rows of table-cloths, the crowd of well-dressed customers, the glint and rattle of knives and forks, the subdued tones of the orchestra, and the imposing black-and-white figures of the waiters struck terror into my . . . heart. The bill of fare was, of course, Chinese to me, though I made a pretense of reading it. The words swam before me. . . . The worst part of it all was that I had not the least idea what I was to say or do. The occasion seemed to call for a sort of table manners which were beyond the resources . . . of a poor novice like myself.

African-Americans rarely experienced embarrassment in restaurants for the simple reason that they were not welcome in most of them before the 1960s Civil Rights era. Even those who attained success in the restaurant business reported an unfamiliarity with restaurants in their early lives. Sylvia Woods, founder of Sylvia’s in New York City, disclosed that when she moved to New York from South Carolina at age 28 she had never been in a restaurant. Renowned chef and cookbook author Leah Chase, of Dooky Chase in New Orleans, said she had never set foot in a restaurant until she got a job waiting on tables. “Black people didn’t go to restaurants,” she said. “That’s the way it was.”

By the 1920s it was considered acceptable for young (white) women to go to a restaurant on a date. But this could be hazardous, as “C. S.” confessed to a Boston newspaper in 1927. “Having never eaten in a restaurant before,” she wrote, “imagine my surprise when I picked up the square of butter from the butter dish, thinking it was cheese! That was my first and last date with him.”

In 1970 an etiquette expert reported that she frequently encountered young middle-class women who had never eaten in a restaurant other than a hamburger stand and said they were unsure how to order or to use silverware.

Has discomfort with restaurants disappeared? While writing this post I’ve started to wonder if my opening sentence is wrong. Maybe achieving a feeling of assurance in restaurants is actually an ongoing project.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under elite restaurants, menus, patrons, racism, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette, women