Category Archives: restaurant customs

All the salad you can eat

The salad bar most likely developed from the Americanized version of the smorgasbord which, by the 1950s, had shed its Swedish overtones and turned into an all-you-can-eat buffet. The smorg concept lingered on for a while in the form of salad “tables” holding appetizers and a half dozen or so complete salads typically anchored by three-bean, macaroni, and gelatin. Eventually someone came up with the idea of simply providing components in accordance with the classic three-part American salad which structurally resembles the ice cream sundae: (1) a base, smothered with (2) a generous pouring of sauce, and finished with (3) abundant garnishes. Or, as a restaurant reviewer summarized it in the 1980s, “herbage, lubricant and crunchies.”

Whatever its origins, the salad bar as we know it – with its hallmark cherry tomatoes, bacon bits, and crocks full of raspberry and ranch dressings — became a restaurant fixture in the 1970s. Introduced as a novelty to convey hospitable “horn-of-plenty” abundance and to mollify guests waiting for their meat, it became so commonplace that the real novelty was a restaurant without one. Though strongly associated with steakhouses, particularly inexpensive chains, salad bars infiltrated restaurants of all sorts except, perhaps, for those at the pinnacle of fine dining. Salad bars were positively unstoppable at the Joshua Trees, the Beef ’n Barrels, and the Victoria Stations, some of which cunningly staged their salad fixings on vintage baggage carts, barrels, and the like.

Although industry consultants advised that a salad bar using pre-prepared items could increase sales while eliminating a pantry worker, restaurant managers often found that maintaining a salad setup was actually a full-time task. Tomatoes and garbanzos had a tendency to roll across the floor, dressings splashed onto clear plastic sneeze-guards, and croutons inevitably fell into the olde-tyme soup kettle.

The hygienic sneeze-guard came into use after World War II, first in schools and hospital cafeterias. Although a version of it had made its appearance in commercial restaurants in the early 20th century with the growth of cafeterias, many restaurants served food buffet style into the 1950s and 1960s without using any kind of barrier. The Minneapolis Board of Health required that uncovered smorgasbords either install sneeze-guards or close down in 1952, but it seems that their use did not become commonplace nationwide until the 1970s. Eklund’s Sweden House in Rockford IL thought it was novel enough to specifically mention in an advertisement in 1967. Massachusetts ordered them to be used in restaurants with buffets or salad bars in 1975.

On the whole salad bars went over well with the public – and still do — but by the late 1970s professional restaurant critics were finding it hard to hide their disdain. Judging them mediocre, some blamed customers who were gullible enough to believe they were getting a bargain. Others were wistful, such as the forbearing reviewer in Columbia, Missouri, who confessed, “It would be a nice change to get something besides a tossed make-it-yourself salad, and to have it brought to the table.” The trend at the Missouri college town’s restaurants, however, was in the opposite direction. In the 1980s Faddenhappi’s and Katy Station ramped up competition by offering premium salad makings such as almonds and broccoli while Western Sizzlin’ Steaks pioneered a potato bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Diet plates

Dieting for weight loss began to attract attention in the 1920s, reversing the preference for somewhat chubby bodies that preceded it. Before World War I, the word “diet” could equally well refer to a plan of eating designed for gaining weight. Then — and now — the notion of dieting contained contradictions.

A 1905 newspaper story described the phenomenon of the “jiu jitsu girl,” a modern being who took a rational attitude toward her food, either for the purpose of adding or losing pounds. If she wanted to lose weight she drank a lot of water, did gymnastics, and ate only fish, poultry, fresh vegetables, and fruit.

But the weight-losing version of the jiu jitsu girl must have been a rarity in 1905 because restaurant menus took no notice of her. Most of their offerings were more likely to add pounds. Which must be why, when she went into a restaurant, JJ girl tossed aside the menu as she gave her order.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the so-called Hollywood Diet became the rage, restaurants made a few concessions to dieters by providing the regimen’s staple food, grapefruit. But few if any provided diet menus or special low-calorie dishes.

Whether restaurant patrons tried to cut calories with grapefruit, salads, or zwieback in the 1920s and 1930s, European chefs deplored the trend. Critics said dieting was one of the causes of the downfall of restaurant cuisine in those Prohibition years. Alas, they sighed, art had gone out of restaurant cooking and weight-conscious women were largely to blame.

However, those who took a more businesslike attitude toward restaurants, such as industry publisher J. O. Dahl, recommended that restaurants get with the times. Look through popular magazines, he counseled, and see how very often dieting is discussed. He urged progressive restaurateurs to develop diet menus for their women guests – whose numbers were drastically increasing.

Yet, it wasn’t until the 1950s that dieters received widespread recognition with the arrival of the restaurant diet plate. Shown in all its glory at the top of this page, it was stereotypically a hamburger patty – sometimes referred to as chopped steak – accompanied by cottage cheese topped with canned peach and a limp lettuce leaf on which reposed a wan slice of tomato.

Slight variations happened. Gelatin might accompany or replace canned fruit. Steak houses such as Bonanza and Golden Corral added toast to the plate. Woolworth tucked in saltines (see 1971 Woolworth advertisement below).

To be absolutely fair, some restaurants were a bit more creative in designing diet plates. The National Restaurant Association, recognizing that about 10% of customers were on diets at any given moment in the 1950s, helped develop menus. Perhaps a menu of consommé, celery hearts, 4 oz. minute steak, green beans, and unsugared fruit was one of their suggestions. In 1962 the Town Room in the Sheraton-Dallas relieved diet boredom with “hefty” slimming lunches of Goulash and Shrimp Hawaii.

Putting everything into perspective, even the dispiriting classic diet plate was superior to the liquid diet products that some restaurants put on menus in the early 1960s. For 50 to 75 cents a glass dieters could sip Metrecal (a product of the same company that made Drano and Windex). “Some drugstores find it is giving the hamburger competition,” reported a 1960 story.

By some bizarre logic, places that seemed as though they were havens for non-dieters also offered diet plates. Such as pancake houses and sweets shops. The DoNut Shop in Edwardsville IL had a Weight Watchers Diet Plate and Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in Seattle advertised a Low Calorie Diet Plate. Were these nothing but conscience-soothers for customers prepping for ice cream and doughnut binges?

Although I have no doubt you can still find the occasional classic diet plate on a menu today, the hamburger-cottage cheese-peach lunch fell into deep disfavor in the 1980s. Long regarded as boring, by the mid-1980s they were commonly referred to as “old style,” “so-called,” or “1950s diet plates.” Critics argued that in most cases they were not only insipid, but also contained more calories than other menu items.

But it was not the critics who sunk them as much as it was changes in restaurant culture of the late 20th century. Many restaurants upgraded their menus with fresher and lighter food that (usually) had the virtue of being lower in calories. Restaurants specializing in salads became popular.

A sign of changing times was the Chapman Sisters Calorie Counter on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. With a decor that signified “natural,” the casual restaurant had a brick floor, hanging plants, butcher block tables, and walls painted with large apples. Calories were given for each dish on the menu. Even the highest-calorie item, a Spinach and Mushroom Quiche, topped out at about 200 fewer calories than the classic diet plate, and a Tostada Salad came in at 395.

Another example was the 1980s “Light Balance” menu at Tumbledown Dick’s in Cos Cob CT  where no dish had more than 380 calories, whether it was a Vegetable-Stuffed Pita, Chicken Florentine, or Pasta Primavera. The Light Balance menu gave not only calories but also fat, sugar, and sodium content.

In retrospect, as unappetizing, calorie-rich, and unbalanced as the 1950s diet plate was, the irony is that the average American was slimmer during its time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Higbee’s Silver Grille

higbeessilvergrillemyphoto

Friday the 13th of September, 1935, seemed like an ordinary day at the Higbee department store in Cleveland’s Public Square. Marzipan bon bons were on sale at the store’s first floor candy counter. On the fifth floor women modeled hand-knitted costumes while the ninth-floor employment office interviewed men for part-time furniture and rug sales.

higbeessilvergrillemenufridaysept131935In the Silver Grille on the tenth floor, diners sat down to lunch. Yet, the specials on the 60c luncheon menu that day were a bit dull. The featured dishes didn’t sound especially delicious, but even stranger, there was no listing of the kind of things the Silver Grille usually spotlighted, namely desserts.

Perhaps the unexciting menu had nothing to do with it but it was not, in fact, an ordinary day.

The store’s future hung in the balance. It had just been announced around the country that on September 30 J. P. Morgan would put the Higbee Company on the auction block along with the rest of the railroad and real estate empire of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen brothers. In addition to over 28,000 miles of railroad, the properties to be auctioned were the 52-story Terminal Tower and its associated buildings which included the store as well as the Medical Arts Building, the Midland Bank Building, and the Cleveland Hotel.

higbeediamondjubileadvjan11935Ironically 1935 was Higbee’s 75th anniversary, its diamond jubilee. In retrospect, the drawing that announced the jubilee year in the Plain Dealer on January 1, 1935, looks ominous in the way it yokes the store, one side blacked out, to the Terminal Tower.

Higbee’s was an old Cleveland business that was bought out by the “Vans” in 1930 after they failed to attract other stores to move into their “city within a city” complex then under construction. Exactly who they asked is unknown, except for one outstanding store that turned them down, Marshall Field in Chicago. The new Higbee store opened in September of 1931. Its crown jewel on the top floor was the art deco Silver Grille, designed by local architect Philip L. Small and a prominent Cleveland decorating and interior design firm, the Rorimer-Brooks Studios.

A 1931 Higbee advertisement described the Silver Grille as “modern” and “gracious.” In the center of the room was a rather austere fountain of red Rojo alicante marble, the same red reflected in the room’s columns and carpeting. Grillwork punctuated the walls which were shades of green with silver leaves. From the ceiling hung specially designed light fixtures of bronze. Designers with Louis Rorimer’s studio created the aluminum tables and chairs shown in the photograph at the top of the page taken a few weeks after the store opened.

The tea room’s early, possibly first, manager was Mrs. Kenneth McKay (whose unusual first name was often erroneously taken to be her husband’s). In the 1920s she had been a supervisor for Schrafft’s restaurants in New York and had taught restaurant management at Columbia University. She retired in the 1950s, having established the Silver Grille tradition of serving homey food with occasional exotic touches such as a curried dish or a salad of Puerto Rican mangoes, avocados, and dates.

Miraculously, Higbee’s survived the Depression in fairly good shape. In 1937 the store was rescued by two executives affiliated with the Van Sweringen empire who bought it from a holding company created by the then-deceased brothers. The new owners announced they would keep the store local and under the direction of Asa Shiverick, Higbee’s president since 1913. In another stroke of bad luck Shiverick died three days after the announcement, leaving the new owners to take over.

higbeessilvergrillestove1980sThings settled down then and the Silver Grille grew in popularity, boosted by added attractions such as frequent fashion shows to the music of a resident orchestra. One of its most popular customs was delivering children’s meals in little tin stoves, later replaced with cardboard stoves, as well as cardboard trucks, teepees, and space capsules.

higbeesmenu1938fashionshowOn May 12, 1938, the store presented a summer fashion show and luncheon on a newly constructed runway in the Silver Grille, with a short but sweet menu costing 5 cents more than usual.

Although patrons enjoyed the Silver Grille’s food – and still seek its recipes — it was equally known for its art deco design, which also underwent ups and downs over the decades. Once the Depression ended, the decor fell out of favor. Higbee’s tried to soften the original look by adding banquettes, painting over German silver grilles along the ceiling and floor, and placing a decorative gazebo over the fountain. A 1962 makeover adopted a hideous-sounding color scheme of pink, green, and red.

In 1982 some of the room’s original art deco elements were restored. The grilles were polished and the fountain was repaired and restocked with goldfish. However the gazebo remained and the dining chairs were reupholstered with multi-colored patterned fabric, either an Ikat design or stripes. Gone were the original black marble tabletops, re-topped with what looks in photographs like a white laminate. (Possibly the tables were not original at all or had been altered, as the diagonal struts underneath are also different.) Recessed lighting had replaced the hanging fixtures, either at this time or earlier.

higbeessilvergrilleteepeeA change of a different sort, one that I think took place in the 1970s, was the addition of wine and cocktails to the menu. Traditionally, alcoholic drinks did not appear on the menus of department store “tea rooms” for women, but Higbee’s was not the only store to adapt to modern conditions around this time.

Despite declining business at Higbee’s, the Silver Grille stayed afloat until after Christmas in 1989 when the store was downsized and the upper floors closed off.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under decor, department stores, food, menus, restaurant customs, women

Holiday banquets for the newsies

xmasdinnerca-1912nycbowery

In the 19th and early 20th century, newspapers were sold on city streets by young boys, and a few girls. Some of the children – who could be as young as 5 years old — were homeless while others came from poverty-stricken families. Their meals could be few and far between and they were always hungry.

But on Christmas Day, or a day close to it, they ate well thanks to the annual custom of  newspapers, philanthropists, mayors, and others who organized feasts for them. Some of the dinners were held in orphan homes and public buildings, but many took place in restaurants.

xmasdinnernewsboychicago1887Turkey was the typical featured food of the newsboys’ dinners. In 1875 the Telegram gave a dinner at Henri Mouquin’s restaurant on Ann Street in New York for over 1,000 boys and a handful of girls. The menu was roast turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls and butter, finished with cake, pie, coffee, and oranges. Nearly identical meals were given across the country for decades to follow, some accompanied by cranberry sauce and side dishes such as corn, peas, celery, and pickles. After dinner the children sometimes received a box of candy to take with them.

The newsboys of Kansas City MO, guests of the mayor, hailed turkey in a little ditty they shouted in a procession from City Hall to Staley & Dunlap’s restaurant on Main street in 1895.
Who are we? Who are we?
We are the newsboys of K. C.
We are the stuff; that’s no bluff;
We eat turkey and never get enough.

A dinner held in a Dallas restaurant in 1899 had a menu that departed radically from the customary dishes [see below]. There was no turkey or pie. And not only was the menu organized into the old-fashioned categories of Fish, Boiled, Roasts, and Entrees, they were not presented in the traditional order of appearance. It also contained quite a variety of assorted dishes, some of them unusual. “Boiled Rallet of Beef” might have referred to Rilettes of beef, which was beef cooked to mush and served on toast.

xmasdinner1899dallas

xmasdinner1903Boisterous behavior during dinner was expected. The boys cheered loudly for their hosts and entertainers, producing a noise level often described as deafening. Food fights were typical. At the Chequamegon restaurant in Butte MT in 1902, a report said the children “yell, whistle, throw biscuits at each other and occasionally land on each other’s jawbones with a dislocated leg of the bird.” Dinner sponsors often egged on high spirits by giving the newsies tin horns and firecrackers.

As much as the newsboys and newsgirls enjoyed the holiday dinners, the charitable events had their detractors. Reformer Florence Kelley criticized the dinners as well as the newsboys’ lodging houses found in some cities because they encouraged children to work and live independent of their families. She criticized New York City in particular for making newsboys into heroes. Rather than being seen purely as victims, as would be the case today, the boys were often regarded as spunky survivors with potential to succeed in life despite their rough style of living and lack of schooling.

xmasdinnerbishopcafeteria1930s In the early 20th century, states tried to limit child labor. Girls under 14 were barred from jobs involving selling. Boys under 10 could not sell papers and those aged 10 to 14 had to obtain written parental consent before a badge was issued to permit them to sell papers in the streets. Still, the dinners continued through the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1930s Bishop Cafeterias in seven cities held annual newsboys’ dinners to honor the chain’s late founder Carl Stoddard who had been a newsboy as a child.

Newsboys’ dinners could sometimes be found into the 1960s, but the children were absent, having been replaced with adult news vendors.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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“Come as you are”

ComeasyouAreFayettevilleNC

Before restaurants adopted the expression, it was used by churches, with a double meaning that referred both to dress and to the shame of past deeds.

However, in restaurants it simply meant that patrons could wear their everyday casual clothes.

In the hospitality field, the slogan took hold first in the West. In the teens and 1920s, it was commonly used by hotels and resorts. It may seem odd that a resort where people swim, golf, and play tennis would require women to wear dresses and men to wear jackets to dinner, but that was not uncommon in the 1920s, especially in the East. In fact, the custom can still be found today, but it stands as a quaint re-enactment of past times as much as anything.

comeasyouareLeaderMC

The western attitude toward casual dress in hotels, resorts, and restaurants spread slowly and was not without some resistance. Oddly, it met the greatest resistance from a business operating in the West: the Fred Harvey company that ran eating houses for the Santa Fe railroad.

The Harvey company required men to wear jackets in its dining rooms – even before electric fans and regardless of hot weather. If a man refused to wear a jacket, he would be served only at an adjoining lunch counter. In the early 1920s the Harvey company fought an Oklahoma Corporation Commission decision that threw out Harvey’s jacket rule. But Oklahoma’s supreme court ruled in favor of Harvey, declaring that the company had the right to require jackets. “Unlike the lower animals, we all demand the maintenance of some style and fashion in the dining-room,” said the decision.

Full-scale formal dress – white tie and tails for men and women wearing long evening gowns – was never common in this country. Nonetheless etiquette advisors who wrote for women’s magazines liked to suggest the opposite, flattering (and confusing) their readers with rules followed only by the upper, upper reaches of high society. However, even if formal wear was rarely necessary, there was an expectation that diners in a nice restaurant or hotel dining room would at least wear what we now refer to as business attire. The St. Regis Hotel in New York City advertised widely in 1908 that it was a comfortable, homey hotel opposed to snobbish dress rules, yet making it clear that “The wearing of a business suit bars no one from admission or service.”

As widely as she was published and read, etiquette maven Emily Post never seemed to be in tune with most Americans. During the depths of the Depression she continued to insist that women should wear suits, hats, and gloves to a restaurant lunch and dinner dresses in the evening. Even at a summer resort, she declared, women should wear cover-up shoes when dining out. “Bare-toed sandals with evening dresses are too revolting to mention,” she wrote.

comeasyouarePortland1952

Following World War II as young families were established and the suburbs spread, things began to change radically. The restaurant industry realized that finding a babysitter or dressing up the whole family was a barrier to restaurant going for many. Instead families were turning to informal roadside places. “Drive-ins, with their motto of ‘Come as You Are, Eat in Your Car,’ have a siren call for parents with insoluble sitter problems,” observed the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1960.

Chains also got the message. A 1963 Bonanza advertisement proclaimed low-priced steak dinners plus “No tipping – Children ½ price – Come as you are – Western atmosphere.”

comeasyouarelittleblackdressMeanwhile, in the late 1960s, in the midst of the hippie upheaval, Gloria Vanderbilt recommended the “little black dress” as always correct for dining in a fine restaurant. But informality was winning as women wearing pants gained acceptance even in luxury New York City restaurants in the early 1970s, a rule change stimulated no doubt by a damaging recession.

By the late 1970s dress codes had been relaxed to the point that many upscale restaurants were minimally satisfied if their customers at least wore “dressy casual,” which usually meant designer jeans, shirts with collars, and no short-shorts, tank tops, or halter tops. Some chains accepted t-shirts as long as they weren’t white, but everyone agreed that patrons had to wear some kind of shirt and shoes.

Today, as Alison Pearlman has written in her fine book Smart Casual, the bond between fancy formal restaurants and gourmet dining has been loosened further by affluent young professionals in the creative industries. If they wear hoodies and jeans to work they expect to do the same as they sample innovative dishes at a hip restaurant.
comeasyouare1899
And yet, along with the relentless trend toward casual dress, the tendency to show off in public persists, possibly as strongly as in the late 1890s when women of New York’s “smart set” took to the cafes to display the latest fashions.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under chain restaurants, drive-ins, elite restaurants, family restaurants, patrons, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette

Cooking with gas

stoveposterstampsAs part of my research into how restaurants worked in past times, I’ve looked into their cooking methods, in particular the kind of fuel they used. Like all nuts and bolts questions, it has been difficult to nail down.

stove1879NewHavenI wondered when public eating places began to switch from wood and coal to a more modern fuel such as gas. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, “artificial” gas was manufactured by heating coal. Gaslights were available as early as the mid-1810s in some places, and the first patent for a gas stove was given in the 1820s, but cooking with gas was rare, and didn’t occur in any public eating places that I could find.

At least 50 urban areas had gas works making gas by 1850. In that decade a number of patents were granted for gas cooking stoves. Stoves were marketed for domestic use, but there is evidence that some commercial users were interested in them too. In 1853 the Astor House in New York City experimented with gas cooking by roasting a turkey. In 1855 a manager of the National Hotel in Washington, D.C., applied for a patent for a gas stove. By the late 1850s Shaw’s Gaslight Cook Stove was available. It could be attached to a gas line with a hard rubber tube and was described as useful in restaurants, especially in the summer because “the heat arising from it is scarcely perceptible.”

But coal remained the fuel most often used in restaurant and hotel kitchens for most of the 19th century and even into the 20th – despite its drawbacks. Roger Horowitz described in his book Putting Meat on the American Table how difficult cooking with coal could be, particularly for baking and roasting. Not only was the cook unable to see what was happening but also, he wrote: “The fire had to be monitored carefully, as opening the ‘drafts’ to admit oxygen could lead coals to burn too fast, but limiting the drafts too much made it hard to reach good cooking temperatures. As coal was slow and difficult to light, enough had to be introduced to supply sufficient temperatures and cooking duration; on the other hand, putting in too much coal could burn the meat or even damage the stove by overheating the fire box.”

stovekitchenDaly'sRestCoalRange1916MCNYA vivid picture of how coal stoves operated was painted by a NYT story in 1903. The reporter visited a large hotel with a battery of over 20 stoves lined up in a row. The heat was overpowering and it took four or five “firemen” to stoke the stoves so that the heat never flagged. The fires needed to be rebuilt about three times a day and two of the stoves were kept going at all times in case the kitchen received an order. Of course kitchens became dirty [see photo from 1916] and quantities of ashes had to be hauled out.

StoveADV1910TheChef

Whatever the shortcomings of coal, it would appear that most chefs preferred it, especially when grilling meat. Although a New Haven CT stove company advertised gas as “the fuel of the future” in 1879 [see above], it would remain merely a concept in professional kitchens for some time. Far more kitchens used French-inspired coal stoves such as those sold by the Duparquet company [pictured, 1910] or  manufactured in San Francisco by the John S. Ils company. Delmonico’s adopted gas ranges but Chef Charles Ranhöfer announced in 1894 that he was going to have gas removed from the restaurant’s kitchen. He much preferred to cook with house-made charcoal. The Waldorf tried electric ranges but rejected them after a few weeks. Only a few chefs interviewed in a NYT story spoke up for gas, though the Hoffman House’s chef G. N. Nouvel overcame his reluctance and adopted gas in 1895, doing away with the problem of “having fires ready and just right.” He predicted its use would become universal in hotels and restaurants “sooner or later.”

stoveschrafft'skitchen1938The use of professional gas stoves advanced somewhat during World War I when coal prices went up. In New York City, the Consolidated Gas Company reported that it had replaced coal stoves in a large number of professional kitchens within a two-week period in 1917. The Hotel Knickerbocker’s three kitchens took out all coal-burning appliances, replacing them with 84 feet of gas ranges, nine salamanders, three broilers, and a number of smaller gas appliances. Healy’s, Browne’s, and Pabst’s were a few of the restaurants that got rid of coal and installed five or more sections of gas ranges. Similar events were taking place in Boston’s large kitchens. [see Schrafft’s modern gas kitchen, 1938, when NYC still depended on manufactured gas]

Though it was available in certain areas sooner (Pittsburgh was the center of the industry in the 1880s), natural gas made its debut through much of the United States in the 1920s, encouraging its  use in restaurants. It arrived in San Francisco in 1929, at a price lower than manufactured gas; in 1930 a survey revealed that gas was the main fuel for restaurant cooking in San Francisco, with coal a distant second. Electricity was commonly used for smaller appliances such as coffee urns, toasters, and waffle irons.

stoveAncestrySantaCruz1937In the 1930s, two periodicals came out dedicated to the use of gas and electricity in restaurant and institutional kitchens. Cooking for Profit was launched in1932 by Gas Magazines, Inc., and Food Service, published by Electrical Information Publications, began in 1938. Both were filled with stories and advertisements for their respective energy sources and appliances, including Vulcan, Garland, and Hotpoint ranges. Stories in Food Service hailed restaurants and chains with all-electric kitchens such as the B&W Cafeteria in Nashville, while Cooking for Profit championed gas users such as the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and the Nation of Islam’s Salaam restaurant in Chicago.

Natural gas was slow to arrive everywhere, including some large cities. New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and the rest of New England, Portland OR, Spokane and Seattle WA, Wisconsin, and Florida were not served with natural gas until after World War II, no doubt delaying the broad adoption of gas appliances in those places.

stovekitchencharcoalbroil41sfToday, most restaurants have both gas ranges and a variety of electric cooking devices, and perhaps a charcoal broiler too [pictured]. Might there even be a few chefs who swear by coal?

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Greeting the New Year

newyear1950s

For the longest time in the history of this country New Year’s eve and New Year’s day counted for very little as far as celebrations went. Restaurant-going didn’t come into the picture until the middle 19th century, and then only in a few selected places.

Charting the development of the holiday is no easy task, but one thing is clear: it was first celebrated in New York, beginning in the Knickerbocker era. Dutch communities introduced the custom of visiting on New Year’s Day. It was a home-based holiday, with women hostessing afternoon open houses with cakes, cordials, wines, and lemonade and men paying short visits.

In Boston, on the other hand, January 1 was just another day. Children went to school while adults worked, shopped, and went about their business. This pattern still held true there in the 1880s and even in 1919 Massachusetts was the only state that had not declared the day a legal holiday, although by then it was generally celebrated.

Gift giving on New Year’s was common elsewhere too, and it would appear that New Year’s day rivaled Christmas for gift exchange through much of the 19th century.

The 1850s saw an advancement in New Year’s day festivities, New Year’s eve still being mostly an occasion for rowdies to bang pots and pans in the streets. Washington DC and parts of California were beginning to celebrate with open houses and New Year’s cakes. Meanwhile, in New York City there was diminished enthusiasm about New Year’s. An editorial in the New York Herald complained of drunken men stumbling from house to house while hostesses had to put up with obnoxious strangers barging in. “They break the crockery, deface the plate, spoil the carpets, spill wine upon the ladies’ dresses, and altogether make beasts of themselves,” raged the writer, while the “lower million” brawled in grog shops where free drinks and food were on hand.

Through the 1860s and 70s celebrations slowly gravitated outside homes and into hotels, taverns, and restaurants. In Denver people gathered at the Tremont House and the Union Hotel on New Year’s eve for dining and dancing, and again the next day at the St. Louis Hotel for a “sumptuous dinner” and more dancing at residences and hotels. In Oakland CA, women received guests on January 1, 1874, while some men paid visits as others resorted to the free lunch tables such as that at Fennessy’s billiard parlor where a well-known restaurateur furnished a feast of “turkeys and truffles, Westphalia hams, elegantly garnished salads . . . and every appetizing substance imaginable.”

New Year’s day was also a time for reunions with fellow countrymen. In Rockford IL, those of Scottish descent gathered at Billet’s restaurant on New Year’s eve in 1891 for a 10:30 p.m. supper.

newyear'sMartin's1908New Year’s 1900, signaling the change of a century as well as a year, marked a stepping up of celebrations, both on New Year’s day and, increasingly, on New Year’s eve. In Charleston SC, New Year’s day dinners in hotels and restaurants were said to equal Christmas feasting. In Portland OR in 1903 the day’s offerings included a 50-cent dinner at Rath & Sandy’s with raw Olympia Oysters; Consomme and Clam Broth; Boiled Halibut with Egg Sauce; a choice of Chicken, Duck or Roast Turkey; Shrimp Salad with Celery; and two kinds of dessert.

At San Francisco’s Techau Tavern, the 1909 menu for New Year’s Eve was considerably more fashionable, and rather than coffee or tea as in Portland, it was accompanied by Champagne.

newyearTechauTavern1909
Every year 20th-century celebrations in big cities seemed to get wilder, inspiring clergymen to denounce the festivities from the pulpit and call for police crackdowns on how late cafes and restaurants could serve drinks. [See Martin’s, NYC, ca. 1908 above]  The words “orgy” and “Bacchanalian” appeared in headlines. Chicago’s mayor in 1911 irritated a Sunday School Association by his refusal to enforce early closing laws, as well as his quip that he felt “only a slight tingling” from all the prayers offered for him. In 1912 New Year’s eve fell on a Sunday night, increasing protests from reformers. In San Francisco, some wondered, “Will the wild spirit with which San Francisco celebrated on Sunday night New Year’s eve be curtailed in the future, or will the Bohemians be allowed to ramble about at will on this one night in the year?” In Butte MT the warning went out in 1913 that anyone dancing the tango on a table top would be dragged off to jail.

newyearmenuEXT1926Where law enforcement failed to put a damper on New Year’s celebrations, World War I and local, then national, Prohibition succeeded. Guests at the Buffalo Hotel’s New Year’s eve dinner in 1926 had a choice of mineral water, ginger ale, or lemonade with their Kennebec Salmon and Breast of Long Island Duckling. Chicago kept its bootleggers busy on New Year’s eve as revelers crammed into the Midnight Frolics and the Trocadero, but headlines no longer screamed orgy.

As the American population went out to eat in restaurants more frequently after WWII, New Year’s eve dinners lost some of their attraction, especially as word spread that it was the worst night for food and service. Though I’ve found no figures on this, it seems to me that dining out on New Year’s day (apart from brunch) fell off even more, leading many restaurants to close on that day.

Wherever you eat on the last day of 2015 or the first of 2016, best wishes to you!

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© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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