Category Archives: restaurant customs

Pausing to reflect

I prepared a new post for today, but with the grotesque events happening in Ukraine, the invasion worsening by the hour as Russia attacks daycare centers and residential housing, it seems so wrong to post it.

For that matter, I feel that over the past couple of years I haven’t seriously acknowledged the effects of Covid on restaurants. When it all began – which now seems long ago – I wrote a post on the effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic on restaurants, noting a number of responses similar to what has happened recently. But since then I haven’t really dealt with the difficulties contemporary restaurants have been having, with staff miseries and shrinkage, shifts to carry out, disappearance of printed menus, mass closings, etc. I hope to come up with some new themes that touch upon historical precedents. For example, there was terrific difficulty in hiring restaurant kitchen and dining room staff during WWII. I could look at how restaurants dealt with that problem.

If you want to read something new today, I recommend some of my “old” posts that still seem to hold up. Since I’ve been doing this since 2008, there are many to choose from. Some have few likes which is because when I started blogging there was no “like” button!

Here are some of my personal favorites:

The (partial) triumph of the doggie bag
Once upon a time it was embarrassing to ask for a doggie bag.

That glass of water
Visitors from other countries are always surprised at getting a glass of water without asking.

No smoking!
Ending smoking in restaurants was a long struggle.

Deep fried
Where would restaurants be without deep frying?

You want cheese with that?
Everything’s better with cheese, right?

Chocolate on the menu
It all started with cups of hot chocolate.

Basic fare: club sandwiches
How a mere sandwich became a classic.

Take care,

9 Comments

Filed under blogging, food, restaurant customs

Sugar on the table

Probably most patrons never give sugar a thought when they are visiting cafes and restaurants, but it is a subject that has been somewhat vexing for proprietors and guests over time.

Sugar in restaurants has figured as a health concern, an aesthetic concern, a monetary concern – and just a plain old nuisance.

For decades in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when tables were shared by strangers, a bowl of sugar was put on the table to be used by all. In the average eatery of 1830s Boston, as elsewhere, a table would typically hold a sugar bowl along with salt, butter, and other condiments.

By the late 19th century, the new-style help-yourself lunchrooms had a novel way of grouping condiments together. These were three-tier revolving trays placed in the center of round tables and holding napkins, silverware, sugar and salt, etc. They looked prim and neat – at least before the “quick lunchers” arrived.

But whether the sugar bowl resided on an 1830 oak table or a “modern” nickel-plated “Waldorf” revolving tray in a 1910s lunch room, it posed a sanitation problem.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how shared sugar bowls could go wrong. The salty journalist who wrote under the name Fanny Fern expressed her disgust vividly in the 1850s when she described a scene at New York’s popular and well-known Taylor’s Saloon. “J-u-l-i-u-s C-ae-s-a-r! look at that white-aproned waiter pulling out his snuff-box and taking a pinch of snuff right over that bowl of white sugar, that will be handed to me in five minutes to sweeten my tea!” she exclaimed.

Along the same lines, complaints about sugar bowls that had signs of careless use were common. The cheaper the restaurant, the better the odds that the ugly cracked bowl of sugar would have coffee stains or fly specks. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, sugar bowls usually had no lids and often customers used their own spoons to dip into them. When lump sugar was used, as was often the case, diners would take pieces out of the bowl with their fingers.

Concerns about public health brought changes in the 20th century. In 1912 the U.S. Surgeon General suggested that if people would not use tongs to remove lump sugar from bowls then restaurants should switch to loose sugar, which required a spoon.

During World War I, many restaurants removed sugar bowls from their tables. Not for sanitary reasons but because they were severely restricted in the amount of sugar they were allotted. Some restaurants served no sugar while others served it only if asked, limiting the amount to one teaspoon per customer. In others, the staff put the sugar in diners’ coffee or served it in small paper packets.

By the end of the war municipal health departments around the country began to order restaurants to use covered sugar bowls, a move probably made more urgent by the nation’s deadly flu epidemic. The postwar years marked several other changes in restaurants’ ways of handling sugar, partly because prices were higher than before. Some introduced wrapped sugar cubes that were often smaller than the lumps of old, while others set out shakers rather than bowls, another method meant to discourage overuse.

Meanwhile, though, tea rooms – and fine restaurants — continued to use sugar bowls, often matching their china patterns, suggesting this was considered more refined and attractive than shakers. During the Depression a tea room consultant advised proprietors who wanted to attract male customers not to use wrapped sugar cubes because “somehow they do not know what to do with that bit of paper.” Likewise, a columnist in 1941 pitied the tired businessman seeking a restaurant meal who couldn’t “dip his spoon into a good old sugar bowl.” Instead he had to fumble with unwrapping a cube and waiting for it to dissolve in his coffee, wasting time and fraying his nerves. Poor guy, who knew?

Another age-old issue with sugar was that when its price went up, customers stole it. No doubt this occurred in the 19th century but it became a focus in news reporting beginning in World War II when sugar was rationed. Waitresses began to notice diners dumping bowls of sugar cubes into their pockets and purses. Some came prepared to steal sugar, bringing along paper bags. It didn’t take long before managers decided not to use lump sugar or discontinued placing any sugar on tables. Some began to furnish saccharin.

Stealing occurred again in 1963 and in the fall of 1974 when sugar prices tripled. The fact that many restaurants were using sugar packets by then actually made stealing easier. This time, many restaurants returned to using loose sugar. A few began to have servers provide sugar only when asked, occasionally going so far as to add a charge on the customers’ checks. [cartoon, 1975]

Things have changed since then. Sugar shakers continue to be associated with diners and lunch counters. But cubes have come up in the world. In the late 1980s a restaurant critic expressed dismay when he went to Justine’s, a restaurant that had long been regarded as one of the finest in Memphis. Among the disappointing details he noticed was the restaurant’s sugar delivery system. “Do people spending hundreds on food and wine really want to use sugar from a paper packet rather than sugar cubes?” he asked.

Today I suspect that the reduced custom of drinking coffee with meals means that restaurants provide far less sugar to customers than they used to.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

Wishing you a sweet Valentine’s Day!

9 Comments

Filed under food, patrons, restaurant customs, sanitation

Restaurant ware

Fine table settings were not to be taken for granted in pre-Civil War American eating places. In 1843 an English visitor was delighted to find a Charleston hotel with “clean table cloths and silver forks.” He recommended the Jones Hotel, run by a Black proprietor named Jehu Jones, the son of a freed slave. Thick dishes, often chipped, and crude forks were more typical of many hotels then.

According to Junius Henri Browne’s The Great Metropolis, in 1869 there were many restaurants in New York City but only in the most expensive, such as Delmonico’s, did the diner find “silver, and porcelain, and crystal, and fine linen.” Common basement eateries, on the other hand, had “broken earthen-ware, soiled table-cloths, and coarse dishes.”

Coarse dishes had become the definitive sign of a cheap restaurant. But in the later 19th century, when early fast-food chains began to form, they attempted to break the equation that thick dishes and bowls indicated filth by being insistent about cleanliness. They stuck with thick dishes that didn’t break or chip simply because they were more practical.

The Baltimore Dairy Lunch

Founded in the late 1880s, Baltimore Dairy Lunch was an early challenger to the old assumptions about thick chinaware. The first unit was opened in Baltimore by a postal clerk. By 1920 there were about 140 locations in large cities through much of the Northeastern U.S. Menus were simple and prices were low. Customers went to a counter to get their food, and consumed it quickly, either while standing at a high counter-type table or sitting in a one-arm chair similar to a school desk. This thick, shallow bowl – possibly used for milk toast – expresses the spartan simplicity of Baltimore Lunches. Despite some yellowing along the edges, it has held up well over the decades.

Ontra Cafeteria

The Ontra (pronounced “on tray”) was a cafeteria begun as a working women’s lunch club, one of four operated by Mary Dutton in Chicago in the 1910s. Like the Baltimore Dairy Lunches they were meant to be affordable and appealed to those who did not want to spend much for a noonday meal. Undoubtedly, like most women cafeteria owners who had studied home economics, Mary Dutton put a high stock on practicality and thrift. This Ontra plate, date unknown, is sturdy but not as thick as dairy lunch dishware.

Steak n Shake and Demos Café

These sturdy glasses are typical of mid-century restaurant glassware with their non-chip rims and their dents and bulges that make them slip proof as well. It’s likely they were produced by Libbey, a major advertiser of glassware in mid-century restaurant trade journals. An advertisement assured restaurant buyers that “Libbey Safedge glassware offers you a wide selection of patterns in all sizes, for beverage and bar service. And because of its durability, you are assured of economy in operation . . . with every glass backed by the famous Libbey guarantee: ‘A new glass if the rim of a Libbey ‘Safedge’ glass ever chips.’”

Woolworth’s lunch counter

The Woolworth plate came from my local dime store when it was closing for good in 1990. Its pattern is one of the endless variations on a theme of this sort, one that could appear in any of a number of colors. Again, a sturdy plate for customers who never gave it a second look.

The Craftsman restaurant

Cheap dishes, glasses, and flatware simply wouldn’t do for upscale restaurants. The better-off classes demanded finer table settings. This had always been true for the wealthy, but in the early 20th century, the middle-class also raised its expectations.

Good taste expressed in restrained design suggestive of nature was the motto of The Craftsman in New York City from 1913 to 1916. Lunch and dinnerware was Onondaga white china with a light brown pinecone design forming a border. For afternoon tea, Lenox furnished an off-white china featuring the Stickley “Als Ik Kan” symbol and motto that promised integrity of method and materials.

Alice Foote MacDougall coffee shops

Women’s tea shops tended to stress individuality. This meant rejecting standardized restaurant ware, instead establishing a unique identity with decor and tableware. Alice Foote MacDougall — who called her tea shops coffee shops to attract men — complained loudly about thick cups and dishes. In her 1929 book, The Secret of Successful Restaurants, she described how, formerly, she had to eat in restaurants “where china, white, thick, and hideous was used.” In them, food was served “naked on a bold, pitiless plate half an inch thick and consumptive in its whiteness . . .” By contrast, she said, the plates in her restaurants were colorful with shades of yellow, blue, turquoise, and lilac.

Shown above is the Graziella pattern used in her Italian-themed coffee shops. Like all the imported china in her restaurants it was also for sale ($2.50 for a dinner plate or a cup and saucer).

The Four Seasons

In 1966 a well-known restaurant consultant explained how people with good incomes preferred to dine when they went out. They liked fine restaurants, appreciated good food, and ate out often. “They expect the restaurant decor to be as nice as the decor in their own homes!,” he explained, adding, “They like fine china.”

Given that The Four Seasons was a power-lunch site, I’m sure there were some guests who paid absolutely no attention to the fine design of the hundred items designed by Garth and Ada Huxtable, nor did they notice that unlike the glasses used in dime stores and lunch counters, their wine glass had no reinforced edges. Others guests no doubt were pleased with the elegant simplicity of the designs.

When the restaurant closed and the furnishings and serving pieces were auctioned in 2018, bidders paid goodly sums for items such as the bread servers (as much as $6,250) and cream and sugar sets (more than $2,000) shown above. I do find it humorous that the cream and sugar set included so plebeian an object as a container for packets of sugar substitutes.

Today, collectors of restaurant ware value a wide range of china, including the thick kind often bearing the logo of a once-popular eating place.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

17 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, lunch rooms, restaurant customs, tea shops

Appetizer: words, concepts, contents

Appetizers became a prelude to a meal when many Americans suffered digestive problems in the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea was that appetizers were various items of fare that would help stimulate an appetite in those who were out of sorts. They could be foods, medicinal tonics, or alcoholic drinks.

Due to the strong influence of English customs in early America, the notion of taking something before a meal as a digestive stimulant more often than not meant an alcoholic drink rather than food. So the English term most often used – whets – referred primarily (though not exclusively) to drinks before dinner. The French equivalent of whets would be aperitifs.

As a term, however, “whets” did not appear on printed menus as far as I’ve discovered.

Drinks that usually served as whets/appetizers/aperitifs included rum, brandy, sherry, vermouth, champagne, and Dubonnet. In the 20th century especially, cocktails became a favorite pre-dinner drink.

While many diners began their restaurant meals with a cocktail, the drink itself was rarely referred to as an appetizer or whet after the 19th century. So I was quite surprised to find a Louisiana roadhouse restaurant listing Martinis, Old Fashion[ed]s, and Manhattans as appetizers in a 1956 advertisement!

As food, appetizers were usually lighter things consumed before the heavier Fish, Entrées, and Roasts courses typical of formal meals of the 19th century.

The word “Appetizer” itself though does not seem to have come into common use in American restaurants until the early 20th century. The term “Hors d’Oeuvres” was also used, as was “Relishes.” The French “Hors d’Oeuvre” tended to be used by higher-priced restaurants, such as New York’s Cafe Martin [1903], that sought to create an aura of continental elegance and sophistication.

Relishes initially referred to light vegetable foods, sometimes sauces. In the mid-19th century they were sometimes served just before the sweet courses, but by the early 20th century the category had risen to near the top of menus. Over time, the foods that had once appeared separately as Relishes tended to become included under the heading Appetizers.

But it’s almost impossible to firmly settle the question of what kinds of foods are found in the various categories – Relishes, Hors d’Oeuvres, Canapes, Appetizers, etc. The categories are loose and highly variable. One restaurant’s Relishes are another’s Hors d’Oeuvres.

A distinction is often made between Hors d’Oeuvres and Appetizers, stressing that the latter are eaten at the table in restaurants while Hors d’Oeuvres are one-bite morsels offered by servers to standing guests before they are seated. This distinction may hold for catered events but not for restaurants where there is no hesitation about using Hors d’Oeuvres as a general category.

Also confusing are the menus listing “Hors d’Oeuvres” as a selection under the headings Appetizers or Relishes. In 1917 a menu from San Francisco’s Portola Louvre actually put Hors d’Oeuvres under the heading Hors d’Oeuvres, along with caviar, sardines, celery, etc. Imagine a waiter asking, “Would you like some Hors d’Oeuvres for your Hors d’Oeuvres?

Until the 1960s and 1970s, the food items that were most commonly offered as beginnings to restaurant dinners were prepared simply and usually served cold. They have included: Fresh vegetables such as celery, radishes, artichoke hearts, and spring onions. Fresh fruits, including grapefruit and melons. Pickled and preserved vegetables, whether olives, beets, peppers, or traditional cucumber pickles. Preserved fruit combinations such as chutney and chow chow. Juices of tomato, grapefruit, pineapple, sauerkraut, and clams. Fresh seafoods — oysters, shrimp, lobster, scallops, and crab. And cured, smoked, pickled, deviled, and marinated meats and seafood/fish, including Westphalia ham, sausages, prosciutto, caviar, paté de foie gras, eels, herring, sardines, salmon, anchovies, and whitefish.

I am impressed that celery – en branche, hearts, a la Victor, a la Parisienne, Colorado, Kalamazoo, Pascal, Delta, stuffed, etc. – stayed on menus from the 19th century until long after World War II.

Heavier, more substantial, and often heated Appetizers seem to have been introduced post-WWII mainly by restaurants designated as Polynesian, Cantonese, and Mexican/Latin. In 1960 New York’s La Fonda del Sol offered appetizers such as Avocado Salad on Toasted Tortillas, Little Meat and Corn Pies, Grilled Peruvian Tidbits on Skewers, and Tamales filled with chicken, beef, or pork. A 1963 menu from a Polynesian restaurant called The Islander dedicated a whole page to its “Puu Puus (Appetizers)” that included ribs, chicken in parchment, won tons, and fried shrimp. The assortment was quite similar to the offerings at Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant in Chicago shown above.

By the 1980s, many restaurants featured appetizers that would now likely be called “Small Plates” or items for “grazing.” Two or three were substantial enough to make up a dinner in themselves, as demonstrated here by a rather expensive Spago menu from 1981.

If grazing was a form of “light eating,” that could not be said of the appetizers introduced in the 1970s and 1980s by casual dinner house chains such as TGI Friday, Chili’s [1987 menu above], and Bennigan’s. Now the idea of an appetizer was completely turned on its head. Far from a light morsel that would induce appetite in someone with digestive issues, it became a digestive issue in its own right — deep fried and loaded with fat. The menus of leading casual dinner chains overflowed with “Starters” such as deep-fried breaded cheese, “loaded” potato skins, cheese fries [pictured at top of post], and heaping piles of nachos laced with pico de gallo and cheese. Diners might need a 19th-century digestive tonic after dinner.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

5 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, menus, restaurant customs

Hash house lingo

Odd – often humorous – names for simple restaurant orders were long associated with cheap eating places such as hash houses, beaneries, and lunch wagons. In addition to inexpensive food, patrons got free entertainment, while newspaper reporters never ran out of light copy.

In cheap restaurants it was customary through much of the 19th century and early in the 20th for servers to convey orders to the kitchen by shouting them out from the dining area. It’s highly likely that many, maybe most, of the servers as well as the cooks, were unable to read and write.

The colorful stories began to fill papers’ pages in the 1880s. In 1881 U.S. President Chester Arthur was reported to have visited a “coffee and cake saloon” in lower Manhattan – probably Hitchcock’s — where waiters shouted out his order of coffee and rare corned beef to the kitchen in slang.

Judging by how often it was repeated in the press, the public was endlessly amused by the tale of the clever Bowery hash house waiter who bested the patron who tried to confuse him by asking for two poached eggs on toast by adding that he wanted the yolks broken. Without a pause, the waiter shouted out “Adam and Eve on a raft. Wreck ‘em.”

Eggs merited the most jargon of all foods, probably because there are so many ways of preparing them. Two terms remain in almost universal use today and are so commonly used that probably no one suspects they were once regarded as unfamiliar waiter slang. I’m sure you will spot them easily in the list of egg orders.

Many of these terms make no sense at all, and some have more than one reference. Why were they used? Clearly they are not necessarily shorter or easier to yell than if they were straightforward. According to the 1945 article Soda Fountain Lingo, “An exclusive language – racy, picturesque, humorous – understood only by the initiate, adds zest to the monotony. Further, it lends pride to the job and provides an esprit de corps. It gives incentive to the new waiter, mystifies the general public, and furnishes satisfaction to the enlightened professional hasher.”

Eggs
Ham and eggs – Kansas City chicken and Adam and Eve
Scrambled eggs — Adam and Eve shipwrecked; Agitated eggs; Storm tossed eggs; Eggs around the curve; Wreck Noah
Scrambled eggs with chili sauce – Ship wreck in the Red sea
Scrambled eggs on toast – Wreck on a raft
Fried eggs unturned — With eyes open; Sunny side up; Straight up; Two white wings turned down
Fried eggs turned over – In the dark; With a black eye; Over easy; Eyes closed
Fried eggs scalded in hot grease — Blindfold two
Poached eggs – Sleeve buttons
Poached eggs on toast – Two ladies on horseback; Adam and Eve on a raft
Soft boiled eggs – A light on the ocean wave; In the sea/ocean
Hard boiled eggs – A light under the waves; Two in the water like a brick

Meat/fish/main dishes
Dozen oysters stewed plain — Drown a dozen
Dozen oysters in the loaf — One in the coffin
Oyster stew – Two in a bowl; Stew-o-o-oo
Chicken stew — Springer in the mud
Corned beef hash – Brownstone front (can also refer to pancakes); Mystery
Wienerwurst and sauerkraut — A Dutchman’s paradise
Ham and beans – Ham an’
Beef and beans – Beef an’
Beans – Plate of Bostons; Thousand on a plate
Baked beans without the pork — Brass band without the leader
Beefsteak – Patent leather; One sole without a shoe
Mutton chops – Whiskers
Codfish ball – Sinker (also refers to doughnuts and to pancakes)
Spring chicken on toast and boiled potatoes — Foul tip and a hot grounder
Fried catfish (quickly) — Railroad a hot swimmer

Other
Macaroni — A son of Italy; Put up the flag
Buttered toast — Butter the gash
Pancakes — Brownstone front; Brown the wheats; String o’ flats; Stack ‘em up
Pancakes and coffee – Bootleg and sinkers
Buckwheat cakes – Brown the buck
Hot biscuit — Order of the boat heels
Doughnuts – Sinkers; Life preservers; Fried holes
Shredded wheat biscuits and a glass of milk – Couple o’ bales of hay & squeeze the cow
Milk toast – Cemetery stew
Chicken soup – Hen in the bowl
Slice of watermelon — The Red Man
Mince pie with powdered sugar on top — Indigestion in a snowstorm
Pie a la mode – Freeze out; Snow on the open face
No gravy – Make it dry
Keep it hot – In a hot box

Beverages
Hot tea — Cup of China; On the Chinaman
Tea without milk – Hong Kong on crutches
Iced tea — One in the mountains
Cup of coffee — One in the dark; Draw one
Glass of milk — One in the light; Squeeze the cow
Ice water – One Arctic

Customers often contributed to the lingo by inventing their own, both for ordering and asking someone to pass something.
Pass the sugar – Give the sand box a kick down this way
Request for butter – Pass the dope
Milk – Drive the cow down this way
Beans and molasses – Short and sweet
Fried pigs’ feet – A Trilby foot [Trilby was a popular 1894 novel about an artist’s model with beautiful feet]
Coffee and doughnuts – Slop and sinkers
Sandwich with a liberal allowance of ham – One boxing glove with plenty of lining

Hash house lingo died a slow death in the 20th century with the arrival of automated eating places, cafeterias, and other serve-yourself places, and was pretty much gone by the 1930s. It has been artificially revived here and there as a novelty attraction, the former Ed Debevics diners being a prime example.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

12 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, food, patrons, restaurant customs, waiters/waitresses/servers

The golden age of sandwiches

In their restaurant career sandwiches came from humble beginnings. They could sometimes be found in eating places as far back as the early 1800s, such as at the Ring of Bells, a porter and oyster house in New York. But they became more popular when they teamed up with beer joints after the Civil War. They also flourished in Boston’s “sandwich depots” of the 1880s — bean sandwiches included. And they were among the edibles offered by lunch wagons, saloons, and stand-up buffets in the late 19th century.

But it was the trend toward lighter mid-day meals in the early decades of the 20th century, spurred by the growth of cities, that gave sandwiches their big boost. Then, as light meals replaced hot dinners at noon, they found their niche, furnishing a quickly prepared menu item available in a variety of styles and combinations. Sandwiches of all kinds – named after celebrities, toasted, clubs, St. Paul’s — continued to flourish until after WWII when hamburgers began to take center stage.

While some eating places stuck with hot meals at noon in the early 20th century, others were quick to embrace sandwiches, particularly lunch rooms, tea rooms, drug stores, and delis. The sandwich shop was declared the winner among fast food restaurants. To critics the proliferation of this slapped-together fare was a sign of cultural decline. “The postwar decade might be known as the era of the sandwich,” declared cultural observer Eunice Fuller Barnard in a New York Times article of 1929 with the mournful headline, “We Eat Still, But No Longer Do We Dine.”

Among new developments was the formation of sandwich chains such as the Tasty Toasty and the Hasty Tasty. The B/G System was one of many in that category, which also included R&C, C&L, S&S, and no doubt other alphabetical combos across the USA. In 1924, the “Purely American, Meal in a Minute, No Tipping” B/G chain claimed to pay wages allowing their workers to “live according to American standards.” It had outlets in 16 large cities and was about to spread further. Was St. Louis the champion host of sandwich shops? Included among the city’s 52 sandwich shops in 1938, there were at least 6 “sandwich systems,” the Continental, Hollywood, Nickel Plate, Night Hawk, Ure-Way, and Yankee.

The sandwich selections on the menu shown here are from the Huyler’s confectionery-based chain. Tongue and Cream Cheese sandwiches, rarely (ever?) seen today, were quite popular in those early years (1921 menu above).

Polly’s Cheerio Tea Room’s Ham and Jam on French Toast would seem to be unusual, though perhaps Los Angelenos would have disagreed (1932 menu above).

I can’t account for why Schrafft’s in New York City felt the need to indicate which sandwiches were made with mayonnaise (1938 menu above). I’ve found one other tea room, located in St. Joseph MO, that included the same annotations.

Among the other interesting sandwich combinations I’ve found are Cucumber & Radish (25c at The Cortile in NYC in 1928); Egg and Green Pepper with Mayonnaise on Whole Wheat Gluten Bread (25c at Schrafft’s in 1929); “Chef’s Pride,” Smoked Tongue, Sliced Chicken, and Deviled Eggs double decker (50c at Townsends, San Francisco in1933); Peanut Salad (10c at The Candy Box in Winona MN in 1935); Peanut Butter, Sliced Tomato, Bacon, and Lettuce triple decker on toast (25c at The Little White House in NYC in 1936); and Marshmallow and Peanut Butter (15c at The Bookshop Tearoom in Springfield MA in 1946).

I prefer my BLTs without peanut butter. Hold the marshmallows, please.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

17 Comments

Filed under food, menus, restaurant customs, tea shops

They delivered

Many restaurants survived the past year’s shutdown by offering curbside pickup as well as delivery by outside services. Neither takeout nor delivery is a new idea. Both stretch back into at least the 18th century when French-influenced “restorators” in cities offered a range of ready-to-eat food to be picked up or delivered to homes.

Deliveries included soups – a specialty of restorators – oysters, and full meals. A typical newspaper notice would closely resemble that of J. B. LeRebour of Salem MA in 1800, offering “all the delicacies that the season and market can afford . . . dressed for the epicure . . . Families in town may be supplied with Dinners and Suppers at the shortest notice.”

Notices in 1815 and 1816 from the versatile New York restaurateur, pastry cook, and confectioner Mrs. Poppleton give an idea of the kind of food that epicurean families might order. They included: Almond Soup; Savory Patties; Lobster Puddings; Chicken, Eel, and Game Pies; Anchovey Toasts; Omelettes; Italian Sallads; and Cold and Ornamented Hams, Tongues, and Fowls; as well as Savory Cakes and Pies.

Mrs. Poppelton also provided ladies with party trays. Clearly the notion of restaurant-ing then was closely tied to that of catering.

With the decline and disappearance of the French-influenced restorators by the 1840s, it seems as though home delivery pretty much dried up for a while.

Toward the end of the 19th century, some women interested in reducing household drudgery began to dream of a future when cooked food would be delivered to homes. Writer and thinker Helen Starrett, author of After College – What?, predicted in 1889 that cooking would one day leave the home just as had soap and butter making. She believed that meal delivery would succeed as a business “because capital will find it profitable.”

It wasn’t always profitable, though. Perhaps Starrett was unaware of the startling collapse in 1884 of one of the earliest for-profit ventures, The New-York Catering Company. Despite a strong beginning, with $100,000 capital and floods of orders from families, it failed due to poor management and the disappearance of subscribers during summer when they left town for the countryside.

The fate of other early companies is mixed. In 1890 the Boston Catering Company delivered not only dinner but also lunch and breakfast. Founded by Thomas D. Cook, it was carried on by son Walter. It fared better than The 20th Century Food Co. of New Haven CT, which lasted little more than a year. Its menus offered a range of choices in 1900, such as Breaded Lamb Chops, Beef Stew and Dumplings, and Corned Beef Hash.

Despite failures aplenty, interest in home delivery of ready-to-eat meals did not disappear, and grew even stronger in the early 20th century propelled by the “servant shortage.” Co-operative projects, such as the Women’s Industrial and Educational Union in Boston and the Central Co-operative Kitchen in Minnesota’s Twin Cities tried to take up the slack. And a number of women around the country began to run small enterprises out of their home kitchens, hiring boys on bicycles to deliver within relatively short distances.

Profit-making restaurant-based food delivery grew stronger at the same time. Examples include the Laboratory Kitchen of Boston, which retained a strong flavor of the co-operative movement. But other restaurants were purely business. For them, delivery was encouraged by the number of people able to order via telephone. Two New York tea rooms, The Colonia and The Fernery, delivered to businessmen who called in orders from their offices.

It wasn’t long before Chinese restaurants were taking delivery orders by telephone. And in the 1930s, fried chicken became a popular restaurant specialty for delivery. An interesting development was the opening of the first unit of the fried chicken delivery chain Flying Chicken in Albuquerque in 1946. Like the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain established in 1952, it did not provide any dining facilities. It advertised with slogans such as “Prepare Dinner with One Finger – Use Your Phone, Not Your Stove.”

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of home delivery remained strong, increasingly focused on relatively limited menus, such as pizza, barbecue, or chicken, rather than full dinners or choices of many entrees. Still, here and there someone would start up full-service meal delivery with more ambitious selections and higher prices. For example, the Casserole Kitchen in New York City, begun in 1951 by a continentally trained chef, offered about 10 entrees each day. A sample dinner was Green Turtle Soup, Ham Imperial, Brussels Sprouts, Salad, and Vienna Chocolate Cake.

It wasn’t influential – and certainly not typical – but it’s impossible not to mention a phenomenon of the 1960s, San Francisco’s Magnolia Thunderpussy. Named for its proprietor, it was an eating place in Haight-Ashbury whose x-rated menu featured suggestively-named ice cream desserts and basic grub like stew (Mouthpiece Menage), and chili. Deliveries continued until 4 a.m., often handled by Magnolia herself.

Today’s “ghost kitchen” concept – restaurant-less kitchens used only to prepare food for delivery — obviously isn’t new at all, going back to businesses such as the New York Catering Company of the 1880s. The arrangement remained strong in the 1950s and 1960s, even continuing into the 1980s. Examples include Phone-A-Feast (Peoria IL); The Orbit (Jersey City NJ); Mr. Dinner (Columbus OH); and Bring Me My Dinner (Stamford CT). General Mills, however, did not succeed with its trials of the concept: Order Inn was shut down in 1988 after one year, while the next experiment, Bringers, ended in 1992 after a two-year trial in Minneapolis.

Another delivery concept — such as Uber Eats or Grubhub that bring orders from any number of restaurants — isn’t new either. Messenger services, such as the Boys With the Red Sweaters (Bakersfield CA, 1910), provided early meal delivery for Chinese restaurants. In the early 1990s Las Vegans were served by Entrees on Trays, which handled deliveries from 20 restaurants.

Apart from pizza and Chinese food, it’s my sense that there were fewer restaurants and kitchens that delivered food to homes (and offices) in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps because that was a time when going out to eat, often for entertainment as well as nourishment, became very popular with a wide swath of the population.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

2 Comments

Filed under menus, restaurant customs, restorators

Tableside theater

Is tableside service the kind of glamour that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny? It may be a noble tradition in French restaurants, but in the United States it’s another story. Depending upon how you look at it, it can be fun — or it can be understood as a way to charge more for lower quality food.

I haven’t been able to determine how common tableside service was in 19th-century America. But clearly chafing dishes were employed long ago, especially where oysters were served. A widely circulated story from 1843 described a man staying at a fine hotel in New Orleans who was outraged that he should “cook his own victuals” when he ordered a venison steak and the waiter brought a chafing dish for him to prepare it in.

How times change! By the mid-20th century, restaurant guests were delighted to prepare food themselves with a hibachi or fondue pot.

One of the most flamboyant sorts of tableside service is the presentation of food on flaming swords. It represented the consummate display of tableside theatrics, particularly at Chicago’s Pump Room of the late 1930s and 1940s. Master of ceremonies Ernie Byfield asserted that he preferred to host “laughing eaters” rather than “grim gourmets.” He was quite frank about the degree of pretense involved with tableside service at the Pump Room, implicitly acknowledging that formal French service was out of step with mainstream American culture. [Pump Room flaming swords, 1943]

Tableside service as entertaining floorshow got a foothold in American restaurants in the 1930s. By then, according to an essay by A. J. Liebling, Prohibition speakeasies had introduced middle-class New Yorkers to “a pancake that burned with a wan flame,” a reference to Crepes Suzette.

The popularity of flames at the table and other forms of tableside food preparation grew in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The full show was described by the proprietor of the Bubble Bar in Akron OH in 1952: “Just as your Flaming Sword Dinner is about to be served, the Rajah (that’s my assistant) and I dim the house lights and approach your table, sword in hand aflame with choice morsels of lamb, beef tenderloin or chicken. . . . And of course, following such an adventure in dining, you wouldn’t think or dare to order any dessert but our Flaming Cherry Jubilee or Flaming Crepes Suzette.”

Alas, a look behind the scenes quickly dissolves whatever magic adheres to tableside drama. The 1974 how-to book Showmanship in the Dining Room leaves little doubt that tableside service in all its forms — whipping up sauces, tossing Caesar salads, serving beef from shiny rolling carts, flaming things — is all about money. The book builds upon the wisdom articulated in a July 1966 issue of Cooking for Profit that asserts that, for “the table-cloth operation,” service is the prime merchandiser. Tableside service, goes the thinking, makes customers feel important and willing to pay more for what is often food of lesser quality or quantity.

Here are some of the magic-dissolving points made in the Showmanship book:
– The rolling cart has a virtually unique benefit. It allows the restaurateur to sell items he could not otherwise sell.
– Wines on a cart allow the waiter to push particular bottles. Few people can resist when a bottle is held before them with the waiter’s recommendation.
– Coffee can be served by a specialist. For some inexplicable reason customers accept an individual dressed like an Indian maharajah much more readily than a native of a coffee-producing country.
– A casserole item with a low food cost, such as curry made from turkey thighs, which could not be readily sold otherwise, can be merchandised from a self-service chafing dish on the table.
– As a general rule, carving in the dining room gives the operation a better yield; The carver becomes proficient at making less meat look like more; the waiter can divide a piece of meat that is less than the sum of two individual orders.
– If flambéing is done properly, the customers enjoy it and willingly pay for it. In most instances, it does not harm the food very much at all.
– Any waiter who can light a match can flambé a dish.
– Nothing about the perennial flambé favorites, crepes Suzette and cherries Jubilee, is exciting except the showmanship.
– But people like sweet tastes, and people like flames. The combination is seemingly irresistible, as it sells at menu prices so exceeding the cost that they would make a desert water vendor blush.
– The matronly waitress might be able to flambé successfully . . . but she may look domestic making a steak tartare and resemble a washerwoman when tossing a Caesar salad.

Let the patron beware!

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

11 Comments

Filed under food, restaurant customs, restaurant fads, theme restaurants, waiters/waitresses/servers

Maitre d’s

As the name suggests, “maitre d’hotel” (hotel master) tended to be used most often in hotels. In a large enterprise a maitre d’hotel would supervise multiple headwaiters, each of whom had charge of service in one of its multiple dining spaces. Those could include a formal dining room, a supper-room, a grill room, banquet rooms, and/or a café lounge. Over time, the positions of maitre d’hotel and headwaiter were collapsed into one, yet both terms remained in use.

The man (99.9% of the time) playing that role became the public face of a restaurant or hotel dining room. Like celebrities, he was often known by one name only. A counterpart of the chef who ruled the kitchen, he ruled the front of the house. In addition to being completely in charge of the dining room and its service, he might hire, train, and supervise the entire waitstaff as well as plan private dinners and banquets, take reservations, admit and seat guests, make recommendations and take orders, and prepare special dishes at the table.

Whether called maitre d’hotel or headwaiter, historically the person filling this role was an imposing physical figure, large, tall, and very well dressed. In this country during the 19th century the role was most often filled by a Black man, usually working in an American-plan hotel where meals were included in the cost of lodging. [L. D. Houston, shown here in 1904, worked in New York and for a time in Hong Kong where he went to escape U. S. racism.] Dressing the part was essential. During the 1930s Depression a nightclub performer in Paris entertained his audience by describing a headwaiter as “The only man in the place whose clothes fit.”

The maitre d’hotel (shortened to maitre d’ over time) or headwaiter could have a wide variety of duties depending upon the size of the dining facilities. An expensive, full-service restaurant that was French or international might have captains, waiters, wine stewards, and busboys in addition to a maitre d’. In the 20th century, a popular maitre d’, having reached the pinnacle of the waiting profession while working for someone else, might look for partners or backers and become the host of his own restaurant.

A prominent example of someone who worked his way up from waiter to owner/maitre d’ was the late Sirio Maccioni of New York’s famed Le Cirque. Other well known maitre d’s — who stayed at their posts for about 50 years each — were “Oscar” and “Hoxter.” Oscar Tschirky of the Waldorf was said to be the first to rope off a doorway, while Stansbury Hoxter of Boston’s Parker House was known for his smile and his infallible memory. [Portrait of Stansbury Hoxter courtesy of his great, great, great nephew James Bell.]

Although some maitre d’s who had immigrated from Europe arrived with hotel school training, usually the headwaiter/maitre d’ reached his position after considerable time working his way up the dining room hierarchy. He may have begun as a busboy or waiter, then advanced to captain of a group of waiters, and finally to headwaiter. Along the way he would have proved his ability to judge a guest’s social status, underwritten by his astute understanding of human behavior. It was expected that he not only remembered regular guests’ names and faces, but also knew their favorite dishes.

Although many Americans probably never encountered a maitre d’, he became a figure in popular culture. In 1927 the debonair Adolphe Mange played one in a silent-era rom-com.

While it’s true that favored guests at luxury restaurants appreciate the services of a maitre d’ who saves them “their” table, treats them with great care, and knows their likes and dislikes, many Americans have not reacted well to what they regard as haughty judges of their social rank who may treat them poorly or even turn them away. Despite the geniality of well-liked headwaiters, to many people the overall impression created by this personage is a feeling of cold formality. According to a 1940 opinion piece in a restaurant industry journal, diners did not like bowing nor “that type of waiter service that constantly rearranges your bread-and-butter-plate and water glass . . . and then frequently walks by your table to see if you are eating properly.”

That may be why in more recent times even an upscale, expensive restaurant probably does not have a formally dressed maitre d’ greeting guests. That role is more likely to be filled by a younger person, frequently a woman, who probably does not run the entire dining room nor hire the staff. She may nod her head as she hands guests a menu but does not bow.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

 

5 Comments

Filed under elite restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant customs, Uncategorized, uniforms & costumes, waiters/waitresses/servers

Ham & eggs by any other name

Usually I avoid topics that others have written about repeatedly. The origin of Eggs Benedict is certainly one of those.

I have a problem with origin stories in general because usually they are too neat. But that’s not actually true of Eggs Benedict (a poached egg and ham slice on a toasted English muffin with Hollandaise sauce poured over). The stories about how it appeared in the 1890s are contradictory. There are variations about who it is named after and which famous, usually New York, restaurant produced it first. Among the contending dining spots are Delmonico, the Waldorf-Astoria, and Sherry’s. Of course for an origin story to work, it almost has to involve a well-known, prestigious person/place.

An essay from American Food by Rachel Wharton discusses the numerous conflicting reports of the dish’s origin. It concludes with “Maybe it doesn’t matter who the first Benedict really was. The real point, as has been said by many others in the past, is that this was a rich dish devised for rich people . . .”

With all the butter and egg yolks in Hollandaise sauce, it is certainly a rich dish but was it really devised for “rich people”? That would be, of course, another significant factor in giving the dish panache.

My version of the dish’s fame doesn’t focus on its origin but on its later status and how it became well known long after the 1890s. I suspected that Eggs Benedict was marketed as having an elite past so that it could become a “special” dish. Is it necessary to say that a restaurant could charge more for Eggs Benedict than they could for ham and eggs – and use less ham to boot?

The early days of Eggs Benedict do not seem to have been especially glamorous. At the start of the 20th century the recipe for the dish was featured in newspapers’ “women’s pages.” It seems it was more of a home dish than a restaurant dish. A 1906 woman’s column deplored the food served by society women and wished they would instead serve things such as good old scrapple, mincemeat pie, or Eggs Benedict. During World War I Eggs Benedict appeared on menus as a patriotic meat-conserving dish. A low point in its glamorousness may have occurred in the 1920s when a Beaumont TX newspaper recommended a casserole of baked tomato on toast with cheese sauce and breadcrumbs as “a nice change from eggs Benedict.”

When Eggs Benedict was listed on restaurant and hotel menus in the teens and 1920s it was usually as a breakfast or lunch entree. An early example was at a Boston restaurant that featured luncheon specials in a 1915 advertisement [shown here]. As can be seen below, Du Pont of Paris was a white tablecloth restaurant, certainly fancier than the average working men’s lunch room but a long way from the deluxe world of the Waldorf.

The dish’s fame and fortune began to rise after World War II when the middle class grew larger and more people began to go to restaurants for recreation. In 1946 the New York columnist Gaynor Maddox introduced readers to a creation tale of Eggs Benedict which had a hungover Waldorf guest coming to breakfast in 1894 and asking for toast, bacon, two poached eggs, and a pitcher of Hollandaise. The famed Waldorf host, Oscar, came into the story too, by later substituting ham and English muffin for the bacon and toast.

A year after Maddox’s column, the dish appeared on the brunch menu of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel for the high price of $2.50 (the average daily gross income in 1947 was about $12).

Its reputation continued to be burnished by others. Chef Pierre Franey retold the Waldorf origin tale, while Duncan Hines had it coming from France via New Orleans. Chef Louis Szathmary credited a wealthy Bostonian and a chef at the Ritz Carlton. But all seemed to agree it was indeed a ritzy dish.

For some reason – maybe to make Eggs Benedict sound even ritzier – some restaurants renamed it Eggs Benedictine. They were probably unaware that Benedictine refers to an entirely different egg dish of the almost 500 egg recipes that have been recorded. It is a poached egg on a puree of salt codfish with cream sauce and truffles.

Even though it had formerly been served mainly for lunch or supper, Eggs Benedict found its true calling in the 1960s and 1970s, when it became the classic brunch order. [Molly Maguire’s, 1977, New Orleans] Perfect for Mother’s Day and best accompanied by a glass of champagne followed by Crepes Suzette.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

12 Comments

Filed under chefs, elite restaurants, food, menus, restaurant customs