Category Archives: restaurant customs

Turkeyburgers

If the turkey growing industry had one marketing mission in the early 20th century it was to get consumers to eat more turkey, and to eat it year-round.

So, during the Depression turkeyburgers arrived upon the dining scene.

In the mid-1930s humorists found rich material in California cuisine, notably in the range of burgers found at weird and fanciful roadside eateries. Among them chickenburgers, nutburgers, onionburgers, lobsterburgers, even mysterious huskyburgers. And on Los Feliz Boulevard in Los Angeles a commentator spotted a neon sign advertising “The Snack with a Smack – Our Toasted Turkeyburger.”

The stories that appeared in the press attributed turkeyburgers to California’s bizarre culture. But what they didn’t say was that in the 1930s California was becoming a major turkey producer. Production had moved westward from its East Coast home of origin. In California, dry weather conditions were more favorable for turkey raising. But in 1936 overproduction resulted in a serious drop in prices. This was bad for producers but good for Depression-era drive-ins and roadside stands. And now producers were more interested in increasing turkey consumption than ever before.

Gonzales, Texas, was another important turkey-raising area. A local newspaperman there had a product placement idea about how to stimulate turkey sales. He suggested that since the comic strip character Wimpy was known for his love of hamburgers, it would make sense to introduce turkeyburgers into the strip. Wimpy started eating them in December of 1939.

Meanwhile, in Corpus Christi, Texas, a drug store was offering a December holiday lunch of sorts, “Something New”: a Turkey-Burger with waffle potatoes and cranberry sherbet, for 19 cents. Also in 1939, someone in Phoenix registered the trade name Turkey-Burger with the Arizona Secretary of State. It’s interesting, too, that the Berkeley, California, menu shown below, possibly from the 1930s, says “copyrighted!” following “Turkeyburger Sandwich.” (Thanks to the reader who sent me a scan of this menu and inspired this post.)

With rationing of beef, pork, veal, and lamb in World War II more restaurants added turkeyburgers and other turkey dishes to their menus. In 1941 the magazine Chain Store Age tested recipes for turkeyburgers and turkey salads on behalf of in-store soda fountains and luncheonettes. It showed that turkeyburgers had high profit potential: if a turkeyburger on a bun was served with cranberry sauce, sliced tomato, and potato salad, the magazine reported, it could be priced at 25 cents while costing only 6.55 cents. A few years later Payless stores in Albany, Oregon, cashed in on the idea, boldly charging 40 cents for their sandwich.

In the 1950s drive-ins served turkeyburgers. In 1950 they were up to 65 cents at Vogel’s Drive-In in Ogden, Oregon, though only 30c a few years later at Moeby’s Hamburger Palace in Eureka, California. A Texas drive-in revived the idea of burger variety, offering sandwiches made of chicken, turkey, rabbit, shrimp, or pork, all for 40 cents. Somewhat surprisingly, in 1969 Ferdinand’s in Honolulu’s Coral Reef Hotel, which specialized in 16 kinds of burgers, offered a Turkey Burger Deluxe on Thanksgiving Day.

Starting in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s – and continuing today — turkeyburgers came to represent a healthier substitute for a hamburger, one with less fat and fewer calories.

Have a delicious Thanksgiving!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under drive-ins, food, restaurant customs, roadside restaurants

Early bird specials

Recently I read a story that originated on Eater.com about the decline of early bird specials in parts of Florida populated by retirees. It said that fewer and fewer restaurants were offering these deals. Partly this was because the retirees who had once patronized early bird dinners were passing away, but also because baby boomer retirees rejected the custom which they associated with an antiquated idea of old age.

Early bird restaurant-going is popularly associated with Florida, but by no means has been confined to that state. A 1973 story about restaurants in Palm Springs CA commented that “early dining is almost a city ordinance in Palm Springs,” with 6:00 p.m. being the popular dinner hour and restaurants deserted by 9:30.

Jaya Saxena, who wrote the Eater story, talked with historian Andrew Haley, author of the book Turning the Tables. He said he knew of restaurants that had offered early bird specials as early as the 1920s and 1930s, but that the custom had really become popular in the 1970s.

I found scarcely any trace of early bird restaurant specials before the 1950s, but agree that the 1970s was when the custom became popular. It increased in the 1980s but may have declined somewhat after that, possibly because of the ever-growing competition of cheap meals in chain eateries.

The term early bird special itself was in use in the early 1900s if not before, almost always referring to morning clothing sales in stores. Of course the concept could be – and was – extended to almost anything including sparkplugs at Western Auto or family portraits at discounted prices if made before the Christmas rush.

Stores, especially drug chains, were probably the first to offer early bird meals, usually breakfasts or pre-noon lunches. This was clearly a tactic to draw customers into the store at times when it was least busy. The Owl Drug store in Riverside CA offered Early Bird Breakfast Specials at its soda fountain in 1951. About the same time Walgreen’s in Lexington KY had a similar before-11:00 a.m. deal on two pancakes and an egg for 29 cents.

Nightclubs were some of the first to use early bird specials to attract patrons for dinner. Their business seemed to need a lot of boosting, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when night clubs were not doing well. Often part of the bargain was that early diners who came before showtime were allowed to stay on for the night’s entertainment without paying an additional charge. In the case of San Diego’s Shalimar Club, the time for early diners is not specified but evidently was before 8:00. [shown below]


Discounting meals for early customers might seem mainly to be a way for restaurants to spread out dinner business rather than turning away customers at rush times. In 1967 Wolferman’s Biftec Room in Kansas City found that daylight savings time inclined customers to eat later, when it became dark, but that by offering discounts for earlier dinners, they could correct this tendency. Although it makes good sense to try to spread the arrival of customers, it is notable that it is rarely, if ever, fashionable restaurants that offer early bird specials. There is at least a hint that some restaurants adopting this tactic were simply trying to improve a generally lagging business.

It’s interesting to note what times have been considered early for dinner. Usually it meant before 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. The understanding was/is that fashionable dining began at 8:00, an hour generally considered late by older diners – as well as by families, who have also made up a portion of the early bird flock. Early bird dining often began as early as 4:00 p.m. and I’ve found one restaurant chain, JB’s Big Boy restaurants in Nebraska, where it started at 2:00 p.m.

I can’t help but reflect on 19th-century dining hours, when dinner was a midday meal. Then 2:00 p.m. was when dinner time in restaurants and eating houses typically ended. The fashionable hour for dining out for the few who had the luxury of arising late in the morning was 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., though they might have a lighter repast, supper, later in the evening.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under night clubs, patrons, restaurant customs

Entree — from side dish to main dish

Menus from the 19th century, often called bills of fare, can be very confusing. One of the more puzzling aspects is the word “entree” (a French word whose accent is usually omitted in the U.S.).

In more recent times the word has been interchangeable with “main dish,” but that is not what it used to mean. To a large extent it was mainly a way to bring a bit of French culture to a cuisine that was rather plain and unsophisticated.

The way the term was used on old menus varies quite a lot and reveals some confusion on the part of menu makers.

Two menus from New York’s fashionable hotel, Astor House, are revealing. One is from the men’s dining room in 1841 and the other from the women’s dining room in 1845. The menu used in the men’s dining room has the following headings: Soup, Fish, Boiled, Entrees, Roast, Pastry, and Dessert. Under Entrees are 17 dishes, all in French, while the rest of the menu is in English.

The 1845 menu for the women’s dining room is entirely in English, with almost the same headings, and many of the same dishes under each heading. But instead of Entrees, the women’s menu says “Side Dishes” of which there are 10. They include Eels, cold sauce; Small oyster pies; Small birds, Port wine sauce; Wild Ducks, Game sauce; and also Beans and Pork and Baked Macaroni.

A variation is found at Brown’s Hotel, in Washington, D.C. in 1847. On Brown’s Bill of Fare for the men’s dining room, everything is in English. The heading Entrees is used, but the order of the various listings is quite different, with Entrees coming after Roasts but before Game and Boiled. The same ordering is found on the Bill of Fare of a San Francisco hotel in 1849 which, again, is entirely in English other than the world Entree itself.

Other dining rooms, such as that of Boston’s Revere House in 1851 preferred “Side Dishes” to Entree, as did many other hotels. It isn’t perfectly clear to me what they were side dishes for, although I’ve seen explanations saying they were to go with the first course. In most cases this was Fish, so that can’t be right.

Shown at the top is a portion of an 1853 menu from Boston’s Swiss Republic which uses a two-column format with English on the left and French on the right. On it, Entree is equated with Baked!

On the strange little 1889 menu for Sunday dinner at Kilburn’s, in Rockford IL, Entrees come last as though an afterthought.

Entrees, and presumably Side Dishes too, were supposed to be more delicate than Boiled or Roast items. Entrees were things such as Fricassees, Croquettes, Meat Pies, or Stews, while Boiled and Roasts were such as Leg of Mutton, or Ham, or Veal, the latter two presumably presented as large chunks. Entrees usually had sauces. In some places a French chef would be hired to prepare the Entrees. It is odd, though, to imagine a French chef making pork and beans. It occurs to me that in some cases Entrees might have been made of leftover roasts. For instance, it would be a short trip from Roast Mutton to a Mutton Omelet.

An article in Harper’s Bazaar in 1898 explained the appeal of “savory entrees and made dishes as a variation upon the eternal roast and boiled.” The author, Christine Terhune Herrick, considered the preference for entrees, salads, and delicate desserts as evidence of a much-needed evolution of American cookery. Herrick referred to entrees and made dishes as two different things, but other cooking experts claimed they were the same.

In the 7th edition of his Hotel Meat Cooking, in 1901, Chef Jessup Whitehead recommended the term made dishes be used since it was clearer. He noted that making entrees called upon a cook’s creativity, and was a good way to use up scraps. He also explained that entree in France historically referred to the first dishes to enter a dining room and that for a small dinner party entrees might replace roasts altogether.

Entree as a separate course largely went out of use in the 1920s, during Prohibition when fine dining and French influence on cooking were scaled back. It came to mean “main course” and included fish, duck, and roast meat as well as made dishes. Still, it is interesting that the earlier meaning did not totally vanish. In 1966 restaurant consultant George Wenzel’s Menu Maker advised that “A balanced menu has: One roast, One solid (chop, cutlet, etc.), One fish, One prepared dish [i.e., entree], One meatless dish.” History lives on!

Nevertheless, most people now think of the entree simply as the main dish. Although it is still a familiar term, I find it interesting how many menus have eliminated the word entirely.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under menus, restaurant customs

Eye appeal

Long before the internet, color photography became a factor that restaurants had to take into account. In the 1974 book Focus on . . . adding eye appeal to foods, author Bruce H. Axler noted, “The dramatic four-color, full-spread photos of food appearing in magazines have set visual standards for the restaurateur.” Perhaps he was thinking of Gourmet magazine in particular.

Color photography began to be used for advertisements in magazines in the 1930s, and consequently became identified with commerce rather than art. It was used mostly in women’s magazines, frequently to advertise food products at a time when major brands and ad agencies were hiring home economists to oversee product promotion and photography.

After decades of viewing photos of brightly colored food arranged artistically in attractive settings, the American public, possibly women in particular, expected food to look as good as it tasted. With the increase in restaurant patronage in the 1960s and 1970s, restaurants began to realize they needed to focus more on the appearance of what they served.

Bruce Axler, building on considerable experience in the hospitality industry, set out to assist restaurateurs in dealing with vexing problems such as too much whiteness or brownness, shapeless blobs and piles, flat sandwiches, and the empty-plate look. Perhaps most important, he addressed the issue of commonplace food that didn’t look worth its high price considering how much cheaper it was at the place down the street.

Given patrons’ high expectations regarding visuals, Axler set out a depressingly cynical scenario on page 1: “If it [restaurant food] is any less luscious looking, it suffers by comparison to such photos; especially when the guest has had three ice-cold martinis and cannot really taste the difference between a prickly pear and a mashed rutabaga.” He seemed to suggest that restaurateurs couldn’t even count on taste and texture working for them anymore.

He also observed that some of the old-time fixes could no longer be relied upon. Broken potato chips couldn’t fill a void, he noted. Nor could food displays be enlivened by the old standbys parsley and paprika. “Buffets are loaded with mystery meats and salads similarly garnished with parsley and rouged with paprika like so many ancient chorines.”

He should have counseled against overuse of lettuce garnishes and potato borders too.

Axler’s suggestions included ladling soup from a tureen and serving sandwiches opened up, both to fill the plate and to display their innards. He advised that “Mounds are better than blobs, rolls better than slices, shingled layers better than piles,” and that vegetables should be portioned in odd numbers. To give the impression of increased worth, he recommended anchovy or grated cheese toppings.

At times his suggestions bordered on the desperate, such as “planting sparklers in food items” and floating small lit candles on soup croutons. I, for one, am not among the many customers he believed “would enjoy the visual appeal of a bright red tulip stuffed with chicken salad.”

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that restaurants were eager to adopt ideas such as his. Many have become standard practice, yet by now it has become clear that chefs have many more tricks up their sleeves, especially when it comes to making a dish look deserving of a high price. Some seem to go against the wisdom of the past. Who in the 1970s could have foreseen how powerfully miniature food artfully arranged on a king-size plate could signify a $$$$ restaurant?

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under food, restaurant customs, women

Behind the scenes at the Splendide

Ludwig Bemelmans, well known author and illustrator of the Madeline books for children, began his life in the United States in hotel food service. In the book Life Class (1938), he reveals how perceptive an observer he was of the workings of a deluxe hotel’s dining operations in the early decades of the 20th century.

With a few strokes, he paints a vivid portrait of the “Hotel Splendide,” otherwise known as the Ritz-Carlton on Madison Avenue between 46th & 47th streets in New York. The hotel was part of a worldwide chain of luxury hotels that defined “ritziness” by providing fine food and service that attracted people of wealth and social status, some with aristocratic titles that dazzled wealthy Americans. [shown above, Palm Court, 1914]

Bemelmans arrived in this country from Rotterdam in December, 1914, with letters of introduction from his European hotelier uncle. He was only 16 years old, but with a troubled past. Had he been from a family of lesser stature he might well have been classed as a juvenile delinquent. He had a rocky start in New York, too; he was fired by the first two hotels that hired him in New York, the Astor and the McAlpin. But, despite some perilous incidents at the Ritz, he managed to hang on there for years, working in the restaurant, the café, and the banquet department before leaving for a career as an artist and author around the late 1920s.

In Life Class he frequently observes how the hotel’s gatekeepers sorted out patrons by social class. The hotel’s restaurant manager, Monsieur Victor, “knew who was in Society, who was almost in Society, and, what is most important, who was not” and treated them accordingly. Those with the highest status gave him no tips or honor, but at the other end of the social spectrum he collected handsome tolls from those who wanted a decent table. Bemelmans judged that Victor took in a fabulous sum for that time, about $40,000 a year.

However, those who slipped Victor a too-small bill found themselves among the “untouchables” seated at an awkward table near a service station or in a drafty corner. Although Bemelmans can be warmly egalitarian about the hotel’s staff, he can be as dismissive as Victor when describing guests. Among the untouchables are “Westchester housewives in gray squirrel coats and galoshes on rainy days. They order an oeuf Bénédict and a glass of milk before going to a matinee.” A woman who he imagines is “the wife of some street-car magnate,” he writes, is “dressed with costly despair.”

Faring worse than the untouchables were “innocents” who didn’t understand how things worked at all, such as those who “just walked in off the street, thinking that this was a restaurant.” They were soundly humiliated and turned away with great haughtiness by Monsieur Victor who then watched them depart “with the detachment of a bullfighter who has done his routine work and waits until the horses have dragged the animal out, ready to start on the next.”

Since I have always thought that hotels were among the most likely businesses to follow Prohibition laws, I was surprised how much trade the Ritz did with bootleggers in the 1920s. Bemelmans explains that banquets were furnished with high quality alcohol from the “most reputable bootleggers” who delivered cases clearly marked Champagne and Whisky during the daytime while the police blandly looked on. More surprising, the police did not demand a payoff, settling instead for a few late-night drinks and leftover food after banquets ended, along with maybe a couple of bottles at Christmas.

The serving staff was expert at squirreling away food and drinks in their own private icebox for later use. In some cases they cleverly “rescued” cases of booze during parties, yet still received lavish tips from satisfied guests who had paid for far more wine than they consumed. As the manager remarked, the banquet business at the Ritz was a “goldmine.”

Even while in the midst of serving, waiters managed to enjoy delectable snacks. They snatched “little fried things” such as scallops, frogs’ legs, and fried potatoes from serving platters and ate them in the middle of the dining room without anyone noticing. According to Bemelmans, they had “learned to eat so that their cheeks and jaws do not move.”

After he left the Ritz-Carlton, the epicurean Bemelmans stayed closely connected to fine food and restaurants. He painted murals for several restaurants, illustrated menus and wine cards, depicted them in advertisements and on New Yorker covers, and owned or was closely associated with four places (all of which may be the subject of a future post).

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under elite restaurants, food, patrons, restaurant customs, waiters/waitresses/servers

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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