Category Archives: restaurant customs

Check your hat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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

How Americans learned to tip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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

Dining & wining on New Year’s Eve

I haven’t found evidence that people celebrated New Year’s Eve in restaurants or hotels much in the 19th century. But in the early 20th century it became a more popular thing to do. Having a reservation at a swanky place conferred status, as the 1912 drawing above is meant to illustrate.

If one dish ruled New Year’s Eve menus in the early 20th century it was roast turkey. It was the main dish at the Techau Tavern, “San Francisco’s Busiest and Handsomest High-Class Café,” shown here in 1909. Turkey with Cranberry Dressing and Chestnut Stuffing was preceded by Toke Point Oysters from Washington, Cream of Chicken Soup, Striped Bass, and Sweetbreads.

Turkey also dominated the 1912 New Year’s Eve menu at The Fern in Scranton PA, “An Eating Place of Refinement and Respectability.” The Fern featured a $1 dinner that was similar but even heftier than the Techau Tavern’s, with Blue Point Oysters, Cream of Chicken Soup, Baked Bluefish, Croustade of Lobster, Tenderloins of Beef, Roast Turkey, Sweetbreads, Banana Fritters, as well as all kinds of vegetables, salad, and pie. The Alt Heidelberg Café in Fort Wayne IN, and Tait’s in San Francisco provided similar menus.

Through the 1920s, it was not hard to find a place where one dollar or a little more would buy an elaborate dinner with an orchestra and dancing. In Seattle WA, New Year’s Eve entertainment at the Hotel Washington Annex included dinner plus a “lady vocalist” and the Whangdoodle Quartet, all for $1.25. The absence of (legal) alcohol in the 1920s did not dim festivities in Chicago nightspots in the Loop or on the South Side, where “handling a flask has never been considered flagrant.”

Despite tight economic times in the 1930s and war in the 1940s – or maybe because of these conditions — Americans showed continuing enthusiasm for celebrating the new year in restaurants and clubs. The repeal of Prohibition at the end of 1933 brought about heightened levels of good cheer. Not even higher prices at the end of 1934 discouraged revelers who paid from $7.50 to $15 per plate in NYC. Yet there were still bargains to be had as the accompanying 1935 menu from Kolb’s in New Orleans shows. Low prices also prevailed in Canton OH where sauerkraut and wieners were traditional.

After the war, menus reflected the growing importance of beef on New Year’s Eve – and throughout the year. The 1958 menu at Pike’s Verdugo Oaks in Glendale CA is representative, and not terribly different than menus found throughout the U.S. in later decades. The Raintree Room at the Continental Regency in Peoria IL in 1978, for example, offered beef or lobster, with salad, baked potato or french fries, and the ubiquitous cheesecake for dessert, a standard menu for a restaurant dinner in the last decades of the 20th century.

Whether you have steak or hot dogs this New Year’s Eve, have a good time and best wishes for 2018!

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under food, menus, night clubs, restaurant customs

Getting closer to your food

How intimate do Americans want to get with their food? I’d say that restaurant-goers do not want to get too close to their food’s origins, nor to its preparation – and certainly not to kitchen cleanup. After all, getting away from it all is a big part of the attraction of eating out.

And yet . . . there are striking exceptions. Not only today when customers are able to harvest their own lettuce or vegetables that are growing on restaurant walls, but far back into the 19th century. Getting close to your food can range from assembling or selecting semi-prepared raw ingredients to choosing ones that are still alive. Allegedly, a Brooklyn NY restaurant around the end of the 19th century used to invite customers to go to their back yard where the chickens were kept, select the one they wanted, and watch it be killed.

The more common example of the latter, however, is lobster, which were – and are — often presented live to restaurant guests prior to their delivery to the table. Especially in the 19th century, live turtles played a similar role, being displayed in a restaurant’s window before their descent into the kettle. Not everyone was comfortable with these practices. In 1870 a Cape Ann MA newspaper expressed a hope that the Humane Society would look into the practice of boiling lobsters alive. And in 1881 a Boston paper commended a Chinese man in San Francisco who rescued a turtle on display in front of a restaurant by buying it and having it released into the ocean.

But “fresh” lobster and turtle remained highly valued. Some restaurants would even deceive customers with a living display turtle or lobster that was never cooked. The customers believed it had been served on their plates, while in reality the creature would return to the display later. A St. Louis restaurant man admitted he had used the same lobster for three months, returning it to a tank in back after it was shown to a customer. “Sometimes I put him in the window,’ said the restaurateur, adding, “He regards the window as his stage and dances about for the public. Whenever he sees a hungry-looking man coming down the street he begins squirming to attract his attention.” Supposedly the customer left the restaurant happily unaware he had eaten canned lobster. This was 1900, and Truth in Menu legislation had not been introduced.

Fish swimming in tanks have had fewer rescuers. The custom of choosing or netting a fish in a tank may have originated in eating places set up in city markets such as New York’s old Fulton Market. By the 1930s if not earlier the setup had migrated to restaurants.

To a great extent the selection of living creatures by hungry diners arose from a distrust of restaurants as well as poor food preservation measures in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Diners, particularly those who were epicures, felt they needed to see with their own eyes that their food was fresh. There were good reasons for their skepticism. Meat, fish, and poultry served in restaurants could be canned, spoiled, or stale from many months spent in cold storage warehouses.

Setting up lobster tanks in which fresh lobsters could be held was not such an easy task for restaurants far from the oceans, and did not occur in many inland cities until the 1950s, about the same time lobster tanks showed up in supermarkets. A news story in a Milwaukee paper gives the idea that dining on fresh lobster flown in from Maine was a fairly new activity there in 1953. Not only did the story detail how the new glass tank at the Cape Cod Inn worked, as well as its measurements and how water was aerated and filtered, it furnished readers with drawings that showed how to eat whole lobsters. In 1956 Pittari’s in New Orleans claimed to have the only live lobster tank in the South.

A later iteration of the pick-your-raw food angle concerned raw beef. It doesn’t appeal to me to select a steak from a cooler or a rotating display, much less to broil it myself, but the idea gained popularity in the 1950s and has continued to some extent. In the 1980s, at the Meat Market in Peoria IL, whose motto was “Dedicated to the Illinois Farmer,” patrons took their steak, potato, and Texas toast to “do yourself over the massive grill.” Reportedly patrons enjoyed a tribal feeling as they gathered around the glowing fire.

In 1974 the president of the National Restaurant Association predicted that do-it-yourself activities in restaurants would become quite popular in the future, leading patrons not only to cook steaks, but make their own pizza and mix their own drinks. “What is involved,” he said, is that people are placing greater emphasis on the total sensory experience – touching, feeling and smelling.”

Mixing your own drinks . . . hmmm.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under food, restaurant customs, restaurant issues

Is “ethnic food” a slur?

This question has come up over the past few years among those who write about food and restaurants. The gist of the complaint is that the term “ethnic food” implies it is inferior to European-based cuisines, and sometimes even to pseudo-ethnic fast food. The issue is entwined with the question of whether patronizing restaurants run by immigrant or other non-white proprietors demonstrates or promotes multicultural understanding.

The terms “ethnic food” and “ethnic restaurant” did not really show up to any significant extent until the 1960s. Before that references would have been to foreign restaurants or to “food of the world.” Until the 1860s, French restaurateurs were the main departure from the English-influenced norm.

After the Revolution of 1776, there were a number of French eating places in this country. For example, Michael Marinot advertised in 1789 that he ran a Traiteur Francois in Philadelphia. And of course, there was Julien in Boston, and as of 1823 the Swiss-Italian confectionery of Delmonico in New York. From the start French restaurateurs were appreciated for producing delicate cuisine and following a higher standard than other eating places.

Much more common were the eating houses that served food similar to what would be found in England, consisting mainly of meat and game, simply prepared, with little in the way of sauces or seasonings. [see NYC Bowery restaurant, 1887] Oyster cellars provided the fast food of the day.

Things began to change in the 1850s. When gold was discovered near San Francisco, men (mostly) from all over the world converged there. An account published in 1855 notes, “There were American dining-rooms, the English lunch-houses, the French cabarets, the Spanish fondas, the German wirtschafts, the Italian osterie, the Chinese chow-chows, and so on . . . There were cooks, too, from every country; American, English, French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Chileno, Kanaka, Italian, Peruvian, Mexican, Negro, and what not.” In 1854 New York City boasted of having restaurants representing the food of America, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Hungary, Denmark, Spain, and Cuba.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, people living in cities who had refined tastes but little money sought out small restaurants run by European immigrants known as “table d’hotes.” They offered a complete meal for a low fixed price, wine included. In these places, it was said, patrons could avoid the clatter, sloppiness, bad food, and complete lack of aesthetics associated with cheap American eating places. Europeans understood “the art of living,” according to a story in the Boston Globe in 1877. Only “foreigners” ran good restaurants in San Francisco, wrote the city’s chronicler Hubert Howe Bancroft. “American restaurants are invariably second, third, or fourth rate,” he pronounced.

With the large number of immigrants arriving in the late 19th and early 20th century, it is hardly surprising that many of them took up restaurant keeping. But this did not necessarily mean that they offered anything other than standard American fare. World War I revealed an undercurrent of prejudice against foreign eating places that had earlier been aimed at Asian restaurants on the West Coast. The negative attitudes may have driven some non-natives to “Americanize” their names and menus. Other restaurant owners, probably of American birth, played to nativist prejudice. [See 1918 ADV; Turner’s chef was born in France but naturalized shortly before the advertisement appeared.]

The 1920s through the 1950s saw the proliferation of restaurant types that were definitely non-ethnic such as tea rooms, cafeterias, steak houses, hamburger and hot dog stands, fried chicken places, lunch counters, diners, drive-ins, and chain restaurants. Many Greek-American proprietors avoided putting any remotely Greek dishes on their menus until the 1960s. Other restaurants serving “foreign” food added sections with American dishes to their menus [menu above, Chicago, 1941], while others dished up a stereotyped version of ethnicity [see Milwaukee’s Schwaben-Hoff shown above].

During the all-American era, a few “foreign” dishes were naturalized, among them chili, tamales (in the West), spaghetti, and pizza. [re Simon’s Sweet Shop, Salt Lake City, 1917] Even chop suey could sometimes be found on drug store menus. Some cities had especially few foreign restaurants. In 1940s Atlanta restaurant goers wanted fried chicken, while in Omaha they demanded steaks, according to the National Restaurant Association. In fact chicken, steak, and chops dominated dinner menus throughout the U.S.

It is scarcely surprising there would be a reaction to the blandness and lack of variety in restaurants. In 1961, even Chicago — where prime rib was No. 1 — presented alternatives, among them European, Middle Eastern, Oriental, Polynesian, and South and Central American restaurants. Still, a Chicago restaurant reviewer revealed in 1971 that she got letters complaining she was “preoccupied” with ethnic restaurants and ignored the steak and potato fans.

Nonetheless the ethnic restaurant trend continued to grow. Neil Simon’s 1963 play (and 1967 movie) Barefoot in the Park featured a newlywed wife who wanted to break free of convention. One scene showed her jumping up to join a belly dance at an Albanian restaurant hidden away on Staten Island. Her character prefigured the hippies to come — young people eager for new experiences. In the 1890s or 1910s she would have been called a bohemian and would have dined in the backyard of a French table d’hote. Another sign of change was the 1966 publication of The Underground Gourmet that listed inexpensive restaurants in NYC, most of them representing a cuisine from afar.

For those critics of the term ethnic restaurant who object to it only being applied to non-European restaurants of dark-skinned people: that has not always been true. The Underground Gourmet noted nationality restaurants that were Belgian, Dutch, Hungarian, Norwegian, and Ukrainian. San Diego, a city not known for its ethnic restaurants earlier, in 1979 counted among them ones that were Swedish, Hungarian, Russian, Serbian, Basque, Portugese, Irish – and British! And cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky classified Jewish, New England, Pennsylvania German, and Southern U.S. restaurants as ethnic in 1985.

The trend intensified in the 1970s. By the 1980s, a major city lacking diversity in its restaurants was considered culturally deficient and of lesser interest to gourmets and tourists. The counterculture, too, was an important factor in the rising popularity of ethnic restaurants. As Warren Belasco explained in a 1987 issue of Food and Foodways, the counterculture preferred “peasant or ‘folk’ cuisines to the ‘junk food’ found in . . . fast food restaurants. . . . The countercuisine’s infatuation with ethnic foods linked the personal and political . . . eating un-American dishes could be interpreted as a protest against American cultural imperialism.”

It could also be taken as a status marker – which has become more evident over time. It can be proof of extensive foreign travel, a spirit of adventurousness, a discerning palate, esoteric knowledge possessed by the few – and sometimes a degree of haughtiness about mainstream American tastes.

Nonetheless, a fondness for non-American cuisines is not usually linked with xenophobia and nativism. On the other hand, it by no means guarantees respect for other cultures nor does it overcome prejudices of various kinds. A 2008 article, “‘Going for an Indian’: South Asian Restaurants and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Britain,” made this clear. But I think I’ll save that argument for another time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under alternative restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies, 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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Filed under chain restaurants, food, restaurant customs, sanitation

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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Filed under food, menus, patrons, restaurant customs, women