Category Archives: restaurant customs

Pepper mills

peppermill1964ILLEver wonder why restaurants make such a big to-do with pepper mills? Obviously many people like freshly ground pepper but it goes beyond that. It’s a grand gesture that suggests hospitality and attention to detail. Diners may reason that if a restaurant will bother with fresh ground pepper it must bring the same degree of attention to its cooking.

Throughout the 19th century, Americans were lukewarm to the idea of grinding their own pepper. The custom was mainly followed in restaurants run by German or Italian proprietors. Around 1900 some people questioned whether modern Americans wanted to grind peppercorns. So Old World! A story in the New York Sun in 1903 reflected this attitude: “Beginning with the little boxes on the table where you can grind your own pepper while you wait – imagine having time to grind your own pepper – everything in the Teutonic eating places is a protest against the American idea of life.”

peppermillminuetmanorILLSo pepper mills were un-American, at least for a while. But then, in the 1950s and early 1960s, competitive restaurateurs returned to the practice. For some reason – world travel? the rebirth of gourmet dining? – some guests had begun to carry around their own portable grinders. Restaurants may have felt a need to respond if they were to appear sophisticated. And so, along with Beef Wellington and large padded menus, the pepper grinder made its appearance. If it seemed European now, so much the better. Evidently pepper mills were quite the thing in Los Angeles around 1955 because there were at least two manufacturers there.

Trouble was, though, when small grinders were placed on tables initially patrons had a way of walking off with the cute little things. Early adopter Peter Canlis found that when he began supplying each table with 4-inch-tall mills at his Charcoal Broiler in Honolulu, they all disappeared in the first three days.

peppermillTown&CountryDallas1960

The solution: large, unpocketable grinders deployed only by the wait staff. How large? At the Town & Country restaurant in Dallas TX, which prided itself on Cuisine Français for discriminating diners, a special stand was required for propping a 9-foot pepper mill over the table. [pictured]

Beginning in the 1970s, pepper mills the size of fire plugs or in the shape of baseball bats became a source of humor and critique. Some also noted that pepper mills enabled servers to appear as though they were giving superior service in hopes of bigger tips. Mimi Sheraton objected to how restaurants pounced on diners with the pepper mill before they’d had a chance to even sample their food.

Now pepper mills have shrunken to a manageable size, criticism has died away, and it seems to be standard operation for restaurants of a certain price and service level to equip servers with them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Little things: butter pats

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There are many ways to handle butter service in restaurants. Toast may be buttered in the kitchen, doing away with the establishment’s need to decide among curls, balls, rosettes, wrapped servings, pats or, whipped butter put in tiny ramekins. Alternatively, olive oil may take the place of butter on the table.

butterpat923Over the decades butter has given restaurant managers plenty of headaches, whether due to its cost, its scarcity, and/or complaints from patrons that they didn’t get enough. Not to mention that it melts when it gets warm and turns hard when it’s cold.

What form butter usually took when diners received it in the 19th century is not clear, maybe in lumps, possibly piled in a communal bowl on each table, a habit that customers would reject in the 20th century.

Bread and butter was viewed as a necessary complement to a meal in the early 1800s, and it often served as an entire meal for those with little to spend. Some restaurants charged separately for bread and butter, while in others it came along with a regular meat or fish order. A good restaurant or tavern might have fresh butter, but others did not. Even if they struck it rich, the early California gold diggers had to wait for Eastern butter to travel around Cape Horn before it reached San Francisco in poor shape. But soon California had dairies that supplied fresh butter, as an 1856 advertisement boasted, “From this date we shall use none other than California Butter, fresh from the best Petaluma Ranches, daily.”

Melting butter became a problem in the summer. The sickening description of “butter the consistency of salad-oil, dotted with struggling flies” can only inspire pity for summertime patrons of Chicago restaurants in the 1880s. To prevent melting, restaurants often placed butter pats upon chipped ice, making it a bit difficult for patrons to butter their bread, but still clearly preferable to the alternative.

butterpat1915HotelMonthlyAlbertPickButter making was rapidly becoming industrialized in the late 19th century, at which time inventors began working on butter cutters that would produce neatly cut chips for use in restaurants and hotel dining rooms. Although many eating places bought butter pre-cut into pats and stamped with their logo by a large dairy, others used mechanical cutters that permitted them to buy butter in bulk and cut it themselves, “untouched by human hands.” All-new-improved models came on the market in the early 20th century, such as the American Butter Dispenser that held 9 pounds capable of being turned into “clean, firm, equal” butter pats in only 2½ minutes. Another feature was that the machine could produce from 28 to 54 pats per pound, permitting a restaurant to economize on butter as needed.

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The size of butter pats varied with national conditions and other pressures. During World War I the Food Administration advised serving no more than ½ oz. per person (actually a generous serving). After the war the dairy lobby in Minnesota tried and failed to push through legislation that would have boosted the standard restaurant serving to 2 oz. Butter pats grew slim once again due to shortages during World War II, and some restaurants began charging extra for butter as its cost rose. Customers complained bitterly.

Perhaps the most curious complaint about butter was that of a patron at a Denny’s restaurant in the 1970s. When served toast with a cold, right-from-the-refrigerator butter pat on top – rather than melted butter as advertised on the menu — Malcolm Douglas Stroud deducted 25 cents from his check. A Denny’s employee made a citizen’s arrest; Stroud countered with a suit for malicious prosecution and was awarded $10,600 in damages by an Oregon court.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Reservations

reservationsJPGtablejpgRestaurant reservations are mainly a 20th century innovation, and yet for the best of customers tables have always been available, no reservations required. A visitor to a Chicago hotel noted in 1888 that a nearby table had chairs tipped, a sign that it was reserved. A number of business men led by packing house magnate Philip Armour walked in and sat down. “Waiters scurried to serve them, and in a twinkling they were attacking their thick steaks as if the meal were a business problem to be solved immediately,” the onlooker recorded in her diary.

It was a common practice to save tables for prominent business men who gathered at the same table daily. In cities with numbers of German-American settlers, such as St. Louis and Washington D.C., the table was known as a Stammtisch and the diners as Stammgäste. At a restaurant in St. Louis conducted by Detlof von der Lippe, tables in alcoves were reserved for different professions. An inset in the 1906 postcard below shows an alcove named The Grind Stone. In the background is The Roost, reserved for tailors, while lumber men sat in The Hoo-Hoo. Which profession met in The Grind Stone is anyone’s guess.

reservationsLippe's

As late as 1957, Harvey’s and the Occidental restaurants in D.C. kept tables for regular groups, as did others in that city. A table at La Salle Du Bois was reserved on Saturdays for businessman Milton S. Kronheim and his “Saturday 12″ composed of Congressmen, civic leaders, and judges. Richard Nixon, then VP, reserved a table there during the week for cabinet members and White House staff.

Of course luxury restaurants such as the Colony automatically reserved tables for wealthy and celebrity regulars too. For them, as for business groups, the rule was that if the party did not arrive within 15 to 30 minutes of their usual schedule, the table would be given to someone else.

reservationsJPG1913Greensboro

If saving tables for the toffs is a longstanding practice, so is resentment by the public when told no tables are available even as they gaze upon a dining room with empty spaces. The problem intensified as taking reservations became more common in the early 20th century with the spread of telephones in restaurants. [1913 advertisement]

reservationsJPGNewYorker1940Reserved tables have often implied to people without them that they were being snubbed and regarded as inferior. And in the case of Afro-Americans this was literally the case. No matter how well dressed, how well mannered, how able to pay, they were likely to be told no tables were available.

Although many Northern states had enacted civil rights laws in the 1880s when the South was instituting segregationist Jim Crow laws, they were rarely enforced. However, an 1889 case in Michigan stands out because of the appeals court judge’s decision for the plaintiff who had been told he could be seated only at a table in the back reserved for Black patrons at a restaurant in Detroit. Usually things did not work out so well. In the 1920s a Chicago restaurant discontinued taking reservations by telephone after they discovered that a women’s club who had booked tables for 40 was Black. Even the federal Civil Rights Law of 1964 failed to eliminate discrimination. Activist Dick Gregory and others were turned away at an empty restaurant in Tuscaloosa AL in 1965 when the hostess showed them a reservations list with 1,000 names on it.

Whose interests do reservations  primarily serve – the restaurant’s or the guest’s? This is a tricky question, but on balance I’d say restaurants are providing a service that is mostly in the guest’s interests. Although it benefits restaurants to have an idea of how many are coming to dinner, in terms of staffing and provisioning, there are also drawbacks. A popular restaurant may actually lose money by taking reservations because tables are not constantly producing revenue throughout a busy mealtime. With reservations, tables are bound to sit empty between guests. What’s worse, a percentage of reservations will not show up nor call to cancel, despite a restaurant’s telephoned confirmation or penalty charges.

reservationsJPGrestaurantpagersThe no-show problem developed into a major headache for restaurants in the 1980s. Restaurants that normally got a lot of tourists and sporting event fans suffered the most, and some reported they went into the red on nights when up to 30% of reserved tables went unfilled. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that so many popular dinner-house restaurant chains take no reservations on busy nights. As long as there are plenty of guests willing to wait up to an hour and a half, the decision is 100% rational. Most of these restaurants – such as the Cheesecake Factory – hand out pagers that permit people to stroll around or go shopping until they are buzzed, a system that came into use in the late 1980s.

For those of us who prefer to go to restaurants that still take reservations comes the dawning realization that we are very likely paying a premium for the privilege. And soon we might be paying for the reservation itself, according to a recent story in the Atlantic.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Shared meals

comebacks1874AlaskaStPhil

There is a lot of interest now in menus designed for sharing. Groups of friends order a variety of dishes of intriguing appetizers, passing them around so that everyone gets a helping.

Sharing restaurant food has a long history, not all of it so appetizing.

In the 1890s stories appeared in the U.S. press about market stalls in France that sold food left over from the tables of restaurants and hotels. The buyers were those of scant means who needed a cheap meal. What the stories left out was that the custom was not unknown in this country. How common it was is hard to say, but an account in 1874 described an eating place in Philadelphia that sold table scraps from hotels to the city’s poor. [illustration above]

There are two kinds of leftovers in public eating places: prepared food that has not been served and food that has been served to patrons and returned on their plates to the kitchen. The latter is known as comebacks. To what degree food removed from plates was served again to other patrons or added to kitchen stews, hashes, and soups in the 19th century is unknown, but it began to receive attention from health departments in the early 20th century.

Americans became conscious of public health issues in 1906 with revelations about the meat packing industry in books such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. One result of the uproar was that cities and towns that had not already done so expanded the duties of their health departments to include restaurant inspections.

In Los Angeles, inspectors in 1907 discovered that chicken, steak, or chop bones with meat still adhering to them were often added to kettles for stock, soups, or gravies. Somewhat surprisingly, this practice was not likely to happen at the cheapest restaurants. Those selling meals at rock-bottom prices (10 cents) claimed they rarely had any food scraps returned to their kitchens. In a 1908 exposé in a D.C. newspaper, a waiter “told all.” Among his advice to lunch room patrons was to order dry toast with butter rather than buttered toast because in the latter case it was likely to be comeback butter wiped off a plate by the cook’s dirty finger.

comebackshashAlso ranking high on the public’s list of restaurant mystery dishes was hash. Middle-class women, who were particularly distrustful of restaurants’ cleanliness, would only eat it in their own homes or in a genteel, woman-run tea room. Patrons often told the proprietor of a home-style tea room in Bangor ME, “I’m not afraid to eat hash here.”

comebacksADV1908EvanstonAt least one restaurant, the Pure Food Café in Evanston IL, was so concerned about public perception that it adopted the unfortunate slogan, “We Use No Comebacks.” Perhaps its patrons, mainly students at Northwestern University, needed this reassurance.

Another illicit use of food returned on patrons’ plates was for staff meals. Minnesota’s state hotel inspector declared he would put a stop to it. “We are going to stop the practice of making restaurant and hotel employes eat the ‘comebacks’ that the guests have already dallied with,” he pledged in 1917.

The re-use of comebacks was not a popular topic for public discussion so it’s impossible to gauge how often it occurred or to what degree the practice was halted by inspections. But the problem either persisted or recurred during the Depression, as evidenced by an article in a 1932 issue of the trade journal Restaurant Management.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Why the parsley garnish?

parsleyNchicken

Nothing decorated more restaurant plates in the 20th century than parsley, most of it by all accounts uneaten.

Why use so much of what nobody wanted? The best answer I can come up with is that parsley sprigs were there to fill empty spaces on the plate and to add color to dull looking food.

Parsley was not the only garnish around, but it has probably been the most heavily used over time. It has shared the role of plate greenery with lettuce, especially after WWII when lettuce become readily available, and to a lesser extent with watercress.

Parsley has long been a favorite in butcher shops where it is tucked around steaks and roasts. As early as 1886 restaurants were advised to emulate butchers and decorate food in their show windows with “a big, red porterhouse steak, with an edge of snow-white fat, laid in the center of a wreath of green parsley.” By the early 20th century, almost the entire U.S. parsley crop, more than half of which was grown in Louisiana and New York, went to restaurants and butchers. By 1915 parsley sprigs were a ubiquitous restaurant garnish that many regarded as a nuisance. Diners sometimes suspected that the parsley on their plate had been recycled from a previous customer.

While European chefs use garnishes as edible complements to the main dish, Americans have focused primarily on their visual properties.

parsleyGuidetoConvenienceFoodscvrAround 1970 when convenience foods invaded restaurant kitchens, garnishes took on heightened significance in jazzing up lackluster, monochromatic frozen entrees. In the words of Convenience and Fast Food Handbook (1973),“The emergence of pre-prepared frozen entrees on a broad scale has revived the importance of garnishing and in addition, has led to innovative methods of food handling, preparation and plating. If an organization is to achieve sustained success in this field, emphasis must be placed on garnishing and plating. These are the two essentials that provide the customer with excitement and satisfaction.” [partial book cover shown above, 1969]

Excitement?

parsleyNOThe head of the Southern California Restaurant Association admitted in 1978 that he hated to see all the food used as garnishes go to waste in his restaurant, including “tons” of lettuce. But this was necessary for merchandising, he said: “We have to make food attractive. It’s part of the cost of putting an item on the table.” It was – and is – probably true that an ungarnished plate such as shown here looked unattractive to most Americans.

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So many garnishes decorated food in American restaurants in the 1970s that food maestro James Beard got very grumpy about it, calling it stupid and gauche. He could allow watercress with lamb chops or raw onion rings on a salad, but put a strawberry in the center of his grapefruit half and he was outraged. Next to orange slices and twists, his most detested “tricky” garnishes were tomato roses and flowers. Funny that he didn’t mention radish roses such as the one shown above.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Blue plate specials

blueplateDuring the 1920s and 1930s the blue plate lunch and dinner thrived. The first blue plate special reference I have found is in 1915. A railway running between Bradenton FL and Washington D.C., the Seaboard Air Line Railway, announced that year that they would begin offering a daily special of either meat or fish served on one plate with two vegetables.

The simplicity of the meal, with fewer food items on fewer pieces of china, turned out to be  highly congruent with suggested government cutbacks that arrived with World War I urging restaurants to conserve on all aspects of their operations.

After the war the blue plate special continued to be popular because it was a workable compromise between the needs of a fast-paced urban society and the legions of consumers accustomed to eating a meat-and-potatoes “dinner” at noon. Though resembling a home-style dinner, the blue plate meal was lighter and faster to serve up than its predecessors. Consisting of less food, it required less time for digestion and kept office workers from getting that “siesta” feeling in the afternoon.

blueplatespecialSpfld1930

Its billing as “home cooking” communicated that it was not ethnic cuisine as were meals in table d’hote restaurants run by immigrant Americans. Beef and gravy, pork chops, ham, mashed or fried potatoes, carrots, and green beans were typical on blue plates. [June 1, 1930, special at the Merry Eating Luncheonette, Springfield MA]

In previous eras a “regular dinner” or table d’hote restaurant meal would have arrived parceled out on many plates, saucers, and side dishes. Cutting down both on china and dishwashing as well as server time, the blue plate dinner or lunch was usually offered as an economy meal typically costing about 35 to 50 cents, a moderate price in the post-WWI inflationary economy. Blue plate specials were attractive to restaurants because they permitted them to make use of a good buy or get rid of food stocks on the verge of going bad. The tradeoff was that often the diner had little choice regarding the meal’s composition.

blueplatespecialBoston1940Since the meals’ components were cooked prior to lunch and dinner rushes and kept warm on steam tables, they could be served quickly, saving time for patrons and increasing turnover for the establishment. Of course steam tables took their toll. That one-plate specials were not always the finest is suggested by a 1930 guidebook which commends The Alps restaurant in NYC by noting that their blue plate dinners “are more than mere collections of edibles, served en masse.”

One-plate meals continued into the 1940s and after WWII  but the term “blue plate” was beginning to sound old-fashioned and was used mainly in smaller towns. Stodgy one-plate meals became material for humorists. In 1952 columnist Hal Boyle lampooned the blue plate luncheon “engulfed in gravy,” characterizing it as an “all-America culinary nightmare.” “I take it to the hotel I am staying at and use it instead of soap for a shower,” he wrote. “I rub it on my head as a shampoo.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Image gallery: business cards

businesscardRestaurants began using business cards back as far as the 1840s, but most of the early ones in the antiques and collectibles market date from the 1870s and 1880s. Although they are referred to as Victorian trade cards that people saved in scrapbooks, they are essentially business cards that give the restaurant’s name and address, sometimes with a short menu on the back side. I present here some of my favorites, from the late nineteenth century up to today. [above, a ca. 1950s die-cut card] These are some good ones “we think” (see Tom’s Drive-In below).

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businesscard2The Senate Cafe, ca. 1915, was almost certainly a drinking spot first and foremost but the dour Mr. Smith probably provided the boys with light refreshments too.  — From around the same time or a little later, Boldt’s, Seattle. The “Cosy Boxes” were for baked goods to take home.

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BusinessCardNEWHouseCarLunch

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BusinessCardTom'sDrive-in

Below: cards I’ve picked up in recent years. Clockwise from top left: Northampton MA; Webster Groves MO; City Cafe, Rochester MN; Girl & the Goat, Chicago [turned on end to fit]; Greenfield MA; NYC.

businesscards874© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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