Category Archives: restaurant decor

Dining with a disability

Throughout the 20th century the number of mobility-impaired Americans grew – due to medical advances, lengthening lifespans, polio epidemics, wars, and rising rates of automobile accidents. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the problem of physical barriers confronting those using wheelchairs, braces, canes, and walkers, began to get attention, largely as a result of activism by the disabled.

At first the focus was on public buildings, but it soon expanded to include commercial sites such as restaurants. One of the early efforts to ease a path was the publication of a 1961 Detroit guide book that devoted several pages to describing features of two dozen popular restaurants that were at least minimally accessible. For instance The Village Manor in suburban Grosse Pointe had a street-level front entrance and a ramp in back as well as main floor restrooms outfitted with grab bars. But several of the restaurants listed had steps at entrances, narrow doorways, restrooms too small to maneuver a wheelchair, and tables too low for wheelchair seating.

In 1962 the National Society for Crippled Children and Adults (NSCCA, an organization that had added “Adults” to its name during WWII) joined with the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped (established in 1947) to launch a nationwide movement to change architectural standards and building codes so as to remove barriers affecting people with mobility limitations. This marked a new attitude acknowledging that handicapped people wanted to “do more things and go more places” but were blocked by the built environment. It was becoming apparent, reported one newspaper, that those “who were no longer ‘shut-ins’ were ‘shut-outs.’”

In 1963 the NSCCA began sponsoring surveys of public and private buildings which included restaurants. In various cities local volunteers equipped with measuring tapes compiled records of buildings concerning the width of doorways, number of steps, presence of ramps and elevators, and placement and design of restroom facilities. Meanwhile, in New Jersey the Garden State Parkway altered its restaurants and restrooms for disabled travelers.

Overall, though, there was very little action. The surveys showed that accessibility in the United States – not only in restaurants, but in schools, court houses, hospitals, churches, and all kinds of businesses – was rare. A survey of Oklahoma in 1968 revealed that only 32 of the first 2,144 public facilities checked were fully accessible to anyone operating their own wheelchair, while 60% were entirely inaccessible. In Oklahoma City, the state’s capitol, only one of the 20 restaurants surveyed at that point could accommodate a wheelchair user.

1968 was the year when official recognition of the problems presented by architectural barriers was achieved with the passage of a federal law that decreed that any building constructed even partly with federal funds had to be barrier-free. Although restaurants remained unaffected by the law, it was significant for demonstrating a growing recognition that accessibility problems arose from the environment as much as from the disabilities of individuals. It would, however, take another 22 years, with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, before serious attention was given to eliminating obstacles in all kinds of public facilities.

Despite a common (and illogical) attitude held by numerous restaurant owners that there was no need to make their restaurants accessible since disabled people did not frequent them, there were a few owners who voluntarily removed barriers before the ADA passed. When the owner of the Kitchen Kettle in Portland OR remodeled in 1974 he built an entrance ramp and a low lunch counter. In Omaha, Grandmother’s Skillet, co-owned by Bob Kerrey who had lost a leg in the Vietnam war (and later became governor of Nebraska and a U.S. senator), had a restaurant designed in 1976 that could be used by anyone in a wheelchair or on crutches. In California, a builder constructed accessible homes as well as fast food restaurants with ramps and restroom grab bars in the mid-1970s.

In the 1980s it became a fairly common practice for restaurant reviewers to note whether an eating place accessible or, more likely, not. Most of America remained inaccessible. As irony would have it, that included much of Future World at Disney’s Epcot Center. Several fast food cafes there required patrons to get into a line formed by bars that were spaced too narrowly for wheelchairs. Even more depressing were the ugly letters advice columnist Ann Landers received in 1986 after she defended the rights of a handicapped woman to patronize restaurants. “Would you believe there are many handicapped people who take great pleasure in flaunting their disability so they can make able-bodied people feel guilty?” wrote one reader.

Passage of the ADA was a big step forward, but it didn’t work miracles. Even in the late 1990s it took enforcement activity from the U.S. Justice Department to get some restaurants to comply. Friendly’s, a family restaurant chain, was fined and compelled to alter entrances, widen vestibules, and lower counters, among other changes. Wendy’s settled out of court and agreed to remove or widen zigzag lanes at their counters.

Although many restaurants have gone to great lengths to guarantee accessibility, problems remain. Even when a restaurant is in compliance, there’s a good chance that disabled patrons will have an uncomfortable experience. This was detailed beautifully in a 2007 NYT story by Frank Bruni titled “When Accessibility Isn’t Hospitality.” His dining companion Jill Abramson, then editor of the paper and using a wheelchair following an accident, found that even luxury restaurants could present dismal challenges to patrons with mobility limitations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Famous in its day: the Blue Parrot Tea Room

blueparrot1920sjpg“Hoity toity” was how a resident of Gettysburg PA in the 1980s remembered The Blue Parrot Tea Room in its heyday.

The tea room opened in 1920 on the Lincoln Highway (aka Chambersburg street) through Gettysburg [pictured above, before 1928]. Known initially as the Blue Parrot Tea Garden (rendered on its large lighted sign in pseudo-“Oriental” lettering), it was a soda fountain, candy store, and lunch spot at first. It quickly earned a reputation as an eating place for “discriminating” diners, according to its advertisement in the 1922 Automobile Blue Book [shown below]. Later advertising described the restaurant as modern, sanitary, and perfect for people who ran an “efficient table” at home.

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Its creator was Charles T. Ziegler, who spent years on the road as a salesman for a Chicago firm, returning to his hometown to open a gift shop in 1916 with the then-trendy name of Gifts Unusual. His shop featured imported articles such as Japanese household items and kimonos. In 1917 he bought the building his shop was in, turning it into a tea room a few years later.

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The tea room’s artistic decor, elements of which had reportedly come from England and Belgium, was of great interest to Gettysburgers. The sign on the front of the building was illuminated with 275 small lights (this was before neon). Thirty feet in length and topped with a blue parrot, the Gettysburg Times declared it “one of the most pretentious between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.”

In 1927 a visitor noted fine aspects of the Blue Parrot that he observed, many vouched for by their brand names, such as Shenango China and Community Silver. He was pleased to note that the kitchen was shiny and spotless and even the potato peeler was “cleaned to perfection.” He was also gratified by the back yard area where “every fowl is killed, cleaned and dressed by the kitchen staff.”

blueparrotadvjuly1921The Blue Parrot remained the place to go for decades. Local colleges held dinners there, as did fraternal organizations and women’s clubs. Guests included bishops, Washington dignitaries, Harrisburg business men, and traveling celebrities. A high point came in 1926 when Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Gloria Swanson and her husband, the Marquis de la Falause, stopped for dinner on a chauffeured road trip following the New York funeral of Rudolph Valentino.

The Blue Parrot could be counted on to furnish special holiday meals for Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and Easter. In 1924 it published the following menu for Thanksgiving Dinner, served from 11 am to 9 pm.

Grape Fruit
Oyster Cocktail
Bisque of Tomato
Celery              Olives
Salted Nuts
Roast Vermont Turkey English Filling
Giblet Gravy            Cranberry Jelly
Orange Sherbert [sic]
Mashed Potatoes             Green Spinach au Egg
Waldorf Salad
Hot Mince Pie                            Lemon Meringue
Pineapple Parfait                   Chocolate Ice Cream
Mixed Fruit Ice Cream
Mints
Café Noir

Dinners at the Blue Parrot in the 1920s ran from $1.25 to $1.50, while lunches were often 75 cents. The tea room advertised its prices as moderate, yet probably they would have been out of reach for many of Gettysburg’s working class residents. In the 1930s Depression the Blue Parrot, like so many other restaurants, was forced to lower its prices considerably. In the mid-1930s it offered lunch platters at 30 cents and New Year’s and Thanksgiving dinners for as little as 50 cents.

No doubt the end of Prohibition was a life saver for the Blue Parrot. As soon as beer became legal in 1933, Ziegler opened a Blue Parrot Tap Room and Grill on the second floor, with extended hours, Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap, and 10-cent crab cakes and sandwiches. He was at the head of the line for a full liquor license when they became available a few months later. The bar and grill had a western slant with rustic log cabin decor, knotty pine paneling, and a wagon wheel light fixture, all likely meant to appeal to a wide range of male customers.

blueparrotnowIn 1944 Ziegler sold the business to Gettysburg’s fire chief, James Aumen, who ran it for the next ten years, after which it had a succession of owners. Even in recent times, the original name has continued as the Blue Parrot Bistro, and now the Parrot.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under food, menus, proprietors & careers, restaurant decor, signs, tea shops

Spooky restaurants

spookycolumbusohnightclub

Montmartre in Paris was the birthplace of what would come to be known in the U.S. as the theme restaurant. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Parisian entrepreneurs conjured up fantasy atmosphere in strange and unsettling forms. Themes included assassination, imprisonment, death, hell, and that harbinger of bad luck, the black cat.

As much devoted to drinking and entertainment as food, Montmartre’s ghoulish restaurants, cafes, and cabarets inspired Americans to duplicate them. Needless to say, both in France and in America such places were heavily geared to tourists and considerably short of good taste.

One Paris establishment, the Cabaret du Néant, deliberately transgressed the boundaries of decency serving wine in skulls (thankfully artificial), using coffins for tables and x-rays to turn patrons into skeletons, and – worst of all, in 1915 – digging trenches in the backyard so patrons could experience World War I warfare conditions while dining by candlelight.

spookycabaretduneantIn 1896 the Cabaret du Néant, renamed the Restaurant of Death, had been recreated in the Casino in New York’s Central Park, right down to a candelabra made of “skulls and bones.”

spookymoulinrougecavequillsept1921

 

Greenwich Village’s Moulin Rouge used coffins and skulls in its advertising, though whether it carried the theme over to its interior is unknown. It was padlocked in 1924 for serving liquor illegally. Columbus OH had a nightclub known as The Catacombs in the Chittenden Hotel [at top of page] but I was not able to learn anything about it other than that it was doing business in 1941.

spookyblackcatgreenwichvillageOn the whole, black cats and jails gained greater popularity in the U. S., both themes inspired by Montmartre. New York City’s Black Cat had many lives [shown above], being declared dead with regularity and then reappearing. San Francisco also had a Black Cat, opened in 1911, but it sounds as though it was quite tame, filled with ferns and potted palms and an orchestra hidden behind a screen. Perhaps another Black Cat Café in San Francisco, or maybe this one transformed, operated from the 1930s into the 1960s as a center for bohemians and beats as well as a gay clientele.

As sinister animals go, rats and bats were also celebrated. Greenwich Village’s café, The Bat, was said to have a “macabre interior” similar to Paris’s famed Le Rat Mort (The Dead Rat). It’s likely that the advertising of both made them out to be far more sinister than they were.

spookysfjailrestaurant1921

As for jail restaurants and cafés, they were fairly numerous in this country. The first, labeled dungeons, opened in New York City and were places where patrons sat on crude boxes in cellars and ate steaks with their hands. They were particularly popular with men’s groups and conventioneers. In the 1920s and 1930s, restaurants and drinking places with jail themes, often with servers dressed as jailers or prisoners, appeared in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and even a small town in Iowa. Strangely, San Francisco’s Dungeon restaurant of the 1920s, complete with cells and wardens, etc., served waffles rather than steak. But then sometimes it’s hard to keep themes on track.

I’ve been working on a future post on truly scary restaurants, ones where outbreaks of food poisoning have occurred.

Meanwhile, whether or not you find a spooky restaurant to hang out in for Halloween, have a good holiday!

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, night clubs, Offbeat places, restaurant decor, theme restaurants

Famous in its day: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin

auntfannyscabinouthouse

Famous, but also infamous in its day because of how it portrayed the South before the Civil War and Emancipation as a world of smiling slaves who loved serving the kindly white people who held them captive.

Beyond its costumed mammy servers and the Black children who boisterously recited the menu, sang, danced, and proclaimed the South would rise again, the proprietors of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin restaurant in Smyrna GA created a legend regarding its name and building which appropriated and falsified the life story of a living woman.

According to an oft-told tale, the restaurant’s core building was a relic of the Civil War era and the home of a former slave, Fanny Williams, who spent her last years sitting on the restaurant’s front porch telling of the war and its aftermath. At her death in 1949 legend had it that she was very old, her age ranging from somewhere in the 90s to much older. She was “about 112 years old” when she died, restaurant owner George Poole told a reporter in 1982.

Indeed there was a real Afro-American woman named Fanny Williams. However it was revealed after the restaurant closed in the 1990s that she was born after the Civil War and had never lived in the cabin, which itself dated from the 1890s. Poole’s estimate of her 112 years had been preposterous – only a few dozen people worldwide were known to have attained that age — but newspapers had been much inclined to lax reporting when it came to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. Far from an ancient rural yokel, she was about 81 when she died, a city dweller in Atlanta, and active in raising funds for her church there. How willingly or why she adopted the ex-slave persona is unknown.

auntfannyscabin1953jpg

Fanny Williams was a servant to a wealthy Atlanta family named Campbell. She was in service to socialite Isoline Campbell McKenna in 1941 when McKenna opened a tea room-style eating place on family property near their summer home. She named it Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, hosting ladies’ luncheons, bridge clubs, and bridal showers. She leased the business in 1947, selling it to lessees Harvey Hester [pictured above instructing his employees] and Marjorie Bowman in 1954. They elaborated the Aunt Fanny legend, enacted in what are known as “Blacks in Blackface” scenes where cheerful servers sang, danced, and even joined patrons in singing “Dixie,” the anthem of the ante-bellum South. The restaurant’s third owner, George “Pongo” Poole, continued the tradition into the 1980s, although when a cabaret tax was demanded, dancing by the Black boys stopped. However, they continued to carry yoke-style wooden menu boards around their necks while they shouted out the menu offerings [child waiter shown below in 1949 before the menu boards were used].

The restaurant drew Georgians from Smyrna and Atlanta, as well as visitors from all over the country and the world. It was a tour bus stop, and a favorite of President Jimmy Carter and conventioneers such as members of the American Bar Association. Those who complained about the roles played by Black servers and the implicit celebration of slavery were characterized by proprietors as “Northern liberals,” though there is evidence that some Southerners and Westerners were also critical.

auntfannyscabin1949lifewoodburysoapadvIt became standard procedure when reporting on the restaurant to quote Poole about how his staff loved working there and was part of a big happy family. When interviewed, Black women servers would invariably attest to their love of the job and how they never felt insulted. To what extent this was a genuine expression on their parts is unknown.

What is known is that many of the elements that characterized the restaurant had been subjects of contention for a long time. A 1964 survey by Wayne State University researchers showed that most Black respondents found terms such as Sambo, Aunt Jemima, auntie, mammy, spook, and darkie offensive. Many white people, especially in the South, did not understand this, and thought that calling an elderly Black man or woman Uncle or Aunt/ie was a mark of respect. As for “mammy,” despite the affection many Southerners felt for the Black women who had cared for them when they were children, it had been rejected by many Americans long before the 1960s. In the 1920s the National Organization of Colored Women’s Clubs mobilized massive opposition to a Washington, D.C. memorial to mammies proposed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “One generation held the black mammy in abject slavery; the next would erect a monument to her fidelity,” said the club women’s official statement in 1923.

Georgia Senator Julian Bond said in the 1980s that he had little attraction to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin but could imagine that younger Blacks might find it “cute.” A journalist with the Atlanta Constitution who visited the restaurant in 1984 reported that he saw numerous Black patrons.

So, what’s the story? Did the degree of tolerance or even liking that some Black people expressed for Aunt Fanny’s Cabin mean that it held no offense to people of color? Did it mean that those who complained were thin-skinned trouble makers with an elevated sense of their own dignity who couldn’t take a joke? Did it mean, as a 1982 Washington Post story argued, that the years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were part of a post-racial age in which slavery, forced segregation, and lynching had largely ended and any remaining blatant prejudice was due simply to a few “obnoxious rednecks”?

mammy1959milwaukeeI think not.

I cannot be absolutely certain that there has never been a Black-owned restaurant that celebrated plantations, “pickaninnies,” and “mammies” of the Old South, but all the mammy restaurants I know of, mostly in business from the 1930s to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, were white-owned. And dressing Black women servers in mammy get-ups was so commonplace back then that at times I’ve wondered if wearing that costume was a waitressing job requirement for dark-skinned women.

auntfannyscabin1954jpg

After the death of owner George Poole, Aunt Fanny’s Cabin struggled and subsequent owners could not revive it. It closed for the last time in 1994, sometimes recalled as partly a victim of “political correctness.” Based on the understanding that the original portion of the restaurant’s building had been a slave cabin, the city of Smyrna proposed to move it downtown to be used as a visitors’ center. After a historic structures report revealed it dated from the 1890s, the city decided to go ahead with the project on the grounds that the restaurant had itself been a significant part of the city’s history.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under odd buildings, Offbeat places, popular restaurants, racism, restaurant decor, uniforms & costumes

Faces on the wall

caricaturessardis

People love seeing celebrities in a restaurant. Trouble is, celebrities can’t sit around in restaurants all the time. Solution: put a photograph or a cartoon of them on the wall, suggesting that they are regulars, liable to walk in at any moment.

In the United States the custom developed first in urban theater districts, in places visited frequently by publicity-seeking performers after the show.

Sardi’s in New York City [shown above] is still famous for its walls of caricatures of stars of the moment and of the past. Sardi’s tradition began in 1927, reportedly inspired by the custom in Parisian cafes. But Vincent Sardi could have found precedents in the United States too.

An early instance was Chicago’s Chapin & Gore’s of the 1870s. Located in the vicinity of McVicker’s Theatre, it was a place where “exceedingly well dressed, fast-looking men” hung out with women suspected of questionable character (a suspicion that applied to any woman without a male escort). Not only did actors make it onto Chapin & Gore’s wall but also the city’s mayor, newspaper publishers, and leading industrialists. Another room displayed what temperance advocates described as “indecent and obscene” caricatures of European notables, which a court ordered removed in 1878.

Another 19th-century precedent, dating back to at least the early 1890s, was Otto Moser’s café in Cleveland, still in business today but not at its original location. Once within walking distance of seven theaters, its walls were lined with playbills and autographed photos of performers.

caricaturesblueribbonIn New York City, as early as 1910 Joel’s Bohemian Refreshery adorned its walls with cartoons and photographs of entertainers, some drawn by Carlo de Fornaro. The café was not only popular with Broadway performers but also with Mexican rebels and others opposed to the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, aided by de Fornaro’s pen and brush. The Blue Ribbon, opened near Times Square in 1914 and closed in 1975, was also decorated with caricatures and photographs.

caricaturesbrownderbynvineChallenging Sardi’s for nationally-known wall fame was Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant, which opened in 1929 and closed in 1985. Lore has it that caricatures of movie star patrons from the nearby studios began to go on the walls after a Polish artist agreed to exchange his artwork for meals. He achieved fame as “Vitch,” later mailing his sketches from London where he had a career as a pantomimist. Like Sardi’s, the Brown Derby employed many a sketch artist over the decades, however few restaurant artists stayed on the job as long as the Detroit London Chop House’s Hy Vogel [“Prince” Mike Romanoff shown below].caricaturesromanoff2

Today, a repro Brown Derby lives on, so to speak, on the grounds of Disney Studios, complete with caricatures (of course). Which reminds me of the inquiring reporter exploring a number of Dallas restaurants adorned with celebrity photos. He asked the manager of a national chain restaurant in 1982 whether it was really true that Cary Grant had eaten there, in Dallas. Not exactly, admitted the restaurant’s publicity director, but the actor had been to one of the chain’s other units. Somewhere.

It’s rather surprising that Cary Grant’s picture was even on a restaurant wall in 1982 since he made his last movie in 1966. Given that fame doesn’t last long, those who manage picture walls tend to rearrange them from time to time. What to do with outdated celebrities, stars no one has heard of? In the 1970s Sardi’s moved old-timers to “memory lane” on the second floor, while the owner of Miller’s Coffee Shop in Little Rock AR admitted at the restaurant’s closing in 1970 that a few years earlier many of its caricatures had been given away or simply papered over.

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An equally sad fate has befallen regular patrons of Palm steak houses. The tradition of drawing and painting caricatures of famous and faithful customers directly on the walls began at the original Palm on 45th street in New York City [shown above] during the Depression. Later, it continued at locations around the country, but in recent years many of the images have been destroyed due to remodeling and closures.

When you think about it, restaurants’ fortunes are as shaky as those of celebrities.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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A fantasy drive-in

carl'sviewparkMenu

I am fascinated by restaurants that are bizarrely at odds with their location, climate, and cultural environment. Such as Polynesian restaurants in Arizona.

Drive-ins make sense in car-obsessed Southern California, but a grandiose drive-in such as Carl’s “Colonial” with an Old South theme in Depression-era Los Angeles? With architecture inspired by Southern plantations and white female servers costumed as Southern belles and top-hatted coachmen? With an ornate mahogany doorway leading from the staid dining room into a streamlined moderne barroom? [see below] And a thoroughly modern, thermostatically controlled stainless steel kitchen turning out spaghetti and turkey with New England dressing?

Carl'sViewparkdiningroomwithbar

All societies offer some form of escapism, traditionally wild festivals where revelers are released from everyday roles and inhibitions. But restaurants such as Carl’s offered a different kind of  escapism that shored up inhibitions and insured that roles were strictly adhered to. Far from allowing revelry or role reversal, gracious Southern dining took place in a forbidding room decorated with murals of slaves picking cotton and a portrait of George Washington looming from above the mantle. [shown above; the murals are barely visible]  Only white girls were allowed to dress as Southern belles; ice water and rolls were dispensed by dark-skinned “mammies.”

carlsViewparkservers

Yet in another way Carl’s was totally in sync with its environment. A Los Angeles Times story in 1940 noted, “Los Angeles restaurants serving American food often reflect the architecture of other lands.” Undoubtedly part of the explanation for the scenographic quality of Carl’s – and many other unusual theme restaurants in Southern California – was that they played to tourists’ fantasies. And why not, since a hefty 25% of restaurant revenue was estimated to come from tourists?

carl'sViewparkMarch1938The “Colonial” Carl’s, on the corner of Crenshaw and Vernon, was built by the Los Angeles Investment Company and leased to its operators, Carl B. Anders and A. V. Spencer. The area was under development with about 13 new stores on Crenshaw skirting the residential subdivision of Viewpark. When Carl’s opened in 1938 there were close to 1,000 homes in Viewpark with more underway following the company’s acquisition of acreage that had housed the Olympic Village in 1932. Under restrictive covenants, houses could be sold only to white buyers.

Despite serving up to 4,000 customers a day, many of them groups such as women’s and businessmen’s clubs, Carl’s Colonial in Viewpark went out of business in 1953. After a brief run as Martha’s Restaurant, it was torched in 1954, destroying the building that had cost the fabulous sum of $115,000 when it was constructed.

Carl’s in Viewpark was one of five in the Carl’s chain (not to be confused with Carl’s, Jr.). The first was opened in 1931 on Figueroa and Flower as a simple hamburger stand built to serve people attending the 1932 Olympic Games. It was so successful it was enlarged three times in four years, serving up to 5,000 people daily in 1937. The chain became known for its multi-purpose restaurants that included a drive-in component as well as full-service dining rooms, banquet facilities, outdoor dining patios, and cocktail lounges. Other Carl’s included one on the Plaza in Palm Springs, one on the Pacific Coast Highway that was featured in the movie Mildred Pierce, and one on East Olympic Blvd. at Soto Street.

According to John T. Edge, Southern theme restaurants have recently resurfaced in Los Angeles.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Coppa’s famous walls

coppa'sBlackCat2

The San Francisco restaurant Coppa’s became legendary in the early 20th century as a gathering spot for bohemian artists and writers, especially after they decorated its walls with curious and intriguing murals. Though the murals remained in existence for scarcely a year, because of the devastating fires that followed the earthquake of April 1906, they have been forever tied to the restaurant’s mystique.

coppaincoppa'sBlackCatOver the course of months in 1905 the murals were drawn in chalk crayon by artists who frequented the restaurant on Montgomery Street. Legend has it that proprietor Giuseppe “Joseph” Coppa papered (or painted) his walls a hideous red that offended their esthetic sensibilities, impelling them to mask it with their humorous, nonsensical drawings. An alternative explanation is that Coppa asked the artists to draw on the walls and that he chose red as a good backdrop. I find this more convincing since Coppa himself was a painter.

A row of stenciled black cats at the original location, by Xavier Martinez, was inspired by Le Chat Noir in Paris, the city where Martinez had studied painting. They gave the restaurant its nickname, The Black Cat, which was also used at its new post-fire location.

While I was at the Library of Congress a few weeks ago I had a chance to look at the hard-to-find book The Coppa Murals, by Warren Unna (1952). He interviewed some of the artists involved and also Felix Piantanida, Coppa’s early partner who was responsible for preserving the photographs shown in the book. It’s likely the photos were taken for use in an article by Mabel Croft Deering not published until June 1906 in The Critic, but written before April’s destruction caused Coppa’s closure. The murals themselves were at some point scrubbed off or painted over by the landlord.

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Though the restaurant was looted by vandals, the building Coppa’s restaurant was in actually somehow escaped destruction [shown above]. With few buildings intact, its value rose and Coppa’s landlord raised the rent, leading Coppa to vacate and open another Black Cat on Pine Street in November. He and Piantanida split up, and for a short time Piantanida conducted a restaurant called La Boheme in the space formerly occupied by Coppa’s.

The artists and illustrators who contributed drawings included some who would become prominent, such as Maynard Dixon, Xavier Martinez, and Gelett Burgess. The artists, along with poets and writers, contributed puzzling sayings and quotations that adorned the walls, fascinating – and insulting – customers (“Philistines”) who came to gawk at the bohemians.

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The cover of Unna’s book shows a crude rendering of a mural by Xavier Martinez depicting the restaurant’s core group of regulars. Martinez is seated at the far right. Standing behind him is poet Bertha Brubaker, wife of Perry Newberry, smoking a cigarette. Her nickname “Buttsky,” which referred to her habit of saving cigarette butts, appears in the “hall of fame” of names that run beneath the black cats. The names of Coppa’s regulars are interspersed with those of famous writers such as [Johann Wolfgang] Goethe, [François] Villon, and [Guillaume] Apollinaire. The few women named are hard to identify since their last names do not appear, but Maisie was freelance writer Mary Edith Griswold and Isabell was allegedly a newspaper writer.

coppa'sMaynardDixonSimpleLifeinBohemiaWhen Coppa moved to Pine Street, a new row of cats appeared, but now marching in the opposite direction. Maynard Dixon also contributed several new images. One of his shows Coppa unfurling a scrolled menu to a crowd that includes regulars who were violinists, writers, poets, and artists. On another wall Dixon commemorated Coppa’s “Last Supper” at his old location, celebrated soon after the fire and necessitating official approval and protection from a marshal who stood guard outside. Another notable feature of the Pine Street murals were two works by a woman, painter and jewelry designer May Mott-Smith.

coppa'sredpaint

Coppa’s second Black Cat closed in 1913, after which Joseph and his son Victor launched Neptune Palace, a more commercial cabaret restaurant. In 1916 Joseph returned to a bohemian theme with The Red Paint, a short-lived restaurant on Washington Street that went out of business at the start of Prohibition, stopping the flow of “red paint,” i.e., wine. It too had murals, never completely finished and lacking the inspiration of those at the earlier Black Cats, despite Maynard Dixon’s participation once again. Many in the old gang had moved to Carmel by the Sea and things were not the same.

coppasaug231933In 1922 Coppa opened yet another restaurant, at 120 Spring Street, offering “old-time dinners,” possibly so-called because they were paired with illicit wine. Joseph was often arrested in raids by prohibition agents, and Victor once escaped by running out the back door. It’s possible the restaurant was officially padlocked for a time because in 1933 it “re-opened,” with the unveiling of a painting by the ever-faithful Maynard Dixon of a nude woman dressed only in shoes, stockings, and a large-brimmed hat with her legs crossed atop the table, toasting an obese man opposite her [see 1933 advertisement]. The same image was used on the cover of the restaurant’s menu at its final location, 241 Pine. That closed in December 1939, marking the end of Joe Coppa’s long culinary career.

Joseph’s wife, Elizabeth, who had been the dining room manager and cashier, died in 1938. After his retirement he took up painting, focusing on portraits of men such as business magnates, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and poet George Sterling.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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