Category Archives: restaurant etiquette

Restaurant wear

dinnerdresses1912

Although affluent women of the upper classes patronized restaurants in the 19th century, they usually did not do so unless they had a male escort, preferably a brother, father, or husband. Respectable women were not supposed to appear too much in public view, and only in select eating places such as the dining rooms of leading hotels.

But as the century ended the situation began to change. Dining and entertaining in restaurants became fashionable and women appeared in public during the daytime without an escort, whether at lunch or afternoon tea. And they wanted to be seen.

The idea that there was a certain type of clothing right for these occasions began to take hold. Around 1900 the terms restaurant wear, restaurant gown, and restaurant frock proliferated in newspaper stories that reported on what stylish women were seen wearing in Paris restaurants.

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It was a sign that restaurant-going had truly arrived. It no longer inevitably carried the stigma of vice and moral peril. Even though the majority of American women, especially those living in small towns and rural areas, might never see the inside of a swank tea room or café, those reading the society pages could imagine all eyes on them as they entered an elegant restaurant dressed in the latest style.

In 1903 women of Tacoma WA who followed their paper’s “Fashion Hints from the Shops” learned that black silk costumes for restaurant going were “quite the thing.” The prettiest gowns had skirts with flouncy semi-trains and a pleated top with velvet bows in front worn with a long fringed silk scarf.

Top tea rooms and restaurants became stages for virtual fashion shows. Clever dressmakers were said to “haunt” tea rooms to get ideas of the latest styles. In New York, Delmonico’s and Sherry’s were prime spots to see the pleats, flounces, laces, scallops, eyelets, and ribbons of the much be-decked outfits of 1905. The wisdom of the day had it that women went to such places not for the food, but to see what other women were wearing.

dinnerdresses1909frockThose traveling in the open autos of 1909 wore heavy, unattractive coats to protect them from road dirt and grime. But the bright side, pointed out the Philadelphia Inquirer, was that the coats were loose enough around the shoulders that “really elaborate costumes may be worn beneath them without harm.” The example, hard to appreciate in the black and white drawing here, was a coral pink restaurant frock with braided trim and crocheted buttons topped with a hat sporting what were mysteriously described as “vivid coral wings.”

Enormous attention was paid to women’s necklines with the new interest in restaurant wear. Time and again readers were warned not to confuse restaurant wear with formal wear. The rules were firm. Formal wear meant revealingly plunging necklines, bare arms, and no hat. Restaurant wear, by contrast, meant a frontal coverup, with a moderate neckline or even a high choker-style collar. The dress must have sleeves and the costume was to be topped off with a hat.

But rules are often broken. According to Julian Street’s 1910 magazine article titled “Lobster Palace Society,” gauche gold-trimmed Babylonian restaurants such as the Café de l’Opera in New York’s Times Square made every effort to seat women with low necklines prominently on the ground floor.

dinnerdresses1922franksederphilThe 1920s featured a new silhouette, as shown in this advertisement for glamorous gowns in 1922 as sold in Philadelphia’s Frank & Seder department store. Hats were getting smaller in the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes replaced with hair ornaments.

dinnerdresses1933repealFar from the Depression dampening the wish to get dressed up and go out on the town, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 introduced a new fashion category, the cocktail dress. Tailored looks prevailed, and in 1938 a fashion columnist chided women who instead chose “luscious, romantic, billowy” frocks to wear to restaurants and nightclubs, sternly telling them that “such fragile, pale bits of formality are not worn!”

dinnerdresses1945cotillionrmhotelpierreThe trend toward simplification and informality continued in the 1940s with a wartime preference for plain, dark dresses as shown here. By the mid-1950s many women reportedly tried to pass off sundresses as appropriate for the cocktail hour (verdict: “Nothing could be more incorrect for after-five-wear.”) while teens couldn’t see why they shouldn’t wear jeans to a restaurant. Not nearly special enough, reasoned the columnist Dorothy Dix. Advice thrown aside, the casual trend continued.

Since the 1970s “restaurant wear” has come to refer mainly to uniforms for restaurant staff.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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“Come as you are”

ComeasyouAreFayettevilleNC

Before restaurants adopted the expression, it was used by churches, with a double meaning that referred both to dress and to the shame of past deeds.

However, in restaurants it simply meant that patrons could wear their everyday casual clothes.

In the hospitality field, the slogan took hold first in the West. In the teens and 1920s, it was commonly used by hotels and resorts. It may seem odd that a resort where people swim, golf, and play tennis would require women to wear dresses and men to wear jackets to dinner, but that was not uncommon in the 1920s, especially in the East. In fact, the custom can still be found today, but it stands as a quaint re-enactment of past times as much as anything.

comeasyouareLeaderMC

The western attitude toward casual dress in hotels, resorts, and restaurants spread slowly and was not without some resistance. Oddly, it met the greatest resistance from a business operating in the West: the Fred Harvey company that ran eating houses for the Santa Fe railroad.

The Harvey company required men to wear jackets in its dining rooms – even before electric fans and regardless of hot weather. If a man refused to wear a jacket, he would be served only at an adjoining lunch counter. In the early 1920s the Harvey company fought an Oklahoma Corporation Commission decision that threw out Harvey’s jacket rule. But Oklahoma’s supreme court ruled in favor of Harvey, declaring that the company had the right to require jackets. “Unlike the lower animals, we all demand the maintenance of some style and fashion in the dining-room,” said the decision.

Full-scale formal dress – white tie and tails for men and women wearing long evening gowns – was never common in this country. Nonetheless etiquette advisors who wrote for women’s magazines liked to suggest the opposite, flattering (and confusing) their readers with rules followed only by the upper, upper reaches of high society. However, even if formal wear was rarely necessary, there was an expectation that diners in a nice restaurant or hotel dining room would at least wear what we now refer to as business attire. The St. Regis Hotel in New York City advertised widely in 1908 that it was a comfortable, homey hotel opposed to snobbish dress rules, yet making it clear that “The wearing of a business suit bars no one from admission or service.”

As widely as she was published and read, etiquette maven Emily Post never seemed to be in tune with most Americans. During the depths of the Depression she continued to insist that women should wear suits, hats, and gloves to a restaurant lunch and dinner dresses in the evening. Even at a summer resort, she declared, women should wear cover-up shoes when dining out. “Bare-toed sandals with evening dresses are too revolting to mention,” she wrote.

comeasyouarePortland1952

Following World War II as young families were established and the suburbs spread, things began to change radically. The restaurant industry realized that finding a babysitter or dressing up the whole family was a barrier to restaurant going for many. Instead families were turning to informal roadside places. “Drive-ins, with their motto of ‘Come as You Are, Eat in Your Car,’ have a siren call for parents with insoluble sitter problems,” observed the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1960.

Chains also got the message. A 1963 Bonanza advertisement proclaimed low-priced steak dinners plus “No tipping – Children ½ price – Come as you are – Western atmosphere.”

comeasyouarelittleblackdressMeanwhile, in the late 1960s, in the midst of the hippie upheaval, Gloria Vanderbilt recommended the “little black dress” as always correct for dining in a fine restaurant. But informality was winning as women wearing pants gained acceptance even in luxury New York City restaurants in the early 1970s, a rule change stimulated no doubt by a damaging recession.

By the late 1970s dress codes had been relaxed to the point that many upscale restaurants were minimally satisfied if their customers at least wore “dressy casual,” which usually meant designer jeans, shirts with collars, and no short-shorts, tank tops, or halter tops. Some chains accepted t-shirts as long as they weren’t white, but everyone agreed that patrons had to wear some kind of shirt and shoes.

Today, as Alison Pearlman has written in her fine book Smart Casual, the bond between fancy formal restaurants and gourmet dining has been loosened further by affluent young professionals in the creative industries. If they wear hoodies and jeans to work they expect to do the same as they sample innovative dishes at a hip restaurant.
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And yet, along with the relentless trend toward casual dress, the tendency to show off in public persists, possibly as strongly as in the late 1890s when women of New York’s “smart set” took to the cafes to display the latest fashions.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under chain restaurants, drive-ins, elite restaurants, family restaurants, patrons, restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette

All you can eat

allyoucaneatFjordsSmorg-Ette

Except for the patrons of rarefied restaurants for whom exquisitely hand-crafted miniature food represents the triumph of artistic appreciation over animal hunger, most people like food in quantity. Even if they do not eat a great deal, they like the idea that they could if they wanted to.

allyoucaneatJPG1896ElyriaOHRestaurants advertising free seconds — or thirds — can be found in the 19th century, one example being the City Restaurant in Elyria OH in 1896 [shown here]. But it wasn’t until the Depression of the 1930s that the all-you-can-eat idea became a newsworthy phenomenon. In response to declining business, restaurants such as Childs in the East and Boos Brothers in the West took advantage of falling food prices by offering patrons as much of whatever they wanted for a set price of 50 or 60 cents.

In this Depression experiment restaurant proprietors learned something important about how people react when offered unlimited food. A few people went crazy, stuffing down as much as they could [below: Peter Rabbit cartoon by Harrison Cady, 1933], but most didn’t eat more than they normally would. If they overindulged in anything, it was desserts.

allyoucaneatJPG1933PeterRabbitHarrisonCady

All-you-can-eat as an adaptation to challenging economic conditions did not altogether disappear with the end of the Depression. Many restaurants found that having one night a week when they offered a special deal on a particular food, especially fried chicken or fish, could fill the house on a perpetually slow weeknight or help to build business generally.

Smorgasbords based on Swedish hors d’oeuvres tables also made their debut in the 1930s. At Childs and other Depression all-you-can-eat restaurants patrons relied on a server to bring their order, but smorgasbords introduced a novel approach: patrons helped themselves to relishes and appetizers from an attractively laid out table, and were then served with their main course as in a traditional restaurant.

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The smorgasbord idea, it turned out, was a step on the way to the all-you-can-eat buffet. In the 1950s and 1960s chains developed whose entire business plans were based on bargain-priced buffets abounding with macaroni and cheese, chow mein, fried chicken wings, and “sparkling salads,” i.e. jello. Chains divested smorgasbords of their ethnic overtones even as some continued to call themselves by that name. In California, the word “smorgy” emerged (variations included smorga, smorgee, & smorg-ette). Rather than using round smorgasbord serving tables with food presented in decorative bowls and platters, high-volume chains tended toward cafeteria-type service with stainless steel pans.

allyoucaneatEric'sSwedishSmorgasbordGlendoraCA

California smorgys displayed seeming cultural diversity, with Ramona’s Smorgy, Mario’s Smorgy, and Gong Lee’s Smorgy. I’m still trying to grasp the concept behind Johnny Hom’s Chuck Wagon/Hofbrau/Smorgy in Stockton CA, the town that may have merited the title of smorgy capital of the U.S.A.

Along with the Swedish smorgasbord tradition, the spread of buffets and smorgys nationwide may have been aided by the $1.50 midnight spreads in Las Vegas casinos, which in the 1950s gave all-you-can-eat a popular culture imprimatur.

Opinion has been divided as to whether all-you-can-eat (or the more genteel “all-you-care-to-eat”) restaurants tended to serve cheap and inferior food. Many restaurants stressed that they baked daily, made their own sauces, or used fresh vegetables. “At Perry Boys’ Smorgy Restaurant, an inexpensive price doesn’t mean a cheap product,” according to an advertisement listing brand name foods in use. Yet, a 1968 restaurant trade journal seemed to suggest otherwise judging from its advice that “attractive buffet fare based on low-cost foods is essential.” For Quick Chicken Tetrazzini, it recommended mixing pre-cooked diced chicken with condensed mushroom soup and serving it over noodles.

As popular as all-you-can-eat restaurants were in the 1960s and 1970s, they suffered in the public relations department. They often undermined their own mini-industry with insults slung at each other. Is it helpful while touting your own restaurant to remind the public that “the words ‘all you can eat’ often mean quantity at the expense of quality”? And what does it say about the many restaurants advertising fried perch specials when a competitor says of its fish: “This is NOT frozen perch”?

AllyoucaneatJPGPhoenix&MesaPaulPerry'sSmorgee

Likewise some operators took an unfortunate “the customer is not always right” stance by posting signs that warned patrons to take no more than they could eat [see above]. This was directed at those, admittedly a small minority (but still!), who came equipped with plastic-lined handbags or special pouches in their coats in which to stow food to carry away. Meanwhile, other proprietors denounced these warning signs as an insult to guests.

Customers with huge appetites were another species of problem that most all-you-can-eat restaurants tried to be philosophical about, figuring above-average consumption would be balanced by the light eaters. Proprietors told themselves that the man who downed 90 steamed clams, or the one who swallowed 40 pieces of fried chicken, would provide free advertising when he boasted at work how much he ate. Families were prized customers, construction gangs less so. And they dreaded school football teams. Some restaurants located near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found it necessary to put restrictions on salad bars.

allyoucaneatFL

Let’s face it, since the fall of Rome, gorging has been seen as unattractive. Restaurant owners and employees sometimes expressed disgust at customer behavior such as grabbing food off trays as staff tried to replenish buffets. “It’s disgusting,” said the proprietor of a Dallas all-you-can-eat steak restaurant, adding, “Some of them just ought to be led off to a big, old hog trough.” Another manager admitted that workers called customers “animals” in private. “You lose your appetite working in a place like this,” said one.

As a reporter wrote of Las Vegas buffets in 1983, “If I ever see another metal pan of mashed potatoes awash in melted margarine, another sea of macaroni salad, another ‘medley’ of canned corn, carrots and peas . . .” Stop right there!

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Between courses: masticating with Horace

fletcherismlargeteethCaption

Having made a lot of money in the importing business early in life, Horace P. Fletcher [1849-1919] retired and became a popular health guru known as the “Great Masticator.” He let people know how they could eat less and reduce their food budget, have better digestion, and get more enjoyment out of eating. His ideas attracted quite a bit of attention in the early 20th century.

Not that everyone agreed that chewing food to pulp – at least 30 chews according to the scientific system of Fletcherism — was how they wanted to experience the joys of degustation. Nor would everyone want to witness someone Fletcherizing.

Take oysters. Who would want to go to a restaurant with someone who chewed oysters until all that remained was pulp? And then see him remove the residue from his mouth saying, “The juice is all out of this. The stomach does not need it.” This uncomfortable moment might well take place in an elegant dining room such as at New York’s Waldorf Astoria.

fletcherismhoraceDairy lunch rooms — with their simple a la carte menus of cereals, milk, potatoes, and other starches – were his favorite places to eat. But, he often stayed at deluxe hotels and ate in their dining rooms. Throwing aside their sumptuous menus, he had no qualms at all about ordering highly irregular – not to mention cheap — meals, often omitting meat or anything resembling a main dish.

In 1904, in a hotel dining room, he ordered hash brown potatoes, which he ate with a spoon, and half a French roll. He used the other half for dessert, after pouring over it a mixture of cream and sugar he whipped together. His waiters undoubtedly got small tips but at least he gave them something to talk about for months afterward.

A lunch room repast might be something such as a leaf of lettuce with only oil for dressing, two pancakes, and a cup of custard. He drank coffee slowly, taking a sip and holding it in his mouth for 30 seconds.

In 1912 he ate nothing but potatoes for 58 days. Testing by scientists showed that his strength and endurance did not suffer as a result of his diet.

Despite his extremism – and his fondness for potatoes and candy – his stress on eating less meat, eating more slowly, and not swallowing barely chewed food may have served  his followers well. He was a hero to many people, particularly dentists who were overjoyed with his appreciation of teeth.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Mind your manners: restaurant etiquette

EtiquettetablemannersWhen etiquette manuals address manners in restaurants they are usually discussing first-class restaurants since that is where people are at their most self-conscious and insecure. Cheap, casual restaurants, on the other hand, have been understood as living museums of what not to do, presumably being filled with patrons who are perfectly content to slurp their coffee, eat off their knives, tuck napkins under their chins, and chew on toothpicks.

For many people, middle-class women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in particular, the notion of eating among strangers required some getting used to. Although etiquette at its most basic means being considerate of the feelings of others, it is clear that much advice was meant to make female readers themselves at ease in restaurants.

Anxiety started at the point of entry. Walking through a restaurant toward a table was agony for some women. As a woman writer in American Kitchen Magazine remarked in 1899, “Even today it is a severe trial for many women, and some men, to enter a hotel dining room and particularly hard if it must be done without a companion. Some that march in with boldest front and utmost nonchalance are but actors, trembling within while brave to outward seeming.”

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As a result of discomfort about walking to a table, for years etiquette books and columns seemed preoccupied with this subject. All agreed that when the headwaiter beckoned, the woman of the duo should go ahead of her male companion. I would think that would have made women even more uncomfortable but perhaps the ruling of etiquette mavens relieved the stress of uncertainty. Horrors, the man is going first in the above illustration.

As women went to restaurants more often, things began to change. Young women grew restless at the confinement of propriety which required that they could not go out with a man without a chaperon, could not drink wine, and should only pick at their food. How shocking that they began to have fun, devour their dinners with enthusiasm, and lean their elbows on the table!

As late as 1915, though, women were still being advised to let the man do the ordering and not to even look at the menu unless he suggested it. As for the bill, heaven forbid she should view it: “A woman makes a point, always in restaurants, of not seeing the check when it is brought by the waiter, and while the man is getting out the money to pay it she should keep her gaze from it.”

EtiquetteDon'tEatLikeaBoob1917

If the 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky is at all representative, ambitious immigrants also wanted advice on restaurant-ing. In it David admits that on his first visit to a high-class restaurant with a business associate, “The occasion seemed to call for a sort of table manners which were beyond the resources . . . of a poor novice like myself.” He confesses ignorance to his kindly companion who agrees to tutor him on how to order, use a napkin, eat soup, fish, and meat and “what to do with the finger bowl.”

Conservative advice continued to be issued in the 1920s, such as Emily Post’s 1923 dictum: “Absolutely no lady (unless middle-aged – and even then she would be defying convention) can go to dinner or supper in a restaurant alone with a gentlemen.” But the Depression and World War II eras were about to have the effect of relaxing American customs.

Still, even today many people have questions about how to act in a formal restaurant setting. As for how to handle bread, break it into pieces and butter each piece individually before eating it. And what if you drop a fork? Ask the server for another. Personally, I truly wish more people would follow this 1904 counsel: “Private affairs should not, ordinarily, be discussed in the public dining room, but if they are, a low tone should be used.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Dipping into the finger bowl

Once upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.

Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*

These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.

Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.

Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.

For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.

Whether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.

But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.

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Etiquette violations: eating off your knife

While eating lunch at the Café Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie in New York last week what did I see but a well-dressed, “high-net-worth-individual” eating from her knife? She held a fork in her left hand and a knife in her right and delivered food to her mouth with both implements. She managed the operation unobtrusively and deftly, but still … I was amazed. I’ve read so many historical accounts by horrified witnesses of this behavior that I could not believe my eyes.

Foreign visitors before the Civil War were aghast to see American restaurant-goers convey food to their mouths with a knife and believed the habit was peculiar to the United States, which they regarded as a nation full of bumpkins. Some Americans retorted that it was not found solely in this country. They argued that the haughty visitors were accustomed to being sheltered by social class segregation in their own societies that prevented them from ever seeing their fellow countrymen who did this. Because the U.S. was more democratic, they said, all classes of people ended up eating together in the same restaurants and so a wide variety of eating customs were on display.

Evidently the habit was fairly common in the 1860s. Onlookers not familiar with this type of scene expressed nervousness that diners who appeared to be swallowing their knives might be in “imminent danger of ripping open their mouths from ear to ear.” That didn’t seem to happen but the mere idea was enough to put people with delicate sensibilities on edge.

In the 19th century eating off a knife was typically associated with cheap restaurants that had dirty tablecloths, uncouth waiters, and chipped dishes. Patrons at these places often exhibited other bad habits such as hunching over their plates. A Philadelphia restaurant keeper of the 1880s, hoping to attract better mannered patrons, went so far as to eject anyone who ate from a knife. He instructed waiters to tap the culprit on the shoulder and say that someone wanted to see them at the cashier’s desk near the door. The waiter then brought the person (usually a man) his coat and hat and asked him to leave. If he balked, a bouncer appeared.

No one reacted to the woman at the Café Sabarsky. Her companions seemed not to notice how she ate.

Up to last week I believed that eating from a knife had stopped back in the 19th century. Now I wonder: is the custom returning, or was it merely one person’s peculiar method of eating?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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