Category Archives: restaurant issues

Reflections on a name: Plantation

Restaurant names such as Plantation, Old/Ole Plantation, and Southern Plantation leave me wondering why. Why adopt a name that references slavery and is offensive to a lot of people, particularly if they are Black?

Plantation names are similar to ones such as Sambo’s, Mammy’s Kitchen, or those with the initials KKK. Maybe not all who have chosen such names intended to insult anyone, but were unaware of their resonance. But, really, how much reflection does it take to realize that such names carry deeply negative historical associations?

Isn’t it just plain bad business to have an offensive name? Evidently the Disney company thought so. They tried hard to create a fictitious, slavery-free history of their Louisiana resort Dixie Landings by avoiding the name plantation. Eventually they shed “Dixie Landings” as well, becoming Port Orleans Riverside. Of course, white-washing history is controversial in its own right, but clearly Disney recognized that “plantation” held liabilities.

Ostensibly, restaurants named Plantation were meant to convey gracious Southern hospitality. But, again, the question is for whom? If your ancestors were enslaved and forced to do hard labor for white people who lived graciously off their profits, would you be charmed by this concept?

Although it might be assumed that most Plantation Restaurants were in the South, this is not the case. Since the early 20th century, and especially after World War II, they have appeared in Michigan, Wisconsin, California, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut, and other northern, western, and midwestern states. In the 1920s and 1930s the Seattle WA environs were fertile ground for restaurants with racially offensive names. In addition to The Plantation, there was Mammy’s Shack, Henry the Watermelon King, Coon Chicken Inn, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Why would anyone choose the name Plantation? Perhaps because they had access to a building that looked like a Southern manor house, so it seemed “natural’ to name it that. But then, how to explain restaurants that had no magnolias, no romance whatsoever and looked more like roadhouses than elegant mansions [above, Auburn IN].

Others added “columns” in a not-very-convincing attempt to mimic a plantation mansion.

And then there were the Plantation Restaurants that exhibited confused identities not expressive of their name with respect either to cuisine or ambiance. What were patrons to make of New York City’s Old Plantation on West 47th in the 1920s with its Mexican dishes? The Old Plantation Restaurant near Lawton OK served bratwurst and schnitzel in the 1960s. Nor is there anything about pancakes or a vaguely early American exterior that would seem to suggest the name Pancake Plantation. Equally odd, Charleston’s 1970s Plantation Restaurant was decorated with wagon wheel light fixtures and red tablecloths.

It seems more likely that the popularity of the name can be explained by large numbers of white people who actually loved the “moonlight and magnolias” aura that surrounds plantations. Many advertised for banquet trade, and may have wanted to attract wedding parties. Even today many white women reportedly associate plantations primarily with romance as portrayed in the film Gone With the Wind.

When – and if – proprietors were informed that quite a few Americans were offended by such a name, how would they respond? The answer is not on record. But having received many comments to this effect on other race-related posts, I can imagine many would reply: it was long ago, don’t be so negative, get over it.

There are still quite a few restaurants named Plantation in business today. I’d say it’s way past time to reject that as a name.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

17 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, patrons, racism, restaurant issues, theme restaurants

Restaurant-ing on wheels

Will more people turn to food trucks for away-from-home meals this summer? With the cancellation of so many outdoor festivals and events, food truck operators may want to set up on city streets instead.

But in many places they may face obstacles that go back more than 100 years, to the era of the horse-drawn lunch wagon.

Selling ready-to-eat food on the street originated long ago. As far back as the 1830s, and again in the 1850s, “omnibuses” outfitted as cafes appeared on the streets of Paris and Lyons. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that some American sellers of prepared food graduated to vehicles. Following Chicago’s disastrous fire of 1871, “wagons gaily painted and covered with awnings” showed up on street corners supplying homeless crowds with basics such as sausages, fish, oysters, boiled onions, baked potatoes, pie, and coffee.

Early lunch wagons could be found in other states too. The oldest advertisement I’ve found is from Connecticut in 1877. In the 19th century they were usually referred to as night lunch wagons since night was their busy, sometimes only, time of business.

In the 1880s the number of lunch wagons grew. Temperance groups in Chicago and the Northeast adopted them as a way to lure late-night drinkers with coffee and rolls, naming their vehicles “owl wagons.”

The first wagons tended to be cobbled together out of spare parts, but it wasn’t long before enterprising New Englanders realized the potential for profit in manufacturing them. Worcester, Massachusetts, became a center of production for a number of companies, as detailed in the classic book American Diner by Richard Gutman. By 1892, Worcester lunch wagon maker Charles Palmer was supplying his patented lunch wagons to many parts of the country. Some of them had elaborately painted exteriors that made them resemble circus wagons. Larger ones tended to have enough room inside to allow a few customers to sit at narrow side counters, while in older and homemade models orders were handed out a window.

Except for in Southern states where they were rare, their numbers continued to grow in the 1890s. It’s likely that the economic depression of that decade expanded their popularity. The low prices lunch wagons charged for humble food such as hamburger sandwiches made them favorites of the poor who formed their main customer base along with heavy drinking saloon patrons. In some places they were known as sandwich or frankfurter wagons, and in California as tamale wagons. Whatever they served, it was inexpensive.

Some lunch wagon proprietors made a decent profit but there were costs to doing business in addition to supplies. These could include wagon rental, hiring a horse to haul the wagon back and forth, rental of a garage to store the wagon during off time, and sometimes various payoffs to authorities and saloon owners.

It didn’t take long for opposition to lunch wagons to emerge, particularly from all-night restaurant keepers who became angry when wagons took a stand outside their doors. In 1893 restaurant keepers in Hartford CT petitioned the city for an ordinance that would limit how many hours lunch wagons could be on the streets. Complaints against the wagons were extensive. Restaurant owners declared that their businesses built up the town by supporting taxable properties, while the lunch wagons did not. They also argued that city streets were not intended as business sites.

Other complaints — from city officials and the public at large — focused on traffic congestion, gaudy and ugly appearance, unsanitary conditions, and rough customers who got into fights. In Los Angeles in the early 1900s, wagon proprietors were criticized for serving “embalmed” beef dosed with chemical preservatives. There were complaints about cooking odors. In Fort Worth TX, a paper reported, “Some people simply don’t like the idea of seeing a man take a big greasy hamburger sandwich and standing on the sidewalk munching away, while ladies and children pass and cannot avoid seeing him.” (Hamburger was seen as undesirable poor people’s food then.)

Fancier lunch wagon designs may have been intended to win greater acceptance. “White House” lunch wagons, produced by Thomas Buckley in Worcester and regarded as the finest made, were not only painted a clean-looking white but had colored glass windows with images of presidents and military figures. By 1899 the Buckley company was said to operate and control the lunch wagon business in 25 cities. The company sent wagons all the way to the Pacific Coast. However, despite their finery, Buckley wagons in Chicago operated in the poor parts of the city, where payoffs to property owners and police were often necessary.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th more regulations and limitations were forced on lunch wagon operators. Some required restaurant licenses or limited the number any one owner could operate. Chicago was among the cities that banned wagons on main streets, while others such as Albany NY and Lynn MA banned them on all streets. Operators began to look for alleyways or permanent locations they could settle on, often hiding their wheels behind dummy foundations. Over time the prefab eateries – now called diners – were produced in larger sizes, without wheels, and with better seating and cooking facilities.

But, now-motorized portable restaurants on wheels did not go away – rather they adapted to the restrictions by going on the move. They traveled to factories for shift changes, or to fairs and carnivals. As long as they were moving all day and had a peddler’s license, they were legal. Then, in the 2000s, food trucks became somewhat upscale, appealing to customers interested in exploring dishes from a wide range of the world’s cookbooks.

Yet some of the issues that plagued early lunch wagons lingered on. Complaints today no longer target brawling customers or spoiled food, but not all cities welcome the trucks. Fumes from gasoline powered generators that many trucks use can be obnoxious. And of course restaurants still don’t want them parked outside. Regulation of food trucks has increased considerably since the olden days (see Wikipedia) and some locations are off limits.

But, with the threat of the spread of disease and some diners’ hesitations about indoor seating, I wonder if we’ll see some relaxation of regulations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

6 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, diners, food, odd buildings, patrons, restaurant issues, roadside restaurants

Drive-up windows

A short time ago I read a Serious Eats article about how drive-through fast-food restaurants are filling a gap during the coronavirus epidemic because they make it possible for customers to get ready-to-eat food without getting too close to others. It also gave a brief history of drive-up windows.

Reading it reminded me that I had put this topic on my to-do list a while back (along with ideas for about 500 other future posts!). Now’s the time.

Over the years, drive-throughs have come in for criticism for environmental issues around idling car engines. I think there is a genuine problem with idling vehicles, but often critiques come with an unfair amount of negative judgement about the people who use them. I reflected on this a few years ago when a journalist asked me about why Americans are so fond of using drive-ups.

Customers of drive-ups are assumed to be too lazy to get out of their cars and/or blithely unconcerned about air pollution. But it occurred to me that there are some good reasons for getting a meal this way. Certainly it’s worth considering those who are physically disabled, dead tired from a hard day’s work, dressed in dirty work clothes, accompanied by crabby small children, don’t speak the language, or are self-conscious for whatever reason.

Yet clearly most of the enormous number of people who use drive-ups do not fall into these categories. In 1998 when many communities were trying to keep out new drive-throughs, a McDonald’s company spokesperson said outlets with drive-ups made up about half of sales that way.

Fast food restaurants claim, probably accurately, that doing business from windows while providing limited or no indoor seating reduces operating costs and allows them to offer lower menu prices. That may be true, but it’s also true that environmental costs tend to be invisible.

Initially, drive-ups appeared in warm climates in the 1930s. One reason drive-up windows did not come into use earlier was that prior to the Depression many restaurant-goers still ate hot meat and potato dinner-type meals on a plate, even at noon. So drive-ups could not be a service option until restaurants had whittled themselves down into fast-food providers. They needed a small menu of simple hand-held items that could be prepared in a flash and would not turn into a mass of cold mush within minutes.

Drive-up restaurants became more common in the 1950s and 1960s, at the same time drive-up banking did. Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, and Der Wienerschnitzel were early adopters. At Der Wienerschnitzel drive-up customers passed right through their A-frame buildings, somewhat similar to a 1964 patent that shows a giant M with two lanes running through it [shown below]. In the 1970s and 1980s, as chains spread across the country, drive-up windows became commonplace.

Early drive-up windows were often intended to serve customers who had phoned in their orders. Soon some restaurants began to use push-button intercoms, making phone-ahead ordering unnecessary. In the mid-1980s a wireless ordering system became available that permitted the worker to talk to the customer without pushing a button each time, enabling her/him to move around to fill the order while communicating at the same time.

Another innovation was the drive-through with no indoor seating at all. This was the ultimate in paring down the restaurant experience, to the point of non-existence. But this approach did not reach predominance, possibly because the major chains believed that customers wanted the option of going inside.

In 1989 California adopted a plan to reduce emissions by limiting car idling at drive-throughs. Municipalities throughout the country — often those with higher-income residents – attempted to stop the construction of new drive-through businesses in the 1990s and continuing into the present. Beyond addressing environmental concerns, the movement to restrict drive-up windows may be inspired equally by a wish to keep fast-food restaurants out of the neighborhood entirely.

Despite the strong reasons that some customers have for using drive-throughs, especially now, I tend to side with the opposition. Yet, if viral epidemics become more common as some have predicted, we may see a proliferation of this type of food service.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under chain restaurants, restaurant issues, roadside restaurants

Dining during an epidemic

1918 was an extremely challenging year for restaurants. As if coping with the (so-called) “Spanish” flu weren’t bad enough, there were food shortages and rationing due to WWI, a shortage of employees, and looming national prohibition of alcohol.

And yet the proprietors of Gailey’s Lunch Room in Chicago look quite content in September of that year. Only six days later, on September 24, a headline in a Chicago newspaper would read “Influenza Hits City.” Then on Oct. 1 a story titled “Spreading Rapidly” reported that 372 cases had been identified in the past 24 hours. On Oct. 3 another story appeared warning Chicagoans that if they coughed or sneezed while on the street, they should expect a policeman to tap them on the shoulder and ask if they had a handkerchief.

Before it ended the Spanish flu, and its associated pneumonia, would kill as many as 675,000 Americans – many in the prime of life, including more soldiers than died in combat. The Gaileys, however, survived the epidemic and were still operating their lunch room in 1920.

All over the country municipal authorities enacted measures intended to halt the spread of the flu. Most of the orders and bans issued by cities were aimed at reducing congestion, particularly in downtown areas. They could range from staggering closing times in stores and offices to limit crowding on public transportation to completely shutting down businesses. Spitting on the street could bring a fine in Seattle. Shaking hands was advised against in New York City where the death rate recorded for week three of the epidemic was 1,972. As the flu spread, many theaters, pool halls, bowling alleys, ice cream parlors, and soda fountains across the country were summarily closed for the indefinite future. Some cities asked residents to stay away from downtown at night. In some places, public funerals were not permitted, courts were suspended, schools were closed, and sporting events and meetings were canceled.

Restaurants were sometimes ordered to close early, but they were not generally shut down unless they persistently violated the more stringent health department rules being handed down. Unlike now, when going out to eat is often regarded as a leisure activity, restaurants and lunch rooms of the early 20th century were primarily seen as essential services for people living in rooming houses, those working in central business districts, and transients. In Alliance, Nebraska, on October 20, 1918, when the city was placed under quarantine and patrolled by Home Guards, and all businesses were closed, restaurants — the one exception — remained open.

However, restaurants had to adapt to new health department laws. The most common one across the country was that all dishes, glasses, and silverware had to be sterilized by immersion in scalding hot water. Rather surprisingly, this had not previously been normal practice. Nor had the use of glass covers for food on display.

Other practices varied. In New Orleans and Fort Wayne IN, and probably other cities, restaurant workers were required to wear masks. New Orleans restaurant workers were supplied with only one mask, which was to be soaked in boiling water for 20 minutes each evening and hung to dry for the next day’s use.

Denver CO and Duluth MN were among the cities that ordered patrons to be given extra space. Duluth’s ordinance stated “That restaurants, cafes and eating houses shall be limited to accommodate one person to each 20 square feet of floor space.” Denver restaurant proprietors were not allowed to continue the practice of closing off part of the restaurant and seating all the patrons in one area. At the end of October, when Seattle officials ordered all non-essential employees to stay home from work, they considered further limiting the number of people who could be admitted to restaurants. At that time Seattle also required restaurants to leave doors open for ventilation. Because of the ban on overcrowding, patrons of some restaurants in Washington, D.C., were forced to wait in lines outside.

What restaurants could serve also came under scrutiny. Some cities did not allow restaurants to operate bars, or to serve alcohol at all, presumably because it encouraged congregating and lingering. It’s a puzzle to me why in Harrisburg patrons could not simply order pie and ice cream unless it was preceded by a regular meal. Maybe it was deemed too frivolous and a waste of space that could be occupied by serious eaters.

How effective all these measures were is unknown, although progress in restaurant sanitation was made. The sterilization rule was surely an advance over earlier dishwashing methods, as were glass cases.

It is also unknown how many restaurants suffered financially or closed during the months of 1918 that the flu raged in the U.S.A. Other than Rippeteau’s in Denver and White Way Drug Store in Tampa [above], in my fairly lengthy search I found no additional restaurants advertising that they were safe. It seems as though only a few places acknowledged publicly that anything abnormal was happening, perhaps because no one wanted to focus on the situation any more than they had to.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under restaurant issues, sanitation

Women drinking in restaurants

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sight of women drinking in public brought up the same kind of issues about women’s status in society as did the struggle to get the vote. According to deep-seated beliefs about gender roles that had been forged in the 19th century, the proper realms for women were church and home.

Engaging in politics and drinking alcohol were definitely not approved of for women, particularly women of the middle and upper classes.

But in the late 19th century the prevailing gender rules seemed to be threatened, especially in New York City where “fashionable” women were drinking in public view in first-class restaurants such as Delmonico’s and the Brunswick Hotel. “No Longer a Sly Nip,” reported the New York Herald in 1894, stating that women who used to conceal their drinking with “cocktail opera glasses” and “creme de menthe fans” now were brazenly drinking openly, even at daytime shopping lunches. “Is this an evidence of the so-called ‘emancipation of women?’” the writer asked.

The supposed wickedness of wealthy New York women would become a popular topic in succeeding decades. Stories indulged an interest in the doings of privileged women of fashion and at the same time allowed readers to feel morally superior.

Opposition to women drinking grew stronger. In 1901 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) declared a crusade against women drinking in restaurants. New York president Ella Boole made an in-person survey of New York restaurants with a reporter from the Sunday World, who concluded that women’s “range of tipples is identical with that of men, and include the cocktails, the ‘Scotch highball,’ the sherry cobbler, absinthe and liqueurs. They drink at luncheon, at dinner, at supper, and frequently in between times.” According to the story, drinking went on in public restaurants and cafes, hotel table d’hotes, and just about anywhere.

Taking an inventory of women drinking in public spread. The pastor of a Congregational church in Chicago led a tour where his group tallied 269 “boozing women” out of a total of 463 women encountered in restaurants.

But even more alarming to the anti-drinking forces than the fact that “women of high grade and their imitators” drank liquor was the fact that they did it in public restaurants – and no one seemed to care! Where was the outrage, the shame? The head of the Daughter of Temperance thought women who drank “without shame in public places” should be ostracized. Otherwise, she feared, Womanhood, The Home, and The Race were in peril.

There was a lot of sermonizing. Actress Lillian Russell advised women that they would ruin their looks if they drank. But the most interesting observations on the subject came from an experienced New York hotel proprietor (alas, unnamed). Yes, women were drinking in public, he said, but they were freeing themselves from their old bad habits. He named fainting, hysteria, and using opiates like morphine. He found that women rarely got drunk in public, and saw their drinking as a sign that they were becoming more engaged in public life. Over the years, he said, he had witnessed women taking better care of themselves, becoming “healthier and happier,” and growing more companionable with their husbands.

Not even Prohibition could put an end to women’s drinking. True, it was not observable in public restaurants, but women continued to drink in speakeasies and private homes. By the early 1930s when alcohol again became legal, at least in most cities, it had become perfectly respectable for women to drink in public. Although women were still not welcome to stand at the bar in taverns, it was just fine if they ordered a before-dinner cocktail in a restaurant. What was once a privilege found only among women of the leisure class had become a commonplace custom.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

13 Comments

Filed under patrons, restaurant controversies, restaurant issues, women

Women chefs not wanted

Unless, maybe, they wear swimsuits to work?

Until the later 20th century when women began to break the stronghold of the male chef, it was said women simply could not handle the job of running a restaurant kitchen. What follows are the reasons given by people associated with restaurants of the 20th century.

Most of the opinions recorded here were expressed by men, but a few were by women (sigh).

1906 – Women lack accuracy using flavorings and condiments – Women do not have the right temperament, they lose their heads. – Women could not stand the strain of hard work. – They are not managers. – They do not practice economy. – They lack patience and delicacy. – They are not as orderly as men in the kitchen. – They cannot rise to the occasion in a crisis. – They cannot organize the work of a kitchen.

1908 – The work of a chef is unsuited to her physique.

1912 – Women are not particular enough to make a perfect dish.

1913 – They would become rattled and go to pieces if they had to handle the responsibilities of chef. – They go off on a tangent when things are not as they should be.

1931 – The duties are too strenuous for them. – They could not handle an elaborate menu. – They cut meat the wrong way. – They don’t make gravies and sauces properly.

1932 – Their taste is inferior to men’s.

1942 – The great chefs have always been men . . . [so there must be a good reason why] – There are scarcely any women gourmets.

1952 – Women can only do about 15% or 20% of the jobs in a restaurant kitchen as well as men.

1957 – Women can’t handle work in a restaurant kitchen either physically or mentally. – They lack discipline. – They make changes based on their own likes and dislikes.

1965 – Men have more of an inner potential for good cooking then women. – If cooking for a very large number of people a woman would probably break down crying and run away.

1968 – Heat in restaurant kitchens makes women nervous.

1975 – Women lack the instinct for great cooking.

1981 – Men seem to have more derring-do in the kitchen.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chefs, restaurant controversies, restaurant issues, women

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

No smoking!

Smoking in restaurants has a long history. As does opposition to smoking in restaurants.

In the 19th century there were few eating places that did not sell cigars and host cigar smokers. Having a good supply of fine imported cigars and liquors was the mark of a first-rate tavern or restorator as much as was the cuisine.

But to the anti-drinking forces that began to gather steam in the 1830s, tobacco was the gateway to a life of drinking and dissolution. Moral rot began with children buying candy, extending in youth to a taste for “the fumes of the wine cup and the cigar.”

Still, the allure of the good life was strong. Who wouldn’t want to be one of the “wits, fast men and bloods of the town”? Such persons, said an advertisement for Charley Abel’s in New York in 1852, knew the “difference between Heidsieck and Newark Cider” and could tell “Havana cigars from Down East ‘long nines, at ‘a penny a grab.’”

At the same time, there were some places where the bar was on the ground floor while dining took place on the second floor, with no smoking allowed. The reason for this is unclear but it was clearly not inspired by a moral crusade or health issues. It’s possible that smoking was considered rude and unaesthetic in dining rooms – or offensive to female guests (if they were present). That may also explain why some restaurants had separate smoking rooms for men.

Even though cigarettes outsold cigars beginning in the 1890s, restaurants and lunch counters continued to sell cigars into the mid-20th century [above, 1913]. The National Handbook of Restaurant Data, geared for advertisers, reported in 1935 that 91% of restaurants sold tobacco. But after World War II, casual restaurants were more likely to have a cigarette machine on the premises than an old-style glass counter filled with cigar boxes.

Unlike cigars that patrons often lit up while exiting, cigarettes were smoked at restaurant counters and tables, with the restaurant supplying ashtrays and imprinted matches. In 1923 a Cleveland woman complained, “It is getting so that at almost every lunch table or counter one is liable to be nauseated with cigaret or cigar smoke.” Some eating places, such as Chicago’s Russian Tea Room and Charleston Gardens at B. Altman’s New York store, even went so far as to give complimentary cigarettes to women guests. Lord & Taylor’s Bird-Cage Restaurants in 1940 had individual armchairs with trays “fitted out with a red-tipped cigarette.”

Despite strong disapproval, women began smoking in public around the turn of the century, led by actresses and a vanguard of privileged women used to smoking in Paris. Restaurants catering to the rich and those for the after-theater folks began to allow women to smoke. Soon women had comfortable smoking dens of their very own. Just as male smokers were catered to by 19th-century eating and drinking spots, tea rooms of the early to mid-20th century furnished smoking havens for women.

But when women smoked in popular restaurants they often encountered criticism. I would venture to say that it was women smoking in restaurants that re-energized moralistic objections to smoking and emboldened opponents of smoking in restaurants to speak out. Some comments display a distinct antipathy to women – but also reveal that a wish to contain or eliminate smoke in restaurants pre-dated considerably the organized campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. A reader in Springfield MA, for instance, wrote a letter to a newspaper in 1929 urging restaurants to create non-smoking sections and calling women who smoked “silly” and of low mental capacity.

Anti-smoking continued to be linked to anti-drinking, with twelve states outlawing the sale of cigarettes between 1895 and 1909. According to Eric Burns in The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco, these mostly Midwestern states were also receptive to the temperance movement. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) campaigned against smoking and in more recent years restaurants branding themselves “Christian” banned the “twin evils” of drinking and smoking.

In 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General announced that smoking might be harmful to health, anti-smoking groups formed, putting emphasis on corralling smokers in restaurants. By the mid-1970s some restaurants began to experiment with non-smoking sections, the industry much preferring voluntary measures over legislation. Progress to create non-smoking sections and then to eliminate smoking in restaurants completely was spurred on in the 1970s by more stringent Surgeon General warnings, a Civil Aeronautics Board mandate for non-smoking sections on airplanes, and bans on smoking in federal buildings. State actions, particularly the 1975 Minnesota Indoor Clean Air Act that prohibited smoking in restaurants and other public buildings except in designated areas, were influential. Arizona, with its large population of retirees seeking pure air, was also early to pass non-smoking legislation.

Given the historical links between smoking and drinking, it is not surprising that “family restaurants,” many of which sold no beer, wine, or liquor, were among the first to create non-smoking sections. Denny’s announced in 1977 that it would devote 25% of its dining areas to non-smoking. It was not long before Victoria Station, Red Lobster, Bob Evans, and many other chains joined the trend. Big city restaurants, on the other hand, lagged behind. [advertisement, Greensboro NC, 1984]

Numerous restaurant owners who disliked setting off non-smoking sections complained it hurt their business in a number of ways. Non-smokers tended also to be non-drinkers and didn’t come out as much on weekends, thus leaving empty tables in the non-smoking area while the smoking section was full and the restaurant had to turn away impatient patrons. Likewise, the non-smokers had lower check averages. On the plus side, though, they didn’t linger at the table as long.

Today, it might surprise younger people that restaurants were ever popular smoking places.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, patrons, restaurant issues, tea shops, women