Category Archives: restaurant issues

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