Category Archives: roadside restaurants

Image gallery: eating in a hat

In an earlier post I wrote about buildings shaped like what they sell – known as “ducks.” Usually they sold simple foods rather than entire meals. They were often located on busy roads where it wasn’t easy to get cars to stop. But proprietors realized that even the most humble shed, if masquerading as a giant dog or coffee pot, just might get speeding motorists to stop for closer examination.

Ducks, which became popular in the 1930s, could be found all over the country but their birthplace is usually cited as Southern California, the land of fantasy and car culture.

The slogan “eat in the hat” was, in fact, created in Los Angeles for the Brown Derby restaurant that opened in 1926 on Wilshire Blvd, shown above a few years later after it enlarged and added a patio.

To be considered a genuine duck, the Brown Derby should have been selling hats, but it was a restaurant, and one with a standard menu rather than just grab-and-go food. Its fame derived from its successful courtship of gossip columnists and film stars.

Copying, I am convinced, is one of the most common business tactics. Eating places love to borrow a little bit of the glamour of far-off restaurants that have achieved fame. As Los Angeles’ Brown Derby became famous, taverns and eateries across the land adopted Brown Derby, Green Derby, and related names. As shown in the images that follow, some also created a variety of hat-shaped buildings, signs, and menus.

Brown Derby Drive-in, Southern CA – Something went terribly wrong with the shape of this derby.

Brown Derby, Tyler TX – Ditto.

Brown Derby, Evansville IN – The Hat had loomed impressively larger atop an earlier, one-story building. As humorist S. J. Perelman wrote in 1936, “. . . the flood waters of the Ohio River weren’t far away, but the Brown Derby went unscathed. Such is the irony of nature.”

Brown Derby, Olympia WA – Menu on which a waffle with “wild blackberry syrup” was 40 cents.

Miner’s Hat, Kellogg ID – Why stick to derbies? This Hat had odd hours, from 10:00 A.M. to 1:00 A.M., possibly to mesh with work shifts of area miners.

Hat-O-Mat, between Warren and Youngstown OH – Maybe it was too hard to build a derby shaped drive-in? A 1950 advertisement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer sought franchisees for the Hat-O-Mat’s unnamed “new idea in feeding the public.”

El Sombrero Drive-In, Albuquerque NM – A sombrero on top just in case people didn’t realize this was a restaurant serving Mexican food. A sombrero is without doubt one of the most hackneyed of restaurant symbols.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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The up-and-down life of a restaurant owner

The model tea room proprietor has generally been portrayed as a woman of taste and refinement who has a heightened aesthetic sense, is congenial, and knows good food. In short, she closely resembled the ideal of the early 20th-century wife. So it comes as something of a shock to discover a tea room proprietor whose life did not neatly conform to that ideal.

An interesting example of someone who only partially conformed to the ideal was Charleen Baker, proprietor of the Buttercup Hill Tea Room near Fitchburg MA from 1928 to 1943.

She had taste, she was a successful hostess, and she knew good food. Her menu, filled with dishes such as Duck a la King, Sauteed Sweetbreads, and Lobster Newberg, bears that out. Her tea room was recommended by Duncan Hines in the 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating.

But how successfully did she personify refinement?

On the one hand, she portrayed herself as a product of a patrician background. In her 1935 cookbook she subtly painted a picture of her life and world that began with childhood cooking lessons from her southern Mammy, Aunt Maria. She explained that her mother had taught her that thin biscuits revealed a family’s “fine lineage,” as was true in her family. Presenting herself as a dutiful young wife, she described how hard she had worked to please her husband, on one occasion baking three different “lemon sponge pies” before she produced one “good enough to set before the king.” And she included a chapter on “Sunday Night Suppers” which assumed that, even in the Depression, the lady of the house had a maid who cooked — and took Sundays off.

Yet – big surprise – I discovered that her “king” had tried to divorce her in 1923, resulting in a sensational headline in the Fitchburg Sentinel as well as the Boston Herald. Her husband also accused her of abandoning their hospitalized son while she vacationed in Florida.

She then filed a reply, producing another zinger headline, “District Attorney Charged With Unfaithfulness In Answer By Wife.” Each charged the other with having multiple partners.

Upon further research I learned that in 1900, far from enjoying a life of leisure and refinement in the South, the 13-year-old Charleen had lived in a miner’s boarding house in Tortilla Flat, Arizona Territory, with her mother and her stepfather (#2 of her mother’s four husbands) who ran the place. Upon her stepfather’s death in 1903, she and her mother moved to Fort Worth TX where they resided in a lodging house run by her mother.

How she made her way from a Texas boarding house to studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston I don’t know. While in Boston she met her future husband, Emerson, then a Harvard law student. They married in 1907 and settled in the Fitchburg area where Emerson joined his father’s law firm and later the district attorney’s office.

Remarkably, Charleen and Emerson reconciled later in 1923 and he assisted her in enlarging her tea room, which by 1931, when the Early American Room was added, seated nearly 160. The couple’s marriage continued until his premature death in 1934.

Two years before that Charleen had taken over the Green Parrot Tea Room in Winter Park, Florida, redecorating it in blue and orchid and calling it Charleen’s Tea House. Buttercup Hill stayed open from May through October, while Charleen’s in Florida was open the other months.

Due to wartime gasoline rationing that caused a fall off in customers, and to difficulties getting staff, Charleen closed the Buttercup in early 1943. She auctioned off furnishings that included old cradles, antique clocks, hooked rugs, and Currier & Ives prints.

From everything I’ve read about her, Charleen was successful in winning status as an admired figure in Fitchburg society.

After she sold the Buttercup several other owners operated the complex of buildings as a tea room while continuing the practice of serving cocktails that Charleen had begun in 1938. After the WWII the name was changed to Buttercup Hill Steakhouse and Club and it continued into the 1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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The Lunch Box, a memoir

There is little glamour surrounding the operation of most restaurants. They demand hard work, long hours, and relentless determination. Few stay in business long or bring their owners great riches.

All of these observations apply to the Lunch Box. Except one. The Lunch Box stayed in business for 35 years, becoming a well-loved stopping place along the road in the small Western Massachusetts town of Williamsburg.

But, glamour? As its owner, Anthony “Tommy” Thomas, writes in his recently published book, “the happiest day of owning the Lunch Box was the day that we hooked up to the sewer line.”

After that, he no longer had to worry about overuse of the restrooms.

In 1968 Thomas bought the small roadside restaurant that had begun in 1949 as a hot dog stand. Since then it had been enlarged [see below], never quite meeting the building standards he would have liked.

Thomas, like the owners of so many modest eating places, had been disappointed working for others and was strongly attracted to the risky idea of having his own business. Given the woeful condition of the restaurant, along with considerable misery in the lives of previous owners, the Lunch Box seemed overrun with risk and negative vibes. But that didn’t stop him.

In addition to hooking up to a sewer line, he also discovered in the early years that he needed to install a grease trap. For 35 years he cleaned it himself, an arduous task since it was located in a crawlspace under the building. “I had to crawl under and take the trap apart, take the pieces that needed to be cleaned and drag them outside, clean them and then crawl back under to put the trap back together,” he explained. He also spent many an hour defrosting frozen water pipes.

The small kitchen, with a ceiling “so low that a person six feet tall would have to bend over to use the stove,” was equipped with an “apartment size gas stove.” The original cash register could not ring up an order over $5, and had to be supplement with an adding machine to total checks. Shortage of capital meant that major improvement projects had to be deferred, particularly when it came to solving the building’s heating and cooling problems. “We were always cold on really cold days and hot on the very hot days,” he wrote.

Eventually he was able to rebuild the Box, adding a second story and a peaked roof [see book cover above]. And, he and his wife were able to raise four children, though it must have been tough at times. As he says, “There were years when my tax returns showed hardly any income and I was fortunate that I was in the food business so I could feed my family.”

Thomas took great pride in his other roles, admitting – rather surprisingly — that “The most rewarding in my judgment and the most important aspect of my life outside of my family was my time serving as a firefighter/EMT.” I was surprised that he did not cite the restaurant. He worked as a firefighter and EMT in both Williamsburg, where the Lunch Box was located, and in neighboring Goshen, where he lived. And he served as a Goshen Selectman for years.

He inherited the cafe’s reputation as a “woodchopper’s diner,” but he improved the quality of its comfort food menu by using fresh local produce whenever possible. He took great care in testing brands of coffee before selecting one. He saw to it that soups and pies, previously purchased, were made in house. The Box’s comfort foods, such as shepherd’s pie, macaroni and cheese, and meat loaf, drew locals, public officials, police, truck drivers, woodsmen, and a wide range of others including a few who traveled some distance to eat there regularly.

As is often the case with roadside diners, over the years the Lunch Box became a community hub where business was conducted, friends met up, and local news was exchanged. In a book with plenty of anecdotes, it becomes clear that each day promised new adventures with the Lunch Box right in the middle of it all. [photo: The Lunch Box float in Williamsburg’s 225th anniversary parade]

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Carhops in fact and fiction

The word “carhop” is almost certain to bring to mind a teenage girl dressed in a brief costume, possibly on roller skates. Ever since the George Lucas movie American Graffiti in 1973, the female carhop has become an icon. She is an object of nostalgia, even for those too young to have experienced drive-ins with carhops.

It’s not certain when she appeared on the scene. Curb service, usually for soda fountains in pharmacies, goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Usually boys were hired to rush orders while the driver of a car, or horse-drawn wagon, waited impatiently along the curb in front. In the 1920s Pig Stands selling sodas and sandwiches in Texas offered the same service. The Hot Shoppes also came along in the 1920s. In 1931 they advertised in Washington, D.C. for “girls for tray service.” In 1933 a Miami Beach drive-in looked for an “attractive curb waitress.”

By the late 1930s teenage girls and young [white] women (25 at the very oldest) were commonplace in Texas and California drive-ins and were the subject of quite a bit of turmoil. They worked long hours, often until late at night. In many cases, they not only delivered sandwiches to customers, but also beer, sometimes working for drive-ins that were more tavern than restaurant.

Issues surrounding female carhops came to a head in Texas and California in 1940. In January California’s chief of the Division of Industrial Welfare ordered 30 drive-ins to pay carhops the state’s legal minimum wage for women which was $16 a week. The drive-ins reacted negatively, being accustomed to paying no wages at all – carhops worked for tips only — as well as charging carhops for uniforms and meals. The Industrial Welfare head, a woman, threatened to arrest drive-in operators who failed to comply.

Meanwhile, in Texas the press was aglow with publicity about its carhops in LIFE magazine. The magazine’s cover showed an attractive teen dressed in a drum majorette outfit with what were then considered very short shorts. Stories in the Dallas press about carhops at that time were flippant, like one about the couple thrown out of a surrey. The sheriff, the story related, said “the horse probably had shied at the girl carhops in shorts who are employed at a near-by beer tavern.”

 

Although the drive-in featured in LIFE was in Houston, I wonder if all the publicity generated by that story was responsible for the blossoming movement of Dallas women who objected to carhops dressed in “scanties.” One letter-to-the-editor charged that if drive-in owners had to rely on “cheap chorus comedy cavortings” then the carhops “should be paid show house wages.” But when another letter writer suggested male carhops should also be dressed in short shorts and boots, the drive-in burlesque heated up as a few roadside places complied, attracting mobs of women. [illustration shows carhop interview]

Over time the campaign for modest dress for carhops met with more success than did the attempts to win wages for California carhops, or to unionize carhops in Dallas. In Texas, the state Restaurant Association denounced skimpy outfits and declared bare skin a violation of the state’s sanitary laws. The public, led by women and church leaders, grew more supportive of reform. With drive-ins in Houston and Dallas, one of the state’s largest operators, Sivils, agreed in 1942 to abandon shorts and bare midriffs for knee-length skirts and waist-long jackets. Other drive-ins followed their example, many dressing carhops in blouses and slacks. Meanwhile, drive-in owners in California went to court for a permanent injunction against the minimum wage order issued by the Industrial Welfare Commission. A judge ruled in their favor after they brought in more than a dozen carhops who testified they made from $25 to $70 a night in tips. A campaign to organize carhops at Sivils in Dallas likewise met defeat. Although the carhops voted for unionization, demanding a salary of $3 a week, a daily meal, and free uniforms, Sivils flatly rejected their vote.

In the course of the struggles new facts about carhops emerged. Far from carefree many of them were parents who, even if married, needed to work to support their families. A bitter letter testifying to this appeared in May, 1940, signed “two former carhops.” The women wrote that carhops dressed in shorts and grass skirts “are at least coming nearer to making a living wage than at any other time of their existence” while the women who complained about their outfits did not have to work for a living. They argued that without big tips, some carhops would become streetwalkers.

Big tips or not, serving customers in cars could be a trying experience, and the turnover rate among carhops was high, with many lasting only a few weeks. A 1957 column in Drive-In Restaurant, a trade magazine, revealed how carhops characterized customers: The Food Refuser, The Horn Blower, The Souvenir Seeker, the Breakage Fiends, The Deadbeats, The Wolves. As the last implies, attention from men was not always enjoyable, and sometimes it was dangerously hostile. In 1953, there was an instance of boys driving by a drive-in pelting girl carhops with gravel in Sacramento CA. A few carhops even met their deaths from obsessed customers.

By the mid-1950s, some drive-ins looked for ways to speed up service with automated ordering, usually from intercoms mounted on poles. Carhops’ only job then was to deliver food. Other drive-ins eliminated car service entirely, requiring customers to walk up to a window to order their food and carry it back to their car. When Ray Kroc took over the McDonald brothers’ drive-ins, he continued their practice of walk-up service. In the late 1950s Kroc reportedly attributed his company’s expansion to “no tipping, no jukebox, and no carhops.”

Although drive-ins with carhops can still be found today in some places, elegies for them began in the 1970s, American Graffiti being a prime example. Carhop fiction is more entertaining, but recognizing the difficulties carhops experienced in doing their jobs is, in my opinion, a better way to acknowledge them.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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The “mysterious” Singing Kettle

singingkettlepcA veil of ominous mystery has spread over the remains of a California roadside tea room once known by the homey name Singing Kettle.

It was located near the summit of Turnbull Canyon, high above the San Gabriel Valley, on a winding road running through the Puente Hills in North Whittier. The road was completed in 1915, opening up a route filled with what many regarded as the most impressive views on the entire Pacific Coast.

singingkettle3781tcrstreetview

Today young people drive into the “haunted” canyon at night determined to be frightened to death. Gazing out car windows they eagerly tell each other tales they’ve heard of satanic rituals, murders, and human sacrifice, hoping that behind that fence are unspeakable horrors they might be lucky enough to witness. Even the Singing Kettle tea room, perhaps because remnants of its entrance are visible from the road, has become enmeshed in dark fantasies.

Why am I laughing?

Because it strikes me as funny that a tea room from the 1920s and 1930s could be associated with horror and paranormal events. Or even that people would find its existence mysterious, wondering why it was ever there or what it really was.

I suppose that given enough time and imagination mysterious auras can envelop any mundane place, even a deserted mall or a parking garage. But still, finding a tea room scary is like being frightened by a club sandwich.

I have experienced a somewhat similar attitude before. I gave a talk on tea rooms of New York City when my book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn came out in 2002. Afterwards a man in the audience came up and asked me why I didn’t mention the darker aspects of tea rooms. He was certain that a lot of them had been speakeasies and houses of prostitution.

Really? If that had indeed been the case, why would I not have mentioned it? It would be a good story. I’ve found no evidence of prostitution in tea rooms. Only rarely were tea room proprietors found selling liquor during Prohibition. A few places in Greenwich Village were raided in the early 1920s, and here and there the mob would open a joint and call it a tea room, though that was purely a ruse. I feel certain it was impossible to order a diet plate or a Waldorf salad in a mob tea room.

singingkettleentireproperty

The dining area of the Singing Kettle tea room was up the hill from the pergola entrance shown on the black and white postcard above. As can be seen from a bird’s-eye view of the property, terraced stairs with fountains and shrubbery led up to the main tea room which today appears to be a residence. The view while dining would have been spectacular.

The tea room was frequented by students and staff from Whittier College, the Whittier Chamber of Commerce, and women’s clubs. It was a popular place for business meetings, card parties, wedding receptions, and bridal showers. Weddings were held in the inner courtyard of its entrance pergola.

singingkettlehartwhittierheights1927I have not been able to discover the identity of the Singing Kettle’s proprietor. The area was filled with citrus and avocado groves and it’s possible that it was run by the wife of a grower. It’s even possible that major Southern California agricultural land developer, Edwin G. Hart, was involved in the business. That might explain why he promoted the tea room in a 1927 advertisement for his new residential development, Whittier Heights. (When he developed Vista CA he built an inn where prospective customers could stay.)

The Singing Kettle was in business from 1927 until at least 1936, but probably not much longer. It surely would not have survived gasoline rationing during WWII.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

With many thanks to the reader who told me about the Singing Kettle.

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Filed under atmosphere, odd buildings, Offbeat places, roadside restaurants, tea shops

The Gables

gablesMC

I have a weak spot for corny roadside attractions, such as the scaled down lighthouse in front of The Gables restaurant in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, pictured here on a matchbook cover. The first time I saw it a while ago I wondered why it was there, and what the story was about the little commercial complex that appeared to be a bit down and out at that time.

And now I know – sort of. The lighthouse and its connected cottage were a gas station, while the main building was run as a roadside lunch spot when it began in business. Combination gas station/lunch rooms became commonplace in the 1920s and 1930s when more and more people began taking recreational drives through the countryside.

Exactly when the twin businesses were launched remains a question. My guess is the late 1920s, definitely by 1930, at which time they were operated by Charles M. Savage. He had long been a co-owner/manager of the Hotel Lathrop in South Deerfield, which was sold in 1928.

gablesADVMay31931In 1931 a local builder completed a large building next door, south of The Gables. Oddly enough, it was intended as an indoor golf course, but instead was run as a dance hall by Dennis Shea, owner of the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, and later by a succession of others. Rudy Vallee and other nationally known acts performed there. In the 1950s it became a roller rink and then, in the 1970s, an auction house [pictured below as it looks now]. During its tenure as a dance hall and roller rink it was also known as The Gables, just like the restaurant (to confuse future researchers I’m sure!).

gablesballroomrollerrink

At the time the matchbook shown above was produced, The Gables restaurant was conducted by William Wade who also ran the Wade Inn on State Street in Northampton MA.

gables1939ADV

By 1936, The Gables restaurant had passed into the hands of Edward J. Chicky, also of Northampton. If the illustration in the advertisement from 1939 is accurate, the building had been extended on the left by then. It was now known as The Gables Food Shop, “food shop” being a popular name for a restaurant at the time.

Gables1940s

After Chicky, it was owned by others, including Guido “Guy” Zanone, previously proprietor of the Bernardston Inn, who bought it in 1941 [see above], then Frank and Veronica Shlosser in 1946. The Shlossers built a new, larger restaurant across the street in 1955, advertising in 1956 that it had colonial atmosphere and facilities for 350. It was a popular place for wedding receptions, club lunches, and business organization meetings.

The Gables South Deerfield, MA

The Shlossers continued to run the new place shown above until the early 1970s, when it was sold. It stayed in business as a restaurant and banquet house through most of the 1980s, serving beef, seafood, and chicken parmesan, among other dishes. Today it serves as housing for faculty and staff at Deerfield Academy.

gablesNOW2

Recently the original Gables has gone on the market once again. I wish someone would reopen it as a 1940s film-noirish roadhouse.

Thanks to Historic Deerfield librarian David Bosse for helping to clear up an area of confusion in my research.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Odd restaurant buildings: “ducks”

ducksfredafarmsBerlinCT

Ducks are commercial buildings that look like what they sell, as illustrated by the Freda Farms ice cream stand in Berlin CT. The term was actually inspired by a Long Island store that sold ducks (to eat). It has been generalized to apply to any buildings that looks like some familiar object or animal, etc, whether or not their merchandise is related. These types of buildings are also known as programmatic or mimetic architecture.

duckstamaleThough they reached a peak of popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s, ducks trace back much further in history. An introduction to Jim Heimann’s book California Crazy by David Gebhard links the mimetic architecture of the last century to garden buildings of the 18th century and even earlier. One of the first examples in the United States was the 65-foot elephant of Margate NJ built in1881 to attract attention to a real estate development.

In addition to housing stores and offices, many ducks have featured restaurants over the decades. They have taken the shape of all kinds of animals, kegs, barrels, ships, castles, cups, coffee pots, bowls, hats, chuck wagons, dirigibles, items of food, shoes, and windmills.

DucksbulldogLA

The earliest restaurant duck I have found was a café planned for Cincinnati in the shape of a huge beer cask in 1902. Unlike later examples, though, it was meant to occupy a location in a row of Main Street storefronts. Most later ducks, arriving with the spread of car ownership in the late 1920s and early 1930s, occupied empty lots in developing areas of cities. Not too surprisingly, southern California’s car culture provided a nurturing environment. In addition the climate was favorable to the somewhat makeshift carnival-type structures, while the city’s movie industry supplied inspiration. As Los Angeles grew, giant dogs, toads, ice cream freezers, shoes, and other bizarre apparitions sprang up along the roadside, vying for the business of passing motorists.

Ducks4patentdrawingsDucksVandeKamp'sDutchbakers

The link between the movie industry and roadside fantasy was straightforward in the case of Harry Oliver, a leading designer who brought magic to sets for movies such as Scarface, The Good Earth, and Mark of the Vampire. Oliver designed windmill-shaped buildings for the Van de Kamp bakeries and drive-ins as well as a storybook building occupied by the Tam o’ Shanter Inn.

If architecture is about the enclosure of space, ducks are architecture only secondarily. In most cases mimetic architecture describes a building that serves more as advertising sign than as an innovative enclosure of space. Once a customer stepped inside a giant pig or coffee pot, all whimsy faded away as the interior revealed itself to be a standard rectangle as shown here in one of the many coffee-pot ducks that could be found across the U.S.

DucksTXCoffeePotExt&INT

If ducks say anything about American restaurants, it is that they are only partially about food.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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