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Greek-American restaurants

GreekrestaurantMarlboroMA

Ethnic restaurants are generally seen as places where people from cultures outside the U.S. provide meals similar to what they ate in their homelands. A high degree of continuity between restaurant owners, cooks, and cuisines is presumed, as in: the Chinese run Chinese restaurants in which Chinese cooks prepare Chinese dishes.

Questions are sometimes raised about whether, for example, Chinese restaurants in America have adapted to American consumer’s tastes to the point where the Chinese cuisine is not “authentic,” but few question how obviously true or historically accurate it is to assume that Chinese always cooked or served Chinese food.

History is rarely tidy. Chinese, Germans, and Italians cooked French food. Germans ran English chop houses. And people of almost all ethnicities — Irish, Italian, German, Croatian, Greek — cooked American food and owned American restaurants.

GreekPaul'sLuncheonette233Greek immigrants, in fact, have been especially inclined to run American restaurants which serve mainstream American food, with little suggestion of the Mediterranean. Typically they’ve been  the independent quick lunches, luncheonettes, coffee shops, and diners that are open long hours, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to working people. Many have been run under business names such as Ideal, Majestic, Elite, Cosmopolitan, Sanitary, Purity, or Candy Kitchen, rather than the proprietor’s name.

The emphasis on names suggesting quality or cleanliness is explained by the tendency of Americans in the early 20th century to brand Greek-run eateries as “greasy spoons” or “holes in the wall.” A negative attitude to Greek eating places is evident in the following piece of rhyme published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1926 entitled “Where Greek Meets Greek”:

The other day I wandered in where angels fear to tread –
I mean the well known Greasy Spoon, where hungry gents are fed;
Where eats is eats and spuds is spuds, and ham is ham what am –
And the pork in the chicken salad is honest-to-goodness lamb.

GreekConstantineDrive-In

Certainly there were substandard Greek restaurants, but I’ve found that Greek-American proprietors had a propensity to plow profits into modern equipment and fixtures whenever possible.

Greek immigrants showed strong affinity with the restaurant business since the beginning of the 20th century when they began coming to the U.S. in large numbers. The reason for this is often attributed to a lack of English skills, but the first Greek restaurants, actually coffeehouses where patrons could linger, probably had more to do with the absence of women among early Greek migrants. Coffeehouses furnished community. Although in big Eastern cities many Greek restaurants continued to focus on Greek immigrants, many enterprising Greeks took the step of expanding beyond their compatriots. Some, such as Charles Charuhas who established the Washington, D.C. Puritan Dairy Lunch in 1906, were expanding or transitioning from the confectionery and fruit business.

While heavily invested in the New England lunch room business, especially in Providence RI and Lowell MA, Greek immigrants spread to many regions of the U.S, bringing restaurants to the restaurant-starved South. It is impressive that a Raleigh-based Greek trio opened its 15th restaurant in North Carolina as early as 1909. At that time, Greeks were said to be “invading” the lunch room trade in Chicago, operating about 400 places. Because of the simplicity of American cuisine, it was said that two months spent shadowing an American cook was all it took for Greek restaurateurs to pick up the necessary skills.

GreekTorchofAcropolisDallasOther successful Greek restaurateurs of the past century included John Raklios who at one point owned a chain of a couple dozen lunch rooms in Chicago. In New York City Bernard G. Stavracos ran the first-class restaurant The Alps on West 58th, established in 1907. The Demos Cafe in Muskegon MI was one of that city’s leading establishments. In Dallas The Torch of the Acropolis (pictured) had a 36-year-long run, closing in 1984, while the College Candy Kitchen was an institution in Amherst MA.

The children of successful Greek restaurant owners often preferred professional careers, but a new wave of Greek immigrants arrived after WWII, gravitating to diners, particularly it seems, in New Jersey. In 1989 the author of the book Greek Americans wrote that according to his estimate about 20% of the members of the National Restaurant Association had Greek surnames. And, as if demonstrating a flair for adaptation, according to a 1990 study, Greek-Americans were then dominating Connecticut’s pizza business.

GreekdinerDrimonesBrosNJ

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under lunch rooms, proprietors & careers, sanitation

Washing up

“Please don’t make me a pearl diver,” begged ruined Chicago restaurateur John Raklios as he entered debtors’ prison in 1939. As someone who had worked his way up in the restaurant world, he knew there was no job lower than washing other people’s dirty dishes.

In restaurant kitchens dishwashers were long considered “life’s wreckage,” people so reduced by circumstances, drugs, and drinking that they could find no other work. In the 19th and early 20th century dishwashers worked up to 12 hours a day for a free meal and very little money. In addition, they were often tormented by cooks and others in the kitchen.

A stark portrait of the life of a dishwasher, based on the author’s firsthand experiences, is painted by George Orwell in his autobiographical book Down and Out in Paris and London. Luckily, at its best dishwashing could produce a zen-like state in which the mind is untethered  from mundane matters.

The origins of the slang term “pearl diver” are as murky as dishwater itself. According to one historic account washers would clean dishes by feeling rather than sight. They would reach down into deep sinks “sorting the dishes into rows, washing them with a wave-like motion through the water” and then scooping huge piles onto a drain board. During busy periods when dirty dishes flowed into the kitchen “like lava from a volcano,” pearl divers quickly learned to “manipulate thousands of dishes at lightening speed.”

In literary and journalistic portraits, dishwashers were typically males unused to the better things in life and therefore relatively unbothered by floating scum, filth underfoot, rats, taunts, or low pay. Despite Orwell’s claim that the dishwasher “has no escape from this life, save into prison,” there were numerous stories of men who worked their way into careers as successful restaurateurs, such as Vincent Sardi, Morris Schwartzer of the NYC Biltmore Cafeteria chain, and Philippe Mathieu, purveyor of acclaimed French dip beef sandwiches in Los Angeles.

Afro-Americans or new immigrants who didn’t speak English often became dishwashers mostly because of their reduced job prospects generally, and were thus less likely to be from the ranks of the truly down and out. The same may have been true of women who washed dishes. Until 1911, when labor laws reduced the number of hours women could work, many dishwashers were women. Evidently they continued to work as dishwashers after reforms too, because state inspections of Michigan restaurants in 1918 revealed that for every two male dishwashers there were three women doing that work. Their pay, $1.20 a day, was rock bottom for restaurant workers then.

Mechanical dishwashers were invented in the 19th century, but were not electrified or widely used until well into the 20th. Though not the first female dishwasher inventor, Josephine Cochran is credited with devising the first truly practicable dishwasher, which she patented in 1886 [illustrated, 1912]. From a comfortable home with servants who performed kitchen labor, she was driven by a wish to prevent breakage. But her invention, which led her to form a company called Garis-Cochrane, ended up in hotels and restaurants rather than private households.

Before being electrified, generally during the teens and 1920s, mechanical dishwashers were manually operated, some requiring two people to turn handles that swished baskets of dishes through suds. The heavy baskets were lifted out of the water by pulleys which required considerable strength, sometimes resulting in the replacement of women dishwashers by men.

Despite strides in kitchen mechanization in the 1920s, it is notable that a survey of Rockford IL in 1929 found that only 16 of the city’s 179 restaurants had mechanical dishwashers. Even as late as the 1940s many restaurants still washed dishes by hand, often inadequately. Health department crackdowns following World War II found that scalding hot water and/or chlorine rinses still were not employed in many of the smaller restaurants across the country.

Though it’s unclear how many worked in restaurants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 522,900 dishwashers making an average of $8.19 an hour in 2008.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Rats and other unwanted guests

It would be unusual to find an advertising card from an American restaurant with such a humorous attitude toward rats as shown on this French postcard. Here we see the “rat who is not dead,” a play on The Dead Rat, a famous bohemian café in 1920s Paris. In this country, restaurants would rather their customers never think about rats or other vermin. Their customers also prefer to put the subject out of mind.

As a consequence, researching this topic is not so easy – BUT it is possible. Even the impeccable Delmonico’s, at its peak in the 1850s, used the historic version of Roach Doom, also lethal to rats. Cheap restaurants of the 1870s were known familiarly as “cockroach dens” and one New York place was dubbed Cockroach Hall, all very funny until rumors circulated that cockroaches were regularly seen floating in the minestrone. Bohemian joints in San Francisco were renowned for keeping monkeys and parrots and winking at the roaches swarming the walls. Over time patrons became less tolerant of these conditions. Really, who could disagree with the journalist of the 1890s who wrote, “A dining room that smells of grease or mold or stale cookery, or that has cockroaches in the wainscot that peep out at the customer as he sits at dinner … is not a desirable place to go”?

The real crackdown came in the early 20th century after exposés described unhygienic kitchens to a public already queasy from revelations about Chicago stockyards. Cities enacted tougher sanitary laws and sent out inspectors with the power to shut down filthy eateries. Still, I recall the large rat that glanced at me as it went about its business a few years ago in New York lunchroom late at night. The truth is they will never totally go away.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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