Category Archives: technology

The history of the restaurant of the future

Starting in the early 20th century, most futuristic thinking about restaurants involved technological inventions. Many envisioned replacing waiters with mechanical devices that would send orders straight to the kitchen, then deliver the food to customers. Others foresaw the day that electricity could be used in restaurant kitchens to power every kind of tool for peeling, slicing, heating, etc.

In the teens, in fact, major hotels installed pneumatic tube systems that swooshed restaurant orders from guests in bedrooms and dining rooms to hotel service pantries. [1916 image]

The arrival of electronics with the end of World War II inspired dreams of near-instant cooking, and led to imagined scenarios in which waitresses shouted directions to the kitchen meant to produce a soft-boiled egg and crisp bacon: “One egg, hundred and thirty megacycles, six seconds – bacon, two hundred and forty megs, eleven seconds.”

The late 1950s, perhaps a wackier decade than it is usually portrayed, brought forth two curious predictions. Don Roth of Chicago’s Blackhawk Restaurant probably gave his prediction as a publicity stunt when he suggested that in the future gourmet meals by famous chefs would arrive by rocket ship from all over the world. Arrive, that is, after diners ordered via 3-D television on which they watched a chef prepare it. A columnist writing “Astro-Guide” under the name “Ceean” predicted that restaurants patronized by advertising and television executives would soon be equipped with table jacks permitting portable TVs and earphones to be used to monitor programs during lunch.

Watching a little screen at your restaurant table while eating? What a silly idea.

Still, in one way or another, most of the predictions eventually came true. Of course it helped if a prediction was made when the trend was already well underway. It wasn’t too daring in 1969 to predict that chains and franchising would grow. On the other hand, the same analysts considered the possibility that as people ate out more, future restaurants might offer special pricing for anyone who planned to eat five or more dinners a month at the same place. They did not seem to know that as far back as the 1870s it had been commonplace for restaurants to sell discounted weekly meal tickets.

Also in the 1960s, food scientists and industry gurus dreamed of frozen pre-prepared meals that needed only to be heated and served. That happened too.

The 1960s also produced a semblance of futuristic dining at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at the gas industry’s Pavilion Restaurant [shown above], and at Disney’s Tomorrowland [shown here, 1967]. It was heralded as “Tomorrowland Terrace – A restaurant of the future where excellent food and entertainment are served daily. Presented by COCA-COLA.” The Pavilion Restaurant had walls of blown air, while the futuristic aspects of Tomorrowland Terrace escape me. Later TT was remodeled and renamed Club Buzz, and then in 2006 was semi-restored and once again became Tomorrowland Terrace.

A hospitality management professor once told me that the restaurant industry is not interested in the past, only the future. That attitude can produce some strange predictions, such as those of a professor of hotel management in 1976. He anticipated push button ordering with pneumatic tube delivery (turn of the century ideas, partly realized in the teens), boiling bag entrees (see 1964 image), pictorial menus (already in use by then), and scratch ‘n’ sniff menus (which, thankfully, never materialized).

In the mid-1970s, some thought that restaurants that implemented energy-conservation measures were models of restaurants of the future. In 1976 a new Jolly Tiger restaurant opened outside Albany NY, designed as a test site for energy reclamation and conservation, and monitored by the State University of New York, with funding from the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (later the Department of Energy). Given that restaurants are huge energy users, energy conservation has been recommended by the National Restaurant Association and implemented to varying degrees in some restaurants. However, as of 2013 only 38 U.S. restaurants out of a total of over 600,000 had been granted LEED certification, signifying that they had made a serious commitment to reducing energy consumption.

That future has yet to arrive.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Cooking with gas

stoveposterstampsAs part of my research into how restaurants worked in past times, I’ve looked into their cooking methods, in particular the kind of fuel they used. Like all nuts and bolts questions, it has been difficult to nail down.

stove1879NewHavenI wondered when public eating places began to switch from wood and coal to a more modern fuel such as gas. In the 19th century and well into the 20th, “artificial” gas was manufactured by heating coal. Gaslights were available as early as the mid-1810s in some places, and the first patent for a gas stove was given in the 1820s, but cooking with gas was rare, and didn’t occur in any public eating places that I could find.

At least 50 urban areas had gas works making gas by 1850. In that decade a number of patents were granted for gas cooking stoves. Stoves were marketed for domestic use, but there is evidence that some commercial users were interested in them too. In 1853 the Astor House in New York City experimented with gas cooking by roasting a turkey. In 1855 a manager of the National Hotel in Washington, D.C., applied for a patent for a gas stove. By the late 1850s Shaw’s Gaslight Cook Stove was available. It could be attached to a gas line with a hard rubber tube and was described as useful in restaurants, especially in the summer because “the heat arising from it is scarcely perceptible.”

But coal remained the fuel most often used in restaurant and hotel kitchens for most of the 19th century and even into the 20th – despite its drawbacks. Roger Horowitz described in his book Putting Meat on the American Table how difficult cooking with coal could be, particularly for baking and roasting. Not only was the cook unable to see what was happening but also, he wrote: “The fire had to be monitored carefully, as opening the ‘drafts’ to admit oxygen could lead coals to burn too fast, but limiting the drafts too much made it hard to reach good cooking temperatures. As coal was slow and difficult to light, enough had to be introduced to supply sufficient temperatures and cooking duration; on the other hand, putting in too much coal could burn the meat or even damage the stove by overheating the fire box.”

stovekitchenDaly'sRestCoalRange1916MCNYA vivid picture of how coal stoves operated was painted by a NYT story in 1903. The reporter visited a large hotel with a battery of over 20 stoves lined up in a row. The heat was overpowering and it took four or five “firemen” to stoke the stoves so that the heat never flagged. The fires needed to be rebuilt about three times a day and two of the stoves were kept going at all times in case the kitchen received an order. Of course kitchens became dirty [see photo from 1916] and quantities of ashes had to be hauled out.

StoveADV1910TheChef

Whatever the shortcomings of coal, it would appear that most chefs preferred it, especially when grilling meat. Although a New Haven CT stove company advertised gas as “the fuel of the future” in 1879 [see above], it would remain merely a concept in professional kitchens for some time. Far more kitchens used French-inspired coal stoves such as those sold by the Duparquet company [pictured, 1910] or  manufactured in San Francisco by the John S. Ils company. Delmonico’s adopted gas ranges but Chef Charles Ranhöfer announced in 1894 that he was going to have gas removed from the restaurant’s kitchen. He much preferred to cook with house-made charcoal. The Waldorf tried electric ranges but rejected them after a few weeks. Only a few chefs interviewed in a NYT story spoke up for gas, though the Hoffman House’s chef G. N. Nouvel overcame his reluctance and adopted gas in 1895, doing away with the problem of “having fires ready and just right.” He predicted its use would become universal in hotels and restaurants “sooner or later.”

stoveschrafft'skitchen1938The use of professional gas stoves advanced somewhat during World War I when coal prices went up. In New York City, the Consolidated Gas Company reported that it had replaced coal stoves in a large number of professional kitchens within a two-week period in 1917. The Hotel Knickerbocker’s three kitchens took out all coal-burning appliances, replacing them with 84 feet of gas ranges, nine salamanders, three broilers, and a number of smaller gas appliances. Healy’s, Browne’s, and Pabst’s were a few of the restaurants that got rid of coal and installed five or more sections of gas ranges. Similar events were taking place in Boston’s large kitchens. [see Schrafft’s modern gas kitchen, 1938, when NYC still depended on manufactured gas]

Though it was available in certain areas sooner (Pittsburgh was the center of the industry in the 1880s), natural gas made its debut through much of the United States in the 1920s, encouraging its  use in restaurants. It arrived in San Francisco in 1929, at a price lower than manufactured gas; in 1930 a survey revealed that gas was the main fuel for restaurant cooking in San Francisco, with coal a distant second. Electricity was commonly used for smaller appliances such as coffee urns, toasters, and waffle irons.

stoveAncestrySantaCruz1937In the 1930s, two periodicals came out dedicated to the use of gas and electricity in restaurant and institutional kitchens. Cooking for Profit was launched in1932 by Gas Magazines, Inc., and Food Service, published by Electrical Information Publications, began in 1938. Both were filled with stories and advertisements for their respective energy sources and appliances, including Vulcan, Garland, and Hotpoint ranges. Stories in Food Service hailed restaurants and chains with all-electric kitchens such as the B&W Cafeteria in Nashville, while Cooking for Profit championed gas users such as the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and the Nation of Islam’s Salaam restaurant in Chicago.

Natural gas was slow to arrive everywhere, including some large cities. New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and the rest of New England, Portland OR, Spokane and Seattle WA, Wisconsin, and Florida were not served with natural gas until after World War II, no doubt delaying the broad adoption of gas appliances in those places.

stovekitchencharcoalbroil41sfToday, most restaurants have both gas ranges and a variety of electric cooking devices, and perhaps a charcoal broiler too [pictured]. Might there even be a few chefs who swear by coal?

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Taste of a decade: 1880s restaurants

1880sFrankLentine

In the 1880s a wider range of foods became available to people living in cities, allowing restaurant menus to became more varied. Cold storage warehouses and refrigerated rail cars brought cheaper Chicago beef and out-of-season produce. Mechanically frozen ice, free from the impurities of lake ice, became available. Cheese and butter, once made on farms, now came from factories. Fresh fruits and vegetables remained luxuries for most people, however, and meat and potatoes dominated menus.

Larger, better capitalized restaurants installed electric plants that provided brighter lighting and badly needed ventilation systems.

1882HartfordHalfDimeLunchThe public demanded, and began to get, lower restaurant prices, quicker service, and more flexible meal times. The dining public expanded. Boarding houses that furnished meals as part of the rent were replaced by kitchenless rooming houses whose residents went to restaurants for dinner. More hotels switched to the European plan, freeing guests to eat wherever they chose rather than pay an inclusive charge for room and meals. New types of ready-to-eat food purveyors came on the scene, such as all-night lunch wagons and dairy cafes that specialized in simple, inexpensive meals such as baked beans and cereal with milk.

New ethnic groups arrived on American shores, among them Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians. Many settled in the East but others spread to cities throughout the westward-growing nation. They brought with them new cuisines, tempting the more adventurous eaters among the settled population.

Temperance coffee houses and soda fountains continued to thrive, particularly in Boston where authorities were always looking for ways to curb drinking.

As the rise of department stores and downtown retail shops brought women into city centers, restaurants catering specifically to them appeared on the scene.

But not everyone was welcome at restaurant tables, or in the society at large. Southern states made segregation the law, keeping Black Americans out of white-owned restaurants. Racially motivated legislation cut off Chinese immigration to the U.S. and encouraged hostility toward Chinese already in the country, mostly in the West, motivating many to move eastward and  introduce curious diners to new foods.

Highlights

1883Macy'sNY1880 On the second floor of its newly expanded NYC department store, Macy’s restaurant for shoppers seats 200. [pictured] – In the silver-mining town of Virginia City NV, restaurants serve food from all over the world, including “fruits from every country and clime.”

1881 In December, Edmund Hill, proprietor of Hill’s confectionery restaurant in Trenton NJ totals up the proceeds of what he calls a “very satisfactory” year in which the business took in $18,146, netting him the handsome sum of $677.33 in wages and profit.

1880sRichmondCafe1882 Richmond’s Café in New Bedford MA informs customers that “The Café will be in charge of a lady . . . who will bestow especial pains upon lady patrons, taking charge of whatever parcels may be left in her care while the owners are out shopping.” – In Boston Charles Eaton and a partner open a temperance soda fountain and lunch room called Thompson’s Spa which goes on to become a local institution.

1883 One year after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rockaway Oyster and Chop House in Fresno CA advertises to prospective customers that it has “all white help.” Everyone, of course, understands that white means “not Asian.”

1889Chicago1885 In Boston and other large cities customers flood into cheap restaurants near railroad depots and wharves for 10-cent noon meals. Menus are chalked up on boards and customers eat rapidly without removing coats or hats.

1886 It is considered newsworthy when a federal judge orders a restaurant in Little Rock AR to serve a Black juror along with his fellow white jurors. A report notes that it was “the first time a negro enjoyed his repast at the leading hotel in the state and among white people.”

1887 After gathering menus from 40 prominent hotels from all over the country, a collector determines that salmon is the fish most often listed, and that it is found on menus across the United States, including Knoxville TN, Detroit MI, Milwaukee WI, Salt Lake City UT, and Cheyenne WY.

1883brooksdiningroom1888 At Chicago’s New York Kitchen, where a nickel buys Ham and Beans Boston Style or “One-third of a Pie, any kind,” the dining room is lighted by a Mather Incandescent Electric System and cooled by a steam-powered exhaust fan. — In Boston Brooks’ Dining Rooms is equipped with a telephone.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Automation, part II: the disappearing kitchen

automatedJay'sdrive-in1966beltThe dream of a robotized restaurant is an old one, first focused on service, then on the kitchen. It culminated in a system that automated nearly the entire operation, both service and food preparation. Sounds futuristic, but the pinnacle of automation took place around 50 years ago.

If the first stage of automating the restaurant involved getting rid of servers, the second stage involved eliminating kitchen personnel while streamlining food preparation. Kitchen tasks were mechanized and geared toward producing predictable results with standardized portion sizes and speedy cooking.

The modern automated kitchens of the post-WWII period, were either (1) absent altogether in the case of machines vending frozen dinners, or (2) filled with equipment that needed only a few employees to trigger the slicing, mixing, pouring, and frying of a limited selection of burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas. Gathering steam, by the 1960s automation took giant leaps in a number of high-volume drive-ins, the restaurant type that foreshadowed the fast food restaurant.

A fully automated push-button kitchen was available for lease or purchase in 1964, a product of the American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), a large diversified company that developed and produced, among many other things, bowling alley pin spotters, power boats, guided missiles, and nuclear reactors for Israel, Iran, and Pakistan.

automatedJay'sdrive-insept1966OrbisconsoleDespite all the effort that went into its development, the fully automatic restaurant proved to be a failure. It was ridiculously expensive compared to how cheaply workers could be hired. And it broke down regularly, necessitating a well-paid, full-time technician on staff.

That full automation did not succeed should not obscure the fact that many restaurants today are highly automated compared to how they operated in the early 20th century. Plus in many chain restaurants tasks are so routinized and scripted that the humans who perform them might be considered quasi-robotized. As plans move ahead to raise hourly wages for workers in chain restaurants, it’s possible that restaurant automation will once again come into focus.

A sampling of projects:

1931 – Inventor H. Russell Brand’s automatic pancake machine is used at a Childs restaurant on West 34th St., NYC. Guests push a button on their table to start an automatic pancake machine that produces a stack of three pancakes which are, however, delivered by waiters. Possibly the earliest case of the automation of food preparation, nonetheless Childs removed the machines in 1938.

1939 – Meant to grow into a chain, a Roboshef restaurant with an automated cooker opens in San Francisco with the slogan, “Quality Food Cooked by Controlled Temperature, Not Temperament.” One employee can produce 120 meals per hour, producing perfectly timed steaks, seafood, fried potatoes, and biscuits.

automatic1948ILL

1948 – With the debut of the WWII spinoff radarange that cooks instantly by molecule-agitating sound waves, Popular Science magazine imagines a restaurant of the future in which customers push buttons at their table that send frozen dinners to microwave ovens and then on conveyor belts to their tables.

1949 – In San Francisco, Ott’s, billed as the world’s biggest drive-in, turns out meals in 6 minutes on average in its modern kitchen in which a machine molds 800 hamburger patties an hour while another slices 1,000 buns in the same time.

automatedPopMech19581958 – Popular Mechanics magazine proclaims that a revolution has taken place in restaurants, due to infrared ray grills, electronic ovens, timing devices, precision slicing and cutting machines, patty extruders [pictured], compression steamers, soft-drink mixers, and other wonders. Quoting a restaurant consultant, the magazine declares, “Food service has become an exact science.”

1959 – According to the Washington Post, the nation’s three largest hamburger chains – then McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Golden Point – are set to revolutionize food vending through standardization, menu simplification, and “a good helping of automation.”

1961 – The increasing use of pre-portioned frozen food in restaurants heated with sophisticated high-speed fryers, pressure cookers, and electronic ovens shrinks preparation areas in kitchens even as freezers grow larger.

automatedSchrafft'sEssovendingnearBaltimore1963

1961 – Stouffer’s opens two short-lived automated vending restaurants with frozen food. The roadside restaurants are paneled with recycled wood from old barns to avoid a sterile appearance. Customers are unexpectedly confused about how to heat their meals, requiring an attendant to help them. Schrafft’s [pictured] and White Tower’s Tower-O-Matic, NYC, also experiment with vending machine operations.

1962 – The first of Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mats opens, with coin-operated vending machines stocked with frozen dinners prepared off-site that are to be microwaved. The chain fails.

automatedJay'sdrive-in1966

1963 – The first fully automated kitchen is installed at the La Fiesta Drive-In, in Levittown NY. A test case for “AMFare,” the drive-in uses a computer-driven order and billing system that launches refrigerated items on a 4-minute journey to be cooked and trayed “without any handling whatsoever by restaurant personnel.” Alas, a live worker is needed for matching completed orders with checks [pictured]. The AMF system is installed secretly in the basement while a false kitchen in back is added “to satisfy customers.”

1966 – AMFare testing complete, Jay’s Brookdale Restaurant in Minneapolis MN becomes the first fully automated restaurant in the nation. Second is the Mustang Drive-In in Lexington KY.

By 1968, when the system is being tested by the Breese Terrace Cafeteria at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it is employed by five restaurants. Then it seems to vanish.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Automation, part I: the disappearing server

automacrestaurant1940How is it that the same culture that loves diners, with their friendly interchange between customers at a counter and cooks and servers on the other side, also idolizes the Automat, with food delivered in metal boxes that are filled by workers hidden from sight?

Through the years proponents of restaurant automation have argued that it’s more sanitary and efficient and results in lower prices for customers. Yet from the start — in the 19th century —  automating restaurants was motivated primarily by a wish to eliminate servers.

That this was a desirable goal was never debated. Servers were depicted as annoying, manipulative pests who demanded tips and grew angry if they were too small. As long ago as 1885 a New York Times story hailed a newly invented “waiterless” system that permitted diners to select dishes from a card, place it in a receptacle that wafted it to the kitchen, and be served their food via an overhead railway system. The customer, said the story, “is not preyed upon by the thought that the menial is hovering over him, watching his every movement, and ready to ‘size him up’ in proportion to the amount of his order.” Whether this automation scheme ever materialized is something I have not been able to determine, but it presumably would have looked like this.

automaticbutterfieldPatent93

There were two basic types of automated restaurants: with one the patrons came to the food, as in the classic Horn & Hardart Automat, and with the other the food came to the patrons. In the latter case, it came in a container/cabinet that arrived (1) from wires overhead, (2) on a conveyor belt, or (3) up through the center of the table. The systems were inventors’ dream projects, resulting in many patents, though actually used in very few restaurants and even fewer successful restaurants. Most of the projects to automate service proved unsuccessful after the novelty wore off.

A sampling of the projects:

1895 – Exhibits of automated “push button” restaurants begin to appear at international fairs in Holland and Germany; soon they are found all over Germany.

1897 – Rumors start that automatic restaurant apparatus from Germany will be installed in Philadelphia’s business district enabling business men to eat more quickly

1899 – An advertisement appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer by a New York man who is seeking backers for an Automatic Lunch Room invented in France.

1901 – Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition is said to have an automatic lunch room.

1902 – A natural food company in Niagara Falls allegedly runs a restaurant with 600 tables served by “five hundred little electric cars” operated by a switchboard.

1902 – Horn & Hardart open an Automat in Philadelphia.

1902 – The Harcombe Restaurant Co. opens an Automat in New York City.

1907 – An automated quick lunch opens on F street in Washington DC where customers get sandwiches, pie, or coffee by depositing a coin and moving a lever.

1908 – An announcement is made that a waiterless restaurant with Assyrian decor will open in NY on Broadway between 43rd and 44th where guests will receive their meals from a dumbwaiter in the center of their table that will be serviced from a kitchen below.

1909 – A notice by a self-described “first-class man” appears in a Seattle paper seeking partners for a “first-class automatic lunch room.”

1912 – The first NYC Horn & Hardart Automat opens, in Times Square.

1913 – An article in Scientific American proposes that a corporation should be formed to run a central kitchen that can send food to homes throughout cities via pneumatic tubes.

1915 – At least seven saloons in Chicago’s Loop have “free lunch machines” in operation.

1917 – The Automat Company of New England runs three automats in Boston.

1917 – An article in The Hotel Monthly hails a newly invented “Cafetourner” in which food is delivered in “thoroughly clean,” sterilized steel boxes on conveyor belts.

automaticbellLunchNYC

Ca. 1917 – Bell Lunch operates three lunchrooms in New York City, at least one of which appears to be an automat.

1921 – The Automatic Lunch Corporation opens Automatic Lunch Room No. 1 in Detroit, with plans for more in other Michigan cities.

1922 – Horn & Hardart are operating two Automats and five Automat-Cafeterias in Chicago.

1925 – An exhibition in Seattle hosts a booth by the Quick Lunch Company with machines that deliver pie or sandwiches at the drop of a coin.

automaticILL1925cardsystem1925 – Rather than utilizing coins in a slot, The Auteria in St. Paul MN replaces them with a card that is stamped with the price after the customer removes the dish from the device.

1926 – After a couple years in business the National Autometer Restaurant Corp. that ran two automatic restaurants in Washington DC declares bankruptcy.

1928 – A New York hotel exposition features a waiterless dining room with tables equipped with dumbwaiters set into tables.

1929 – Hall’s Mechanafe No. 1, which delivers food in cabinets on a conveyor belt, opens on Main Street in Boise ID. Along with the Horn & Hardart Automats in Philadelphia and New York it survives far longer than most restaurants with automatic service.

1930 – The first Merry-Go-Round café, in which a conveyor belt circulates along a counter, opens in Los Angeles.

1931 – The Hotel Warren in Worcester MA installs “auto-magic” tables where food comes up on a dumbwaiter set into the table. [pictured at top]

automaticyeeatShoppecounterbelt

1933 – NYC’s Ye Eat Shoppe installs a conveyor belt that serves orders to patrons seated at the counter.

Beginning in the 1930s, but mainly after World War II in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the second stage of automating the restaurant began, focused on streamlining food preparation in the restaurant kitchen. By the end of this stage computers had changed the meaning of “automatic.”

As for the fabled Horn & Hardart Automats, when the nation’s original one closed in 1969, in Philadelphia, the new president of Horn & Hardart said the concept had reached its peak before and after WWII. With only ten left in business, he acknowledged, “They are not really automatic.” As a story in the Los Angeles Times said, the Automat had become “a museum piece, inefficient and slow, in a computerized world.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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The dining room light and dark

lightingcongresshotel

Diners are not usually aware of lighting in restaurants but it plays an important role in making them comfortable – or not – and in conveying a sense of what kind of space they are in.

Although psychologists say that humans, like other animals, prefer to eat in a dim, safe space like a cave, darkness has not always been prized. The specific meaning of lightness and darkness in restaurants is encoded in history and has varied through the decades.

Here is the simplified version: In the 19th century darkness in an eating place usually signaled that it was disreputable, that it entertained the sort of guests who would not be welcome in polite society. But this equation changed in the 20th century as it became easier and cheaper to provide light. Places with bright lights, first thought attractive, became viewed by many as garish and cheap. Darkness, or at least a degree of dimness, now became associated with fashionability and “atmosphere.”

Through much of the 19th century darkness was associated with poverty and vice. The average oyster cellar was a below-ground dive possessing the three Ds: darkness, dampness, and dirt. A visitor to one of these places in New York in 1845 described rickety chairs and walls blackened with smoke. Overall, he wrote, it was “so dark and damp that the bivalves might have fancied themselves in their native mud.” By contrast a first-class oyster house was set apart from the rest by its bright gaslights, damask draperies, marble topped tables, crystal decanters, large mirrors, and paintings of scantily clad women.

The notion that dark equals dirty has not vanished even today. Unless a restaurant is in the luxury or upscale class, darkness is suspicious. Starting in the teens, inexpensive chain restaurants specializing in fast food were always bright, not only to prove to customers that they were clean but also because bright lights kept customers from lingering.

A few restaurants installed electric lighting in the 1880s, though it was unreliable. On Feb. 27, 1885, Edmund Hill proudly recorded in his diary that his Trenton NJ restaurant, “Had the electric light running for the first time.”

lightingPickensSC

Many more restaurants had electricity by the early 20th century though it had not yet achieved universal status. Some regions of the country still lacked electrification. Even in areas that were lucky enough to have electricity, a single naked bulb dangling from a wire might provide the only illumination in lowly rural cafes. Brightness continued to be equated with good times, especially if a restaurant hired musicians and catered to a late night crowd.

But as inexpensive “quick lunch” urban restaurants installed electric lighting, the glamour of brightness began to fade. Discerning customers at the forefront of taste trends rejected bright, noisy places, viewing them as vulgar. They preferred quiet intimacy in dining, with low lights, or shaded candles.

A widespread belief held that it was women who especially preferred dim lighting since it was more flattering. True or not, tea rooms, quintessential women’s haunts, often used candles. On the other hand, restaurants that advertised bright lighting, such as the 1960s chain Abner’s Beef House (“lighted brightly to let you see what you’re eating – like hunks of steak in a long fun bun”) pitched to male customers.

lightingfritzel's1950By the 1920s lighting had become an art. The best lighted restaurants were carefully designed using various types of illumination. Emphasis shifted from fancy light fixtures such as chandeliers to the quality of light that fixtures gave. The goal espoused by modern lighting experts and designers became to have adequately bright, but not glaring general illumination, with soft, warm lighting focused on the table. Around 1950 Fritzel’s in Chicago was designed using sophisticated lighting which combined ceiling and wall fixtures with recessed lighting from an architectural feature. [pictured]

Designers hated fluorescent lighting. As a lighting designer wrote in 1950: “Aesthetically, the worst development probably in the whole history of lighting is the fluorescent tube, which emits its eerie cold glare in unknown thousands of public rooms all over America.” Many small town cafes, however, continued to use fluorescent lighting since it was more economical. Equally common in 20th-century lunch rooms were plain white globes descending from chains.

lightingX-Cel

Although lighting experts say it’s all about the light, that has not stopped restaurants from using eye-catching novelty fixtures. Nothing stands out like the “light trees” used in luxurious dining rooms such as one in the Congress Hotel ca. 1915 [pictured above]. Wagonwheels also come to mind as one of the most overused examples, but there have been many others, such as Japanese lanterns, glass footballs, and battered brass buckets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Revolving restaurants II: the Merry-Go-Round

merrygoroundLA1930sApart from amusement parks, I think of merry-go-rounds mostly in conjunction with bars. It seems they served as jolly imbibing venues in the 1930s after Prohibition ended. It makes me mildly queasy to think of them going round and round but presumably they revolved very slowly and presented no hazards to tipsy customers. [pictured below is San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel bar during WWII]

MerryGoRoundBarSF

Even before revolving bars came upon the scene restaurateurs were dreaming up various sorts of revolving restaurants. I’ve written before about rotating restaurants atop tall buildings that let diners gaze upon ever-changing vistas spread out before them. California also had counter-style restaurants made with a revolving inner counter that held food in glass-enclosed compartments, almost like a revolving Automat, but without slots for coins. Some were round while others had a U-shape.

Merry-Go-Round-CafeNo.4Gustav and Gertrude Kramm were likely the first to introduce the merry-go-round concept to diners. Around 1930 they established two Merry-Go-Round Cafes in Long Beach CA incorporated as Revolving Table Cafés, Ltd. The corporation also produced the revolving serving tables. In 1931 Gustav filed a patent application for a “Café Table of the Traveling Conveyor Type,” for which engineer Harold Hackett was listed as inventor. It involved two conveyors, the top loaded with prepared relishes, salads, sandwiches, and desserts, and the lower one transporting dirty dishes to the kitchen. The conveyor traveled slowly enough, and the selection of dishes was repeated often enough, that customers could lift the glass doors and remove food easily.

merrygoroundcafeSFHot food, particularly main dishes, soup, and coffee, was delivered by servers who worked behind the counter.

Essentially the conveyor system was implemented so that the maximum number of customers could be served a fairly wide range of food inexpensively in a limited amount of space. The specialty of the Merry-Go-Rounds was the provision of full meals averaging 35 to 50 cents, an attractive bargain during the Depression. For 50 cents diners could order a main dish such as Ham Steak with Country Gravy and then choose two salads and two desserts from the revolving counter, along with all the relishes, rolls & butter, and coffee they wanted.

The Kramms operated some of the Merry-Go-Rounds and leased others. By the end of 1930 there were units in Long Beach (2), Los Angeles (4), and Seattle WA (1). Later Merry-Go-Rounds were opened in Huntington Park, Pasadena, San Diego, San Francisco, and possibly Santa Barbara, California. I’m not sure how long the restaurants remained in business but I could find no trace of them beyond 1941.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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