Category Archives: theme restaurants

Famous in its day: The Pyramid

I was initially attracted to The Pyramid Supper Club because of its kooky architecture and its surprising location on a rural Wisconsin road next to a cornfield. I admit I thought it was a joke.

As a 1991 advertorial noted, “The Pyramid Supper Club on Highway 33 east of Beaver Dam is surrounded by a bare, flat-land setting much like the original pyramids depicted in the interior wall paintings.”

Flat it is, I thought, but Wisconsin is a long way from ancient Egypt. Like Wild West-theme restaurants in New England and Polynesian restaurants in Arizona, it struck me as absurd.

Not only its location, but dining in a replica of a tomb? With murals depicting slaves at work? “Dine amidst the splendors of The Pharaohs – Have Cocktails in fabulous Egyptian lounges,” read the copy on the back of a postcard. I pictured the wives of Lutheran pastors, 4-H officials, fertilizer dealers, and goose hunters – all of whom gathered there at various times – clinking glasses of Yummy Mummies.

Why did the owners, who helped design the building, want their restaurant to resemble a pyramid? It opened in 1961 as the Tutankhamun Treasures exhibition toured the United States, so that’s one obvious source of inspiration. But I was surprised by the explanation that owners Gini and Dick Beth gave to a reporter, that in addition to “visual appeal” the building style had “no association with any particular food.”

Doesn’t that apply to most buildings that house restaurants? It takes no special architecture to lure lovers of steak and prime rib, the all-American cuisine the restaurant was based on.

I counted at least 27 main dishes on a 1984 Pyramid menu, suggesting that the restaurant must have had a mighty big freezer. Along with beef, chicken, and seafood specials was the puzzler, “Spearamid – on bed of rice.” Slowly it dawned on me that the word rhymed with pyramid, and was their coining. I then discovered it was beef, onion, peppers, and tomatoes grilled on a skewer.

To be fair, not all the Pyramid’s meat was frozen. The restaurant bought locally raised animals that won prizes at fairs. In 1991, for instance, they bought a lamb that won grand champion honors, paying $1,050 for it.

The Pyramid was a popular place, with a staff that was renowned for their friendliness and long tenure. It was heavily patronized by surrounding townspeople and community organizations of all sorts. Counting party rooms, the restaurant seated 500. On Sundays they served up to 300 meals, a number that jumped up as high as 800 during goose hunting season.

As I continued to learn about the Pyramid I realized a restaurant that at first I took as a joke wasn’t that at all. It was a true community institution.

Its originators, the Beths, sold it in 1994, and it subsequently had a couple of owners who ran it under different names. It closed in 2009, looking rather forlorn as shown here on Google Earth.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under food, odd buildings, popular restaurants, restaurant decor, theme restaurants

Spooky restaurants

spookycolumbusohnightclub

Montmartre in Paris was the birthplace of what would come to be known in the U.S. as the theme restaurant. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Parisian entrepreneurs conjured up fantasy atmosphere in strange and unsettling forms. Themes included assassination, imprisonment, death, hell, and that harbinger of bad luck, the black cat.

As much devoted to drinking and entertainment as food, Montmartre’s ghoulish restaurants, cafes, and cabarets inspired Americans to duplicate them. Needless to say, both in France and in America such places were heavily geared to tourists and considerably short of good taste.

One Paris establishment, the Cabaret du Néant, deliberately transgressed the boundaries of decency serving wine in skulls (thankfully artificial), using coffins for tables and x-rays to turn patrons into skeletons, and – worst of all, in 1915 – digging trenches in the backyard so patrons could experience World War I warfare conditions while dining by candlelight.

spookycabaretduneantIn 1896 the Cabaret du Néant, renamed the Restaurant of Death, had been recreated in the Casino in New York’s Central Park, right down to a candelabra made of “skulls and bones.”

spookymoulinrougecavequillsept1921

 

Greenwich Village’s Moulin Rouge used coffins and skulls in its advertising, though whether it carried the theme over to its interior is unknown. It was padlocked in 1924 for serving liquor illegally. Columbus OH had a nightclub known as The Catacombs in the Chittenden Hotel [at top of page] but I was not able to learn anything about it other than that it was doing business in 1941.

spookyblackcatgreenwichvillageOn the whole, black cats and jails gained greater popularity in the U. S., both themes inspired by Montmartre. New York City’s Black Cat had many lives [shown above], being declared dead with regularity and then reappearing. San Francisco also had a Black Cat, opened in 1911, but it sounds as though it was quite tame, filled with ferns and potted palms and an orchestra hidden behind a screen. Perhaps another Black Cat Café in San Francisco, or maybe this one transformed, operated from the 1930s into the 1960s as a center for bohemians and beats as well as a gay clientele.

As sinister animals go, rats and bats were also celebrated. Greenwich Village’s café, The Bat, was said to have a “macabre interior” similar to Paris’s famed Le Rat Mort (The Dead Rat). It’s likely that the advertising of both made them out to be far more sinister than they were.

spookysfjailrestaurant1921

As for jail restaurants and cafés, they were fairly numerous in this country. The first, labeled dungeons, opened in New York City and were places where patrons sat on crude boxes in cellars and ate steaks with their hands. They were particularly popular with men’s groups and conventioneers. In the 1920s and 1930s, restaurants and drinking places with jail themes, often with servers dressed as jailers or prisoners, appeared in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and even a small town in Iowa. Strangely, San Francisco’s Dungeon restaurant of the 1920s, complete with cells and wardens, etc., served waffles rather than steak. But then sometimes it’s hard to keep themes on track.

I’ve been working on a future post on truly scary restaurants, ones where outbreaks of food poisoning have occurred.

Meanwhile, whether or not you find a spooky restaurant to hang out in for Halloween, have a good holiday!

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, night clubs, Offbeat places, restaurant decor, theme restaurants

Anatomy of a corporate restaurant executive

corpexecJPG1966Jan14localrestaurateurnowRAvpIt strikes me that much more has been written about and by chefs than those restaurant personnel who mostly work behind a desk. Business people lack the glamour of knife wielding chefs. They are not surrounded by flames. They have no dishes named after them.

But Frederick Rufe’s career in restaurants was as interesting as many chefs’ and he was undoubtedly more influential in shaping the dining experiences of countless restaurant patrons over his career of nearly 40 years. His entire working life had a single focus. In a 1974 interview he stressed, “Everything I’ve ever done has been with food.” As a management executive he was closer to the soul (or soullessness, depending how you see it) of both the upscale and the midscale American corporate-owned restaurant of the 1960s and 1970s.

Born in New Jersey in 1922 he came from a humble background, growing up in a one-parent household with his mother, who was a factory worker, and a brother. While a student at a teachers’ college, he spent one summer as a waiter for a Pennsylvania resort, leading him to detour from a teaching career to one in food service. Following WWII army duty (working in food supply), he obtained a degree from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, which excelled in turning out top hospitality industry executives.

He then went to work in Miami Beach as food and beverage manager at large hotels there, among them the Monte Carlo, Algiers, and Deauville. He was not shy about promoting himself. Aiming for a catering manager job in a hotel without such a position, he “invented” it for himself. He took over a vacant room, bought a desk, put up draperies, and hung out a “Catering Manager” sign. When challenged by his boss, he successfully convinced him that the hotel needed someone – him – in that position.

corpexecFourSeasonsAlbertStockli1960He joined Restaurant Associates in New York in the mid-1950s as the company was entering its most creative phase. RA was going from managing coffee shops and cafeterias to developing theme restaurants, some in the luxury class. In 1956 Rufe was made general manager of RA’s Newark Airport restaurants which included the famed Newarker, its kitchen headed by the inventive Swiss chef Albert Stöckli who would go on to the Four Seasons [pictured here]. Rufe helped develop the Four Seasons, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and La Fonda del Sol. At a time when out-of-season fruits and vegetables equalled the height of luxury, he obtained shipments of melons and new asparagus from the West for the Four Seasons, as well as miniature vegetables that allowed power-lunching VIPs to minimize awkward bites. With James Beard’s help he brought the blind cook Elena Zelayeta from California to plan Mexican and Spanish dishes for La Fonda del Sol.

corpexecJPG1960LaFondaDelSolMenuAmiable and worldly, Rufe could be mistaken for a European sophisticate. He was on James Beard’s holiday dinner guest list, and had easy access to the food columns at major newspapers where he promoted RA’s restaurants with recipes and interviews. While manager of the Latin-themed La Fonda del Sol, he explained to a reporter that a “broiling wall” of revolving stuffed flank steaks was based on a setup he had observed at an inn in Peru on a menu-collecting tour of South America with La Fonda’s chef John Santi. He was known for focusing on detail, so much so that his travel notes were said to look like research for a doctoral dissertation.

In 1964 he took on the task of rescuing the Top of the Fair, a failing de luxe restaurant atop the Port Authority’s heliport building adjoining the World’s Fair grounds. He was made a RA vice-president in 1967 and two years later put in charge of food operations at LaGuardia and Kennedy air terminals, as well as other airports in the Northeast. “Our places are genuine restaurants,” he insisted, “not just places to grab a quick meal and dash to your plane.”

corpexecJPG1978MayADVAfter a shift in RA’s direction, Rufe left for the Marriott Corporation where he was soon made VP of its dinner house division of moderate-priced theme restaurants in the DC area. The recession of the 1970s was on and Rufe explained in the press that Americans wouldn’t pay for $25 French dinners any more. Marriott’s new dinner houses were geared to more modest lifestyles. Phineas Prime Rib, Joshua Tree, Franklin Stove, Port O’Georgetown, and Garibaldi’s were management-driven eating places where every detail was arrived at through consumer research and economic calculation. Lunch was not profitable, so dinner only. No reservations because that resulted in less than 100% occupancy. Short menus with only America’s favorites, beef and seafood. All-you-can-eat salad bars. Fireplaces and ceiling beams evoking old-time hospitality. Friendly college student servers speaking from scripts. Cooking by step-by-step recipe cards. No chefs.

corpexecJPGADV1971At first the formula was wildly popular with modal guests – suburbanites with $15,000 annual incomes who ordered $6.95 meals and cleared out in 1.5 hours. “Seventeen million dollars and no chefs,” Rufe boasted in January of 1975. However, by 1978 competition was up and profits were down. Marriott decided to sell off its dinner house division and some of the restaurants closed under the new owner.

After a few years as director of food and beverage planning and development for Hilton International, Rufe retired, returning to Stroudsburg PA where he continued as a consultant.

Needless to say, the chain dinner house formula he helped develop prevails today, demonstrating that there is a sizable market for restaurants with pleasant decor, parking, clean bathrooms, and palatable fare that is affordable.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, proprietors & careers, theme restaurants

“Atmosphere”

atmosphereschaber1941I put the word in quotation marks to acknowledge that what atmosphere in restaurants means is as elusive as air itself — which the word also refers to. It was often used to describe eating places in the 19th century, but not in a flattering way. A typical usage is that from 1868 where someone remarked that in a certain restaurant “the atmosphere is heavy with cooking vapors.”

The term atmosphere (or ambience, which came into use in the 1970s) became used in a more general way to describe the character of a restaurant – that intangible spirit of a place. The broader meaning could encompass an air that was sophisticated or homey, rowdy or relaxing, masculine or feminine, formal or casual, etc. I discovered a 1950s restaurant that claimed to have “Christian atmosphere” with home cooking by a Mrs. and “No Beer, Liquor or Smoking.”

In the 1890s the more general meaning almost always referred to the kinds of people associated with a restaurant, both owners and patrons. For example sawdust on the floor, pictures of athletes on the wall and the presence of prostitutes signaled a thoroughly masculine atmosphere while the presence of artists and writers in French, German, or Italian table d’hotes shouted “bohemian!”. A jolly host could also impart atmosphere, which might be altogether missing if he weren’t on hand, or if his most colorful patrons failed to show.

AtmosphereRomanyMarieSummer1921It didn’t take long before restaurant owners realized they could appeal to new patrons by bragging about their “atmosphere,” especially if it was bohemian. A San Francisco restaurant announced that it attracted “artists, writers, musicians, poets, painters, singers, draftsmen, balladists, literati and newspaper writers.” In 1903 NYC’s Elite Rathskeller Restaurant ran an advertisement claiming to have “Refined Bohemian atmosphere,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms since bohemians were supposed to be carefree souls who violated everyday norms of propriety.

The next step for restaurateurs was to merchandise atmosphere by generating it themselves. Since it seemed that so many people wanted to gawk at bohemians, why wait for them to show up if you could entice them with free dinners? Allegedly some restaurants did just that.

atmosphereVentureTeaRoomPhila

After World War I, following the reign of bohemian restaurants, came a new type of atmospheric eating place, the tea room of the 1920s. The tea room’s special atmosphere was  quaint and homey with artistic touches. In 1922 the Journal of Home Economics pronounced that “The very name of Tea Room has grown to mean a place with ‘atmosphere’ and with furnishings that are unique.” Ranging from the fashionable to the playful, tea rooms proved that women – their primary patrons – were in love with atmosphere.

atmosphere1918FlintMIBucking the trend toward atmospheric decor were a handful of holdouts. Anything like a “restaurant atmosphere” was anathema to a Y.M.C.A. cafeteria in Flint Michigan (1918). The Old Colony Coffee House in Richmond VA renounced “ordinary restaurant atmosphere” in 1924 and vowed it would have instead “simplicity in decorations” and “plainness in food.” Patrons of traditionally masculine restaurants feared that when Chicago’s J. R. Thompson’s tore out its white tiles for a more feminine look it had destroyed its no-nonsense atmosphere and gone “girly girly.” Likewise, design critic Lewis Mumford shuddered when the Childs’ chain replaced the “antiseptic elegance” of its “hospital ward atmosphere” for “fake fifteenth century English,” betraying the honest utilitarianism of the Machine Age. No doubt Mumford chuckled when Alice Foote MacDougall, queen of scenographic Spanish villas and French chateaux in NYC, went bankrupt in 1932. [see The Cortile below]

atmosphereCortile

In the 1950s there was still a tendency in the restaurant industry to see women as the constituency for atmosphere while men supposedly judged a restaurant first by its food quality. But by the 1960s this was no longer true, as indisputably demonstrated by the success of Polynesian restaurants. An executive of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) said that Americans’ demand for atmosphere had raised the cost of opening a restaurant to $4,000 a seat in 1962.

One of the early chains built around atmospheric theme restaurants was David Tallichet’s Specialty Restaurant Corporation in California. In 1965 the firm opened Gate of Spain, capturing the “atmosphere of old Castile” atop a tall building in Santa Monica. Restaurant industry consultant George Wenzel recommended the following year that restaurateurs “give your guests something to do or something to see, or something to make conversations about.” He suggested creating a Gay Nineties or a river boat atmosphere.

In the 1970s theme restaurants came into their own, classified by the NRA as one of three of the basic types of restaurant in 1976, and the one that drew the most affluent guests.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under atmosphere, restaurant decor, theme restaurants, women

Eating, dining, and snacking at the fair

1964World'sFairChunKingphoto

Fifty years ago the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was underway, with thousands going through the turnstiles. Sooner or later they had to eat. Some brought a picnic but others patronized the roughly 110 restaurants in operation the first season, up to nearly 200 in 1965.

The Fair was not officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions nor supported by governments (for the most part); it was a commercial enterprise filled with corporate pavilions such as Johnson’s Wax, General Motors, and Travelers Insurance. Most of the restaurants were run by private entrepreneurs who were not necessarily from the country represented by the pavilion. Restaurant Associates, which operated Mamma Leone’s, The Four Seasons, and others in NYC, ran the restaurant in the Indonesian Pavilion and five others. New York’s Sun Luck chain ran the Cathay Chinese Restaurant in the Hong Kong Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairBrassRailsnackbarBiggest of all, the Brass Rail operated six moderate-priced restaurants, each offering a single complete meal for $3. In the International Plaza they ran both a cold Danish buffet and the Garden restaurant offering Southern fried chicken dinners. The company, a subsidiary of Interstate Vending Co. in Chicago, also had 25 freestanding snack bars with balloon-shaped roofs that looked as though they could lift off and float away.

Most of the eating places at the Fair supplied casual food and snacks, whether strawberry and whipped cream filled Bel-gem waffles (the hit of the Fair), Wienerwald hot dogs, or Chicken Delight(s). Providing plentiful fast food was based on the belief that non-New Yorker Americans would accept nothing else. Keep in mind too that it was the mid-1960s before the culinary revolution came along with its hopes of replacing industrially produced convenience food.

There was also no shortage of exotic cocktails served at tiki bars and lounges, and American and imported beers flowing in beer gardens. During groundbreaking for the Schaefer Brewing Company Center, which contained Schaefer’s Restaurant of Tomorrow and a beer garden, Fair president Robert Moses advanced a surprising perspective on the Fair’s theme, Peace through Understanding, by declaring that beer was probably “the thing that holds the world together.”

International edibles ranged from the passably authentic to the thoroughly Americanized. Yet however tame the Fair’s version of world cuisine often was, those fairgoers daring enough to go beyond burgers and dogs found a wide selection of food unknown to most Americans then. Among the many unfamiliar dishes were smoked reindeer at the Swedish Pavilion, spicy Korean spareribs, and stewed meat with peanuts and couscous at the Tree House restaurant in the African Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairChunKingRepresenting American-style Chinese food was the Chun King Inn, whose mission was not so much to run a profitable restaurant as to familarize people with Chun King products sold in supermarkets. It won over the public — who often complained about high restaurant prices at the Fair — by serving full meals consisting of seven items for only 99 cents. The Inn also featured a double-patty Hong Kong Burger with cheese, lettuce, special sauce – and bean sprouts for an Asian touch. Many restaurants did poorly at the Fair, but Chun King’s president reported that the Inn served 5 million customers the first year.

Probably the most successful restaurants were those directed by veterans of earlier Fairs, particularly Seattle’s in 1962 and New York’s in 1939. Repeaters from 1939 included the operator of the Century Grill who had run the Aviation Grill in 1939 and Schaefer Brewing Co.  Seattle businessmen subleased a restaurant in the Fine Arts Pavilion named the Bargreen Buffet to Roy Peterson, proprietor of Seattle restaurants including the Norselander. Another restaurateur from Seattle, William Moultray, did so well with his Polynesian restaurant in 1964 that Fair officials asked him to set up a restaurant complex in another pavilion.

1965World'sFairBelgianVillage

The Belgian Village [shown above in part] consisted of 100 buildings and 20 eating places, some of them outdoor cafes, but was not completed until the end of 1964. A similar village with some of the same buildings had been at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933.

Although critics were disappointed that there was nothing to equal Henri Soulé’s 1939 French restaurant (origin of NYC’s Le Pavillon), everyone agreed that the restaurants in the Spanish Pavilion came closest. Unlike most, it was officially supported by Spain’s government, headed at that time by dictator Francisco Franco. Two restaurants in the pavilion, the moderately priced Granada and the expensive Toledo, were under the management of Madrid’s Jockey Club which imported its chef and 40 of his assistants. So popular was the pavilion’s outdoor seafood bar, the Marisqueria, that it was enlarged in 1965. It was under the direction of Alberto Heras who opened a Spanish Pavilion restaurant on Park Avenue in NYC in 1966.

1964World'sFairFiveVolcanoesRestHeras was one of several restaurateurs who tried to extend their success beyond the Fair. The Spanish Pavilion building was removed to St. Louis by then-mayor Alfonso Cervantes, where it housed three restaurants that met a rapid demise. The maestro of Wienerwald, Friedrich Jahn, extended the Europe-based chain into this country. It had grown to 880 units by the early 1980s when it failed. The Petersons of the Bargreen Buffet took over management of New York’s venerable Janssen’s restaurant. The Wisconsin Pavilion’s Tad’s Steaks, with its popular $1.19 sirloin steak dinners, became a fixture with bargain-meal hunters in NYC.

Although the Fair fell short of meeting its attendance goal of 70 million, drawing only 52 million fairgoers, it’s likely that millions of them carried away lasting food memories.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, miscellaneous, odd buildings, outdoor restaurants, theme restaurants

Image gallery: dinner “on board”

ShipTacomaTopoftheOceanest1946burned1977

There are numerous historical links between restaurants on land and vessels that navigate seas, lakes, and rivers. Ocean going sailors arriving in port, for instance, made up a notable fraction of early restaurant customers. Their ranks also provided stewards, cooks, and chefs, bringing new skills and cuisines wherever they took up their profession on land. San Francisco in the 1850s provides a striking example. In the United States steamboats that traveled the rivers and Great Lakes contained dining salons that were among the 19th century’s most luxurious and among the few places where ornamental French cuisine flourished.

But . . . this post isn’t about that. Instead it illustrates how far restaurants featuring ship and boat themes have strayed from a connection with their watery history. Ship restaurants are for the most part little more than a novelty – but a novelty that can be traced back at least to the 1850s. Despite quite a lot of ship restaurants running aground or sinking, literally and figuratively, there is some kind of primal appeal that keeps them going.

Frank Bazzuro may have been first. He arrived in San Francisco from Italy in 1852 and installed a restaurant in one of the hundreds of ships abandoned in the Bay, introducing his customers to a Genoese fish stew, cioppina. In the 1880s Capt. Paul Boyton, a world-famous swimming champion who popularized rubber wet suits, opened a restaurant on West 29th in NYC called “The Ship” which resembled a ship’s cabin. On Venice Pier in CA, a developer constructed a replica of a Spanish Galleon in 1904, after which it rode the waves of good and bad luck until its demolition in 1946. After an underworld shooting in 1928, it went through a couple of name changes, from Show Boat Café to Volga Boat.

Most ship restaurants that float on water – which not all do – have had checkered pasts as more utilitarian vessels or ones that have spent some time under water. Before it became a floating restaurant in Wilmington NC in 1951, the Ark had transported troops, hosted gamblers, and housed the coast guard. The SS Catala was one of about ten ships that appeared in Elliott Bay during the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Previously it had served as a coastal passenger steamship, then fish transporter. When the fair ended it was towed to Los Angeles where it failed as a nightclub restaurant, then appeared in an Perry Mason TV episode before returning to restaurant-ing in Washington where a storm ran it aground.

Dining on a floating restaurant can be hazardous. A storm tore St. Louis’s Becky Thatcher Riverboat from its moorings, sending it downstream where it ran onto the opposite side of the Mississippi in 1969. Bar business was said to be brisk in the interlude before its 100 diners were rescued.

Ships moored on land are safer but rarely very convincing in their roles, particularly if they are in Dallas or Phoenix (below, respectively), smack on a roadway or surrounded by an asphalt parking lot where the water consists of a few puddles.

ShipRestaurantBountyDallas1971ShipCopperBelleRiverboatPhoenix

A parking lot might seem like a strange place for a ship but, a little reflection tells you that Noah’s Ark could have ended up almost anywhere. And that may be the reason enterprises with that name have done business not only on the beach in Leucadia CA, but near the interstate in St. Charles MO (pictured) and in Grovetown GA and Des Moines IA.

ShipNoah'sArk

Some sites present a real challenge. How do you make your restaurant resemble a ship when it’s in the middle of a block? Boyton’s ship cabin restaurant where only the interior resembles a ship gives an answer, but so do a number of storefronts that have been adorned with protruding ship’s prows, such as Bernstein’s in San Francisco (pictured).

shipBernstein'sFishGrotto

Babette'sYachtBarThere were oh so many bars shaped like boats and yachts, of which Babette’s was one (above).

Many restaurants with ship themes specialize in fish and seafood, but not all. Why not Chinese and American cuisine as in the 1940s Ship Ahoy chain with restaurants in  Atlanta and Augusta GA, Charlotte NC, Columbia SC, and Houston TX? Or hamburgers (McDonald’s, St. Louis riverfront, shown below)?

ShipSTLRiverfrontMcDonald's

In researching this topic I learned that almost every city or town will sooner or later have a ship restaurant. And many of them will sink, be scrapped, or get towed to another location. The fate of the Showboat Restaurant in Beaverton OR was ironic. In 1981 it became Showboat Liquidators where “Selling Your Boat Is Our Only Business!”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Image gallery: shacks, huts, and shanties

TheHutEvanstonLike stands, shacks most certainly represent a type of eating places whose origins stretch back into antiquity. Their simple structures can be erected hastily for fairs or to capture the pennies of hungry travelers. In an automobile culture they suggest open spaces and open roads.

They convey honest rusticity with uncomplicated, inexpensive fare for ordinary folks rather than elaborate cuisine accompanied by the pomp and ceremony of the palace as enshrined in posh restaurants. The kinds of food sold in shacks, huts, and shanties is likely to be lobster, fried chicken, barbecue, or other casual fare that is eaten with the hands, and quickly.

Shanties1930sFrontLow prices are implied in huts and shacks. The slogan of the Shack in Upper Darby PA was “Where Dining is an Event not an Extravagance,” while New York City’s eighteen Shanties of the 1930s promised “The Country’s Finest Products at the City’s Lowest Prices.” For 15 cents the menu offered orange or tomato juice, buttered toast, and coffee.

AncestryUNKnownlunchcounter

On the other hand, low prices or not, how many people would want to patronize a true shack? The crude Depression-era lunchroom shown above has a tarpaper roof and scanty stock on its display shelves.

Jerry'sShackSLCToday, because such places are harder to find, they project a strong contrast with the manufactured food and decor of chain restaurants. In contrast with artless roadside shanties, McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets are carefully designed, highly managed food selling environments.

ShackNYCAt the same time, restaurants tend to look to the past rather than the future for themes that will attract customers. Shacks and huts are entirely capable of filling that role too, even in New York City, a most unlikely setting. The Shack, in Manhattan, is scarcely convincing. One of Chicago’s leading restaurants of the 1930s was the Chicken Shack, which was furnished with not-a-bit-rustic modernistic chrome tables and chairs. Its proprietor, Ernie Henderson, was invited to demonstrate his chicken frying methods at the 1939 convention of the National Restaurant Association, marking the first time an African-American was given such an opportunity.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under odd buildings, theme restaurants