Category Archives: theme restaurants

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.


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


Filed under odd buildings, theme restaurants

The power of publicity: Mader’s

Compared to cities of comparable size in 1910 — such as Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or New Orleans — Milwaukee at first appears to be a town where people rarely ate outside the home. But statistics can be deceiving. In the city made famous by its breweries, most eating places were primarily saloons before Prohibition, usually set up in business by one or another brewery.

This is how Charles Mader got his start, as a saloonkeeper who also served meals of the homely sort. Although 1902 is commonly given as the year in which he began, I suspect it was a few years later that he opened his own place. Throughout most of his early career he worked with a partner. He and Gustav Trimmel joined up in 1915, the year the saloon moved to the present-day restaurant’s address. In 1921 Mader had a new partner, Charles Ruge, with whom he remained in business until 1928. Thereafter his partners were his sons George and Gus who assumed ownership when Charles died in 1937. [pictured above, 1950s]

Although many restaurants get a good share of patronage from out-of-towners, relatively few located in America’s midsection make a determined bid for nation-wide recognition. Mader’s was one of those that did so successfully. A late 1920s photograph in the historic photo collection of the Milwaukee Public Library shows the restaurant with a prominent “Tourists’ Headquarters” sign in its front window. In 1929, a newspaper item suspiciously resembling an advertorial (publications didn’t identify them as such then) claimed that Mader’s had won a reputation for hospitality extending “the length and breadth of this land and to distant lands as well.”

Charles Mader was known for his belief in advertising, often remarking, “If your business is not worth advertising, advertise it for sale.” Beginning afer Prohibition, Mader’s would intensify its advertising program and accentuate its Germanness, following a kind of reverse assimilation common to other German-themed restaurants in the US. Very likely this reflected a proportionate shift in patronage from German-American Milwaukeans to a wider clientele of conventioneers, traveling businessmen, and tourists of all stripes looking for an identifiably ethnic experience. The trend would continue: a 1968 newspaper story reported that at Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s, mostly patronized by tourists, German dishes were popular, while at restaurants patronized exclusively by Milwaukeans such as the Fox and Hounds, filet mignon and lobster tail were favorites.

In 1935 the Maders remodeled the 3rd Street building to look more typically German in a style suggestive of medieval architecture with a high stepped gable and two bas relief panels depicting quaintly costumed servers. By contrast, only a couple years earlier Mader’s had a typical plate glass storefront with a centered, recessed entryway and a moderne sign with its name spelled out in bold aluminum lettering. In subsequent decades, the Mader’s compound has been further extended and embellished, given a vaulted ceiling and decorated with heraldic swords and shields. It has taken on a castle-like appearance.

Along with arch competitor Karl Ratzsch’s, a Viennese-inflected restaurant pursuing much the same strategy, Mader’s began to win awards and listings in national magazines and restaurant guides, such as Duncan Hine’s Adventures in Good Eating and those of the Automobile Club of America and Ford Motor Company. It began attracting visiting Hollywood stars in the 1930s, hanging their autographed photos on its walls. In 1937 and again in 1949 and 1952 a poll of traveling business men voted it America’s favorite German restaurant and one of their ten favorite restaurants overall. Accolades continued coming in up to the present day.

Mader’s is a survivor, having outlasted most of Milwaukee’s venerable German restaurants, some of which, Forst-Keller and the Old Heidelberg for example, were associated with the city’s breweries. Cafes originating with Fritz Gust, Joe Deutsch, and John Ernst have all passed from the scene, the last as recently as 2001.

Long considered “heavy” eating, German cuisine has perhaps sunk in popularity somewhat from the middle of the 20th century, although Pork Shanks – ever popular at Mader’s – remain on the restaurant’s menu to this day. Notably, though, this once-humble dish has become an expensive entree.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Theme restaurants: Russian!

Restaurants and coffee houses run by Russian immigrants appeared in the late 19th century. Their proprietors were Jews living on NYC’s lower East Side as well as others in California and Chicago who were pro-revolution enemies of the Czar. But not until after World War I (and the Russian Revolution), when a very different wave of anti-revolution, pro-Czar Russian immigrants arrived, did explicitly and self-consciously Russian-themed restaurants come into being. They flourished in the 1920s and 1930s.

For many readers New York’s Russian Tea Room will immediately spring to mind. It was established on West 57th Street in 1927 by Jakob Zysman, a Polish immigrant who operated a chocolate factory at the little tea room where ballerinas hung out. The business soon moved across the street where it changed hands and was expanded into a full-fledged restaurant. Over its long history it had many owners, notably including Faith Stewart-Gordon who ran it from 1967 until the end of 1995. After extensive renovations by restaurant impresario Warner LeRoy, it reopened in the fall of 1999. LeRoy died in 2001 and the RTR closed the following year.

But it should be noted that, unlike other Russian restaurants of the interwar period, the RTR was not started by a White Russian nor did it have a specifically Russian emigré clientele for most of its tenure. Reportedly, at one point the Russians who haunted the barroom were discouraged from patronizing the place because of their propensity to linger while they eulogized the olden days. The RTR was mainly famous as a flamboyant celebrity restaurant.

In the 1920s NYC gained a population of White Russians numbering about 6,000, most of them well-educated former members of the intelligentsia or the Imperial Russian Army. Numerous Russian eating places soon cropped up, with names such as The Russian Inn, The Eagle (E 57th), Katinka (W 49th), The Russian Swan, Kavkaz (Bdwy & 53rd), Casino Russe (W 56th), The Russian Sadko (W 57th), The Maisonette Russe (W 52nd), and The Russian Bear (W 57th). On the lower East Side were The Russian Kretchma and the (original) Russian Bear. Striking modernistic wall murals by emigré artists such as Boris Artzybashev, balalaika music, and entertainment by Cossack performers often contributed to the atmosphere of these eating places. As far as I can tell they served both as gathering spots for Russians and as tourist attractions.

Los Angeles also had a White Russian settlement of up to 2,000, with an Orthodox church, art shops, tea rooms, and restaurants. Lured by Hollywood, some Russians from this period acted as extras in movies and a few became studio consultants with expertise on the former glories of the fallen Russian aristocracy. When Theodore Lodijensky, proprietor of NYC’s Russian Eagle, moved westward he consulted on Sternberg’s “Last Command” (1928) — and he opened a West Coast version of The Eagle.

When the RTR began there were also other Russian tea rooms in NYC and around the US, some going by that exact name, some with names such as The Samovar. An importer of artistic wares named Polakoff, a Czarist who used a royal crest in his advertising, ran a Russian Tea Room filled with Russian arts and crafts on Chicago’s South Michigan Blvd. A specialty there was the Petrograd Supreme, a tall sandwich which the eater approached from the appetizer layer on top, working down to the dessert layer at bottom. In the 1930s Valentina Alekseevna Vernon ran a Russian Tea Room in San Francisco. A woman of strong opinions, she found Americans as resistant to some Russian dishes as she was to theirs.“I wouldn’t touch either an ice cream soda or a fruit salad,” she proudly proclaimed. Also in San Francisco was the Moscow Café which opened in 1932 and featured flaming Beef Stroganoff and Cossacks balancing flaming swords. A few Russian restaurants could also be found in Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven CT, and Miami in the 1930s.

The dishes introduced by White Russian restaurants included not only Beef Stroganoff, but also Blini with Caviar and Nesselrode Pudding. Although their menus might list Borscht, Darra Goldstein points out in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink that this humble Ukrainian beet soup was brought by Russian Jews who had immigrated earlier.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under proprietors & careers, theme restaurants

Theme restaurants: castles

So often restaurant reviewers seem to struggle to say something positive about a restaurant. Is it my imagination or did they try twice as hard when reviewing restaurants with medieval castles and King-Arthur-and-his-knights themes? No doubt there were a handful of restaurants of this sort that really cared about food but, mainly, I think not. Of course most were actually steak houses in disguise — but what wasn’t a steak house around 1967, the year that the movie Camelot came out, almost certainly boosting this restaurant-ing trend?

In America Eats Out, John Mariani comments that during the 1960s many “strained and mawkish” restaurant themes prevailed. For example, he writes, “‘Old English pubs’ proliferated in places with names like Ye Olde Bull & Bush in Atlanta, The Golden Bee in Denver, and His Lordship’s in St. Louis. At Atlanta’s Abbey restaurant, waiters came to the table dressed as monks (a sartorial gimmick also featured at New York’s Monk’s Inn).”

The popular movie Camelot explains some but not all instances of medieval English resorts in this country. There were none in the 19th century that I’ve discovered, but a few can be found before the 1960s. I do not include White Castle hamburger stands. Despite their name and laughably minimal crenellated exteriors, they were so clearly not castles that they may be excused from consideration. They didn’t print menus on parchment scrolls, didn’t decorate with suits of armor, and didn’t dress countermen in monks’ robes or velveteen rompers with tights. As others have commented, White Castle interiors looked more like morgues than baronial halls. And while White Castles were sited near bus stops and factory gates, only a novelist like Vladimir Nabokov could have created the existential contexts for English castles: The Coat of Arms on Oracle Blvd. in the Casa Adobes Plaza; the Camelot Castle, a smorgasbord in Azusa CA; King Arthur steaks in Long Beach.


Back in the 1920s entrepreneurs in Los Angeles were knocking together roadside castles – and windmills, Irish shanties, French Bastilles, giant igloos, anything that would catch the eye of a speeding motorist. It may have been a similar motive that led to the ca. 1920s erection of a castle in Westhampton, Long Island, once the home of the Gray Lion Tea House (another medieval castle would spring up in a Valley Stream shopping center in the mid 1960s housing a unit of the Steak Pub chain). The 1939 Chicago World’s Fair occasioned many theme restaurants including The Hunting Lodge, an English castle whose guests were attended by young women dressed as Robin Hoods.

Quite unlike White Castles’s tiny beef patties, Olde English castles encouraged “royal” self-indulgence, designed principally for male guests. Stiff drinks in front of the roaring fire, the color red, chunky chairs, cheese crocks, T-bone steaks, jumbo shrimp, and oversize desserts were typical of these castles.

The proliferation of restaurants of this type in the 1960s makes me think that it took a lot of coaxing to get men to go out to dinner in that decade.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under restaurant decor, theme restaurants

Theme restaurants: prisons

I’ll admit that I’m not fond of theme restaurants. So often they seem designed for tourists who will never return and, therefore, don’t get very good treatment. Food is often a secondary consideration, mediocre at best, while the entertainment is hokey.

Yet obviously many people enjoy places that allow them to escape their everyday lives for a few hours. What kind of escape does a prison concept provide? Appreciation of freedom? The opportunity to tell friends “I was in jail last night”?

Whatever it may be, it’s never been a common restaurant motif, yet it endures today. The theme can be traced back to 19th-century Montmartre’s Café of the Penitentiary (Café du Bagne). The beat was picked up in the US by “beefsteak dungeons” that sprang up around 1900. In another variant, Don Dickerman led patrons down into a dark cellar, the brig, in his Pirates’ Den in the Greenwich Village of the 1920s, which he recreated in Miami, Washington, and Hollywood CA (shown) in the 1930s and 1940s.

Los Angeles was host to several jail theme eating/entertainment venues, the first in the early 1920s when LA entrepreneurs were eager to cash in on the popularity of Greenwich Village by creating outlandish eating places that resembled the Village’s. One LA attraction was a coffee shop largely patronized by sailors where the walls were painted to resemble the stone walls of a prison on which patrons scrawled their names. Then, in 1925, The Jail opened on Sunset Boulevard. Each table occupied its own barred cell. Just like in Montmartre of the late 1800s, waiters dressed as convicts — the bitterly ironic yet unconscious American twist being that they were black men.

Within a year the proprietors of The Jail opened a second place. This location, or perhaps the first, became the set for two movies which have subsequently fallen into obscurity: Sweet Daddies (silent, 1926) and Ragtime (1927).

The Jails featured chicken dinners. Diners were furnished with no knives or forks, thus carrying on the beefsteak dungeon’s “caveman” tradition of eating with the hands. In 1930 a newspaper columnist named The Jail as one of the “seven wonders of Hollywood,” along with the Hollywood Bowl and the residence of Harold Lloyd. That honor may have marked its swan song as it seemed to disappear around then.

There were also jail-themed restaurants in other parts of the country. Depression-era Indianapolis had Fox’s Jail House Restaurant (shown above) where the “inmates” ate behind bars, while Fairfield, Iowa, enjoyed Turner’s Jail Café where, in 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Turner invited guests to Eat (plate lunches) at the Jail!

Believe it or not, the macabre subject of execution has also served as a theme for some eating places, such as The Noose Coffee Shop located across from Chicago’s Criminal Courts building in the 1920s. It supplied condemned prisoners with their last meals and they reciprocated with autographed photos. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Tarzana CA had a jokey place called The Hangman’s Tree Café, whose menu cover featured a noose dangling from a tree and the slogan “Jail Fare.” Although it was presumably meant to invoke the Wild West I feel reasonably certain not many black guests chose to accept the invitation to “hang out” there. I almost hate to mention the Taipei, Taiwan, restaurant called The Jail which in 2000 was grotesquely (but briefly, following public outcry) decorated with photo murals of emaciated prisoners of German concentration camps and a sign for the rest rooms that read “gas chamber.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under theme restaurants

Birth of the theme restaurant


Credit for the development of the first theme restaurants goes to Paris cafés and cabarets which opened in Montmartre in the later nineteenth century. They were primarily drinking spots rather than full-scale restaurants but they served food also. Like American theme restaurants today they were built around a concept and created an environment which appeared to be something other than a mere eating and drinking place.

In their early years these artistic cafés had a counter-cultural impetus that in some cases celebrated the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871 which had been rooted in Montmartre.

That was particularly true of the Café du Bagne (Café of the Penitentiary) established in 1885 by Maxime Lisbonne (shown with waiters), a member of the Commune long exiled in a South Pacific penal colony. Posters on the wall of his café, which replicated a prison eating hall, hailed Commune heroes. Waiters were dressed as real convicts but with fake balls and chains. The place caused an instant sensation when it opened, with patrons lining up outside to get in. Possessed of a socialistic mission, Lisbonne posted a sign in 1886 announcing a free breakfast for the poor residents of Montmartre: “Come, and eat your fill, your appetite sharpened by the knowledge that it was from their [the capitalists] coffers the money was extracted.”

The Chateau d’If’ of the 1880s, possibly an imitator of the Café du Bagne, was designed to resemble the prison by the same name in Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Outside it had an imitation drawbridge which stretched from the street to a large oak door, while inside were cells and dungeons. The L’Abbaye de Thélème, with a medieval theme, dressed its servers as monks and nuns.

At Le Chat Noir, the decor was in Louis XIII style, with waiters dressed in the authentic green jackets of the Immortals of the French Academy whose job it was to protect the purity of the French language – the object being, of course, to mock them. When it was established in 1881, Le Chat Noir, which was also decorated with images of black cats throughout, served as a club for artists where they exhibited their work. Its fame spread quickly and it became a magnet for visitors to Paris. (Later incarnation of Le Chat Noir pictured below.)


Many of the Montmartre cafés celebrated the macabre, with paintings and decor whose subjects included infanticide, crucifixion, and assassination, but in 1894 The Café of Death opened, furnished with coffins serving as tables. The police objected to its name and its habit of serving beer in imitation human skulls so its name was changed to the Cabaret du Néant [of Nothingness] (see above).

The 1890s marked a turning point at which original owners left the scene, artists stopped coming, bohemianism vanished, and new café owners took dead aim at tourists. Certainly few of the popular cafés and cabarets of the early 20th century had much connection with earlier enterprises even when old names remained. Many felt that the Café de l’Enfer (Café of Hell) exemplified the purely commercial type of enterprise.


The spirit of Paris’s bohemian cafés passed into the United States first in New York City. Au Chat Noir was in business there in 1895, decorated with a wall frieze of black cats. Otherwise, though, it seemed like a fairly standard small French restaurant of the day serving dishes such as cold lobster, tripe, and deviled crabs. Later at least a couple of other cafés named The Black Cat appeared in NY and Coppa’s in San Francisco adopted a similar theme.

Other early theme restaurants undoubtedly inspired by Paris cafés include beefsteak dungeons in New York and elsewhere, as well as tea rooms and cabarets in Greenwich Village both before and after World War I, a prime example being the Pirates’ Den. As in Paris, theme restaurants and cafés rapidly lost any counter-cultural overtones.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under Offbeat places, restaurant decor, theme restaurants

Theme restaurants: barns

At the risk of offending anyone I have to say I find this one of the worst themes ever. I almost feel I don’t need to elaborate, that everyone is thinking “I agree.” Not only is the decor corny and the “atmosphere” non-existent, but the kitchen is usually totally lacking in ambition if not turning out food that is downright bad.

The 19th century was mercifully unafflicted with barn restaurants, presumably because barns were still needed for farming and restaurants that were more than plain, bare-bones eateries tended toward grandeur. Sometimes the grandeur was hokey but at least the aim was to provide guests with an experience that went beyond eating in a shelter designed for animals and fowls. Though theme restaurants weren’t totally unknown, the past had not yet been ransacked to come up with novelties that would attract jaded patrons looking for “something different” or catch the eye of passing motorists.

Barn themes were usually used to attract men. I’m guessing it was because subliminally they seemed to promise large quantities of food while not demanding overmuch etiquette. Some beefsteak dungeons, as they were called, where men ate steaks with their bare hands in basements of hotels and restaurants, adopted barn themes. Occasionally even tea rooms, supposedly appealing to discriminating women of delicate tastes, were tucked away in barns in the 1920s (Hyannis Tea Barn pictured). Men tended to avoid tea rooms, so a 1924 tea room trade journal suggested adopting a barnyard theme to draw them. A headline read “The Barnyard Lunch Shows How to Win and Hold Masculine Patronage.” Oof.

The nightclub and restaurant “renaissance” which occurred in 1933 right after the repeal of Prohibition inspired a host of barn eateries as well as many other kinds of theme restaurants. Many were night spots for drinking and dancing as well as “dining.” Examples included the Village Barn in Greenwich Village, as well as Topsy’s Roost near San Francisco which after Repeal relocated to a larger barn equipped to service over 1,000 merry imbibers at once. At Topsy’s, rooster images decorated the walls while chicken prints crossed the table tops. Is anyone thinking sucker joint?

The 1960s and 1970s saw another spate of barn restaurants, this time chains such as Red Barn and Nickerson Farms, which actually constructed barn-shaped buildings as restaurants. And some people loved them.  And pine over them even today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under odd buildings, restaurant decor, theme restaurants