Fred Harvey revisited

As many readers probably already know, particularly if they’ve seen the Harvey Girls movie with Judy Garland, Fred Harvey was the prime architect of a company begun in 1875. Harvey ran what were once called eating houses serving passengers and workers along the route of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. [above: staff of the Raton NM eating house, ca. 1900]

Largely due to the movie, Fred Harvey — the man and the company — has been turned into a myth about providing the first good meals for train passengers and, in the process, civilizing the West. The myth was crafted mainly in the 20th century, and has rarely been challenged. As such, the Harvey enterprise has also been hailed as an example of the first restaurant chain.

I have looked carefully at the company’s first 25 to 30 years and have found many ways in which the actual history challenges the myth. Almost certainly the meals provided by Harvey’s eating houses were superior to much of what was available in the West. Yet, this is an exaggeration in that it leaves out how often eating houses on other railroad lines were praised. [menu, Las Vegas NM, 1900]

And, although Harvey’s meals were better than average in the 19th century, “the Harvey system . . . represented a utilitarian approach to meeting the needs of travelers and railroad company employees” (History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway; Bryant, 1974). Some of the early dining spaces were far from elegant, located in simple frame buildings, or even fashioned out of train cars. [Deming NM lunch room, ca. 1900]

Viewed as a model of a successful modern restaurant chain, the Harvey case demands a closer look. Harvey had a close relationship with the vice-president, later president of the Santa Fe line, W. B. Strong, and enjoyed a sweetheart deal with the railroad. Essentially he could not fail, even in the early years when the number of patrons of his eating houses was small. Railroad passengers going West in the early years were of two classes. One was tourists who could afford to travel for enjoyment. The second, people moving West, were classed as “emigrants.” They were of lesser means and carried food with them because they could not afford to buy the meals, which were high priced.

The railroad’s primary business was freight; passenger traffic was light. The 44 Harvey houses then in business each fed an average of only 114 per day in 1891. It is striking to compare this figure to that of an admittedly very busy restaurant in NYC, which often fed 8,000 patrons a day in 1880.

In a number of ways the railroad operated like today’s cruise ships in terms of its relation to the surroundings, stopping briefly to refuel, get water, and let passengers off for meals. Using the railroad to transport food, supplies, and workers from afar by train – all at no cost – was what sustained the Harvey eating house business. Additionally, the beef used by Harvey eating houses was supplied from Harvey’s own ranch, and shipped for free (a practice known as deadheading) to slaughterhouses in Leavenworth KS and Kansas City MO and back to his kitchens. This drew the ire of local butchers and ranchers who had to pay high rates to ship their cattle. As Stephen Fried reported in his thoroughly researched Appetite for America, Harvey co-owned a ranch of 10K cattle with Strong and another railroad executive.

Newspaper editorials in several of the towns where Harvey did business railed against his practices. A paper in Newton KS called him “one of the worst monopolists in the State” because he brought supplies from Kansas City rather than buying from local merchants. Conflict about the same issues in Las Vegas NM was ongoing as the town struggled to prevent Harvey from supplying his own meat. Bitter complaints were made from people in Albuquerque as well, especially when two box cars were delivered and painted yellow to serve as a make-do restaurant. High prices for meals were widely criticized by local patrons.

Employees in the Harvey system included very few local people. Many were immigrants from Europe, especially the cooks, though the waitresses tended to be U.S.-born, and were selected by employment agencies in cities. Myths have celebrated how the “Harvey girls” married ranchers and helped populate the West (indigenous Indians and Mexicans aside). But in fact the servers were semi-indentured, with half their pay held back for 6 months to keep them from leaving the job. Not only was this meant to discourage resignations due to marriage but also to discourage the practice of working for a short time and then requesting a transfer farther west, all in the effort to finance travel through the West. [Photo of dining room server, ca. 1890s]

In terms of pleasing patrons, Harvey’s food was widely praised. But Santa Fe passengers were not really satisfied. What they disliked about the eating houses was basically that they existed at all. As an article in Scribner’s inquired, “Why . . . should a train stop at a station for meals any more than a steamboat should tie up to a wharf for the same purpose?” Passengers would have much preferred to eat on the train rather than to rush through their meal in 20 minutes – or, worse, to have mealtime delayed for hours when trains ran late. But the three largest railroads, including the Santa Fe, had made a pact not to introduce dining cars because they were huge money losers.

The pact began to break down in the late 1880s, but when the Santa Fe decided it wanted to run dining cars on through trains, Harvey got a court injunction preventing it, claiming it would violate his contract. After several years, the injunction was lifted when Harvey was awarded the contract to run the dining cars. [California Limited advertisement, early 20th century]

Despite many of the myth-challenging realities of the favorable circumstances Harvey enjoyed, he did introduce some practices common to modern chain restaurants. His was a top-down organization based upon standardization and strict centralized control. Each eating house was run like every other, with goods, employees, and services selected according to the same methods. In the early years, Fred Harvey personally visited and inspected all restaurants. Later supervision was taken over by managers, accountants, and a chef, who operated from the central office in Kansas City. By contrast, other railroads contracted with individual operators to run their eating houses as they saw fit and sourcing food locally, which produced excellent results in some cases, but limited menus and unappealing food in others.

It’s not surprising that the Harvey myth persists like so much of Western lore. Alas, it is extremely difficult to correct legends. When facts depart from a legend, John Ford, director of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, concluded with resignation, “. . . print the legend.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms, proprietors & careers, waiters/waitresses/servers

Street food: tamales

As a recently excavated site in Pompeii has demonstrated so beautifully, street food is ancient. Both sold on the street and usually consumed on the street, it is food that is inexpensive, easy to handle, and aligned with popular tastes.

For many years tamales occupied a prominent role as street food in the U.S., starting in the 1880s in parts of the country where many Mexican-Americans lived such as California and Texas. [above photo, Sacramento CA, 1937]

While Mexicans remained prominent in the tamale trade, both producing and selling them, people with a range of ethnic backgrounds joined in. Sellers might also be U.S. born or recent immigrants of Irish, German, even Danish ancestry. A NY Tribune story described a NYC tamale vendor with red hair and a brogue. Italian immigrants seem to have been particularly prominent among street sellers. And, a story in Overland Monthly reported that in the copper region of Idaho in the early 20th century “the Syrian quarter . . . is the seat of the hot tamale industry.”

Chicken was the favorite tamale filling, though critics often wondered if that was what they were eating. The filling was surrounded by a corn mush mixture that was rolled in a corn husk and steamed. Most tamales were sold in cities and towns where finding a supply of corn husks could be a problem. But by the early 1900s, a market in husks had developed, with some farmers finding them quite profitable.

The corn husk specialty grew as companies got into the canned tamale business, beginning around in the early 1900s. Some, such as the X. L. N. T. Company of Los Angeles, delivered tamales to homes [above, 1908]. A publication of the California State Federation of Labor claimed that by 1916 canned tamales had become so popular that the leading packing company was selling 4,000,000 cans of its I. X .L. brand annually. In Mexico, tamales were wrapped in the white inner husks; the packing industry, by contrast, bleached the green husks. Still, bleaching was better than unsanitary tamale production such as that uncovered in Ohio in 1900 where the corn husks were obtained from old mattresses. As might be expected the canned tamale business cut into street trade.

Certainly there were people who regarded tamales sold on the street as unsanitary, acceptable only to drunken men (no doubt revealing a bias against immigrants). Sellers were criticized for disrupting the peace at night as they called out their wares. Cities and towns tried to regulate them out of existence, sometimes succeeding. It was not an easy business overall. Selling tamales on the street was a rough job, conducted mainly after dark. Vendors risked frequent encounters with attackers and robbers, and it was not unusual for them to be seriously injured or killed.

During their peak popularity extending from the 1890s up to WWII, tamales spread across the U.S., but they were always most common in the West. Originally sold out of kettles in which they were kept warm by a separate hot water basin at the bottom, they soon migrated to lunch wagons and stands. [above, Brownsville TX, 1938] Unlike chop suey, spaghetti, chili, frankfurters, and hamburgers, they did not quite win full American “citizenship,” and were not often found on restaurant menus outside of the West and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest and South.

Tamales figured on menus a bit differently than they would today when a restaurant serving them is almost certainly run by someone of Mexican descent or is a corporate Mexican-themed chain. In either case, the menu is dominated by what are regarded as Mexican dishes. It wasn’t always this way. Although proprietors with ties to Mexico have always been prominent, the owners of many earlier tamale grottoes, parlors, shops, and stands were, like the street peddlers, a diverse lot. I have found proprietors named Mohamed, Truzzolino, and Stubendorff. Menus could also be diverse and include lobster tails, oysters, or banana cream pie. A Klamath Falls OR tamale parlor combined Mexican dishes with those of Italy and China [advertisement pictured above, 1921]. Tamales turned up in unexpected places, such as the California Pig ‘n’ Whistle confectionery chain and, in 1909, the Marshall Field department store tea room in Chicago.

The custom of selling tamales from kettles, carts, and stands might have largely died out sooner if it hadn’t been for the 1930s Depression, when many people were desperate for even a trickle of income. The 1937 Roadman’s Guide, a little booklet full of ideas for money-making schemes that could be launched out of the home, gave a detailed recipe for making tamales.

Not that tamales have entirely disappeared today. They can be found as part of family holiday celebrations, at Western tamale festivals, and for sale by street vendors here and there.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, outdoor restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies

Famous in its day: Blum’s

In the early 1890s Simon and Clemence Blum started a confectionery business in San Francisco, creating a brand that would become one of the nation’s largest. In 1907 they relocated to what become the store’s lifetime address at Polk and California after their earlier location was destroyed in the earthquake and catastrophic fire of 1906. By the 1920s, if not earlier, Blum’s was serving three meals a day in addition to selling their handmade confectionery.

With Simon’s death in 1915 and that of his son Jack in the 1930s, the business passed into the hands of Fred Levy who had married Simon’s daughter. This was in the depths of the Depression when few could afford candy and Blum’s was close to failing. Somehow Levy resurrected the business, getting through the Depression, and then sugar rationing during World War II. By 1947, the business was in good shape, reporting sales of over $3.5M, most of it coming from the Polk Street store, and the rest from sales in department stores and mail orders.

In addition to endless varieties of chocolate candies, Blum’s also specialized in ice cream, including its “fresh spinach” flavor, ice cream desserts, baked goods such as Koffee Krunch cake, fruit and vegetable salads, “Blumburgers,” and triple decker sandwiches.

Levy brought innovations, switching to machine production of candy in 1949 and, a few years later, introducing a successful 10-cent candy bar for sale in vending machines. The candy bars as well as a second brand of lower-priced boxed candy sold in Rexall drugstores under the name Candy Artists. These products developed out of his belief that postwar consumers were unwilling to pay for premium candy.

That year Blum’s opened its 2nd company-owned-and-operated store, in San Mateo. Its candy counters in department stores such as I. Magnin, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, and others were not run by Blum’s.

Also in 1949 a “Blum’s Confectaurant” opened in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel [shown above]. The Polk street store also had a confectaurant, as its combination soda fountain + candy counter + bakeshop + restaurant was known. The term refers to an eating place that has table service for dessert orders only as well as for meals, and was likely used only in California.

Levy sold his shares in Blum’s in 1952 and resigned as head, but the number of stores continued to grow under a succession of new owners. Expansion began in October 1953 with the opening of an outlet in the Stonestown Mall.

In 1956, in addition to Blum’s four San Francisco locations (Polk St., Fairmont Hotel, Stonestown, and Union Square), there were stores in Carmel, Pasadena, Beverly Hills, Westwood, and San Mateo and three more planned to open soon in Palo Alto, San Rafael, and San Jose.

A luxurious Blum’s opened in 1959 at Wilshire and Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills [shown above]. It had a cleverly named “Board Room” reserved for men during the daytime, outfitted with dark paneling, crystal chandeliers, and a long cocktail bar — plus a stock ticker in the corner. Serving alcohol may have been an innovation for Blum’s at this time, repeated when their New York City location opened in 1965 on East 59th Street [see below]. Making an appeal to men was also new for Blum’s, which had customarily located in shopping areas where women abounded.

The New York Blum’s stayed in business only about six years, and two Oregon units opened in 1967 and 1968 fared even worse. The one in Salem closed after only nine months while Blum’s in Portland stayed in business fourteen months.

Since the late 1950s Blum’s had passed through the hands of various majority stockholders. The first, Owl/Rexall Drugs, was followed by the California-based chain Uncle John’s Pancake House. After Uncle John’s came General Host Corp., then National Environment in 1968, shortly thereafter renamed Envirofood. Things did not go well for Blum’s after that. In 1970 “surplus” equipment and furnishings were auctioned at the original Blum’s on Polk. The following year, the company was sold to an investor in Lincoln, Nebraska, who soon moved headquarters there. In 1972 he closed the Polk Street Blum’s, leading columnist Herb Caen to coin the term “glum Blummer.” In a few more years there would be no Blum’s left in San Francisco.

Blum’s candy continued to be produced for years despite the brand being acquired by a Kansas City MO company in 1983. Perhaps no longer world famous, it was undoubtedly remembered by Californians who recalled when “Blum’s of San Francisco” was a proud name. As late as 1984 a Blum’s Restaurant was in operation at the I. Magnin store in Los Angeles, where patrons could indulge themselves with a Giant Banana Bonanza for $3.95. And a florist in Napa CA was still selling boxes of Blum’s candy for Easter in 1991.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under chain restaurants, confectionery restaurants

Women chefs before the 1970s

In the late 20th century women began to make serious inroads into restaurant kitchens, sometimes taking the top spot as chef. An account of women’s progress is given in Ann Cooper’s “A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs” published in 1998.

But not a lot is known about women’s status in professional kitchens in earlier eras. In an appendix, Cooper lists a “sampling” of women chefs from the past. Though it is not intended to be complete, it includes only 11 women before the 1970s, beginning with Julie Freyes at Antoine’s in New Orleans in the 1840s. Four of the women worked with their husbands or took over after his or another family member’s death, a not-unusual route for many women in the past.

I wanted to see if I could find out more about women chefs in this country before the changes since the 1970s. Were there many women chefs in the past, I wondered, and what kinds of hotel or restaurant kitchens did they work in?

One problem crops up right away: what exactly is the meaning of chef, particularly in the U.S.? Does it refer to a formally trained person who handles procurement, hires staff and supervises them, and can take over any position in the kitchen in a pinch? Or does it simply mean head cook, with someone else with more executive power handling everything else?

What I have learned is that in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries women were actively involved with food production outside the domestic sphere. They were caterers, they taught cooking, and they worked in restaurant and hotel kitchens. Quite a few were not native born and had acquired their skills abroad.

A few notable women of the 19th century are profiled as chefs in The Culinarians (David S. Shields, 2017). Sarah Windust, a trained cook from England, worked with her husband in 1820s New York, running the kitchen of a coffee house that catered to actors and writers. Eliza Seymour Lee was trained by her mother, a freed slave who had been taught by Charleston’s top pastry chef of the 1790s. Eliza and her husband ran a dining room for boarders. When he died she continued in business as a restaurateur and caterer until the Civil War, specializing in pastries. Lucretia Bourquin also catered, supplying the Whig Party’s 4th of July dinner held in the woods outside Philadelphia in 1838. For those with “fastidious taste” her Philadelphia Eating House offered up such favorites as French soups, Beef a la Mode, Canvas Back Ducks, Terrapins, Snipe, and Partridges.

The confusion over who and what was a chef is illustrated in the career of Nellie Murray, a Black cook and caterer in New Orleans in the 19th century. At times she evidently worked as a cook in white households, but she also became known as the caterer to New Orleans society. She catered all sorts of events, parties, and fundraising dinners, providing dishes preferred by the upper class such as trout with oyster sauce. Almost certainly she supervised helpers for some of her clients’ events. This was certainly the case when she was invited to run a Creole kitchen at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. She did not have a restaurant nor work in one but she would seem to otherwise have exhibited the characteristics of a chef.

Despite the handful of women named above who are known to have had notable careers, the U.S. Censuses of the 19th century failed to record women in the role of chef. Often leaving out women’s occupations and uncertain of the meaning of occupational titles, the census does not present a reliable source on this subject. But it’s worth noticing that from 1900 through the 1940 the census shows a steady increase of women chefs from approximately 85 to nearly 2,400.

What accounted for the increase of women chefs in the first half of the 20th century? The short answer is war and decreased immigration. American-born men were not terribly interested in working in restaurant kitchens, but there were numbers of women available who had studied home economics, including dietetics. Many of them went into institutional kitchens, but from there some took jobs in restaurants. [Advertisement, Reno NV, 1905]

Two news items of the early century undoubtedly inspired American women to aim for chef positions. One was the widespread story of Rosa Lewis, “chief culinary artist” of London’s Cavendish Hotel, paid the then-enormous annual salary of $15,000. And, in 1907 the newly opened elite woman’s club in New York, The Colony, hired Sophia Nailer as chef. Like so many women cooks she had previously worked for wealthy families.

But despite the few women at the top, it seems that most women who held chef positions in hotels were hired mainly because they added homely dishes to the menu for guests, particularly residential guests, who were tired of typically routinized hotel menus. This seemed to account for the hiring of Anna Tackmeyer [pictured, 1919] as chef at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania in 1919 to run the “home cooking department,” which operated separately from the main kitchen. In the 1920s some restaurants, cafeterias especially, proudly advertised they featured home cooking with only women in the kitchen. White men often refused to take orders from women, so it was common that restaurant kitchens with women chefs would be entirely staffed with women.

More typically, though, women chefs in the early century would work in the kitchens of small hotels in remote locations, such as in Baxter Springs KS with a population under 2,000. Others worked in urban tea rooms which were often women-owned and where the majority of patrons were women. [Advertisement, 1924, Springfield IL]

It was an established belief that women could not handle meat. Yet, a want ad in the trade journal Hotel World in 1921 defied this conviction. A woman chef sought “full charge” in a high-class place, claiming she could handle it all: “Meat, pastry, carving.”

The shortage of men in WWII opened up possibilities for women chefs. The American Hotel Association reported in 1943 that 330 hotels nationwide had women chefs. Working in Miami, one woman hired to replace a male military recruit retained his title as “second chef and broiler man.” She reflected the heady feeling this could give a woman, boasting in a letter to the editor that lifting heavy pots and crates was something she didn’t give a second thought to. [cartoon illustration, 1946]

Sociologist William Foote Whyte observed in 1948 that the French chef had lost control of kitchens and that “many of our modern American kitchens with women cooks and food production managers have completely lost the old distinctions of rank.” Of course this could be seen as the classic situation of women not getting into what had been male-dominated ranks until the positions had lost status. According to a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association in 1952, the traditional “hat wearing, and artistic male chef” was being replaced by trained women dietitians who had a more modern outlook on how to run a kitchen.

Despite these advances, though, men still controlled most commercial kitchens through the 1960s and beyond, even into the 1970s when the Culinary Institute of America, which had admitted very few women since its creation in 1946 to train returning GIs, began to welcome women students. It would be slow going for women chefs for many years thereafter, but progress would continue.

After the pandemic, who knows what situation women chefs – or restaurants in general — will face?

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Speed eating

Since the early 19th century, observers have commented on how fast Americans eat. Visitors from other countries were especially apt to notice the speed with which people, particularly men, gulped down their food and hurried away from the table as quickly as possible.

In the 1843 book Men and Manners in America, the author observed that “all was hurry, bustle, clamor, and voracity, and the business of repletion went forward with a rapidity altogether unexampled.” He described how at breakfast he had barely arrived at the communal table as others were rushing off, leaving behind a terrific mess of chicken bones, an upset mustard pot, and a tablecloth with egg, coffee, and gravy stains. Dinner was no better: “the same scene of gulping and swallowing, as if for a wager.” Many of his fellow diners left the dining room before the second course and few waited for dessert.

His observations were ratified by many others, continuing throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. New York’s inexpensive “slam-bang” places with counters were especially noted for their customers’ speed of eating. Viewed from the back, wrote an essayist in 1865, a row of 30 men with heads bent down and elbows moving rapidly looked as though they were weaving or fiddling. They finished in about 8 minutes.

A Scribner’s story in 1874 described the typical American restaurant as a place where men “do not eat – they feed,” without even removing their hats. It reported that the average mid-day “dinner” time lasted 6 minutes and 45 seconds. At New York’s Astor House of the 1880s – scarcely a low-class eatery – many of the male customers ate standing up at a counter, a practice that was by no means rare. A visiting French economist attributed the popularity of 5-minute counter lunches in saloons to the wish not to interfere with business — a convenience “that does not cut the day in two.” Or, as another writer put it in 1895, “The ammunition is put in, with a wad of dessert on top, and in ten minutes the man who is going to be a millionaire in less than ten years is back at his desk, loaded and pointed at his work . . .”

By the late 1890s, women had also become speed eaters, “stopping in restaurants when shopping and being in such a hurry that they don’t care what they eat and do not even remove hats and coats.” The so-called “new woman” was ready to sit at lunch counters “like a man and eat her pie and drink her coffee in a hurly-burly.”

The late 19th century also witnessed the development and spread of new restaurant types organized around speed – the cafeteria, the automatic restaurant, and the quick lunch, all of which were based on the abolition of table service. They also did away with the much-hated custom of tipping that was widely viewed as a foreign importation from old and dying Europe.

Through the 20th century speediness was made into a science, increasingly applying not only to how fast customers ate, but how quickly food could be prepared, how quickly customers could be presented with food, and how they could be induced to leave as soon as possible. The hot noontime “dinner” gave way to the sandwich lunch. The number of menu choices was reduced. Chains developed that produced food in central commissaries, doing away with the need for full-scale restaurant kitchens. Cafeterias discovered they could speed up the serving line by wrapping silverware in a napkin. Uncomfortable seating could be designed to stop patrons from lingering.

After the second World War, in which the military had developed rapid methods of feeding troops, speed-up technology advanced in restaurants. A California drive-in had machines that could mold 800 hamburger patties per hour and slice 1,000 buns in the same time. In 1956 an automatic broiler was advertised to drive-ins that broiled approximately 300 burgers an hour. The franchise system began to spread quickly to drive-in eateries across the country, but now without curb service because it was much too slow even if carhops wore roller skates. Even table-service restaurants, catering to the relatively leisurely dinner crowd which was on the increase in the 1960s, improved their speed with frozen foods, boiling bags, and microwave ovens.

By 1965, more than 70% of the more than 378,000 commercial eating places in this country were quick-service restaurants, according to a marketing research study.

No one comments about Americans eating fast anymore. It has become normal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under cafeterias, chain restaurants, patrons

Top posts in 2020

It’s been a year! Bad for restaurants but good for restaurant history. I’m disturbed by the number of restaurants that became history this year and the many that are barely hanging on. It’s great that my blog has fared well but I’d rather see good fortunes shared.

The top post was a controversial one: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. I focused on its troubled relation to race, which many readers disputed, arguing that the Black staff loved working there. Others ignored the post’s theme and just commented on the restaurant’s fried chicken.

The second most popular post was about Wolfie’s, in Miami. Since I published this post in March of 2011, it has consistently drawn large numbers of readers, becoming the all-time #1 post about an individual restaurant.

Other starring restaurants that drew many readers were (in this order): Schrafft’s, The Bakery, The Bird Cage, Miss Hulling’s Cafeteria, Toddle House, The Pyramid, and The Silver Grille. Note that two were in department stores: the Bird Cage in the newly-closed Lord & Taylor, and the Silver Grille in Higbee’s.

The number three post was Taste of a decade: 1970s restaurants. That was the decade in which many small chef-owned restaurants came along, introducing more adventurous menus and moving away from the post-war favorites, steak and baked (potatoes).

Most surprising to me was the number of clicks on Sawdust on the Floor, a post not focused on an individual restaurant, so not a fan page. This made me happy because I actually prefer researching and writing posts on trends and characteristics of restaurants.

Another surprise in 2020 was the increased number of appreciative comments — and especially emails — that I received from readers who took the time to write. Despite the contentiousness and divisiveness on display this year, I am also struck by how many people have gone out of their way to be kind and thoughtful.

Finally, I’m remembering what a friend said to me when I began this blog in 2008: Won’t you run out of things to write about? No, my list of ideas is longer than ever.

Meanwhile, wishing you all the best for 2021!

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Holiday greetings from 11th Heaven

A while back I found two small Christmas cards from the 11th Heaven Tea Room, run by Ella Roberts.

The name was evidently inspired by the tea room’s location on the 11th floor of the Browning Building, an oddly narrow building for its height, located in the Chicago Loop. The building, designed in “Moorish Gothic” style by architect Harry S. Wheelock, was constructed in 1899 and razed in 1990.

I have been able to find out almost nothing about the tea room or its owner, who had an unfortunately (for me) common name. In April of 1931 she ran three brief newspaper advertisements in the classified section saying, “Home cooked dinner, 50c; hours 10 to 4. Phone Dearborn 2673.”.

How long did she stay in business? Was her tea room a victim of the Depression? Was the 11th floor a curse, despite the building’s four elevators?

Regardless, I echo Ella’s messages: may the world treat you right, have a gorgeous appetite, and call again.

Addendum:

Thanks to Gary Allen, author, food blogger, and researcher extraordinaire, I now know more about the proprietor of Chicago’s 11th Heaven Tea Room.

Ella M. Roberts was a hard-working, seasoned businesswoman who had owned her own grocery store as far back as 1910. Her first husband had been a confectioner and it’s possible she had worked with him. By 1910 she was divorced; she remarried and in later censuses she was described as widowed. In 1920 she was still running the delicatessen, i.e., grocery. By 1930, at age 71, her occupation was listed as tea room proprietor, but no longer in the 1940 census. She lived to be 96.

Following on Gary’s research I learned that Ella’s three children were stage actors in the early century. In 1912 her daughter Maude Le Page created quite a stir and became a minor celebrity when she stood up in the balcony of a Chicago theater and loudly proclaimed that she would sell herself to a man for $1,000 so that she could escape working in a deli (!) and publish her poetry. She then enjoyed a whirl as a newspaper columnist writing on the hard life of working girls, explaining why they liked cheap thrills and frills, why they should be paid better, and why they were tempted to trade sex for money. In 1930 she lived with her mother and worked as a hand letterer for a card company. I have to wonder if she designed her mother’s Christmas cards.

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Dining with “Us Mortals”

From 1917 until 1955, W. E. Hill (William Ely Hill) created weekly panels of cartoons for newspapers under the overarching title “Among Us Mortals.” They featured ordinary people going about their business in public settings – always in ways that revealed their foibles. Clearly he was a sharp observer of people who possessed a wry sense of humor. His project – a “romance of the commonplace” – has been compared to that of Charles Dickens. I began “collecting” his images when I noticed that his observations often took place in restaurants.

Summer People, 1937

The Age of Hurry, 1939

Quick Lunches, 1941

Summer Tea Room, 1946

A Waiter’s Headaches, 1955

Where They Lunch, 1955

Where They Lunch, 1955

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Your favorite restaurant?

What was your favorite restaurant of the past? One that is no longer around, but that you think of all the time with fond memories. And what was it about it that you especially liked? The food, the atmosphere, the staff – or maybe all of those. Tell us all about it, including where it was and give a rough idea of when you used to patronize it.

One of my favorites was Duff’s in St. Louis’ Central West End. Oddly, I have no memories of what I ate there at all, though I know I was happy with their menu. What I liked about it was that it represented a new trend in eating places in St. Louis, occurring in the 1970s. (It opened in 1972 and closed in 2013.) The new breed – also represented by others in the Central West End and University City — were at least somewhat more adventurous with their cuisine, but the big difference was their laid-back, offbeat “vibe.” At Duff’s this was due in large part to the mismatched tables, chairs, dishware, silverware — just about everything. It was friendly but not in an invasive, scripted way. A great place to meet friends for lunch.

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Filed under atmosphere, decor

Ceilings on display

Most people wouldn’t think of ceiling treatments as significant elements of restaurant decor, but they have been in many cases, as I have touched upon in an earlier post. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, fancy restaurants borrowed palatial European ceiling treatments with molded plaster ovals and rectangles framing paintings of classical scenes.

Such ceilings were, of course, in the minority. Most restaurants kept it simple with plain wood, plaster, or acoustic tile. A common treatment was to expose part of the building’s structure, its ceiling beams. Over time, of course, most buildings were no longer constructed with wooden beams. Steel beams don’t convey quite the same thing, and are usually covered up. But, as one company that makes faux beams for restaurants writes, “A drab ceiling design can easily detract from the experience.”

This realization led some eating places to attach fake beams. Although they are meant to convey an impression of sturdiness, in at least one case that impression was tragically false. In 1993 a decorative beam that had been attached with too-short nails came loose from the ceiling in a newly opened Taco Cabana in Las Vegas. It injured 14 people and the restaurant closed.

Cover-ups. If beams are meant to reveal structure, many restaurants have tried to hide it. As I researched this topic I was surprised to discover that collapsing ceilings are not entirely rare. This led me to wonder about one of the more common types of ceiling decor, billowing swaths of cloth. Was this a simple way to hide an unsightly or crumbling ceiling? Cloth certainly lacked the elegance borrowed from European palaces with rococo relief work and frescoed scenes, but they were undoubtedly much cheaper.

Hanging things. Objects dangling from ceilings may also simply be meant to add interest. They have ranged from faux flowers (Colaizzi’s), to enormous swordfish at a Texas fish restaurant (Granger’s, Sabine Pass TX), or grids of bamboo poles with Japanese glass float balls in Polynesian themed eateries. Maxwell’s Plum featured large animals in its street-front café. But none of these suspended objects could match those at Eddie Rickenbacker’s of 1980s San Francisco where the owner suspended his collection of vintage motorcycles.

Blue skies smiling above. In the 1930s it became popular to design a dining area to look as though it was located in a courtyard of a village, open to a starry sky above. This may have been a way of dealing with windowless interiors. In Los Angeles, the Paris Inn recreated a scene with the Eiffel Tower at one end, streetfront building alcoves along the sides, with tables under a starry sky between. The Child’s chain recreated Old France in Boston in the 1930s, while Morrison’s Cafeteria in New Orleans featured a Spanish pueblo. Blue sky ceilings had staying power. At El Fenix Restaurant of Casa Linda in Dallas in the 1950s guests were invited to “Dine in the Delightful Atmosphere of Old Mexico” where a large fake palm tree rose up incongruously from a checkered linoleum floor.

Lighted glass. When it comes to lighted glass ceilings, Maxwell’s Plum springs to mind immediately, with elaborate glass ceilings in both its NYC and San Francisco locations. But neon rods in a sunburst pattern could also be striking, especially when you consider that they were part of a drive-in’s decor. Of course California drive-ins, such as Dutch Youngman’s in Monterey shown here, were often more elaborate than those in the rest of the country.

There were certain hazards with a lighted glass ceiling, as I discovered at a restaurant in St. Louis.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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