Sugar on the table

Probably most patrons never give sugar a thought when they are visiting cafes and restaurants, but it is a subject that has been somewhat vexing for proprietors and guests over time.

Sugar in restaurants has figured as a health concern, an aesthetic concern, a monetary concern – and just a plain old nuisance.

For decades in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when tables were shared by strangers, a bowl of sugar was put on the table to be used by all. In the average eatery of 1830s Boston, as elsewhere, a table would typically hold a sugar bowl along with salt, butter, and other condiments.

By the late 19th century, the new-style help-yourself lunchrooms had a novel way of grouping condiments together. These were three-tier revolving trays placed in the center of round tables and holding napkins, silverware, sugar and salt, etc. They looked prim and neat – at least before the “quick lunchers” arrived.

But whether the sugar bowl resided on an 1830 oak table or a “modern” nickel-plated “Waldorf” revolving tray in a 1910s lunch room, it posed a sanitation problem.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how shared sugar bowls could go wrong. The salty journalist who wrote under the name Fanny Fern expressed her disgust vividly in the 1850s when she described a scene at New York’s popular and well-known Taylor’s Saloon. “J-u-l-i-u-s C-ae-s-a-r! look at that white-aproned waiter pulling out his snuff-box and taking a pinch of snuff right over that bowl of white sugar, that will be handed to me in five minutes to sweeten my tea!” she exclaimed.

Along the same lines, complaints about sugar bowls that had signs of careless use were common. The cheaper the restaurant, the better the odds that the ugly cracked bowl of sugar would have coffee stains or fly specks. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, sugar bowls usually had no lids and often customers used their own spoons to dip into them. When lump sugar was used, as was often the case, diners would take pieces out of the bowl with their fingers.

Concerns about public health brought changes in the 20th century. In 1912 the U.S. Surgeon General suggested that if people would not use tongs to remove lump sugar from bowls then restaurants should switch to loose sugar, which required a spoon.

During World War I, many restaurants removed sugar bowls from their tables. Not for sanitary reasons but because they were severely restricted in the amount of sugar they were allotted. Some restaurants served no sugar while others served it only if asked, limiting the amount to one teaspoon per customer. In others, the staff put the sugar in diners’ coffee or served it in small paper packets.

By the end of the war municipal health departments around the country began to order restaurants to use covered sugar bowls, a move probably made more urgent by the nation’s deadly flu epidemic. The postwar years marked several other changes in restaurants’ ways of handling sugar, partly because prices were higher than before. Some introduced wrapped sugar cubes that were often smaller than the lumps of old, while others set out shakers rather than bowls, another method meant to discourage overuse.

Meanwhile, though, tea rooms – and fine restaurants — continued to use sugar bowls, often matching their china patterns, suggesting this was considered more refined and attractive than shakers. During the Depression a tea room consultant advised proprietors who wanted to attract male customers not to use wrapped sugar cubes because “somehow they do not know what to do with that bit of paper.” Likewise, a columnist in 1941 pitied the tired businessman seeking a restaurant meal who couldn’t “dip his spoon into a good old sugar bowl.” Instead he had to fumble with unwrapping a cube and waiting for it to dissolve in his coffee, wasting time and fraying his nerves. Poor guy, who knew?

Another age-old issue with sugar was that when its price went up, customers stole it. No doubt this occurred in the 19th century but it became a focus in news reporting beginning in World War II when sugar was rationed. Waitresses began to notice diners dumping bowls of sugar cubes into their pockets and purses. Some came prepared to steal sugar, bringing along paper bags. It didn’t take long before managers decided not to use lump sugar or discontinued placing any sugar on tables. Some began to furnish saccharin.

Stealing occurred again in 1963 and in the fall of 1974 when sugar prices tripled. The fact that many restaurants were using sugar packets by then actually made stealing easier. This time, many restaurants returned to using loose sugar. A few began to have servers provide sugar only when asked, occasionally going so far as to add a charge on the customers’ checks. [cartoon, 1975]

Things have changed since then. Sugar shakers continue to be associated with diners and lunch counters. But cubes have come up in the world. In the late 1980s a restaurant critic expressed dismay when he went to Justine’s, a restaurant that had long been regarded as one of the finest in Memphis. Among the disappointing details he noticed was the restaurant’s sugar delivery system. “Do people spending hundreds on food and wine really want to use sugar from a paper packet rather than sugar cubes?” he asked.

Today I suspect that the reduced custom of drinking coffee with meals means that restaurants provide far less sugar to customers than they used to.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

Wishing you a sweet Valentine’s Day!

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Filed under food, patrons, restaurant customs, sanitation

Famous in its day: Le Pavillon

Alternative headings for this post could be Former Busboy Becomes Famous Restaurateur, Best Mid-Century French Restaurant in the U.S., or The Restaurant that Set the Standard for Fine Dining.

In other words, everyone who has known or researched Le Pavillon agrees that it produced this country’s finest French cuisine for most of its 22 years under Henri Soulé. It’s also significant that throughout that time numerous employees of the restaurant left to found some of New York’s other top French restaurants.

Not that the city was devoid of fine French restaurants when Le Pavillon arrived on the scene. French restaurants were well established and plentiful, both as independents and in hotels. Among those competing for the most discriminating and well-heeled diners were Voisin, Café Chambord, and La Belle Meunière. But they were soon outdone.

Because its story has been written about so often and so well, it is challenging to approach Le Pavillon as a topic. For a thorough history that gives a good appreciation of its cuisine, I recommend Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman.

Le Pavillon opened in New York City in 1941, after a spectacular two-year run at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Located near the top of the Fair’s French Pavilion, it had a dramatic spot overlooking the Lagoon of Nations where a light and fireworks show took place each night at 9 p.m. Despite being the Fair’s most expensive eating place, it was wildly popular and booked for weeks in advance. Because the Fair was difficult to get to by car, New Yorkers had to want to go there badly enough to take public transportation. Yet many returned again and again to dine at the Restaurant Français.

The French Pavilion’s restaurant was provisioned with food and wines brought from France and was staffed by French cooks, maitre d’s, and waiters. It was backed by the French Line and a number of prominent Paris restaurants owned by the Drouant family. Jean Drouant ran the show, hiring Soulé [pictured here], a maitre d’ at one of his Paris restaurants, to manage the dining room.

During the Fair’s tenure, Germany advanced on France, occupying Paris. When the Fair ended, Soulé decided to stay in New York. It has been said that he did not want to return to France under enemy occupation, but it’s likely he was also swayed by the stunning success of the Restaurant Français.

Since many of the restaurant’s French waiters had decided to return to France, Soulé had to hire a good number of French waiters already living in New York. He would soon become known for disputes with his staff, some resulting in resignations of chefs and temporary closure of the restaurant. His authoritarian attitudes may have been shaped by his history with Drouant, who occupied a powerful position in the French restaurant industry. He was president of the Syndicate of French Restaurants as well as the General Owners Union and was not sympathetic to waiters’ rights. He had fully supported military force used to stop a 1938 workers’ strike in response to elimination of the 40-hour week in France. He was critical of French waiters working in America, describing them as “contaminated.”

Soulé’s negative attitudes also included dislike of smoking at the table, women drinking, and the widespread American habit of eating quickly rather than slowly savoring the meal. Perhaps because of his general air of disapproval, regular patrons sought signs of his favor, which he gave sparingly. His was a notable ability to confer status on people who were as hungry for that as they were for Chateaubriand with sauce Béarnaise. One of his ways of winning the loyalty of valued patrons was to offer them special dishes not on the menu. [Note that his dislike of smoking in his restaurant did not keep him from appearing in a Luckies’ advertisement in 1954.]

In a 1962 review of a book about Le Pavillon, a clever journalist summed up how to become approved by Soulé. She wrote: “When you go to Le Pavillon you should be famous, if you can manage it, if not, you should at least be rich, elegant, chic and witty. Beautiful, if a woman, dintingué, if a man. If you can’t manage that, then maintain a balance between hauteur and quiet rapture and for heaven’s sake be careful of your manners and careless of your money.”

Yes, the restaurant was exceedingly expensive, beginning at the Fair. According to Craig Claiborne, in 1960 it was possible to spend as little as $6 there for a meal without drinks, equivalent to about $52 today. But with drinks it could cost ten times that. However, in the era of expense accounts, it was standard that a power lunch would be written off as a business expense.

1960 was the year that a dispute between chef Pierre Franey and Soulé over working hours resulted in Franey’s resignation, followed by that of seven of the kitchen staff and leading to a temporary closure of the restaurant. It was not the first time the restaurant closed in response to a dispute. [1955 notice above]

Soulé died in 1966, at age 62. I find it interesting that he willed his watch to frequent patron and “dear friend” J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, whose favorite dishes included Filet of Beef Periogourdine accompanied by a bottle of vintage Romanée Conti.

After Soulé’s death, attempts were made to keep Le Pavillon going but it closed for good in 1971.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under elite restaurants, patrons, proprietors & careers, restaurant issues

Native American restaurants

Although there has been growing interest in exploring native foodways in the past twenty or so years, it seems there’s been little research into the history of Native American restaurants, that is, those serving traditional Indian dishes and/or those run by Indians.

The earliest one with a Native American proprietor that I found was in Coweta, Oklahoma, around 1906. It was run by Frank Oliver, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. A very brief newspaper item reported, “There are few Indians in the restaurant business but Mr. Oliver likes to feed ‘em and is prosperous.” It was not unusual for Indian restaurants in the Southwest to serve Mexican dishes, especially in later decades.

That same year another Indian proprietor was running a restaurant in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. His name was given simply as Antoine, born a Mohican in New York state but adopted into the Creek tribe. Sometime later a woman named Elizabeth Sapulpa, probably the wife of the tribe’s chief, also had a restaurant in Sapulpa where she served Sofky (corn soup made of hominy, bits of meat and blue corn dumplings) as well as cornbread made of cornmeal soaked overnight in buttermilk.

Many of the references to Indian restaurants I found did not lead anywhere. For instance, despite much searching, I could not determine if the Santa Fe movie studio, opened in Monrovia CA in 1927, ever established its planned Hopi Indian restaurant. And I’d love to know how the Hollywood actor Don Porter fared with his restaurant. It was to be built in Hollywood in 1951 with an open firepit vented through a hole in the roof. For years he had collected recipes from many tribes and planned to feature buffalo, bear, venison, wild greens, wild rice, and corn – along with cook-it-yourself fish wrapped in leaves and mud. Also, I wondered if the plans reported about a 1970s graduate of a culinary training program in Albuquerque had succeeded. She hoped to establish a restaurant on her reservation serving game such as quail, rabbit, and deer, along with blood pudding and her tribe’s oversized homemade tortillas.

Her endeavor would have been in contrast to many Indian-run restaurants on reservations that featured mainstream American fast food. As Ruben Silverbird would observe in the 1980s, “On the reservation we have restaurants run by Indians, but they sell hot dogs, hamburgers, ham and eggs.” Similarly, at the Tigua reservation’s cultural center in El Paso TX in 1986, a restaurant called Wyngs drew non-Indian tourists and served fajitas, seafood platters, and barbecued ribs.

It has been said that Native Americans don’t have a restaurant culture, but I have the sense that there were many native people who for decades wished there were more Indian restaurants. Especially among Indians living in cities there was a strong desire for gathering places and ways to stay connected to their culture, including foods. In 1968 a Queens resident, an Otoe-Pawnee from Oklahoma, observed, “There’s no place for Indians to gather in New York (City) – no Indian restaurants or anything like that.” Buoyed by the Black Power movement, she and other native women had recently joined together to promote their Indian identities.

In the mid-1960s, a food court representing many different cuisines in a Phoenix shopping mall included “The Hogan,” which was claimed – somewhat unconvincingly – to serve the only authentic Indian food in Arizona outside a reservation. It was run by a Scandinavian proprietor who served corn on the cob impaled on arrows. The second incarnation of an Indian restaurant there was named Tiny Teepee where posole, a hominy and pork stew, was prepared and served by Native Americans.

Also in the 1960s Native Americans began to urge the creation of cultural centers that would honor their heritage. By decade’s end a number of Indian restaurants began to open as part of complexes that included motels and cultural centers with museums and craft demonstrations. The Cherokee Heritage Center opened in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1967 with an associated restaurant, the Restaurant of the Cherokees shown here. Although hamburgers and other common “American” dishes dominated the menu, the restaurant also served traditional Indian food such as shuck bean bread (corn and bean dough, steamed in cornhusks), sorrel, watercress from local streams, poke salad, fried huckleberries, crawdads, and “squaw” bread made with sour milk. In the spring, it hosted wild onion dinners.

Building Indian community took a hit in Baltimore when an Indian restaurant failed to open, despite being fully set up and ready to open its doors. The problem was that the U. S. Labor Department claimed it had been a mistake to permit the grantee to buy restaurant equipment with a 1974 job training grant for an American Indian Study Center. The government removed the equipment, sinking what would have been the only Native American restaurant in the Washington-Baltimore area.

1986 marked the opening of what claimed to be New York City’s first Native American restaurant, Silverbird. Its proprietor, Ruben Silverbird Ortiz, a professional singer and entertainer of Indian/Mexican/white heritage, said it would serve New Mexico food, including “green and red chile, blue corn chips, salsa, all that good stuff.” As was true of most Indian restaurants, the menu accommodated non-Indian patrons with American dishes, but held weekly dinners serving rattlesnake stew. The restaurant employed a diverse crew, with servers and kitchen staff made up of Comanches, Navajos, Blackfeet, Italians, Irish, and Mexicans.

Some Indian restaurants were decorated with Southwestern art or murals of buffaloes and teepees. Silverbird was decorated with Kachina dolls and tables inlaid with sand paintings. However, some, such as Dovecrest [shown at top], gave little visual indication they were Indian.

Probably the most celebrated Indian restaurant of the 20th century was Loretta Barrett Oden’s Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that ran from 1993 to 2001. Before opening her fine-dining restaurant, Oden, a member of the Citizen Patawatomi Nation, spent three years researching tribal recipes and cooking methods, which can vary considerably according to region. She is a proponent of healthier dishes such as bison, wild-caught salmon, trout, quail, venison, corn, beans, and squash. She has also been a vocal critic of deep-fried fry bread, a popular Indian item in itself as well as serving as the bottom layer of “Navajo tacos,” popular in eating places throughout the Southwest. She has tried to convince Indian-run casinos to offer native dishes, but has found that a hard sell considering the strong attachment of their patrons, both white and Indian, to steak, hamburger, pizza, etc.

The 2000s seem to have raised interest in indigenous chefs and restaurants, but they have continued to face a rocky road in terms of widespread acceptance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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January 16, 2022 · 12:47 pm

Restaurant ware

Fine table settings were not to be taken for granted in pre-Civil War American eating places. In 1843 an English visitor was delighted to find a Charleston hotel with “clean table cloths and silver forks.” He recommended the Jones Hotel, run by a Black proprietor named Jehu Jones, the son of a freed slave. Thick dishes, often chipped, and crude forks were more typical of many hotels then.

According to Junius Henri Browne’s The Great Metropolis, in 1869 there were many restaurants in New York City but only in the most expensive, such as Delmonico’s, did the diner find “silver, and porcelain, and crystal, and fine linen.” Common basement eateries, on the other hand, had “broken earthen-ware, soiled table-cloths, and coarse dishes.”

Coarse dishes had become the definitive sign of a cheap restaurant. But in the later 19th century, when early fast-food chains began to form, they attempted to break the equation that thick dishes and bowls indicated filth by being insistent about cleanliness. They stuck with thick dishes that didn’t break or chip simply because they were more practical.

The Baltimore Dairy Lunch

Founded in the late 1880s, Baltimore Dairy Lunch was an early challenger to the old assumptions about thick chinaware. The first unit was opened in Baltimore by a postal clerk. By 1920 there were about 140 locations in large cities through much of the Northeastern U.S. Menus were simple and prices were low. Customers went to a counter to get their food, and consumed it quickly, either while standing at a high counter-type table or sitting in a one-arm chair similar to a school desk. This thick, shallow bowl – possibly used for milk toast – expresses the spartan simplicity of Baltimore Lunches. Despite some yellowing along the edges, it has held up well over the decades.

Ontra Cafeteria

The Ontra (pronounced “on tray”) was a cafeteria begun as a working women’s lunch club, one of four operated by Mary Dutton in Chicago in the 1910s. Like the Baltimore Dairy Lunches they were meant to be affordable and appealed to those who did not want to spend much for a noonday meal. Undoubtedly, like most women cafeteria owners who had studied home economics, Mary Dutton put a high stock on practicality and thrift. This Ontra plate, date unknown, is sturdy but not as thick as dairy lunch dishware.

Steak n Shake and Demos Café

These sturdy glasses are typical of mid-century restaurant glassware with their non-chip rims and their dents and bulges that make them slip proof as well. It’s likely they were produced by Libbey, a major advertiser of glassware in mid-century restaurant trade journals. An advertisement assured restaurant buyers that “Libbey Safedge glassware offers you a wide selection of patterns in all sizes, for beverage and bar service. And because of its durability, you are assured of economy in operation . . . with every glass backed by the famous Libbey guarantee: ‘A new glass if the rim of a Libbey ‘Safedge’ glass ever chips.’”

Woolworth’s lunch counter

The Woolworth plate came from my local dime store when it was closing for good in 1990. Its pattern is one of the endless variations on a theme of this sort, one that could appear in any of a number of colors. Again, a sturdy plate for customers who never gave it a second look.

The Craftsman restaurant

Cheap dishes, glasses, and flatware simply wouldn’t do for upscale restaurants. The better-off classes demanded finer table settings. This had always been true for the wealthy, but in the early 20th century, the middle-class also raised its expectations.

Good taste expressed in restrained design suggestive of nature was the motto of The Craftsman in New York City from 1913 to 1916. Lunch and dinnerware was Onondaga white china with a light brown pinecone design forming a border. For afternoon tea, Lenox furnished an off-white china featuring the Stickley “Als Ik Kan” symbol and motto that promised integrity of method and materials.

Alice Foote MacDougall coffee shops

Women’s tea shops tended to stress individuality. This meant rejecting standardized restaurant ware, instead establishing a unique identity with decor and tableware. Alice Foote MacDougall — who called her tea shops coffee shops to attract men — complained loudly about thick cups and dishes. In her 1929 book, The Secret of Successful Restaurants, she described how, formerly, she had to eat in restaurants “where china, white, thick, and hideous was used.” In them, food was served “naked on a bold, pitiless plate half an inch thick and consumptive in its whiteness . . .” By contrast, she said, the plates in her restaurants were colorful with shades of yellow, blue, turquoise, and lilac.

Shown above is the Graziella pattern used in her Italian-themed coffee shops. Like all the imported china in her restaurants it was also for sale ($2.50 for a dinner plate or a cup and saucer).

The Four Seasons

In 1966 a well-known restaurant consultant explained how people with good incomes preferred to dine when they went out. They liked fine restaurants, appreciated good food, and ate out often. “They expect the restaurant decor to be as nice as the decor in their own homes!,” he explained, adding, “They like fine china.”

Given that The Four Seasons was a power-lunch site, I’m sure there were some guests who paid absolutely no attention to the fine design of the hundred items designed by Garth and Ada Huxtable, nor did they notice that unlike the glasses used in dime stores and lunch counters, their wine glass had no reinforced edges. Others guests no doubt were pleased with the elegant simplicity of the designs.

When the restaurant closed and the furnishings and serving pieces were auctioned in 2018, bidders paid goodly sums for items such as the bread servers (as much as $6,250) and cream and sugar sets (more than $2,000) shown above. I do find it humorous that the cream and sugar set included so plebeian an object as a container for packets of sugar substitutes.

Today, collectors of restaurant ware value a wide range of china, including the thick kind often bearing the logo of a once-popular eating place.

© Jan Whitaker, 2022

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Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, lunch rooms, restaurant customs, tea shops

An early French restaurant chain

Sometimes you need to leave your own country in order to get some perspective on it. Along with going back in time, that is what I’ve done. I’ve gone to France — though only through texts and pictures — to explore a restaurant chain begun in the 19th century known as Bouillon Duval.

I tend to think of the United States as the home of restaurant chains, and that they are quintessentially American. There is some truth to this, but it is also full of blind spots as the existence of the Duvals shows. They came before American chains, and showed that a highly rationalized, business-like approach to running restaurants is not solely American. [pictured, rue Poissonniere, 1882]

Looking at Bouillon Duval, which began as a soup restaurant, also dispels a bit of romanticism about French restaurants. As much as Duvals emphasized quality, they were eating places for the frugal masses, not temples of haute cuisine. In the beginning they were meant for poor workmen, but soon they became popular with the middle class. To put it in the language of the day, the “black coats drove out the blouses” who were embarrassed to be in the presence of the better dressed.

The Bouillons were the idea of Baptiste Adolphe Duval. He had a butcher shop in Paris and came from a family that ran a brasserie in the north of France. According to legend, around 1857 he opened a small soup restaurant near his shop using the unsalable meat scraps, and went on from there to become fabulously successful and wealthy. By 1867 he had eight Bouillons Duval in the city as well as at least one at that year’s world’s fair.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, and he might have failed if it hadn’t been for his wife’s assistance. According to the most thorough account of the chain’s development, the business was headed for failure as soon as it expanded beyond the small shop. With an enlarged menu and a lot of ideas, M. Duval had moved to a location in a former ballroom on the rue Montesquieu [shown at top of page in 1882, when it had reinstated male waiters]. There he installed a steam-heat system of cooking, along with elaborate piping that served every table with seltzer water. Both innovations were disastrous failures that cost a fortune to tear out. Add to this the lack of an accounting system that made it hard to calculate sales and permitted chiseling on the part of employees and the business was soon drowning in debt.

His wife Ernestine helped set up an accounting system and suggested replacing the questionable male servers with married women of irreproachable character who she dressed in uniforms resembling nuns’ habits [pictured, 1902]. The business began to show a profit and soon expansion was underway. Not surprisingly, when M. Duval died in 1870 shareholders chose Ernestine to take over the corporation and expand it further.

The Duval company had incorporated in 1868, by then consisting not only of eating places but also its own butcher shops, slaughter houses, bakery [pictured, 1882], large laundry, and caves that stored wine.

The company achieved heroic status in 1870 when it somehow managed to stay open during the “Siege of Paris” when German forces surrounding the city cut off food supplies. Their continuing in operation was significant not only for providing meals but also in boosting morale. In 1900 the French government awarded the Duvals’ son Alexandre, then manager, with the medal of the Legion of Honor. By then the company ran 32 restaurants.

The Duval system was based on keeping prices low while serving a large volume of customers quickly and efficiently. It was thoroughly a la carte right down to an extra charge for a tablecloth if wanted. During the Siege a London man recorded what he ordered at one of the 14 Duvals. He and his companion ordered bread for 1 cent, potato soup for 2 cents, as well as roast mutton, puréed potatoes, green beans in white sauce, and a pint of Mâcon wine. The total bill – with tablecloth – came to 18 cents. [Above, a menu that was to be filled out by the customer, ca. 1882; See The American Menu blog for several Duval menus.]

Needless to say, the fact that wine and other alcoholic beverages appeared on menus set the Bouillons Duval apart from most early chains that later developed in the U.S., such as Childs.

Numerous Americans as well as English citizens frequented the Bouillons when visiting Paris [above, diners at the 1878 Paris International Exposition; the objects with handles on the tables are menus], and expressed a wish to have something like them in their own countries. In addition to serving quality food and decent wine at low prices they were known to be spotlessly clean, quite unlike most of the cheap fixed-price cafes that working people had frequented before the Bouillons came along. The major criticism against them was that portions were small. Some critics said that if a hungry diner ordered all they wanted they would find that their bill was as expensive as in a finer restaurant. Other guests complained about the crowds and the “deafening din of knives and forks clinking against plates and dishes.”

Nonetheless the Bouillons Duval were invariably recommended in guide books for visitors to the international fairs held in Paris in 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. In 1878 the Duval restaurants were said to have served 5M meals that year. Pictured above is one of several Duval locations at the 1889 Exposition.

At some point a Bouillon Duval was opened in London, and in the 1880s there was one advertised in Los Angeles that offered “hot soup and schooner lager beer, five cents.” I couldn’t determine whether it was connected to the Paris restaurants or not.

The last mention of the Paris Bouillons Duval I found was in 1924, when the chain was still said to be all over the city.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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“Biblical” restaurants

This week an unknown person found my blog by searching for “restaurants in the bible.” I found this humorous because, needless to say, I am 99.99999% certain there are no restaurants mentioned in the bible.

I wondered why a search engine would have directed this person to my site. Could it be because of a post I published in 2017 called Christian restaurant-ing?

Since I found it funny, I went to Facebook and posted a note about the search term.

Next thing I knew, my clever friends had started inventing imaginative names for biblical restaurants. Here they are in alphabetical order:

The Ark

Calvary (not very popular, limited cuisine)

The Last Supper Bar & Grille

The Last Supper Club

Loaves and Fishes

Manna Nirvana

Mary and Martha’s Place

Not Just Another Room at the Inn

Olive Garden

Olive Garden of Eden

Olives of Gethsemane

The Stable, a Family Restaurant

Suspicious Fish

3 Wise Guys Pizzeria

12 Hungry Men

Water & Wine

Do you have any ideas for names?

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Thanksgiving dinner at a hotel

In 1843, when the most enthusiastic celebrators of Thanksgiving were New Englanders, the Sons of New England – who were living in Philadelphia — decided to hold a Thanksgiving dinner at a hotel there. They chose the Washington House, which had recently been taken over by a new manager who emphasized that he provided recherché fare.

What little is known about the dinner gives a peak at a strange, lost holiday custom.

The Sons of New England were men from the two states that were known for their enthusiastic celebrations of Thanksgiving, Connecticut and Massachusetts. As evidence, in 1817 a report circulated about the lavishness of Thanksgiving dinners in Connecticut. The source of the story’s figures listing the quantities of food is a mystery, but it’s impressive how much Wine, Brandy, Gin, Rum, Cider, and Whiskey was said to be consumed. It’s also interesting how the most popular food items mentioned differ from those regarded as traditional today. Geese outnumbered turkeys by a factor of 10, and apple sauce was 12 times more plentiful than cranberry sauce.

The Washington House dinner was held at 4:30 p.m. on November 30, with about 130 in attendance. The Sons were said to be men of prominence in Philadelphia. Obviously they were not poor if they could pay the $3 ticket charge, easily equal to $100 today.

The bill of fare for the 1843 dinner is unfortunately not available, but a newspaper story describing it revealed that it included red onions cultivated in Connecticut and baked beans — then practically the official dish of Boston.

The beans seem like an odd dish for Thanksgiving, but the big surprise was that bowl of molasses passed around so everyone could take a lick! I puzzled over how it might have reminded them of “other times.” What could that mean? Turns out I guessed right — that it brought back memories of childhood. According to accounts from that time, young children would go to wharves with small sticks that they would insert repeatedly into molasses barrels and then lick them off.

Have a wonderful holiday and be thankful that your dinner won’t include sharing a bowl of molasses.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Dinner and a movie

The first time anyone thought of combining film and food may have been about 100 years ago. In the early 1920s, organizers of the annual “renegade” Paris art exhibition, the Salon d’Automne, added both cinema and gastronomy to its notion of art. And then – voila! – they combined the two. In 1924, right in the middle of the grand salon, guests watched a film while they dined. The Salon’s novel idea did not migrate to the U.S., however.

It was an entirely different motive that brought the two together here. In the 1940s, entrepreneurs created small movie projection rooms available for rental by companies that wanted to screen films for their employees or the public, and to serve meals. Usually the films were training or promotional films, but evidently major Hollywood studios also used these screening rooms at times, perhaps for managers of movie houses. In NYC, for example, the Monte Carlo was used by Paramount in 1946. [Shown above, 1945, and during a ca. 1949 screening below]

The broader concept of combining food and film for the entertainment of the general public began to emerge in the 1970s. The Ground Round chain showed silent films and cartoons in the mid-1970s. About the same time, the New Varsity Theater in Palo Alto CA granted free movie admission to diners at its associated restaurant (though the dining area was not in the theater’s viewing area). Popular films included Reefer Madness, and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones. The restaurant was also a place for meetings of the French Cine Club, which followed its dinner with a French film. It’s likely that the theater and restaurant often hosted students.

In Boston a bit later, a combination restaurant/bar/theater named Play It Again, Sam, served as a popular student hangout, especially for those attending Boston College. Mexican-American food was served.

At the same time, in 1975, two brothers in Florida conceived the idea of a way to fill new malls with nighttime entertainment for adults. This took the form of a restaurant-theater called Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse showing movies rather than live performances, and selling beer, pizza, and sandwiches. By 1980 they had created four, three in Florida and one in Atlanta GA. One of them was franchised.

By 1994 the Duffys had created 22 Cinema ‘n’ Drafhouses, twenty of them franchised. In their prospectus they asserted that theirs was “a proven recession-proof product – food, drink and film – combined in a stylish, art deco theater.” They also suggested to franchisees that the theaters could be rented for private parties as well as being used in the daytime for business seminars. Another 1980s start-up was the Cabaret Pictures Show in St. Petersburg FL where the menu emphasized finger foods such as pizza and sandwiches.

The concept of the combined restaurant-theater really took off as downtown movie theaters began to fail and sit empty in the 1980s and 1990s. Theaters had become more dependent on strong concession sales, and selling drinks and dinners was an extension of this type of revenue. Typically these combo-businesses showed second-run movies that appealed to viewers of drinking age.

The franchised theater-restaurants, such as those created by the Duffy brothers of Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse (Cinema Grill Systems) seemed to fare better than some individual attempts. Expertise in running a restaurant did not usually extend to theater management. Cinema Grill Systems helped by handling movie selection and distribution, permitting operators to focus on the restaurant and bar.

The Cinema Grill franchise in Harrisburg PA, depicted here in 1997, showed two movies a week on a large high-resolution screen. Its menu included burgers, pita specialties, jalapeno poppers, and even sangria. The seating setup is shown here, and it is clear that the space is not as dark as in traditional theaters.

The winning formula has emphasized comfortable seating in cushy non-stainable leather lounge chairs, and a menu with popular casual dining/brewpub fare. Over time a number of chain-restaurant favorites have appeared on menus, such as fajitas, wraps, and chicken tenders. Despite a fairly high failure rate, theater-restaurants have proven popular with customers who are looking for a reasonably affordable and enjoyable night out, but are not overly demanding about the fare, whether food or film.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under alternative restaurants, chain restaurants, Offbeat places

Restaurant murals

It’s likely that most Americans are familiar with restaurant murals. They have appeared in a range of restaurants, from sandwich shops to expensive dining resorts. They reveal how much restaurants are related to the arts, not only as producers of fine food but as patrons of the visual arts.

Admittedly, many of them are artistically tame. As someone quipped in 1976, “Talk about murals and most people think of Greek ruins or Venetian canal scenes in Italian restaurants.” I could add scenes of Switzerland, Paris, or of any city or town. And then there are generic mountains, seascapes, and rolling plains. In most cases, restaurant murals have served as upbeat but unobtrusive decorative backgrounds, filling blank walls, often in windowless rooms.

Nevertheless, some murals portraying local scenes have managed to rise above the norm. That was certainly true of one commissioned by a McDonald’s at the request of a local Hawaiian artist, Martin Charlot [portion shown here], in the mid 1980s. It featured lively portraits of over 100 area residents in poses that illustrated proverbs (but in ways that are far from obvious). Despite its popularity with customers at the Kane’ohe shopping center McDonald’s, it was removed in a 2010 remodel.

Occasionally a mural will illustrate controversy. In 1991, after disputes with the Pasadena CA’s bureaucracy over a neon sign at the Rite Spot café, artist Kenton Nelson created a portrait of the city that included scenes of city workers shoveling money into a truck and a doughnut-eating policeman ignoring a mugging. In Northampton MA, owners of the Green Street Café anticipated its coming 2012 closure with a 30-ft long last-supper-themed mural by children’s book author and illustrator Jeff Mack [shown above]. It vanished when the landlord — with whom the restaurant had been wrangling for years – demolished the building.

Mack’s mural has a humorous tone, a quality shared by others such as those at Chicago’s Normandy House, by Edgar Miller; The Waverly Inn, by Edward Sorel; The Waldorf-Astoria, by Tony Sarg; The Carlyle Hotel, by Ludwig Bemelmans; and those by artistic patrons of the early-20th century Coppa’s in San Francisco.

In the late 1930s a dozen or more artists were hired and given freedom to create satirical murals at NYC’s left-leaning Café Society, including Anton Refregier, Ad Reinhardt, and William Gropper. The mural shown above on a graytone postcard was by Alice Stander for the original Greenwich Village location. It depicts a customer in a typical nightclub besieged by a photographer, cigarette “girl,” and others trying to make a sale. Café Society’s mural artists were paid relatively small amounts supplemented by equal payment in free meals.

Quite a number of well-known artists have created restaurant murals over the course of the 20th century, among them Howard Chandler Christy (The Café des Artistes, NYC), Guy Pène du Bois (The Jumble Shop, NYC), Edgar Miller (Normandy House, Chicago), and Maxfield Parrish (Hotel Knickerbocker, moved to Hotel Regis, NYC).

Beginning in the late 19th century, hotels were the sort of businesses especially likely to hire muralists. Before World War I, the murals were usually meant to convey a sense of luxury in the style of baroque European palaces. Nudes and near-nude nymphs and goddesses from myth, with titles such as “The Daughters of Hesperia,”and “The Sirens Beguile Odysseus,” were almost taken for granted in New York’s grand pre-war hotels.

By 1948 a very different sense of luxury was evident in the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, designed by the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. In the lobby was an Alexander Calder mobile, while one dining room had a mural of Cincinnati buildings by Saul Steinberg and another had a surrealist mural by Joan Miró which is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Perhaps because they were often windowless, restaurant and hotel bars were the most likely locations for murals. Not only was this true of Maxfield Parrish’s Old King Cole mural [above], but also of the fourteen murals by Greenfield MA’s Thurston Munson. He was commissioned in the 1940s to adorn the walls of a basement barroom at Hartford CT’s popular Adajian’s Restaurant. [sample below] As was so often the case with barroom murals, some of the paintings included female nudes.

It seems as though murals with nudes evaded the censors in the 19th century, but the country’s uneasy relation to alcohol after Prohibition often brought official crackdowns when they appeared in bars and restaurants. In the 1970s a Hackensack NJ restaurant was threatened with cancellation of its liquor license unless it covered up a nude in a mural illustrating classical Greek mythology. I doubt this was an isolated case.

I can’t say whether there was a golden age of restaurant murals, or just how many restaurants have them now or have had them in the past. But it is worth taking notice when a restaurant hires an artist to create original art for the enjoyment of its guests.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Dining at the Centennial

In 1876, one hundred years after independence, Philadelphia held America’s first world’s fair to celebrate the country’s growing importance in industry, trade, and the arts, and perhaps implicitly to recognize of the end of the Civil War.

It is notable, though, that no Southern states elected to participate. According to a historian who studied the South’s attitudes toward the Centennial, it’s likely that relatively few visitors from the South attended [“Everybody is Centennializing”: White Southerners and the 1876 Centennial, Jack Noe, 2016]. This was due both to inability to afford it and a widespread opinion reflected in Southern newspapers that the whole thing was another Yankee scam meant to benefit the North.

Another problem was that the entire country was moored in a severe six-year-long depression. Despite the drawbacks, however, the Centennial Exhibition was judged a big success, based on its efficient organization, the participation of many other countries, the range of exhibits, and the attendance over its six-month span which was reported as nearly 10 million.

When I began to think about exploring the topic of eating places at the Centennial I imagined that its restaurants and cafes would have been a novelty to many visitors who would have been delighted to experience them, with many having their first restaurant meal.

I was not prepared for the large number of criticisms, ranging from offense at snooty European waiters to complaints about menu prices and tacked on service charges. They began to pour out as soon at the Centennial began. High prices were the main target. A widely circulated Chicago Tribune story claimed that a meal could easily cost $4, with $1 charged for asparagus, and 50¢ for mashed potatoes. These were prices that rivaled fine restaurants in New York City such as Delmonico’s.

There were at least 20 restaurants and cafés on the grounds. Several seated thousands. George’s Hill Restaurant, a Kosher eating place, was capable of serving an astounding 5,000 patrons at a time. Of course most fair goers could not begin to afford these grand restaurants, each of which occupied its own massive building. Many probably found it difficult to pay even the 50¢ admission fee.

The complaints about restaurant prices leveled off a bit over time, and it may be that the Centennial Commission forced managers to lower them. Or, perhaps there was a compromise leading the big restaurants to devote part of their space to lower-priced cafes, as seems to be reflected on the menu from the La Fayette Lunch Garden shown above, part of the La Fayette Restaurant complex. There a sandwich was a mere 10¢.

Regardless, one effect of all the publicity about high prices was that many fair goers brought their own picnic lunches [see cartoon above]. Soda and popcorn stands also proved to be very popular, as did the Vienna Model Bakery which furnished no meals but served coffee and freshly baked bread, both of a quality Americans had not experienced before. Another popular eating place was a moderately priced rustic café called The Dairy [shown below] where milk, fruit, biscuits, and pies were available.

Actually, the entire organization of the Centennial discouraged working people from attending. From the start the Commissioners decided against Sunday openings and half-price Saturdays, both of which had been operative at recent world’s fairs in Paris and Vienna. Only after disappointing attendance in the unusually hot summer months did they relent and declare a handful of Saturdays eligible for discounted fares. When the weather cooled off and attendance increased, they eliminated the discounts.

The dominance of elite restaurants at the Centennial may have been part of the same plan of discouraging, or simply ignoring, working class patrons. Perhaps the restaurant that was most resented was the “Parisian” restaurant, Aux Trois Frères Provencaux [shown here and at top]. It had a famed past dating back to the 18th century, though, unbeknownst to most Americans (if they even vaguely knew of it), it had changed hands many times, lost much of its splendor, and closed several years before the Centennial.

The Trois Frères Provencaux and the five other big restaurants at the Centennial were set up much like first-class restaurants and hotels of that time. They had large main dining rooms, a big banquet hall, a number of smaller private dining rooms, and a café. It’s likely that some of the buildings also included living quarters for the staff.

Most of the big six restaurants came in for some degree of criticism, with only George’s Hill and Lauber’s being largely exempt. George’s Hill Restaurant, on a breezy hill with a beautiful view, may have offered relief from the heat, and perhaps its customers appreciated having a kosher restaurant on the grounds. Lauber’s was already a popular Philadelphia German restaurant and it promised that its prices at the fairgrounds were identical to downtown’s.

Faring less well in public opinion were The Grand American Restaurant (disliked for its employment of foreign waiters) and The La Fayette [shown here]. The latter was perceived as a French import despite the fact that the proprietor had a restaurant in New York City. Its building was considered unattractive and its waiters were alleged to cheat customers. As was also said of the Trois Frères Provencaux, a critic claimed that its French management was unable to “comprehend America.”

The other large eating place, the Restaurant of the South [shown here], seemed to be predicated on a fascination that Northerners would have with Southern culture (including an “Old Plantation Darkey Band”), along with the belief that Southern visitors to the Centennial would want to group together in their own place. But if it was the case that few Southerners visited the fair [Noe, cited above], this would probably have taken a quite a toll on the Restaurant of the South.

In addition to meals, most restaurants and cafés also served beer and wine, despite the attempt by temperance organizations to prevent this. A California winemaker brought his wine to the Centennial to introduce it to Easterners. For $1 he also offered a “copious luncheon” with a half pint of his “California Golden Wine,” which was considered quite a bargain by the standards of the fair. Although it seems that all the cafés and restaurants had beer and wine, it’s probable that beer sales far outstripped wine sales, judging from the final report of the Centennial Commission which reported no royalties on wine.

Which was the most American restaurant? Not the Grand American, which Scribner’s magazine declared had “nothing especially American about it,” but the American Lunch Counter. Associated with railroads – where lunch counters were the norm in stations – it was ridiculed by elite critics such as one in The Nation who pointed out “the excessive liberality of the bill-of-fare as compared with the actual resources of the kitchen, the negro or nondescript waiters, the unlimited pickles,” etc. The Nation’s account included the other two restaurants advertised as American — The Grand American Restaurant and The Restaurant of the South — in its complaint.

I’m left with questions about the restaurants at the fair and the fair itself. How many people actually attended? Each person had to pass through a turnstile that counted them, but since many people made multiple visits, it leaves the question whether there were 10M visitors, or 10M visits. Given that the Commissioners’ detailed final report did not show any royalties from restaurants or cafés, I can’t help but wonder if the restaurants lost money.

But surely, since many thousands ate at the fair’s restaurants, there must have been some who had good experiences.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

For more images of the Centennial buildings and exhibits, visit the collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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Filed under elite restaurants, guides & reviews, restaurant controversies, restaurant prices, waiters/waitresses/servers