Tag Archives: 1915

Road trip restaurant-ing

PostluggageFor New Yorkers even today a lengthy car trip can raise concerns about letdowns at the dinner table, but all the more so in 1915.

That was the year that two writers, Theodore Dreiser and Emily Post, separately set out across country [Post pictured above, about ready to embark]. Although novelist Theodore Dreiser is often credited with writing the “first road trip” book, the publication of his Hoosier Holiday in 1916 was in fact matched by Post’s By Motor to the Golden Gate that same year.

Dreiser’s trip took him back to his boyhood state of Indiana, while Post daringly continued westward to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Diego and San Francisco. Both were in their 40s, lived in New York, and had failed marriages behind them. Both traveled with a companion and a chauffeur, in Post’s case her son.

Each made interesting observations about places where they ate. Dreiser, on a sentimental journey into his past, tended to see most restaurants as symptomatic of the identity-less mediocrity of American culture. Post experienced the journey with a liberating sense of adventure and was less judgmental than Dreiser, but only to a point.

As much as possible the Post party stuck to respectable hotels for their meals, for which they spent a fair amount of money for that time. An appendix in Post’s book provides a rundown of expenses. The joint dinner check for all three travelers usually came to between $4 and $5 plus a 10% tip even though Post reports they were light eaters.


Though she encountered some very bad meals in dingy lunch rooms, including a barroom in New Mexico where no plates were provided, Post was most critical of the dining room of Chicago’s much-ballyhooed Blackstone Hotel. She compared it unfavorably to Cleveland’s Statler Hotel [pictured] where she found the food and service “extraordinary.” Dreiser saved his greatest praise for a quick lunch eatery in Princeton IN and another restaurant in Vermilion OH where he enjoyed cherry pie provided by a Japanese-born proprietor (misidentified in his book, but almost certainly named Mamoru Okagi). He aimed his criticism at more pretentious places.

It’s safe to say that Dreiser, from a much humbler background than Post, disliked the hotel dining rooms of the sort Post preferred. He ridiculed their fake European elegance which aped the “Palace of Vairsigh,” as he mockingly put it.


Despite, or because of, her higher social standing, Post had to juggle gender issues. She avoided hotels of the “saloon-front-and-ladies’-entrance-in-the-back variety.” Whereas Dreiser sneered at then-trendy grills and rathskellers [grill in Scranton PA pictured], Post could not even get into them. Dreiser found these types, which were so popular with men, dull and silly – “made to look exactly like a western architect’s dream of a Burgundian baronial hall”. But Post was disappointed when she was turned away from the men-only grill room of the Fontenelle Hotel in Omaha.

Dreiser’s discomfort was induced by stuffy dining rooms where haughty head waiters fauned over rich men — and by country lunch rooms where local “wits” hung out. The following photograph illustrates what I imagine he saw walking into some of the places he encountered on his trip.


Both cast a cold eye on the attire of other guests in upscale dining rooms. Post shuddered at the casual, wrinkled outfits worn by the wealthy, as well as at how freely California women combined colors such as “an emerald-colored fan with a sage-green frock!” But, although Dreiser was horrified by “the upstanding middle class American with his vivid suit, yellow shoes, flaring tie and conspicuous money roll,” the socialist-leaning author nevertheless said he wanted to “compose an ode” to this sort of common man of democratic society.

Summing up her travel experiences, Post reflected, “It is your troubles on the road, your bad meals in queer places, . . . , in short, your misadventures that afterwards become your most treasured memories.” Dreiser wondered, “how long will it be before we will have just a few good [restaurants] in our cities?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under roadside restaurants, women

The artist dines out

Before World War I artists in NYC were attracted to cheap, unpretentious little ethnic restaurants in the basements of brownstones that dotted unfashionable side streets. Called table d’hôtes, they harked back to the early days of European restaurants when paying guests sat down with the host family at their dining table. With the meal, which typically consisted of spaghetti, salad, and a small portion of meat or fish, came a complimentary carafe of red wine, not always of the best vintage.

Evidently when Charles Green Shaw, the author of the haiku-like poem below, attended such a dinner in Greenwich Village he wasn’t exactly swept off his feet. Rather he displays a comical tongue-in-cheek attitude about the experience. I would guess he wrote the poem about 1915.

Shaw [1892-1974] was an abstract modern artist whose work is in the collections of major museums such as MOMA and the Art Institute of Chicago. He also was a children’s book illustrator, a poet, and an author of essays and novels. He collected theatrical ephemera and was an authority on Lewis Carroll. His papers, which include some of his drawings, are held in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Bohemian Dinner

The ride downtown.
The Washington Square district.
The “bohemian” restaurant.
The descending steps.
The narrow hall-way.
The semi darkness.
The checking the hat.
The head waiter.
The effusive greeting.
The corner table.
The candle light.
The brick walls.
The “artistic atmosphere”.
The man who plays the piano.
The wailing sounds.
The boy fiddler.
The doleful discords.
The other diners.
The curious types.
The long hair.
The low collar.
The flowing tie.
The loose clothes.
The appearance of food.
The groan.
The messy waiter.
The thumb in the soup.
The grated cheese.
The twisted bread.
The veal paté.
The minced macaroni.
The cayenne pepper.
The coughing fit.
The chemical wine.
The garlic salad.
The rum omlette.
The black coffee.
The bénédictine.
The Russian cigarette.
The “boatman’s song”.
The mock applause.
The “temper[a]mental” selection.”
The drowsy feeling.
The snooze.
The sudden awakening.
The appearance of the check.
The dropped jaw.
The emptied pockets.
The last penny.
The bolt for the door.
The hat.
The street.
The lack of car fare.
The long walk up town.
The limping home.
The Bed.


Filed under miscellaneous