Tag Archives: 1920s

The “mysterious” Singing Kettle

singingkettlepcA veil of ominous mystery has spread over the remains of a California roadside tea room once known by the homey name Singing Kettle.

It was located near the summit of Turnbull Canyon, high above the San Gabriel Valley, on a winding road running through the Puente Hills in North Whittier. The road was completed in 1915, opening up a route filled with what many regarded as the most impressive views on the entire Pacific Coast.


Today young people drive into the “haunted” canyon at night determined to be frightened to death. Gazing out car windows they eagerly tell each other tales they’ve heard of satanic rituals, murders, and human sacrifice, hoping that behind that fence are unspeakable horrors they might be lucky enough to witness. Even the Singing Kettle tea room, perhaps because remnants of its entrance are visible from the road, has become enmeshed in dark fantasies.

Why am I laughing?

Because it strikes me as funny that a tea room from the 1920s and 1930s could be associated with horror and paranormal events. Or even that people would find its existence mysterious, wondering why it was ever there or what it really was.

I suppose that given enough time and imagination mysterious auras can envelop any mundane place, even a deserted mall or a parking garage. But still, finding a tea room scary is like being frightened by a club sandwich.

I have experienced a somewhat similar attitude before. I gave a talk on tea rooms of New York City when my book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn came out in 2002. Afterwards a man in the audience came up and asked me why I didn’t mention the darker aspects of tea rooms. He was certain that a lot of them had been speakeasies and houses of prostitution.

Really? If that had indeed been the case, why would I not have mentioned it? It would be a good story. I’ve found no evidence of prostitution in tea rooms. Only rarely were tea room proprietors found selling liquor during Prohibition. A few places in Greenwich Village were raided in the early 1920s, and here and there the mob would open a joint and call it a tea room, though that was purely a ruse. I feel certain it was impossible to order a diet plate or a Waldorf salad in a mob tea room.


The dining area of the Singing Kettle tea room was up the hill from the pergola entrance shown on the black and white postcard above. As can be seen from a bird’s-eye view of the property, terraced stairs with fountains and shrubbery led up to the main tea room which today appears to be a residence. The view while dining would have been spectacular.

The tea room was frequented by students and staff from Whittier College, the Whittier Chamber of Commerce, and women’s clubs. It was a popular place for business meetings, card parties, wedding receptions, and bridal showers. Weddings were held in the inner courtyard of its entrance pergola.

singingkettlehartwhittierheights1927I have not been able to discover the identity of the Singing Kettle’s proprietor. The area was filled with citrus and avocado groves and it’s possible that it was run by the wife of a grower. It’s even possible that major Southern California agricultural land developer, Edwin G. Hart, was involved in the business. That might explain why he promoted the tea room in a 1927 advertisement for his new residential development, Whittier Heights. (When he developed Vista CA he built an inn where prospective customers could stay.)

The Singing Kettle was in business from 1927 until at least 1936, but probably not much longer. It surely would not have survived gasoline rationing during WWII.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

With many thanks to the reader who told me about the Singing Kettle.


Filed under atmosphere, odd buildings, Offbeat places, roadside restaurants, tea shops

Odd restaurant buildings: “ducks”


Ducks are commercial buildings that look like what they sell, as illustrated by the Freda Farms ice cream stand in Berlin CT. The term was actually inspired by a Long Island store that sold ducks (to eat). It has been generalized to apply to any buildings that looks like some familiar object or animal, etc, whether or not their merchandise is related. These types of buildings are also known as programmatic or mimetic architecture.

duckstamaleThough they reached a peak of popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s, ducks trace back much further in history. An introduction to Jim Heimann’s book California Crazy by David Gebhard links the mimetic architecture of the last century to garden buildings of the 18th century and even earlier. One of the first examples in the United States was the 65-foot elephant of Margate NJ built in1881 to attract attention to a real estate development.

In addition to housing stores and offices, many ducks have featured restaurants over the decades. They have taken the shape of all kinds of animals, kegs, barrels, ships, castles, cups, coffee pots, bowls, hats, chuck wagons, dirigibles, items of food, shoes, and windmills.


The earliest restaurant duck I have found was a café planned for Cincinnati in the shape of a huge beer cask in 1902. Unlike later examples, though, it was meant to occupy a location in a row of Main Street storefronts. Most later ducks, arriving with the spread of car ownership in the late 1920s and early 1930s, occupied empty lots in developing areas of cities. Not too surprisingly, southern California’s car culture provided a nurturing environment. In addition the climate was favorable to the somewhat makeshift carnival-type structures, while the city’s movie industry supplied inspiration. As Los Angeles grew, giant dogs, toads, ice cream freezers, shoes, and other bizarre apparitions sprang up along the roadside, vying for the business of passing motorists.


The link between the movie industry and roadside fantasy was straightforward in the case of Harry Oliver, a leading designer who brought magic to sets for movies such as Scarface, The Good Earth, and Mark of the Vampire. Oliver designed windmill-shaped buildings for the Van de Kamp bakeries and drive-ins as well as a storybook building occupied by the Tam o’ Shanter Inn.

If architecture is about the enclosure of space, ducks are architecture only secondarily. In most cases mimetic architecture describes a building that serves more as advertising sign than as an innovative enclosure of space. Once a customer stepped inside a giant pig or coffee pot, all whimsy faded away as the interior revealed itself to be a standard rectangle as shown here in one of the many coffee-pot ducks that could be found across the U.S.


If ducks say anything about American restaurants, it is that they are only partially about food.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016


Filed under odd buildings, roadside restaurants

Blue plate specials

blueplateDuring the 1920s and 1930s the blue plate lunch and dinner thrived. The first blue plate special reference I have found is in 1915. A railway running between Bradenton FL and Washington D.C., the Seaboard Air Line Railway, announced that year that they would begin offering a daily special of either meat or fish served on one plate with two vegetables.

The simplicity of the meal, with fewer food items on fewer pieces of china, turned out to be  highly congruent with suggested government cutbacks that arrived with World War I urging restaurants to conserve on all aspects of their operations.

After the war the blue plate special continued to be popular because it was a workable compromise between the needs of a fast-paced urban society and the legions of consumers accustomed to eating a meat-and-potatoes “dinner” at noon. Though resembling a home-style dinner, the blue plate meal was lighter and faster to serve up than its predecessors. Consisting of less food, it required less time for digestion and kept office workers from getting that “siesta” feeling in the afternoon.


Its billing as “home cooking” communicated that it was not ethnic cuisine as were meals in table d’hote restaurants run by immigrant Americans. Beef and gravy, pork chops, ham, mashed or fried potatoes, carrots, and green beans were typical on blue plates. [June 1, 1930, special at the Merry Eating Luncheonette, Springfield MA]

In previous eras a “regular dinner” or table d’hote restaurant meal would have arrived parceled out on many plates, saucers, and side dishes. Cutting down both on china and dishwashing as well as server time, the blue plate dinner or lunch was usually offered as an economy meal typically costing about 35 to 50 cents, a moderate price in the post-WWI inflationary economy. Blue plate specials were attractive to restaurants because they permitted them to make use of a good buy or get rid of food stocks on the verge of going bad. The tradeoff was that often the diner had little choice regarding the meal’s composition.

blueplatespecialBoston1940Since the meals’ components were cooked prior to lunch and dinner rushes and kept warm on steam tables, they could be served quickly, saving time for patrons and increasing turnover for the establishment. Of course steam tables took their toll. That one-plate specials were not always the finest is suggested by a 1930 guidebook which commends The Alps restaurant in NYC by noting that their blue plate dinners “are more than mere collections of edibles, served en masse.”

One-plate meals continued into the 1940s and after WWII  but the term “blue plate” was beginning to sound old-fashioned and was used mainly in smaller towns. Stodgy one-plate meals became material for humorists. In 1952 columnist Hal Boyle lampooned the blue plate luncheon “engulfed in gravy,” characterizing it as an “all-America culinary nightmare.” “I take it to the hotel I am staying at and use it instead of soap for a shower,” he wrote. “I rub it on my head as a shampoo.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015


Filed under restaurant customs

Thanksgiving quiz: dinner times four

TDaymenuBeefIn 1921 a café in Kalamazoo, Michigan, advertised that it would offer a selection of Thanksgiving dinners at different prices. The most expensive was 85 cents, then came a 65-cent dinner, one at 60 cents, and a 50-cent dinner. In today’s dollars, they would range in price from a high of $11.10 to a low of $6.51.


All dinners began with tomato soup. They featured four types of roast meat: beef, pork, turkey, and chicken, with accompanying dishes that were not fancy. Strangely the menus made no mention of dessert. Perhaps it was not included in the price of the dinner. Since selling alcoholic beverages was illegal in 1921, it’s likely that Thanksgiving diners would have had coffee.

TDaymenuPorkThe name of the restaurant was the Bon Ton. Its proprietors were the Thenos brothers, Nicholas and George, of Greek heritage. The small restaurant advertised that it was “open all hours” and had moderate prices. It employed women as servers. I have not been able to find a photograph of it, but undoubtedly it followed the typical café configuration of its time with a counter running down one side of a narrow storefront space and tables on the other side, with the kitchen at the rear.



Can you identify the most expensive dinner? Study the four Thanksgiving menus (which I have re-created using menu blanks) and decide which you think was the 85-cent dinner, which the 65-cent dinner, etc.

Answers in the Comments, on Thanksgiving Day.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under menus, miscellaneous

Restaurant cups


While on a short visit to New York City, I stepped inside Fishs Eddy on Broadway at 19th Street to look at their vintage restaurantware. I was struck by this poster used for decoration in the store. It shows a variety of teacup models, probably from the 1920s.

Then thick, almost unbreakable, cups for coffee and tea were commonly used in popular restaurants that served masses of customers. What struck me about the poster was that some cups were named for actual restaurants. I’m guessing that these were restaurants that had requested a particular, possibly custom, design. I immediately noticed the names Child’s, the leading chain of that era; Lorber, an old Philadelphia restaurant that had been at the 1876 Centennial; and Marston, a sturdy Boston standby. On second glance I noticed Hollenden, a hotel in Cleveland.

logcabininnThe other thing that struck me was the number of designs that scarcely differ from each other. Evidently restaurants and hotel dining rooms had very precise ideas about what they wanted in a cup. The differences appear so slight, as with Sharon vs. Colonnade. I wondered, were customers who drank from the Duquesne equipped with especially big fingers?

EliteGrillcupI tried to match up the poster’s teacups with other restaurant cups – and failed. The Elite Grill and the Log Cabin Inn seem to have handles that are ever so slightly different from each other as well as the illustrated cups.

macdougallpotteryThe other bit of historical minutia that sprang to mind was how Alice Foote MacDougall, proprietor of a 1920s NYC chain of coffee/tea shops that emphasized “atmosphere,” hated the serviceable china found in everyday restaurants and soda fountains of her time. In 1928 she wrote it was “so thick that I felt I needed to build an extension on my lips to drink from it.” To protect her restaurant customers from such an unpleasant experience she imported china from Italy. She also sold it retail from showrooms at her places on West 46th and 47th streets, Firenze and The Piazzetta, respectively.

In fiction of the 1920s and 1930s writers employed thick cups as signifiers of cheap restaurants, usually encountered by a downtrodden hero or lady in distress who has fallen from a higher status. In a similar vein, thick cups took on an aura of humble, bedrock authenticity. The columnist O. O. McIntyre captured this attitude during the Depression when he wrote of midnight lunch wagons: “Here the real life versions of Wallace Beery and Jimmy Cagney eat in shirt sleeves with hats on. Coffee is – as it should be – in thick cups.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under miscellaneous

Tea at the Mary Louise


In 1914 the J. W. Robinson department store arrived on West Seventh and Grand, launching a shift in Los Angeles’ shopping district from Broadway. The following year the Brack Shops began leasing specialty shops in an empty loft building nearby. Construction activity boomed as Seventh Street turned into a shopping mecca.

Will and Dolla Harris staked the future of the Mary Louise Tea Room on the prosperity of West Seventh. In 1918 they opened their first tea room on the 12th floor of the Brack Shops. With wide hallways allowing shops to open their doors and let goods spill outside, it resembled a modern-day shopping mall. Shoppers could easily spend the day having their hair done, browsing the latest styles, or enjoying lunch, tea, or a Thursday night chicken dinner at the Mary Louise.

MaryLouiseBarkerBros790Through the 1920s the Mary Louise expanded, opening additional tea rooms on West Seventh — on the mezzanine of the fashionable New York Cloak & Suit House, and on the top floor of the gigantic Barker Brothers home furnishings store [shown here]. In 1922 construction began on what would be the largest of the Mary Louise tea rooms [shown below], a two-story building across from Westlake Park (renamed MacArthur Park in 1942). It opened in 1923 and was soon followed by a Mary Louise in Fullerton, next door to the new Alician Court movie theater owned by Dolla’s brother Charles S. Chapman. The last Mary Louise, whose servers were young Asian-American women dressed in Chinese costumes, opened in 1931 on North Cahuenga in Hollywood.


Shortly after its debut, the park-side Mary Louise advertised it was “the Center of the City’s Social Life.” Wedding parties and meetings of professional groups were booked regularly. Elaborately decorated on a lavish budget equal to more than half the cost of construction, the capacious building held a large entry hall [shown below] and dining room [shown at top] on the first floor plus an afternoon tea room, a banquet hall, and four smaller dining rooms for private parties on the second. In sync with the fashion of the day, the rooms had themes such as Mah Jong and Italian tea garden.

MaryLouiselobby789As can be seen on postcards from the Mary Louises in Barker Brothers and opposite Westlake Park, the tea rooms were decorated in glamourous movie-set style markedly different than minimalist Eastern tea rooms. Gilded pieces, Oriental rugs, wall tapestries, heavy draperies, and paired ornamental trees abounded.


The Mary Louise mini-empire was dealt a severe blow just a few months after the Hollywood location opened when Will Harris died suddenly. Three of the tea rooms, including the main one opposite Westlake Park, were quickly sold to the Elite Catering Company owned by the expanding Pig’n Whistle chain. When I acquired the business card shown here opened up, it had Xs penciled over all but the section reading “2 Smart Downtown Tea Rooms,” evidently reflecting the changeover.

Dolla Harris continued to operate the two downtown tea rooms: in Barker Brothers and in the Security Bank Building opposite the Robinson’s store. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, she was forced to reduce prices for lunch and to attract customers with palmists and numerologists. How long she stayed in business is uncertain but I’ve found evidence that there was still a Mary Louise tea room in Barker Brothers in 1952.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under proprietors & careers, restaurant decor, tea shops

Back to nature: The Eutropheon

rawfoodeutrophean1928Last week’s post on a recipe from The Aware Inn, an early natural food restaurant in Los Angeles, took me back to founder Jim Baker and his adventures with the Nature Boys. I learned that some of the members of this group, who lived in the woods, dressed like Tarzan, and ate natural foods, worked at a Los Angeles raw food restaurant called The Eutropheon.

Just by its name, readers might suspect it was more about spreading the gospel of raw food diets than an ordinary money-making commercial eating place. They would be right.

rawfoodTheNewJusticeJune11919A raw food restaurant, not yet named The Eutropheon, but very likely run by Eutropheon founders Vera and John Richter, was established in Los Angeles in 1919. It was evidently affiliated with, or at least sympathetic to, The New Justice, a short-lived publication dedicated to defending the Russian revolution [the 1919 advertisement here appeared in the magazine]. A story in the Los Angeles Times reported that the restaurant played Hawaiian music on a phonograph, distributed a leaflet called “The Truth About Russia,” and displayed a copy of the Soviet constitution along with a portrait of American socialist leader Eugene Debs. Its menu included uncooked soup, fruit and flower salads, and unbaked breads and pies.

In 1920 the Raw Food Dining Room had a new Los Angeles address, 326 W 2nd. In 1922, there was a Raw Food Dining Room, now called The Eutropheon, in Long Beach CA, as well as in Los Angeles at 927½ W 6th. How many of these were open at the same time is uncertain. There was also a Vegetarian Cafeteria on Figueroa serving “A complete line of Cooked and Raw Foods,” but this must have been run by someone other than the Richters since they were never known to serve cooked food. A Eutropheon cropped up in San Francisco in 1926, at 574 California Street. In 1928 the Richters had two Eutropheons in Los Angeles, one at 209 S. Hill and the other at 833 S. Olive.

There appear to have been very few raw food advocates in the United States, and almost no restaurants (until relatively recently), making the Richters pioneers. There were, however, some raw food enthusiasts in the US prior to The Eutropheon. Plans were laid by the Chicago Raw Food Society to open a raw food restaurant there around 1900 or 1901, but it’s unclear if it ever materialized. In 1907 a group in New York City held a raw food banquet at a hotel there. There was also a group in Cincinnati in the early 1920s.

rawfoodJohntrichterJohn T. Richter, as he was known in Los Angeles, had come to the city around 1918 or 1919, opened a raw food restaurant, and began lecturing on the benefits of that diet and other aspects of natural living. When and how he met his wife Vera is unknown as is anything about her background, but she seems to be a key figure in the raw food movement in Los Angeles. Judging from her 1925 cookbook Mrs. Richter’s Cook-less Book, she may have developed many of the recipes for soups, salads, grain and nut dishes, and desserts that were served in The Eutropheon.

RawFoodVeraRichterBefore coming to California, Richter was known as Theophilus J. F. Richter. At least 20 years older than Vera, he was born of German immigrants in Illinois in 1864, grew up in North Dakota, and earned a diploma sometime in the late 1880s or the 1890s in “Swedish movement cure” in Chicago, probably from the Folke-Kjellberg Institute. He married a woman named Violet in Chicago in 1891 and they had three children. After living in Fargo for several years, the family moved to Minneapolis and Theophilus obtained a degree as a naturopathic physician. Evidently he adopted a raw food diet around 1911 after taking classes with Chicago doctor George Drews. He still gave his address as Minneapolis as late as 1917.

The Richters received quite a bit of publicity for their restaurant from Los Angeles naturopath and gymnasium owner Phillip Lovell. Lovell also had a radio show and wrote the “Care of the Body” column that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in the 1920s and 1930s espousing alternative medicine and health regimes. Declaring himself a regular patron of the Richter’s restaurants, Lovell wrote in 1928, “To my knowledge, these are the only two restaurants in the country that function without the aid of a cookstove.”

rawfoodrestaurant1926Why Lovell’s career and The Eutropheons attained success in California is an interesting question. It’s doubtful the Richters got rich but the fact that their restaurants survived for about 20 years is surprising given that raw food restaurants were found nowhere else at that time. As for Lovell, he amassed enough money to commission architect Richard Neutra to build the first steel-frame ultramodern house in the US. It was completed in 1929 and contained a full-size gymnasium. I suspect that the reason California was such fertile ground for health and fitness gurus had something to do with the large number of people, especially the elderly, who vacationed or moved there from the Midwest hoping the climate would cure their ills.

Sometime in the late 1930s it appears that the Richters turned over The Eutropheon at 833 S. Olive to Milan Geshtacoff who had once been a kitchen worker there. How long it stayed open and what the fate of the S. Hill street location was I don’t know.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under alternative restaurants, food, proprietors & careers