In the 1960s, with the rumble of social change came a flood of interest in low-priced eating places with character and good food. In this spirit, New Yorkers Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder began a newspaper and magazine column titled The Underground Gourmet, followed by a guide book in 1966 with the same name.
Their book led to a series. It’s been a little difficult to nail down how many different UGs there were, but here is my list, with initial publication dates: New York (1966), San Francisco (1969), Los Angeles (1970), Washington D.C. (1970), New Orleans (1971), Boston (1972), Honolulu (1972), and the noncity Long Island (1973).
Several factors probably contributed to the new mood regarding restaurants. The economy was bad and the public was looking for bargains. Youth culture was blossoming as the baby boomers grew older, many becoming college students. And increased travel abroad was widening the public’s interest in unfamiliar foods and ways of cooking.
The public’s attraction to low-priced independent restaurants could also be seen as a reaction against the growth of fast food chains taking place, the greater use of frozen food in restaurants, and a rebellion against the blandness of much American food.
What was considered a low price for a meal during these years? The first New York edition specified in 1966, “Great meals . . . for less than $2 and as little as 50¢.” But the third edition (1977) explained that “unending inflation . . . has changed our perception of an inexpensive meal from one that cost $2.00 to one that costs $5.00 or $6.00.” For the New Orleans’ second edition in 1973, author Richard Collin promised meals “for less than $3.75 and as little as 50c.” This was still a lower price than featured by the others, which ran from $1.00 to $3.75 in San Francisco in 1969; $1.00 to $4.00 in D.C. in 1970; and “under $4.00″ in Boston in 1972. Dining in Honolulu remained a bargain, with the 1972 UG promising meals as inexpensive as in the first New York edition (50¢ to $2).
Low price was not really what set the best of the recommended restaurants apart from others. Rather it was the quality of the food for the price. Although Mr. Steak in 1970 offered its most expensive meal – Steak & Lobster with salad, toast and potatoes – for $3.99, it didn’t make the cut, though strangely enough a few other chain restaurants did win recommendations including a McDonald’s in D.C. and a Burger King in New Orleans.
What were some of the most remarkable finds in these books? Richard Collin [above cartoon] discovered a number of dishes that he gave his highest praise, naming them “platonic dishes,” as perfect as that dish could possibly be. His New Orleans list of platonic dishes included Oysters Bienville and Fried Chicken at Chez Helene’s soul food restaurant — which he rated one of the city’s finest restaurants; Creole Gumbo at Dooky Chase; and Fried Potato Poor Boys at the dirt-cheap Martin’s Poor Boy.
The number of restaurants that met the criteria varied from city to city. Boston and D.C. are notably slim books. New York is the fattest volume. San Francisco and New Orleans have about 2/3 the heft of New York. However, with his shorter entries, Richard Collin packed over 250 restaurants into the 1973 revised New Orleans edition, rating everywhere he ate, including some very bad places. Needless to say, this makes for interesting reading.
In his 1969 UG, R. B. Read made a case that the San Francisco area had a unique set of restaurants from all over the world, such as at The Tortola, which preserved “hacienda cookery” from the days before gringos settled in the state. He also heaped praise on restaurants that were rare in the U.S. then — from Korea, the West Indies, and Afghanistan. The latter instance, Khyber Pass, offered a “fabled” ashak, which he described as “aboriginal ravioli.” In a different category of unusual was The Trident in Sausalito, with jazz and a “debonairly eclectic” menu with a psychedelic design.
Because my copy is the third edition of the New York UG (The All New Underground Gourmet, 1977), I did not get the flavor of the earlier versions, which is a shame. Sadly, Jerome Snyder died during the publication of the book. That and rising prices may have cast a pall over this edition, which strikes me as less interesting than the New Orleans and San Francisco UGs. The original NYC book contained 101 of the best low-cost eating places (out of 16,000!). The third edition has about 130. The three given the highest ratings for “excellent food” were the Italian Caffe da Alfredo, and two Greek restaurants, Alexander the Great and Syntagma Square. Mamma Leone’s showed up in the book even though it met the price criterion only for its Buffet Italiano Luncheon where for $4.25 it spread out 25 feet of salami, mortadella, meatballs, celery, olives, green bean salad, and more.
The UG authors for Boston were Joseph P. and E. J. Kahn, Jr.; Washington D.C.’s were Judith and Milton Viorst. Both books show a lower level of enthusiasm. The Viorsts admitted that Washington “has not been known for its restaurants” and that of the 100 restaurants they visited, “a substantial proportion were so awful that we were unable to include them.” Father and son Kahn began by telling of a long-time resident of Boston and Cambridge who couldn’t imagine that anyone could recommend inexpensive restaurants since the area’s expensive restaurants were “bad enough.” The Kahns then admitted, “It is probably true that the Boston area does not loom large in the world of cuisine.”
Despite their reservations, the authors of both books managed to find some places they liked. The Viorsts singled out five D.C. restaurants as “great finds.” They were: the Calvert Café, an Arabic place “worthy of shahs and empresses”; Don Pedro, Mexican, with a marvelous mushroom appetizer called hongos; the Cuban El Caribe, featuring raw Peruvian-style fish cubes in lemon-onion sauce (95¢); Gaylord, an Indo Pakistani restaurant with “delicious samosas”; and Warababa, a West-African place run by a Ghanaian couple with “exquisite” dishes such as peanut butter soup and Joloff rice flavored with bits of beef and vegetables.
The Kahns didn’t exactly rave about finds in Boston or Cambridge. But, after encountering “enough blandness while making our rounds to put us to sleep,” they enjoyed spicy lamb stew at Peasant Stock in Cambridge. They included the No Name restaurant on Fish Pier – no name, no sign, no lights, no decor — where a seafood chowder (50¢) served as the house special and was “so incredibly rich and so brimming with hunks of fresh fish that a cupful could be a meal in itself.” But the popular Jack and Marion’s in Brookline, known for its giant menu and huge portions, ranked merely as one of the area’s “better delicatessens.”
Alas, I couldn’t find the books from Honolulu, Los Angeles, or Long Island, but I saw a magazine piece that criticized the Los Angeles UG for its surprising inclusion of 25 restaurants in Palm Springs.
© Jan Whitaker, 2022