Tag Archives: 1970s

“Hot Cha” and the Kapok Tree

What kind of career might the son of a junk dealer father and a mother who owned a restaurant end up with?

If he was Richard Baumgardner he would run restaurants raucously decorated with gilded and spray-painted objets d’art — wonderfully kitschy palatial junque bought by the ton in Europe (70 tons of statues in 1966). When his warehouse ran low on statues and urns, he would make plastic replicas with rubber molds.

His customers would find it all enchantingly “different.”

But first, he’d take a detour into the entertainment world as a jazz-era musician and bandleader known as Dick “Hot Cha” Gardner. As an introduction to his restaurant career in 1936, Dick inaugurated the Hot Cha Supper Club in conjunction with his mother Grace’s tea room, the Peter Pan Inn in rural Urbana MD. After she died in the 1940s, Dick took over the Peter Pan and transformed it into a let’s-drive-to-the-country mega-attraction for Washington DC families. In 1958, retired from bandleading, Dick opened his first Kapok Tree Inn in Clearwater FL, on the site of a tree planted in the 1880s.

It’s hard to know how to classify his restaurants. They fall into two of my classifications: 1) the high-volume restaurant, and 2) the curiosity-shop restaurant filled with quaint stuff.

The decor at the Clearwater Kapok Tree was a mix of light fixtures from Paris, chandeliers gathered from the DC Italian Embassy and old theaters in Baltimore and New York City, paneling from a De Medici compound replicated in plastic, and on and on.

Yet for all their madcap faux elegance, Dick’s restaurants followed a rigid formula designed for maximizing profits and minimizing costs. Magically, it worked. Despite ticket windows where customers were required to prepay their dinner tab, a teen-age staff, long waits for tables (in the bar), sticky sweet rum drinks, and limited menus with pedestrian cuisine, customers absolutely adored these zany buses-welcome eateries.

For years diners had just four dinner choices: fried chicken, ham, deep fried shrimp, and steak. When customers sat down at their tables, servers collected their receipts, knowing immediately by the prices what they had ordered. A complete meal included a typical 1950s melange of appetizers which never varied year in and year out, whether in Maryland or Florida — cottage cheese, (sweet) pickled vegetables, muffins, and apple butter. Sides were roast potatoes, peas in mushroom sauce, beets, and hush puppies. Ice cream for dessert and seconds on everything but the entrees. Boxes were provided for leftovers and the complimentary tall cocktail glasses. Few left empty-handed.

The Kapok Tree Inns prospered with the Pinellas County boom of the early 1970s. By 1978, two years after Dick died, there were three Kapok Tree Inns, in Clearwater, Madeira Beach, and Daytona Beach. The first remained the largest, seating at least 1,700. On really busy days upwards of 5,000 meals were served there.

Controlling interest in the Kapok Tree corporation, which also included the Peter Pan Inn and a couple of Baumgardner’s Restaurants in Florida, passed to Dick’s widow, a former waitress at the original Clearwater restaurant, who had largely been running the operation since he had a stroke in 1970. A year after his death, she told a reporter that hers was the most profitable publicly-held restaurant chain in the nation. The Daytona Beach Kapok Tree closed  in 1981, and the Clearwater restaurant closed ten years later.

I wonder what happened to all the wacky furnishings?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Basic fare: French fries

I suspect that in the 19th century more Americans ate French fried potatoes at home than in restaurants. Boiled, baked, and mashed potatoes were more common on restaurant menus than fried potatoes of any sort.

However there were probably a few restaurants that served French fries. Maria Parloa, whose New Cook Book of 1880 included a recipe for preparing French fried potatoes in a frying basket lowered into boiling fat, traveled around giving cooking lessons, and I know of at least one restaurant manager who attended them. The course of lessons she delivered in Trenton NJ in 1884 included how to make French fries, perhaps extending to the sweet potato fries that appeared in her cookbook. I have discovered at least one 19th-century restaurant menu with French fries, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1894.

The reason why few restaurants served fries then was not that they weren’t popular but that they used too much cooking fat. According to Jessup Whitehead, a culinary advisor to restaurant cooks in the 1880s and 1890s, raw potatoes cooked in hot lard were the most expensive potato dish for an eating place to prepare, while baked potatoes were the most economical.

Perhaps things were starting to change in the 20th century. I’ve found a 1902 advertisement for a potato slicer for hotels and restaurants that cut “perfect French fries.” In 1911 another company produced a heavy duty model (pictured). Around this time there was a movement afoot among restaurants to charge separately for French fries rather than provide them “free” with meat or fish orders. This change could have made it possible to make a profit despite the high cost of cooking oil.

In France at this time – and probably much earlier – street vendors outfitted pushcarts with coke-fired kettles and prepared fries (“pomme frites”) on the spot for customers who ate them from paper cones. Many American soldiers in France during World War I developed the French fry habit, probably increasing demand for them in this country upon their return. In the 1920s and 1930s they began to appear on more and more menus. During World War II potatoes were scarce but after the war returning GIs, sick of mashed potatoes because of the dehydrated ones they had eaten in mess halls, hungered for French fries. Through much of the 20th century restaurant operators believed that men loved fries more than women did.

French fries were prominent on menus of postwar drive-ins. By then they were available frozen or formed from moistened dried potatoes forced through an extruder (little did the vets know they were eating dehydrated potatoes in a new guise). By 1968 the restaurant industry considered it “archaic” to make French fries from fresh raw potatoes. It was so much easier to shake frozen fries out of a bag straight into the fryer, no muss, no waste. According to Jakle & Sculle in their book Fast Food, the consumption of frozen potatoes went from 6.6 pounds a year per person in 1960 to 36.8 pounds in 1976. In this same period French fries made the short hop from drive-ins to their successors, hamburger chains such as McDonald’s.

Perhaps because of their mid-century popularity as side dish to sandwiches, French fries were shoved aside in the white tablecloth restaurants of the 1960s and 1970s by the old-fashioned baked potato which returned to favor as the prestigious accompaniment to steak and prime rib, especially when served with sour cream and fresh, er, frozen, chives.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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The (partial) triumph of the doggie bag

I can’t remember when restaurant servers began automatically asking if you wanted to take home food left on your plate but I know it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that food was wrapped up only if patrons asked.

Probably some customers have always smuggled away food from restaurant tables, usually in napkins. Maybe to stop this, the custom of furnishing diners with bags in which to take home leftovers began after the second World War when upward mobility widened the dining public. Doggie bags went into production around the mid 1950s and their use increased tenfold in Chicago in the 1970s, according to a Chicago Tribune story.

But what is interesting is how many people were embarrassed by the practice. Well into the 1970s etiquette columns in newspapers got letters from restaurant patrons asking if it was ok to ask for a doggie bag if they didn’t have a dog. Usually the writer cited a spouse or friend who objected to the custom. A typical query is the one in 1964 from a wife whose husband “looked aghast” when she asked for a bag and told her it was in poor taste to take home table scraps. Nonetheless, with the exception of Elizabeth Post, Emily Post’s granddaughter by marriage, advice columnists invariably approved of doggie bags as sensible if not downright virtuous.

Doggie bags and other containers grew more acceptable in the 1970s – but not in all restaurants. The most expensive and elegant places, such as the Four Seasons and upscale French restaurants, showed a distinct dislike of the custom. Many would only provide a container if asked, and then often fashioned a swan of aluminum foil as if to say, “We don’t make a habit of this – this is just for you.”

There are a number of explanations why taking home leftovers has not always been universally accepted by restaurants or their guests. Some restaurants cite health concerns. French restaurateurs are offended by the idea of someone microwaving their cuisine; they believe food should be eaten just at the moment the chef sends it to the table. Diners who are the least bit intimidated by a restaurant or its servers are unlikely to ask to take food home. I was recently in a restaurant that does not permit guests to place jackets or coats on the back of their chairs. I am certain they would cringe at a request to take away uneaten food (and I’ve never seen it done there). In any event, the small portions served in this and other upscale restaurants do not allow any provision for future meals. Other restaurants handle the matter discreetly. In a power lunch spot in Los Angeles, diners must pick up their leftovers, packed in a tasteful tote bag, at the front desk as they leave. No styrofoam box sitting on tables through the dessert course there!

On a deep socio-psychological level the reasons doggie bags carry a degree of embarrassment and often are not accepted by elite restaurants are the same as why it’s considered poor manners to smack or gobble. Higher status accrues to those who disguise hunger by eating slowly, who appreciate small portions, and whose delicate appetite requires “appetizers” and little dainties with names such as “amuse bouche.” Leaving food on the plate communicates the absence of animal neediness. It is a version of Thorstein Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption” in that it flaunts the diner’s ability to walk away from perfectly good food.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Good eaters: Andy Warhol

He certainly wasn’t from the same category of eaters as James Beard, yet both Beard and Andy Warhol celebrated American cuisine, even in its more humble pancake/sandwich/barbecue forms. Warhol was a typical American eater in many regards. He was conservative about his food, preferred simple dishes, and was happy eating in front of the TV.

As for restaurants, he explained in his 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol that he stayed thin by ordering things he disliked in restaurants — even fashionable and expensive ones such as La Grenouille. While his companions ate, he picked at his plate and then had the food wrapped up so he could leave it somewhere for a homeless person to find. He called this the “Andy Warhol New York City Diet.”

He much preferred “good, plain American lunchroom[s] or even the good plain American lunchcounter” to chic eateries. His favorites, already vanished by 1975, were the “old-style” Chock Full O’ Nuts and Schrafft’s. “The days were carefree in the 1940s and 1950s when I could go into a Chocks for my cream cheese sandwich with nuts on date-nut bread and not worry about a thing,” he wrote. He felt that people could not handle many challenges to their food habits without becoming upset. As he put it, “Progress is very important and exciting in everything except food.”

He came close to becoming a restaurateur himself when he announced the coming of the “Andy-Mat,” an unpretentious neighborhood restaurant serving homely comfort food at reasonable prices which was slated to open in fall of 1977 on Madison Avenue at 74th Street in NYC, perhaps launching a chain. (See photo with Warhol and his partners, [standing L to R] architect Araldo Cossutta, developer Geoffrey Leeds, and financier C. Cheever Hardwick III.) Described as “a tinker toy for sophisticates,” Warhol’s concept included pneumatic tubes through which customers’ orders would be whooshed into the kitchen. The meals served in Andy-Mats, in keeping with the times, were to be frozen dinners requiring only reheating.

For some reason — poor location or failure to raise capital or maybe because the whole plan was cooked up over “twelve stingers at El Morocco” — the restaurant did not materialize.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Men only

Men’s grills were often located in hotels or were set off as special preserves in venues heavily trafficked by women such as tea rooms and department stores. Schrafft’s, Stouffer’s, Mary Elizabeth’s, Marshall Field’s all featured men’s grills. Designed to resemble clubs, they were decorated in Elizabethan or Dutch style with dark wood paneling and sturdy tables and chairs, in stark contrast to the pastel garden look of women’s tea rooms. Women secretly referred to men’s grills as “tea rooms for men.”

There were plenty of grill-type restaurants in the 19th century – when they needed no gender preface because everyone knew they were men’s haunts. But in the 20th, with more women out and about and entering restaurants willy nilly, the words “men’s grill” were used deliberately lest a misguided female might wander in. Policies varied. In some men’s grills absolutely no women were allowed while in others men could bring women guests (see 1966 Schrafft’s ad). But women “alone” were not admitted. Not until the 1970s, that is.

In May 1970 a prominent NYC editor, a woman, walked into Schrafft’s on the corner of 47th Street and Third Avenue with another woman. They noticed that at the back of the restaurant there was a section that looked especially attractive, with more space between tables, tablecloths, and carpeting that cushioned noise. The hostess told them it was the men’s grill and they were not permitted to eat there. They left. The editor sent a letter to Schrafft’s saying that although she was no “stirred-up advocate of Women’s Lib,” she was offended by the restaurant’s policy which, she asserted, was illegal. She received a reply from a Schrafft’s VP who said that the restaurant no longer had a policy of reserving some areas for men. The hostess’s reaction, he said, was due to a breakdown of communication.

Stuffy as they may have been there was much to envy about men’s grills. As a Chicago woman remarked, they had “fast service, good food, and cheaper prices than a comparable restaurant.” She and a woman friend crashed the men’s grill at the Carson, Pirie, Scott department store in Chicago, noting that a male patron there asked the hostess, “Why don’t you throw them out?” They enjoyed their lunch even though their waitress said, “Don’t you know men come here to get away from you?”

The 1964 Civil Rights Law did not mention gender as a basis for discrimination in public accommodations, but after its passage some cities and states enacted laws that forbade it in restaurants and bars. Chicago passed legislation in 1969. McSorley’s ale house in Greenwich Village, with a 116-year tradition of serving men exclusively, gave way in 1970 after the NY city council passed a bill. Even in states without this legislation changing social mores soon brought about new policies. Men’s grills disappeared, to the consternation of some men who, like the lone dissenter on NY’s city council, lamented, “In this troubled world there has to be an oasis in the desert for men.” However, judging from a 1970 comic book, many men disagreed.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Swingin’ at Maxwell’s Plum

In 1965 impresario Warner LeRoy, son of Hollywood producer Mervyn LeRoy (Wizard of Oz, Mr. Roberts, Quo Vadis), opened Maxwell’s Plum as part of his theater on First Avenue and 64th Street in NYC. Hamburgers and a good wine list made it a hit with the swinging singles who crowded into the café. It was so popular that a few years later he closed the theater and expanded the café, adding a luxurious dining room with a Tiffany glass ceiling that reminded some of Maxim’s in Paris. Patrons could choose to experience Maxwell’s Plum either as a singles’ bar, a boulevard café (pictured), or a grand restaurant which, as a bonus, provided a fine view of the bar scene located on a lower level.

After a 1969 expansion the Plum seated about 250 and produced 1,000 to 1,500 meals a day. It rapidly ascended to the ranks of the city’s biggest grossing restaurants, taking in well over $5 million in the mid 1970s, with a big chunk — more than a third — from alcohol sales.

With offerings ranging from burgers to wild boar, the restaurant enjoyed excellent reviews, winning four stars from NY Times reviewers Craig Claiborne and John Canaday. For a riotously overdecorated Art Nouveau/Deco/Etc. pleasure palace, the Plum provided far better cuisine than it needed to. In the egalitarian spirit of the later 1960s and 1970s, many diners appreciated that its good food was uncoupled from the snobbery then associated with New York’s top restaurants. Canaday hailed the Plum for delivering first-class service “whether you were known or not,” while he stripped stars from La Côte Basque and La Grenouille because of the “disparity in their treatment of favorite (usually fashionable) customers and unknowns.” LeRoy claimed that he didn’t object to patrons looking shaggy, adding, “And if they don’t want to eat fancy food, they can have a hamburger. Whatever.” James Beard declared that he enjoyed hamburgers as much as paté en croute and decided to feature the Plum’s chili recipe for one of his 1973 columns.

LeRoy’s expansions were funded by Hardwicke Companies which ran resorts, wild animal parks, duty-free border shops, and Benihana restaurants. Hardwicke also financed LeRoy’s acquisition of the even-bigger-grossing Tavern on the Green, a failed San Francisco version of Plum (below), and a short-lived 900-seater in DC called Potomac. Hardwicke, under the control of a former Sara Lee exec, came under suspicion for influence buying in its efforts to get a gambling license for its Atlantic City Ritz Hotel. LeRoy broke with Hardwicke in the 1980s, blaming them for the failure of the San Francisco Plum.

New York’s Plum did not survive the 80s. Due to changing tastes and weak reviews that a succession of chefs could not remedy, LeRoy closed it in 1988, announcing that he wasn’t having fun anymore. He sold the First Avenue building for a nifty sum, while Donald Trump plunked down $28K for one of its Tiffany glass windows. At the same auction, the Tribeca Grill acquired the Plum’s large island bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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The saga of Alice’s restaurants

alicesbook21A 1965 Thanksgiving dinner at the former church where Alice Brock and her husband Ray lived inspired Arlo Guthrie’s ballad of his arrest and subsequent draft board rejection for illegally disposing of trash. But “Alice’s Restaurant” also created vibrations so strong they imbued Alice’s whole career as a restaurant proprietor. Although she enjoyed a degree of success, her career was also filled with disappointments such as a nationwide chain of Alice’s Restaurants and a TV show (Cookin’ with Alice) that did not materialize.

In April 1966 she opened the first of her three restaurants, The Back Room, in an old luncheonette in Stockbridge which Alice described as “painted two-tone institutional green, and … definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own.” Alice ran it for one year before she “freaked out” and closed it. In her book My Life as a Restaurant, she declares, “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant.” Not so – she would have two more.

After a year as consultant on the Arthur Penn movie built around Guthrie’s song, Alice decided to try again. But now she was a counterculture celebrity, portrayed in the film as a “dope-taking, free-loving woman,” a depiction which she insisted was false but which would bedevil her relations with town authorities whose approval she needed to open or expand a restaurant.

alicejokingcroppedShe would tussle with the town of Stockbridge throughout the four years she operated her second restaurant, “Alice’s.” Located in a semi-ramshackle former liquor store on Route 183, it began in the summer of 1972 as a roadside stand called “Take Out Alice.” Partly because of her celebrity and partly because she provided superior roadside fare – sushi, borscht, salmon mousse, and cream cheese & walnuts on homemade bread – she attracted volumes of summer visitors.

The next year she was granted permission to add a small dining room, but further expansion requests were denied, leading her to move the restaurant to Lenox, near Tanglewood, in 1976. In 1979 she closed Alice at Avaloch (shown below), the Lenox restaurant-plus-motel, after difficulties with the property’s sewage system and other adversities, permanently ending her restaurant career.

Alice'sRestavalochinnLenoxIn interviews and in her two books Alice espoused the value of fresh ingredients, garlic, meals with friends, and an experimental approach to cooking. Her words convey a free-wheeling, irreverent outlook. Some examples:
* On cooking: “Hell, you can make a soufflé in a garbage can lid if you want to.”
* On busy nights: “Oh, if only you could just cry and it would be over, but it won’t be over. Crying will come to nothing but wasted time, and you could cry forever, but this night is existing, the dining room is filling, the orders … are lining up on their clothespins.”
* On her Lenox restaurant: “We still serve everyone from schlumps to snobs.”
* On being a restaurateur: “Crazy, the restaurant has become my life, there is no life outside it, only in relation to it.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Sweet and sour Polynesian

One remarkable accomplishment of Polynesian restaurants was how they lured the male diner without using steak as bait. Who would have believed mid-century Homo Americanus Modernus could swallow so many sugary rum drinks, pineapple chunks, and sticky sauces?

Another notable coup was that these tropical resorts were so obviously fake it was preposterous to accuse them of it. It is easy to imagine how Vic Bergeron, originator of Trader Vic’s, would have roared with laughter if charged with inauthenticity. (“Jeez, Honey, that was the whole point!”) Guests were well aware that the Tiki gods, fishnets, and outrigger canoes were artfully staged to stimulate escape fantasies, and vaguely conscious that the menu represented a culinary amalgam that never existed in the outside world. Bergeron once stated that the food of Polynesian islanders was “primitive” and “not acceptable to American tastes.” Stephen Crane, mastermind of Kon-Tiki Ports, admitted that many ingredients used in Polynesian dishes – bean sprouts, water chestnuts, tomatoes, and pea pods – didn’t grow on the islands. Who cared?

Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s were the first Polynesian restaurants, beginning in California in 1934 and 1938 respectively. It was quite a while, though, before eating in pseudo-grass-huts became a fad. Around 1957 only about 20 Polynesian restaurants were known. But by 1962, after Hawaiian statehood and the debuts of the movie South Pacific and TV show Hawaiian Eye, the number had grown to 200, according to a National Restaurant Association estimate.

Many were in big hotels where their job was to boost profits. As a Wall Street Journal headline succinctly put it in 1959, “Cocoanut Milk, Idols, Waterfalls Help Hotels Lift Food, Drink Take.” The Polynesian restaurant was about merchandising. Whether it was Bonko Bonko soup at Columbus’s Kahiki, Pineapple Teriyaki Garni at The Lahala House in Corpus Christi, or a take-home scorpion drink bowl (pictured) at Trader Vic’s, the concept was greater than all the inexpensive ingredients combined.

The appeal of exotic drinks held steady longer than the rest of the package. Already by the mid-1960s, American and “continental” standbys were infiltrating menus. Steaks made a comeback and diners could also choose from a broad array of restaurant items not even remotely tropical such as clam chowder, chicken cordon bleu, and hush puppies. In the 1970s more adventurous diners rejected Cantonese, the core of Polynesian cuisine, for spicier Szechuan and Hunan. Decor was seen as a growing problem, too, as the cost of importing tapa cloths and outrigger canoes rose. Restaurateurs searching for a concept were counseled to think about Old English which was easier to accessorize, according to the journal Cooking for Profit, only requiring some paneling and “a few old swords, or other recognizable ‘art objects.’”

By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s critics heaped scorn on things Polynesian, food especially. It seemed hard to believe NY Times critic Craig Claiborne had given it an ounce of credibility in 1958. Actor Yul Brynner sued Trader Vic’s in NY’s Plaza Hotel in 1979 after eating spareribs there and acquiring trichinosis. Ten years later Vic’s was booted out of the Plaza. Vic himself, having died in 1984, was spared the ignominious news. The long-lived Kahiki closed in 2000. Yet, even today Polynesian motifs cast a campy spell.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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