Tag Archives: 19th-century restaurants

Basic fare: meat & potatoes

Meat and potatoes were so characteristic of eating places in the 19th century we could call it the Meat and Potatoes Century. But of course that title could apply to most of the 20th century as well.

In 1829, the Plate House, a cheap New York City eating hall, offered steaks with potatoes by the dish and half dish, 4 cents for the latter.

Chop houses of the 19th century were also based on meat and potatoes. They could be considered forerunners of today’s steakhouses, with their dark interiors, male patrons, and baked potatoes as accompaniments to meat. One difference, though, was that in the 1800s patrons were as likely to order mutton as beef.

The chop house was regarded as an antiquated type of eating place in 1873 when a journalist wrote that Farrish’s and others were “sought out by Britishers who like places off the beaten track and humble, dark and without glitter.” Old fashioned or not, it was still loved for its “mealy” baked potatoes, probably even in the 1930s when this postcard was produced.

Little surprise that “meat and potatoes” became a metaphor for no-frills reliability. To call someone a meat-and-potatoes “man” – always a man — was more than a commentary on his diet; it also meant he was a regular guy. Similarly for a meat-and-potatoes town. As Chicago columnist Bob Greene would put it in 1983, as the world capital of meat and potatoes, his hometown was “tough, brawling, no-nonsense, rugged.”

The metaphor – that came into use after World War II — could extend to almost anything. Business success relied upon sure-thing “meat and potatoes” products and services. For Gloucester MA, odd as it sounds, the town’s meat-and-potatoes industry was ground fish. For a symphony orchestra their meat and potatoes might be a popular Beethoven sonata.

Nineteenth-century restaurants featured potatoes either mashed, boiled, baked, stewed, fried, Lyonnaise, scalloped, mousseline, or au gratin. In the 20th century the choices tended to narrow down to mashed, baked, and French fried. Meat meant mostly beef in the 19th, but extended to chicken in the 20th.

In 1885 it was standard for potatoes to come free with a meat order. As noted then, “An unordered boiled potato, with the skin on, is the second grand characteristic of an American dining saloon. It matters not what meal it is, the boiled potato will always appear, if the establishment is truly legitimate.”

But this “legitimate” entitlement was about to end. Where would fast food restaurants be today if they didn’t charge extra for French fries? As far back as the early 20th century, restaurant operators realized there was additional profit to be made by charging separately for potatoes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, fast food burger chains, hotel rib rooms, and chain and independent steakhouses began to proliferate. Steakhouses proved popular with lunching business men while families chose economy cuts at Bonanza or Ponderosa. “Advances” took place, such as foil wrappings that allowed the potatoes to remain under infra-red lamps longer without drying out. By the early 1960s sour cream and chives were considered essential additions to baked potatoes. By that time, the favorite All-American meal was shrimp cocktail, followed by steak, baked potato with sour cream, an iceberg lettuce salad thickly coated with Thousand Island dressing, and cheesecake for dessert.

In 1971 a Gallup survey measuring the popularity of “international cuisine” confirmed the timidity of most American palates. The strangest aspect of the survey were the dishes Gallup offered up as international. Among them were Beef Stroganoff (ranked highest), Swedish Meat Balls, Lasagne, Veal Parmigiana, Chili Con Carne, and Hungarian Goulash. A full 10% of respondents found nothing among the 22 selections that they liked.

Nevertheless . . . around the late 1970s the whole meat-and-potatoes dining complex began to be questioned. Increasingly it ran against new notions of health and fitness. The cholesterol, the heaviness! Also, it was such a limited diet. Did its fans have no interest in other cuisines? Meat-and-potato towns – Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Denver, Fort Worth – were shamed and ridiculed even though, occasionally, someone admitted there were plenty of steakhouses on the coasts too — New York, San Francisco, even New Orleans.

In the next phase, not surprisingly, many meat-and-potatoes towns struggled to refurbish their reputations by boasting of restaurants of all kinds. Omaha touted its seafood, Japanese, Korean, and French restaurants. Minneapolis was still conservative, wrote Jeremy Iggers and Karin Winegar in John Mariani’s 1986 Coast to Coast Dining Guide, yet they identified seventeen Vietnamese restaurants, three Thai, two Ethiopian and many other nationalities represented as well, along with examples of “yuppies” taking fresh approaches to American cuisine.

Plus, pizza had actually become the new meat and potatoes.

How are steakhouses doing today? Although there are still many around and some Americans nurture a wish to return to the 1950s, I’m guessing that it’s unlikely the golden years of the steakhouse will return. Burgers and fries, too, may have seen their better days.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

8 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, food, patrons, popular restaurants

How Americans learned to tip

Tipping began in the U.S. in the 1840s, probably imported from Europe by Americans who began traveling abroad on the new trans-Atlantic steamships. By the end of the 19th century all the aspects of tipping we know today were widely practiced – and widely criticized..

Before that, people believed, Americans considered themselves social equals no matter what their economic circumstances and wouldn’t demean another person by treating them as an inferior (excepting, of course, slaves, Indians, and indentured servants), nor would any self-respecting person accept a gift of money for a helpful act.

Tipping wasn’t so much linked to restaurants as to hotels, applying to porters and doormen as much as to dining room waiters. There were few restaurants outside hotels then, especially when it came to places patronized by the rich.

Affluent Americans initiated tipping, beginning at summer resorts. The custom was to tip hotel staff upon arrival at a “crack watering hole” such as Saratoga or Newport, guaranteeing good treatment for the stay — and an expectation of more before the guest’s departure.

The word tip was British English and many critics blamed England for the custom, but it wasn’t purely English. It had many names, such as fee, gratuity, honorarium, and the French douceur and pourboire – plus the loaded terms bribe and baksheesh. But, overall, fee was used more often than tip in the 19th century, inspiring a popular quip in the 1870s, “When you have feed the waiter of the summer resort, then he will feed you.”

Tipping had many critics. But who to blame? At first public opinion singled out the rich for unfairly using their wealth to get special favors from waiters, leaving everyone else to suffer neglect – or even abuse. Failure to tip in the dining room could mean pointed rudeness, slow service, small portions, or even having food spilled on you.

Waiters came in for plenty of blame, with criticism often devolving into bigotry. According to an 1873 editorial, Black and Irish waiters comprised “two classes of imported persons in this country whose insolence and absolute indifference to the wants of those whom they are well paid to serve is sufficient to make this country stink in the nostrils of any tourist.” Another opinion piece stated that, if not tipped, insolent “ebony” waiters would “spill soup down the back of [a customer’s] neck, and ‘swipe’ his beefsteak over a dish which has recently held a broiled mackerel.”

Coney Island, where waiters were said to regard tips as “the sole absorbing object of existence,” was also singled out, particularly its fancier eating spots such as at The Oriental Hotel with its turrets and 480 rooms. In the 1880s as many as 3,000 waiters worked at Coney Island, some making as much as $25 a week in tips, about double the weekly wages of male office clerks at that time.

As waiters began to expect to be tipped – or else! – more customers began leaving tips. Some employers refused to permit tipping saying it eroded their control over the standard of service. But, according to critics, a more typical reaction was for restaurant owners to take advantage of the situation by reducing waiters’ pay. An 1883 reader’s letter to a Cleveland paper voiced a quite modern view of waiters’ pay: “Until the hotels pay living prices the waiters must look to well-disposed guests who have the means, to give them extra money, for which they will receive extra attention.”

It was also alleged that some restaurant owners stopped paying waiters any wages at all, sometimes even charging them a fee to work at places where tips were large. This is quite believable considering that some drive-ins of the mid-20th century did the same.

Tipping first became common in the Northeast, New York City especially. In 1883 Charles Delmonico, then head of NY’s Delmonico restaurants, told the NY Tribune that tipping had become so well established throughout the U.S. that it could not be stopped.

But that wasn’t quite true – yet. It was not often found across the country until the end of the century, particularly not in the West where the “spirit of independence” reportedly caused hotel, restaurant, and railroad employees to refuse tips. A Portland OR paper reported in 1886 that tipping had not “obtained any very strong foothold on this coast.”

How much to tip changed over the century. An early consideration was how big the dining group was. Since it was more trouble to serve a table of four than a table of two, the latter was supposed to leave proportionately more. By the end of the century it was based mainly on check size, 10% generally viewed as the right amount.

A writer in 1877 asked plaintively, “How many centuries do you suppose it will require to eradicate the custom of ‘tipping’ waiters?” By now we can answer “definitely more than one, going on two.” Attempts to eradicate tipping failed, including those by waiters’ unions in the 1890s. Instead, some clever individuals experimented with mechanical contraptions that eliminated the need for waiters.

Self-service restaurants offered another alternative. Near the end of the century many people cheered the emergence of waiterless eating places such as Chicago’s cafeteria-style lunch clubs and European automats. These and “quick lunch” eateries would become popular after the turn of the century – and still are.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

8 Comments

Filed under patrons, restaurant controversies, restaurant customs, waiters/waitresses/servers

Holiday banquets for the newsies

xmasdinnerca-1912nycbowery

In the 19th and early 20th century, newspapers were sold on city streets by young boys, and a few girls. Some of the children – who could be as young as 5 years old — were homeless while others came from poverty-stricken families. Their meals could be few and far between and they were always hungry.

But on Christmas Day, or a day close to it, they ate well thanks to the annual custom of  newspapers, philanthropists, mayors, and others who organized feasts for them. Some of the dinners were held in orphan homes and public buildings, but many took place in restaurants.

xmasdinnernewsboychicago1887Turkey was the typical featured food of the newsboys’ dinners. In 1875 the Telegram gave a dinner at Henri Mouquin’s restaurant on Ann Street in New York for over 1,000 boys and a handful of girls. The menu was roast turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls and butter, finished with cake, pie, coffee, and oranges. Nearly identical meals were given across the country for decades to follow, some accompanied by cranberry sauce and side dishes such as corn, peas, celery, and pickles. After dinner the children sometimes received a box of candy to take with them.

The newsboys of Kansas City MO, guests of the mayor, hailed turkey in a little ditty they shouted in a procession from City Hall to Staley & Dunlap’s restaurant on Main street in 1895.
Who are we? Who are we?
We are the newsboys of K. C.
We are the stuff; that’s no bluff;
We eat turkey and never get enough.

A dinner held in a Dallas restaurant in 1899 had a menu that departed radically from the customary dishes [see below]. There was no turkey or pie. And not only was the menu organized into the old-fashioned categories of Fish, Boiled, Roasts, and Entrees, they were not presented in the traditional order of appearance. It also contained quite a variety of assorted dishes, some of them unusual. “Boiled Rallet of Beef” might have referred to Rilettes of beef, which was beef cooked to mush and served on toast.

xmasdinner1899dallas

xmasdinner1903Boisterous behavior during dinner was expected. The boys cheered loudly for their hosts and entertainers, producing a noise level often described as deafening. Food fights were typical. At the Chequamegon restaurant in Butte MT in 1902, a report said the children “yell, whistle, throw biscuits at each other and occasionally land on each other’s jawbones with a dislocated leg of the bird.” Dinner sponsors often egged on high spirits by giving the newsies tin horns and firecrackers.

As much as the newsboys and newsgirls enjoyed the holiday dinners, the charitable events had their detractors. Reformer Florence Kelley criticized the dinners as well as the newsboys’ lodging houses found in some cities because they encouraged children to work and live independent of their families. She criticized New York City in particular for making newsboys into heroes. Rather than being seen purely as victims, as would be the case today, the boys were often regarded as spunky survivors with potential to succeed in life despite their rough style of living and lack of schooling.

xmasdinnerbishopcafeteria1930s In the early 20th century, states tried to limit child labor. Girls under 14 were barred from jobs involving selling. Boys under 10 could not sell papers and those aged 10 to 14 had to obtain written parental consent before a badge was issued to permit them to sell papers in the streets. Still, the dinners continued through the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1930s Bishop Cafeterias in seven cities held annual newsboys’ dinners to honor the chain’s late founder Carl Stoddard who had been a newsboy as a child.

Newsboys’ dinners could sometimes be found into the 1960s, but the children were absent, having been replaced with adult news vendors.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

7 Comments

Filed under food, menus, patrons, restaurant customs

Ladies’ restrooms

ladiesroomsignPublic restrooms have been in the news lately because of conflict over transgender rights, but I have been wondering about them for quite a while as part of my project to understand how restaurants developed.

We assume that restaurants will have restrooms for their customers today, but when did they become commonplace? And when did restaurants make an effort to specifically accommodate women with separate toilets? I am still not 100% sure about the answers.

Researching the history of sanitary facilities in restaurants has proved to be very difficult, starting with what terms to search for. Even today both “bathroom” and “restroom” are somehow inadequate. Yet restroom is better to capture the historical fact that those restaurants that had facilities for women usually were outfitted with more than toilets and sinks. They also had space – and many still do – where women could take care of little chores such as repairing their hairdos, or simply rest. [restroom shown below, ca. 1920s]

ladiesroomWV
Prior to the 1860s, most public toilets were outdoors, behind saloons and restaurants, and the same was true of private dwellings. Flush toilets were quite rare in the United States until the 1880s, according to Suellen Hoy’s 1995 book Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness. Outhouses were commonplace  throughout the 19th century and well into the 1930s in homes in rural areas and poor neighborhoods.

The earliest ladies’ restroom I’ve found in a restaurant was in an elegant Chicago hotel. It’s likely that other hotels were similarly equipped, even though hotel bedrooms with private bathrooms were rare.  According to a story in 1864, the Chicago restaurant welcomed women diners and invited them to simply “call in for a rest, without intrusion, or being thought an intruder.” “Every provision has been made for the convenience of ladies,” the story said, “and a toilet-room specially apportioned to their use.” This would have been welcome news to women at a time when public accommodations for them were sorely lacking.
LadiesroomCincinnati1878

The restaurants that had toilets and restrooms for women seem to have been the more substantial ones that enjoyed prominence in their communities, as was often true of restaurants in leading hotels. So it was surprising to discover that an inexpensive lunch room, Cincinnati’s Alderney Dairy, had a toilet room for women in 1878.

Though still rare, the number of ladies’ rooms in restaurants grew in the 1880s with the spread of indoor plumbing and city sewers. According to a story from 1889, restrooms in fashionable restaurants were “sumptuously furnished” with velvet couches, floor to ceiling mirrors, and marble basins. Perfumes, face powders, rouges, lotions, ivory brushes and combs, as well as hat pins were supplied.

Yet, to put the lavish restroom described above into context, the supply of ladies’ rooms in restaurants and offices was still inadequate in the 1890s. In 1891 a restaurant in Portland ME felt justified to advertise that it had “the finest Ladies’ room east of Boston,” a considerable area. Often tall office buildings were constructed with ladies’ rooms only on the top floor. Even though women were increasingly taking jobs as clerical workers in offices, developers did not want to give up income-earning space to facilities for women on each floor. (Men, on the other hand, were supplied with small closets with a urinal-sink on each floor.)

ladiesrestroom1930CharlotteNC

Although the 1890s is often cited as the decade in which indoor plumbing took huge leaps, it is notable that restaurants continued to advertise ladies’ rest rooms throughout the 1920s [above advertisement, 1930], indicating that it had not yet become something that could be taken for granted despite the increase in women going to restaurants.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

9 Comments

Filed under elite restaurants, sanitation, women

Taste of a decade: 1880s restaurants

1880sFrankLentine

In the 1880s a wider range of foods became available to people living in cities, allowing restaurant menus to became more varied. Cold storage warehouses and refrigerated rail cars brought cheaper Chicago beef and out-of-season produce. Mechanically frozen ice, free from the impurities of lake ice, became available. Cheese and butter, once made on farms, now came from factories. Fresh fruits and vegetables remained luxuries for most people, however, and meat and potatoes dominated menus.

Larger, better capitalized restaurants installed electric plants that provided brighter lighting and badly needed ventilation systems.

1882HartfordHalfDimeLunchThe public demanded, and began to get, lower restaurant prices, quicker service, and more flexible meal times. The dining public expanded. Boarding houses that furnished meals as part of the rent were replaced by kitchenless rooming houses whose residents went to restaurants for dinner. More hotels switched to the European plan, freeing guests to eat wherever they chose rather than pay an inclusive charge for room and meals. New types of ready-to-eat food purveyors came on the scene, such as all-night lunch wagons and dairy cafes that specialized in simple, inexpensive meals such as baked beans and cereal with milk.

New ethnic groups arrived on American shores, among them Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians. Many settled in the East but others spread to cities throughout the westward-growing nation. They brought with them new cuisines, tempting the more adventurous eaters among the settled population.

Temperance coffee houses and soda fountains continued to thrive, particularly in Boston where authorities were always looking for ways to curb drinking.

As the rise of department stores and downtown retail shops brought women into city centers, restaurants catering specifically to them appeared on the scene.

But not everyone was welcome at restaurant tables, or in the society at large. Southern states made segregation the law, keeping Black Americans out of white-owned restaurants. Racially motivated legislation cut off Chinese immigration to the U.S. and encouraged hostility toward Chinese already in the country, mostly in the West, motivating many to move eastward and  introduce curious diners to new foods.

Highlights

1883Macy'sNY1880 On the second floor of its newly expanded NYC department store, Macy’s restaurant for shoppers seats 200. [pictured] – In the silver-mining town of Virginia City NV, restaurants serve food from all over the world, including “fruits from every country and clime.”

1881 In December, Edmund Hill, proprietor of Hill’s confectionery restaurant in Trenton NJ totals up the proceeds of what he calls a “very satisfactory” year in which the business took in $18,146, netting him the handsome sum of $677.33 in wages and profit.

1880sRichmondCafe1882 Richmond’s Café in New Bedford MA informs customers that “The Café will be in charge of a lady . . . who will bestow especial pains upon lady patrons, taking charge of whatever parcels may be left in her care while the owners are out shopping.” – In Boston Charles Eaton and a partner open a temperance soda fountain and lunch room called Thompson’s Spa which goes on to become a local institution.

1883 One year after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rockaway Oyster and Chop House in Fresno CA advertises to prospective customers that it has “all white help.” Everyone, of course, understands that white means “not Asian.”

1889Chicago1885 In Boston and other large cities customers flood into cheap restaurants near railroad depots and wharves for 10-cent noon meals. Menus are chalked up on boards and customers eat rapidly without removing coats or hats.

1886 It is considered newsworthy when a federal judge orders a restaurant in Little Rock AR to serve a Black juror along with his fellow white jurors. A report notes that it was “the first time a negro enjoyed his repast at the leading hotel in the state and among white people.”

1887 After gathering menus from 40 prominent hotels from all over the country, a collector determines that salmon is the fish most often listed, and that it is found on menus across the United States, including Knoxville TN, Detroit MI, Milwaukee WI, Salt Lake City UT, and Cheyenne WY.

1883brooksdiningroom1888 At Chicago’s New York Kitchen, where a nickel buys Ham and Beans Boston Style or “One-third of a Pie, any kind,” the dining room is lighted by a Mather Incandescent Electric System and cooled by a steam-powered exhaust fan. — In Boston Brooks’ Dining Rooms is equipped with a telephone.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

12 Comments

Filed under lunch rooms, patrons, racism, technology, women

Cooking up Thanksgiving

pumpkinpieturkey20thcentury

The history of Thanksgiving is much more interesting than the mythical Pilgrims and Indians tale we all learned in grade school, even though restaurants actually have played only a small part.

For much of the 19th century Thanksgiving was considered a predominantly Yankee holiday, which to Southerners implied domination by the North, particularly when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 to honor the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Previously, Thanksgiving holidays were proclaimed by governors, who also set the date each year. In 1815, however, President James Madison declared a Thanksgiving Day to celebrate peace with England. Still, it retained strong association with New England and a Thanksgiving dinner in Philadelphia that year was composed of New Englanders “got up in Yankee style, and finished with a compliment of Yankee toasts and hymns.” In 1821 a state outside New England, New York, officially recognized the holiday.

Thanksgiving spread slowly in the 1820s and 1830s. By 1839 the holiday was celebrated in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Homecoming was a popular theme, especially in Massachusetts where abandonment of rocky farms was a growing trend. By 1858 it was reported that in New York City alone at least 10,000 New Englanders had returned home for Thanksgiving.

pumpkinpieDave'stableThe holiday spread faster in the 1840s and 1850s. The New York Times reported that by 1859 all the Eastern and middle Atlantic states, and the Western territories, plus five Southern states celebrated Thanksgiving.

But the spread was uneven. Although the governor of Missouri proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in 1843, it was observed only seven times over the next 20 years, and many citizens of that state knew nothing of Thanksgiving until after the Civil War, despite President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday to occur on the last Thursday in November.

So, although by 1890 Thanksgiving was officially recognized by 42 of 44 states and territories then part of the United States, it is unlikely that people of all regions, social classes, and religions celebrated it to an equal degree.

According to historian Elizabeth Pleck (“The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,” Journal of Social History, Summer 1999), many working class men regarded Thanksgiving as a holiday like any other, that is, a time to drink, parade noisily through the streets, and demand treats from the gentry. In 1859 the board of aldermen of the District of Columbia refused to set a date for Thanksgiving because it had become an occasion for widespread lawbreaking. In the late 19th century the rowdiness tradition was channeled into Thanksgiving Day football matches. In the West, Pleck writes, Thanksgiving dinner tended to be  simple and the day largely devoted to hunting.

pumpkinpie1874VirginiaCityNVNor was it a big restaurant day in the 19th century, though I have found a few advertisements for Thanksgiving dinner in the 1850s, and more after Lincoln’s proclamation [above, menu from Virginia City NV restaurant, 1874]. Restaurants also supplied cooked food to homes and catered philanthropic dinners for the needy. Edmund Hill, a New Jersey restaurateur and caterer, wrote in his diary: Thanksgiving, Thursday 30. 1882: Busy sending out orders all the morning. – Closed store at noon. Dinner at two. Mother improving, for which we give thanks. – We furnished a newsboys’ dinner – fifty at the reading rooms. The Trenton Times paid for it. Lots of fun.”

Pleck suspects that “Thanksgiving celebration was most common among the middle and upper classes in New England and the middle-Atlantic states, and among Protestants.” The job of integrating everybody else was a task for late-19th-and-early-20th-century patriotic societies, public schools, and popular magazines. Immigrants were subtly encouraged to see themselves as modern-day Pilgrims being welcomed by the natives. The strategy worked.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

Leave a comment

Filed under food, miscellaneous

Dining alone

loneDinerWithViewRecently the online reservations service OpenTable.com announced that their reservations for solo diners had gone up 62% over the past two years. Just how meaningful this increase was is hard to judge from so little information, but the press release conjectured that “the stigma surrounding dining solo may be starting to lift and . . . consumers are eager to savor unique culinary experiences alone.”

I can’t say with certainty that no one ever felt the stigma of eating alone in the 19th century but I believe that certain patrons were eager to savor any and all culinary experiences alone.

Why? In the early 19th century communal dining was the norm and there was little sense of privacy in public halls and dining rooms. An Englishman wrote in 1843 of his visit to America where he often felt he was “a fraction . . . of a huge masticating monster” as he dined “with people to whom he is bound by no tie but that of temporary necessity, and with whom, except the immediate impulse of brutal appetite, he has probably nothing in common.” An escape from the crowd was desirable to those who could afford to pay the price for a private dining room.

Stigma came later. It was the development of the luxury restaurant after the Civil War that created problems for the solo diner. Now there were no communal tables. Every table was private and the assumption was that no one dined alone. Portions were meant for two, so patrons made sure to arrive with a dinner companion. An article in the New York Sun in 1890 reported that this practice was so well known that “if a man comes in alone the waiters at once conclude that he is a countryman or unused to restaurant life, and treat him accordingly.”

By contrast it was true then and has been since that in casual and self-service eateries where meals are quick and unceremonious – such as lunchcounters, diners, and fast food outlets –  patrons typically eat alone entirely free of stigma or self-consciousness.

lonedineremptylunchroom

The history of dining alone has been a different story for women than for men, both in the 19th century and through most of the 20th. Until 1910 or so, the meaning of a phrase such as the following 1894 New York Herald headline “Lone Women Not Wanted [in First Class Restaurants]” is ambiguous. Usually what was meant by a “lone woman” was a woman unaccompanied by a man. Thus “lone women” could apply to a woman totally alone or several women together. None would be admitted to a fine restaurant.

Men often felt lonely eating by themselves in a restaurant, or that they were being treated as second class customers, but they were not turned away under suspicion of being prostitutes. The idea that a lone woman entering a restaurant might be in the sex trade was the reason given for barring her from first-class restaurants in the evening. Generally in the early 20th century fine restaurants and hotels in NYC reversed their policy, stating they would serve any lone women  they judged to be a “lady.” Yet, even as late as the 1960s, some restaurants would not seat a solitary woman at the bar for fear she was soliciting.

Even as it became more common and acceptable for women to dine alone, they continued to feel unwelcome even into the 1970s. In that decade, when more women had careers in which they traveled for business, they began to protest publicly about the difficulties they had in restaurants. Like men, they complained that they were given poor service, often ignored, or seated by the restrooms.

lonediner1962There are pragmatic reasons why restaurants have been less than thrilled about single diners. They occupy tables that could accommodate more guests, thus ordering less food and usually fewer drinks and producing lower tips. And lone diners have been painted as social rejects. Ann Landers wrote in 1962 that men eating alone had character flaws. It has even been suggested that solitary diners depress other diners. According to a 1976 columnist, a lone woman in particular “suggests disappointment, a failed rendezvous, an empty heart; she subtly alters the ambience of the restaurant like the scent of old pressed roses.”

Little wonder that a survey in 1979 reported that most women found gynecological exams more pleasant than eating alone in a restaurant.

lonedinerbirdcagewestchester1950Just as there have always been some people who prefer eating alone, there have always been some restaurants that advertise special attention paid to lone diners. Lord & Taylor’s Birdcage in Westchester NY provided tables for one [pictured, 1950]. In the 1980s many restaurants stepped up their efforts. Even though 1980 Gallup survey interviews showed that 71% of men and 66% of women said they would rather not be seated at a table with other diners, a number of restaurants in the 1980s created communal tables. As far as I know it did not become a big trend. On the other hand, dining clubs such as “Fine Diners over 40″ in NYC may prove more appealing.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

2 Comments

Filed under patrons