Tag Archives: 19th-century restaurants

100 years of quotations

In addition to collecting restaurant menus, photographs, postcards, business cards, matchcovers, etc., I also collect words. Here are some choice quotations by, for, and about restaurants ranging from 1880 to 1980 that I’ve carefully selected to reflect the progression of American restaurants and customers’ relation to them.

In my opinion, they convey a richer and truer sense of restaurant history than would a conventional “timeline.” Funny too.

2lbSteak1880 “Whenever I feel possessed of an appetite that has any stability about it I go to a place where I find butchers dining. There order the juicy steaks and the mealy potato.”

1883 “The Restaurants and Cafes of Boston number nearly 500. Excepting those connected with hotels, there are not many worthy of particular mention.”

1893Bowerywaiter1884 “The waiters, with a dexterity which could only have been acquired through long practice, stood off and shied the dishes at the tables from a distance of three or four feet.”

1888 “Eating is a matter of business with Americans. They do it as they perform all other kinds of work – on the rush.”

1891 “No time for persuasion is as good as meal time, and so Mr. Close has hung the walls of his eating-house with texts from the Bible wherever the space is not needed for bill of fare placards.”

1894 “When a waiter shoves a bill of fare under a man’s nose nine times out of ten he will look it over and then say: ‘Gimme a steak and some fried potatoes.’”

1895 “The whizz of the big ventilating fans, the cries of the waiters, the clash of the heavy dishes and the clang of the cash register bell, all combine into a roar that has come to be the unnoticed and everyday accompaniment to the busy man’s lunch.”

1897 “Mr. Pundt, today or tomorrow, will place a 20-pound pig in front frozen in a block of ice, and that is something brand new in these latitudes, and is quite a credit to his fine taste.”

1901 “From Maine to California, from Florida to Wisconsin, the same choice of food is offered, all cooked and served in the same way.”

diningroomdisaster70s80s

1906 “One in twenty cooks and waiters may be counted upon as steady and worth while. The rest will come and go in any and all fashions.”

1909 “What sense is there in calling potatoes ‘Pommes de terre,” oysters ‘huitres,’ soups ‘potages,’ and so on through a lot of lingual fol-de-rol, when plain everyday English would tell the story comprehensively?”

PoodleDogwinelist1912 “Like all good things, it had imitators, and there have been no less than four Poodle Dogs and two Pups, each claiming to be a direct descendant of the original. Like ‘strictly fresh eggs,’ ‘fresh eggs’ and plain ‘eggs,’ we now have the Old Poodle Dog, the New Poodle Dog and the plain Poodle Dog.”

1915 “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.”

1916 “It was a typical New York courtship. They visited restaurants of all degrees.”

1917 “At the present time, to quote Professor Ellwood, the modern family performs scarcely no industrial activities, except the preparation of food for immediate consumption, and even this activity with the advent of the bakery, cafeteria, café, and hotel seems about to disappear from the home.”

waitressbeingkissed1920 “The men who patronize the cheaper restaurants look upon the waitress as a social equal and any man who comes in other than the rush hour expects a little visit with her.”

1922 “Places with old fashioned names and old fashioned furnishings should have waitresses in old fashioned costumes.”

1923 “A pronounced tendency of modern life is for people to eat out.”

1924 “All of the newcomers, the ‘Pig ‘n Whistles,’ the ‘Cat ‘n Fiddles,’ the ‘Lunchettes,’ the ‘Luncheonettes,’ the ‘Have-A-Bites’ and the What-Nots are now successfully bidding for the public favor.”

1927 “We serve the only real ‘Sho-nuff’ Down Home Plantation Dinner in Boston.”

1928 “Yet I have seen menus as tedious to read as a Theodore Dreiser novel. Beyond a certain number of well chosen dishes there is only distressing monotony.”

1929 “The little pink-curtained tea room that calls itself so disarmingly ‘Aunt Rosie’s Nook’ has bought its provisions on just such a system as Sing Sing employs.”

1932 “No lunch counter fails to add a leaf of lettuce to any sandwich that passes across the counter. No hotel or restaurant can do without lettuce. Lettuce is a habit.”

1934 “Cocktails at five o’clock used to be considered the privilege of the leisure class, but today in every white tile restaurant as well as the swankiest oasis men and women gather.”

sandwichshopWally'sNYC1937 “The peculiarly American contributions to restaurant types are establishments meeting the demand for speed combined with economy: the cafeteria, automat, fountain lunch, sandwich shop and drug store counter.”

1940 “I’m running a joint. It’s a good one, but it’s a road joint, started on a shoestring, called Kum Inn.”

1941 “A sure omen of a good tip is an order for scotch and soda before the meal.”

primex1941 “Tons and tons of Primex go into the frying kettles of The Flame each year. In fact, for eleven years this uniform quality fat has helped this famous Duluth restaurant build an enviable reputation for delicious fried foods.”

1943 “The days of ignoring lobster and hard to handle fish listed on restaurant menus are gone for the time being, and to help the perplexed diner we’ll list a few tips on tackling the denizens of the deep.”

1946 “Chromium may be all very well for an inexpensive place where your customers come for the most part from dull middle-class homes, so glitter and shine represent their escape.”

1951 “In whatever region he is traveling, the American tourist soon finds that good simple American cooking is an elusive myth.”

1952 “How to Do Simple Dish that Looks Fancy, Tastes Fancy and Costs Thirty-Eight Cents per Portion!”

Mcdonald'snearChicago1954 “Own Your Own Business – A Proven Investment – McDonald’s Speedee Hamburger – Franchises Available – A sensation in California and Arizona, showing profits well into 5 figures!”

1957 “Would you believe that in old Boston you could be transported to a native Polynesian Village surrounded by the lush, beautiful and exotic atmosphere of the South Pacific?”

Manhattan1959 “The much maligned cocktail has kept many a restaurant solvent.”

1960 “The Ark was built here in Wilmington in 1922 and has served as an army troop transport, a banana boat, a gambling boat and as a coast guard quarter boat until purchased by Eldridge Fergus in 1951 and converted into a floating restaurant.”

1961 “At present, the amount of space needed for rough food preparation is smaller than before, while the area needed for frozen and dry foods must be larger. This is the result of the growing popularity among restaurant owners of pre-portioned and frozen food.”

1963 “Tad’s plush decor offsets any machine-like atmosphere. Red velour wall coverings and globe lighting creates an 1890s setting for a 1970 operation.”

1966 “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out.”

1967 “When you enter the Buckingham Inn it’s like stepping into a charming old English Inn. There’s a feeling that you have stepped into one of the inns from the Canterbury tales that you read about in childhood.”

meatboy

1968 “There is nothing complicated about roast beef. Its relatively high cost can be offset not only by volume sales, plus volume beverage sales, but by the ease with which employees can be trained to produce and serve roast beef.”

1970 “The Grand is an old-fashioned, slightly grubby, mildly tumultuous restaurant, but nonetheless pleasant. The food is often heavy, the waiters on the ancient side, the furnishings worn; but you come away with the feeling that you got your money’s worth and your day has been enhanced.”

1973 “Pre-prepared frozen beef slices, chunks or tips may be transformed into a variety of nationality dishes, such as Russian, Italian, Mexican, Hungarian and Oriental.”

1976 “Journey to prehistoric days via the stone-age decor and  hearty feasting on Unique Appetizers, Fresh Seafood, Steaks, Barbeque Ribs; all complimented by an elegant Silver Salad Bar.”

1978 “A new definition of fresh must take into account that the potato salad, coleslaw or chicken salad you were served at lunch may have been more than a month old.”

1980 “In an adjective count we made from about 100 menus, by far the most common items were hot and fresh, with fresh considerably in the lead.”

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Habenstein of Hartford

habrenstein's1880stradecardsIn the late 19th century having your party catered by Edward Habenstein was proof that you had arrived socially. The newspapers of Hartford CT and Springfield MA were filled with descriptions of lavish social events that carried the phrase “catered by Habenstein of Hartford.” That said it all.

Edward Habenstein was born in Saxony, Germany, around 1844 and came to the US with his parents when he was young. They settled in Utica NY where, at age 15, he joined a catering business. When he was 18 he went to New York City, moving to Hartford in 1865 and starting his business in 1868.

habenstein's1891Wesleyanpub

Although his was a retail confectionery and bakery selling its own products as well as Whitman’s candies, French candied fruits, and holiday favors, Edward and his wife Adelia specialized in weddings and large affairs given in private homes. By 1880 they also ran a restaurant but, judging from advertisements, catering remained a prominent part of their business. In Massachusetts the company was known simply as “Habenstein, the Connecticut caterer” while in Connecticut newspapers it claimed the title “The State Caterer” as reflected in an 1890 advertisement consisting solely of that line and a Main Street address in Hartford.

habenstein'sEasterEggsIn addition to providing edible refreshments and dinners, Habenstein supplied receptions and parties with “silver of the latest pattern,” decorated French china, awnings, camp chairs, cloth to cover valuable carpets, orchestras, and “first-class” cooks and waiters.

In June of 1886, a Springfield MA alderman opened his house to the city’s elites who danced, spilled out into an enclosed piazza, and enjoyed Habenstein’s refreshments “of all conceivable forms and kinds.” In summer 1895 an even splashier affair was hosted by the Skinner family who owned one of the nation’s largest silk mills in Holyoke MA. Youngest daughter Katherine entertained about 300 guests at a lawn party at their palatial home “Wistariahurst,” whose grounds were lit with clusters of Chinese paper lanterns hung from trees. The younger set danced for hours outdoors on a specially constructed platform illuminated by arc lights while Habenstein served “lunch” in the mansion’s dining room.

habenstein'sdinner

Students at Wesleyan College in Middletown CT also enjoyed Habenstein’s hospitality. In June 1890 the all-male sophomore class boarded a boat on the Connecticut River to travel to the Hartford restaurant. The boat got hung up on a sandbar and, despite its departure at 11 P.M., did not arrive until 2 A.M. Edward was a bit cross, according to an illustrated account in a student magazine, but served the Class of 1892 a delicious “midnight” supper nonetheless. I’m struck how unlike the menu is compared to what 19-year-old students might order today. They might agree with Milton’s epigram but would they quote it atop their menu?

MENU.
“What hath night to do with sleep.
Welcome joy and feast, midnight
Shout and revelry.” – Milton’s Comus.

Little Neck Clams,
Olives               Celery           Radishes
Vermicelli Soup
Salmon, with wine sauce
Currant Jelly
Brown Mashed Potatoes                           Broiled Chicken on Toast
Saratoga Potatoes                  French Peas
Roman Punch
Lobster de Newburg               Chicken Salad
Fruit                         Assorted Cakes
Ice Cream                  Neapolitan Ice
Coffee
Cigars        Cigarettes

Over its more than 50 years in business in Hartford and up and down the Connecticut River valley, Habenstein’s moved about half a dozen times. In 1902, when it was at 805 Main Street, it advertised that it was the best restaurant in Connecticut. Edward died around 1920. Adelia carried on the business for a short time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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The ups and downs of Frank Flower

frank's15HarrisonEveryone knows that being a restaurant proprietor is chancy. This is amply illustrated in the life of Frank Flower, born in England in 1854, and working as a Boston waiter in 1878. He staked his career as a restaurateur on Harrison Avenue in Boston where he ran a restaurant from about 1880 to 1895, moving twice.

The reason for his failure in 1895 is unknown, but it may have had something to do with shifts in the neighborhood beginning just as he opened at 13-15 Harrison in 1880. That was the year that the first property lease was made to a Chinese person in Boston, on Oxford Place, very near to Frank’s restaurant. Frank had catered to patrons whose tastes ran to fish balls and baked beans. But, little by little by the 1890s Harrison would become a business street in Boston’s Chinatown. Boston’s first Chinese restaurant would open at 36½ Harrison in 1890.

In 1882 Frank advertised that he sold a week’s worth of meal tickets to men ($3) and women ($2.50). He also had rooms for rent, both “box rooms” and “side rooms.” I remember some years ago when I read about single working people who rented small kitchenless rooms in Boston’s South End in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While visiting a friend’s apartment in that area one day, I suddenly realized that her cramped and oddly-shaped three-room apartment was in fact made up of one box room and two side rooms.

frank's21Harrison770By 1884 Frank was doing well enough to buy a nearly new 11-room Queen Anne house in Dorchester. He moved his restaurant to 19-21 Harrison about then. That location soon became problematical when the block was sold off to a developer who planned to raze the buildings and construct a large office building.

That same year, 1890, Frank won the contract to feed 10,000 Civil War veterans coming to Boston for a week-long reunion. In other words, he would need to furnish about 210,000 meals in the space of a week, rather than his usual not-too-shabby 10,500.

Though he claimed he nearly went crazy making all the arrangements, Frank felt confident he could handle the job by feeding 2,000 diners in five shifts for each meal. He contracted with a local baker for bread and the all-important baked beans; bought 3,000 new plates; had all the meat delivered to his door in a refrigerated car by Armour Co. of Chicago; bought four immense boilers that would steam 2,400 eggs at a time; hired 100 waiters; found a professional coffee maker who would turn 9,000 pounds of beans into endless streams of hot coffee; and paid 35 scullions to clean up. When the encampment was over the G.A.R. executive committee commended him on how well he had fed the multitude.

Frank'stradecardmenuEvidently the veterans were pleased with what they were served. Nonetheless, Frank’s menu, repeated each day, gives a fair idea of why Boston restaurants of that time were not known for their fine cuisine.
Breakfast: cold meats, baked beans and brown bread, boiled eggs
Dinner: cold meats, baked beans and brown bread, boiled potatoes
Supper: cold meats and doughnuts

Frank’s Dining Room moved to 79 Harrison in the early 1890s, just about the same time that his original location became a Chinese store. But soon he hit the wall, declaring in 1894 that he was unable to pay his bills. His Dorchester mansion went back on the auction block.

Following his fall, he continued in the restaurant business as manager of Munro’s restaurant on Eliot Street. Always fond of boastful advertising, the irrepressible Frank took out newspaper ads claiming “1000 boarders needed” and “dinner, 20c, the finest on earth.”

In the decades after Frank left Harrison Avenue, Chinese restaurants such as the Chinese Royal and The Red Dragon took over several of his locations.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Nothing but the best, 19th cen.

wanamakerRestaurantTCRestaurant advertising in newspapers of the 19th century tended to be very wordy, often using conventional phrasing such as “best the market provides” and “available on the shortest notice.” Once in a while a stereotyped line drawing of oysters would appear in an advertisement but usually they were all text. (This post is illustrated with business cards of the kind that came into use in the 1870s and 1880s.)

What follow are examples of advertisements that depart from convention and give a glimpse of the sometimes humorous claims and boasts of their times.

Epicurean Wit, 1803
“In choosing an appellation for his Hotel, he has endeavored to attract the notice of gentlemen of elegant leisure, or of delicate health; and he trusts he shall, in pursuance of his Motto [“Tam Epicuro, Quam Momo”] be enabled to combine in his social retreat, all the invitations which the politest palate may require, with all the wit-inspiring ingredients of intellectual festivity.”
– Othello Pollard’s Hotel, Cambridge MA

Indulge Yourself, 1815
“Persons inclined to indulge in the height of European luxury may be accommodated to their wishes. Chicken, Eel, and Game Pies; Puff Pastry, in variety; sweet and savory Jellies; plain and ornamented Omelettes; Creams; Blancmanges; almond, caramel, and gum Paste Ornaments; Italian Sallads; potted and collard Meats; Fish Sauces; cold ornamented Hams, Tongues, Fowls, and savory Cakes.”
– Mrs. Poppleton, Restaurateur, Pastry Cook, and Confectioner, NYC

habensteinHartfordNo Ruffians, 1820
“John Sherlock … respectfully acquaints epicures and connoisseurs that he is constantly receiving a fresh supply of that palatable, salutary and invigorating diet – Oysters, at his residence Washington Street opposite the Union Tavern … where he hopes to receive the resident citizens of this part of the District, or strangers; assuring them, that not only the quality of the Oysters will be attended to, but the cleanliness and neatness of the entertainment – no unpleasant company being admitted to his house.”
– Sherlock’s Oyster House, District of Columbia

Best of Both Worlds, 1822
“Being an entire stranger in Boston, though well known to individuals to whom he can refer, he may have occasion for some indulgence and allowances in little matters, until he can become perfectly acquainted with the local and prevailing taste – But no pains will be spared to gratify all – and to reconcile the fantaisies de Paris with the Boston notions . . .”
– Bertrand LaTouche’s Restaurateur, Boston

Rudolph'sTCNew Murals, 1843
“While his palate is being tickled with a nice piece of delicious salmon, [the diner] may jump off Passaic Falls with Sam Patch, and while his eye gloats upon the juicy quarter of a savory canvas back, he may indulge in a promenade through Broadway, and as he discusses the merits of a cup of coffee, he may stand like Asmodeus upon the summit of the highest shot tower of the Monumental city. It is really a rich arrangement and worth double the price of a dinner to take a peep at it.”
– Ford’s Restaurant, Boston

As Good as Any, 1847
“His motto is ‘Let Brooklyn take care of itself!’ Why go to New York to dine? His table is every day furnished with the same delicacies of equal quality to any in New York, no matter how high the standing of the establishment.”
– Bell’s Refreshment Saloon, Brooklyn

Nick Nacks, 1850
“All the Nick Nacks of the Season, Green Turtle Soup Three Times a Week, Callapee and Calapash, West India fashion.”
– Pic Nic Saloon at the Bowery Reading Room, NYC

Best People, 1852
“Here meet daily the wits, fast men, and bloods of the town, to whose enjoyment it is his pleasure to cater. A Free Lunch is served daily, and every evening may be obtained a Supper, for which is expressly prepared all the delicacies of the season.”
– Charley Abel’s, NYC

henry'sOysterParlorSFA Treat, 1856
“The Dinner at Winn’s, oh my! Another of the Same Sort before I die! Husbands take their Wives, Lovers their Sweethearts, and Old Bachelors themselves, to Winn’s for a Good Breakfast, Dinner or Supper.”
– Winn’s Fountain Head, San Francisco

“Pro-Bono Publico,” 1861
When Fainting with Hunger, how pleasant to meet
With a friend who’ll provide us with something to eat;
Refreshed, with new zeal we life’s journey pursue,
As thousands attest who their meals take of – TRUE.
– Lewis P. True’s Montgomery Dining Saloon, Boston

No Horsemeat, 1869
“One of the most Central, clean and best kept establishments of this sort in the State of Michigan, is the ‘Metropolitan,’ under the First National Bank. It has two heads, (which are better than one, we don’t say which,) and they belong to the brothers HODGE. Bon vivants, get an appetite and give Hodge Brothers a chance to get you up a lunch. They won’t ask you to ‘eat a horse.’ You bet.”
– Metropolitan Restaurant, Bay City, Michigan

1870temperancelunchUnusual Fare, 1869
This café has now become one of the popular institutions of the city. A new Turkish drink, called ‘Salepp,’ will be sold. This is a novelty in this country, and is made from a root grown in Asia Minor. It both healthful and pleasant to the taste. The only pure Mocha coffee in the city is sold here.”
– The Turkish Restaurant, Chicago

Natural Attractions, 1871
“Among the many attractions in Liberty is a natural one in the way of a pair of large Gold Fish, which attracts the attention of many, to look at them. All are invited to step in and look at them. The Subscriber has converted his Ice Cream Saloon into a first class Restaurant and Oyster Room where he will serve up Oysters in many ways, and guarantees satisfaction in every thing sold by him.”
– Pierson’s Restaurant, Liberty, Missouri

Clean and Neat, 1872
“It would take a microscope inspection to discover a spot on any of his immaculate linen. All about the little house, from the quaint French pictures, to the bright and burnished cooking range, is as neat as a pin. All Peter wants is a trial. His motto is Excelsior! And all other caterers must look to their laurels, or he will be perforce the ‘king of the roost.’”
– Peter Loiselles, Galveston, Texas

1883brooksdiningroomDon’t Sneer, 1873
“Hi You Muck-A-Muck And Here’s Your Bill of Fare: Three Kinds of Meat for Dinner; Also for Breakfast and Supper. Ham and Eggs every day, and Fresh Fish, Hot Rolls and Cake in abundance. Plenty of Tea and Coffee every day for Dinner and Hiyou Sike’s Ale on Sunday. Hurry up, and none of your sneering at Cheap Boarding Houses. Now’s the time to get the wrinkles taken our of your bellies, after the hard winter.”
– Thompson’s Two-Bit House, Portland, Oregon

Boston’s Taste, 1884
“After fifteen years of laborious study, Mr. Louis P. Ober believes he has found the pulse of the public taste of Boston. He responds to the long-felt want of a salon where gentlemen will feel at home.”
– Ober’s Restaurant Parisien, Boston

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Famous in its day: Tip Top Inn

tiptopinnColonialRm

As the massively solid Pullman Building was under construction on Michigan Avenue in Chicago in 1884, a young Adolph Hieronymus was traveling to Chicago from his native Germany. Within a few years he would run a restaurant of renown on the building’s top floor.

tiptopinnpullmanbldgThe building was to be the new headquarters of the Pullman Palace Car Company which manufactured sleeping and dining cars used by major railways. When the imposing building was completed, the company occupied two and a half of its nine floors while the rest of the space was rented for offices and what were known then as “bachelor apartments,” probably lacking anything but the most rudimentary cooking facilities.

For the first few years the Pullman company ran its own restaurant, The Albion, on the 9th floor. It was considered advanced at the time to locate restaurants on top floors so that cooking odors would not drift throughout the building. In addition, diners at The Albion, and later the Tip Top Inn, had excellent views of Lake Michigan.

tiptopinnFrenchRoomDuring the Columbian Exhibition in 1893 Adolph Hieronymus left his job as chef at the Palmer House and took over the Pullman building restaurant, renaming it the Tip Top Inn. Under his management, it became one of Chicago’s best restaurants, hosting society figures and professional organizations. Until the Pullman company expanded its offices onto all eight floors below the restaurant, men living in the 75 or so apartments on the upper floors were also steady customers of the Inn, often having meals sent down to them.

The space occupied by the Tip Top Inn was divided into a bewildering number of rooms, at least five and maybe more. Each had its own decorating scheme. Over the years – but surely not simultaneously — there were the Colonial Room [pictured at top ca. 1906], the Nursery, the Whist Room [pictured below], the Charles Dickens Corner, the Flemish Room, the French Room [pictured above], the Italian Room, the Garden Room, and the Grill Room. The Whist Room was decorated with enlarged playing cards and lanterns with spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs. The lantern and suits also decorated the Inn’s china and menus.

tiptopInnmenu1920The outlawing of alcoholic beverages proved challenging to the Tip Top Inn, as it did to other leading Chicago restaurants of the pre-Prohibition era such as Rector’s, the Edelweiss, and the Hofbrau, all of which would go under before the ban on selling alcohol ended. Perhaps to attract new customers, Hieronymus created an associated restaurant on the 9th floor called The Black Cat Inn, with somewhat lower prices than the Tip Top Inn and a menu featuring prix fixe meals.

tiptopinnWhistRoom

The Black Cat was unusual at the time for having a staff of Black waitresses – who served in restaurants far less often than Black men. The Tip Top Inn, just like the Albion and the Pullman dining cars, had always been staffed with Black waiters, some of whom worked there for decades. It was said that anyone who worked at the Tip Top could find employment in any restaurant across the country. “Black Bolshevik” Harry Haywood wrote in his autobiography that he quickly worked his way up from Tip Top Inn busboy to waiter and then landed jobs on the ultra-modern Twentieth-Century Limited train and with Chicago’s Sherman Hotel and Palmer House.

By 1931 when the Tip Top Inn restaurant closed, it was regarded as an old-fashioned holdover from a previous era. Its extensive menu of specialties such as Stuffed Whitefish with Crabmeat and Suzettes Tip Top, some of the more than 100 dishes created by Hieronymus, was no longer in vogue. Aside from Prohibition, Hieronymus attributed the restaurant’s demise to the death of gourmet dining. Hieronymus died in1932 but he and his restaurant were remembered by Chicagoans for decades. The Pullman Building was demolished in 1956.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Regulars

The modern idea of eating out revolves around choice. Where shall we go? What shall we order? We are looking for change, novelty. We want to vary our routine.

It hasn’t always been this way.

Choice in dining out did not become the norm to any great extent until the second half of the 19th century, and then slowly and incompletely. Before that patrons were divided into “regulars” and “transients,” with the first category making up the backbone of the fledgling restaurant business.

In early American taverns the regulars were male groups such as firemen, clubs, or religious societies who turned up on a scheduled basis and were served group meals for a prearranged price. To put it in other words, much of the business of a tavern or eating house was conducted on a catering basis. Male college students, in the decades before dormitories and dining halls, grouped together in dining clubs that operated similarly.

By the 1870s restaurants filled with the same old people eating the same old food day after day came to be regarded as somewhat archaic. A visitor to a chop house in lower Manhattan that served steaks and baked potatoes observed patrons who, curiously, “did not give any order.” He reasoned that they were habitues and learned that one, a dry goods merchant, “has dined there every day for the last seventeen years.”

The system of regular diners and regular meals worked effectively during an era when there was not a large dining public like today. But even by the time things had changed significantly, in the early 20th century, many small cafes tried to take the guesswork and risk out of their business by cultivating regular customers. They sold meal tickets for which patrons paid in advance for a number of meals in order to receive a discount.

Even today there are probably still some individuals who would rather eat at the same place on a frequent, even daily basis. There are those who order the same thing every time or are automatically served the day’s special without even glancing at the menu. Is there an invisible straight line in NYC connecting the 1859 eatery where “regular patrons at the sandwich counter merely sit down and their sandwich is placed before them” and The Colony, where in the 1950s a woman was enjoying her 28th year lunching on lamb chops, salad, and grapefruit? Likewise in that same decade regulars at a Mississippi City restaurant were fond of sitting down and telling the proprietor, “Joe, fix us up.”

Another vestige of the old system that lingered on for decades was that of men’s professional groups who ate together regularly at the same restaurant – and the same table – for years on end.  Around the turn of the century insurance adjustors — members of the Firebug Club (whose name commemorated the olden days when adjusters colluded with policyholders to commit arson for profit) – used to meet at Mike Lyons’ in NYC’s Bowery. About the same time St. Louis’s Lippe’s was set up with alcoves for trade groups. There was a “Hoo-Hoo” decorated with a painting of a black cat that was designated for lumbermen, and another called “The Roost” decorated with a goose and other birds, meant for tailors. Might “The Chapel” have been intended for ministers? The tradition continued into the 1940s at the century-old Speck’s in that city where there was a bankers’ table, a doctors’ table, etc.

Journalists were well-known for socializing together in restaurants. In Chicago, Ric Riccardo hosted correspondents for the major national magazines and newspapers in his restaurant’s imitation jail called the Padded Cell in the early 1950s. By the 1970s the room had become dedicated to the weekly luncheons of the St. Louis Browns fan club.

Restaurants highly esteemed their regular patrons, none more so than Maylie’s in New Orleans, which closed its doors in 1920. The all-male restaurant admitted patrons each day at 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., seating them at long communal tables. When a regular died, his chair was left empty for several days.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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