Tag Archives: 20th century restaurants

Children’s menus

Children have always been present to some extent as guests in public eating places, but not until the 20th century did they have special menus and dishes designed just for them.

Department stores and tea rooms, where unlike most restaurants the principal patrons were women, were the first to focus on children as guests. New York’s Mother Goose on 35th Street off Fifth Avenue was popular with children in 1911 because of its storybook theme and servers dressed in costumes. From these early days, tea rooms were also places available for children’s parties. The Brown Owl Tea Room in Marblehead MA made lunches for children whose mothers were away.

In 1918 the Rike-Kummler department store in Dayton OH advertised a “Special Lunch for Children” for 20 cents that demonstrated the belief of that time that children should be fed a bland diet. It consisted of Rice Baked in Cream, Peanut Butter Sandwich, Milk, and Ice Cream.

Printed children’s menus, based on the idea that children liked to choose their own meal, arrived in the 1920s, often at department stores and other restaurants patronized by women of comfortable means who were out shopping. In Boston, Filene’s and the Shepard Store offered children’s menus. In 1927 Shepard’s offered a children’s menu in its 6th floor Colonial Room with specials such as a 50-cent meal of Poached Egg with Creamed Spinach, Baked Potato, Bread & Butter, and Milk.

Vegetable plates were common on children’s menus from the 1920s through the 1940s, as shown on both a menu from St. Clairs’ in the 1920s and one from Macy’s [shown below] in 1936. Creamed chicken was also typical of children’s menus before the 1950s, as both the Macy’s and the 1947 Pig n’ Whistle [shown below Macy’s menu] menus illustrate. Hamburgers weren’t found much until after WWII.

Children’s menus went beyond food listings to include games, puzzles, and pictures to color. Some came in the form of masks or paper toys to be assembled. The Howard Johnson’s chain put its children’s menu in the centerfold of a comic book in which an adventure concluded with a hefty HoJo’s meal of fried clams and a “large charcoal-broiled steak.” Odd, since steak was not on the children’s menu.

The number of restaurants offering children’s menus continued to increase throughout the 20th century, intensifying in the 1970s and 80s. Reporting on a Gallup survey in 1975, Food Service Magazine observed that more working mothers, increased family income, and smaller families suggested “a more profitable family market than ever before.” And many more children’s menus.

The new era of child-centered restaurant patronage was kicked off by the 1977 opening in California of the first Chuck E. Cheese pizza and video game restaurant for children. It was chain restaurants in particular, both of the fast food and coffee shop types such as Sambo’s and Denny’s, that were perceived as the most family-friendly and also the ones that children preferred.

Blandness continued according to Consumer Reports, whose testers in 1984 attributed the lack of seasonings in fast food to child patrons, who are often the ones who choose where the family eats.

But it wasn’t just the increase in restaurants that catered to families with children that marked a change.

Unlike the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, it was no longer somewhat upscale restaurants that attracted families. This was not only because of prices too high for mass patronage but also because they did not engage in family-friendly practices. Usually they did not furnish high chairs, did not advertise widely or offer coupons or specials, and failed to celebrate birthdays and family holidays such as Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, and Thanksgiving. Nor did upscale restaurant menus feature dishes preferred by children. They typically lacked post-WWII children’s favorites such as hamburgers, french fries, and pizza. They had no children’s menus.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under chain restaurants, department stores, family restaurants, food, menus, patrons, restaurant customs, tea shops, women

Dining & wining on New Year’s Eve

I haven’t found evidence that people celebrated New Year’s Eve in restaurants or hotels much in the 19th century. But in the early 20th century it became a more popular thing to do. Having a reservation at a swanky place conferred status, as the 1912 drawing above is meant to illustrate.

If one dish ruled New Year’s Eve menus in the early 20th century it was roast turkey. It was the main dish at the Techau Tavern, “San Francisco’s Busiest and Handsomest High-Class Café,” shown here in 1909. Turkey with Cranberry Dressing and Chestnut Stuffing was preceded by Toke Point Oysters from Washington, Cream of Chicken Soup, Striped Bass, and Sweetbreads.

Turkey also dominated the 1912 New Year’s Eve menu at The Fern in Scranton PA, “An Eating Place of Refinement and Respectability.” The Fern featured a $1 dinner that was similar but even heftier than the Techau Tavern’s, with Blue Point Oysters, Cream of Chicken Soup, Baked Bluefish, Croustade of Lobster, Tenderloins of Beef, Roast Turkey, Sweetbreads, Banana Fritters, as well as all kinds of vegetables, salad, and pie. The Alt Heidelberg Café in Fort Wayne IN, and Tait’s in San Francisco provided similar menus.

Through the 1920s, it was not hard to find a place where one dollar or a little more would buy an elaborate dinner with an orchestra and dancing. In Seattle WA, New Year’s Eve entertainment at the Hotel Washington Annex included dinner plus a “lady vocalist” and the Whangdoodle Quartet, all for $1.25. The absence of (legal) alcohol in the 1920s did not dim festivities in Chicago nightspots in the Loop or on the South Side, where “handling a flask has never been considered flagrant.”

Despite tight economic times in the 1930s and war in the 1940s – or maybe because of these conditions — Americans showed continuing enthusiasm for celebrating the new year in restaurants and clubs. The repeal of Prohibition at the end of 1933 brought about heightened levels of good cheer. Not even higher prices at the end of 1934 discouraged revelers who paid from $7.50 to $15 per plate in NYC. Yet there were still bargains to be had as the accompanying 1935 menu from Kolb’s in New Orleans shows. Low prices also prevailed in Canton OH where sauerkraut and wieners were traditional.

After the war, menus reflected the growing importance of beef on New Year’s Eve – and throughout the year. The 1958 menu at Pike’s Verdugo Oaks in Glendale CA is representative, and not terribly different than menus found throughout the U.S. in later decades. The Raintree Room at the Continental Regency in Peoria IL in 1978, for example, offered beef or lobster, with salad, baked potato or french fries, and the ubiquitous cheesecake for dessert, a standard menu for a restaurant dinner in the last decades of the 20th century.

Whether you have steak or hot dogs this New Year’s Eve, have a good time and best wishes for 2018!

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under food, menus, night clubs, restaurant customs

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

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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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Park and eat

parkingJohnson'sHummocksProvidence

People who travel to restaurants by private transportation other than their feet have often had a little problem. They must do something with their horse, carriage, or car. As basic as this situation is, it has bedeviled eating places through the ages.

Into the mid-19th century, eating places which were also overnight accommodations were legally required to take care of their patrons’ means of transport, i.e., horses. In Haverhill MA, innholders, taverners, and common victualers had to follow rules that included hanging a sign, accepting all travelers, and providing feed for horses.

As urban downtowns grew after the Civil War, fed by trolleys powered by horses, steam, and electricity, restaurants developed independently of hotels and boarding houses with no need of facilities for horses. It must have been a relief, especially as land values rose.

parkingNatGoodwinAt first the arrival of cars in the early 20th century might have seemed like a blessing, delivering patrons directly to the front doors of restaurants. But it soon turned into a curse as unprepared cities became gridlocked with traffic that included a mix of autos, streetcars on tracks, and horse-drawn wagons. Denver, for instance, scrambled to solve downtown congestion after the number of cars on its streets doubled from 1912 to 1915.

parkinggridlockLAmid1920s

A common solution — ordinances that prohibited curb parking on busy streets — caused restaurant owners to rise up in protest. Kansas City restaurateurs objected to a ban on parking before 6:30 p.m., saying it would harm their early dinner business. In Portland OR and Omaha NE restaurant owners complained they would lose their breakfast trade if morning parking was severely curtailed as proposed in those cities. The owner of an Omaha chain pointed out that downtown restaurants paid high rents and would desert the city center for less expensive areas if strict parking bans were enacted. Meanwhile, restaurants lucky enough to have parking lots advertised the fact loud and clear.

parkingFlumeTeaHouseNH1933

Restaurants and tea rooms (such as The Flume teahouse, shown here) in outlying areas with plenty of space for parking thrived. Warren’s Dining Car, located outside Worcester MA near the White City amusement park, advertised in 1927 that it had parking for 500 cars.

parkingOtt'sWith all the problems of downtown, it wasn’t long before restaurants began making good on their threats to relocate farther out, often in newer shopping areas on wider streets near residential areas. Anticipating the fast food chains of the 1960s, drive-ins chose to build on spacious lots surrounded by parking space. When Neff’s Drive-In opened in Corpus Christi TX in 1940 it boasted hickory-smoked barbecue served by “15 Beautiful Girls” on a full acre of parking space. Ott’s Drive-In in San Francisco employed four traffic police to direct parking in its 250-car lot.

But it took a high volume of business to warrant such a large parking lot. The director of a restaurant design firm in Los Angeles observed in 1961 how difficult it was to find an affordable parcel of land big enough to accommodate a restaurant and parking for customers. Economically it was unfeasible for any place not open 24 hours, he said.

With 60 million cars on American roads in 1955, valet parking – which originated in venues with distant parking lots such as racetracks and sports stadiums – became common in urban restaurants with an affluent clientele who might otherwise avoid downtown. It brought its own set of problems, though, such as complaints about police taking payoffs in return for allowing attendants to park cars illegally.

parkingthemeknightsir-loinHouseHoustonOne creative solution to the problem of a distant parking lot was demonstrated by the Sir-Loin House, a popular Houston TX steakhouse. Adopting a medieval knighthood theme, parking lot attendants dressed as Robin Hoods and guests were escorted to the restaurant by a knight on a white horse.

Although there are numerous parking garages in most urban areas today, parking still remains an issue for many restaurants and their patrons. The situation has almost certainly assisted the growth of fast food establishments with rapid turnover as well as the rise of premier restaurants in suburbs.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Image gallery: supper clubs

supperclubdine&dance813Supper clubs, night clubs where meals are accompanied by live music and (usually) dancing, began as private clubs rather than as businesses. Groups of people who knew each other, often socialites or theater performers, met regularly for late-night meals and entertainment, at either a single restaurant or at a succession of restaurants. The revelry might last until 2 or 3 A.M. if not later.

By the 1920s the habit had developed into a type of restaurant catering to fun seekers and open not to the select few but to the general public. Perhaps because supper clubs had once been associated in many people’s minds with capital-S Society, these restaurants enjoyed an aura of glamour.

Although a supper club is a night club that serves food, there are many variations. Some were urban, such as NYC’s well-known nightspots El Morocco, the Stork Club, and the Copacabana. But from the 1920s until the decline of supper clubs in the 1970s, many across the U.S. were located on roads outside settled areas. This is particularly true in the upper Midwest. In Wisconsin, where supper clubs have particularly flourished, they have ranged from rustic roadhouses serving barbecue to swanky resort-area clubs.

In movies of the 1930s and 1940s, supper clubs were portrayed as places where big stars and popular bands such as Glenn Miller’s played, but far more common were the sort that hosted local musicians. Still, patrons dressed up and enjoyed a night out, dining and dancing, and maybe a floor show, without spending a fortune. Many a wedding and anniversary party was held at supper clubs across the country.

Despite the low point reached in the 1980s and 1990s, supper clubs showed an ability to incorporate trends such as the Tiki-mania of the 1960s and are reportedly making a comeback, now as retro-deco revivals with gourmet food. This has not always been true. According to menu-planner Lothar Kreck the wise supper club manager of the 1970s saw to it that the menu selections – whether stuffed lobster tails or capons — were prepared in advance of the arrival of guests.

The Gallery

supperclubThePyramid

The winner of the title “Dairy Princess of Dodge County” was announced at a dairy banquet at the Pyramid Supper Club in Beaver Dam WI in June, 1973. The illustration’s proportions would appear to be a tiny bit exaggerated.

SupperClubTesch'sSC,AntigoWI

At the other end of the glamour spectrum was the very modest looking Tesch’s Supper Club in Antigo WI, one of the many mom&pop operations.

supperclubTeaneckNJ

In the 1950s and 1960s The Casa Mana in Teaneck NJ  hosted the Lions Club, United Steel Workers, and Democratic Party functions.

SupperClubSilverDomeWI

The Silver Dome Supper Club and Ballroom featured dining and dancing in two separate buildings.

SupperClubMardiGrasOaklandCA

In Oakland CA, the Mardi Gras Supper Club offered music in a raucous setting.

supperclubElMorocco

El Morocco in NYC was visited by celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and then-husband Joe DiMaggio. Did they stay long enough to get some food on their plates?

SupperClubAmato'sPortlandORAn

Most supper clubs patrons were not celebrities. In an earlier incarnation Amato’s Supper Club had been the Roseland Ballroom owned by one of Portland Oregon’s leading restaurateurs, Larry Hilaire.

SupperClubDallas

Menu of the El Tivoli, established in 1929 on a former golf course west of Dallas on the Fort Worth Pike.

SupperClubMineolaNY1933An

Tiny Tim, famous for his falsetto rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” played this Long Island supper club in 1970, a year before the Mineola NY property was put up for sale.

supperclubLotus814

The Lotus, a Chinese supper club, was one of the many that did not use supper club in their name, preferring the term Cabaret Restaurant. Chinese and Afro-American supper clubs were numerous in big cities. In his book Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C., John DeFerrari documents both. Club Bali, opened in 1943, featured Sarah Vaughn, Erroll Garner, Dinah Washington, and many other topnotch Black performers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Tablecloths’ checkered past

tableclothruggerisSTL50Throughout the 20th century red and white checked tablecloths in restaurants sent clear messages to patrons: this restaurant is inexpensive, friendly, and unpretentious. Whether ethnic or “American” they suggested that the customer was in a homey place, either authentically old fashioned or old world.

What kind of ethnic? Beyond noting that they were never Chinese (that I’ve discovered — so far), restaurants with checked tablecloths could be Italian or French, but also German, Viennese, Spanish, British, Greek, Hungarian, or Mexican.

tablecloths3752

As for signaling old-fashioned Americanness, that could mean “Pioneer Days on the Prairie,” “Frontier Saloon,” “Old-Time Beer Hall,” “Country Barn Dance,” “California Gold Rush,” “Grandma’s Kitchen,” “Colonial New England,” or “Gay Nineties.”

I use the past tense when referring to red and white checked tablecloths, not because they aren’t still around, but because I sense their vogue has ended, at least temporarily. I would say their appeal was strongest from the 1930s through the 1970s.

tablecloths3751The fabric itself dates far back into the 19th century. Already by 1900 checked tablecloths were seen as old fashioned. But unlike other material culture of restaurant-ing, the meanings of the tablecloths were created as much by fundraising events and celebrations sponsored by churches, clubs, and schools as they were by restaurants.

In restaurants, as well as outside them, the tablecloths have been accompanied by at least one of the following decorative touches: candles in wine bottles, lanterns, travel posters, braided garlic hung from walls, murals of villages, beamed ceilings, knotty pine paneling, sawdust floors, wagon wheels, and peasant costumes. Candles in bottles were close to mandatory.

tablecloth21club1939A number of famed restaurants used the tablecloths at some point in their history. A few of them fell outside the inexpensive class such as the “21″ Club [pictured] and the London Chop House. In 1961, a New York restaurant reviewer wrote that checked tablecloths were “almost obligatory for unpretentious Gallic restaurants in this city.” Boston’s Durgin-Park used them on their long communal tables, furnishing the means for burglars to tie up the staff during a 1950s robbery. In Chicago, the Drake Hotel’s Cape Cod Room added the colorful cloths to its busy decor that included pots and pans hanging from the ceiling.

Surprisingly it wasn’t until the 1980s that anyone admitted they were tired of seeing the classic tablecloths in restaurants. The ascent of Italian restaurants into the higher reaches of culinary status provided the rationale. Now, for example, reviews would begin with the assertion that Restaurant X didn’t represent, “the Italy of checkered tablecloths and melted candles in Chianti bottles, but the Italy of designer Giorgio Armani.”

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen tables covered in red checks. Now it could be risky, suggesting not authenticity but tired mediocrity.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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