Tag Archives: 20th century restaurants

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.

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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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Filed under atmosphere, restaurant customs

Famous in its day: Tip Top Inn

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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.

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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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Filed under proprietors & careers, restaurant decor

Odd restaurant food

Over the weekend I went to an antiques show in Fitzwilliam NH and bought some vintage menus. The seller had a cache of them from a printer in Manchester NH, all from 1956.

An unusual selection on one of the menus caught my eye, a Toasted Chop Suey sandwich. Odder still, the sandwich appeared on a menu from Angelo’s Spaghetti House.

It would seem slightly less strange to me if it had been a Chinese restaurant, such as the Chinese and American Red Rose Restaurant in New London CT, where around 1960 diners could order a Chow Mein sandwich.

But, upon reflection I have to ask myself why either of these sandwiches should seem odd. I used to enjoy a specialty of St. Louis Chinese restaurants called the St. Paul sandwich which consisted of something resembling Egg Foo Young served between two slices of spongy white sandwich bread slathered with mayonnaise. It was delicious.

I don’t mean to single out New England as the home of strange restaurant dishes, but it so happens that I’ve personally encountered two of the weirdest food combinations of my dining-out life in this part of the world.

Both involved potatoes.

One was in a New England inn with a quaint name and an old coach on the front lawn. It is against my better judgment to go to such places but a visitor from afar expressed interest in it. I have no idea what I ordered but let’s assume it was chicken or beef. Along with it, in a small saucer, came two whole boiled potatoes smothered in tomato sauce straight out of the can. I have to think that the cook was suddenly taken ill and the dishwasher, the only other person in the kitchen, had to take over.

At a restaurant in Springfield MA I experienced another culinary shock. I had taken my visiting parents there on the way to the train station because they liked Italian restaurants and it was handy. I have forgotten what we ate, but at tables all around us people joyfully celebrated carbo-loading with side dishes heaped with spaghetti AND french fries — in addition to their main dishes. I like spaghetti. I like french fries. But together?

Changing the focus from New England to California, “Chili Size” might at first seem like an odd dish but upon closer inspection it is not so much the components that are peculiar – a hamburger patty covered with chili with beans, sometimes with cheese melted on top of it all – as it is the name.

On the other hand there may be people who don’t think any of these things are odd.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Filed under food