Tag Archives: 24-hour restaurants

We never close

allnight758One way of sorting eating places is by the hours they keep. Those that are open 24 hours a day stand out from the crowd by their tirelessness and involvement in sometimes unwanted adventures.

Mostly there are three kinds of customers for all-night restaurants: those who travel at night, those who work at night, and those who play at night.

In pre-Civil War NYC all night eateries were haunts of “b’hoys,” a class of rogue males (sometimes accompanied by their g’hals) prominently made up of firemen and the more prosperous newsboys. They enjoyed oyster cellars, but one of their favorite places in the 1840s was Butter-cake Dick’s, where for a mere 6 cents they could get a generous plate of biscuits with butter and a cup of coffee.

ComicCheatingHusbandThe authors of the many Victorian “lights and shadows” books about urban immorality were quite fascinated by the dubious goings on in all-night supper clubs. No doubt their readers felt a shiver of horrified excitement when they spotted signs along city streets advising “Ladies’ dining parlor, up stairs”’ or “Refreshments at all hours.” Was it or wasn’t it?

One such book was George Ellington’s The Women of New York; Or, the Under-world of the Great City. But even Ellington observed that patrons of private dining rooms in these quasi-bordellos were also there to eat. He reported that patrons could be discovered consuming fish balls or pickled salmon at 3 or 4 a.m.

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People working at night surely outnumbered the pleasure seekers. Thomas Edison recalled that when his machine shop was on Goerck Street in NYC in the 1880s he used to grab a bite at 2 or 3 a.m. at a rough little place: “It was the toughest kind of restaurant ever seen. For the clam chowder they used the same four clams during the whole season, and the average number of flies per pie was seven. This was by actual count.” No doubt many of his fellow diners included some outside the law but also other denizens of the night such as newspaper printers, trolley conductors, bakers, and factory shift workers.

All-night restaurants were not just found in NYC but in all big cities and were often densest in areas near newspapers, city food markets, and ferries. Chicago’s all-night cafes on State Street were often portrayed as unsavory places where police connected with “stool pigeons” enjoying their midnight snack. Upstanding citizens shrank from the mere thought of all-night eateries but in actuality they were probably some of the most democratic places in that they drew characters from all stations of life.

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An all-nighter of renown in the 20th century was Coffee Dan’s, originally in San Francisco, which operated as an eating and entertainment venue, then a speakeasy in the 1920s and early 1930s. Its attitude in the mid-1920s is nicely expressed in the claim, “There will be dancing to the tinkle of a piano; there will be songs and it will never, never close, not even for fire, not even if the supply of ham and eggs is exhausted.” Coffee Dan’s expanded into a small chain and the Hollywood location became something of a gay hangout in the 1950s, a role played by all-night cafeterias such as Stewart’s in NYC’s Greenwich Village.

With so many night shifts for war workers in World War II, the demand for all-night restaurants rose to new heights. A 1948 restaurant sanitation manual noted how difficult it became to clean restaurants during wartime because of the never-ceasing 24-hour influx of customers.

allnight757The only figures I’ve run across concerning all-night restaurants were from the mid-1960s when 10% of eating places fell into that category. Some chain restaurants, especially coffee shops, pancake houses, and places offering breakfast at all hours, are founded on the 24-hour principle. Often they are located near highway exits to capture truck drivers and other nocturnal travelers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

See also:
Toddle House
Cabarets and lobster palaces

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Filed under restaurant customs

Interview: who’s cooking?

whoscookingRecently I interviewed someone who had cooked in a 24-hour restaurant located on the outskirts of a small Midwestern town in 1970.

He worked there one summer. He was the sole night shift kitchen staff from 10 pm to 6 am. Previous experience? One week as cook at a children’s summer camp the previous year.

He was 16 years old.

Although he gave it little thought at the time, he now suspects the restaurant was designed, owned, and operated by the food processing company that supplied the food, the menus, the “recipes” – in short, everything. Follow-up research revealed that the company supplied 1,500 restaurants, schools, and institutions in four states.

DIchickenThe building was new and blandly modern. It was surrounded by a parking lot. Through a big plate glass front window was a view of an interior with booths, formica-topped tables and chairs, and a counter with stools. The decor, as he remembers it, contained multi-colored hanging lights, fake stone, and grill work in a coordinated style he calls “corporate.” About 60 people could be seated. At night, except right after the bars closed on weekends, there were rarely more than a dozen patrons at any one time.

Most of the night customers were working men, traveling salesmen, work crews, people passing through town. It wasn’t much of a local hangout, unlike the bowling alley restaurant at the other end of town. It served no alcohol.

Was there a chef at this restaurant? Answer: prolonged laughter. The manager had preprinted forms on which he checked off what supplies were needed.

DIshrimpA popular order, particularly with the barflies, was steak and eggs ($2.50 with toast and coffee). Eggs were one of the few items of fresh food in the kitchen other than lettuce and tomatoes. “Everything was frozen so once you knew how to deep fry it or put it in the Lytton [microwave] oven, you were set,” he said. This included pies (“Served Hot from Our Electronic Ovens”), Cordon Bleu, Breaded Pork Tenderloin, Golden Fried Chicken, and Fillet of Perch. Potato Salad came in a tub, Soup of the Day in giant cans. Hard boiled egg came in a long tube so that every slice was the same. Home Baked Bread? Well, I think you know.

DILogoThe food  images shown in this post are stickers applied to the restaurant’s menu before the entire thing was plasticized. I take them to be generic, as I do the meaningless logo from the menu’s cover which looks like it was intended for a “steak & ale” eatery.

With some orders he got to do what he considered “actual cooking”: “Liver and onions. You have to make the bacon and onions – that was actual cooking. Denver omelet, that was actual cooking.” He enjoyed making sandwiches at the deli counter. One of his personal favorites was the Denver Sandwich — chopped ham, pickle, and scrambled egg made in a patty and served on toasted bread. He also enjoyed cottage cheese and pineapple.

DIsteakDiners rarely sent food back to the kitchen. “It’s amazing how many different kinds of food that a 16-year old could cook and not ruin anything. I was feeding a lot of people with a lot of liability and it didn’t go wrong,” he said. The manager criticized him for one thing only: giving customers too many french fries. Limit them to a handful, insisted the manager. So he garnished the plates with parsley and “Never got in trouble for using too much parsley.”

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Despite all, he had surprising praise for his old workplace, saying, “I was impressed with the efficiency of the kitchen. It was easy to work in. I liked that there was a ready supply of clean linens.” He added, “There were not many dining establishments. Before Applebee’s this filled a niche. It was more ambitious food than people had access to before.”

Did he ever return there as a customer? “No,” he said, “I had no warm fuzzy feeling for the place.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under food, proprietors & careers

Toddle House

toddlehouseca1940

The Toddle House chain occupied “cozy cottage” style buildings that were quite popular as restaurants, gas stations, and cabin camps in the Depression. On the outside Toddle Houses projected an exaggerated Colonial doll-house version of domesticity, with two oversized chimneys and a primly manicured lawn.

toddlehouseinteriorca1939Inside, though, a very functional, almost clinical interior greeted customers: A back wall of stainless steel kitchen equipment, a counter with a dozen comfortless, backless stools (“in and out in 12 minutes”), bare windows, bathroom-tile wainscoting, and NO fireplaces. Open 24 hours, their menus were limited and featured hamburgers and breakfast at all hours.

ToddleHouseStedmanpatentAdding another touch of no-nonsense modernity was the “cashier machine” invented by founder and co-owner J. C. Stedman. Designed to keep the countermen (later women) from handling money, a mechanical box near the door received meal checks and payments in coins. After a counterman observed, via a mirror inside the box, that the customer had deposited the correct amount, he lifted a treadle behind the counter and the money and checks fell through trap doors into locked bins below (nos. 14 and 15 in the patent diagram).

As awkward as the contraption was – not giving change, easily circumvented by cheating employees, etc. – it remained in use at least until the 1940s and customers liked it. In Evanston IL customers felt let down, their trustworthiness in doubt, when the cashier machine was replaced by a standard cash register in 1945. Today, the old drop box system — in my view mistakenly considered an honor system — has become an object of nostalgia.

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The first Toddle Houses were opened in Southern states, principally Texas and Tennessee, in the 1930s. The chain never made it farther west than Omaha. In 1945 the company expanded northward with the acquisition of 46 Hull-Dobbs Houses, which resembled Toddle Houses to a remarkable degree. Toddle Houses built later were larger and of a style referred to as “New South” shown here that was plainer and even more symmetrical. Some had dining rooms and the front entrances with copper-clad canopies were enclosed by glass vestibules.

In 1946 Toddle Houses created Harlem House, for Black customers who were not otherwise welcome. Eventually there were 12 such units in Memphis, the company’s headquarters. An Atlanta Toddle House was the site of a prominent civil rights sit-in demonstration in December of 1963, in which demonstrators including comedian Dick Gregory were taken to jail.

toddlehouse1938Memphis

The original 24 × 12-ft Toddle Houses were prefabricated and shipped to their sites on flatbed trucks. It has been reported that their exteriors were of porcelain-coated steel for portability. Since this material is inappropriate for Colonial architecture and they do not appear to be shiny in pictures, I find the description given in Philip Langdon’s Orange Roofs and Golden Arches more convincing. He says that some Toddle Houses were “veneered with a cement coating scored to resemble brick.” Others were built of brick on site. Langdon also observes that because early Toddle Houses could be transported so easily, the possibility of moving them presented advantages when negotiating land leases. I discovered a number of them that were in fact moved.

In 1962 the Toddle House company was bought by Dobbs House which turned most of them into Steak N Egg Kitchens. In the 1980s, after another company, Carsons, bought out Dobbs, an attempt was made to revive the Toddle Houses, which by 1984 had dwindled to 11 units. Carsons built at least 45 new Toddle House units.

Though Toddle Houses no longer exist, many of the buildings continue as eating places or have been adapted for other uses, as shown in a blogpost by Dinerhunter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under chain restaurants, technology