Tag Archives: Afro-Americans

Taste of a decade: 1860s restaurants

egerton1866REVHalf the population of the largest cities is foreign born. San Francisco continues to attract adventurers and French chefs. The Civil War brings wealth to Northern industrialists and speculators, encouraging high living. With German immigration going strong, beer gains in popularity as do “free” lunches. Saloons prosper and the anti-alcohol movement loses ground as the states where liquor is prohibited shrink from thirteen to six, then to one. Cities grow as young single men pour into urban areas. Restaurants spring up to feed them and cheap lunch rooms proliferate, offsetting the high prices prevalent during and after the war. By the end of the decade, one estimate puts the number of eating places in NYC at an astonishing 5,000 or 6,000.


1861 In what may be the first published use of the term lunch counter, the new proprietor of the Front-Street Coffee House in New York advertises his “Dining Saloon, Lunch Counter, Bar and Oyster Department.” – Boston, population about 178,000, lists 135 restaurants in its city directory.

1862 Madame Favier assures patrons of her Charleston SC restaurant that she will not substitute rye for genuine Rio coffee “in spite of the hard times and the blockade.” – War wealth in New York stimulates business at the new 14th Street Delmonico’s at Fifth Avenue, boosting the restaurant’s distinction.lockersphil1868

1863 War stirs up restaurants in Virginia. A Richmond newspaper observes, “Norfolk, like Richmond, is swarming with restaurants.” Among Richmond’s eating places are the Hygeia, the Friendship Restaurant, and the Café de Paris.

1864 To raise funds for Union soldiers, volunteers organize a fair in Brooklyn featuring a New England Kitchen. Crowds pack the 1770s “theme” restaurant where women in “quaint attire” serve pork & beans, pumpkin pie, and doughnuts to guests who eat with two-tined steel forks from the olden days. — In San Francisco, a French couple open a new restaurant and salon (see below — Is it merely linguistic confusion or are they offering wine with breakfast?).

1865 A journalist describes the comical, unfamiliar sight of men wolfing down grub at a NYC lunch counter while perched on high stools with their heads bent down “and their elbows in rapid motion.” “Viewed from the rear,” he writes, “one might suppose them to be weaving or fiddling.”

1867 Wealthy black Philadelphia restaurateur John W. Price, born a slave, throws a bash for Frederick Douglass. His restaurant at 4th and Chestnut is one of the city’s largest. – In Memphis, Monsieur John Gaston opens a “Ladies’ Restaurant” where, he promises, “the most delicate and sensitive will find nothing to offend their ear or observation.”

sftabledhote18641868 Louis P. Ober establishes a Restaurant Parisienne on Winter Place in Boston. Like some other French restaurateurs, he is also a wine importer. – In Leavenworth KS, the Italian Giacomini brothers open the New Delmonico Restaurant. – In San Francisco, diners in French restaurants push back the dinner hour from the middle of the day to around 6:00 p.m.

1869 On the spur of the moment, President Ulysses S. Grant enters a fashionable Washington restaurant for breakfast wearing a stove-pipe hat. A cashier, failing to recognize him, refuses him a private dining room and explains later that Grant looked like “an old shoemaker with his Sunday clothes on.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Taste of a decade: restaurants, 1800-1810

The American population is settled mainly along the Eastern seaboard. The largest city, New York, with almost 80,000 people, is one of only about 15 cities with more than 1,000 inhabitants. Meals are available in taverns, oyster houses, coffee houses, and French restorators. Most diners are male travelers, businessmen, or boarders, though religious societies and clubs of firefighters, politicians, or old soldiers gather for banquets from time to time. The dinner hour falls between noon and 3:00 p.m.


1800 Meat, fish, and fowl are the principal offerings of eating places, and an establishment’s quality is measured by the amount and assortment of animal protein set out on the table. At the Portland Restorator in Portland, Maine, the proprietor proudly announces he has “potted lobster, potted eel, chicks fricaseed, and fine ragouts, beef alamode, and barbicues, sausage Bologna, Hamburgh, Naples, choice venison pastry, pork pie Cheshire, good beef steak, and bacon rasher” as well as “round of beef, fat Sirloin, turkey roast, or calf’s head boil’d with tongue & brains.” Beyond these main dishes, he supplies only soup and a few pies. Strangely, he does not mention one of the most popular edibles of the 19th century, oysters.

1801 Well-off Americans who read fashionable magazines are fascinated by the popularity of restaurants in Paris. There, it is said, “everybody” (who is anybody) dines frequently outside the home. The awkward term “restorator,” an Americanized version of restaurateur which refers either to a place to dine or to its proprietor, becomes a trendy metaphor for a publication, an essay, or an editor.

1802 Napoleon offers amnesty to his opponents and many French citizens who escaped to America during the revolution return to France, shrinking the number of skilled restaurateurs. Not all leave, however. Julien continues in Boston.

1802 The inimitable black caterer Othello Pollard, of Cambridge MA, beckons “select” clients from nearby Harvard with beefsteak, soup, cheese, ham, tongue, ice cream, custard, strawberries and cream, whip-syllabub, pies, jellies, olives, and fruit, along with a well-stocked liquor cabinet. In an unusual advertisement, he observes: “It is a wise saying … that the Body is as much a subject of education as the Mind. Both require tuition and discipline. The UNIVERSITY takes the Mind for its pupil; OTHELLO takes the Body. He, therefore, who has not been at both schools is half a Scholar.”

1803 In Charleston, South Carolina, a new hotel opens with a banquet room accommodating 300.

1807 The beefsteak and oyster house remains a popular sort of eating place. Turtle soup is a delicacy and restaurants place notices in papers when they are about to prepare it. On June 8 Wm. Fryatt, who has recently opened a Porter, Beef Steak and Oyster House on the corner of Pine and Nassau in New York, advertises he will prepare the last turtle of the season.

1808 Henry Doyhar of New York City announces that he will list his dinner specials in writing each day: “To accommodate those who wish to procure their Dinner …, the bill of fare, containing the dishes regularly numbered, will be exhibited every day from nine till eleven o’clock, A.M. for the purpose of engaging beforehand such dishes as may be wanted.” Since so many people are illiterate at this time, this suggests his clients are educated and probably wealthy.

1809 In Boston the elegant and expensively built Boston Exchange Coffee-House opens with a coffee room on the ground floor, furnished with a bar and 14 private and “handsome boxes, each containing a mahogany table, seats, and a bell rope.” On the second floor is a banquet hall and a dining room whose “walls are painted a beautiful green, and the windows decorated with curtains of scarlet moreen.”

Read about other decades: 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008


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Basic fare: fried chicken

Actually chicken, however it was prepared, was not so basic until well into the 20th century. Only then were poultry raising and marketing streamlined to produce the tender, year-round, low-cost product which made chain restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chicken Delight feasible. Until after World War II chicken was not terribly popular in most restaurants, often being rather expensive yet tough and stringy.

The chicken found on the menus of most American eating places of the 18th and 19th centuries was not fried, but roasted, boiled, or broiled. Fried chicken seemed to be limited to the South for many decades. The first instance of fried chicken in a restaurant that I have found occurred at the 1876 Centennial fair in Philadelphia where one of the concessions specialized in Southern dishes such as fried chicken and hominy. Despite this, fried chicken did not catch on in restaurants for some time. It could be found mainly in small, down-home style cafés run and patronized by Afro-Americans. An example in the 1890s was a small cabin called the Café Du Chat Noir in Washington, D.C., run by a former slave who went by the name Madame Early. A bit later, in San Francisco, a black restaurant provided possum and yams in season, corn pone, watermelon and chicken, fried, boiled, or roasted. Another type of early 20th-century fried chicken venue was the Chinese restaurant.

The third kind of eating place that made a specialty of fried chicken was the country tea room. In fact chicken of all kinds – fried, in salads, or creamed on waffles – dominated tea room menus. It’s likely that the substantial increase of women restaurant patrons in the 20th century, tea rooms’ main clientele, was behind the rise in chicken’s popularity. Restaurateurs often noted that while men preferred steak, women favored chicken. Taking the family for a Sunday automobile ride into the countryside for a fried chicken dinner at a tea room or family-style inn was a major form of entertainment for millions of Americans well into the 1950s.

The reason that fried chicken became popular primarily in out-of-the-way places, whether Afro-American, Chinese, or tea rooms, may have been due to these places having access to freshly killed chickens at a time when so much poultry served in restaurants had been ruined by long stays in cold storage. Cold storage chicken –- i.e., frozen — so dominated the market that in 1909 California law required restaurants to inform patrons if their chicken came from that source. On the other hand, restaurants run by blacks and Chinese often kept live chickens in cages, while rural tea rooms had local suppliers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Fried chicken blues

The 1960s were a boom decade for marrying fast food to franchise businesses christened with celebrity names. Chicken seemed like the up-and-coming successor to hamburgers in a business more about marketing concepts and stock quotations than food or hospitality. Following the success of Harlan Sanders, whose 500-unit Kentucky Fried Chicken chain mushroomed to 1,700 when he sold to a corporate buyer, entrepreneurs looked around for other celebrities to hitch their schemes to. Performers Minnie Pearl, Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, and Eddy Arnold, along with many sports figures, were persuaded to lend their names, rarely assuming any further involvement.

Minnie Pearl’s Chicken System, Inc., was the creation of Tennessean John Jay Hooker whose political ambitions included becoming governor, then president. Minnie Pearl, a Grand Ole Opry comedien whose frumpy stage persona suggested down-home eating, covered the white market, while gospel singer Mahalia Jackson lent her name to the black-owned side of the enterprise aimed at black inner-city consumers. Around the same time, ca. 1969, “king of soul” James Brown figureheaded the Gold Platter soul food chain which failed to get beyond the pilot stage in Macon, Georgia. Minnie’s and Mahalia’s ventures, too, lasted only a few years. Hooker, chicken systems mastermind, did not make it into office, but Benjamin Hooks, co-owner of Mahalia Jackson’s Gloree-Fried chicken (carryout only), went on to become executive director of the NAACP.

Though hailed as a restaurateur, Jackson received royalties for the use of her name but did not choose to invest in the Mahalia Jackson Chicken System, Inc. Perhaps she did not approve of its slogan: “It’s Gloree-Fried, and that’s the gospel truth.” The Minnie Pearl system totaled several hundred locations at its peak but it’s not clear how many outlets the Jackson chain comprised, probably many fewer. Chicago had only two units, paired with gas stations. The chain also operated in Memphis, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Detroit. In addition to chicken, menus included fish sandwiches, sweet potatoes, fried pies, and a ‘Soul Bowl’ of chicken giblets in gravy on rice.

Minnie Pearl’s chicken — and later roast beef sandwiches — business went bankrupt in 1970.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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