Tag Archives: Alice’s Restaurant

The saga of Alice’s restaurants

alicesbook21A 1965 Thanksgiving dinner at the former church where Alice Brock and her husband Ray lived inspired Arlo Guthrie’s ballad of his arrest and subsequent draft board rejection for illegally disposing of trash. But “Alice’s Restaurant” also created vibrations so strong they imbued Alice’s whole career as a restaurant proprietor. Although she enjoyed a degree of success, her career was also filled with disappointments such as a nationwide chain of Alice’s Restaurants and a TV show (Cookin’ with Alice) that did not materialize.

In April 1966 she opened the first of her three restaurants, The Back Room, in an old luncheonette in Stockbridge which Alice described as “painted two-tone institutional green, and … definitely not the kind of place where I would eat, much less own.” Alice ran it for one year before she “freaked out” and closed it. In her book My Life as a Restaurant, she declares, “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I would never have another restaurant.” Not so – she would have two more.

After a year as consultant on the Arthur Penn movie built around Guthrie’s song, Alice decided to try again. But now she was a counterculture celebrity, portrayed in the film as a “dope-taking, free-loving woman,” a depiction which she insisted was false but which would bedevil her relations with town authorities whose approval she needed to open or expand a restaurant.

alicejokingcroppedShe would tussle with the town of Stockbridge throughout the four years she operated her second restaurant, “Alice’s.” Located in a semi-ramshackle former liquor store on Route 183, it began in the summer of 1972 as a roadside stand called “Take Out Alice.” Partly because of her celebrity and partly because she provided superior roadside fare – sushi, borscht, salmon mousse, and cream cheese & walnuts on homemade bread – she attracted volumes of summer visitors.

The next year she was granted permission to add a small dining room, but further expansion requests were denied, leading her to move the restaurant to Lenox, near Tanglewood, in 1976. In 1979 she closed Alice at Avaloch (shown below), the Lenox restaurant-plus-motel, after difficulties with the property’s sewage system and other adversities, permanently ending her restaurant career.

Alice'sRestavalochinnLenoxIn interviews and in her two books Alice espoused the value of fresh ingredients, garlic, meals with friends, and an experimental approach to cooking. Her words convey a free-wheeling, irreverent outlook. Some examples:
* On cooking: “Hell, you can make a soufflé in a garbage can lid if you want to.”
* On busy nights: “Oh, if only you could just cry and it would be over, but it won’t be over. Crying will come to nothing but wasted time, and you could cry forever, but this night is existing, the dining room is filling, the orders … are lining up on their clothespins.”
* On her Lenox restaurant: “We still serve everyone from schlumps to snobs.”
* On being a restaurateur: “Crazy, the restaurant has become my life, there is no life outside it, only in relation to it.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Filed under Offbeat places, proprietors & careers, women

Taste of a decade: 1960s restaurants

Americans grew wealthier, traveled more, and demanded more exotic cuisine. Yet there were few trained restaurant cooks. Convenience food – in the guise of continental dishes (as in pineapple = Hawaiian) – offered the solution for many restaurants as the decade wore on. In other developments, old restaurant formats such as automats, diners, cafeterias, and drive-ins disappeared or shrank drastically in numbers. Fast food and dinner house chains, relatively scarce at the beginning of the decade, flourished by its end. Black Americans began to make headway in gaining civil rights in restaurants. By the middle of the decade signs of the counterculture could be seen here and there.

Highlights

1960 New Armour & Co. boiling bags filled with beef burgundy, lobster Newburg, and coq au vin mean that “Every drive-in can now be a Twenty-One Club, every restaurant a Maxim’s de Paris,” according to a trade mag. – In Columbus Ohio the opening of the Kahiki adds to the Polynesian restaurant boom, while in NYC La Fonda del Sol opens, offering exotica such as Empanadas, Grilled Peruvian Tidbits on Skewers, and Papaya Filled with Fresh Fruits.

1961 In Sherman Oaks the Wild Goose adds four dishes to its menu: Boned Pheasant Chicken Kahlua, Veal Cutlet Oskar, Fresh Gulf Shrimp Stroganoff, and Breast of Chicken Kiev. – Four-star Lutèce opens in New York, one year after La Caravelle.

1962 A café in Sioux Falls announces “microwave cooking,” while in New York’s Time Square a restaurant opens featuring frozen entrees which the customer is to pop into a tabletop microwave. – A new product for restaurants comes on the market: instant mouthwash in a sealed paper cup to be presented to customers after they eat heavily spiced dishes.

1964 Continental and Polynesian restaurants find they must add steak to their offerings. – Kelly’s steak house in Sherman Oaks announces it sold approximately 400,000 pounds of steak in the past year.

1965 Maxwell’s Plum opens in NYC with an eclectic menu that ranges from Pâté and Escargots Bourguignonne to a Foot-long Hot Dog with Chili. Rumors spread of a naked woman seen walking casually through the dining room. — Extra-thick Frymaster Jet Griddles are marketed to keep cooking temperatures stable even when “completely loaded with frozen food.” – Aggressively cheerful California-style coffee shops, which combine the features of drive-ins, coffee shops, dinner houses, and cocktail bars, spread across the country.

1966 After touring the US, a wine expert says that he believes 99% of licensed restaurants have no interest in promoting wine. He reports that not once did a server ask if he’d like wine with his dinner. Instead they asked if he wanted a cocktail, followed by “Coffee now or later?” – Alice Brock opens The Back Room in Stockbridge MA which will be made famous by Arlo Guthrie as “Alice’s Restaurant.”

1967 Students at the University of Washington, Seattle, boycott Aggie’s Restaurant because they believe it discriminates against students, especially if they are dressed in “funny clothes,” following an incident involving a long-haired “fringie.” – The adoption of frozen convenience foods increases in restaurants after passage of the Minimum Wage Act which raises kitchen workers’ pay.

1968 Countering the fast food trend, the menu at the Trident in Sausalito advises its patrons to be patient: “Welcome to Our Space. Positive energy projection is the trip. … Care in the preparation of food requires time especially if we’re busy! So please take a deep breath, relax and dig on the love & artistry about you. May all our offerings please you. Peace within you.” – In Fayetteville, Arkansas, a diner declares he is tired of an “unrelieved diet of chili dogs and waffle fries” and bemoans the lack of any “quality dining establishments.”

1969 The Scarlet Monk in Oakland advertises a “Topless Luncheon” Monday through Friday. – In Chicago, menu language has become more sophisticated, according to linguistic researchers. They report: “Du jour is an accepted form on menus and appears more often than of the day. Anything – pie, potatoes, sherbet, cake, pudding – can be du jour (or de jour, du jor, dujour, and du-jour), and the Florentine Room even has … potato del giorno.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 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; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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