Tag Archives: bakery restaurants

Diary of an unhappy restaurateur

hill'sTrenton1882or1883Edmund Hill began working in his father’s bakery and restaurant full-time in 1873 when he was 18. His help was needed because of his father’s poor health. He wanted to go on to Yale, yet he devoted his career to the business, which was operated under his father’s name Thomas C. Hill.

Hill'sMenuCardSAMPLEThomas Hill founded the business in 1860, rapidly becoming one of the city’s leading caterers and furnishing everything needed for soirees, suppers, and weddings except, as a 1866 newspaper story remarked, the brides and bridegrooms. Located in the center of Trenton, New Jersey, the restaurant advertised in 1882 that it was “the largest and finest between New York and Philadelphia” and could provide in its dining rooms or beyond all the fancy dishes of the day: boned turkeys, croquettes, rissoles, jellied meats, carved ice blocks, charlottes, spun sugar centerpieces, and bon bons. Hill’s hosted many organizations at its Greene Street location, including the Young Men’s Gymnastic Association whose members stuffed themselves in 1883 with many of the above plus a variety of ice creams, meringues, and walnut kisses. He specialized in fancy desserts, as is demonstrated by a portion of an 1883 souvenir menu shown here (courtesy of Henry Voight — The American Menu).

Hill'sDiningRoomsEdmund’s diary from 1876 through 1885 has been transcribed and digitized by the Trenton Historical Society and makes fascinating reading. Among other things it gives rare glimpses into the running of a bakery/restaurant/confectionery/catering business in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Edmund was a reluctant restaurateur. As the Historical Society’s site says, “Edmund severely disliked, even hated, working in the restaurant business and he focused much of his energies elsewhere, such as pursuing real estate and civic affair concerns throughout Trenton.”

Despite Edmund’s lifelong disappointment over being forced to take up a trade, he ran a successful business which he diligently kept abreast with the progress of the times, remodeling the restaurant, increasing baking capacity, and installing electricity. In the 1880s Hill’s restaurant and catering service, almost certainly run on a temperance basis, was known throughout New Jersey. And it made money as his diary entry of December 31, 1881, shows: “Finished up accounts in store. We took in $18,146.60, against $15,294.40 last year. Very satisfactory all around.”

Edmund became an expert cake baker and could, and did, fill in for just about any employee. In 1880 he paid his German baker to teach him how to make the Vienna bread made popular by the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. (“Bargained with Karl to teach me baking for twenty five dollars.”) On at least two occasions he organized a series of public cooking lessons taught in Trenton by cookbook author Maria Parloa of New York. In his diary he wrote that he found her lecture on bass with tartar sauce, baked fish with hollandaise sauce, ginger bread and vegetables “very instructive.”

Hill'sADV1880When he traveled to New York City or other cities he often ate at leading restaurants and probably toured their facilities. He mentions going to Dorlon’s, the renowned oyster restaurant in Fulton Market as well as Delmonico’s, the Hotel Bellevue, the Astor House, and the Vienna Model Bakery, all in NYC. He went to Moretti’s – Charles Delmonico’s favorite place for ravioli – but evidently did not care for it. (“Do not like Italian cooking.”) He even attended the French Cooks Ball to check out the fare. (“Dresses and dancing were ridiculous. The tables were superb.”)

In addition to ensuring the reputation of Hill’s Restaurant and Bakery, he was a well-off, well-read man of the world who traveled to Europe several times, a successful real estate developer, a banker, a city councilman, an esteemed civic benefactor, as well as a devoutly religious family man. He was friends with famous people, including Leo Tolstoy, whose son he hosted at an honorary dinner at Delmonico’s. Yet, according to the Historical Society’s site, he never got over having to end his education to take over the family business and considered himself a failure.

He sold the restaurant building and all his catering equipment in 1905 while moving the bakery which continued in business for many years thereafter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Basic fare: bread

BreadbasketBread has always been basic to restaurants ranging from the lowliest hash house to the most elegant French dining room. This was made evident in 1912, for instance, when Los Angeles drafted a city ordinance permitting no liquor to be served without meals. The ordinance defined a meal as “not costing less than 15 cents, to consist of bread, or equivalent, together with meat, fish, cheese or beans in sufficient quantity to go beyond the question of subterfuge for a meal.”

From the early decades of the 19th century, bread not only accompanied almost every meal, in many cases it was the meal. The most fundamental early eating house meal was bread and coffee or bread and hot milk. When ordering the typical cheap meal of a thin slice of meat accompanied by some potatoes, customers were consoled by the fact that their meal would be filled out with two slices of bread.

In addition to brown bread, i.e., whole wheat bread, restaurant customers could hope for other varieties to pair with their coffee. Waffles and pancakes tended to be classified as breads in those days. In San Francisco in 1858, the Empire State Dining Saloon also served “Mississippi Hot Corn Bread, Hot English Muffins, Hot American Waffles, Hot Hungarian Rolls, Boston Cream Toast, German Bread, and New York Batter Cakes.” After Vienna-style yeast bread was introduced at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, restaurants associated with bakeries scrambled to hire bakers who could produce this newest sensation.

In order to get their free bread, diners had to order something costing at least 10 cents, as recounted in the comical tale of the hapless diner who asked for bread with a too-small order. The amount of bread given with an order was limited. An 1849 bill of fare from Sweeny’s House of Refreshment in New York City shows 3 cents was the going rate for extra bread.

breadRollonplateBread – and butter – were often poor or deliberately adulterated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so many eating places advertised that they observed quality standards. In the 1880s, cooking teacher Jessup Whitehead almost went apoplectic about the poor quality of baking-powder biscuits often found in low-priced restaurants. He wrote:

Such biscuits are yellow, dirty on the bottom, greasy to the touch; they have rough sides, no edges, for they rise tall and narrowing towards the top; they are wrinkled and freckled and ugly; they will not part into white and eatable flakes or slices, but tumble in brittle crumbs from the fingers, and eat like smoked sawdust.

BreadGingerbreadTeaRoomEven today it is commonplace to form a quick judgment about a restaurant by the quality of its bread. Historically patrons probably fared best if they went to a bakery restaurant that made its own baked goods. Or to a tea room in the early 20th century, many of which made a specialty of raisin, nut, or gingerbread, preferably served hot from the oven. In tea rooms, however, patrons often paid dearly for bread and rolls, usually on an a la carte basis.

By the turn of the century many habitual restaurant-goers had a habit of eating all the bread as soon as it was placed on the table. Etiquette minders disliked this behavior and owners preferred to serve bread only after other dishes were served. Waiters, on the other hand, liked the bread and butter set up because it enabled them to serve more guests who, with something to nibble on, were less impatient for their orders.

Not all eating places did their own baking even in the 19th century, and the number that did was drastically reduced by the mid-20th. As few as 6% of all restaurants did their own baking by 1952. However, the advent of frozen bread made “Doing our own baking” a common advertising claim in the 1960s. That decade also saw a spread in the novelty of individual loaves of bread served on a carving board, made possible by in part by frozen doughs, loaves, and rolls.

BreadADVPortlandOR1976As popular as the “cute” little loaves were for a time, discriminating patrons rejected them as mushy and tasteless. The counterculture preferred heavier whole grain breads, which soon made their way into restaurants such as Sausalito’s Trident. On a ca. 1968 menu, the rather high price charged for a basket of rolls was justified as follows: “Our rolls are hand baked for us daily using only the purest ingredients: finest organic grains, fertile eggs, organically grown onions & raisins, raw butter, oils & honey.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Famous in its day: Reeves Bakery, Restaurant, Coffee Shop

The renowned Reeves of Washington, D.C. was a many splendored thing. So much so that for lack of space I had to leave out its other historical identities as Grocery Store, Tea Room, Confectionery, and Soda Fountain. Though called a restaurant, it was really a lunch room of the bakery/confectionery type which closed for the evening.

Over its eleven decades in business the homely eating place expanded, changed focus, remodeled, went through three generations of Reeveses plus two or three other owners, burned, rebuilt, closed and disappeared for a few years, reopened at a new location, and through it all managed to build and hold onto an army of loyal followers who still miss it four years after it closed for good in 2007.

How old was it when it closed? I figure it had been 112 years since its founding as a grocery store by Sewell A. Reeves in 1895. Although the restaurant itself as well as newspaper stories usually dated Reeves’s beginnings to 1886, I have found no evidence for that. In 1887, and up to at least 1892, the 1209 F Street site was occupied by G. E. Kennedy’s grocery store, while Sewell Reeves was identified in city directories as a clerk for other businesses. But whatever … Reeves was D.C.’s oldest surviving restaurant when it closed. According to a 1989 column by restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman, its nearest competitor for longevity was Napoleon’s, established in 1925.

During its first three years of existence, Reeves expanded his grocery store by adding coffee roasting and candy making operations, a bakery, and a lunch counter which at first seated only 12 people. By 1902 he had enlarged the building with the bakery and candy departments occupying the second and third floors and the lunch counter lengthened to seat 150. At Sewell’s death in 1941 his son Algernon, who had managed the business since 1916, took ownership.

After Algernon died the business was sold in 1966 by his son John to the Abraham brothers who remodeled the premises and successfully broadened the clientele from its traditional feminine base which had largely deserted F Street stores in favor of suburban shopping centers. The middle and late 1960s, characterized by racial unrest and downtown desolation, marked a low point for Reeves, and it would not have been at all surprising if had met its end around 1970 – but in fact it still had close to 40 years of life left in it.

Reeves remained the kind of comforting eating place known for waitresses with long tenure and a menu untouched by the latest food fashions. Affordably priced dishes such as chicken salad sandwiches and pie, especially strawberry pie, were dependable favorites.

Reeves went through the 1970s with its somewhat dowdy appearance intact. High ceilings were equipped with fans and brass chandeliers, while Tiffany lamps hung over the 100-foot dark cherry counter. [pictured] Then, in 1984, a disastrous fire destroyed the interior. When Reeves reopened in 1985 it had an entirely new look, with blond counters, exposed brick walls, and a dropped ceiling effect with recessed lighting. The old booths were gone, replaced with more comfortable ones padded in dull maroon. Of the original fixtures only the wooden counter stools remained.

Customers had barely adjusted to the modernization when the next blow came in 1988 when the property was sold for $7 million to a developer planning an office building. But Reeves wasn’t finished yet. In 1992 the restaurant’s former general manager reopened it barely a block away on G Street, rehiring much of the old staff and for the next 15 years turning out thousands more strawberry pies.

I have no doubt that even now the occasional visitor can be found on F or G streets looking for Reeves.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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