Tag Archives: bohemianism

Music in restaurants

Because they traveled quite a bit musicians must have made up a notable percentage of early patrons of public eating places. It’s easy to imagine them playing a few tunes in return for their dinner, but if this happened I’ve found no trace of it. The first mention of music I’ve discovered was in 1866, in a description of a small French restaurant in New York with an oyster-shell framed alcove where “sometimes a boy with a violin will seem to afford music to the feast.”

Note the negatively tinged words “seem to afford.” Throughout history there have been plenty of critics of musical “din” in restaurants.

Music in restaurants was apparently a continental custom that migrated to these shores. At first it was highly associated with German restaurants such as Lauber’s at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. But by the late 1890s musical accompaniment with dinner became quite popular and all kinds could be found. “Wild” gypsy music as was played at NYC’s Café Boulevard was a favorite at Hungarian restaurants. Such places were known for their bohemian atmosphere — Why, people even talked to strangers! Later in the evening, the combined effect of food, wine, beer, and strolling musicians would have everyone singing choruses.

Orchestras of young women were also popular. In Boston, D. S. McDonald’s on Tremont  Street served dainty chafing dish specials such as Lobster a l’Americaine and Oyster a la Poulette en Blazer to the tunes of such a group. “This is a touch of Bohemia right in the heart of Boston,” proclaimed a 1903 advertisement.

American restaurant-goers of the turn of the century were evidently longing for the music of exotic others to invigorate and entertain them. On the West coast that often meant Hawaiian hulas. Everywhere else it meant the music of African Americans, especially ragtime.

The naysayers pleaded for quiet with their dinners. Articles in 1904 and 1905 issues of Town and Country, noting that potted palms and Hungarian bands expressed “the spirt of the age,” nonetheless complained that even the Third Avenue Delmonico’s had become “a hall of artificial palms, red paper, gilding and ragtime.”

Some hoped the early, pre-WWI tea room would provide a haven from the “garishness of strong lights, deafening music,” and restless thrill seekers found at the average restaurant. Instead music spread everywhere. Chinese restaurants installed Chinese orchestras which played all the latest rags. Even cafeterias joined the bandwagon.

It wouldn’t be long before clever minds figured out how to automate music in cafes and restaurants. At NYC’s Kalil’s in 1909 recorded voice of Caruso and other famous singers could be played on the Victor Auxetophone loudly enough to be accompanied by a live orchestra. The jukebox would not be far behind. In 1927 an advertisement advised cafeteria owners that the colorful Electramuse stimulated people “to have a good time – to spend MORE money!”

But jukeboxes ran afoul of polite society in short order. They were popular in teen hangouts – and that was part of the problem. Adults shunned these cafes, and neighbors complained about loudness. Fights broke out over musical selections. The jukebox took on associations of low life, not helped one bit by stories like the one that appeared in 1954 about a feuding North Carolina drive-in restaurant operator blasting super-amplified “Shake, Rattle and Roll” at an evangelical meeting across the street. The final straw for the jukebox was its takeover by racketeers.

Muzak fared much better in the restaurant industry than did jukeboxes. It started operation in NYC in 1936 with 40 restaurants as clients. Among its early customers were the dining room in the Algonquin Hotel and the Kungsholm Swedish restaurant on E. 55th Street. At first limited to large cities, technical advances in 1954 permitted Muzak franchises to spread to smaller towns throughout the country.

Today we have the full panoply of music. Rarely do we hear orchestras, but string quartets, harpists, strolling musicians, and canned music are plentiful. Even jukeboxes have been scrubbed clean of their dark past to the delight of patrons of retro diners.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


Filed under restaurant customs, technology

Birth of the theme restaurant


Credit for the development of the first theme restaurants goes to Paris cafés and cabarets which opened in Montmartre in the later nineteenth century. They were primarily drinking spots rather than full-scale restaurants but they served food also. Like American theme restaurants today they were built around a concept and created an environment which appeared to be something other than a mere eating and drinking place.

In their early years these artistic cafés had a counter-cultural impetus that in some cases celebrated the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871 which had been rooted in Montmartre.

That was particularly true of the Café du Bagne (Café of the Penitentiary) established in 1885 by Maxime Lisbonne (shown with waiters), a member of the Commune long exiled in a South Pacific penal colony. Posters on the wall of his café, which replicated a prison eating hall, hailed Commune heroes. Waiters were dressed as real convicts but with fake balls and chains. The place caused an instant sensation when it opened, with patrons lining up outside to get in. Possessed of a socialistic mission, Lisbonne posted a sign in 1886 announcing a free breakfast for the poor residents of Montmartre: “Come, and eat your fill, your appetite sharpened by the knowledge that it was from their [the capitalists] coffers the money was extracted.”

The Chateau d’If’ of the 1880s, possibly an imitator of the Café du Bagne, was designed to resemble the prison by the same name in Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Outside it had an imitation drawbridge which stretched from the street to a large oak door, while inside were cells and dungeons. The L’Abbaye de Thélème, with a medieval theme, dressed its servers as monks and nuns.

At Le Chat Noir, the decor was in Louis XIII style, with waiters dressed in the authentic green jackets of the Immortals of the French Academy whose job it was to protect the purity of the French language – the object being, of course, to mock them. When it was established in 1881, Le Chat Noir, which was also decorated with images of black cats throughout, served as a club for artists where they exhibited their work. Its fame spread quickly and it became a magnet for visitors to Paris. (Later incarnation of Le Chat Noir pictured below.)


Many of the Montmartre cafés celebrated the macabre, with paintings and decor whose subjects included infanticide, crucifixion, and assassination, but in 1894 The Café of Death opened, furnished with coffins serving as tables. The police objected to its name and its habit of serving beer in imitation human skulls so its name was changed to the Cabaret du Néant [of Nothingness] (see above).

The 1890s marked a turning point at which original owners left the scene, artists stopped coming, bohemianism vanished, and new café owners took dead aim at tourists. Certainly few of the popular cafés and cabarets of the early 20th century had much connection with earlier enterprises even when old names remained. Many felt that the Café de l’Enfer (Café of Hell) exemplified the purely commercial type of enterprise.


The spirit of Paris’s bohemian cafés passed into the United States first in New York City. Au Chat Noir was in business there in 1895, decorated with a wall frieze of black cats. Otherwise, though, it seemed like a fairly standard small French restaurant of the day serving dishes such as cold lobster, tripe, and deviled crabs. Later at least a couple of other cafés named The Black Cat appeared in NY and Coppa’s in San Francisco adopted a similar theme.

Other early theme restaurants undoubtedly inspired by Paris cafés include beefsteak dungeons in New York and elsewhere, as well as tea rooms and cabarets in Greenwich Village both before and after World War I, a prime example being the Pirates’ Den. As in Paris, theme restaurants and cafés rapidly lost any counter-cultural overtones.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under Offbeat places, restaurant decor, theme restaurants