Tag Archives: Boston restaurants

Dining with Chiang Yee in Boston

Chiang Yee was a travel writer, born in China but a resident of London since 1933. In 1953 he came to the U. S. to research his book The Silent Traveller in Boston (1959). In 1955 he immigrated to the U.S. and taught at Columbia University for 16 years.

While in London he had published 21 books, many of them which he illustrated with paintings and drawings. Some were about travel but all of them interpreted aspects of Chinese culture for non-Chinese readers, reflecting upon similarities and differences with Western culture. In the travel books, for which he adopted the persona of Silent Traveller, he avoided political criticism and controversy while presenting himself as a serene, meditative man who walked slowly, looked closely, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of life.

Of course his visit to Boston involved quite a few restaurants, including a number of well-known places. He made influential friends — intellectuals and cultural elites — who took him to clubs and fine restaurants such as the Parker House, Locke-Ober, and the hidden-away 9 Knox Street, then run by two men in their antique-filled home at that address.

He went to popular spots such as Durgin-Park, Purcell’s, Jimmy’s Harborside, and Union Oyster House where he made a drawing of himself with a lobster and bib [shown above]. He was eager to sample local dishes such as cod, baked beans, and clam chowder. He never criticized the restaurants he patronized, though he admitted he was not fond of raw seafood.

A darker and far less serene Chiang Yee was revealed in 2010 with the publication of Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller from the East – A Cultural Biography. Its author, Da Zheng, examined Chiang’s correspondence and interviewed friends and family, painting a complex portrait of his subject. In the Foreword, Arthur Danto reminded readers that “the Silent Traveller itself is a mask he wore that enabled him to survive under skies very different from those under which he was born.” Danto related that after visiting China in 1975, Chiang proclaimed to a group of friends, “Nobody knows who I am!! Nobody! I am a REVOLUTIONARY!!!!.”

Chiang had left his wife and four children behind when he went to London at age 30, confessing to his closest associates that his marriage was unhappy. Born into a wealthy family, he was trained in the classical arts as well as science which he studied in college. He had been a magistrate in China but in the West he built his career around Chinese art and high culture.

According to Da Zheng, when one of his sons immigrated to the U.S. in 1960, Chiang advised him to expect hardships and to be forbearing. His son observed that his father’s New York apartment was filled with signs saying “Forbearance,” suggesting that his father had much need of his own advice.

Chiang Yee told his son to stay away from Chinatown or he might end up running a restaurant there, advice he had earlier given his older son in London. Given the prejudice against Chinese in the U.S. and England – of which he was strongly critical — Chiang told them it was wise to cultivate relationships with non-Chinese.

In the light of revelations in his biography of Chiang’s strong feelings about politics, society, and the vicissitudes of his own life, I interpreted some of his words in a different light than on my first reading of The Silent Traveller in Boston. It is interesting how suggestive his stories of restaurants are in particular.

Although he admired Chinatown residents’ determination and drive, he did not share their language or cultural background. He showed some irritation that his non-Chinese friends and acquaintances in Boston expected him to be an expert on American Chinese restaurants. He wrote that a Frenchman would not “be asked to suggest which French restaurant in Boston is the best as I was asked to do in the case of Chinese restaurants almost as soon as I had arrived in the city.”

He also told of experiencing his first clam chowder in San Francisco but being greeted with silence when he told his Boston friends about this. At first he did not realize why, but later, when they asked if he thought food in Chinatown restaurants was genuine, he reminded them of their reaction to his story of eating Boston clam chowder in San Francisco. I now see this as a kind of mild dig at them, a subtle reminder that the food of American Chinatowns was as foreign to him as it was to them.

I also find it interesting that he tells of a dinner with the family of Harvard professor Yang Lien-sheng at the Old Wright Tavern. He was pleased that the waitress complimented the good behavior of the Yangs’ 5-year old son, but also wrote, “Neither the manageress nor the waitress bothered to tell us the history of the inn . . . Perhaps the people of the Wright Tavern had no time to spare from catering. Or they took for granted our knowledge of Concord history.” I suspect that he felt they had been slighted.

He must have experienced numerous “microaggressions.” Surely experiences such as the one he related about Durgin Park accounted for at least some of his Forbearance signs. Given a huge plate of food that he could not finish, a waitress addressing him as “young man” (he was 53), loudly commented, “Can’t you finish your plateful? If you can’t you should not have come here to waste your money; if you don’t like the food, we want to know why. We don’t like people who don’t like our food.” He said that when she laughed he realized she was joking, but admitted to feeling embarrassed. I’m certain that he knew that the “joke” contained a jibe about his being a foreigner.

It is a shame he had to travel silently and could not be as frank about his estimations of American culture as the Soviet authors of Little Golden America.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

3 Comments

Filed under food, patrons, popular restaurants

Delicatessing at the Delirama

The gigantically oversized menu shown here from Jack & Marion’s Delirama in Brookline MA is 21.5 inches tall, 34 inches wide fully opened, and contains over 230 items not counting drinks, desserts, or carry-out Delicacy Platters. It was probably in use from the mid to late 1950s.

Digesting its pink and white interior is a dizzying, yet entertaining, exercise. Some items, such as the Hot Roumanian Pastromi Sandwich, are marked with a red star indicating “good profit item for Jack and Marion’s (Please order).” The Empire State Skyscraper Sandwich comes with a warning “Sissies, Please Don’t Order!” There is a “Jewish Dictionary” that explains that a “Zedeh” is “a grandchild’s press agent” while “Mein Bubbe’s Tahm” means “chopped herring at Jack’s and Marion’s.”

Patrons could join the “Fressers Fraternity” if they cared to admit that they had gluttonous appetites.

Hungry patrons could feast on bowls of sour cream with banana, fresh vegetables, or cottage cheese. Or on “Forshpies (before getting serious . . . a treat!”), in other words appetizers ranging from a dish of Sweet Gherkins (.35) to Chopped Herring (.65) or a Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail (.95). Along with shrimp, the deli also served non-kosher dishes such as Canadian Bacon Steak and Lobster Surprise, one of the most expensive choices at $5.95. Parties of six could feast on a $25 “Sandwich Supreme, served on a sterling silver platter (which remains our property.)” Like delis generally, sandwiches formed the bulk of menu offerings.

The deli on Harvard Street in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner was owned by Jack and Marion Solomon who opened it in 1950, advertising themselves as “designers and builders of the famous Skyscraper Sandwiches.” Jack, who had previously operated a deli in Brighton, explained that he modeled the Delirama on the famous Raymond’s on Boston’s Washington Street. Raymond’s was a bargain store that used corny advertising by a fictitious Unkle Eph who coined the store’s slogan “Where U Bot the Hat.” Jack Solomon said he, much like Raymond’s, had “done everything to make this the most talked-about restaurant.”

For a number of years the deli kept late hours, staying open until 3 a.m. It drew celebrities doing shows in Boston, such as players from the musical revue Bagels and Yox, who performed songs in Yiddish and other languages. In the 1950s it was often mentioned in entertainment columns in Boston newspapers. It was also a popular place for college students and couples on dates.

Despite suffering two bad fires and having the safe stolen, the Delirama persisted. It did, however, eventually withdraw from the entertainment scene and begin to keep earlier hours. The business did not survive long after the death of Jack Solomon in 1971. Despite attempts by his second wife, Valda, to keep it going, it went bankrupt and closed around the mid-1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

Leave a comment

Filed under food, menus, Offbeat places, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

Taste of a decade: the 1830s

Although the U. S. population exceeded 12 million, only about 5% lived in the ten largest cities in 1830. Most Americans lived in sparsely populated areas where they rarely encountered restaurants — nor could they afford them.

Nonetheless, those who did patronize “restaurants” – then more likely to be called restorators, refectories, restaurats, eating houses, coffee houses, or victualing cellars – noticed a growing French influence grafted onto the predominant plain English style of cooking. The word “restaurant,” when used in this decade, usually had the modifier “French” preceding it.

To the relief of diners, it was becoming easier to find eating places that would serve dishes a la carte at the hour the diner wished to eat rather than having a pre-determined meal served only at set hours.

At most eating places the three F’s dominated menus: Fish, Flesh, and Fowl. And, of course, oysters were tremendously popular with all social classes. Occasionally, a restaurant offering a more varied bill of fare could be found, such as that at Robert G. Herring’s American Coffee House in Philadelphia that includes Green “Pease,” String Beans, Lobsters, Frogs, Sardines, Anchovy Toast, Omelet with Asparagus, and Strawberries and Cream.

Patrons of wealth and sophistication indulged in the finest foods that could be found in major cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. According to one observer, worldly young men were becoming knowledgeable about “culinary details” in the early 1830s. “It has become wonderfully fashionable lately in discoursing upon eatable matters,” wrote the author of A Short Chapter on Dining, “to parade the names of a dozen or two of French dishes.”

At the same time a spirit of abstemiousness was spreading as people rejected “ardent spirits” such as gin, rum, whiskey, and brandy. Temperance followers also condemned restaurants themselves, viewing most of them as “grog shops.” During the cholera pandemic of 1832, some temperance advocates went so far as to blame the high death rate among the poor not on urban filth and polluted drinking water, but on alcohol consumption, particularly by Irish immigrants.

In the larger cities, New York especially, many couples and families chose to live in hotels and boarding houses rather than run their own households, finding it both cheaper and easier. Others, who lived in their own residences, took their meals in nearby hotels or had them delivered by a restaurateur.

Two English women who visited this country wrote scathing accounts of life here, painting Americans as shallow, grasping, and dull. In Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, she observed how American conversation frequently included the word “dollar,” and also noted, “They consume an extraordinary quantity of bacon.” The actress Fanny Kemble’s Journal (1835) included among its “vituperative remarks” criticism of New York hotels and their rigid meal schedules.

As railroads and waterways were extended, newly settled areas of the country gained access to more oysters, seafood, and exotic fruits. In 1832 a traveler recorded that he ate “fine sea fish and oysters one hundred and fifty miles inland – drank punch from fruit imported from the Indies, at Pittsburg, and sat down to a dessert in Cincinnati, the ingredients of which were the delicacies of every clime.”

Highlights

1831 After visiting the dining room of the recently opened Tremont House in Boston, a Baltimore man writes that he finds it an “essential improvement in tavern keeping” that everyone dining there receives a bill of fare listing all dishes to be served at that meal. Otherwise, he comments, a diner departing from the dining hall usually discovers favorite dishes placed on another part of the long shared table that never made it to him.

1832 In Domestic Manners of the Americans, Frances Trollope asks why Americans are so fond of boarding in residential hotels: “What can induce so many . . . citizens to prefer these long, silent tables, scantily covered with morsels of fried ham, salt fish and liver, to a comfortable loaf of bread with their wives and children at home?” she writes.

1833 Harvey D. Parker – who will establish the luxury Parker House and Restaurant in 1855 — takes over the Tremont Restorator in a cellar on Boston’s Court Street and publishes the protein-rich bill of fare shown here.

1833 The owner of a new refectory on Whale Street in Nantucket advertises that he will provide Pies, Tarts, Custards, Oysters, Fish Chowder, Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Mush & Milk, Beer, and Cider, but that he has promised his landlord he will “keep no ardent spirits of any description for sale” even though he knows it will mean lower profits.

1834 Francois Parrot, “French Cook, Restaurateur & Confectioner” in Philadelphia, announces “that after a long residence with the Count of Survilliers, he has, with recommendations from him for professional capacity and moral character (which he will be happy to shew any one), determined to set up a Cooking Establishment and Eating House in Philadelphia.”

1835 The popular Alexander “Sandy” Welsh, president of the Hoboken Turtle Club and famous for his green turtle soup, expands his Terrapin Lunch in New York City and is now able to accommodate 150 seated in small groups.

1836 After the opening of the Merchant’s Exchange Lunch on Broadway, a patron sends a glowing review to the editor of the New York Herald citing its fine cooking, clean tablecloths, damask napkins, excellent ventilation, and cheerful servers. “Only think,” he writes, “a plate of the best meat, including four kinds of vegetables, and the best butter also, in these dear times too, is only eighteen pence.”

1837 Following the destruction of their restaurant on William Street in the great fire of 1835, the Delmonico brothers open a new 4-story restaurant on the corner of Beaver and William Streets. [1880 photo shown at top, demolished 1890] Visitors are overwhelmed with its magnificence, particularly its wine vaults that extend 180 feet under the streets and hold 20,000 bottles of imported French and German wine. The restaurant’s resplendence is all the more striking as the city suffers bank failures, worthless currency, and economic depression.

1837 Outrage erupts when New Yorker Samuel E. Cornish, editor of The Colored American, discloses that he was refused service at a temperance eating house run by an abolitionist Scottish immigrant. Explaining that he has never before encountered discrimination of this sort, Cornish writes, “It remained for a foreigner, in a cellar cook-room, to insult a native citizen, of 17 years residence in this city; and to deny a minister of Christ, of gray hairs, and twenty-five years’ standing in the Presbyterian church, a cup of Tea.”

1837 As a result of economic collapse, businesses distrust paper money and refuse to give coins [aka “specie”] as change. When they do agree to accept bills they return change in the form of tickets good for future purchases. A patron of a NYC eating house becomes indignant when “a negro named Downing,” “a black villain,” refuses to accept his dollar bill. But the newspaper to which he has complained defends the proprietor, asking, “Why should any man be compelled to take worthless paper money for his goods and wares? When I visit Downing’s, I never give or take paper money. I pay in specie entirely.”

1839 At a “restaurat” in New Orleans, patrons attending summer balls are warned not to bring their guns.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

6 Comments

Filed under elite restaurants, food, menus, patrons, proprietors & careers, racism, restorators

High-volume restaurants: Hilltop Steak House

Until I moved to Boston in the 1980s and took a whale watch tour I hadn’t heard the boastful term “biggest grossing” thrown around. In pointing out the highlights of the Boston Harbor, the tour operator singled out several booming enterprises including Anthony’s restaurant. Had we been on a tour of Route 1 north of Boston, I’m sure he would have shouted the praises of the Hilltop Steak House, another mega-volume eatery, where a team of in-house butchers carved up millions of steaks a year, the parking lot held 1,000 cars, and customers waited in long lines outside the door.

I never went there. I was not one of the 2,350,000 or so customers who patronized the Hilltop in 1985, for example, one of a number of years when it ranked as the #1 independent restaurant in the USA from a high-grossing perspective, with over $24 million in annual sales.

Established in 1961 with seating for 125, the Western-themed restaurant continued to grow in subsequent years, with more dining rooms brightened with the standard steakhouse blood red color scheme, seating 1,100 by 1970, with an enlarged parking lot, and a huge 68-foot high lighted cactus sign out front.

Dining rooms were adorned with totem poles, reproductions of Remington and Russell paintings, and life-size Indian figures. The rooms had names meant to conjure up the Wild West such as Sioux City and Kansas City. No doubt the names rang true to diners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts but would have amused residents of those Iowa and Missouri cities which are conspicuously lacking in Western symbology.

Guests appreciated big steaks, low prices, and free parking. Prices were premised on sales volume, rapid table turns, cash-only payment, no reservations, and limited menu choices. Steaks could vary in grade, customers could not send back too-well-done steaks, orders could not be split, and there were no tablecloths. There was only one salad dressing and appetizers and desserts were uninspired – Jello was one of the three desserts on a 1981 menu. “I have nothing against lobster thermidor,” owner Frank Giuffrida told a reporter in 1984, “but don’t come to the Hilltop Steak House and expect to find it.”

The restaurant was prominently visible on Route 1’s tacky, wacky restaurant row where other high-grossing restaurants were also located, making the roadway a New England phenomenon in its own right. The Hilltop’s location was conveniently near the Mystic Bridge, the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels, Logan Airport, the Southeast Expressway, and Routes. 128, 28, 3, and 93. Busses were welcome!

The Hilltop’s founder, Frank Giuffrida, owned the restaurant until 1988, retiring as a rich man despite never having attended high school. In 1940, when Frank was 23, he was a butcher in the family meat market. His parents were born in Italy and had once toiled in a Lawrence MA woolen mill. In the 1950s he owned a tavern-style eatery called the Hilltop Lounge not far from where the steakhouse would be located.

Frank sold the Hilltop corporation in 1988 though he held onto the building and the large plot of land it occupied. The sale came with an agreement that the Giuffrida family would eat at the restaurant for free for the rest of their lives and that they would never have to wait in line for a table.

By the late 1990s restaurant competition on Route 1 had grown fierce. Weylu’s, another Route 1 top-grosser serving as many as 5,000 meals a day at its peak, went into bankruptcy in 1999 and closed. The Hilltop shrank its seating capacity to a mere 850 guests, but carried on until 2013. Both Weylu’s and the Hilltop have been demolished.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

9 Comments

Filed under decor, family restaurants, food, menus, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers, signs

Find of the day: Hancock Tavern menu

hancocktaverndoublemenu

When I found this menu from Boston’s Hancock Tavern [shown front & back] at a flea market my first question was how old it was. As soon as I began researching I learned that proprietor Wadsworth & Co. had taken over in 1897 and that the building pictured was torn down in the spring of 1903. That narrowed things down.

At that point I thought I knew enough to consider the question of the tavern’s history, starting with “Built 1634″ as noted on the menu.

Then, everything began to unravel, including the menu’s date.

hancocktavern1867corncourtI discovered that Edward & Lucina Wadsworth had reopened the Hancock Tavern in 1904 at “the identical site of the original historic structure.” Which had been razed. It took a while to figure that one out but I eventually determined that the reborn Hancock Tavern was located in the rear, Corn Court side, of a new office building facing on State Street. [sketch of map fragment shows Corn Court and Hancock Tavern in 1867]

Then I found a story about a menu like mine found in a collection of items related to the Hancock Tavern — similar except that it said “Visit the Historic Tea Room Up Stairs. In this room the ‘Boston Tea Party’ made their plans, and dressed as Mohawk Indians to destroy the tea in Boston harbor, Dec. 16, 1773.” Since mine simply says “Private Supper Rooms Up Stairs for Ladies and Gentlemen,” I decided that it probably dates from the reincarnated Hancock Tavern, which would put it between 1904 and approximately 1910.

Much bigger mysteries surrounded the history of Hancock Tavern. By the late 19th century legends about the tavern abounded, beginning with the notion that it dated from 1634 as the continuation of a tavern begun by Samuel Coles. It was also said to have hosted John Hancock, exiled French king Louis Philippe, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and French foreign minister Talleyrand. But the grandest legend concerned the conspirators in the “Boston tea party.” Beginning in the 1880s, the various proprietors of the Hancock Tavern spun historic tales about this.

hancocktaverndec1898In December of 1898, the Daughters of the American Revolution, dressed as Colonial maids, met at the Hancock Tavern to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the tea party. On the wall was a somewhat more detailed inscription, likely put there by the Wadsworths: “In this room the Boston tea party made their plans and dressed as Mohawk Indians, and went to Griffin’s (now Liverpool) wharf, where the ships Beaver and Eleanor and Dartmouth lay, and threw overboard 342 chests of tea, Dec. 16, 1773.” Later, the Wadsworths produced a souvenir booklet of historic lore.

But the link between the tavern and the Revolution, as well as its ancient status, were thrown into doubt in 1903 when City Registrar Edward W. McGlenen announced that the just-razed building that had housed the Hancock Tavern had been erected between 1807 and 1812. Furthermore, he said, its predecessor on the same site, a two-story house, had not been granted a tavern license until 1790, ruling out any associations with the Revolution. He also showed that Samuel Coles’ Inn, reputedly built in 1634, was an entirely separate property, thereby demolishing the Hancock Tavern’s claim to be Boston’s oldest tavern. The legends, he said, had developed from a number of fanciful books and articles from the 19th century that were in conflict with town records.

And so my menu, though still more than 100 years old, lost some of its charm.

On the bright side, though, I learned a few things about the operation of 19th-century taverns. I learned that Mary Duggan, widow of the first licensee, ran the tavern for a number of years after her second husband died. In addition to supplying the finest liquors, she advertised in 1825 that she had engaged a “professed COOK” who would have soup ready from 10 to 12 o’clock (then the standard time to eat soup), and would prepare supper parties “at the shortest notice.”

I also realized how much turnover there was in the tavern business. During most of the 19th century the Hancock Tavern was leased out to a succession of proprietors who either handled its alcohol and food service or the entire operation, which included lodging.

It fell on hard days sometime before the Wadsworths took over in 1897. Their energetic attempts to raise its historic value may have sprung in part from the fact that it had spent some years as a gambling den. In a city with many old buildings, most Bostonians did not care about it.

Having the bad luck to be located in what was fast becoming Boston’s financial district, the building was doomed, but the legend of Hancock Tavern’s link to the tea party lived on. The Arkansas Gazette reported in 1976:

hancocktavern1976© Jan Whitaker, 2016

6 Comments

Filed under atmosphere, history, menus, odd buildings, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers

Famous in its day: Fera’s

fera'sfrontIn the second half of the 19th century wealthy families patronized Fera’s Confectionery and Restaurant in Boston, which had earned a reputation for high quality pastries and candies throughout the East. The business was established ca. 1855 in the basement of the Temple Club on West Street, and after 1876 was located on Tremont across from the Common and near the Boston Theatre. [The trade card shown front and back in this post is probably from the 1880s.]

At Fera’s, patrons could enjoy dainty luncheons or after-theater suppers or could arrange to have the firm cater their next dinner party, complete with table ornaments. Women shoppers might stop there for lunch or bon bons after a visit to the shopping district where, in 1866 for instance, they could consult a clairvoyant or pick up such things as freckle lotion, a new perfume from Mexico called Opoponax, potted meat, or library slippers. Fera’s was especially popular with female patrons, as was always the case with confectioneries in the days when many other kinds of restaurants were considered off-limits to respectable women. [see 1866 advertisement below]

fera's1866

Respectability in eating places was not easily achieved then and it’s surprising that Fera’s was able to rescue its reputation from a scandal it was caught up in not long after opening. It was constantly in the newspapers in 1857 because of a sensational divorce case in which a husband alleged that his wife had committed an “adulterous act” in Fera’s. Although the defendant’s lawyer argued that no such occurrence took place since the restaurant was “a wide hall” that was “open all the way through” (i.e., not divided into small private rooms or boxes), the divorce was granted, branding the defendant as an adulteress and leaving in doubt what had occurred where.

Somehow Fera’s survived the scandal, as well as George Fera’s own marital breakup, fires, robberies, changes of address, and a couple of bankruptcies.

At the Tremont address Fera’s was divided into two sections with the restaurant occupying space behind the confectionery and separated by an arched doorway. After redecorating in 1887, the restaurant was painted in cream and gold, with lower walls in marble and upper walls hung with large mirrors. Electric lights were installed, producing a  bright and glittering style that emulated a Paris café.

fera'sback

Like many Europeans in the culinary trades who came to this country, George Fera had traveled a prestigious career path before arriving on U.S. soil in his early 20s. Born in Lübeck, Germany, he compressed a lifetime into a few years. Starting out at a young age he had trained in confectionery in Paris, succeeding so well that he was appointed confectioner to the Czar of Russia in St. Petersburg, where he remained for a number of years. Upon his arrival in the United States, he went to work at a New Orleans hotel, moving from there to New York City where he was employed by the famed confectioner Henry Maillard. He was said to have made for Maillard’s the first caramels produced in this country.

George Fera retired around 1890 and his two sons, who had been working with him for years, took over. In 1892 Fera’s closed and the furnishings and equipment were auctioned, including in part: “30 marble-top saloon tables, 75 bentwood chairs, 5 nickel plated show cases, one show case with deck, one square [show case] with fancy chocolates, two large mirrors, candy jars, 50 doz. wine, cordial and hot water glasses, decanters, Eper[g]nes punch bowl, triple plated spoons, knives and forks, plated castors, water pitchers and cold water urn, 600 decorated French china plates, platters, compotes, pitchers, cups and saucers, &c., Jap. plates, fine lot candies, French wedding cake ornaments, fruits and marmalades in jars, costume crackers, candy machines, bon bons, ice cream apparatus, &c.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

Leave a comment

Filed under confectionery restaurants, food, history, proprietors & careers

Famous in its day: Thompson’s Spa

thompson'sSpa782Beverages have played a big role in the operation of restaurants. I even tend to sort them mentally by what kind of drinks they featured. That is, by whether they had a bar or dealt in alcoholic beverages or were based around coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Throughout history many restaurants began as saloons, coffee houses, or soft drink stands.

Thompson’s Spa, a long-gone chain in Boston that grew to about a dozen units in the 1930s, began as a soda fountain – a “spa” — selling non-alcoholic “temperance drinks.” Open year round, it provided both cold and hot drinks such as these from its 1895 menu:Thompsons'SpaTemperanceDrinks1895In case anyone wandered in thinking they were going to get a whiskey, a sign hanging on the wall set them straight: “This is a temperance bar.” Not a big problem since they could duck around the corner and into the alley where the Bell in Hand stood, looking to all appearances like an old London tavern.

Before very long Thompson’s proprietor, Charles Eaton, added sandwiches, doughnuts, and pie to the menu, ALL of which counted as basic foodstuffs – not desserts — to Bostonians then.

thompson'sSpaNewspaperRow1929Eaton was a graduate of MIT who in 1880, after briefly practicing as an architect in his home town of Lowell MA, had invented an electric telephone signaling device that he sold to Bell Telephone. For some odd reason he chucked that career and joined his brother-in-law (named Thompson) in running a wholesale drug store in Boston. Perhaps selling was in his genes; his father had done well peddling snacks to railroad passengers, thereby earning the title “popcorn king of Lowell.” The drug business must have been slow because in 1882 Eaton and Thompson decided to install a soda fountain for non-alcoholic beverages.

The original Thompson’s Spa was located on the corner of Washington and Court streets in Newspaper Row where the city’s newspapers were located and also home to many of their employes. Near Thompson’s was Pi Alley, aka Pie Alley and officially Williams Court, where many printers, compositors, and pressmen lived in rooming houses and, undoubtedly, ate in restaurants. Eating places were accordingly plentiful in the neighborhood, among them Gridley’s Coffee House and Mrs. Atkinson’s.

thompson'sSpa783

Thompson’s kept the appellation “spa” even as it gradually expanded into a regulation restaurant. It added a fuller menu plus much-appreciated amenities such as seats for customers, who had previously had to stand while they ate. Women were finally admitted in 1909. [1933 dinner menu shown]

Although Thompson’s had servers, the spa exhibited some of the earmarks of an automat. Like the early German automat which was primarily a delivery system for beverages, Thompson’s had an elaborate piping system to supply chilled liquids to serving counters. With the decision to add ice cream to the menu in 1915, a new soda fountain was installed that permitted syrups to flow through pipes as well. A bonus was that the soda clerks could prepare an entire ice cream soda or sundae while facing the customers rather than turning their backs.

Thompson'sSpa4GuardsmenBillSamArthurGiffordAfter Eaton’s death in 1917, followed by a bitter battle with his widow, his three sons took over the business and began to expand it beyond the sprawling Washington street edifice it had become. By 1939 it occupied eleven locations in downtown Boston. In addition to soda fountains the Spas had air conditioning, sound proofing, table service, and wall murals. But the company’s finances were not in good shape, due partly to overexpansion during the Depression. In 1946 it was acquired by the Sheraton (hotel) Corporation which daringly installed a cocktail bar at the Washington Street location. In 1949 Sheraton sold the company to New York’s Exchange Buffet Corporation which also failed to make a go of it and began closing units in 1952.

In 1958 the two Spas that remained, one of them on Washington street near the original location, were closed. Former executives and employees tried to carry on at one location for a few years.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

15 Comments

Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms