Tag Archives: cafes

Black Tulsa’s restaurants

(This post is a footnote to Robin Caldwell’s fine essay on Black grocers in the Greenwood community – my attempt to give some sense of the community by sketching a little about the area’s many restaurants.)

Before the Greenwood district’s destruction in 1921 – evaluated at $536M in property damage in today’s dollars — the area had become home to a prosperous Black business district filled with brick buildings, many of them housing eating places. Its leading citizens had done very well and a Black newspaper, the Tulsa Star, had begun publishing in 1913, with its office located near the heart of the business district at N. Greenwood and E. Archer avenues.

Nonetheless, like all of Tulsa, the area had its share of problems, no doubt due in large part to its rapid growth and the city’s attractiveness to transients and people on the make in both a good and a bad sense. Though generally striking a positive note, The Star complained of inadequate city services reflected in a failure of police to shut down gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging, and the lack of sewers in some parts of the community. Shortly before the massacre area residents petitioned the city, urging annexation of that part of the Black community outside the city limits and lacking modern improvements such as water, street lights, railroad crossings, fire stations, sidewalks, and paved streets. [Shown above: ca. 1915 photo of flooding in the 300 block of N. Frankfort street; Russell & Co. was a black-owned business.]

One of the most successful Black restaurant proprietors was Texas-born Joe Lockard who moved to Tulsa from his farm in Muskogee Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In 1914 he opened The People’s Café near Tulsa’s Frisco train depot. In 1920 he became president of the board of directors of a newly created investment company. That same year a white customer got into an argument with Lockard’s cook, shooting and killing the cook in the cafe’s dining room. Lockard’s café was destroyed by white rioters in 1921, but he continued in the café business into the 1930s, possibly later.

In contrast to Lockard, another Texan, Al Floyd, operator of the Cosy Corner [shown at top, 1915 advertisement from The Tulsa Star], was in business for at most a few years before relocating to Oklahoma City where he managed a railroad café.

The Busy Bee Café was run by Texas-born Savannah Elliott, also known as ‘Mother Elliott” despite only being in her 30s. In 1918 the newspaper mentioned that she entertained groups, such as teachers, and birthday dinners with as many as 17 guests. She sold the 112 N. Greenwood location at the end of that year, and moved to a new place that she operated briefly before again moving to Kansas City MO. In KC she and her husband ran a café called the Blue Goose. [1917 advertisement]

L. W. Wells ran a café in Okmulgee OK in 1914. The following year he moved to Tulsa, working in a white-owned restaurant called the Ever Eat Café. By 1918 he was running two quick-lunch cafes of his own in the Greenwood area where he provided “classy lunches” according to advertisements. It was wartime and business was booming, possibly because soldiers were passing through on the railroad. As the above advertisement indicates he was unable to keep his second location open because of the business crunch which probably meant increased patronage and a simultaneous shortage of help. In 1918 he had a dangerous brush with a drunken customer, engaging in a fist fight with him and pulling a gun. Like Lockard, he owned a farm in Oklahoma and was considered well off. The Star paper noted that for Christmas 1918 he presented his wife and daughter with a piano costing $475. His restaurant on Greenwood Avenue was destroyed in the 1921 attacks. [1918 advertisement]

Most of the cafes in the Greenwood district were basic, pricing meals reasonably, often charging 25 cents for a plated hot dinner. Many were open day and night. Their advertising stressed cleanliness. Most went by their owners’ names but there were also plenty of colorful names such as Busy Bee, Cosy Corner, Crystal, Ideal, Liberty, Little Pullman, Lone Star, Minute, Olympia, Palace, People’s, Red Rose, Square Deal, Star, and Sunny Side. (Because Tulsa was a Jim Crow city, it’s easy to identify which were Black restaurants – they were marked (c) in the city’s business directories.)

The greatest number of restaurants over the years 1913 through 1920 were on North Greenwood avenue. It intersected with East Archer to form the heart of the area’s business district, as well as bearing the brunt of destruction in 1921. East Archer had the second largest number of restaurants. I counted about 30 on North Greenwood during the 8-year period and 15 on East Archer, with another couple dozen on other streets.

Overall, the cafes went through a great deal of turnover and geographical churn – as was common throughout the US. They changed hands or moved to new addresses with some frequency. For example, Susie Bell’s cafe suffered fire damage when the Waffle House next door caught on fire in 1920. Although she had already moved several times, she was not defeated. She went out scouting for a new location early the next morning, confident she would be back in business by evening. In all likelihood she had “regulars” who counted on her to provide their daily meals. Her cafe was destroyed in the massacre. [1913 advertisement]

I had hoped to get an idea of what foods restaurants served, but that turned out to be difficult. Many advertised “home cooking” but almost never mentioned specific dishes. Usually when applied to basic cafes, home cooking referred to plain meat-and-potatoes dinners of the sort preferred by people who relied on restaurants for most of their meals. It’s likely that a fair number of residents of the Greenwood area lived in rooming houses and residential hotels with no cooking facilities. According to the 1920 federal census, about a tenth of Tulsa’s Black population were lodgers.

Though advertising did not offer much idea of what was served in the cafés, two foods were mentioned fairly frequently: Barbecue and Chili. Aside from the Black population born in Oklahoma, the next largest percentage were transplants from Texas, so it isn’t at all surprising that these two foods would be staples. There was also frequent mention of confectionery, pies, and cakes.

The one and only menu I discovered was for a 1918 Christmas dinner, billed as home cooking, at the Sunny Side Café. An advertisement also referred to it as a “Conservation” dinner, reflecting wartime rationing. In addition to a “Christmas Oyster Loaf,” the dinner included: Baked Turkey with Roquefort Dressing; Baked Chicken with Corn Dressing; Roast Goose with Sage Dressing; Smothered Duck with Brown Gravy; Cream Potatoes; Cream Peas; Griddle Corn; Macaroni; Stuffed Tomatoes; Stewed Prunes; String Beans; Cream Cabbage; Cranberry Sauce; Cherry Cobbler and Whip Cream; and the following pies: Pumpkin, Potato Custard, Mince Meat, Lemon Custard, Apple, and Cocoanut Custard.

Despite the enormity of the disaster in which possibly more than 300 Black lives were lost and there was extensive property destruction, survivors went to work almost immediately. Cafes that had been turned into rubble were rebuilt and reopened, and new locations were found. The area rebounded.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under food, proprietors & careers, racism, women

Image gallery: business cards

businesscardRestaurants began using business cards back as far as the 1840s, but most of the early ones in the antiques and collectibles market date from the 1870s and 1880s. Although they are referred to as Victorian trade cards that people saved in scrapbooks, they are essentially business cards that give the restaurant’s name and address, sometimes with a short menu on the back side. I present here some of my favorites, from the late nineteenth century up to today. [above, a ca. 1950s die-cut card] These are some good ones “we think” (see Tom’s Drive-In below).

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businesscard2The Senate Cafe, ca. 1915, was almost certainly a drinking spot first and foremost but the dour Mr. Smith probably provided the boys with light refreshments too.  — From around the same time or a little later, Boldt’s, Seattle. The “Cosy Boxes” were for baked goods to take home.

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BusinessCardTom'sDrive-in

Below: cards I’ve picked up in recent years. Clockwise from top left: Northampton MA; Webster Groves MO; City Cafe, Rochester MN; Girl & the Goat, Chicago [turned on end to fit]; Greenfield MA; NYC.

businesscards874© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under restaurant customs

B.McD. (Before McDonald’s)

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In most towns and cities across the USA the landscape is filled with fast food eateries that belong to chains, McDonald’s obviously being only one. Chain restaurants make up close to half of all restaurants today, and many of them can be classed as fast food places. A large proportion of the meals people eat away from home come from this type of eating place.

Where did people grab a quick bite before the fast food chains came along? What was the ordinary, inexpensive eating place like for so much of the last century, B.McD.?

Let’s peer back into the first half of the 20th century. There were some “quick lunch” chains in existence, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Although high-traffic locations in larger cities were quickly grabbed up by chains such as Baltimore Lunch or John R. Thompson, less desirable sites in cities and on Main Streets in smaller towns were populated with small independent eateries.

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Many, perhaps most, lunch rooms and cafes – not likely to be called restaurants then – occupied storefronts or freestanding one-story buildings of very basic construction. Often they were “mom & pop” operations with one of the pair handling the cooking, the other running the food service side of things. Very likely the proprietors knew most of their customers on at least a first name basis.

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Most lunch rooms shared a basic floor plan in a standard storefront space 18 to 25 feet wide and 75 to 100 feet deep. About 2/3 to 3/4 of the space was devoted to the dining room, the rest making up the kitchen which was hidden behind a wall, partition, or just a curtain.

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Usually seating would include both a counter and some tables or booths along the side or arranged toward the back. Very narrow storefronts had counter seating only. Shelves behind the counter or glass display cases might hold baked goods, packaged groceries, cigars, or candy. A cash register was often a prominent feature.

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In many cases during Prohibition, a café’s or lunch room’s previous status as a barroom was plainly evident.

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Decor, such as it was, was frequently provided by posters and stand-up signs advertising national brands, particularly soft drinks.

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What was gained and what was lost when the old lunch rooms disappeared? It’s a mixed picture. I doubt that their food was much to brag about. Some were clean, some were dirty. Often their menus were limited — but rarely as limited as the fast food chains. Food was served on dishes, not in paper wrappings. They provided service and often friendliness and a sense of community, though it was sometimes circumscribed by race, gender, and familiarity.

I recall walking into a local café in Hannibal MO about ten years ago. The few customers at the counter all turned to stare openly as we came though the door. The proprietor screeched, “Where are YOU from?” We were horrified when the chili came with a big scoop of sour cream on top. She seemed offended when we failed to order pie. I hate to admit it but, all in all, I would have preferred the anonymity of a chain for lunch that day. On the other hand, if we had gone to a chain I wouldn’t remember being in Hannibal at all.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under lunch rooms

Lunch and a beer

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the free lunch wasn’t really free. As everyone knows the patron of a saloon had to buy a beer or some other sort of drink in order to partake of whatever edibles the proprietor had to offer. What might be news, though, is that it wasn’t exactly what we would call lunch nowadays. It was more of a snack eaten between meals, sometimes around noontime, sometimes not.

Although the standard free-lunch time began at 11:00 a.m. through much of the 19th century, some saloon keepers put out a spread as early as 9:00 in the morning, hours after most working people had their breakfasts. Or it might be at night – a kind of happy hour. At some saloons lunch on the house was provided every day, but at others it was more of a special occasion celebrating a grand opening, holiday, or proprietor’s birthday.

The dishes did not conform to our modern idea of a snack. In early June of 1872 the owner of a Sioux City IA saloon promised a Saturday morning spread where patrons could accompany their juleps and Roman punches with oyster soup, fish with egg sauce, deviled ham, lobster salad, pickled oysters, salmon, tongue, pickles, lettuce, and radishes – a very different kind of morning break than today’s coffee and doughnuts. Which proves that our snacks have become lighter, while lunch has gained the stature of a regular meal. It also shows that profit on the sale of whiskey and beer could be more than enough to underwrite a veritable feast.

It’s likely that the free lunch is a very old custom. Certainly there were plenty of free lunches to be had in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s. But in their advertisements saloons rarely described a spread equal to what the drinking man (respectable women did not enter saloons) could find in New Orleans, considered the country’s finest free lunch locale. In Northeastern cities often only plates of crackers and cheese made it onto the counter, possibly accompanied by a crock of soup. The New Orleans free lunch was more elaborate, with beef, mock turtle soup, “delicate slices of highly flavored buffalo tongue,” and “well dressed salads.”

The rule of thumb was that where there was intense competition, there would be high-quality saloon fare. San Francisco qualified, as did St. Louis and Chicago. Chicago’s spreads were rarely elegant, but they were hearty. Beer drinkers there favored sandwiches of dark rye bread piled with liver sausage or herrings, strong mustard, and sauerkraut.

In the 1860s, upscale saloons patronized by better-off customers started calling themselves buffets or cafés. Later some would charge a small charge for a “merchant’s lunch.” Business men liked these lunches because they were quick. The food was ready, no tipping was necessary, and little ceremony was involved. You could eat standing if it suited you, in fact there were few tables and chairs.

Feeling the loss of customers, restaurateurs repeatedly tried to abolish the free lunch habit, as did temperance advocates who wished there could be cheap but respectable restaurants that competed successfully with saloons for the workingman’s business. The average saloon normally charged only 5c for food and drink, an amount for which most restaurants could not furnish a decent meal.

The anti-saloon movement grew stronger with the approach of World War I. Alcohol-free quick lunch chains such as Thompson’s and Child’s — the McDonald’s of their day — learned that by doing a high-volume business they could serve lunches almost as cheaply as saloons. With national prohibition in 1920 the restaurant industry, freed from saloon competition, blossomed and took its modern shape.

Reformers from the 19th century would be thrilled to learn that cheap lunches today are no longer normally washed down with a beer.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under lunch rooms, restaurant customs