Tag Archives: California restaurants

All you can eat

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Except for the patrons of rarefied restaurants for whom exquisitely hand-crafted miniature food represents the triumph of artistic appreciation over animal hunger, most people like food in quantity. Even if they do not eat a great deal, they like the idea that they could if they wanted to.

allyoucaneatJPG1896ElyriaOHRestaurants advertising free seconds — or thirds — can be found in the 19th century, one example being the City Restaurant in Elyria OH in 1896 [shown here]. But it wasn’t until the Depression of the 1930s that the all-you-can-eat idea became a newsworthy phenomenon. In response to declining business, restaurants such as Childs in the East and Boos Brothers in the West took advantage of falling food prices by offering patrons as much of whatever they wanted for a set price of 50 or 60 cents.

In this Depression experiment restaurant proprietors learned something important about how people react when offered unlimited food. A few people went crazy, stuffing down as much as they could [below: Peter Rabbit cartoon by Harrison Cady, 1933], but most didn’t eat more than they normally would. If they overindulged in anything, it was desserts.

allyoucaneatJPG1933PeterRabbitHarrisonCady

All-you-can-eat as an adaptation to challenging economic conditions did not altogether disappear with the end of the Depression. Many restaurants found that having one night a week when they offered a special deal on a particular food, especially fried chicken or fish, could fill the house on a perpetually slow weeknight or help to build business generally.

Smorgasbords based on Swedish hors d’oeuvres tables also made their debut in the 1930s. At Childs and other Depression all-you-can-eat restaurants patrons relied on a server to bring their order, but smorgasbords introduced a novel approach: patrons helped themselves to relishes and appetizers from an attractively laid out table, and were then served with their main course as in a traditional restaurant.

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The smorgasbord idea, it turned out, was a step on the way to the all-you-can-eat buffet. In the 1950s and 1960s chains developed whose entire business plans were based on bargain-priced buffets abounding with macaroni and cheese, chow mein, fried chicken wings, and “sparkling salads,” i.e. jello. Chains divested smorgasbords of their ethnic overtones even as some continued to call themselves by that name. In California, the word “smorgy” emerged (variations included smorga, smorgee, & smorg-ette). Rather than using round smorgasbord serving tables with food presented in decorative bowls and platters, high-volume chains tended toward cafeteria-type service with stainless steel pans.

allyoucaneatEric'sSwedishSmorgasbordGlendoraCA

California smorgys displayed seeming cultural diversity, with Ramona’s Smorgy, Mario’s Smorgy, and Gong Lee’s Smorgy. I’m still trying to grasp the concept behind Johnny Hom’s Chuck Wagon/Hofbrau/Smorgy in Stockton CA, the town that may have merited the title of smorgy capital of the U.S.A.

Along with the Swedish smorgasbord tradition, the spread of buffets and smorgys nationwide may have been aided by the $1.50 midnight spreads in Las Vegas casinos, which in the 1950s gave all-you-can-eat a popular culture imprimatur.

Opinion has been divided as to whether all-you-can-eat (or the more genteel “all-you-care-to-eat”) restaurants tended to serve cheap and inferior food. Many restaurants stressed that they baked daily, made their own sauces, or used fresh vegetables. “At Perry Boys’ Smorgy Restaurant, an inexpensive price doesn’t mean a cheap product,” according to an advertisement listing brand name foods in use. Yet, a 1968 restaurant trade journal seemed to suggest otherwise judging from its advice that “attractive buffet fare based on low-cost foods is essential.” For Quick Chicken Tetrazzini, it recommended mixing pre-cooked diced chicken with condensed mushroom soup and serving it over noodles.

As popular as all-you-can-eat restaurants were in the 1960s and 1970s, they suffered in the public relations department. They often undermined their own mini-industry with insults slung at each other. Is it helpful while touting your own restaurant to remind the public that “the words ‘all you can eat’ often mean quantity at the expense of quality”? And what does it say about the many restaurants advertising fried perch specials when a competitor says of its fish: “This is NOT frozen perch”?

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Likewise some operators took an unfortunate “the customer is not always right” stance by posting signs that warned patrons to take no more than they could eat [see above]. This was directed at those, admittedly a small minority (but still!), who came equipped with plastic-lined handbags or special pouches in their coats in which to stow food to carry away. Meanwhile, other proprietors denounced these warning signs as an insult to guests.

Customers with huge appetites were another species of problem that most all-you-can-eat restaurants tried to be philosophical about, figuring above-average consumption would be balanced by the light eaters. Proprietors told themselves that the man who downed 90 steamed clams, or the one who swallowed 40 pieces of fried chicken, would provide free advertising when he boasted at work how much he ate. Families were prized customers, construction gangs less so. And they dreaded school football teams. Some restaurants located near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found it necessary to put restrictions on salad bars.

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Let’s face it, since the fall of Rome, gorging has been seen as unattractive. Restaurant owners and employees sometimes expressed disgust at customer behavior such as grabbing food off trays as staff tried to replenish buffets. “It’s disgusting,” said the proprietor of a Dallas all-you-can-eat steak restaurant, adding, “Some of them just ought to be led off to a big, old hog trough.” Another manager admitted that workers called customers “animals” in private. “You lose your appetite working in a place like this,” said one.

As a reporter wrote of Las Vegas buffets in 1983, “If I ever see another metal pan of mashed potatoes awash in melted margarine, another sea of macaroni salad, another ‘medley’ of canned corn, carrots and peas . . .” Stop right there!

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, food, patrons, popular restaurants, restaurant etiquette

Revolving restaurants II: the Merry-Go-Round

merrygoroundLA1930sApart from amusement parks, I think of merry-go-rounds mostly in conjunction with bars. It seems they served as jolly imbibing venues in the 1930s after Prohibition ended. It makes me mildly queasy to think of them going round and round but presumably they revolved very slowly and presented no hazards to tipsy customers. [pictured below is San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel bar during WWII]

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Even before revolving bars came upon the scene restaurateurs were dreaming up various sorts of revolving restaurants. I’ve written before about rotating restaurants atop tall buildings that let diners gaze upon ever-changing vistas spread out before them. California also had counter-style restaurants made with a revolving inner counter that held food in glass-enclosed compartments, almost like a revolving Automat, but without slots for coins. Some were round while others had a U-shape.

Merry-Go-Round-CafeNo.4Gustav and Gertrude Kramm were likely the first to introduce the merry-go-round concept to diners. Around 1930 they established two Merry-Go-Round Cafes in Long Beach CA incorporated as Revolving Table Cafés, Ltd. The corporation also produced the revolving serving tables. In 1931 Gustav filed a patent application for a “Café Table of the Traveling Conveyor Type,” for which engineer Harold Hackett was listed as inventor. It involved two conveyors, the top loaded with prepared relishes, salads, sandwiches, and desserts, and the lower one transporting dirty dishes to the kitchen. The conveyor traveled slowly enough, and the selection of dishes was repeated often enough, that customers could lift the glass doors and remove food easily.

merrygoroundcafeSFHot food, particularly main dishes, soup, and coffee, was delivered by servers who worked behind the counter.

Essentially the conveyor system was implemented so that the maximum number of customers could be served a fairly wide range of food inexpensively in a limited amount of space. The specialty of the Merry-Go-Rounds was the provision of full meals averaging 35 to 50 cents, an attractive bargain during the Depression. For 50 cents diners could order a main dish such as Ham Steak with Country Gravy and then choose two salads and two desserts from the revolving counter, along with all the relishes, rolls & butter, and coffee they wanted.

The Kramms operated some of the Merry-Go-Rounds and leased others. By the end of 1930 there were units in Long Beach (2), Los Angeles (4), and Seattle WA (1). Later Merry-Go-Rounds were opened in Huntington Park, Pasadena, San Diego, San Francisco, and possibly Santa Barbara, California. I’m not sure how long the restaurants remained in business but I could find no trace of them beyond 1941.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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We never close

allnight758One way of sorting eating places is by the hours they keep. Those that are open 24 hours a day stand out from the crowd by their tirelessness and involvement in sometimes unwanted adventures.

Mostly there are three kinds of customers for all-night restaurants: those who travel at night, those who work at night, and those who play at night.

In pre-Civil War NYC all night eateries were haunts of “b’hoys,” a class of rogue males (sometimes accompanied by their g’hals) prominently made up of firemen and the more prosperous newsboys. They enjoyed oyster cellars, but one of their favorite places in the 1840s was Butter-cake Dick’s, where for a mere 6 cents they could get a generous plate of biscuits with butter and a cup of coffee.

ComicCheatingHusbandThe authors of the many Victorian “lights and shadows” books about urban immorality were quite fascinated by the dubious goings on in all-night supper clubs. No doubt their readers felt a shiver of horrified excitement when they spotted signs along city streets advising “Ladies’ dining parlor, up stairs”’ or “Refreshments at all hours.” Was it or wasn’t it?

One such book was George Ellington’s The Women of New York; Or, the Under-world of the Great City. But even Ellington observed that patrons of private dining rooms in these quasi-bordellos were also there to eat. He reported that patrons could be discovered consuming fish balls or pickled salmon at 3 or 4 a.m.

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People working at night surely outnumbered the pleasure seekers. Thomas Edison recalled that when his machine shop was on Goerck Street in NYC in the 1880s he used to grab a bite at 2 or 3 a.m. at a rough little place: “It was the toughest kind of restaurant ever seen. For the clam chowder they used the same four clams during the whole season, and the average number of flies per pie was seven. This was by actual count.” No doubt many of his fellow diners included some outside the law but also other denizens of the night such as newspaper printers, trolley conductors, bakers, and factory shift workers.

All-night restaurants were not just found in NYC but in all big cities and were often densest in areas near newspapers, city food markets, and ferries. Chicago’s all-night cafes on State Street were often portrayed as unsavory places where police connected with “stool pigeons” enjoying their midnight snack. Upstanding citizens shrank from the mere thought of all-night eateries but in actuality they were probably some of the most democratic places in that they drew characters from all stations of life.

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An all-nighter of renown in the 20th century was Coffee Dan’s, originally in San Francisco, which operated as an eating and entertainment venue, then a speakeasy in the 1920s and early 1930s. Its attitude in the mid-1920s is nicely expressed in the claim, “There will be dancing to the tinkle of a piano; there will be songs and it will never, never close, not even for fire, not even if the supply of ham and eggs is exhausted.” Coffee Dan’s expanded into a small chain and the Hollywood location became something of a gay hangout in the 1950s, a role played by all-night cafeterias such as Stewart’s in NYC’s Greenwich Village.

With so many night shifts for war workers in World War II, the demand for all-night restaurants rose to new heights. A 1948 restaurant sanitation manual noted how difficult it became to clean restaurants during wartime because of the never-ceasing 24-hour influx of customers.

allnight757The only figures I’ve run across concerning all-night restaurants were from the mid-1960s when 10% of eating places fell into that category. Some chain restaurants, especially coffee shops, pancake houses, and places offering breakfast at all hours, are founded on the 24-hour principle. Often they are located near highway exits to capture truck drivers and other nocturnal travelers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

See also:
Toddle House
Cabarets and lobster palaces

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The Swinger

JackLalanneI published a recipe for The Aware Inn’s famed sandwich “The Swinger” some time back. But now I have a new improved version, thanks to Isis Aquarian, one of the members of Jim Baker’s commune when he was a spiritual leader named Father Yod. She was one of his 14 wives, as well as the commune’s historian and archivist. (A 2012 documentary film and book about the Source family commune is available.)

This recipe, which is superior to the one I found earlier, was published in the late fitness teacher Jack LaLanne’s 1962 book Abundant Health and Vitality after 40. Isis was hunting for an authentic recipe for the sandwich and was steered in the right direction by Jack’s son Dan (shown below in a recent photo with Isis). I can see that the proportions make more sense and that the eggs, missing previously, would be needed to hold it all together.

isisANDdanAccording to Isis, Jack LaLanne was not much of a restaurant goer until Jim Baker and his wife opened up The Aware Inn. He became a frequent visitor, along with many other health-conscious Hollywood celebrities such as Ed “Kookie” Byrnes of the TV show Seventy-Seven Sunset Strip.

Jack and Jim had known each other even before Jim moved to California in 1951 and joined the Nature Boys, a group of young men including LaLanne who lived in Topanga Canyon where they slept outdoors, got good tans, and ate an organic diet.

Needless to say, to follow Jim’s recipe correctly the beef used in The Swinger should be from naturally raised cattle and free of hormones and other injected chemicals.

4 lb ground beef
2 whole eggs
1 cup chopped green pepper
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup diced tomatoes
1 cup cheddar cheese
½ cup finely chopped green olives

Jack says in his book to mix and “caress” all the ingredients into large patties. Cook on a grill or broil. Do not use charcoal. He also advises, “Best served rare.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Name trouble: Sambo’s

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You might imagine that chain restaurants would spend vast amounts of time and money researching potential names in order to pick one that would convey exactly the desired associations and nuances. Certainly one that would not insult a portion of its intended customers.

I’m sure most do. Sambo’s was not among them.

Wouldn’t the founders of Sambo’s, in the late 1950s, dimly perceive that the name Sambo was not beloved by everyone, especially African-Americans?

Why would they decorate with images from the book “Little Black Sambo,” the American editions of which were filled with racist caricatures?

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Evidently they had no idea that Sambo had been – and still was – a derogatory word for black males for over 100 years; that the name and ridiculous images of Sambo were used on many consumer products in the early 20th century; and that after WWII school libraries had complied with requests by African-Americans to remove the book from shelves.

Even if they didn’t know any of this, when protests erupted they might have realized they had made a terrible mistake. Regardless of whether “Sam-bo” originated from the first name of one of them combined with the nickname of the other.

Nope, nope, nope, and double nope.

Instead the founders, their successor, and the corporation that finally took over the chain all insisted right up to the bitter end that no harm was intended or implied. Even as they renamed some units in the East where there had been boycotts, the company insisted the change was purely in order to market their new menus.

sambo's216CabrilloHwy1960The first Sambo’s was opened in Santa Barbara in 1957. [pictured] By 1977, when the son of one of the founders was heading the company, the chain was the country’s largest full-service restaurant chain, with 1,117 units.

But trouble was looming. Protests during the West Coast chain’s expansion into the Northeast had already resulted in renaming units in the Albany NY area “Jolly Tiger.” Eventually there were 13 Jolly Tigers in various towns. Protest would spread to Reston VA, New York, and New England including at least 9 towns in Massachusetts. In 1981 the Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights ordered the company to change its name in that state because indirectly the name violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by denying public accommodations to black persons.

SambosNoPlaceLikeSam'sLogo1981The company responded that it would rename 18 of its Northeastern units “No Place Like Sam’s”; in fact according to an advertisement a few months later they actually renamed 41 units.

Soon thereafter the company began to collapse. In November 1981 it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, closing more than a third of its units. In Leominster and Stoughton MA, early morning customers had to pick up and get out immediately so the restaurants could be padlocked.

In 1982 all, or most, remaining Sambo’s were renamed Seasons. By 1984 most of the Seasons restaurants had been sold to Godfather’s Pizza and other buyers.

The successive name switches undoubtedly hurt business, but a more serious problem was that Sambo’s, like other chains using a coffee shop format with table service and extensive menus, had been steadily losing out to fast food chains.

The chain is kaput yet the beat goes on. The original Sambo’s in Santa Barbara continues in business under new ownership – still using the thoroughly discredited name. On its website it also continues the threadbare tradition of justifying the name as a compound of the founders’ names.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under chain restaurants, racism

Fortune’s cookies

fortunecookiecolorThey’ve been used in political campaigns, as a method of publicizing new movies, and as a clever way to announce engagements, but most people have encountered fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants.

Searching for their origins in old Chinese customs is pointless because the fortune cookie was almost certainly “invented” in America, in California to be more specific. And probably by Japanese confectioners as a variety of senbei wafers.

Yet, even with their probable Japanese origins, there is nothing particularly Asian about them. The idea of embedding charms or slips of paper with fortunes on them in pastries and candies is an old idea in Western culture. The Victorians loved such things. Halloween was a popular time for fortune cakes and cookies and even fortune popcorn balls. A 1903 book suggested fortunes such as “You are going to marry and live abroad.” and “Thy flour barrel shall never be empty.”

fortunecookiesConfuciusRestOaklandCAPrecisely why they were adopted by Asian restaurants remains a mystery. Could it have been that restaurant proprietors knew finding fortunes was popular with their non-Asian customers? Or was it the need to supply some kind of dessert to Western customers with a sweet tooth? A 1939 menu from San Diego’s Chinese Village restaurant shows Mixed Candy and Oolong Tea as finales to $1.00 and 75-cent meals but tea and Fortune Cookies with a 50-cent dinner.

As to when fortune cookies made their debut, there is general agreement that it was in the early 20th century, before World War I. Certainly they are never mentioned in stories about Chinese restaurants in the 19th century. Many have claimed to be the cookie’s inventor, but Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, thinks it likely that around 1910-1914 Makoto Hagiwara introduced them as accompaniments to tea at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco where he was the concessionaire.

fortunecookieArchieThe cookies came into widespread restaurant use across the United States after WWII. For some inscrutable reason they also became frequent topics of gags in comic strips, newspaper gossip columns, and comedians’ routines. The fictive message “Help, I’m a prisoner in a Chinese cookie factory,” is one that falls flat with Asian-American cookie producers. But if you ask me most of the jokes are remarkably unfunny including the one from Archie comics.

Writing fortunes was a part-time job for somebody’s cousin or a freelance writer, Asian or not, who would come up with a fresh batch of several hundred at a time. Supposedly beginning with translations from much-abused Confucius, eventually anything – anything at all – provided inspiration. Occasionally they are offensive to patrons, as exemplified by the 1942 lulu, “Every woman like to be taken with a grain of assault.”

By the 1970s production of cookies was fully mechanized and they were turned out in huge batches by Japanese and Chinese makers who supplied restaurants all over the country. Today they are an unquestionable part of American restaurant history, one that has spread around the world.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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