Tag Archives: chop houses

Dirty by design

Given the general fear of unclean restaurants, it’s hard to understand the fascination with cobwebs and dirt in eating and drinking places of the 19th century and early 20th. File this under “the past is a foreign country.”

One of the famous places known for its decades’ worth of dust and grime was Old Tom’s in New York City. In the judgment of its fond patrons, it only got better with time.

According to witnesses, the shabby building that housed Old Tom’s on Thames Street a block west of Broadway was dark and dingy and its windows had never been washed. In the corners were stacks of boxes and barrels. Its walls were adorned with dusty letters from old patrons, ancient notices for boxing matches, and somewhat repulsive relics such as a mummified bat and “a pair of shoes taken off a little forlorn waif found wandering in the streets.”

Although customers liked Old Tom’s chops, Welsh rarebits, and ale well enough, the fame of the place rested on its cobwebs (barely visible in this 1872 illustration). By the 1870s they had been allowed to grow quite luxurious for at least 30 years. One visitor compared them to an “air-plant” which absorbed fibers and floating dust along with ale fumes and the aroma of cooking. The webs hanging from the ceiling were so long that the owner trimmed them “like a garden hedge” so they didn’t catch on men’s hats. If the restaurant had wanted to move to a new location, it would have failed. Without Old Tom’s cobwebs “the soul of his business would vanish,” said a newspaper story in 1877.

Old Tom’s went out of business in 1880 but the name was so famous that another Old Tom’s popped up nearby. It was dowdy, but sadly lacking in cobwebs.
Old Tom’s had its match in San Francisco, at a dive known as the Cobweb Palace, established in 1855. Such places were as much saloon as eating place, yet the Cobweb Palace, located on Meigg’s Wharf (now the site of Fisherman’s Wharf), was known in its better days for its clam chowder, cracked crab, and mussels. By the time it was demolished in 1893, it was a near-total wreck.

The Cobweb Palace was decorated with spider webs, South Sea island clubs and masks, and a totem pole, among many other curios both valuable and worthless. Though it was hardly a family spot, children liked to stop by and see the parrots, magpies, and parakeets flying around. Roaming monkeys greeted patrons while outside the door was a caged bear.

Old Tom’s and the Cobweb Palace lived in lore long after they were gone, but many other cobwebbed saloon-style eateries disappeared into the mist and little is known but their names.

There had been a place called Cobweb Hall in New York and another in Detroit, both operated by men from Scotland. The owner of the New York saloon/chophouse on Duane Street died in 1868, putting an end to his menagerie of spiders, Siberian wolfhounds, and canaries. In Detroit, Tom Swan’s Cobweb Hall began in 1869, lasting into the 20th century. He attracted business men and actors to his web-filled restaurant whose walls were also adorned with old playbills.

The West had quite a few Cobweb Saloons, some serving food or adjoining a restaurant whose cook often was a Chinese immigrant. Some were in mining towns such as Prescott AZ, where Ben Butler’s Chop House, run by Fong, Murphy & Co., “the Finest Restaurant in Prescott,” was next to, or connected to the Cobweb Saloon.

I’ve also found Cobweb Saloons in Las Vegas NM, Lincoln NE, Spokane and Tacoma WA, San Antonio and Beaumont TX, Albany OR, New Orleans LA, and Honolulu HI [advertisement, 1905].

Alas, I don’t know whether these saloons and cafes were draped with cobwebs. Seems like those in the West would not have had enough decades to grow them. I’m guessing it was more of a declaration of manly, no-frills comforts.

The patrons of cobweb cafes, saloons, and chop houses were regarded as victims of the devil by Christian preachers and their flocks who thought the name Cobweb Saloon was just about perfect for a place that entrapped heavy-drinking men. In 1903 a Sunday School group in Roswell NM planned a temperance discussion to include topics such as “Do men drink whiskey for the taste or effect?” and “‘Cobweb Saloon’ – Why is this an appropriate name?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, odd buildings, Offbeat places, sanitation

Basic fare: meat & potatoes

Meat and potatoes were so characteristic of eating places in the 19th century we could call it the Meat and Potatoes Century. But of course that title could apply to most of the 20th century as well.

In 1829, the Plate House, a cheap New York City eating hall, offered steaks with potatoes by the dish and half dish, 4 cents for the latter.

Chop houses of the 19th century were also based on meat and potatoes. They could be considered forerunners of today’s steakhouses, with their dark interiors, male patrons, and baked potatoes as accompaniments to meat. One difference, though, was that in the 1800s patrons were as likely to order mutton as beef.

The chop house was regarded as an antiquated type of eating place in 1873 when a journalist wrote that Farrish’s and others were “sought out by Britishers who like places off the beaten track and humble, dark and without glitter.” Old fashioned or not, it was still loved for its “mealy” baked potatoes, probably even in the 1930s when this postcard was produced.

Little surprise that “meat and potatoes” became a metaphor for no-frills reliability. To call someone a meat-and-potatoes “man” – always a man — was more than a commentary on his diet; it also meant he was a regular guy. Similarly for a meat-and-potatoes town. As Chicago columnist Bob Greene would put it in 1983, as the world capital of meat and potatoes, his hometown was “tough, brawling, no-nonsense, rugged.”

The metaphor – that came into use after World War II — could extend to almost anything. Business success relied upon sure-thing “meat and potatoes” products and services. For Gloucester MA, odd as it sounds, the town’s meat-and-potatoes industry was ground fish. For a symphony orchestra their meat and potatoes might be a popular Beethoven sonata.

Nineteenth-century restaurants featured potatoes either mashed, boiled, baked, stewed, fried, Lyonnaise, scalloped, mousseline, or au gratin. In the 20th century the choices tended to narrow down to mashed, baked, and French fried. Meat meant mostly beef in the 19th, but extended to chicken in the 20th.

In 1885 it was standard for potatoes to come free with a meat order. As noted then, “An unordered boiled potato, with the skin on, is the second grand characteristic of an American dining saloon. It matters not what meal it is, the boiled potato will always appear, if the establishment is truly legitimate.”

But this “legitimate” entitlement was about to end. Where would fast food restaurants be today if they didn’t charge extra for French fries? As far back as the early 20th century, restaurant operators realized there was additional profit to be made by charging separately for potatoes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, fast food burger chains, hotel rib rooms, and chain and independent steakhouses began to proliferate. Steakhouses proved popular with lunching business men while families chose economy cuts at Bonanza or Ponderosa. “Advances” took place, such as foil wrappings that allowed the potatoes to remain under infra-red lamps longer without drying out. By the early 1960s sour cream and chives were considered essential additions to baked potatoes. By that time, the favorite All-American meal was shrimp cocktail, followed by steak, baked potato with sour cream, an iceberg lettuce salad thickly coated with Thousand Island dressing, and cheesecake for dessert.

In 1971 a Gallup survey measuring the popularity of “international cuisine” confirmed the timidity of most American palates. The strangest aspect of the survey were the dishes Gallup offered up as international. Among them were Beef Stroganoff (ranked highest), Swedish Meat Balls, Lasagne, Veal Parmigiana, Chili Con Carne, and Hungarian Goulash. A full 10% of respondents found nothing among the 22 selections that they liked.

Nevertheless . . . around the late 1970s the whole meat-and-potatoes dining complex began to be questioned. Increasingly it ran against new notions of health and fitness. The cholesterol, the heaviness! Also, it was such a limited diet. Did its fans have no interest in other cuisines? Meat-and-potato towns – Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Denver, Fort Worth – were shamed and ridiculed even though, occasionally, someone admitted there were plenty of steakhouses on the coasts too — New York, San Francisco, even New Orleans.

In the next phase, not surprisingly, many meat-and-potatoes towns struggled to refurbish their reputations by boasting of restaurants of all kinds. Omaha touted its seafood, Japanese, Korean, and French restaurants. Minneapolis was still conservative, wrote Jeremy Iggers and Karin Winegar in John Mariani’s 1986 Coast to Coast Dining Guide, yet they identified seventeen Vietnamese restaurants, three Thai, two Ethiopian and many other nationalities represented as well, along with examples of “yuppies” taking fresh approaches to American cuisine.

Plus, pizza had actually become the new meat and potatoes.

How are steakhouses doing today? Although there are still many around and some Americans nurture a wish to return to the 1950s, I’m guessing that it’s unlikely the golden years of the steakhouse will return. Burgers and fries, too, may have seen their better days.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, patrons, popular restaurants

Three hours for lunch

ChristopherMorley1930For every devoted restaurant-goer who likes to keep up with the latest restaurant trend there are probably two others who would prefer an eating place from the past. Despite my fascination with the history of restaurants, it might surprise some readers to learn that as a diner I am not attracted to historic restaurants; I study the past but eat in the present. Journalist and author Christopher Morley, however, might have been the patron saint of those who would gladly flip back the calendar when dining out.

Through the 1920s he gathered together friends who loved to explore the corners, alleys, and waterfronts of Manhattan and environs, especially Hoboken which he christened the “seacoast of Bohemia.” Their whimsical jaunts centered on a leisurely lunch.

The group, whose personnel was always changing, was made up of men who had enough time to join Morley’s Three Hours for Lunch Club. He initiated it in 1920 when he began writing a column for The New York Evening Post called “The Bowling Green” that chronicled his explorations of New York and the escapades of the club. Later the column appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature.

The club was less about food than about male camaraderie, conversation, and humorous one-upmanship. In earlier times, before Prohibition, it might have been a drinking club. The loss of masculine drinking culture and the alleged feminization of restaurants underwrote a lament for a present era supposedly ruined by women lunching on sandwiches and soft drinks at soda fountains. By contrast, Morley & Co. searched out old-fashioned taverns and chop houses.

mcSorley'sHe wrote in a tribute to McSorley’s Ale House (which did not admit women until 1970), “Atrocious cleanliness and glitter and raw naked marble make the soda fountain a disheartening place to the average male. He likes a dark, low-ceilinged, and not too obtrusively sanitary place to take his ease. At McSorley’s is everything that the innocent fugitive from the world requires.”

Without his male buddies, Morley might have been limited to the company of his wife Helen, whom he called Titania in his columns. Although the pair enjoyed frequent Saturday lunches in the basement of Moretti’s table d’hôte on East 14th Street, he complained publicly, “Anyplace that I think is peculiarly amusing, or quaint, or picturesque, Titania thinks is unhealthy. Sometimes I can see it coming. We are on our way to Mulberry Bend, or the Bowery, or Farrish’s Chop House. I see her brow begin to pucker . . .”

The club, which included Don Marquis, sea captain/writer David William Bone, Sinclair Lewis, and other editors and writers, flourished about the same time as the Round Table whose literary stars met at the Algonquin Hotel. For a time before he founded his own club Morley was part of a group of Vanity Fair writers who congregated at the Café Noir, but he felt edged out because he lacked the Vanity Fair style. “Even Thackeray would have been grayballed,” he wrote later.

YeOldeChopHouse423

A favorite THFL place in lower Manhattan was Ye Olde Chop House on Cedar Street (pictured pre-Prohibition with sawdust floors beloved by CM) where the club named a waitress “the Venus of Mealo.” The cuisine of chop houses, as might be expected, featured grilled meat and homey dishes such as pickled beets, corned beef hash, tapioca pudding, and rhubarb pie. Far from seeking adventure in the culinary department, Morley once ordered swordfish steak, but declared it “too reptilian.”

Other than the musty hangouts of lower Manhattan, Hoboken’s Hofbrau, Meyer’s Restaurant, and the American Hotel were popular with the club. In 1929 Morley and others bought a bankrupt ironworks on River Street in Hoboken to become club headquarters. But it seems the club was waning around this time and it’s not clear how long that experiment continued. Three-Hours-for-Lunch was succeeded by another club, the Baker Street Irregulars, which Morley – a Sherlock Holmes fan –  formed at Prohibition’s end.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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