Tag Archives: chop houses

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

7 Comments

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

2 Comments

Filed under patrons