Tag Archives: coffee

Find of the day: the Double R Coffee House

It gets harder and harder to turn up anything interesting at flea markets – even on the sprawling fields of Brimfield. But luck was with me this past week when I found the little menu from The Double R Coffee House.

It didn’t look terribly interesting in itself until I remembered that my restaurant collection contained a cartoon-style postcard with the same name that I especially liked.

Turns out that the two Double R Coffee Houses had an interesting history. They were established and funded by sons, daughters, cousins, and others related by blood or marriage to Theodore Roosevelt. The impetus for the coffee houses came from Theodore’s son Kermit, who had spent time in South America and Arab countries. He mentions coffee repeatedly in his book War in the Garden of Eden. The book describes his experiences while serving with the British forces in Iraq and other countries involved in the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I.

The initial business incorporation in 1919 was called Café Paulista after a café in Buenos Aires that Kermit had frequented years before. The corporation launched the first coffee house, then located at 108 West 44th Street, calling it The Brazilian Coffee House as inscribed above the door in this 1919 photo.

The coffee house got a fair amount of press due to the Roosevelt connection, but the family did not involve themselves in running it, nor were they known to frequent it. However, in one instance President Roosevelt’s widow did visit the 44th street location. A widely publicized news story in 1923 told of how she had saved two oil paintings of her late husband when a minor fire broke out in the kitchen.

What was truly unusual about the coffee house was not so much its owners or its decor, but how serious it was about coffee. The manager, Brazilian Alfredo Salazar [shown above], declared it was not a restaurant. Although it served light food including empenadas, he insisted the focus was on serving “real” coffee. He declared that Americans, New Yorkers included, did not know how to roast, grind, brew, or for that matter, drink coffee. Coffee that was boiled or percolated and left to sit around for over 30 minutes was equivalent to “tannic acid soup” in his estimation. He advised drinking it black, but allowed that the coffee house would provide cream, milk, and sugar since it was not a “propaganda establishment.”

The coffee house roasted coffee beans on the site and everyone commented on the wonderful aroma this produced.

Shortly after opening, the 44th Street coffee house moved to larger quarters nearby at #112. It was popular from the start, particularly with Brazilians, American business men – and business women — as well as surrounding theater-district performers.

Another characteristic of the coffee house that was appreciated was that patrons could linger as long as they liked, even if they ordered very little. Imprinted stationery was provided along with some reading materials – including an abridged version of the U.S. Constitution — and the place soon extended its hours to 1 a.m.

In February of 1921 the name was changed to Double R Coffee House due to a conflict with another business claiming that name and also because a cousin named Robinson was the corporation’s new president. In May a second coffee house on Lexington was opened with an exhibit of paintings by members of the Art Students League curated by realist painter John Sloan. Because of the art connection, it seems as though this coffee house had a more bohemian aspect. In a letter to Chicago poet and editor of Poetry Magazine Harriet Monroe, poet Wallace Stevens wrote that he had visited the new coffee house in August and “had a dash of maté.”

In 1923 there was talk of opening another Double R on 45th street in Times Square, but I could find no trace of it. Vague ideas about expanding to Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, talked about in 1919, never materialized and in 1928 one or both of the coffee houses were sold to new owners. What happened after that is unknown.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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When coffee was king

coffeeSignkelly'scafeFor decades coffee was the beverage most restaurant patrons drank with their meals.

In the Colonial era, though, coffee may have been more of an occasional beverage. Coffee houses were popular gathering spots for business men in the Colonial era and in the early Republic but there is no way of knowing how often coffee accompanied meals in those times. Many coffee houses advertised that it was available all day long, but it’s likely it was outsold by alcoholic drinks.

Then coffee began to gain greater importance as the temperance movement developed in the 1830s. A restaurant owner in Providence RI was an early convert to the role of coffee in reforming heavy-drinking Americans. A religious magazine hailed him for his decision to replace liquor with coffee, stating “If a man must, from habit, drink at 11 o’clock, let him drink ‘Hot Coffee’ and patronize Mr. Dinneford.” In those days 11:00 a.m. was the traditional time for a ‘dram.’

So almost from the beginning coffee was associated with a sober, alert, and morally superior approach to life.

CoffeeTrentonNJdiner

From the mid-19th century into the 1890s most inexpensive restaurants charged 5 cents for a cup, though it might cost a couple of cents more or less. Move up a step to a higher grade eating place, such as Mouquin’s, a popular French table d’hôte in New York City, and a cup would cost 10 cents. Luxury restaurants of the 1890s, such as Delmonico’s, were likely to charge 25 cents for coffee, a sum that would buy a whole dinner in a common lunch room.

The importance of coffee to restaurants grew in the 20th century, especially at popular-priced eateries where the price of a cup remained 5 cents. By the early 1920s, the amount of coffee imported into the U.S. had more than tripled since 1880. At “quick lunch” places, individual table & chair combos that looked like school desks were designed with a hole in the top to hold the all-important coffee mug. Already by 1904, some horse-drawn lunch wagons provided cardboard containers for coffee orders to go.

coffeewithmealRestaurant proprietors and customers alike agreed that “coffee makes the restaurant” and that you could tell a good restaurant by its coffee. Even when sold at a low price it was profitable, especially at lunch counters where service costs were low. Most diners ordered coffee with their meals in the 1920s, even at the ritzy Waldorf Astoria. No one, it seemed, cared that famous French chef Auguste Escoffier had laid down the rule, “Never serve coffee except at the end of the meal.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, a nickel a cup didn’t seem enough to many restaurateurs who raised their prices to 10 cents. Those that did not had reason to regret it in 1944 when the war caused the federal government to order that restaurants not charge more for coffee that they had in October 1942. For most places this meant 10 cents, but chains such as the Automat, Bickford’s, Thompson’s, B&G Sandwich Shops, and the Waldorf System were stuck with nickel-a-cup until late in 1950.

Prices continued to tick upwards after that. By the mid-1970s 25 cents a cup was standard in the average restaurant. (Even then, there were customers who bristled at paying more than 5 cents!) Often restaurants softened the blow of price increases by offering free refills to those ordering full meals. Still prices rose, and even chains such as Wendy’s raised their price to 30 cents while Friendly’s went up to 35 cents in 1977. Ten years later, one dollar a cup was commonplace.

coffeeCory1960In the 1970s and 1980s, higher priced coffee beans, along with fast food chain competition, and the rise of soft drinks with meals reduced the popularity of coffee and dealt a blow to coffee shop restaurants. Coffee shops had been the fifth most popular type of eating place according to a 1976 National Restaurant Association survey, but by the mid 1980s they were slipping badly. Philip Langdon, author of a book on chain restaurants titled Orange Roofs and Golden Arches, observed that many coffee shops had restyled themselves as “family restaurants” in an attempt to draw the dinner crowd.

Around the same time a series of SCTV comedy sketches made fun of the mythical polka-loving residents of Leutonia and their fondness for “cabbage rolls and coffee,” marking a new attitude to coffee with lunch or dinner that branded it as the choice of unhip elderly diners.

Coffee retains its popularity as a stand-alone beverage today, but less as an accompaniment to meals. Gone are the days when Maxwell House coffee and Cory coffeemakers reigned – when 90% of restaurant customers ordered coffee with their meals (1935) – and when the trio “Cleanliness, Comfort, Coffee” were enough to assure a restaurant of success (1955).

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Making a restaurant exciting, on the cheap

This post was inspired by an Eater.com story called Ten Ways to Make Your NYC Restaurant Less Boring. I decided to match their suggestions with examples from the past. I am presuming that author Greg Morabito had tongue in cheek when he thought up his ten tips, so I am doing the same. My suggestions have been tailored for present economic conditions.

10. Hire a Forager – This is a great idea and bound to add interest. But go beyond greens. In 1884 an enterprising Chicago restaurant forager stalked snow birds (juncos) along the city’s cable car lines. Delicious on toast. Look around. Think pigeons!

9. Serve Whole Animals – Yes, and display them prominently. Dead animals – whole bears and bison — strung up around the entrance, and raw meat generally, have always been irresistible to restaurant goers. Live animals too. Keep in mind the 1941 restaurateur who took delivery of a giant sea turtle and stored in it the restaurant window for several days before putting it on the menu. Another idea: on those really hot days set up a few premier tables in the meat locker.

8. Hire a Chef from Portland – Or, whatever place is trendy at the moment. So happens in 1922 the management of the Mandarin Inn in the college town of Champaign, Illinois, went all the way to California to import a chef who could “give the students the best possible in Chinese dishes.” And, by the way, they don’t have to be from Portland literally. Many of the French chefs of the 19th century were from Germany and China.

7. Don’t Play the Same Music Everyone Else Plays – A children’s choir would be notable and might draw in parents and grandparents. As another entertainment idea, don’t rule out fortune-tellers. They are always a hit during economic downturns and will work for tips.

6. Give Your Guests Garlic Bread Instead of Regular Bread – Ok, but don’t overdo it. Just keep in mind some people are leery of garlic – and strange music, which they tend to associate, if Irvin S. Cobb is still to be believed. He ate in restaurants often, all the while longing for corn bread. He complained in 1913, “I have been howled at by a troupe of Sicilian brigands armed with their national weapons – the garlic and the guitar. I have been tortured by mechanical pianos and automatic melodeons.”

5. Start a Chef’s Counter – Make cooking your floor show. Consider hiring a man in a tuxedo to mix salads under a spotlight. Flames and knives are popular. I think public butchering is going too far but don’t be afraid to bring some of the behind-the-scenes jobs out front, such as dishwashing. This hasn’t ever been done that I know of.

4. Invest in a Serious Mixology Program – A good bartender can come high, so don’t underestimate the appeal of great cocktail names, especially during election season. Try updating some used at Brigham’s Oyster House and Restaurant in Boston in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, such as Fiscal Agent, I.O.U., and those that commemorated politicians and political events, like Free Soiler, Clay Smash, and Webster Eye-Opener. Mr. Brigham retired very, very rich.

3. Invest in a Serious Coffee Program – I like the idea of a coffee sommelier, and you can definitely charge more for your coffee drinks this way. If you’re going to do this you absolutely must not use instant coffee. Ever. Not even if you have one of those instant coffee machines with the beans showing on top.

2. Serve More Vegetables – Given the high price of farmers’ markets, it makes sense in these tough times to look for ways to reduce costs. The advice given in the June 1968 edition of Cooking for Profit still makes sense. No one can tell you’re using canned vegetables if you encase them in gelatin. And please, describe your creation as “en gelée.”

1. Offer a Great Deal Every Night of the Week – A few deals used in previous downturns that are ripe for recycling: offer free second helpings, especially of gelatin; no charge for (gelatin) desserts; sell meal tickets to frequent diners; decorate with antiques – that are for sale; hold poker tournaments during the afternoon cocktail hour; invite celebrities to eat for free if they agree to wear their best clothes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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“Way out” coffeehouses

greenspiderA345What could be more starkly different from the somber coffee shops of today with their earnest and wired denizens than the beatnik coffeehouses of the 1950s? Could Starbucks be anything but square to the beat generation?

The classic coffeehouses of the beatnik era were sites for conversation, poetry readings, folk music, improvisational jazz, stand-up comedy à la Mort Sahl, and experimental theater. In an era driven by the conformist quest for success and button-down normalcy they sheltered misfits, art, and European culture in settings decorated in moody “opium-den style” or stained-glass/marble/wrought iron “junkyard posh” assembled from the detritus of American cities then being dismantled.

Along with beats, coffeehouses were attractive to teens as well as curiosity seekers and wannabees. (See Dupo IL high school coffeehouse photo.) Authorities had an almost obsessive dislike of coffeehouses and their patrons. Even church basement coffeehouses came under attack. A John Birch Society member lectured youths at a YMCA coffeehouse in a Chicago suburb about how dissolute their gathering place was (“You can’t tell the difference between boys and girls”).

dupoIL1962HSAlthough the word beatnik came into usage around 1958 (inspired partly by Sputnik), the phenomenon of dropping out of the “rat race” to lead an existentialist, non-consumerist life was part of the aftermath of World War II akin to the “Lost Generation” after World War I. The first coffeehouses sprang up in Greenwich Village in the late 1940s, but the beats weren’t averse to hanging out in cafeterias either — their “Paris sidewalk restaurant thing of the time.” When coffeehouses began levying cover charges for performances, beatniks tended to drop out of them too.

bizarre1958The heyday of the coffeehouse was the late 1950s into the early 1960s. Few did much cooking so they weren’t restaurants in the true sense, but many of them offered light food such as salami sandwiches (on exotic Italian bread) and cheesecake, along with “Espresso Romano,” the most expensive coffee ever seen in the U.S. up til then. Of course the charge for coffee was more a rent payment than anything else since patrons sat around for hours while consuming very little. Other then-unfamiliar food offerings included cannolis at La Gabbia (The Birdcage) in Queens, Swiss cuisine at Alberto’s in Westwood CA, Irish stew at Coffee ’n’ Confusion in D.C., les fromages at Café Oblique in Chicago, “Suffering Bastard Sundaes” at The Bizarre in Greenwich Village, and snacks such as chocolate-covered ants and caterpillars at the Green Spider in Denver.

Coffeehouses went in for oddball names such as above and also the Hungry I in San Francisco, Cosmo Alley in Hollywood, Fickle Pickle and College of Complexes in Chicago, The Cup of Socrates in Detroit, Café Wha in Greenwich Village, House of Fencing Masters in New Orleans, Laughing Buddha in St. Louis’s Gaslight Square, and Café Mediterraneum in Berkeley.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Filed under alternative restaurants, Offbeat places