Tag Archives: decor

Decor: glass ceilings

There’s a couple of reasons why I’ve been thinking about glass ceilings in restaurants this week. I took a look at the total number of visits to my top posts and, apart from the various Taste of a decade posts which draw a lot of traffic, Swingin’ at Maxwell’s Plum is #1. An elaborate stained glass ceiling was one of the most striking features of Maxwell’s Plum in New York City, and another was created for the San Francisco Plum (pictured) which opened in 1981.

The second reason is that last Sunday I went to the antique paper show Papermania in Hartford CT and brought home a 1970s-era menu from a pizza restaurant in St. Louis that I used to go to but had forgotten all about. It too had a glass ceiling though, as I recall, it was fairly plain. I won’t name the restaurant but will say that it was located in the vicinity of Washington University where I went to graduate school and there was a second place in Creve Coeur.

On one occasion I went there with a group of friends and we witnessed a kind of free floor show – only it took place inside the glass ceiling. We heard the sounds first, of little claw feet scratching on glass. Then we looked up. We saw silhouettes of a legion of four-footed creatures with long tails which were furiously scrimmaging above us, as though playing a game of football. We laughed, considered leaving, but ended up staying. If the management noticed anything amiss they certainly didn’t show it. No one came over to explain away the incident (not that I know how you’d do that), no one offered us free drinks, nothing!

The menu from this restaurant which I just acquired displays on its cover a pledge of quality accompanied by the signature of the restaurant’s owner. One of the sentences jumps out at me: “More ingredients go into our pizza than the normal recipe calls for.” Yikes, say no more!

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

4 Comments

Filed under restaurant decor

Sweet and sour Polynesian

One remarkable accomplishment of Polynesian restaurants was how they lured the male diner without using steak as bait. Who would have believed mid-century Homo Americanus Modernus could swallow so many sugary rum drinks, pineapple chunks, and sticky sauces?

Another notable coup was that these tropical resorts were so obviously fake it was preposterous to accuse them of it. It is easy to imagine how Vic Bergeron, originator of Trader Vic’s, would have roared with laughter if charged with inauthenticity. (“Jeez, Honey, that was the whole point!”) Guests were well aware that the Tiki gods, fishnets, and outrigger canoes were artfully staged to stimulate escape fantasies, and vaguely conscious that the menu represented a culinary amalgam that never existed in the outside world. Bergeron once stated that the food of Polynesian islanders was “primitive” and “not acceptable to American tastes.” Stephen Crane, mastermind of Kon-Tiki Ports, admitted that many ingredients used in Polynesian dishes – bean sprouts, water chestnuts, tomatoes, and pea pods – didn’t grow on the islands. Who cared?

Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s were the first Polynesian restaurants, beginning in California in 1934 and 1938 respectively. It was quite a while, though, before eating in pseudo-grass-huts became a fad. Around 1957 only about 20 Polynesian restaurants were known. But by 1962, after Hawaiian statehood and the debuts of the movie South Pacific and TV show Hawaiian Eye, the number had grown to 200, according to a National Restaurant Association estimate.

Many were in big hotels where their job was to boost profits. As a Wall Street Journal headline succinctly put it in 1959, “Cocoanut Milk, Idols, Waterfalls Help Hotels Lift Food, Drink Take.” The Polynesian restaurant was about merchandising. Whether it was Bonko Bonko soup at Columbus’s Kahiki, Pineapple Teriyaki Garni at The Lahala House in Corpus Christi, or a take-home scorpion drink bowl (pictured) at Trader Vic’s, the concept was greater than all the inexpensive ingredients combined.

The appeal of exotic drinks held steady longer than the rest of the package. Already by the mid-1960s, American and “continental” standbys were infiltrating menus. Steaks made a comeback and diners could also choose from a broad array of restaurant items not even remotely tropical such as clam chowder, chicken cordon bleu, and hush puppies. In the 1970s more adventurous diners rejected Cantonese, the core of Polynesian cuisine, for spicier Szechuan and Hunan. Decor was seen as a growing problem, too, as the cost of importing tapa cloths and outrigger canoes rose. Restaurateurs searching for a concept were counseled to think about Old English which was easier to accessorize, according to the journal Cooking for Profit, only requiring some paneling and “a few old swords, or other recognizable ‘art objects.’”

By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s critics heaped scorn on things Polynesian, food especially. It seemed hard to believe NY Times critic Craig Claiborne had given it an ounce of credibility in 1958. Actor Yul Brynner sued Trader Vic’s in NY’s Plaza Hotel in 1979 after eating spareribs there and acquiring trichinosis. Ten years later Vic’s was booted out of the Plaza. Vic himself, having died in 1984, was spared the ignominious news. The long-lived Kahiki closed in 2000. Yet, even today Polynesian motifs cast a campy spell.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

1 Comment

Filed under food, history, Polynesian restaurants

Restaurateurs: Alice Foote MacDougall

Alice, shown in this 1929 book frontispiece at least 20 years younger than her true age at the time, was one of the most carefully crafted restaurant personas of her day. Due to numerous magazine stories spun by her publicity agent, she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38. Even she had to admit (or was this PR also?) that the story was overplayed. “How tired I did get of that woman and those interminable three!” she confessed. Quite honestly, I’ve always felt her much-vaunted opposition to suffrage for women was a publicity stunt too.

She was from a distinguished New York City family. Her great grandfather, Stephen Allen, was mayor of New York City in the 1820s, while her wealthy father Emerson Foote was a charter member of the Union League. Alice, her daughter, and her two sons were listed in the city’s Social Register in 1918. Her career in the coffee wholesaling business began in 1909 with the death of her husband Allan MacDougall. In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S.

She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces, as was clearly the case with the Cortile (shown here).

At Firenze, reputedly used as a movie set, she dressed her black servers like Italian peasants in bright uniforms and head scarves and had them go about filling copper jugs with water from a stone well. Tables were set with imported pottery which she sold as well, along with her Bowling Green Coffee. The Mediterranean village style mimicking courtyard interiors became wildly popular throughout the U.S. in the 1920s and countless women were inspired by MacDougall to open tea and coffee shops of their own. The chain went bankrupt in the depression and new management took over for a time, lowering prices and adding cocktails to the menu.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

9 Comments

Filed under tea shops, women

Drinking rum, eating Cantonese

Will the real Don the Beachcomber please stand up and mix me a Zombie? As is true with so many business histories it’s difficult to lock down the true story. Confusion in the case of Don the Beachcomber mainly arises from a divorce between the principals, Don (or Donn) Beach (born Ernest Beaumont-Gantt) and his one-time wife Cora Irene Sund. Both were involved in the development of the original Don the Beachcomber, begun in 1934 as a bar serving exotic drinks in Hollywood, California. Cora, a Minnesota schoolteacher turned model, arrived on the scene shortly after Don launched his business. She invested in it and became president, while Don acted as general manager. She focused on the food side of things, hiring a Cantonese chef and expanding the bar into a restaurant with “South Seas” cuisine. They married in 1937 and divorced in 1940, the year Cora opened a branch in Chicago. When Don came back from the Air Force after WWII they split up as business partners, she keeping the mainland operations while he concentrated on Hawaii.

According to Vic Bergeron, creator of Trader Vic’s, Don the Beachcomber provided his inspiration for transforming his Oakland CA bar and sandwich spot Hinky Dink’s into a Polynesian restaurant in 1938.

beachcombertrunkDon ran into trouble with the postwar longshoremen’s strike and decided to limit his Honolulu Beachcomber to a drinking spot. By the early 1960s he was also in the restaurant business, operating a South Seas Cabaret Restaurant, a Colonel’s Plantation Steak House, a Colonel’s Coffee House, and at least one restaurant boat. Cora’s popular Chicago Don the Beachcomber was named one of the top 50 US restaurants in 1947. She soon opened another location in Palm Springs and by 1972, when it was acquired by Getty Financial, the chain had 6 or 7 units.

The greatest growth occurred under Getty management, eventually building the chain to a total of 16. An architect gave the Beachcombers a new look. The interior of the new 1973 Dallas Beachcomber, like others to follow, featured a full array of tropical effects such as a bridge over a reflecting pool, a waterfall, rain forest, thatched roofs, palm trees, and outrigger canoes suspended from a firefly-studded ceiling. But the public’s love affair with Polynesian restaurants began to fade and by 1989 only three Don the Beachcombers remained.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

3 Comments

Filed under Polynesian restaurants