Tag Archives: Depression restaurants

Finds of the day: two taverns

Steuben Taverns

Two small finds on a cold, rainy day at the Brimfield flea market. Both are from the 1930s, both are taverns, and both conjure up bygone days. But beyond that, the two – one representing a chain of German-themed restaurants and the other a small-town tea room – have little in common.

Steuben Taverns was a chain of pseudo-Bavarian restaurants located in big cities. The first, on 47th Street, was opened in New York City in 1930 and was the longest survivor of the moderate-priced chain, staying in business until 1971 [the postcard of the interior below is probably of the 47th Street place]. At its peak the chain had about a dozen restaurants, mainly in NYC but also in Newark, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

The business encountered a few bumps along the road. Opening a huge, block-long unit in Times Square in 1934 proved difficult, dragging out to 14 months, because the restaurant was located over the Times Square subway station, which had to be redesigned. Despite selling a lot of beer (Prohibition had just ended) and seating 800 customers, the Times Square Steuben Tavern failed just five years later.

Meanwhile the chain suffered more grief in 1936 during a mobster shakedown that affected a number of high-profile NYC restaurants. As a chain the Taverns allegedly paid a particularly high sum – $17,000 – to ensure that the racket leaders did not carry out their threats to send “union” picketers or set off stench bombs.

Strangely, given its German theme, the Steuben Tavern in Newark evidently entertained many Jewish patrons in the 1930s. On September 14, 1934, with the Nazis in power in Germany, the restaurant took out an advertisement in Newark’s Jewish Chronicle wishing its patrons the best for the Jewish holidays.

White Gate Tavern

It was almost as though the White Gate Tavern was in another country altogether, one without beer, racketeers, or subway stations. It began in business in August of 1932 in the town of Ashburnham, Massachusetts, in a 100-year-old house formerly occupied by a Latin teacher at the town’s private school, Cushing Academy.

Its proprietors were two unmarried middle-aged women, both of whom had worked for the Y.W.C.A. at one point. Ida J. Lyon was from Connecticut and, as a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a bona-fide Yankee. Her partner, Helen G. Cowell, was the daughter of the late but long-time principal of Cushing Academy.

The two women set about having the house remodeled for use as a guest house and tea room. They installed a modern kitchen with electric refrigeration, a convenience undoubtedly not enjoyed by many of the townspeople at that time. They emphasized the house’s old-fashioned Colonial features as they were considered “homey” by their prospective patrons. The dining rooms were decorated in a green and yellow color scheme that was carried over to the dishes and glassware. In 1932 – in the depths of the Depression – they offered special Sunday dinners for $1.00 and $1.50. (By comparison the Steuben Taverns advertised their “famous” 55-cent dinners on the business card from about the same time.)

In the next few years, further improvements were made to the White Gate Tavern. A yarn shop where knitting lessons were given was opened in a finished room in a barn adjoining the house. In 1935 the interior of the house was renovated and the kitchen was enlarged. A so-called Peasant Tea Room was opened in the barn, along with a “Sunbeam Shop,” a gift shop with crafts made by villagers.

The White Gate Tavern probably closed in the late 1930s. I could find no trace of it after 1937 — the local newspaper carried no further notices of its annual opening for the season or the usual lists of guests who stayed there.

The house is still standing and from the outside likely looks much like it did in the 1930s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Higbee’s Silver Grille

higbeessilvergrillemyphoto

Friday the 13th of September, 1935, seemed like an ordinary day at the Higbee department store in Cleveland’s Public Square. Marzipan bon bons were on sale at the store’s first floor candy counter. On the fifth floor women modeled hand-knitted costumes while the ninth-floor employment office interviewed men for part-time furniture and rug sales.

higbeessilvergrillemenufridaysept131935In the Silver Grille on the tenth floor, diners sat down to lunch. Yet, the specials on the 60c luncheon menu that day were a bit dull. The featured dishes didn’t sound especially delicious, but even stranger, there was no listing of the kind of things the Silver Grille usually spotlighted, namely desserts.

Perhaps the unexciting menu had nothing to do with it but it was not, in fact, an ordinary day.

The store’s future hung in the balance. It had just been announced around the country that on September 30 J. P. Morgan would put the Higbee Company on the auction block along with the rest of the railroad and real estate empire of Cleveland’s Van Sweringen brothers. In addition to over 28,000 miles of railroad, the properties to be auctioned were the 52-story Terminal Tower and its associated buildings which included the store as well as the Medical Arts Building, the Midland Bank Building, and the Cleveland Hotel.

higbeediamondjubileadvjan11935Ironically 1935 was Higbee’s 75th anniversary, its diamond jubilee. In retrospect, the drawing that announced the jubilee year in the Plain Dealer on January 1, 1935, looks ominous in the way it yokes the store, one side blacked out, to the Terminal Tower.

Higbee’s was an old Cleveland business that was bought out by the “Vans” in 1930 after they failed to attract other stores to move into their “city within a city” complex then under construction. Exactly who they asked is unknown, except for one outstanding store that turned them down, Marshall Field in Chicago. The new Higbee store opened in September of 1931. Its crown jewel on the top floor was the art deco Silver Grille, designed by local architect Philip L. Small and a prominent Cleveland decorating and interior design firm, the Rorimer-Brooks Studios.

A 1931 Higbee advertisement described the Silver Grille as “modern” and “gracious.” In the center of the room was a rather austere fountain of red Rojo alicante marble, the same red reflected in the room’s columns and carpeting. Grillwork punctuated the walls which were shades of green with silver leaves. From the ceiling hung specially designed light fixtures of bronze. Designers with Louis Rorimer’s studio created the aluminum tables and chairs shown in the photograph at the top of the page taken a few weeks after the store opened.

The tea room’s early, possibly first, manager was Mrs. Kenneth McKay (whose unusual first name was often erroneously taken to be her husband’s). In the 1920s she had been a supervisor for Schrafft’s restaurants in New York and had taught restaurant management at Columbia University. She retired in the 1950s, having established the Silver Grille tradition of serving homey food with occasional exotic touches such as a curried dish or a salad of Puerto Rican mangoes, avocados, and dates.

Miraculously, Higbee’s survived the Depression in fairly good shape. In 1937 the store was rescued by two executives affiliated with the Van Sweringen empire who bought it from a holding company created by the then-deceased brothers. The new owners announced they would keep the store local and under the direction of Asa Shiverick, Higbee’s president since 1913. In another stroke of bad luck Shiverick died three days after the announcement, leaving the new owners to take over.

higbeessilvergrillestove1980sThings settled down then and the Silver Grille grew in popularity, boosted by added attractions such as frequent fashion shows to the music of a resident orchestra. One of its most popular customs was delivering children’s meals in little tin stoves, later replaced with cardboard stoves, as well as cardboard trucks, teepees, and space capsules.

higbeesmenu1938fashionshowOn May 12, 1938, the store presented a summer fashion show and luncheon on a newly constructed runway in the Silver Grille, with a short but sweet menu costing 5 cents more than usual.

Although patrons enjoyed the Silver Grille’s food – and still seek its recipes — it was equally known for its art deco design, which also underwent ups and downs over the decades. Once the Depression ended, the decor fell out of favor. Higbee’s tried to soften the original look by adding banquettes, painting over German silver grilles along the ceiling and floor, and placing a decorative gazebo over the fountain. A 1962 makeover adopted a hideous-sounding color scheme of pink, green, and red.

In 1982 some of the room’s original art deco elements were restored. The grilles were polished and the fountain was repaired and restocked with goldfish. However the gazebo remained and the dining chairs were reupholstered with multi-colored patterned fabric, either an Ikat design or stripes. Gone were the original black marble tabletops, re-topped with what looks in photographs like a white laminate. (Possibly the tables were not original at all or had been altered, as the diagonal struts underneath are also different.) Recessed lighting had replaced the hanging fixtures, either at this time or earlier.

higbeessilvergrilleteepeeA change of a different sort, one that I think took place in the 1970s, was the addition of wine and cocktails to the menu. Traditionally, alcoholic drinks did not appear on the menus of department store “tea rooms” for women, but Higbee’s was not the only store to adapt to modern conditions around this time.

Despite declining business at Higbee’s, the Silver Grille stayed afloat until after Christmas in 1989 when the store was downsized and the upper floors closed off.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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All you can eat

allyoucaneatFjordsSmorg-Ette

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.

allyoucaneatJPGKewanee95cents

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”?

AllyoucaneatJPGPhoenix&MesaPaulPerry'sSmorgee

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.

allyoucaneatFL

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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Serving the poor

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Recently, in Colorado Springs, I ate lunch at Seeds, a “community restaurant” devoted to making meals affordable to all. Guests are invited to pay what they can and, if that is nothing, to volunteer for an hour. A few days later, I saw another similar enterprise, Café 180, located on Denver’s outdoor 16th Street Mall.

It might seem like a new phenomenon but it’s more of an old idea with a new twist. Sellers of cooked food ranging from vendors with a cart all the way up to deluxe restaurants have long given away food to the needy.

In 1820 a French restaurateur in the City of Washington (D.C.) informed the public that he would sell the beef left over after being boiled for his special bouillon, while “to persons unable to pay it will be given gratis.”

John W. Farmer, a wealthy plumber, opened a Free Dining Saloon in New York City during the financial panic of 1857. After the first six months he announced he had served nearly 231,000 meals composed of dishes such as soup, corned beef, pork, ham, fish, bread, potatoes, cabbage, and turnips. Though hailed by the poor, especially the Irish, the New York Tribune rebuked him for failing to distinguish the deserving poor from the drunks, reprobates, and other “vile” persons “who prefer the bread of idleness to that of industry.” He carried on for several years, then opened the Farmer Institute, a reading room and lecture hall where speakers promoted an economy based on cooperation. A Cooperative Building Association that was formed as a result was quite successful.

Many free and low-price dining rooms as well as restaurant breadlines have sprung up during panics and depressions (of which there have also been many). Some have been motivated by religion or a social cause. In the 1870s a bad economy combined with the temperance movement helped make Holly Tree Coffee Inns successful. They were designed by Christian groups as alternatives to saloons, pitting “Queen Mocha against King Alcohol.” In addition to serving coffee, the self-supporting coffee houses provided low-priced food for working-class men in Hartford, Chicago, New York City, Washington, Boston, and many smaller New England towns. Quaker Joshua L. Bailey created similar coffee houses in Philadelphia.

The severe depression of the 1870s inspired others to open cheap restaurants. Some had meals for 10 cents, some for 5 cents, and some sold dishes for as low as 1 cent apiece. In New York a restaurant proprietor described only as an “old lady” was popular with newsboys for bargains like “Plate of soup one cent” and “All kinds of meat one cent.” Despite her rock-bottom prices she claimed to make a good profit.

CharityFleischman'sbreadline1913

Louis Fleischmann earned a fine reputation for the breadline he started at his New York Vienna Bakery restaurant during the Depression of the 1890s. He kept it going until his death in 1904, whereupon his son continued it for several years [shown above]. Another New Yorker, the Bowery’s Mike Lyon was also well known for his beneficence. Every morning at 5:00 a.m. he handed out food left from the night before to hundreds of women and children who gathered at his back door.

Physical fitness advocate Bernarr Macfadden also fed New York’s poor, thereby introducing what he claimed was the city’s first vegetarian restaurant in 1902. He recreated a similar penny cafeteria in 1931, selling soup, codfish, beans, prunes, bread, and other dishes for 1 cent each. He charged more for coffee because he didn’t think it was a “vital” food. Similar restaurants could be found then in Detroit and Springfield MA and probably many other cities. Max Rosoff invited the poor to eat for free in his NY Times Square restaurant after 10 pm., while Harry Rapoport, operator of a Jewish dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side was called the “Mayor of Second Avenue” in recognition of his culinary charity, especially after feeding 300 capmakers during a 7-week strike during the 1930s Depression.

charityclifton's30centmealEqually impressive were the efforts of Clifford Clinton who not only ran a penny restaurant for about six months during the Depression but also made low-priced or nearly free meals a standard in his Los Angeles Clifton’s cafeterias. [30-cent meal shown, 1940s] Patrons were instructed they could pay what they wanted. He was patronized largely by the elderly who appreciated getting “A Tra-ful for a Tri-ful” at his odd but cheerfully upbeat cafeterias. Hot cereals ran about 8 cents while an egg was 9 cents. In 1954 he served a whopping 20,000 meals each day in his two cafeterias. During World War II he created a “Meals for Millions” foundation that funded scientists to develop an inexpensive soy-based meal distributed by wartime relief agencies to refugees throughout the world.

BTW, the lunch at Seeds was good as was the service. It’s a popular spot.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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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]

MerryGoRoundBarSF

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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Toddle House

toddlehouseca1940

The Toddle House chain occupied “cozy cottage” style buildings that were quite popular as restaurants, gas stations, and cabin camps in the Depression. On the outside Toddle Houses projected an exaggerated Colonial doll-house version of domesticity, with two oversized chimneys and a primly manicured lawn.

toddlehouseinteriorca1939Inside, though, a very functional, almost clinical interior greeted customers: A back wall of stainless steel kitchen equipment, a counter with a dozen comfortless, backless stools (“in and out in 12 minutes”), bare windows, bathroom-tile wainscoting, and NO fireplaces. Open 24 hours, their menus were limited and featured hamburgers and breakfast at all hours.

ToddleHouseStedmanpatentAdding another touch of no-nonsense modernity was the “cashier machine” invented by founder and co-owner J. C. Stedman. Designed to keep the countermen (later women) from handling money, a mechanical box near the door received meal checks and payments in coins. After a counterman observed, via a mirror inside the box, that the customer had deposited the correct amount, he lifted a treadle behind the counter and the money and checks fell through trap doors into locked bins below (nos. 14 and 15 in the patent diagram).

As awkward as the contraption was – not giving change, easily circumvented by cheating employees, etc. – it remained in use at least until the 1940s and customers liked it. In Evanston IL customers felt let down, their trustworthiness in doubt, when the cashier machine was replaced by a standard cash register in 1945. Today, the old drop box system — in my view mistakenly considered an honor system — has become an object of nostalgia.

toddlehouseca.1953

The first Toddle Houses were opened in Southern states, principally Texas and Tennessee, in the 1930s. The chain never made it farther west than Omaha. In 1945 the company expanded northward with the acquisition of 46 Hull-Dobbs Houses, which resembled Toddle Houses to a remarkable degree. Toddle Houses built later were larger and of a style referred to as “New South” shown here that was plainer and even more symmetrical. Some had dining rooms and the front entrances with copper-clad canopies were enclosed by glass vestibules.

In 1946 Toddle Houses created Harlem House, for Black customers who were not otherwise welcome. Eventually there were 12 such units in Memphis, the company’s headquarters. An Atlanta Toddle House was the site of a prominent civil rights sit-in demonstration in December of 1963, in which demonstrators including comedian Dick Gregory were taken to jail.

toddlehouse1938Memphis

The original 24 × 12-ft Toddle Houses were prefabricated and shipped to their sites on flatbed trucks. It has been reported that their exteriors were of porcelain-coated steel for portability. Since this material is inappropriate for Colonial architecture and they do not appear to be shiny in pictures, I find the description given in Philip Langdon’s Orange Roofs and Golden Arches more convincing. He says that some Toddle Houses were “veneered with a cement coating scored to resemble brick.” Others were built of brick on site. Langdon also observes that because early Toddle Houses could be transported so easily, the possibility of moving them presented advantages when negotiating land leases. I discovered a number of them that were in fact moved.

In 1962 the Toddle House company was bought by Dobbs House which turned most of them into Steak N Egg Kitchens. In the 1980s, after another company, Carsons, bought out Dobbs, an attempt was made to revive the Toddle Houses, which by 1984 had dwindled to 11 units. Carsons built at least 45 new Toddle House units.

Though Toddle Houses no longer exist, many of the buildings continue as eating places or have been adapted for other uses, as shown in a blogpost by Dinerhunter.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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