Tag Archives: drug store lunch counters

Early bird specials

Recently I read a story that originated on Eater.com about the decline of early bird specials in parts of Florida populated by retirees. It said that fewer and fewer restaurants were offering these deals. Partly this was because the retirees who had once patronized early bird dinners were passing away, but also because baby boomer retirees rejected the custom which they associated with an antiquated idea of old age.

Early bird restaurant-going is popularly associated with Florida, but by no means has been confined to that state. A 1973 story about restaurants in Palm Springs CA commented that “early dining is almost a city ordinance in Palm Springs,” with 6:00 p.m. being the popular dinner hour and restaurants deserted by 9:30.

Jaya Saxena, who wrote the Eater story, talked with historian Andrew Haley, author of the book Turning the Tables. He said he knew of restaurants that had offered early bird specials as early as the 1920s and 1930s, but that the custom had really become popular in the 1970s.

I found scarcely any trace of early bird restaurant specials before the 1950s, but agree that the 1970s was when the custom became popular. It increased in the 1980s but may have declined somewhat after that, possibly because of the ever-growing competition of cheap meals in chain eateries.

The term early bird special itself was in use in the early 1900s if not before, almost always referring to morning clothing sales in stores. Of course the concept could be – and was – extended to almost anything including sparkplugs at Western Auto or family portraits at discounted prices if made before the Christmas rush.

Stores, especially drug chains, were probably the first to offer early bird meals, usually breakfasts or pre-noon lunches. This was clearly a tactic to draw customers into the store at times when it was least busy. The Owl Drug store in Riverside CA offered Early Bird Breakfast Specials at its soda fountain in 1951. About the same time Walgreen’s in Lexington KY had a similar before-11:00 a.m. deal on two pancakes and an egg for 29 cents.

Nightclubs were some of the first to use early bird specials to attract patrons for dinner. Their business seemed to need a lot of boosting, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when night clubs were not doing well. Often part of the bargain was that early diners who came before showtime were allowed to stay on for the night’s entertainment without paying an additional charge. In the case of San Diego’s Shalimar Club, the time for early diners is not specified but evidently was before 8:00. [shown below]


Discounting meals for early customers might seem mainly to be a way for restaurants to spread out dinner business rather than turning away customers at rush times. In 1967 Wolferman’s Biftec Room in Kansas City found that daylight savings time inclined customers to eat later, when it became dark, but that by offering discounts for earlier dinners, they could correct this tendency. Although it makes good sense to try to spread the arrival of customers, it is notable that it is rarely, if ever, fashionable restaurants that offer early bird specials. There is at least a hint that some restaurants adopting this tactic were simply trying to improve a generally lagging business.

It’s interesting to note what times have been considered early for dinner. Usually it meant before 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. The understanding was/is that fashionable dining began at 8:00, an hour generally considered late by older diners – as well as by families, who have also made up a portion of the early bird flock. Early bird dining often began as early as 4:00 p.m. and I’ve found one restaurant chain, JB’s Big Boy restaurants in Nebraska, where it started at 2:00 p.m.

I can’t help but reflect on 19th-century dining hours, when dinner was a midday meal. Then 2:00 p.m. was when dinner time in restaurants and eating houses typically ended. The fashionable hour for dining out for the few who had the luxury of arising late in the morning was 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., though they might have a lighter repast, supper, later in the evening.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under night clubs, patrons, restaurant customs

Restaurant-ing with Soviet humorists

littlegoldenamericaJPG1937coverNot that they found American restaurants especially funny.

Au contraire. On their car trip across the continent in 1935/1936 writers Ilya Ilf and Eugene Petrov, billed as “Soviet Mark Twains,” observed what they regarded a nation of joyless folks who ate tasteless food in restaurants designed for speed and efficiency. As they put it, “The process of eating was just as superbly rationalized as the production of automobiles or of typewriters.”

The acme of rationalization in their opinion was the Automat where a wall of metal and glass boxes filled with sandwiches and pie separated customers from staff. They preferred the Childs restaurant chain with table service. “At Childs one receives the same clean handsome food as in a cafeteria or an automat. Only there one is not deprived of the small satisfaction of looking at a menu, saying, ‘H’m,’ asking the waitress whether the veal is good, and receiving the answer: ‘Yes, sir!’”

littlegoldenAmerica1936AutomatBereniceAbbott

They did not visit luxury restaurants, preferring commonplace eateries where average Americans ate, such as cafeterias, drug store lunch counters, and roadside “dine & dance” halls. They also went to a football game, an Indian reservation, and other quintessentially American sites and events that they described in a book published in the Soviet Union, and then translated for Americans as Little Golden America (Farrar & Rinehart, 1937).

In Chapter 4 (Appetite Departs While Eating) they asked, “How does it happen that the richest country in the world, a country of grain growers and cattle raisers, of gold and remarkable industry, a country which has sufficient resources to create a paradise, cannot give the people tasty bread, fresh meat, real butter, and ripe tomatoes?” Not surprisingly, as dedicated socialists they located the cause of the problem in capitalism which reaped higher profits in shipping frozen beef and unripened California tomatoes cross country than in local food production.

By contrast, they cited Soviet Commissar of Food Anastos Mikoyan who was at that time spearheading a Stalinist reform campaign of joyous eating and champagne for everyone to replace the habitual diet of cabbage soup and mush. Mikoyan’s office produced a landmark cookbook with color photos of cosmopolitan meals (The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, 1939). Sitting in an American cafeteria in 1935, Ilf and Petrov felt that a Mikoyan speech that declared food in a socialist country must bring joy to its eaters “sounded like poetry to us.” But the truth was that Soviet leaders, Mikoyan included, were admirers of the U.S. rationalized system of production, including its food.

During their American travels Ilf and Petrov learned to drink tomato juice – well-peppered to their taste — as an appetizer, but could not adjust to eating melon before dinner, despite its “place of honor among American hors d’oeuvres.”

LittleGoldenAmericaBartellDrugStoreSeattle1936

They frequently made fun of drugstore meals that were numbered #1, #2, etc., and whose prices were based solely on quantity. “If in Dinner #2 a course called ‘country sausage’ consists of three chopped off sausages, then in Dinner #4 there will be six chopped off sausages, but the taste will be exactly the same.” When they ate at Bernstein’s fish restaurant in San Francisco, they were happy that the dinner there made up for that day’s drugstore lunch #3.

Seriously, why did they keep eating in drug stores, especially in a city of restaurants such as San Francisco? They could have tried Chinese food, or gone to a tea room or any number of places.

littlegoldenAmericaTopsy'sRoost

In my opinion they hit bottom when they visited a palace of fun outside San Francisco known as Topsy’s Roost, a “dine and dance” joint whose corny racist theme was based on shacks, pickaninnies, and fried chicken. Were their Soviet readers envious when they read, “For fifty cents [a man of moderate means] gets a portion of chicken, and, having eaten it, dances until he is on the verge of collapsing. After he is tired of dancing, he and his girl . . . ride down a polished wooden chute placed in the hall especially for entertainment-seeking chicken eaters.”

The book was said to be popular in Russia. I’d love to know what readers thought about America after reading it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under guides & reviews

Basic fare: club sandwiches

clubsandwichCOLORAmong sandwiches, the club sandwich stands out by having a strong association with restaurants for more than a century. It was not often eaten at home and probably still isn’t. It is unusual, too, in that it was considered both delicate and hearty, making it a favorite with men and women alike when it became popular in the 1890s.

Its versatility included being appropriate for almost any time of day. It was considered an excellent late-night supper, good with beer, healthful, refreshing in hot weather, and perfect for ladies’ luncheons. The sandwiches appeared widely on menus – in hotel and department store dining rooms, after-theater restaurants, men’s grills, railroad dining cars, and tea rooms.

clubsandwichADVSpfld1913

The origin of the word club, which still gives it a certain cachet, is a mystery. One account attributes the creation of the sandwich to an engineer who introduced it to his “lunch club” cronies on a day when they were suffering from hangovers, but the occasion seems to have taken place years after the sandwich had achieved recognition.

For instance, at least five year earlier, shortly after the Palm Tea Room opened in New Haven’s Edward Malley store in 1898, an advertisement notified customers that in addition to ham sandwiches and chocolate eclairs, several items “New to New Haven” were available, among them Club Sandwiches at 15 cents each.

clubsandwichADVBatonRouge1914By 1900 the sandwich’s form and composition were largely standardized. It was made with three slices of toasted white bread, spread with mayonnaise, layered with thinly sliced chicken, bacon, tomato, and lettuce, and cut twice diagonally into wedges. Fresh tomatoes were not always available inexpensively year round, so the full-scale club sandwich may have been a seasonal specialty until after WWII. Other variations included ham instead of bacon and turkey instead of chicken; crusts could be trimmed off for a daintier appearance.

clubsandwichADV1934Over time almost anything could be used to fill a club sandwich, but few variations on the classic combination endured. In 1935 Walgreen’s offered one made of liverwurst, perhaps reflecting that it was the Depression.

Club sandwiches recommended themselves to lunch rooms by their good profit margin. The Childs’ restaurants, the largest chain of the early 20th century, found in 1910 that it could prepare a double-decker club for 4.6 cents and sell it for 20 cents. It went for the same price at drug stores which began adding it to their soda fountain menus. Its popularity at soda fountains was also reflected in the creation of an ice cream club sandwich made in a special mold. The trade journal National Druggist reported in 1911 that in terms of sales the novelty was “a wonder.”

The club sandwich was given a reprieve during the government’s food prohibitions of World War I. Initially targeted along with meat pies and liver & bacon because it contained more than one kind of meat, the ban was quickly lifted.

Another obstacle club sandwiches faced seems truly quaint today. Judging from the number of times women sought advice from newspaper etiquette columns on how to eat them in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them found the club sandwich embarrassing to eat in public. Should they pick it up or eat it with a knife and fork? Strangely – and unimaginably – the latter method was advised.

ClubSandwichwoolworth67But it overcame these minor problems. In the 1920s commercial bakers produced a bread specially made for club sandwiches in restaurants. It was a square “cream bread” with a thin crust, meant for toasting, and sized a bit larger than the smallest sandwich loaves.

Though scarcely considered exciting today, the club sandwich has become a menu classic that can be ordered almost anywhere.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under food