Tag Archives: early 1900s

Famous in its day: Blanco’s


Blanco’s Café was one of San Francisco’s luxury restaurants of the early 20th century. Among the very first restaurants to open after the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906, it made its debut on November 7, 1907 at 859 O’Farrell Street.

It soon became a popular place for banquets, one of which is depicted in the 1915 postcard shown above. Typically such banquets were all male, often being made up of members of professional and cultural societies. Blanco’s was also a favorite after-theater spot for men and women who enjoyed a “cold bot and hot bird” as a light supper of champagne and quail was referred to in those days.

Its owners and managers were mostly old hands in the restaurant business, Italians and Germans led by a Spaniard, Antonio Blanco, who had been born in Malaga. Blanco’s reputation was built upon his pre-fire restaurant, The Poodle Dog, which he re-established a short time after opening Blanco’s. Two of Blanco’s managers had previously been at Delmonico’s restaurant in San Francisco, another victim of the fire.

blanco'sDec1914The city’s newspapers were effusive about Blanco’s when it opened, gushing over its Louis XIV entrance hall, marble pillars, murals, and chandeliers. The café’s first chef came from The Poodle Dog, while the dining room manager had earned his exalted reputation at Tait’s and the St. Francis Hotel. All in all, Blanco’s was “a temple of art and beauty” destined to become the envy of caterers around the world. In 1914 Blanco’s boldly advertised that it was “the finest café in the United States.”

Naturally it classed itself as a French restaurant, French cuisine being synonymous with the good life – and the only kind that could command a high price then.

Blanco’s continued in business until 1933 but not without problems. In 1917 a plan to add two stories to the restaurant was abandoned, perhaps because of the looming nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol. Prohibition in 1919 was indeed a blow to fine dining establishments such as Blanco’s. The restaurant blithely advertised in 1919, “Good-bye to good old wines. Good-bye to good old times. But good eats will remain.” But it was becoming increasingly difficult to operate a high-living restaurant in the style Blanco’s was accustomed to. In 1921 its manager was arrested for not keeping a register of transient guests at Blanco’s Annex, the hotel next door which the restaurant had constructed in 1908 and opened the next year.

Few San Franciscans would have failed to realize the significance of this infraction, even if they did not recall Blanco’s “scandal” of 1912. In July of that year a Sausalito woman hired detectives to shadow her husband who was enjoying a romantic dinner at Blanco’s in the company of another woman. Spotting the detectives but not knowing who was under surveillance, Blanco’s manager went from table to table notifying all the guests of the detectives at work. Numbers of couples made a quick exit from the back door. Needless to say, the privacy curtains on the mezzanine booths shown in the ca. 1915 postcard were more than merely decorative.

Yet, despite all, Blanco’s carried on and was recommended in San Francisco guide books of the 1920s. It is ironic that it made it through Prohibition yet failed just as alcohol was becoming legal once again in 1933.

In 1934 the contents of both the restaurant and hotel were sold off, including fine china, silver-plated cutlery, tapestry panels and hangings, 40 copper stock pots, French furniture, bronze statuary, and 140 Viennese arm chairs.


In October 1935 the restaurant reopened as The Music Box, a supper club under the direction of stripper and “fan dancer” Sally Rand. It had been partially modernized. Murals were replaced with mirrors and many other decorations by artist Attilio Moretti had been removed. Ruth Thomas, co-author of Eating Around San Francisco (1937), reported that she was given a tour of the Music Box and saw Venetian glass chandeliers and life-sized plaster statues of women in a basement storeroom.


The chandeliers and some of the murals were restored, possibly during the late sixties when the building was occupied by the Charles Restaurant. Today the building still stands and is in use as the Great American Music Hall. [Photo shows the altered restaurant building front, much of it bricked in including the large center window above the door which now supports a sign; the building to the left was Blanco’s Annex hotel.]

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


Filed under elite restaurants

Product placement in restaurants

Product placement usually refers to the display of branded products in movies and TV shows, such as when the main character sips a certain cola or goes into a coffee shop and opens up his laptop with an image of a glowing piece of fruit clearly visible.

But manufacturers of national brand foods have long been eager to have their products on display in restaurants and that, too, is a form of product placement. In both the media and in restaurants the product is supposed to gain exposure and status by association.

Beverages were among the very first branded “food” products in the United States, and perhaps the first to place their bottles on restaurant tables and in restaurant advertising such as the 1908 Hotel Empire postcard above which features Clysmic bubbling spring water. First advertised in the 1880s as a homeopathic drink that cured cystitis and other maladies, by the early 20th century the water in the unusually shaped green bottle with the red label had become a cocktail mixer. The company put out a complimentary Booze Book which told how to mix drinks.

The Faust restaurant at New York’s Columbus Circle had similar postcards with slightly enlarged bottles of Coronet Sloe Gin and Old Quaker Rye Whiskey shown on tables in the foreground.

With restaurants it was a two-way street where food products were concerned: both the restaurants and the products sought to gain status. In the early 20th century people were distrustful of the cleanliness of restaurants as well as much of the food in the marketplace because of decades of widespread adulteration. This attitude became especially prominent following publication of Upton Sinclair’s sensational book The Jungle which exposed disgusting practices in slaughterhouses. To counter distrust branded food products began to advertise extensively and were quite successful in convincing the public they were pure.

The ever-clever “Fra” Elbert Hubbard, head of the Roycroft craft studios, developed sophisticated advertising copy in his publication The Philistine in 1901 in which he stressed that Heinz products were regularly used in the Roycroft inn’s dining room. Around 1902 the National Biscuit Company introduced industrially extruded (“shredded”) wheat to the public through restaurants, dining cars, and steamships.

Even into the 1940s and beyond, restaurants were eager to let patrons know that they used brand-name food products. “Brag About Brands” because it gives the customer confidence, suggested the New York Restaurant Association in 1946. Manufacturers — and their advertising agencies – continued to rely upon nationally known restaurants to give products name recognition and cachet. Heinz advertised extensively in the mid-20th century, with photographs showing patrons at restaurants such as Bookbinder’s in Philadelphia and the Brown Derby in Los Angeles using their catsup.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under restaurant customs

“Waiter, telephone please!”

As one year ends and another begins, it’s a good time to think about what’s old and what’s new. For example, talking on a phone at the table in a restaurant seems a new-ish kind of activity. Of course you realize that I’m going to tell you it isn’t.

Even though the telephone was invented in the 1870s, it took a while for it to become an everyday necessity. So it was still newsworthy when restaurants began to provide telephone service at patrons’ tables in the early 1900s. The customer had only to say to the waiter, “Bring me a telephone,” and it would be placed on the table and plugged into a jack.

In the first few years of the 20th century tabletop telephone service was available in Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Boston, and probably all big cities. Chicago restaurants such as Kinsley’s, the Bismarck, and Boston Oyster House (pictured), as well as the tea room at Mandel Brothers department store were outfitted with table telephones. Boston’s R. H. White department store also had phone service in its restaurant. In both these stores the telephones were undoubtedly in the men’s, not the women’s, sections.

Fans of old movies might remember scenes where waiters rush telephones to male VIPs enjoying the evening out dressed in tuxedos and accompanied by mink-clad companions. But, actually, early restaurant phoning was apparently more like today’s: business transactions, usually conducted at lunch. Stock brokers in New York City — who paid a monthly telephone rental fee and might take as many as 30 calls while lunching at a restaurant — were at least liberated from their earlier practice of gulping sandwiches at their desks.

Social commentators worried about the effect on health, how working during times meant for rest would cause “brain fag” and indigestion. The invasion of the restaurant by telephones inspired one journalist in 1902 to imagine how one day “some brilliant genius will invent a telephone that can be carried in the vest pocket and then the hustling American can wire messages to his wife, telling how busy he is while he is crossing the street or going up in the elevator.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under restaurant customs, technology

Famous in its day: Tony Faust’s

By the 1880s Anthony E. Faust had established quite a culinary empire in St. Louis. He ran a Café and Oyster House downtown on Broadway which had a nationwide reputation. Since 1878 it had featured rooftop dining, uncommon in the U.S. then. From his adjoining “Fulton Market” he also retailed and wholesaled “Faust’s Own” oysters and other delicacies such as truffles, soy sauce, and curry powder which he shipped to Southwestern and Western states. His Faust label beer, made for him by the Anheuser brewery, was also sold in the West.

He didn’t start out in the food business but as an ornamental plasterer who immigrated from the Prussian province of Westphalia at age 17. After being accidentally shot while watching a parade, he gave up his trade and decided to open a café in 1865.

Obviously he had a knack for the new business. And it helped that St. Louis was a booming hub of shipping and commerce positioning itself to dominate commerce with the West. His closeness to the Adolphus Busch family of beer fame was undoubtedly another asset. In 1886 Tony opened a second restaurant in a huge new Exposition Building on Olive Street between 13th and 14th which hosted conventions of architects, music teachers, fraternal organizations, and the Democratic National Convention of 1888.

In the late 1880s he razed his restaurant and replaced it with a finer building. With an interior of carved mahogany woodwork, a tapestried ceiling, and an elaborate mosaic tile floor, the restaurant catered to the fashionable after-theater crowd. At some point, perhaps in 1889, a second story was added, eliminating the rooftop garden (above image, ca. 1906).

Success seemed to mean Tony could do as he wished. Caught serving prairie chickens out of season (under the frankly fraudulent name “Virginia owls”), he freely confessed and flippantly said he’d pay the fine or “break rock” if need be. When the Republican National Convention was held in St. Louis in 1896 he claimed his staff would not prepare or serve meals for Afro-American delegates. Even after the convention’s managers offered to hire a space, furnish stoves, and buy provisions to feed the black delegates if Faust would oversee the work, he absolutely refused to do it. Period.

In preparation for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exposition), Faust joined half a dozen of St. Louis’s top restaurateurs in a trust, the St. Louis Catering Company, probably designed to buy in large quantities and possibly to set prices too. Faust went into partnership with New York’s Lüchow’s to create a Tyrolean Alps Restaurant at the Fair which seated 5,000 diners and featured costumed singers (pictured). It represented brewers’ interests as well, leading one observer to joke that the enormous beer hall should have been named “Budweiser Alps.” According to the Fair’s Official Program there was also a Faust restaurant in the Fair’s west pavilion on Art Hill.

At the time Tony Sr. died in 1906 the Faust empire included a second Fulton Market location, and another Faust restaurant in the Delmar Gardens amusement park in University City managed by his son Tony R. Faust. Like many a successful businessman in the Midwest, Tony R. went to NYC to see about opening a branch there. There was a Faust restaurant in NYC’s Columbus Circle in 1908 (pictured), but I am not certain whether this belonged to the St. Louis Fausts. In 1911 Tony Jr. was declared insane. After that his older brother Edward, an executive of Anheuser-Busch who was married to a daughter of Adolphus Busch, took over the restaurants and markets. The downtown restaurants in St. Louis and NYC, and probably the others as well, closed in 1915 and 1916, casualties of looming Prohibition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under outdoor restaurants, proprietors & careers