Tag Archives: ethnic restaurants

Tablecloths’ checkered past

tableclothruggerisSTL50Throughout the 20th century red and white checked tablecloths in restaurants sent clear messages to patrons: this restaurant is inexpensive, friendly, and unpretentious. Whether ethnic or “American” they suggested that the customer was in a homey place, either authentically old fashioned or old world.

What kind of ethnic? Beyond noting that they were never Chinese (that I’ve discovered — so far), restaurants with checked tablecloths could be Italian or French, but also German, Viennese, Spanish, British, Greek, Hungarian, or Mexican.


As for signaling old-fashioned Americanness, that could mean “Pioneer Days on the Prairie,” “Frontier Saloon,” “Old-Time Beer Hall,” “Country Barn Dance,” “California Gold Rush,” “Grandma’s Kitchen,” “Colonial New England,” or “Gay Nineties.”

I use the past tense when referring to red and white checked tablecloths, not because they aren’t still around, but because I sense their vogue has ended, at least temporarily. I would say their appeal was strongest from the 1930s through the 1970s.

tablecloths3751The fabric itself dates far back into the 19th century. Already by 1900 checked tablecloths were seen as old fashioned. But unlike other material culture of restaurant-ing, the meanings of the tablecloths were created as much by fundraising events and celebrations sponsored by churches, clubs, and schools as they were by restaurants.

In restaurants, as well as outside them, the tablecloths have been accompanied by at least one of the following decorative touches: candles in wine bottles, lanterns, travel posters, braided garlic hung from walls, murals of villages, beamed ceilings, knotty pine paneling, sawdust floors, wagon wheels, and peasant costumes. Candles in bottles were close to mandatory.

tablecloth21club1939A number of famed restaurants used the tablecloths at some point in their history. A few of them fell outside the inexpensive class such as the “21″ Club [pictured] and the London Chop House. In 1961, a New York restaurant reviewer wrote that checked tablecloths were “almost obligatory for unpretentious Gallic restaurants in this city.” Boston’s Durgin-Park used them on their long communal tables, furnishing the means for burglars to tie up the staff during a 1950s robbery. In Chicago, the Drake Hotel’s Cape Cod Room added the colorful cloths to its busy decor that included pots and pans hanging from the ceiling.

Surprisingly it wasn’t until the 1980s that anyone admitted they were tired of seeing the classic tablecloths in restaurants. The ascent of Italian restaurants into the higher reaches of culinary status provided the rationale. Now, for example, reviews would begin with the assertion that Restaurant X didn’t represent, “the Italy of checkered tablecloths and melted candles in Chianti bottles, but the Italy of designer Giorgio Armani.”

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen tables covered in red checks. Now it could be risky, suggesting not authenticity but tired mediocrity.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under atmosphere, restaurant customs

Greek-American restaurants


Ethnic restaurants are generally seen as places where people from cultures outside the U.S. provide meals similar to what they ate in their homelands. A high degree of continuity between restaurant owners, cooks, and cuisines is presumed, as in: the Chinese run Chinese restaurants in which Chinese cooks prepare Chinese dishes.

Questions are sometimes raised about whether, for example, Chinese restaurants in America have adapted to American consumer’s tastes to the point where the Chinese cuisine is not “authentic,” but few question how obviously true or historically accurate it is to assume that Chinese always cooked or served Chinese food.

History is rarely tidy. Chinese, Germans, and Italians cooked French food. Germans ran English chop houses. And people of almost all ethnicities — Irish, Italian, German, Croatian, Greek — cooked American food and owned American restaurants.

GreekPaul'sLuncheonette233Greek immigrants, in fact, have been especially inclined to run American restaurants which serve mainstream American food, with little suggestion of the Mediterranean. Typically they’ve been  the independent quick lunches, luncheonettes, coffee shops, and diners that are open long hours, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to working people. Many have been run under business names such as Ideal, Majestic, Elite, Cosmopolitan, Sanitary, Purity, or Candy Kitchen, rather than the proprietor’s name.

The emphasis on names suggesting quality or cleanliness is explained by the tendency of Americans in the early 20th century to brand Greek-run eateries as “greasy spoons” or “holes in the wall.” A negative attitude to Greek eating places is evident in the following piece of rhyme published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1926 entitled “Where Greek Meets Greek”:

The other day I wandered in where angels fear to tread –
I mean the well known Greasy Spoon, where hungry gents are fed;
Where eats is eats and spuds is spuds, and ham is ham what am –
And the pork in the chicken salad is honest-to-goodness lamb.


Certainly there were substandard Greek restaurants, but I’ve found that Greek-American proprietors had a propensity to plow profits into modern equipment and fixtures whenever possible.

Greek immigrants showed strong affinity with the restaurant business since the beginning of the 20th century when they began coming to the U.S. in large numbers. The reason for this is often attributed to a lack of English skills, but the first Greek restaurants, actually coffeehouses where patrons could linger, probably had more to do with the absence of women among early Greek migrants. Coffeehouses furnished community. Although in big Eastern cities many Greek restaurants continued to focus on Greek immigrants, many enterprising Greeks took the step of expanding beyond their compatriots. Some, such as Charles Charuhas who established the Washington, D.C. Puritan Dairy Lunch in 1906, were expanding or transitioning from the confectionery and fruit business.

While heavily invested in the New England lunch room business, especially in Providence RI and Lowell MA, Greek immigrants spread to many regions of the U.S, bringing restaurants to the restaurant-starved South. It is impressive that a Raleigh-based Greek trio opened its 15th restaurant in North Carolina as early as 1909. At that time, Greeks were said to be “invading” the lunch room trade in Chicago, operating about 400 places. Because of the simplicity of American cuisine, it was said that two months spent shadowing an American cook was all it took for Greek restaurateurs to pick up the necessary skills.

GreekTorchofAcropolisDallasOther successful Greek restaurateurs of the past century included John Raklios who at one point owned a chain of a couple dozen lunch rooms in Chicago. In New York City Bernard G. Stavracos ran the first-class restaurant The Alps on West 58th, established in 1907. The Demos Cafe in Muskegon MI was one of that city’s leading establishments. In Dallas The Torch of the Acropolis (pictured) had a 36-year-long run, closing in 1984, while the College Candy Kitchen was an institution in Amherst MA.

The children of successful Greek restaurant owners often preferred professional careers, but a new wave of Greek immigrants arrived after WWII, gravitating to diners, particularly it seems, in New Jersey. In 1989 the author of the book Greek Americans wrote that according to his estimate about 20% of the members of the National Restaurant Association had Greek surnames. And, as if demonstrating a flair for adaptation, according to a 1990 study, Greek-Americans were then dominating Connecticut’s pizza business.


© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under lunch rooms, proprietors & careers, sanitation

Basic fare: spaghetti

spaghettiMeatballs327In the 1890s it was considered daring to go to an Italian restaurant and eat spaghetti. The restaurants were not in affluent neighborhoods and some middle-class people worried (largely needlessly) about how clean they were. Non-drinkers didn’t approve of the “red ink” (wine) that came with the spaghetti. Some women felt it was not ladylike to eat spaghetti in public. Then there was the garlic, which was considered seriously foreign by many Americans. But others, especially offbeat types – artists, musicians, and free spirits known as “bohemians” — loved the whole experience: spaghetti, wine, garlic, low prices, and the friendly atmosphere found in most Italian places. The future of spaghetti belonged to them.

Italian pastas were not really new in this country. Thomas Jefferson brought several cases back from Paris in the 1780s and when he ran out he imported a piece of equipment for making macaroni (as all pastas were known then). Macaroni occasionally shows up on menus before the Civil War. In 1844 the Café Tortoni, a French restaurant in NYC, featured stewed beef with macaroni. Pastas were growing popular enough by 1888 to be manufactured in the United States, made of durum wheat grown in the Dakotas.

spaghettiwaiter04The bohemian fad for spaghetti grew stronger in the early 20th century, particularly in lower Manhattan and San Francisco. Diners flocked to Gonfarone’s in Greenwich Village. Despite its low prices, the restaurant made money because a 50-cent dinner with a complimentary glass of wine cost but pennies to put on the table – about 2 cents for the spaghetti and a few cents for a carafe of the red California claret bought by the barrel, 40 or 50 at a time.

In 1904 short story writer O. Henry swelled the fame of the spaghetti restaurant with “A Philistine in Bohemia.” The story involved a poor, unsophisticated daughter of a rooming house keeper who is taken out to a restaurant called Tonio’s by one of her mother’s boarders. When they arrive at the restaurant he disappears, later to emerge from the kitchen as the chef who is warmly greeted by the regular diners who regard him with awe.

Spaghetti sauces in the early Italian restaurants often were made of a brown sauce mixed with tomato sauce, the whole dish sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The brown sauce was made with thickened beef broth, sauteed mushrooms, and sometimes truffles and chicken livers.

By around 1910 spaghetti had spread to restaurants run by non-Italians. It might appear on menus as “Spaghetti Italienne” or as “authentic Italian” if garlic was used, perhaps a warning to avoiders. On the other hand, bland American-style spaghetti quickly became a regular in cheap cafés and on cafeteria steam tables. In “home-cooking” places, such as Foster’s on South Wabash in Chicago, it joined a melange of 25-cent dishes like ham with macaroni, creamed eggs on toast, corn fitters with maple syrup, clam chowder, and baked beans.

tonysbantaminnCT42Spaghetti, Italian and non, continued as a staple restaurant dish during successive decades, in speakeasies of the 1920s, Depression dives and diners, and a variety of restaurants during the meatless months of World War II. Next came pre-cooked meatballs and prepared sauces in the 1960s and 1970s which meant even virtually kitchenless restaurants could serve spaghetti. Its cheapness and the fact that children like it also made spaghetti a favorite of family restaurants, and the basis of chains such as the Old Spaghetti Factory, the original of which was started in Portland OR by a Greek immigrant in 1969.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under food