Tag Archives: French influence

Crazy for crepes

The crepes craze, which began in the 1960s, became intense in the 1970s. By the late 1980s it had all but disappeared..

But before crepes achieved popularity, they were almost unknown in the U.S. The exception was Crepes Suzette, thin, delicate pancakes with an orange-butter sauce and liqueurs that were often dramatically lit aflame at the diners’ table. Like Cherries Jubilee, Crepes Suzette usually only appeared on high-priced menus, such as the Hotel Astor [1908 quotation].

Before 1960 even fewer restaurants served savory crepes, and those that did would also seem to have been expensive restaurants. In 1948 the Colony in New York City served Crepes Colony with a seafood filling. And in the late 1950s New York’s Quo Vadis offered Crepes Quo Vadis, filled with curried seafood and glazed with a white sauce, as hors d’oeuvres.

Although few Americans had ever eaten Crepes Suzette, it’s likely that the fame of this prized dish helped pave the way for the creperie craze, with restaurants primarily featuring crepes. Crepes were regarded as an exotic luxury dish that, by some miracle, was affordable to the average consumer, sometimes costing as little as 60 or 75 cents apiece around 1970.

Crepes enjoyed a mystique, offering a link to European culture and a break from the meat and potatoes that dominated most restaurant menus in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

At a time when America was seen as the world leader in modern ways of living – including industrially efficient food production — Europe was imagined as a romantically quaint Old World where traditional ways were preserved and many things were still handmade.

American creperies catered to their customers’ wish for a taste of Europe. With country French decor, servers in folk costumes, and names such as Old Brittany French Creperie and Maison des Crepes [pictured at top, Georgetown], diners were imaginatively transported to a delightfully foreign environment quite unlike the brand new shopping malls in which many creperies were located. Another exotic touch employed by quite a few creperies was to use the French circumflex mark in crêpes (which I have not done in this blogpost).

Filled with creamed chicken, ratatouille, or strawberries and whipped cream (etc.), crepes soon became a favorite lunch, dinner, and late-night supper for college students, dating couples, shoppers, and anyone seeking “something different.” Along with crepes, menus typically included a few soups, most likely including French onion soup, a spinach-y salad, and perhaps a carafe of wine.

San Francisco’s Magic Pan Creperie led the trend and, after being acquired by Quaker Oats in 1969, spread to cities across the country, with the chain eventually totaling about 112. The first Magic Pan, a tiny place on Fillmore Street, was opened in 1965 by Paulette and Laszlo Fono, who came to this country in 1956 after the failed anti-Communist uprising in their native Hungary. A few years later they opened another Magic Pan in Ghirardelli Square and Laszlo patented a 10-pan crepe-maker capable of turning out 600 perfectly cooked crepes per hour [pictured here].

As Quaker opened Magic Pans, they invariably received a warm welcome in newspaper food pages. It was as though each chosen city had been “awarded” one of the creperies, usually situated in upscale suburban shopping malls such as St. Louis’s Frontenac Plaza or Hartford’s West Farms Mall. When a Magic Pan opened in Dallas’ North Park shopping center in 1974, it was called “as delightful a restaurant as one is likely to find in Dallas.”

Among Magic Pan amenities (beyond moderate prices), reviewers were pleased by fresh flowers on each table, good service, delicious food, pleasant decor, and late hours. Many of the Magic Pans stayed open as late as midnight – as did many independent crepe restaurants. [Des Moines, 1974]

In hindsight it’s apparent that creperies responded to Americans’ aspirations to broaden their experiences and enjoy what a wider world had to offer. It was a grand adventure for a high school or college French class or club to visit a creperie, watch crepe-making demonstrations, and have lunch. [below: student at the Magic Pan, Tulsa, 1979] But what one Arizona creperie owner called the “highbrow taco” did not appeal to everyone. The operator of a booth selling crepes at Illinois county fairs reported that hardly anyone bought them and that some fairgoers referred to them as creeps or craps.

I would judge that crepes and creperies reached the pinnacle of popularity in 1976, the year that Oster came out with an electric crepe maker for the home. Soon the downward slide began.

Quaker sold the Magic Pans in 1982 after years of declining profits. The new owner declared he would rid the chain of its “old-lady” image, i.e., attract more male customers. Menus were expanded to include heartier meat and pasta dishes.

Even though new creperies continued to open here and there – Baton Rouge got its first one in 1983 – there were signs as early as 1980 that the crepe craze was fading. A visitor to a National Restaurant Association convention that year reported that crepes were “passé” and restaurants were looking instead for new low-cost dishes using minimal amounts of meat or fish. A restaurant reviewer in 1986 dismissed crepes as “forgotten food” served only in conservative restaurant markets. Magic Pans were closing all over, and by the time the 20-year old Magic Pan on Boston’s Newbury Street folded in 1993, very few, if any, remained.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Taste of a decade: 1840s restaurants

1849Marden'sEating places began to show a French influence as places called “restaurants” and “cafes” replaced “eating houses.” Many hotels adopted the European plan which allowed guests to choose where they would eat instead of including meals in the hotel in the room charge, a change that encouraged the growth of independent eating places. A “restaurant culture” had begun to develop, yet with stiff resistance from many who associated restaurants with vice and immorality.

Menus, particularly those of cheaper eating places, contained mostly meat, pastry, and ever-popular oysters. Meat production was still local; NYC had 200 slaughterhouses in operation. Out-of-season fresh produce was beginning to come North by steamboat from the South, but still not in large quantities. Harvey Parker’s well-known eating house in Boston was celebrated for acquiring peas from Virginia in 1841, but strawberries remained a seasonal delicacy in the Northeast later in the decade.

U.S. territory grew substantially when Texas became a state. Oregon territory was acquired, along with a big chunk of what had been Mexico (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California). Gold was discovered in California and almost overnight San Francisco became a city of 25,000. San Francisco’s Tadich Grill, still around today, was one of the many restaurants that opened to serve the newcomers. The restaurant business was also doing well in New Orleans, home of generous “free lunch” buffets.

Among the middle classes in the Northeast the movement to discourage heavy drinking – or any at all — resulted in the establishment of “temperance restaurants” that served no alcoholic beverages.

1848Milliken'sBostonEating away from home remained a male activity mostly, as was true at The Alhambra in Richmond VA and Taft’s near Boston, but women sometimes made an appearance. Although an advertisement for the popular and inexpensive Milliken’s in Boston pictured men, it also advised it had  “apartments [dining rooms] for ladies exclusively.” (As the illustration shows, a stout figure was admired then.)

Highlights

1840 If a diner wants to leave his waiter a tip in a cheap eating house, the standard amount is 1 cent, which usually amounts to about 5%.

1841 The Colored American, a weekly newspaper dedicated to elevating the moral and social stature of free Blacks, declares it will accept no advertising for restaurants because they mostly dispense not “wholesome food for the body” but “liquid death, both for body and mind.”

1842 The Franklin Café and Restaurant, located in Philadelphia’s elegant Franklin House (hotel) announces it is serving Ice Cream, Sherbets, and Roman Punch made by a graduate of the world-famous Café Tortoni in Paris.

1843 When a group of temperance advocates visits the Eagle Coffee House in Concord NH to convince the proprietor to give up the sale of intoxicating drinks, he tells them that he would feel “very mean” if he had to refuse a visitor from Boston a drink.

1844 P. B. Brigham announces he has hired the best French and Italian “Artistes” for his Restaurant, Ice Cream, and Oyster Saloon in Boston and has a Ladies’ Saloon newly “fitted up in the Parisian style.”

1845Harvard

1845 Harvard forbids its students, all male then, from going to Cambridge eating and drinking places without a guardian.

1846 In an era when Black men occupy an important role in the catering business, NYC society caterer George T. Downing opens a summer branch of his business in Newport RI.

1846 A journalist travels somewhere “way out west” and eats at a small town tavern where the fare consists of ham and eggs fried in lard, hog jowl and greens (called corndoggers), and brains with greens, washed down with corn liquor or sassafras tea.

1849NYC

1847 Luxury comes to Baltimore with the opening of the Parisian Restaurant with a “French Cook.” As in Europe, Ladies (accompanied by Gentlemen) are to be honored in a private parlor “where it is hoped that they will be able to enjoy the luxuries of Oysters, Game, etc., from which they have been heretofore excluded.”

1848 In his vivid newspaper series New York in Slices, George G. Foster writes that about 30,000 persons who work in mercantile and financial occupations eat daily in the restaurants of lower Manhattan, and most of them “gorge . . . disgusting masses of stringy meat and tepid vegetables.”

1849 The Home Journal is convinced that the presence of restaurants, cafes, refectories, and oyster saloons, “on almost every corner of the streets” in cities is certain to lead young men to lives of “sensual excesses.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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