Tag Archives: French restaurants

Famous in its day: Blanco’s

blanco'scafePC

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.

blanco'smusicboxpostcard

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.

blanco'sGreatAmericanMusicHall

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

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Find of the day: J.B.G.’s French restaurant

FrenchtabledhoteJBG740

Last weekend I went to an antique paper show sponsored by the Ephemera Society of America where there were books and every sort of printed thing — maps, advertising cards, tickets, menus, postcards, posters, broadsides — for sale. I ended up buying only seven items, but one of them (shown above) was a gem.

I knew as soon as I spotted it that it was a relic of New York City’s old French quarter in which many restaurants flourished in the 19th century. The card probably dates from the latter years of the quarter, about 1904.

J.B.G.’s was operated by Jean Baptiste Guttin, who immigrated to the United States in 1872 and became a citizen in 1892. For many years he worked as a waiter at wine merchant Henri Mouquin’s well-known restaurant on Fulton Street. Then, in 1890, he took over a restaurant formerly run by A. Fourcade on West 25th street. Within a few years he changed the name to J.B.G. and moved down the street a bit.

frenchtabledhoteguttinMay1890Beginning in the 1890s the area from West 23rd to West 28th streets near Sixth avenue was the heart of the French quarter, which was said to be as much or more of a tight-knit community than the Chinese. It had earlier been situated farther downtown, south of Washington Square. By 1895 West 25th was the new restaurant row for French New Yorkers. The restaurants were also patronized by others who lived in the area, as well as adventurous “Bohemian” diners who came to soak up the atmosphere. Of course they also liked getting a six-course meal with red wine and coffee for 50 or 60 cents.

Described in the 1903 guide book Where and How to Dine in New York as “very French,” J.B.G.’s was a truly old-fashioned table d’hôte in that customers had no choice in dishes and didn’t know what they would be eating until it was set down before them.

Jean Baptiste Guttin was successful in the restaurant business. When he died in 1914 he left the then-considerable sum of $4,000 to NYC’s French Hospital as a way of thanking the late chocolate-maker and restaurateur Henry Maillard for advancing him a loan of the same amount “in a moment of difficulty.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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“Distinguished dining” awards

HolidayAward470After World War II American consumers were filled with pent-up demand accrued over years of rationing and deprivation. They wanted to sample the joys of the good life, which included American and world travel, even if only in their imaginations. A sophisticated magazine – Holiday — was created to cater to their aspirations.

HolidayMag1954Holiday’s first issue came out in March 1946. A couple of months later Madison Avenue advertising man Ted Patrick took over as editor. A gourmet and bon vivant, Patrick gravitated toward fine restaurants. In 1952 the magazine began presenting awards to American restaurants that achieved dining distinction, recognizing 49 the first year. Among the winners were Bart’s (Portland OR), Commander’s Palace (New Orleans), Karl Ratzsch’s (Milwaukee), and Win Schuler’s (Marshall MI).

Winners tended to remain on the list, though it was not guaranteed. Win Schuler’s (still in business today) featured steaks, prime rib, and pork chops, and hosted 1,200 patrons a day at its Marshall location [menu below]. In 1971 it won its 20th Holiday award, no doubt not its last.

Even if, as Harvey Levenstein writes in Paradox of Plenty, Holiday stuck to “safe, sound, and usually American” choices where “the steak, lobster, and roast beef syndrome . . . reigned supreme,” its recommendations carried weight and raised the seriousness with which many American diners and restaurateurs regarded restaurants.

HolidayWinSchuler'sMenuTo win, a restaurant’s offerings were supposed to compare to French cuisine. It’s hard to see how a steak-and-baked-potato place could do that, but plenty such restaurants won awards. On the other hand, many of the winners were French inflected, particularly in NYC. A quick scan of restaurants included in the 1976 Holiday Magazine Award Cookbook shows that nearly 25% had French names and many more specialized in French dishes.

What some thought was a bias for restaurants in NYC and, to a lesser degree, NY state prevailed until 1968 when California restaurants won as many awards as New York (even though the number of winners in San Francisco still lagged behind NYC, 17 to 25).

HolidayAug1953The overall volume of winners grew over the years, reaching over 200 by the mid-1970s. The numbers reflected the growth in dining out – and maybe the tendency of award programs to expand. In the beginning whole swaths of the country had nary a winner. Winners would boast that they were “the only” restaurant – for example, in Wisconsin, in the South outside of Florida, among Midwestern states, etc. But over time winners could be found in all parts of the country, requiring some adjustment in the meaning of distinction. Statements appeared saying that awards were not given solely to elegant places. As Patrick’s successor Silas Spitzer said, “Elegance has a certain value in making our judgment of restaurants – but it’s not essential.”

I suspect that the significance of the awards was greatest during Patrick’s editorship, which ended with his death in 1964. The magazine fell on hard times in the 1970s and was sold in 1977. Even earlier the awards were losing clout. Among those in the 1976 cookbook were several that had come under harsh criticism. Many specialized in “continental” cuisine which had lost its glamour by this time, or were considered uninspired. In 1974 John Hess wrote that The Bakery in Chicago and Ernie’s in San Francisco were “disappointing.” NYT critic John Canaday declared in 1975 that Le Manoir was the French restaurant where he had the worst meal in the past 20 months, Le Cirque the “worst restaurant in proportion to its popularity,” and the “21″ Club “least worth the trouble.”

The awards, called Travel-Holiday awards after Holiday’s 1977 merger with Travel, continued until 1989.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Romantic dinners

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Filed under patrons, restaurant etiquette, women

The (partial) triumph of the doggie bag

I can’t remember when restaurant servers began automatically asking if you wanted to take home food left on your plate but I know it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It used to be that food was wrapped up only if patrons asked.

Probably some customers have always smuggled away food from restaurant tables, usually in napkins. Maybe to stop this, the custom of furnishing diners with bags in which to take home leftovers began after the second World War when upward mobility widened the dining public. Doggie bags went into production around the mid 1950s and their use increased tenfold in Chicago in the 1970s, according to a Chicago Tribune story.

But what is interesting is how many people were embarrassed by the practice. Well into the 1970s etiquette columns in newspapers got letters from restaurant patrons asking if it was ok to ask for a doggie bag if they didn’t have a dog. Usually the writer cited a spouse or friend who objected to the custom. A typical query is the one in 1964 from a wife whose husband “looked aghast” when she asked for a bag and told her it was in poor taste to take home table scraps. Nonetheless, with the exception of Elizabeth Post, Emily Post’s granddaughter by marriage, advice columnists invariably approved of doggie bags as sensible if not downright virtuous.

Doggie bags and other containers grew more acceptable in the 1970s – but not in all restaurants. The most expensive and elegant places, such as the Four Seasons and upscale French restaurants, showed a distinct dislike of the custom. Many would only provide a container if asked, and then often fashioned a swan of aluminum foil as if to say, “We don’t make a habit of this – this is just for you.”

There are a number of explanations why taking home leftovers has not always been universally accepted by restaurants or their guests. Some restaurants cite health concerns. French restaurateurs are offended by the idea of someone microwaving their cuisine; they believe food should be eaten just at the moment the chef sends it to the table. Diners who are the least bit intimidated by a restaurant or its servers are unlikely to ask to take food home. I was recently in a restaurant that does not permit guests to place jackets or coats on the back of their chairs. I am certain they would cringe at a request to take away uneaten food (and I’ve never seen it done there). In any event, the small portions served in this and other upscale restaurants does not allow any provision for future meals. Other restaurants handle the matter discreetly. In a power lunch spot in Los Angeles, diners must pick up their leftovers, packed in a tasteful tote bag, at the front desk as they leave. No styrofoam box sitting on tables through the dessert course there!

On a deep socio-psychological level the reasons doggie bags carry a degree of embarrassment and often are not accepted by elite restaurants are the same as why it’s considered poor manners to smack or gobble. Higher status accrues to those who disguise hunger by eating slowly, who appreciate small portions, and whose delicate appetite requires “appetizers” and little dainties with names such as “amuse bouche.” Leaving food on the plate communicates the absence of animal neediness. It is a version of Thorstein Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption” in that it flaunts the diner’s ability to walk away from perfectly good food.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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