Tag Archives: hotels

Between courses: rate this menu

5betweencoursesREVI always find it difficult to judge menus from the 19th century because our eating habits, food preferences, and food resources have changed considerably since then. It is difficult to decide whether any given menu is fine, average, or poor. The following menu was designed by a hotel steward (stewards were in charge of expenses) for a banquet in 1893. Almost certainly wines would have been served with the seven courses (which are Soup, Fish, Roast, Punch, Entree, Dessert, and Coffee).

How would you rate it?
A = an excellent high-class dinner
B = a fine basic dinner
C = an inexpensive yet acceptable dinner

MENU
Bisque of Oysters
Planked Whitefish, Maitre d’Hotel
Browned Potatoes
Roast Tenderloin of Beef, Sauce Madere
Green Peas
Lemon Water Ice
Deviled Lobster au Gratin
Vanilla Ice Cream
Assorted Cake
American Cheese, Water Crackers
Coffee

See what the steward thought about this menu.

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Filed under miscellaneous

Pie in the skies – revolving restaurants

laRonde346They are so clever and, yes, so corny in a circus-y way that revolving restaurants seem like they must be a product of American ingenuity – but they aren’t. The restaurant in Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair Space Needle was not the first. Nor was it the second, third, or fourth. According to Chad Randl in A History of Buildings that Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot, the first revolving tower with a restaurant opened in 1959 in Dortmund, Germany. Sometime in 1961 came spinning restaurants in Frankfurt, Cairo, and Honolulu (pictured), in about that order.

belgeddes1930The revolving building itself actually came earlier and was rather simple technologically. In 1898 a leading attraction in Yarmouth, a seaside resort in England, was a rotating observation tower on the beach. Decades later designer Norman Bel Geddes proposed a restaurant set atop a rotating column for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 (pictured). Unlike his, though, the design used by most restaurants features an interior ring that rotates while the building remains stationary.

They’ve often appeared in movies and TV shows. A 1934 British film, Give Her a Ring, featured a set with a revolving restaurant, decades before Elvis Presley and his date enjoyed dinner in the Space Needle in the 1963 film It Happened at the World’s Fair. A few years later evil scientist Ernst Blofeld operated a secret mountaintop laboratory in the Swiss Alps in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. After the film was completed the structure reverted to its original purpose, a revolving restaurant which of course uses the film as its theme.

A fantasy played out in fiction and occasionally in real life has the restaurant spinning out of control. The ideal rate of rotation is about one full turn per hour; a test of smoothness is a penny which remains set on edge for several rotations. Double the speed, as happened mistakenly at The Pinnacle in Chicago in 1965, and the ride gets jerky. Customers feel tipsy while the waitstaff can’t find their tables when they come out of the service core.

RevolvRestStars339Despite being fairly easy to engineer and not really all that new, in the 1960s revolving buildings became symbols of progress. Often set atop communications towers, they were intended to help defray costs of tower construction and operation. Today, whether in towers or on hotel roofs (where they look like flying saucers that have landed), they continue to represent modernity in developing countries around the world. While North America has largely stopped building them or has shut down forever their little 1-HP motors, still they spin on in Kuala Lumpur, P’yongyang, and countless other places.

butlinsDetail2337For diners gazing from on high – whether upon the Pyramids, distant mountains, or, more often, streets clogged with traffic – revolving restaurants are pleasant. Who doesn’t enjoy the feeling of god-like detachment while sipping a martini and surveying a cityscape? Yet, on the whole revolving restaurants are geared more to “peak” dining occasions than to the consumption of haute cuisine. Their forgettable yet expensive food has tended not to win them steady local trade. Plus, tackiness such as found in Florida hotels with Polynesian restaurants twirling in the sky, or “Certificates of Orbit” such as once were given out at Butlin’s Revolving Restaurant in London’s post office tower (detail pictured), have branded them cheesy tourist traps in many people’s minds.

That raises the question of why it took so long for Las Vegas to get one.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Filed under odd buildings

Anatomy of a restaurateur: H. M. Kinsley

Herbert M. Kinsley, a leading Chicago restaurateur of the later 19th century, faced many obstacles. Like many in the restaurant business, his was a high-energy career full of zigs and zags. Born in Canton MA in 1831, he began working at a young age, picking up a skill of great value for his future, bookkeeping. After several years in retailing he entered hotel stewarding in Cincinnati, then Chicago and Canada.

He returned to Chicago in the early 1860s and was employed in hotels. In 1865 he acquired the restaurant in Chicago’s Opera House where he established a reputation as a skilled restaurateur, but lost money. He sold the business, spent some time setting up railroad hotels and dining cars, and then in 1868 started another restaurant in Chicago on Washington Street. The following year he reportedly also ran the first Pullman dining car, on the Chicago-Northwestern railway. In 1870 he opened a restaurant in the new planned community of Riverside IL, which likely went out of business when the development faltered shortly after its inception, about the same time his Washington Street restaurant was badly damaged in the Great Fire of 1871. He once again left Chicago, to open hotels on the Baltimore & Ohio line.

When he returned to Chicago he took over a restaurant called Brown’s, in 1874 during a nationwide depression. A few months later he closed it, announcing, “The expenses of a fashionable restaurant just now are too great, and the receipts too small, to warrant keeping it open longer.” The furniture and fixtures were auctioned and he leased out the premises, keeping just enough space to continue his catering business.

A few years later he dared to try again and opened a new place, finally meeting with success. By 1884 Kinsley’s was considered Chicago’s finest restaurant and society’s first choice for catering dinners and parties. In 1885 he built a new four-story restaurant on Adams Street. Short of capital to complete this costly venture, he turned to one of Chicago’s noted restaurant backers, the liquor distributor Chapin & Gore.

Kinsley took positions on the issues of race and tipping that were at odds with many restaurateurs of his time. He declared in 1880s he was always willing to serve Afro-American customers, thought black waiters were among the finest, and found tipping a reasonable system of remuneration that encouraged good service. He was fond of large silver serving pieces (coffee urn pictured) and authored a book for Gorham Silver on chafing dish recipes.

In 1891, he and son-in-law Gustav Baumann opened the new and elegant Holland House hotel in New York City, hiring a Delmonico veteran as steward, importing a French chef, and sinking $350,000 into the wine cellar. In 1892 architect Daniel Burnham hired Kinsley to plot the logistics of restaurants for the Chicago World’s Fair. That same year Kinsley’s was the site of a lavish inaugural dinner for the Fair that hosted the Vice President of the US and 6 cabinet members, former President Rutherford Hayes, 27 governors, 4 supreme court justices, 17 ministers of foreign governments, and countless dignitaries. After H.M.’s untimely death in 1894, his Chicago restaurant continued under new management until 1905 when the building was razed. For years to come it would be remembered as a symbol of a lost era.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Filed under proprietors & careers

Sweet and sour Polynesian

One remarkable accomplishment of Polynesian restaurants was how they lured the male diner without using steak as bait. Who would have believed mid-century Homo Americanus Modernus could swallow so many sugary rum drinks, pineapple chunks, and sticky sauces?

Another notable coup was that these tropical resorts were so obviously fake it was preposterous to accuse them of it. It is easy to imagine how Vic Bergeron, originator of Trader Vic’s, would have roared with laughter if charged with inauthenticity. (“Jeez, Honey, that was the whole point!”) Guests were well aware that the Tiki gods, fishnets, and outrigger canoes were artfully staged to stimulate escape fantasies, and vaguely conscious that the menu represented a culinary amalgam that never existed in the outside world. Bergeron once stated that the food of Polynesian islanders was “primitive” and “not acceptable to American tastes.” Stephen Crane, mastermind of Kon-Tiki Ports, admitted that many ingredients used in Polynesian dishes – bean sprouts, water chestnuts, tomatoes, and pea pods – didn’t grow on the islands. Who cared?

Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s were the first Polynesian restaurants, beginning in California in 1934 and 1938 respectively. It was quite a while, though, before eating in pseudo-grass-huts became a fad. Around 1957 only about 20 Polynesian restaurants were known. But by 1962, after Hawaiian statehood and the debuts of the movie South Pacific and TV show Hawaiian Eye, the number had grown to 200, according to a National Restaurant Association estimate.

Many were in big hotels where their job was to boost profits. As a Wall Street Journal headline succinctly put it in 1959, “Cocoanut Milk, Idols, Waterfalls Help Hotels Lift Food, Drink Take.” The Polynesian restaurant was about merchandising. Whether it was Bonko Bonko soup at Columbus’s Kahiki, Pineapple Teriyaki Garni at The Lahala House in Corpus Christi, or a take-home scorpion drink bowl (pictured) at Trader Vic’s, the concept was greater than all the inexpensive ingredients combined.

The appeal of exotic drinks held steady longer than the rest of the package. Already by the mid-1960s, American and “continental” standbys were infiltrating menus. Steaks made a comeback and diners could also choose from a broad array of restaurant items not even remotely tropical such as clam chowder, chicken cordon bleu, and hush puppies. In the 1970s more adventurous diners rejected Cantonese, the core of Polynesian cuisine, for spicier Szechuan and Hunan. Decor was seen as a growing problem, too, as the cost of importing tapa cloths and outrigger canoes rose. Restaurateurs searching for a concept were counseled to think about Old English which was easier to accessorize, according to the journal Cooking for Profit, only requiring some paneling and “a few old swords, or other recognizable ‘art objects.’”

By the mid-1970s and into the 1980s critics heaped scorn on things Polynesian, food especially. It seemed hard to believe NY Times critic Craig Claiborne had given it an ounce of credibility in 1958. Actor Yul Brynner sued Trader Vic’s in NY’s Plaza Hotel in 1979 after eating spareribs there and acquiring trichinosis. Ten years later Vic’s was booted out of the Plaza. Vic himself, having died in 1984, was spared the ignominious news. The long-lived Kahiki closed in 2000. Yet, even today Polynesian motifs cast a campy spell.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Filed under food, history, Polynesian restaurants