Tag Archives: liquor licenses

Themes: bordellos

In the 1960s turn-of-the-century brothels inspired restaurant decor, even in some places pitching to the family trade.

Isn’t it strange that some restaurants with this type of decoration were meant to represent family good times? Mom and dad and the kids, for instance, eating burgers and fries while enjoying the songs of Lusty Lil and company at The Red Garter Saloon in a Shakopee MN amusement park. All in good fun of course, as if business in that venerable trade had been suspended long ago.

In the 19th century and the early 20th, the connection between certain restaurants and “the oldest profession” was a well-known fact and provided at least one reason why women who valued their reputations tended to be fearfully shy of night life. As late as 1923, guardian of manners Emily Post wrote, “It is not good form for an engaged couple to dine together in a restaurant, but it is all right for them to lunch, or have afternoon tea.” If they drove to the countryside for a meal, she recommended they be accompanied by a chaperone.

In 1881 The National Police Gazette, a sensational men’s tabloid, warned of Italian restaurants. “Ostensibly kept for the purposes of dealing out the culinary requirements of the inner man, they depend upon the sporting element for patronage, and in the lowest den in the vilest neighborhood, to the first-class restaurant in the heart of the business section of the city, the bawd and her ‘man’ may be seen.”

In 1907 a number of popular restaurants in San Francisco were named as participants in a scheme in which politicians, for a fee, made sure the police did not interrupt the non-food side of their business. Among these restaurants were both the Old Poodle Dog and the grandiose New Poodle Dog.

But by the early 1960s, the ambience of a brothel was considered not only proper but elegant, particularly for steakhouses. The hallmark of this decor had become red or red and black flocked wallpaper and lamps that looked like gas lights. There were various degrees of formality attaching to this theme, depending on whether it was interpreted as a “Wild West” dance hall or a “Gay 90s” Victorian parlor-style brothel. Another hallmark sneeringly remarked upon by critics was the overlarge pepper grinder, shown above standing erectly on a tray. Rather surprisingly, some respected restaurants such as Ernie’s in San Francisco adopted red-flocked decor [shown below].

Guess what happened when an actual “professional” of the trade opened a restaurant? Sally Stanford, as she was known professionally, had run a famed house of ill repute in San Francisco. When she retired in 1950 she opened a restaurant named Valhalla in Sausalito CA. From the start she was hassled by officials. First the police painted the street red in front of her restaurant, claiming it was to indicate a no-parking zone. Then, for several years the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control tried to take away her liquor license because she was a person of bad character. She fought back and eventually won and was declared rehabilitated. After many tries she was elected to the Sausalito city council in 1972, becoming mayor in 1976.

In 1977 it was revealed that the CIA had created a brothel in San Francisco to test “truth serums” on unwary men they recruited in bars. They gave them $100 and took them to the brothel where the prostitutes working there (perhaps unknowingly) supplied them with drinks that had been laced with psychoactive drugs, possibly LSD. The brothel was decorated with stereotyped red and black decor. When interviewed about the CIA’s decorating scheme by a reporter, Sally criticized their taste, saying, “That’s about the scope of their minds. . . . I’m surprised the tricks weren’t suspicious once they walked into a place that looked like that.”

Sally died in 1982 and Valhalla closed a couple of years later, but hackneyed brothel decor can still be found in restaurants today. It has become an American classic.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under atmosphere, family restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant decor, theme restaurants

Roadside attractions: Toto’s Zeppelin

toto'sAs alcoholic beverages made their return in the early 1930s, supper clubs and roadhouses offering meals, entertainment, and good cheer sprang up on highways and byways across the nation. Eager to attract customers, some adopted unusual designs that, on the surface at least, promised something out of the ordinary.

Toto'smenuOne of them was Salvatore “Toto” Lobello’s place on the main road leading from Holyoke to Northampton MA. It looked like the German Graf Zeppelin that was always in the news with tales of travelers gliding through the sky while enjoying its deluxe dining and sleeping accommodations.

The fantastic building was a type of roadside architecture of the late 1920s and 1930s commonly associated with California where sandwich shops and refreshment stands resembled oversized animals and objects ranging from toads to beer kegs. The zeppelin-shaped building was constructed in 1933 by Martin Bros., a well-known Holyoke contractor experiencing serious financial distress at that time. The nightclub apparently failed to open and, in 1934, suffered fire damage (for the first, but not the last, time).

In December of 1935, after months of trying to obtain a liquor license, Toto Lobello announced the grand opening of the Zeppelin. He solved the licensing problem by teaming up with Lillian and Adelmar Grandchamp who were able to transfer the license from their recently closed downtown Holyoke restaurant, the Peacock Club.

toto's1936The advertisement for the opening of “New England’s Smartest Supper Club” announced that drinks would be available in the Modernistic Cocktail Lounge, which was on the ground floor below the dirigible-shaped dance hall. With Web Maxon and his orchestra providing dance music, and a promise of “Never a Cover Charge, Always a Good Time,” the Zeppelin soon became a popular place for nightlife generally and for dinner parties of organizations such as the Elks and the Knights of Columbus.

Toto's1936ADVToto Lobello also had a confectionery business in Northampton located on Green Street across from the campus of the all-women Smith College. Like the confectionery, the Zeppelin became one of the students’ favorite haunts for the 3-Ds (dining, dancing, and drinking). According to an informal survey in 1937 the majority of Smith students liked to drink, preferring Scotch and soda, champagne, and beer. Toto’s ranked as a top date destination.

Toto’s Zeppelin served lunch and dinner and a special Sunday dinner for $1.00. On Saturday nights Charcoal Broiled Steak was featured.

One year after Toto’s grand opening the restaurant/nightclub faced a licensing renewal challenge requiring it to withdraw its application until unspecified “improvements” were made to the facility. But a more serious problem was about to emerge when dirigibles suddenly lost their appeal following the May 1937 Hindenburg disaster in which 36 people perished. Not too much later, in November of 1938, fire would also completely destroy Holyoke’s Zeppelin. In rebuilding, Toto chose a moderne style with a pylon over the entrance.

In the mid-1950s Salvatore Lobello, owing the state a considerable sum for unpaid unemployment taxes, filed for bankruptcy. He closed his Northampton restaurant, auctioning off all the fixtures in 1957. The building, at the address now belonging to a pizza shop, was razed. The Holyoke restaurant continued in business until 1960 when it was seized by the federal government for nonpayment of taxes. It briefly did business as the Oaks Steak & Rib House, a branch of the Oaks Inn of Springfield, before its destruction by fire in 1961.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under odd buildings, roadside restaurants