In the 1960s steak and seafood dinners became popular across the U.S. The lobster component of the dinner was frozen lobster tails from South Africa. Since the 1930s South African lobster tails had been appearing on restaurant menus. In 1937 Naylor’s Sea Food Restaurant in Washington D.C. offered a simple $1.00 Lenten special of Broiled African Lobster Tails with Drawn Butter, French Fried Potatoes, and Sliced Tomatoes.
The imported lobster tails roused Maine to mount a campaign to convince consumers to stick with Maine’s lobsters. Advertisements appeared in newspapers in 1937 stating that frozen lobster tails were inferior to Maine lobster, and in fact weren’t lobster at all! Rather, the notices said, they were clawless crawfish, aka spiny or rock lobsters. At that time, South African lobster tails – the only edible part as far as humans were concerned – were being sold at 1/3 the price of Maine’s. In 1938 Maine lobsters appeared in the marketplace with an aluminum disk attached to the claw stating they were a product of Maine.
Despite the campaign, imported lobster tails did not stop arriving from South Africa. After WWII a NY importer began flying them in from Cuba. Soon big shipments were also coming from Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand.
I had hoped to figure out why it was not until the early 1960s that restaurants began to combine lobster tails with beef, calling the combination surf ‘n’ turf, beef ‘n’ reef, etc. So far I haven’t been able to “crack” that one. It wasn’t a totally novel idea: in 1931, for instance, the LaJolla Beach & Yacht Club offered a “special steak and lobster dinner” for $1. Yet it took 30 more years after the cheaper lobster tails came to America for the surf ‘n’ turf vogue to begin.
Even though they could be dry and somewhat tough compared to Maine lobsters, ever-practical American diners liked rock lobster tails because it was easier to get the meat out of the shell without making a mess.
In 1964, a restaurant in Van Nuys CA combined steak and lobster tails for $3.00, making the combo cheaper than a steak dinner and affordable enough that it quickly caught on around the country as a “special dinner,” one likely to be chosen by middle-class diners for an anniversary or New Year’s Eve. Surf ‘n’ Turf was not likely to appear on the menus of luxury restaurants — but let’s be honest – there were very few luxury restaurants then, and even now they make up a small percentage of all restaurants. It was a dish more suited to a middle-class restaurant such as Schrafft’s, which in 1970 ran humorous advertisements suggesting their “Beef and Reef” platter was perfect “for executives who are tired of making important decisions.”
The public’s love of lobster tails paired with steak continued through the 1970s, even as prices rose. By the late 1970s Surf ‘n’ Turf could easily run to $11.95 and more, and in Washington, D.C. restaurants were caught substituting Florida tails for the superior South African ones. By the 1990s, S&T’s desirability had faded. No doubt it can still be found today here and there, but, like cheesecake and baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, it would scarcely be the restaurant sensation it was in the 1960s and 1970s.
© Jan Whitaker, 2016