Tag Archives: lunch counters

Down and out in St. Louis

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Restaurants for those short of money are not always hospitable places like those I wrote about in my last post about community restaurants that feed the poor. The photo above looks unfriendly to me. Diners like it are often viewed through a haze of nostalgia that softens the edges – but that’s not how I see it.

I know this place though I’ve never been there, probably never even seen it before. I used to wait for a bus on a desolate corner in St. Louis, the city where I bought this photograph at a yard sale for 5¢. There sat a diner much like this one. My feet and hands might turn to ice from the cold winter wind on that corner but it never would have occurred to me to go inside to warm up. That’s how uninviting it was.

STLBrains25cWmStageIt had no parking lot. Probably, like me then, its patrons didn’t have cars. Assuming there were any patrons, that is. I don’t remember any. The location was a no-man’s land where nobody lived or spent any more time than they had to. Down the street was a place selling Brains, 25¢. A photo of it by William Stage has achieved a measure of fame. As an image I like it, but as a place to eat or hang out, no.

The photograph of the snack shop exudes a Not Welcome feeling. Mean-spirited signs warn “No loitering,” “No shoes, no shirt, no service, ” and “Relish, 10¢ extra.” Did people try to make a free meal out of relish?

All the menu cards posted on the walls are homemade by someone who lacked both lettering skill and a good, dark marking pen. There are other signs of neglect and failure. Stale looking pies, poorly wrapped. Jumbled electrical cords behind the milkshake machine. A sales tax cheat sheet taped on the cash register. A kitchen passthrough no longer in use. Because they fired the cook?

I’m guessing that the photograph dates from the late 1970s. The prices are not especially low for then . . . considering how unwonderful the fare must have been. Three Pieces Chicken, French Fries, Cole Slaw, 2.99. Baconburger, 1.95. As though they couldn’t decide the most basic pricing dilemma: 99¢ or 95¢.

I haven’t been able to learn much about the D&W Snack Shop whose name I guessed despite the Pepsi clock that awkwardly hides part of it. It was a Missouri chain incorporated in the mid-1950s.

I found a nice night scene photo of the exterior of a D&W in South St. Louis on Cherokee and California (in a fascinating blog on bricks). It could even be the same place.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under lunch rooms

B.McD. (Before McDonald’s)

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In most towns and cities across the USA the landscape is filled with fast food eateries that belong to chains, McDonald’s obviously being only one. Chain restaurants make up close to half of all restaurants today, and many of them can be classed as fast food places. A large proportion of the meals people eat away from home come from this type of eating place.

Where did people grab a quick bite before the fast food chains came along? What was the ordinary, inexpensive eating place like for so much of the last century, B.McD.?

Let’s peer back into the first half of the 20th century. There were some “quick lunch” chains in existence, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Although high-traffic locations in larger cities were quickly grabbed up by chains such as Baltimore Lunch or John R. Thompson, less desirable sites in cities and on Main Streets in smaller towns were populated with small independent eateries.

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Many, perhaps most, lunch rooms and cafes – not likely to be called restaurants then – occupied storefronts or freestanding one-story buildings of very basic construction. Often they were “mom & pop” operations with one of the pair handling the cooking, the other running the food service side of things. Very likely the proprietors knew most of their customers on at least a first name basis.

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Most lunch rooms shared a basic floor plan in a standard storefront space 18 to 25 feet wide and 75 to 100 feet deep. About 2/3 to 3/4 of the space was devoted to the dining room, the rest making up the kitchen which was hidden behind a wall, partition, or just a curtain.

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Usually seating would include both a counter and some tables or booths along the side or arranged toward the back. Very narrow storefronts had counter seating only. Shelves behind the counter or glass display cases might hold baked goods, packaged groceries, cigars, or candy. A cash register was often a prominent feature.

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In many cases during Prohibition, a café’s or lunch room’s previous status as a barroom was plainly evident.

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Decor, such as it was, was frequently provided by posters and stand-up signs advertising national brands, particularly soft drinks.

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What was gained and what was lost when the old lunch rooms disappeared? It’s a mixed picture. I doubt that their food was much to brag about. Some were clean, some were dirty. Often their menus were limited — but rarely as limited as the fast food chains. Food was served on dishes, not in paper wrappings. They provided service and often friendliness and a sense of community, though it was sometimes circumscribed by race, gender, and familiarity.

I recall walking into a local café in Hannibal MO about ten years ago. The few customers at the counter all turned to stare openly as we came though the door. The proprietor screeched, “Where are YOU from?” We were horrified when the chili came with a big scoop of sour cream on top. She seemed offended when we failed to order pie. I hate to admit it but, all in all, I would have preferred the anonymity of a chain for lunch that day. On the other hand, if we had gone to a chain I wouldn’t remember being in Hannibal at all.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under lunch rooms

Restaurant-ing in Metropolis

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In the depths of the Depression, in 1934, Harper & Bros. published a book of 304 photographs called Metropolis. Most of the photos were by Edward M. Weyer, Jr., an anthropologist who wanted to show how people in greater NYC lived. Captions were supplied by the popular writer Frederick Lewis Allen.

In a 2010 NY Times story the book was described as a “romantic masterpiece of street photography” composed of “moody black-and-white coverage of day-to-day life in New York in the ’30s. Beggars, snow-shoveling squads, schooner crews, railroad commuters, subway crowds, tenement life, tugboats, a sidewalk craps game. . .”

I find it particularly interesting that a major focus of the book was to contrast how different social classes lived, illustrated in part by where they ate lunch.

The central narrative follows employees of a company headed by a Mr. Roberts. He lives in a house on a 4-acre plot in Connecticut, commutes to New York, and employs a house maid whose duties include fixing his wife’s lunch each day. On the day he is being profiled Mr. Roberts eats a $1.00 table d’hôte lunch at his club (equal to $17 today). So frugal, Mr. R.

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Mr. Roberts is visited by a Mr. Smith from out of town (shown above looking out hotel window). Mr. Smith “stands for all those who come to the city from a distance,” whether Los Angeles, Boston, or elsewhere. He is “reasonably well off.” Mr. Smith eats a $1.25 table d’hôte lunch – er, luncheon — in a dining room on a hotel roof (pictured). Prices are high there, making his meal a relative bargain. Had he wanted to splurge he could have ordered a Cocktail (.40), Lobster Thermidor ($1.25), and Cucumber Salad (.45) – total $2.10. I would guess that many visitors to New York tend to spend more on restaurants than natives.

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Mr. Roberts’ secretary, Miss Jordan, lives with her mother and brother in an apartment just off Riverside Drive. With a combined family income of less than $4,000 the three can barely afford their $125/month rent. She goes to lunch at a café (pictured) and orders To-Day’s Luncheon Special which consists of Tomato Juice, Corned Beef Hash with Poached Egg, Ice Cream, and Coffee, all for 40 cents. Frankly, I don’t see how she can afford to do this every day.

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Miss O’Hara and Miss Kalisch transcribe dictation from other executives in the firm and each makes about $22.50 a week. Miss Kalisch lives in Astoria, Queens, and is married. Evidently she is pretending to be single in order to hold her job (her name is really Mrs. Rosenbloom). Miss O’Hara lives with her father in a somewhat decrepit apartment costing almost half her wages. Her father has been out of work for three years. The two women eat lunch at a drugstore counter (pictured) where they order Ham on Rye Sandwiches, Chocolate Cake, and Coffee (.30). I fear Miss O’Hara is living beyond her means if she does this often.

Miss Heilman, a young clerk, makes about $16.50 a week and is subject to occasional layoffs. She lives with her brother, his wife, and their two children in a 3-room apartment in Hoboken NJ, for which they pay $15/month. Like the other “girls” at the bottom of the totem pole she brings a sandwich and eats it in the office.

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Mr. Smith, being on his own, must go out for dinner. Once again he chooses a hotel roof garden (pictured), where about half the guests are also out-of-towners. With a live orchestra and dancing, it is undoubtedly expensive. I’m guessing he went for the Cocktail and Lobster Thermidor this time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under patrons

Taste of a decade: 1860s restaurants

egerton1866REVHalf the population of the largest cities is foreign born. San Francisco continues to attract adventurers and French chefs. The Civil War brings wealth to Northern industrialists and speculators, encouraging high living. With German immigration going strong, beer gains in popularity as do “free” lunches. Saloons prosper and the anti-alcohol movement loses ground as the states where liquor is prohibited shrink from thirteen to six, then to one. Cities grow as young single men pour into urban areas. Restaurants spring up to feed them and cheap lunch rooms proliferate, offsetting the high prices prevalent during and after the war. By the end of the decade, one estimate puts the number of eating places in NYC at an astonishing 5,000 or 6,000.

Highlights

1861 In what may be the first published use of the term lunch counter, the new proprietor of the Front-Street Coffee House in New York advertises his “Dining Saloon, Lunch Counter, Bar and Oyster Department.” – Boston, population about 178,000, lists 135 restaurants in its city directory.

1862 Madame Favier assures patrons of her Charleston SC restaurant that she will not substitute rye for genuine Rio coffee “in spite of the hard times and the blockade.” – War wealth in New York stimulates business at the new 14th Street Delmonico’s at Fifth Avenue, boosting the restaurant’s distinction.lockersphil1868

1863 War stirs up restaurants in Virginia. A Richmond newspaper observes, “Norfolk, like Richmond, is swarming with restaurants.” Among Richmond’s eating places are the Hygeia, the Friendship Restaurant, and the Café de Paris.

1864 To raise funds for Union soldiers, volunteers organize a fair in Brooklyn featuring a New England Kitchen. Crowds pack the 1770s “theme” restaurant where women in “quaint attire” serve pork & beans, pumpkin pie, and doughnuts to guests who eat with two-tined steel forks from the olden days. — In San Francisco, a French couple open a new restaurant and salon (see below — Is it merely linguistic confusion or are they offering wine with breakfast?).

1865 A journalist describes the comical, unfamiliar sight of men wolfing down grub at a NYC lunch counter while perched on high stools with their heads bent down “and their elbows in rapid motion.” “Viewed from the rear,” he writes, “one might suppose them to be weaving or fiddling.”

1867 Wealthy black Philadelphia restaurateur John W. Price, born a slave, throws a bash for Frederick Douglass. His restaurant at 4th and Chestnut is one of the city’s largest. – In Memphis, Monsieur John Gaston opens a “Ladies’ Restaurant” where, he promises, “the most delicate and sensitive will find nothing to offend their ear or observation.”

sftabledhote18641868 Louis P. Ober establishes a Restaurant Parisienne on Winter Place in Boston. Like some other French restaurateurs, he is also a wine importer. – In Leavenworth KS, the Italian Giacomini brothers open the New Delmonico Restaurant. – In San Francisco, diners in French restaurants push back the dinner hour from the middle of the day to around 6:00 p.m.

1869 On the spur of the moment, President Ulysses S. Grant enters a fashionable Washington restaurant for breakfast wearing a stove-pipe hat. A cashier, failing to recognize him, refuses him a private dining room and explains later that Grant looked like “an old shoemaker with his Sunday clothes on.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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