Tag Archives: McDonald’s

The browning of McDonald’s

mcdonald'sold&new781

It is always gratifying to find a piece of ephemera that marks a transition. The postcard above is blank on the back, probably to allow McDonald’s franchises to imprint it with their locations as they completed the changeover from the old building style to the new in the 1970s.

The old-style McDonald’s was based on the original design of California architect Stanley Meston who had once worked for Wayne McAllister, noted designer of modernistic 1930s drive-ins. The design was made for the McDonald brothers who in the 1950s had begun to franchise their California drive-in.

When Ray Kroc obtained a franchise from the brothers and spread McDonald’s outside the West and across the nation, he made modifications to Meston’s design, simplifying the arches and adding a glass-enclosed vestibule to the front as shown on the postcard at the top.

picks299The original Meston design was of an exuberant style known as “Googie” that featured eye-catching elements such as swooping roofs, extensive plate glass, neon, and the use of shiny industrial building materials (but sometimes also lava stone as shown in Pick’s). I recommend the books Googie and Googie Redux by Alan Hess, which I have drawn upon for this post, along with Orange Roofs, Golden Arches by Philip Langdon.

McDonald's1998Collectors'ClubIn the 1960s Kroc’s McDonald’s (he had bought out the McDonald brothers in 1961) began to run up against resistance from local zoning boards that wanted something more restrained than the “franchise schlock” look of the golden arches model. In 1968 the corporation went to work on a new design for a brick-faced building with a dark mansard-style roof and indoor seating. “We have taken off the gaudy materials and eliminated the circusy atmosphere,” said a McDonald’s executive in charge of design. The arches, on their way to become an ever-smaller letter M logo, were relegated to the sign. The first mansardized McDonald’s opened in the Chicago suburb of Matteson in 1969.

The little red, white, and yellow stands began to disappear. In 1972 most – about 75% — had been remodeled or replaced, leaving only about 250. By 1980, fewer than 50 remained, out of a total of 5,082 McDonald’s in the U.S. Preservationists in Oregon and Virginia tried to have old-style McDonald’s placed on historic preservation lists on the grounds they were symbols of America; they were turned down. By 1990 only five remained. A McDonald’s in Downey CA which opened in 1953 has been preserved, and this is probably the only example of the original design remaining other than the corporation’s recreation of Kroc’s first unit in Des Plaines IL.

mcdonald'sAberdeenNJca.1983The cultural climate that brought McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants into contention with critics who sought to keep Googie buildings out of their towns and neighborhoods was in stark contrast to the optimistic futurism exhibited at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Philip Langdon has used the term “the browning of America” for the turn away from buildings that were shiny, colorful, and blatantly commercial to ones that were low-slung, dark, and of natural looking materials. He suggested this shift signified a downcast attitude toward America. “The demand for a less garish roadside strip, when combined with other currents in the culture – a growing awareness of the nation’s faults and a fading away of the once-euphoric attitude toward futuristic technology – fostered a more subdued esthetic,” he wrote.

But another interpretation begs to explain the change as a progressive corrective to the post-WWII abandonment of nature, as evidenced in commercial roadside strips, napalm warfare, chem-lab convenience foods, and the widespread despoliation of the environment.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Image gallery: dinner “on board”

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There are numerous historical links between restaurants on land and vessels that navigate seas, lakes, and rivers. Ocean going sailors arriving in port, for instance, made up a notable fraction of early restaurant customers. Their ranks also provided stewards, cooks, and chefs, bringing new skills and cuisines wherever they took up their profession on land. San Francisco in the 1850s provides a striking example. In the United States steamboats that traveled the rivers and Great Lakes contained dining salons that were among the 19th century’s most luxurious and among the few places where ornamental French cuisine flourished.

But . . . this post isn’t about that. Instead it illustrates how far restaurants featuring ship and boat themes have strayed from a connection with their watery history. Ship restaurants are for the most part little more than a novelty – but a novelty that can be traced back at least to the 1850s. Despite quite a lot of ship restaurants running aground or sinking, literally and figuratively, there is some kind of primal appeal that keeps them going.

Frank Bazzuro may have been first. He arrived in San Francisco from Italy in 1852 and installed a restaurant in one of the hundreds of ships abandoned in the Bay, introducing his customers to a Genoese fish stew, cioppina. In the 1880s Capt. Paul Boyton, a world-famous swimming champion who popularized rubber wet suits, opened a restaurant on West 29th in NYC called “The Ship” which resembled a ship’s cabin. On Venice Pier in CA, a developer constructed a replica of a Spanish Galleon in 1904, after which it rode the waves of good and bad luck until its demolition in 1946. After an underworld shooting in 1928, it went through a couple of name changes, from Show Boat Café to Volga Boat.

Most ship restaurants that float on water – which not all do – have had checkered pasts as more utilitarian vessels or ones that have spent some time under water. Before it became a floating restaurant in Wilmington NC in 1951, the Ark had transported troops, hosted gamblers, and housed the coast guard. The SS Catala was one of about ten ships that appeared in Elliott Bay during the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Previously it had served as a coastal passenger steamship, then fish transporter. When the fair ended it was towed to Los Angeles where it failed as a nightclub restaurant, then appeared in an Perry Mason TV episode before returning to restaurant-ing in Washington where a storm ran it aground.

Dining on a floating restaurant can be hazardous. A storm tore St. Louis’s Becky Thatcher Riverboat from its moorings, sending it downstream where it ran onto the opposite side of the Mississippi in 1969. Bar business was said to be brisk in the interlude before its 100 diners were rescued.

Ships moored on land are safer but rarely very convincing in their roles, particularly if they are in Dallas or Phoenix (below, respectively), smack on a roadway or surrounded by an asphalt parking lot where the water consists of a few puddles.

ShipRestaurantBountyDallas1971ShipCopperBelleRiverboatPhoenix

A parking lot might seem like a strange place for a ship but, a little reflection tells you that Noah’s Ark could have ended up almost anywhere. And that may be the reason enterprises with that name have done business not only on the beach in Leucadia CA, but near the interstate in St. Charles MO (pictured) and in Grovetown GA and Des Moines IA.

ShipNoah'sArk

Some sites present a real challenge. How do you make your restaurant resemble a ship when it’s in the middle of a block? Boyton’s ship cabin restaurant where only the interior resembles a ship gives an answer, but so do a number of storefronts that have been adorned with protruding ship’s prows, such as Bernstein’s in San Francisco (pictured).

shipBernstein'sFishGrotto

Babette'sYachtBarThere were oh so many bars shaped like boats and yachts, of which Babette’s was one (above).

Many restaurants with ship themes specialize in fish and seafood, but not all. Why not Chinese and American cuisine as in the 1940s Ship Ahoy chain with restaurants in  Atlanta and Augusta GA, Charlotte NC, Columbia SC, and Houston TX? Or hamburgers (McDonald’s, St. Louis riverfront, shown below)?

ShipSTLRiverfrontMcDonald's

In researching this topic I learned that almost every city or town will sooner or later have a ship restaurant. And many of them will sink, be scrapped, or get towed to another location. The fate of the Showboat Restaurant in Beaverton OR was ironic. In 1981 it became Showboat Liquidators where “Selling Your Boat Is Our Only Business!”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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You want cheese with that?

pattymelt60sLAIt seems as though almost all of history’s food forces have cooperated to give cheese top billing in restaurant meals today. Only one cheesy custom failed to catch on, that of finishing a meal with cheese and fruit as was done in small French and Italian restaurants in the later 19th century. Craig Claiborne argued in 1965 that even the best New York restaurants didn’t know how to handle the cheese course. They had poor selections which tended to be old, overripe, or served too cold. One restaurant admitted their chef was in the habit of popping cheese straight from the fridge into the oven to soften it. Restaurateurs that Claiborne interviewed insisted that Americans didn’t like cheese after a meal. I’d agree that most prefer their after-dinner cheese in the form of cheesecake.

pumpernikscheesecake352Cheese has been a staple food in American eating places probably since the first tavern opened. Regular meals were served only at stated hours but hungry customers could get cheese and crackers at the bar whatever the hour. For “Gentlemen en’passant,” the Union Coffee House in Boston promised in 1785 that it could always furnish the basics of life: oysters, English cheese, and London Porter. Across the river, Cambridge’s renowned Othello Pollard, aka “the Prince of Creams,” specialized in epicurean cheesecakes in 1805. By the 1850s, English chop houses in the East were famous for their Welsh rarebits, while pie came with a wedge of cheese just about everywhere.

When Germans immigrated to America in the 1850s and 1860s they brought their fondness for Limburger, often ridiculed in the press. The Italians introduced grated Parmesan for pasta dishes, as well as risotto, macaroni and cheese, and cheese-filled ravioli. In the late 19th century cheese became a standard item at “free lunch” counters in saloons, and many allegedly exhibited a solitary dried-up cheese sandwich as proof of their status as genuine restaurants during anti-saloon crackdowns in the early 20th century. In the 1920s toasted cheese sandwiches of all varieties became luncheonette favorites.

cheeseburger1960Cheeseburgers were a product of the fast food industry of the 1920s, claimed as inventions by both the Rite Spot of Southern California and the Little Tavern of Louisville. Strange there aren’t thousands of other contenders because what was there to invent, really? Cheeseburgers were strongly associated with Southern California before WWII — Bob’s Big Boy of LA introduced cheeseburgers in 1937. Another step forward came in the 1930s when a bill was introduced in the Wisconsin legislature requiring restaurants and cafes to serve 2/3 oz. of Wisconsin cheese with every meal costing 25 cents or more. In the same decade Kraft Cheese was among major food producers providing restaurants with standardized recipe cards.

pizzahutpizzaIt was after WWII that cheese spread its melted gooeyness everywhere — on pizza, hamburgers, Mexican dishes, and pasta, until today, well … just picture TV advertisements for TGI Friday and Olive Garden. Mass-produced cheesecake made its restaurant debut around 1950. McDonald’s introduced cheeseburgers in 1960. In the 1970s vegetarian and health food restaurants fell in love with dishes such as 7-cheese meatless lasagna, cheese-stuffed cauliflower, and cheese-smothered veggies on brown rice. From 1960 to 1978 cheese consumption doubled from 8.3 to 17.4 lbs. per capita. Now we each eat close to 34 pounds of cheese a year, mainly on pizza and hamburgers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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