Tag Archives: men’s restaurants

Dirty by design

Given the general fear of unclean restaurants, it’s hard to understand the fascination with cobwebs and dirt in eating and drinking places of the 19th century and early 20th. File this under “the past is a foreign country.”

One of the famous places known for its decades’ worth of dust and grime was Old Tom’s in New York City. In the judgment of its fond patrons, it only got better with time.

According to witnesses, the shabby building that housed Old Tom’s on Thames Street a block west of Broadway was dark and dingy and its windows had never been washed. In the corners were stacks of boxes and barrels. Its walls were adorned with dusty letters from old patrons, ancient notices for boxing matches, and somewhat repulsive relics such as a mummified bat and “a pair of shoes taken off a little forlorn waif found wandering in the streets.”

Although customers liked Old Tom’s chops, Welsh rarebits, and ale well enough, the fame of the place rested on its cobwebs (barely visible in this 1872 illustration). By the 1870s they had been allowed to grow quite luxurious for at least 30 years. One visitor compared them to an “air-plant” which absorbed fibers and floating dust along with ale fumes and the aroma of cooking. The webs hanging from the ceiling were so long that the owner trimmed them “like a garden hedge” so they didn’t catch on men’s hats. If the restaurant had wanted to move to a new location, it would have failed. Without Old Tom’s cobwebs “the soul of his business would vanish,” said a newspaper story in 1877.

Old Tom’s went out of business in 1880 but the name was so famous that another Old Tom’s popped up nearby. It was dowdy, but sadly lacking in cobwebs.
Old Tom’s had its match in San Francisco, at a dive known as the Cobweb Palace, established in 1855. Such places were as much saloon as eating place, yet the Cobweb Palace, located on Meigg’s Wharf (now the site of Fisherman’s Wharf), was known in its better days for its clam chowder, cracked crab, and mussels. By the time it was demolished in 1893, it was a near-total wreck.

The Cobweb Palace was decorated with spider webs, South Sea island clubs and masks, and a totem pole, among many other curios both valuable and worthless. Though it was hardly a family spot, children liked to stop by and see the parrots, magpies, and parakeets flying around. Roaming monkeys greeted patrons while outside the door was a caged bear.

Old Tom’s and the Cobweb Palace lived in lore long after they were gone, but many other cobwebbed saloon-style eateries disappeared into the mist and little is known but their names.

There had been a place called Cobweb Hall in New York and another in Detroit, both operated by men from Scotland. The owner of the New York saloon/chophouse on Duane Street died in 1868, putting an end to his menagerie of spiders, Siberian wolfhounds, and canaries. In Detroit, Tom Swan’s Cobweb Hall began in 1869, lasting into the 20th century. He attracted business men and actors to his web-filled restaurant whose walls were also adorned with old playbills.

The West had quite a few Cobweb Saloons, some serving food or adjoining a restaurant whose cook often was a Chinese immigrant. Some were in mining towns such as Prescott AZ, where Ben Butler’s Chop House, run by Fong, Murphy & Co., “the Finest Restaurant in Prescott,” was next to, or connected to the Cobweb Saloon.

I’ve also found Cobweb Saloons in Las Vegas NM, Lincoln NE, Spokane and Tacoma WA, San Antonio and Beaumont TX, Albany OR, New Orleans LA, and Honolulu HI [advertisement, 1905].

Alas, I don’t know whether these saloons and cafes were draped with cobwebs. Seems like those in the West would not have had enough decades to grow them. I’m guessing it was more of a declaration of manly, no-frills comforts.

The patrons of cobweb cafes, saloons, and chop houses were regarded as victims of the devil by Christian preachers and their flocks who thought the name Cobweb Saloon was just about perfect for a place that entrapped heavy-drinking men. In 1903 a Sunday School group in Roswell NM planned a temperance discussion to include topics such as “Do men drink whiskey for the taste or effect?” and “‘Cobweb Saloon’ – Why is this an appropriate name?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018


Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, odd buildings, Offbeat places, sanitation

He-man menus

I question whether there are huge gender differences in food preferences but I’ve seen plenty of evidence that many restaurants have marketed menus on this basis, especially by playing to the idea that men have manly tastes. This idea seems to have grown stronger in the 20th century when more women patronized restaurants on an equal basis with men.

Many people believe that men like heartier food than women do. In the 19th century, of course, men dominated restaurants and women were often viewed as special guests. Since eating places were accustomed to catering to men then, menu staples such as oysters, beef, and pie came to be seen as men’s favorite dishes. Perhaps they were, but then again they may have been regarded as “masculine” simply because men were the ones who usually ate them out in public.

In the early 1900s articles began to appear in newspapers that offered ideas of what food men liked best. Restaurants designed menus to appeal largely to male diners. Pollution of oyster beds brought growing distrust and beef came to top the list. “Quick lunch” spots noticed that men ordered more meat dishes than women. Louis Sherry said that women guests in his deluxe Fifth Avenue restaurant did not like to draw blood so they avoided red meat and game.

In the many places that served “business men’s lunch,” the favorite meal was meat and potatoes, pie, and coffee. If the lunch was served in a tavern setting, the pie and coffee might be replaced by a glass of beer. But men had other favorites as well, such as griddle cakes, corned beef and cabbage, beef stew, chili con carne, bean soup, fried potatoes, and ham and eggs.

With the advent of national Prohibition in the 1920s, observers noticed that men were eating lighter meals, more sandwiches, and even the occasional salad. While nutritionists hailed the change as healthier, some restaurant owners longed for the return of the heavy eater. When beer became legal again in 1933 the executive chef of Chicago’s Palmer House said, “With the stein on the table, masculine foodstuffs are bound to come into their own.” In 1934 a New York guide book tipped off men about where they could enjoy “man-sized” food “served without fancy gegaws.”

After Prohibition men who preferred no women in the dining room could go to bar & grill restaurants in hotels such as the Esquire Restaurant in the Penn-Harris Hotel in Harrisburg PA or the men’s bar at the Waldorf Astoria where they could enjoy their Martinis and Mutton Chops minus female company. In the men’s bar at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.,  the dining room captain personally prepared Cannibal Sandwiches of raw beef, onion, egg yolk, and Worcestershire sauce at guests’ tables.

Known as the Rib Room, the men-only Mayflower bar was also host to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who lunched there daily in the 1960s, always at the same table facing the door. His favorite meal, consumed with only the slightest variation, was cream of chicken soup, coffee, and Jello. While he was President, in 1970, Richard Nixon and four of his staff dropped in at the Rib Room for breakfast after Nixon’s early morning visit to Vietnam War protesters at the Washington Monument. Nixon ordered corned beef hash with an egg on top which, according to his press secretary, marked the first time he had eaten this dish in five years.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Filed under food, patrons