It’s likely that most Americans are familiar with restaurant murals. They have appeared in a range of restaurants, from sandwich shops to expensive dining resorts. They reveal how much restaurants are related to the arts, not only as producers of fine food but as patrons of the visual arts.
Admittedly, many of them are artistically tame. As someone quipped in 1976, “Talk about murals and most people think of Greek ruins or Venetian canal scenes in Italian restaurants.” I could add scenes of Switzerland, Paris, or of any city or town. And then there are generic mountains, seascapes, and rolling plains. In most cases, restaurant murals have served as upbeat but unobtrusive decorative backgrounds, filling blank walls, often in windowless rooms.
Nevertheless, some murals portraying local scenes have managed to rise above the norm. That was certainly true of one commissioned by a McDonald’s at the request of a local Hawaiian artist, Martin Charlot [portion shown here], in the mid 1980s. It featured lively portraits of over 100 area residents in poses that illustrated proverbs (but in ways that are far from obvious). Despite its popularity with customers at the Kane’ohe shopping center McDonald’s, it was removed in a 2010 remodel.
Occasionally a mural will illustrate controversy. In 1991, after disputes with the Pasadena CA’s bureaucracy over a neon sign at the Rite Spot café, artist Kenton Nelson created a portrait of the city that included scenes of city workers shoveling money into a truck and a doughnut-eating policeman ignoring a mugging. In Northampton MA, owners of the Green Street Café anticipated its coming 2012 closure with a 30-ft long last-supper-themed mural by children’s book author and illustrator Jeff Mack [shown above]. It vanished when the landlord — with whom the restaurant had been wrangling for years – demolished the building.
Mack’s mural has a humorous tone, a quality shared by others such as those at Chicago’s Normandy House, by Edgar Miller; The Waverly Inn, by Edward Sorel; The Waldorf-Astoria, by Tony Sarg; The Carlyle Hotel, by Ludwig Bemelmans; and those by artistic patrons of the early-20th century Coppa’s in San Francisco.
In the late 1930s a dozen or more artists were hired and given freedom to create satirical murals at NYC’s left-leaning Café Society, including Anton Refregier, Ad Reinhardt, and William Gropper. The mural shown above on a graytone postcard was by Alice Stander for the original Greenwich Village location. It depicts a customer in a typical nightclub besieged by a photographer, cigarette “girl,” and others trying to make a sale. Café Society’s mural artists were paid relatively small amounts supplemented by equal payment in free meals.
Quite a number of well-known artists have created restaurant murals over the course of the 20th century, among them Howard Chandler Christy (The Café des Artistes, NYC), Guy Pène du Bois (The Jumble Shop, NYC), Edgar Miller (Normandy House, Chicago), and Maxfield Parrish (Hotel Knickerbocker, moved to Hotel Regis, NYC).
Beginning in the late 19th century, hotels were the sort of businesses especially likely to hire muralists. Before World War I, the murals were usually meant to convey a sense of luxury in the style of baroque European palaces. Nudes and near-nude nymphs and goddesses from myth, with titles such as “The Daughters of Hesperia,”and “The Sirens Beguile Odysseus,” were almost taken for granted in New York’s grand pre-war hotels.
By 1948 a very different sense of luxury was evident in the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, designed by the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. In the lobby was an Alexander Calder mobile, while one dining room had a mural of Cincinnati buildings by Saul Steinberg and another had a surrealist mural by Joan Miró which is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Perhaps because they were often windowless, restaurant and hotel bars were the most likely locations for murals. Not only was this true of Maxfield Parrish’s Old King Cole mural [above], but also of the fourteen murals by Greenfield MA’s Thurston Munson. He was commissioned in the 1940s to adorn the walls of a basement barroom at Hartford CT’s popular Adajian’s Restaurant. [sample below] As was so often the case with barroom murals, some of the paintings included female nudes.
It seems as though murals with nudes evaded the censors in the 19th century, but the country’s uneasy relation to alcohol after Prohibition often brought official crackdowns when they appeared in bars and restaurants. In the 1970s a Hackensack NJ restaurant was threatened with cancellation of its liquor license unless it covered up a nude in a mural illustrating classical Greek mythology. I doubt this was an isolated case.
I can’t say whether there was a golden age of restaurant murals, or just how many restaurants have them now or have had them in the past. But it is worth taking notice when a restaurant hires an artist to create original art for the enjoyment of its guests.
© Jan Whitaker, 2021