Tag Archives: music

Music in restaurants

Because they traveled quite a bit musicians must have made up a notable percentage of early patrons of public eating places. It’s easy to imagine them playing a few tunes in return for their dinner, but if this happened I’ve found no trace of it. The first mention of music I’ve discovered was in 1866, in a description of a small French restaurant in New York with an oyster-shell framed alcove where “sometimes a boy with a violin will seem to afford music to the feast.”

Note the negatively tinged words “seem to afford.” Throughout history there have been plenty of critics of musical “din” in restaurants.

Music in restaurants was apparently a continental custom that migrated to these shores. At first it was highly associated with German restaurants such as Lauber’s at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. But by the late 1890s musical accompaniment with dinner became quite popular and all kinds could be found. “Wild” gypsy music as was played at NYC’s Café Boulevard was a favorite at Hungarian restaurants. Such places were known for their bohemian atmosphere — Why, people even talked to strangers! Later in the evening, the combined effect of food, wine, beer, and strolling musicians would have everyone singing choruses.

Orchestras of young women were also popular. In Boston, D. S. McDonald’s on Tremont  Street served dainty chafing dish specials such as Lobster a l’Americaine and Oyster a la Poulette en Blazer to the tunes of such a group. “This is a touch of Bohemia right in the heart of Boston,” proclaimed a 1903 advertisement.

American restaurant-goers of the turn of the century were evidently longing for the music of exotic others to invigorate and entertain them. On the West coast that often meant Hawaiian hulas. Everywhere else it meant the music of African Americans, especially ragtime.

The naysayers pleaded for quiet with their dinners. Articles in 1904 and 1905 issues of Town and Country, noting that potted palms and Hungarian bands expressed “the spirt of the age,” nonetheless complained that even the Third Avenue Delmonico’s had become “a hall of artificial palms, red paper, gilding and ragtime.”

Some hoped the early, pre-WWI tea room would provide a haven from the “garishness of strong lights, deafening music,” and restless thrill seekers found at the average restaurant. Instead music spread everywhere. Chinese restaurants installed Chinese orchestras which played all the latest rags. Even cafeterias joined the bandwagon.

It wouldn’t be long before clever minds figured out how to automate music in cafes and restaurants. At NYC’s Kalil’s in 1909 recorded voice of Caruso and other famous singers could be played on the Victor Auxetophone loudly enough to be accompanied by a live orchestra. The jukebox would not be far behind. In 1927 an advertisement advised cafeteria owners that the colorful Electramuse stimulated people “to have a good time – to spend MORE money!”

But jukeboxes ran afoul of polite society in short order. They were popular in teen hangouts – and that was part of the problem. Adults shunned these cafes, and neighbors complained about loudness. Fights broke out over musical selections. The jukebox took on associations of low life, not helped one bit by stories like the one that appeared in 1954 about a feuding North Carolina drive-in restaurant operator blasting super-amplified “Shake, Rattle and Roll” at an evangelical meeting across the street. The final straw for the jukebox was its takeover by racketeers.

Muzak fared much better in the restaurant industry than did jukeboxes. It started operation in NYC in 1936 with 40 restaurants as clients. Among its early customers were the dining room in the Algonquin Hotel and the Kungsholm Swedish restaurant on E. 55th Street. At first limited to large cities, technical advances in 1954 permitted Muzak franchises to spread to smaller towns throughout the country.

Today we have the full panoply of music. Rarely do we hear orchestras, but string quartets, harpists, strolling musicians, and canned music are plentiful. Even jukeboxes have been scrubbed clean of their dark past to the delight of patrons of retro diners.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012


Filed under restaurant customs, technology

Making a restaurant exciting, on the cheap

This post was inspired by an Eater.com story called Ten Ways to Make Your NYC Restaurant Less Boring. I decided to match their suggestions with examples from the past. I am presuming that author Greg Morabito had tongue in cheek when he thought up his ten tips, so I am doing the same. My suggestions have been tailored for present economic conditions.

10. Hire a Forager – This is a great idea and bound to add interest. But go beyond greens. In 1884 an enterprising Chicago restaurant forager stalked snow birds (juncos) along the city’s cable car lines. Delicious on toast. Look around. Think pigeons!

9. Serve Whole Animals – Yes, and display them prominently. Dead animals – whole bears and bison — strung up around the entrance, and raw meat generally, have always been irresistible to restaurant goers. Live animals too. Keep in mind the 1941 restaurateur who took delivery of a giant sea turtle and stored in it the restaurant window for several days before putting it on the menu. Another idea: on those really hot days set up a few premier tables in the meat locker.

8. Hire a Chef from Portland – Or, whatever place is trendy at the moment. So happens in 1922 the management of the Mandarin Inn in the college town of Champaign, Illinois, went all the way to California to import a chef who could “give the students the best possible in Chinese dishes.” And, by the way, they don’t have to be from Portland literally. Many of the French chefs of the 19th century were from Germany and China.

7. Don’t Play the Same Music Everyone Else Plays – A children’s choir would be notable and might draw in parents and grandparents. As another entertainment idea, don’t rule out fortune-tellers. They are always a hit during economic downturns and will work for tips.

6. Give Your Guests Garlic Bread Instead of Regular Bread – Ok, but don’t overdo it. Just keep in mind some people are leery of garlic – and strange music, which they tend to associate, if Irvin S. Cobb is still to be believed. He ate in restaurants often, all the while longing for corn bread. He complained in 1913, “I have been howled at by a troupe of Sicilian brigands armed with their national weapons – the garlic and the guitar. I have been tortured by mechanical pianos and automatic melodeons.”

5. Start a Chef’s Counter – Make cooking your floor show. Consider hiring a man in a tuxedo to mix salads under a spotlight. Flames and knives are popular. I think public butchering is going too far but don’t be afraid to bring some of the behind-the-scenes jobs out front, such as dishwashing. This hasn’t ever been done that I know of.

4. Invest in a Serious Mixology Program – A good bartender can come high, so don’t underestimate the appeal of great cocktail names, especially during election season. Try updating some used at Brigham’s Oyster House and Restaurant in Boston in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, such as Fiscal Agent, I.O.U., and those that commemorated politicians and political events, like Free Soiler, Clay Smash, and Webster Eye-Opener. Mr. Brigham retired very, very rich.

3. Invest in a Serious Coffee Program – I like the idea of a coffee sommelier, and you can definitely charge more for your coffee drinks this way. If you’re going to do this you absolutely must not use instant coffee. Ever. Not even if you have one of those instant coffee machines with the beans showing on top.

2. Serve More Vegetables – Given the high price of farmers’ markets, it makes sense in these tough times to look for ways to reduce costs. The advice given in the June 1968 edition of Cooking for Profit still makes sense. No one can tell you’re using canned vegetables if you encase them in gelatin. And please, describe your creation as “en gelée.”

1. Offer a Great Deal Every Night of the Week – A few deals used in previous downturns that are ripe for recycling: offer free second helpings, especially of gelatin; no charge for (gelatin) desserts; sell meal tickets to frequent diners; decorate with antiques – that are for sale; hold poker tournaments during the afternoon cocktail hour; invite celebrities to eat for free if they agree to wear their best clothes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under miscellaneous

Taste of a decade: restaurants, 1900-1910

It is the dawn of the modern era of restaurant-ing. Patronage grows at a rate faster than population increases and the number of restaurant keepers swells by 75% during the decade. Leading restaurant cities are NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston. Inexpensive lunch rooms with simple menus and quick service proliferate to serve growing ranks of urban white collar workers, both male and female. Women patronize places they once dared not enter, climbing onto lunch counter stools and venturing into cafes in the evening without escorts.

Diners worry about food safety and cleanliness. Cities mandate restaurant inspections. Meat preservatives used by some restaurants to “embalm” meat that has spoiled come under attack. Restaurants install sanitary white tile on floors and walls to demonstrate cleanliness.

Cooks and waiters unionize. Restaurant owners follow suit, advocating the abolition of the saloon’s “free lunch,” combating strikes, and targeting immigrants who operate “holes in the wall.” As Italians and Greeks open eating places some native-born Americans complain that foreigners are taking over the restaurant business.

New types of eating places become popular such as cafeterias, vegetarian cafés, German rathskellers, tea rooms, and Chinese and Italian restaurants. Dining for entertainment spreads. Adventurous young bohemians seek out small ethnic restaurants (“table d’hotes”) which serve free carafes of wine. Many restaurants introduce live music. The super-rich are accused of “reckless extravagance” as they stage elaborate banquets. The merely well-to-do hire chauffeurs to drive them to quaint dining spots in the countryside.


1901 As restaurant patronage rises “foody talk” is everywhere. A journalist overhears people “shamelessly discussing the quantity and quality of food which may be obtained for a given price at the various restaurants.” Hobbyists begin collecting menus and Frances “Frank” E. Buttolph deposits over 9,000 menus in the NY Public Library.

1902 Restaurants automate and eliminate waiters. In Niagara Falls a restaurant devises a system of 500 small cable cars which deliver orders to guests. The Automat opens in Philadelphia, inspiring the city’s Dumont’s Minstrels to create a vaudeville act called The Automatic Restaurant which features “Laughing Pie” and “Screaming Pudding.”

1903 “Where and How to Dine in New York” lists restaurants with cellars where men’s clubs play cavemen and eat steak with their hands. – Hawaiians croon in San Francisco restaurants; ragtime bands play in NYC’s Hungarian cafés; and at McDonald’s (“a touch of Bohemia right in the heart of Boston”) a “Young Ladies’ Orchestra” serenades patrons.

1903 In Denver, where a large part of the population eats out, a cooks’ and waiters’ strike closes large eating places. Strikes break out in Omaha and in Chicago, where a newly formed union rapidly gains 17,000 members. Restaurant owners replace black servers with white women in Chicago, while in Omaha they replace white waiters and cooks with black men.

1905 Five hundred guests of insurance magnate James Hazen Hyde don 18th-century costumes and enjoy a banquet at Sherry’s. Two floors of the NYC restaurant are transformed into a royal French garden and supper is served at tables under wistaria-covered arbors set on a floor of real grass.

1906 Afternoon tea is so fashionable that NYC’s Waldorf-Astoria supplements the Waldorf Garden space by opening the Empire Room from 4 to 6 p.m. – Italian-Americans Luisa and Gerome Leone start a small table d’hote restaurant in NYC near the Metropolitan Opera.*

1908 Johnson’s Tamale Grotto is established in San Francisco with “A Complete Selection of Mexican Foods to Take Home.” – In Washington, D.C., the Union Dairy Lunch advertises that they have passed inspection with “Everything as sanitary and clean as your own home.”

1909 The Philadelphia Inquirer features a story about stylish yet practical “restaurant frocks,” showing a coral pink dress and matching hat ideal for traveling in dusty, open automobiles while visiting rural roadside inns and tea rooms.

* Later known as Mamma Leone’s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980


Filed under miscellaneous