Tag Archives: New York restaurants

Eating, dining, and snacking at the fair

1964World'sFairChunKingphoto

Fifty years ago the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair was underway, with thousands going through the turnstiles. Sooner or later they had to eat. Some brought a picnic but others patronized the roughly 110 restaurants in operation the first season, up to nearly 200 in 1965.

The Fair was not officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions nor supported by governments (for the most part); it was a commercial enterprise filled with corporate pavilions such as Johnson’s Wax, General Motors, and Travelers Insurance. Most of the restaurants were run by private entrepreneurs who were not necessarily from the country represented by the pavilion. Restaurant Associates, which operated Mamma Leone’s, The Four Seasons, and others in NYC, ran the restaurant in the Indonesian Pavilion and five others. New York’s Sun Luck chain ran the Cathay Chinese Restaurant in the Hong Kong Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairBrassRailsnackbarBiggest of all, the Brass Rail operated six moderate-priced restaurants, each offering a single complete meal for $3. In the International Plaza they ran both a cold Danish buffet and the Garden restaurant offering Southern fried chicken dinners. The company, a subsidiary of Interstate Vending Co. in Chicago, also had 25 freestanding snack bars with balloon-shaped roofs that looked as though they could lift off and float away.

Most of the eating places at the Fair supplied casual food and snacks, whether strawberry and whipped cream filled Bel-gem waffles (the hit of the Fair), Wienerwald hot dogs, or Chicken Delight(s). Providing plentiful fast food was based on the belief that non-New Yorker Americans would accept nothing else. Keep in mind too that it was the mid-1960s before the culinary revolution came along with its hopes of replacing industrially produced convenience food.

There was also no shortage of exotic cocktails served at tiki bars and lounges, and American and imported beers flowing in beer gardens. During groundbreaking for the Schaefer Brewing Company Center, which contained Schaefer’s Restaurant of Tomorrow and a beer garden, Fair president Robert Moses advanced a surprising perspective on the Fair’s theme, Peace through Understanding, by declaring that beer was probably “the thing that holds the world together.”

International edibles ranged from the passably authentic to the thoroughly Americanized. Yet however tame the Fair’s version of world cuisine often was, those fairgoers daring enough to go beyond burgers and dogs found a wide selection of food unknown to most Americans then. Among the many unfamiliar dishes were smoked reindeer at the Swedish Pavilion, spicy Korean spareribs, and stewed meat with peanuts and couscous at the Tree House restaurant in the African Pavilion.

1964NYWorld'sFairChunKingRepresenting American-style Chinese food was the Chun King Inn, whose mission was not so much to run a profitable restaurant as to familarize people with Chun King products sold in supermarkets. It won over the public — who often complained about high restaurant prices at the Fair — by serving full meals consisting of seven items for only 99 cents. The Inn also featured a double-patty Hong Kong Burger with cheese, lettuce, special sauce – and bean sprouts for an Asian touch. Many restaurants did poorly at the Fair, but Chun King’s president reported that the Inn served 5 million customers the first year.

Probably the most successful restaurants were those directed by veterans of earlier Fairs, particularly Seattle’s in 1962 and New York’s in 1939. Repeaters from 1939 included the operator of the Century Grill who had run the Aviation Grill in 1939 and Schaefer Brewing Co.  Seattle businessmen subleased a restaurant in the Fine Arts Pavilion named the Bargreen Buffet to Roy Peterson, proprietor of Seattle restaurants including the Norselander. Another restaurateur from Seattle, William Moultray, did so well with his Polynesian restaurant in 1964 that Fair officials asked him to set up a restaurant complex in another pavilion.

1965World'sFairBelgianVillage

The Belgian Village [shown above in part] consisted of 100 buildings and 20 eating places, some of them outdoor cafes, but was not completed until the end of 1964. A similar village with some of the same buildings had been at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933.

Although critics were disappointed that there was nothing to equal Henri Soulé’s 1939 French restaurant (origin of NYC’s Le Pavillon), everyone agreed that the restaurants in the Spanish Pavilion came closest. Unlike most, it was officially supported by Spain’s government, headed at that time by dictator Francisco Franco. Two restaurants in the pavilion, the moderately priced Granada and the expensive Toledo, were under the management of Madrid’s Jockey Club which imported its chef and 40 of his assistants. So popular was the pavilion’s outdoor seafood bar, the Marisqueria, that it was enlarged in 1965. It was under the direction of Alberto Heras who opened a Spanish Pavilion restaurant on Park Avenue in NYC in 1966.

1964World'sFairFiveVolcanoesRestHeras was one of several restaurateurs who tried to extend their success beyond the Fair. The Spanish Pavilion building was removed to St. Louis by then-mayor Alfonso Cervantes, where it housed three restaurants that met a rapid demise. The maestro of Wienerwald, Friedrich Jahn, extended the Europe-based chain into this country. It had grown to 880 units by the early 1980s when it failed. The Petersons of the Bargreen Buffet took over management of New York’s venerable Janssen’s restaurant. The Wisconsin Pavilion’s Tad’s Steaks, with its popular $1.19 sirloin steak dinners, became a fixture with bargain-meal hunters in NYC.

Although the Fair fell short of meeting its attendance goal of 70 million, drawing only 52 million fairgoers, it’s likely that millions of them carried away lasting food memories.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, miscellaneous, odd buildings, outdoor restaurants, theme restaurants

Before Horn & Hardart: European automats

Note: In preparing for an interview for a documentary on Automats I looked at new sources I wasn’t aware of when I originally wrote this post in 2010, among them a wonderful German trade publication which pictures European Automats produced by the Sielaff company of Berlin. The booklet, from the Hagley Museum and Library’s digital archives, also contains rare exterior and interior shots of NYC’s first Automat, opened in 1902 by James Harcombe. I’ve made modifications to the post and have included some new illustrations.

AutomatKarlsruhe1903

When automats opened in New York and Philadelphia in 1902 many people were convinced they were an American invention. But they were not. A reporter for the New York Tribune captured a conversation between an American businessman and a foreign guest at James Harcombe’s NYC Automat in 1903, shortly after its opening. After examining the place, the American exclaimed, “What a tribute to American inventive skill!” The man at the next table replied, speaking with an accent, “This is a German idea. There are dozens of these restaurants on the Continent and this one was moved bodily from Berlin …” As the editors of the American Architect and Building News had observed in 1892, when it came to “penny-in-the-slot” machines the U.S. was “far behind the rest of the civilized world.” Even though Americans detested tipping, admired gadgetry, and loved fast service, for some reason the US lagged in the area of automated restaurants.

AutomatDortmund1902BSlot machines actually go back to antiquity. The first may have been a holy water dispenser in Egypt over 2,000 years ago. But it was Germany that developed the first automatic restaurant, applying electricity to the idea of self-service. Germany was also responsible for the term “automat” which in German usage applies to any type of coin-operated dispensing apparatus. The world’s first automatic refreshment dispenser appeared on the grounds of the zoo in Berlin in June of 1895 and was considered a “howling success.” On its first Sunday in operation it sold 5,400 sandwiches, 9,000 glasses of wine and cordials, and 22,000 cups of coffee. The first “automatisches restaurant,” providing hot meals as well as sandwiches and drinks was also designed by Max Sielaff of Berlin. It was presented to the public at a Berlin industrial exposition in 1896.

AutomatWurzburg

The fame of automatic restaurants spread rapidly in 1897 when one was installed and won a gold medal at the Brussels world’s fair. That same year an announcement was made that a similar restaurant would open soon in Philadelphia and in St. Louis – as far as I can determine neither of these became a reality at that time. In 1900 Paris had ‘buffets automatique’ — which resembled automats — all along the boulevards. Automats appeared in London a bit later. Around this time a visitor to St. Petersburg, Russia, found an automatic restaurant by the name of Quisisana, which evidently was the name of a Sielaff competitor in the European automatic restaurant industry. (pictured: top, Karlsruhe, 1903; middle, Dortmund, 1902; bottom, Wurzburg).

© Jan Whitaker, 2010, revised 2013

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Filed under lunch rooms, technology

Lunch Hour NYC

I am happy that I had a chance to see this fine exhibit at the New York Public Library while I was in the city for a conference. It showcases menus, pamphlets, manuscripts, and other materials from the library’s collections, and also features actual hardware from the Automat, particularly a reconstructed wall of Automat cubicles. Alas, they have no food in them.

The exhibit is divided into four themes: eating places that furnished quick lunches, eating places where “power lunches” took place, home lunches, and charitable lunches, a theme which includes soup kitchens and early school lunch programs.

Of course I was primarily interested in the first two themes since both are about restaurants. Other than the Horn & Hardart Automat, places such as Childs’ restaurants, Sardi’s, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and Schrafft’s were profiled with displays of menus, drawings, photographs, and other memorabilia.

I was particularly fascinated by two large map sheets which presented mid-town Manhattan in great detail, showing the names of each of the businesses lining several streets. Published in the 1950s by Nirenstein’s Realty Map Company of Springfield MA, similar maps were made of many large cities in the U.S. I must see more of these!

It was delightful to see a photograph of Miss Frank E. Buttolph about the time she launched her menu collecting project whose results formed the basis for the library’s vast menu collection.

There are a few areas where I would have slanted things a bit differently or included additional material. As is often the case when the historical focus is on one city (or country), its uniqueness, greatness, or innovativeness tends to be overstated. For instance, New York was not alone in having early fast food lunch rooms – all big cities did. Nor was it a pioneer in the development of the cafeteria. Chicago and Los Angeles both played a greater role in the early days of the cafeteria.

I think too that I would have paid attention to the saloon lunch, since it was a very popular method of acquiring a quick lunch. Temperance advocates portrayed saloons as loathsome places but, as some anthropologically-minded reformers pointed out, saloons also functioned as welcoming community oases and cheap eating places for many low-income workers, men in particular.

But these are minor criticisms of a show that is well-researched and presented and will certainly delight hundreds of thousands of visitors as well as proving a valuable resource for teachers. The free show runs until mid-February 2013 at the main library. A promo for the exhibit is on youtube.

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Regulars

The modern idea of eating out revolves around choice. Where shall we go? What shall we order? We are looking for change, novelty. We want to vary our routine.

It hasn’t always been this way.

Choice in dining out did not become the norm to any great extent until the second half of the 19th century, and then slowly and incompletely. Before that patrons were divided into “regulars” and “transients,” with the first category making up the backbone of the fledgling restaurant business.

In early American taverns the regulars were male groups such as firemen, clubs, or religious societies who turned up on a scheduled basis and were served group meals for a prearranged price. To put it in other words, much of the business of a tavern or eating house was conducted on a catering basis. Male college students, in the decades before dormitories and dining halls, grouped together in dining clubs that operated similarly.

By the 1870s restaurants filled with the same old people eating the same old food day after day came to be regarded as somewhat archaic. A visitor to a chop house in lower Manhattan that served steaks and baked potatoes observed patrons who, curiously, “did not give any order.” He reasoned that they were habitues and learned that one, a dry goods merchant, “has dined there every day for the last seventeen years.”

The system of regular diners and regular meals worked effectively during an era when there was not a large dining public like today. But even by the time things had changed significantly, in the early 20th century, many small cafes tried to take the guesswork and risk out of their business by cultivating regular customers. They sold meal tickets for which patrons paid in advance for a number of meals in order to receive a discount.

Even today there are probably still some individuals who would rather eat at the same place on a frequent, even daily basis. There are those who order the same thing every time or are automatically served the day’s special without even glancing at the menu. Is there an invisible straight line in NYC connecting the 1859 eatery where “regular patrons at the sandwich counter merely sit down and their sandwich is placed before them” and The Colony, where in the 1950s a woman was enjoying her 28th year lunching on lamb chops, salad, and grapefruit? Likewise in that same decade regulars at a Mississippi City restaurant were fond of sitting down and telling the proprietor, “Joe, fix us up.”

Another vestige of the old system that lingered on for decades was that of men’s professional groups who ate together regularly at the same restaurant – and the same table – for years on end.  Around the turn of the century insurance adjustors — members of the Firebug Club (whose name commemorated the olden days when adjusters colluded with policyholders to commit arson for profit) – used to meet at Mike Lyons’ in NYC’s Bowery. About the same time St. Louis’s Lippe’s was set up with alcoves for trade groups. There was a “Hoo-Hoo” decorated with a painting of a black cat that was designated for lumbermen, and another called “The Roost” decorated with a goose and other birds, meant for tailors. Might “The Chapel” have been intended for ministers? The tradition continued into the 1940s at the century-old Speck’s in that city where there was a bankers’ table, a doctors’ table, etc.

Journalists were well-known for socializing together in restaurants. In Chicago, Ric Riccardo hosted correspondents for the major national magazines and newspapers in his restaurant’s imitation jail called the Padded Cell in the early 1950s. By the 1970s the room had become dedicated to the weekly luncheons of the St. Louis Browns fan club.

Restaurants highly esteemed their regular patrons, none more so than Maylie’s in New Orleans, which closed its doors in 1920. The all-male restaurant admitted patrons each day at 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., seating them at long communal tables. When a regular died, his chair was left empty for several days.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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