Tag Archives: Othello Pollard

Know thy customer

In the early days of American eating places, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most customers other than travelers were personally known to proprietors. Some, especially single men, were regular customers eating in the same place every day for weeks, months, even years. They may have rented a sleeping room there as well. Others worked nearby. The typical newspaper advertisement of that time always began by saying that the proprietor wanted to thank his friends, old customers, and the public, in that order, which I believe descends in importance. Many of the familiar customers at better eating places no doubt kept a tab and paid monthly or less often.

From what I have been able to gather, anyone wanting to eat their dinner at a tavern, ordinary, coffee house, or whatever the establishment was called, would let the proprietor know in advance. For those who did not eat there every day, some (most? a few?) proprietors prepared a list of dishes being served that could be examined in the morning. As Mrs. Treville of New York announced in 1777, “The bill of fare [is] to be seen in the coffee room every forenoon.” After inspecting the day’s bill of fare, the prospective diner might leave his name or buy a ticket if he intended to return for dinner, which was served at noon or in the early afternoon.

Although there was sometimes a bill of fare, diners did not usually order individual dishes from it as we do today (though sometimes they did – subject of a later post). Instead, the meal would be served family style, with all the dishes being passed around a common table and each person paying a flat price. Anyone wishing an evening meal had to place their order in advance, probably so that the proprietor could buy the necessary supplies.

Although I am guessing about some of this – to a degree – I think this is how it usually worked. But what I don’t know is whether a person ordering an evening meal for themselves or a group of friends had to pay something up front or if being known was enough to underwrite the deal.

A few months ago a man walked into Antonio’s Pizza parlor in Amherst, Massachusetts, and placed a very large order for 178 pizzas which he said he would pick up later. He never did. The staff worked far into the night to prepare them and the bill totaled nearly $4,000. Almost all of the pizzas ended up being thrown away. The man, whose identity was never publicly revealed, was caught on the store’s security camera [center] and located later living in New Jersey. Through a lawyer he made settlement for an undisclosed amount, with no public explanation of his motive for what appears to have been an intentional prank.

He paid nothing in advance, nor did he leave his credit card or phone number.

Because he was wearing a lanyard around his neck filled with backstage passes and said he was ordering the pizzas for the crew of a Bob Dylan concert at the University of Massachusetts, Antonio’s failed to insist upon a deposit or … anything.

Did the early proprietors of eating places ever get stiffed? Apparently they did, despite the closer personal relations between them and their customers. A law was upheld in 1831 which said that each person in a dining party is a member of a partnership and as such is individually responsible for the entire bill if the others abscond or fail to pay.

Othello Pollard, who served a college crowd, announced in 1802 that he expected immediate payment and would extend credit only for “as long as a man can hold his breath.”

I don’t think Othello would have let the prankster out the door so easily.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Taste of a decade: restaurants, 1800-1810

The American population is settled mainly along the Eastern seaboard. The largest city, New York, with almost 80,000 people, is one of only about 15 cities with more than 1,000 inhabitants. Meals are available in taverns, oyster houses, coffee houses, and French restorators. Most diners are male travelers, businessmen, or boarders, though religious societies and clubs of firefighters, politicians, or old soldiers gather for banquets from time to time. The dinner hour falls between noon and 3:00 p.m.


1800 Meat, fish, and fowl are the principal offerings of eating places, and an establishment’s quality is measured by the amount and assortment of animal protein set out on the table. At the Portland Restorator in Portland, Maine, the proprietor proudly announces he has “potted lobster, potted eel, chicks fricaseed, and fine ragouts, beef alamode, and barbicues, sausage Bologna, Hamburgh, Naples, choice venison pastry, pork pie Cheshire, good beef steak, and bacon rasher” as well as “round of beef, fat Sirloin, turkey roast, or calf’s head boil’d with tongue & brains.” Beyond these main dishes, he supplies only soup and a few pies. Strangely, he does not mention one of the most popular edibles of the 19th century, oysters.

1801 Well-off Americans who read fashionable magazines are fascinated by the popularity of restaurants in Paris. There, it is said, “everybody” (who is anybody) dines frequently outside the home. The awkward term “restorator,” an Americanized version of restaurateur which refers either to a place to dine or to its proprietor, becomes a trendy metaphor for a publication, an essay, or an editor.

1802 Napoleon offers amnesty to his opponents and many French citizens who escaped to America during the revolution return to France, shrinking the number of skilled restaurateurs. Not all leave, however. Julien continues in Boston.

1802 The inimitable black caterer Othello Pollard, of Cambridge MA, beckons “select” clients from nearby Harvard with beefsteak, soup, cheese, ham, tongue, ice cream, custard, strawberries and cream, whip-syllabub, pies, jellies, olives, and fruit, along with a well-stocked liquor cabinet. In an unusual advertisement, he observes: “It is a wise saying … that the Body is as much a subject of education as the Mind. Both require tuition and discipline. The UNIVERSITY takes the Mind for its pupil; OTHELLO takes the Body. He, therefore, who has not been at both schools is half a Scholar.”

1803 In Charleston, South Carolina, a new hotel opens with a banquet room accommodating 300.

1807 The beefsteak and oyster house remains a popular sort of eating place. Turtle soup is a delicacy and restaurants place notices in papers when they are about to prepare it. On June 8 Wm. Fryatt, who has recently opened a Porter, Beef Steak and Oyster House on the corner of Pine and Nassau in New York, advertises he will prepare the last turtle of the season.

1808 Henry Doyhar of New York City announces that he will list his dinner specials in writing each day: “To accommodate those who wish to procure their Dinner …, the bill of fare, containing the dishes regularly numbered, will be exhibited every day from nine till eleven o’clock, A.M. for the purpose of engaging beforehand such dishes as may be wanted.” Since so many people are illiterate at this time, this suggests his clients are educated and probably wealthy.

1809 In Boston the elegant and expensively built Boston Exchange Coffee-House opens with a coffee room on the ground floor, furnished with a bar and 14 private and “handsome boxes, each containing a mahogany table, seats, and a bell rope.” On the second floor is a banquet hall and a dining room whose “walls are painted a beautiful green, and the windows decorated with curtains of scarlet moreen.”

Read about other decades: 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008


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