Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Dining at the Centennial

In 1876, one hundred years after independence, Philadelphia held America’s first world’s fair to celebrate the country’s growing importance in industry, trade, and the arts, and perhaps implicitly to recognize of the end of the Civil War.

It is notable, though, that no Southern states elected to participate. According to a historian who studied the South’s attitudes toward the Centennial, it’s likely that relatively few visitors from the South attended [“Everybody is Centennializing”: White Southerners and the 1876 Centennial, Jack Noe, 2016]. This was due both to inability to afford it and a widespread opinion reflected in Southern newspapers that the whole thing was another Yankee scam meant to benefit the North.

Another problem was that the entire country was moored in a severe six-year-long depression. Despite the drawbacks, however, the Centennial Exhibition was judged a big success, based on its efficient organization, the participation of many other countries, the range of exhibits, and the attendance over its six-month span which was reported as nearly 10 million.

When I began to think about exploring the topic of eating places at the Centennial I imagined that its restaurants and cafes would have been a novelty to many visitors who would have been delighted to experience them, with many having their first restaurant meal.

I was not prepared for the large number of criticisms, ranging from offense at snooty European waiters to complaints about menu prices and tacked on service charges. They began to pour out as soon at the Centennial began. High prices were the main target. A widely circulated Chicago Tribune story claimed that a meal could easily cost $4, with $1 charged for asparagus, and 50¢ for mashed potatoes. These were prices that rivaled fine restaurants in New York City such as Delmonico’s.

There were at least 20 restaurants and cafés on the grounds. Several seated thousands. George’s Hill Restaurant, a Kosher eating place, was capable of serving an astounding 5,000 patrons at a time. Of course most fair goers could not begin to afford these grand restaurants, each of which occupied its own massive building. Many probably found it difficult to pay even the 50¢ admission fee.

The complaints about restaurant prices leveled off a bit over time, and it may be that the Centennial Commission forced managers to lower them. Or, perhaps there was a compromise leading the big restaurants to devote part of their space to lower-priced cafes, as seems to be reflected on the menu from the La Fayette Lunch Garden shown above, part of the La Fayette Restaurant complex. There a sandwich was a mere 10¢.

Regardless, one effect of all the publicity about high prices was that many fair goers brought their own picnic lunches [see cartoon above]. Soda and popcorn stands also proved to be very popular, as did the Vienna Model Bakery which furnished no meals but served coffee and freshly baked bread, both of a quality Americans had not experienced before. Another popular eating place was a moderately priced rustic café called The Dairy [shown below] where milk, fruit, biscuits, and pies were available.

Actually, the entire organization of the Centennial discouraged working people from attending. From the start the Commissioners decided against Sunday openings and half-price Saturdays, both of which had been operative at recent world’s fairs in Paris and Vienna. Only after disappointing attendance in the unusually hot summer months did they relent and declare a handful of Saturdays eligible for discounted fares. When the weather cooled off and attendance increased, they eliminated the discounts.

The dominance of elite restaurants at the Centennial may have been part of the same plan of discouraging, or simply ignoring, working class patrons. Perhaps the restaurant that was most resented was the “Parisian” restaurant, Aux Trois Frères Provencaux [shown here and at top]. It had a famed past dating back to the 18th century, though, unbeknownst to most Americans (if they even vaguely knew of it), it had changed hands many times, lost much of its splendor, and closed several years before the Centennial.

The Trois Frères Provencaux and the five other big restaurants at the Centennial were set up much like first-class restaurants and hotels of that time. They had large main dining rooms, a big banquet hall, a number of smaller private dining rooms, and a café. It’s likely that some of the buildings also included living quarters for the staff.

Most of the big six restaurants came in for some degree of criticism, with only George’s Hill and Lauber’s being largely exempt. George’s Hill Restaurant, on a breezy hill with a beautiful view, may have offered relief from the heat, and perhaps its customers appreciated having a kosher restaurant on the grounds. Lauber’s was already a popular Philadelphia German restaurant and it promised that its prices at the fairgrounds were identical to downtown’s.

Faring less well in public opinion were The Grand American Restaurant (disliked for its employment of foreign waiters) and The La Fayette [shown here]. The latter was perceived as a French import despite the fact that the proprietor had a restaurant in New York City. Its building was considered unattractive and its waiters were alleged to cheat customers. As was also said of the Trois Frères Provencaux, a critic claimed that its French management was unable to “comprehend America.”

The other large eating place, the Restaurant of the South [shown here], seemed to be predicated on a fascination that Northerners would have with Southern culture (including an “Old Plantation Darkey Band”), along with the belief that Southern visitors to the Centennial would want to group together in their own place. But if it was the case that few Southerners visited the fair [Noe, cited above], this would probably have taken a quite a toll on the Restaurant of the South.

In addition to meals, most restaurants and cafés also served beer and wine, despite the attempt by temperance organizations to prevent this. A California winemaker brought his wine to the Centennial to introduce it to Easterners. For $1 he also offered a “copious luncheon” with a half pint of his “California Golden Wine,” which was considered quite a bargain by the standards of the fair. Although it seems that all the cafés and restaurants had beer and wine, it’s probable that beer sales far outstripped wine sales, judging from the final report of the Centennial Commission which reported no royalties on wine.

Which was the most American restaurant? Not the Grand American, which Scribner’s magazine declared had “nothing especially American about it,” but the American Lunch Counter. Associated with railroads – where lunch counters were the norm in stations – it was ridiculed by elite critics such as one in The Nation who pointed out “the excessive liberality of the bill-of-fare as compared with the actual resources of the kitchen, the negro or nondescript waiters, the unlimited pickles,” etc. The Nation’s account included the other two restaurants advertised as American — The Grand American Restaurant and The Restaurant of the South — in its complaint.

I’m left with questions about the restaurants at the fair and the fair itself. How many people actually attended? Each person had to pass through a turnstile that counted them, but since many people made multiple visits, it leaves the question whether there were 10M visitors, or 10M visits. Given that the Commissioners’ detailed final report did not show any royalties from restaurants or cafés, I can’t help but wonder if the restaurants lost money.

But surely, since many thousands ate at the fair’s restaurants, there must have been some who had good experiences.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

For more images of the Centennial buildings and exhibits, visit the collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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Soup and spirits at the bar

soupIn the 1970s the National Park Service reconstructed the historic late-18th-century City Tavern in Philadelphia for use as a restaurant. An article that describes how the tavern was to be furnished noted that originally the bar was used for more than just serving alcoholic beverages. As a 1796 advertisement below shows, it also served soup which was kept hot on a stove behind the bar.

soup1796PhiladelphiaHaving soup available at the bar of a tavern or coffee house sounds odd today, but it was quite common in the late 18th century and the early 19th century. Some of the places that announced soup in their advertisements were ordinaries or coffee houses that served dinners and suppers at stated times or by arrangement. But others were primarily drinking places, such as Baker’s Porter Cellar which opened in Boston in 1796. It’s main purpose was to serve “wines and spirits of all kinds” and it specialized in “genuine draught and bottled London porter.”

soup1807NYCommonly, soup became available from 11 am until 1 pm each day, though some establishments offered it as early as 8 am and others kept serving it as late as 5 pm. A few times a week prized turtle soup would appear. In those places that were more than drinking spots and served full meals, soup was usually ready by 10 or 11 am, several hours in advance of the main meal.

soupTheEmporiumofArts&Sciences1815

So-called restorators, which were usually run by Frenchmen, always served soup, both as a standard part of a meal and alone in the morning, possibly with a glass of wine. Like the original Paris restaurants, based on soup and taking the name “restaurant” from it, they promised that their soup would restore health for those who were feeling under the weather. Boston’s Dorival & Deguise assured patrons that “nothing will be wanting on their part, to give Satisfaction, and restore Health to the Invalids, whose Constitutions require daily some of their rich, and well seasoned Brown, and other Soupes.”

I have seen one reference to an 1820s “soup and steak establishment,” that of Frederick Rouillard who carried on after the death of Julien’s wife in Boston, as well as running a hotel in Nahant MA. His “menu” reminds me of Paris bouillon parlors that served bouillon and bouilli, the bouillon being the strained liquid in which beef and vegetables had been simmered, and the bouilli being the beef which was served with the vegetables, all of it making an inexpensive two-dish meal.

Although some 19th-century Americans disliked the “foreign” French custom of beginning a meal with soup, soup soon became a standard part of most restaurant menus, as it still is. Advertisements for morning soups became rare in the 1830s, but I don’t know whether it was because it was so well-known a practice by then that there was no need to advertise or because it was no longer done.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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The Automat, an East Coast oasis

automatlogoIn the late 19th century owners of large popular-price restaurants began to look for ways to cut costs and eliminate waiters. The times were hospitable to mechanical solutions and in 1902 automatic restaurants opened in Philadelphia (pictured below) and New York. In both cities, a clever coin-operated set-up – and a name – were imported from Germany. There was, however, a striking difference between the two operations. The Philadelphia Automat, run by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, served no alcoholic beverages, while the New York Automat, true to its European origins, did.

automatphil3051The Automat in NYC was owned by James Harcombe, who in the 1890s had acquired Sutherland’s, one of the city’s old landmark restaurants located on Liberty Street. The Harcombe Restaurant Company’s Automat was at 830 Broadway, near Union Square. Reportedly costing more than $75,000 to install, it was a marvel of invention decorated with inlaid mirror, richly colored woods, and German proverbs. It served forth sandwiches and soups, dishes such as fish chowder and lobster Newburg, and ice creams. Beer, cocktails, and cordials flowed from its faucets. A bit too freely. The Automat’s staff had to keep a sharp lookout for young boys dropping coins into the liquor slots.

While the Philadelphia Automat thrived, the New York counterpart ran into financial difficulties shortly after opening, possibly because of a poor location. It advertised in an NYU student magazine in 1904: “Europe’s Unique Electric Self-serving Device for Lunches and Beverages. No Waiting. No Tipping. Open Evenings Until Midnight.” The disappearance of the Harcombe Automat ca. 1910 seemed to fulfill pessimistic views that an automatic restaurant couldn’t succeed in New York, allegedly because machinery would malfunction and customers would cheat by feeding it slugs.

1912bdwyautomatUndeterred by the first Automat’s fate, Horn & Hardart moved into New York in 1912, opening an Automat of their own manufacture at Broadway and 46th Street (pictured). It turned out that New Yorkers did indeed use slugs, especially in 1935 when 219,000 were inserted into H&H slots. But despite this, the automatic restaurant prospered, expanded, and became a New York institution. By 1918 there were nearly 50 Automats in the two major cities, and eventually a few in Boston. Horn & Hardart tried Automats in Chicago in the 1920s but they were a failure. On an inspection tour in Chicago, Joseph Horn noted problems such as weak coffee, “figs not right,” and “lem. meringue very bad.”

Part of the lore of the Automat derives from the unexpected forms of sociability it inspired among strangers. Others found in it a unique entertaining concept. Jack Benny hosted a black tie dinner in a New York Automat for 500 friends in 1960, but he was scarcely the first to come up with the idea. As early as 1903 a Philadelphia hostess rented that city’s Automat for a soirée, hiring a caterer to replace meatloaf and coffee with terrapin and champagne. In 1917 a New York bohemian group calling themselves “The Tramps” took over the Broadway Automat for a dance party, inserting in the food compartments numbered slips corresponding to dance partners. For most customers, though, the Automat meant cheap food and possibly a leisurely place to kill time and watch the parade of humanity.

automatmysteries3041The Automats hit their peak in the mid-20th century. Slugs aside, the Depression years were better for business than the wealthier 1960s and 1970s when some units were converted to Burger Kings. In 1933 H&H hired Francis Bourdon, the French chef at the Sherry Netherland (fellow chefs called him “L’Escoffier des Automats”). In 1969 Philadelphia’s first Automat closed, being declared “a museum piece, inefficient and slow, in a computerized world.” That left two in Philadelphia and eight in NYC. The last New York Automat, at East 42nd and 3rd Ave, closed in 1991.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Department store restaurants: Wanamaker’s

 

Until very recently I thought John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia had the first in-store restaurant in the U.S. Several scholars have insisted this is true, with the exception of a Macy’s historian who claimed R. H. Macy was first, in May 1878. Wanamaker’s, I’ve discovered, did not install eating facilities until September of 1879 when it enticed a local caterer, Alice Weldon, to run her restaurant inside The Grand Depot, as the store was known then. Weldon, a confectioner born in Ireland, operated a popular oyster-plus-ice-cream café near the store (it sounds like an odd combination but such places were once common). Every day all the shoppers would vacate the store to go eat at Alice’s, so Wanamaker reasoned he had to have her on his side. For about six years she ran the forerunner of The Dairy, an eatery the store created in 1883, one year after installing a soda fountain (another department store first claimed by Wanamaker’s).

The better known restaurant in the Philadelphia store was the Grand Crystal Tea Room which opened on the 8th floor of the new Wanamaker’s completed in 1911. Immense and filled with chandeliers, it was modeled on the tea room in the Philadelphia mansion of Robert Morris, a financier of the American Revolution. Also on the 8th floor, speedily reached by 24 direct-service elevators, were a number of private dining rooms, a men-only tea room, and the store’s ultra-modern kitchens. The Grand Crystal Tea Room survived the demise of Wanamaker’s and the tenure of its successor but finally closed in 1995 and is now a private banquet hall.

The New York City Wanamaker’s, opened in 1896 in the old A. T. Stewart store and closed in 1954, was also well supplied with esteemed eating places. A 1900 menu shows a full complement of delectable lunch choices, including blue points, cream of new asparagus soup, and lamb with mint sauce. The store’s tea room advertised ca. 1908 that its tea was “specially imported,” and prided itself on its “quaint service.” In 1940 the store operated three eating places on the 9th floor: the main restaurant, Green Shutters; a more casual Side Walk Café; and a Men’s Grill decorated with antique French tapestries.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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