Tag Archives: Ptomaine Tommy’s

We burn steaks


While most restaurant advertising tends to exaggerate the subject’s merits, some takes the opposite tack, declaring that the restaurant’s food and service are horrid. The reason is simple, a wish to stand out from the crowd.

ToughSteaksShermanOaks1950How well this works is questionable. If a restaurant has nothing going for it in food quality or service, a gimmicky promotional attitude isn’t going to make it successful. For instance, the humor of Hawley’s Tough Steaks, Sherman Oaks Ca, displayed in the slogan “Famous for Dining Discomfort” wears thin almost instantly. After you have read through the menu once, and maybe smiled wanly at its jokiness – Tired T-Bone, 25 cents, With Meat, 2.25 – you might not ever want to see it again. I haven’t been able to determine how long Hawley’s stayed in business.

I sense a degree of desperation in the advertisement for The Garret in Greenwich Village. In 1922 when this ad appeared, The Garret’s proprietor was Grace Godwin, single mother of four who ran it to support her family. It was located near the spot in the Village where all the tour buses parked, which should have given it an edge despite the fact that it was housed on the second floor of a dumpy old building. The ad played off the Village’s reputation for zaniness that was so attractive to tourists. Grace gave up the business not much later.


But sometimes it seems to work.

Ptomaine Tommy’s in Los Angeles fared quite well and was around at least from 1913 to 1940 if not longer. It multiplied, “dotting California roadsides,” according to newspaper columnist O. O. McIntyre who mentioned the restaurant’s name often enough even if he wasn’t terribly flattering. He called them “hastily constructed” and comparing them to the Shanties, Shacks, and Food Hutches that sprang up in the Depression serving bean soup and hash.

Perhaps partly because McIntyre made the name known, it became a popular one. Ptomaine Tommy’s appeared in San Francisco, Portland OR, Reno NV, and even Eau Claire WI. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if restaurants with that name are in business today.

I think that the self-denigrating approach appeals to a sense of humor among those, historically men, who aren’t especially fond of eating out unless they can be reassured that they won’t be expected to pay much, dress up, or display refined manners.

Restaurants that make fun of themselves give off a message that they aren’t pretentious. Patrons can be sure they won’t meet up with haughty servers. Or, as Newman’s in Amarillo and Dalhart, TX, put it, “Terrible Service, But We’re Friendly.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


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