Opening an eating place or a tavern was popular with immigrants – especially the Irish — for much of the later 19th century and into the 20th. They served as waiters, waitresses, kitchen workers, and proprietors.
And before World War II, when it was easy and inexpensive to open an eating and drinking place, they started many a restaurant, becoming the leading nationality in the business according to restaurant insider J. O. Dahl. Although he had no established figures to go by, judging from “numerous interviews and personal observation over a period of twenty-five years,” he estimated in his 1935 National Handbook of Restaurant Data that the Irish made up 18% of restaurant keepers.
The restaurants run by Irish immigrants were not usually identified as Irish, nor were they particularly appealing. Many fell into the category of “hash house,” generally viewed as the lowliest sort of eating place. Neither hash house proprietors nor those who ran finer spots made any mention of being from Ireland.
There were also numerous restaurants in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, run by well-known men of Irish birth, that were bigger and more prosperous. Typically they were oyster or chop houses that drew tourists and theater-goers. Among them was the prominent Shanley’s, established by Shanley brothers in the 1890s, and Dinty Moore’s, begun by James Moore whose name and fame were due to a comic strip. [above: Life with Father, 1923, by Jim McManus] Like many of the others, Shanley’s was put out of business by Prohibition, while Dinty Moore’s survived despite being “busted” time and time again.
In 1887 a journalist noted that “there is not an Irish restaurant in all these blessed United States.” He was wrong, but could his error have been due to the reticence of Irish businesses outside of New York’s entertainment districts regarding their heritage? He called on someone to explain why this was, “for of course it is significant of something.” Many immigrants sought to shed their difficult pasts and become “American,” but it’s hard not to wonder if the absence of overt ethnic identification also had something to do with the nativist “Know Nothing” movement of the 1850s that was based on fear that Catholic priests conspired to undermine Protestant values.
Whatever the reason, most Irish restaurant proprietors continued to keep a low profile in the 20th century. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, now targeting Irish and Jewish citizens as well as Black Americans, may also have been a factor. An Irish-born family that opened a tavern in Indianapolis in the 1930s called the Golden Ace Inn later revealed that they had avoided choosing a name that would reflect their ethnicity because of its unpopularity. In 1937 they had tried out the name Erin Go Bragh but changed it back after they lost customers.
Most early Irish-run eating places had very little in common with the Irish pub type of eating place that would begin to appear in the 1960s, when the term “ethnic restaurant” came into use. But even then, they were often snubbed in guide books, not out of prejudice against the Irish so much as dislike of their cuisine. The Underground Gourmet series, for instance, did not recommend or “discover” Irish eateries or cuisine. Rather, the books’ alphabetical indexes typically jumped from Indian to Jewish. The author of New Orleans’ Underground Gourmet, Richard Collin, said in a no-star review of Molly’s Irish Pub that “Irish food at its best has a somewhat limited appeal.” As late as 1990 a columnist in Columbus OH included in his St. Patrick’s day restaurant survey several jokes about how bad Irish food was, adding that restaurant reviewers and food editors shared the opinion among themselves that there was no such thing as a good Irish restaurant.
Corned beef and cabbage? That was a dish that appeared on a variety of 19th-century menus before it was widely defined as Irish. For one thing, corned beef, or any meat that was preserved in barrels with salt, had been available throughout the 19th century (and earlier), and was not identified with any particular nationality. [above advertisement from 1788] And in 1850 McKenzie’s Exchange in New Orleans offered corned beef and cabbage, right along with curried frog and barbecued gopher. Hudson’s department store in Detroit put corned beef and cabbage on an 1896 summer menu. [see below]
Even the Irish did not universally love corned beef and cabbage. Many Irish women worked as domestic servants and one of them reported in 1902 that servants got better food if they worked for millionaires with few rather than many servants. In those cases, she said, you ate the same food the rich did, such as chicken, rib roasts, strawberries, and ice cream. But in households with a large number of servants you would be eating inferior dishes such as corned beef and cabbage.
Yet corned beef and cabbage grew in popularity in the later 20th century, at least for one day out of the year, and became strongly identified as Irish. But the real winner in Irish restaurants, or what might in many cases be called Irish-themed restaurants, was the pub concept that gave restaurants the ability to stay open later with drinks and light fare, generate male appeal, and build upon the popularity of “good cheer” that had come to be associated with Irishness. Some featured Irish folk singing [above advertisement, Charleston SC, 1986], while the Irishness of others rested entirely on decor and market-tested names.
Although corned beef and cabbage remained on the menu of Irish restaurants – especially on St. Patrick’s day — fare tended toward hamburgers and steak. In more recent years, reflecting changes in Irish restaurants and new approaches to traditional fare, some restaurants have emerged in the U.S. that explore what is considered authentic Irish cuisine. An Irish cuisine ambassador noted in 1998 that, “Chefs coming from Ireland to the United States are melding the finest provisions into such nouveau recipes as Irish smoked salmon salad with citrus dressing, Gaelic potatoes, and Irish oatmeal apple crumble with Irish whiskey cream.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2023