Tag Archives: restaurant advertising

Picturing restaurant food

Restaurants have long tempted the public with displays of food, but in the 20th century it became possible to replace actual food with images of desirable dishes on colored postcards and illustrated menus.

Color photochrome postcards became standard after WWII, yet it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that menus illustrated with full-color photographic images of food came into common usage.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, before photochrome postcards came into widespread production, linen-finish postcards were the norm. Their cartoonish coloring often lacked realism. For example, the grayish shrimp topping stuffed flounder at Manuel’s in Galveston TX look distressingly like worms.

Even as quality photography and printing became more available in the 1950s, restaurants weren’t always successful in portraying food attractively. Professional food stylists had yet to arrive on the scene to solve problems such as poor plating, monochromatic food combinations, and runny gravies.

Regarding poor plating, a large portion is all very fine but should an order of meat or fried fish be bigger than the plate?

Gargantuan food itself can be questionable, not only to consume but also to look at. How attractive are french fries almost as big as baked potatoes? Is a two-pound burger eight times better looking than a quarter pounder?

On menus, photos of food play multiple roles, providing information about “exotic” dishes, invoking desire, and steering choices. In the case of restaurants whose dishes – or drinks in the case of Polynesian theme restaurants — might be unfamiliar to some patrons, pictures serve as visual description.

As far back as the 1930s, some restaurants used illustrated menus but with images that appeared to be hand drawn and colored and almost comical compared to the realistic photographs that dominated chain restaurant menus by the 1980s. Full-color, laminated menus are most often found in 24-hour coffee-shop restaurants and present all the meals and dishes that are available; breakfast, lunch, and dinner often have no clear demarcation.

Laminated menus cost more to produce than others yet are relatively long-lasting because they can be wiped off — though, as often noted, rarely are. Their lifespan is about 3 to 6 months, after which prices and dishes need updating.

Unlike Indian, Chinese, or Mexican restaurants (especially in the years when they were new to many diners), dishes found on illustrated menus of chain restaurants – such as bacon and eggs, pancakes, or burgers — are not the least bit unfamiliar. Quite the opposite.

Which seems to raise the question of why such ordinary food needs to be illustrated at all.

Not too surprisingly the main role of photos is to encourage customers to order the restaurant’s more profitable dishes. It’s always possible to order a single pancake or fried egg, but it is certain that what will be pictured is instead a stack of three pancakes or two eggs with sausage or bacon.

Featured dishes are positioned to follow the paths typically taken by customers’ eyes. Prized locations include the menu’s center and top right. Another tactic, one that turns the whole menu into an eye-catching circus, is to place featured dishes inside brightly colored boxes.

As for dishes that don’t get top billing, a Denny’s advertising director observed that a hopelessly slow seller like a grilled cheese sandwich would be line-listed, no photograph. On a 1970 Tops Big Boy menu [shown here], beef and shrimp achieved center feature status but ham and fish dinners failed to make the cut, languishing in a line-list.

I am still left wondering why many dishes on illustrated menus look so unattractive, especially considering that the menus are often produced after extensive research and consultation with experts. On a three-panel 1985 Friendly’s menu a “100% Sirloin Steak Burger” looms over the center column at a scale larger than other features such as a Clamboat Platter and a Seafood Salad Plate, yet it utterly fails to project charisma.

Contrary to wished-for results, many diners view laminated, illustrated menus as a signal that a restaurant’s offerings are going to be bland and uninteresting. An Orlando FL restaurant reviewer complained in 1988 that many restaurants there used laminated menus: “It seems that no matter what type of restaurant I go to, or how much is charged for the average meal, the menu is plastic coated. It reminds me of the people who buy really nice furniture and then cover it in plastic.”

Really? Nice?

Illustrated menus have become so strongly associated with mediocre food that it is a huge mistake for an establishment aiming for the fine-dining category to use such a menu, even temporarily. But, believe it or not, such a restaurant existed in Phoenix AZ in 1983, with expensive entrees pictured in shiny plastic while the wine list was calligraphied and covered in velvet.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, menus, restaurant customs

Famous in its day: Partridge’s

partridgesTradeCardI began this post intending to present some of the history of Partridge’s restaurant that is advertised on many Victorian trade cards of the 1870s and 1880s, such as the one shown above. Despite their age, many of the cards still exist; those in this post are only a few of over a dozen different designs I’ve seen.

As is often the case, sorting out the story of that restaurant became harder the more I learned. In fact, the two restaurants on 8th street, operated by Edward Partridge and his son E. Frank Partridge, turned out to be only part of the story.

partridge'sdoubleIn the Philadelphia city directory of 1858 there are five different Partridges operating restaurants, Edward not included. At that time Edward apparently was a seller of cheeses in the city’s food market on the corner of Fourth and Market. He also sold “Cakes, Pies, and Beverages, such as will suit the most delicate and fastidious taste.” I suspect that most of the Partridges were related and had come from Medway in Massachusetts, but haven’t been able to substantiate this.

In 1862 or 1863 Edward moved to North Eighth street near Filbert and opened a restaurant in the heart of the shopping district. It occupied several stories, with a ladies’ dining parlor seating 100 on the second floor. In the early 1880s it acquired a fancy ceiling of Lincrusta wallpaper that mimicked molded decorations of game and fruit. It became one of the city’s best known first-class restaurants, serving three meals a day as well as catering weddings, receptions, and large parties on and off the premises. It also specialized in fancy cakes, ice-creams, and ices. Edward was a generous benefactor to his Presbyterian church, so I seriously doubt that alcoholic drinks were served at his restaurant.

partridges947Partridge’s was not a luxury restaurant but a respectable full-service restaurant with moderate prices and no French on the menu. In the second half of the 19th century American cities large and small had at least one such restaurant and Philadelphia undoubtedly had quite a few. In almost all respects it was nearly identical to Thomas Hill’s in Trenton NJ and Barr’s in Springfield MA.

partridges948As the back of this trade card states, Partridge’s was proud of its drinkable water, at a time when public water could not be trusted. A story in the Public Ledger said that the restaurant displayed two bottles of water in its windows, “one as clear as crystal, the other the color of weak coffee, due to the mud held in suspension in it.” The crystal-clear bottle, of course, held filtered water that Partridge’s served, the other water came directly out of the tap.

In 1893, the restaurant established by Charles D. Partridge, which had long operated in the old Eastern and Farmers’ Markets, opened as the Reading Terminal Restaurant, in a space attached to the new Reading Terminal Market. Charles, who may have been Edward’s brother, had died in 1877 and his restaurant was taken over by a longtime employee yet it retained the company name of C. D. Partridge & Co. (In much the same way, Frank Partridge retained the name Partridge & Son after his father’s death in 1896.)

When Edward died in 1896, no one knew that disaster was about to strike his landmark restaurant on North Eighth. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1899, a fire started in the neighboring Bee Hive dry goods store, aka Partridge & Richardson (co-owned by yet another Partridge). The massive fire swept through the block, destroying Partridge & Richardson, Strawbridge & Clothier, the J. B. Lippincott publishing offices, Partridge’s restaurant, and numerous other businesses.

partridgesJuly1900ADVPartridge’s restaurant was rebuilt on Market Street in “elaborate Renaissance style,” opening in July of 1900. But less than a year later Frank Partridge died, and his widow closed the restaurant a short time later. The like-new fixtures and furnishings, including electric chandeliers, Wilton carpets, and French mirrors, were sold at auction in 1902.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under confectionery restaurants

Famous in its day, now infamous: Coon Chicken Inn

coonchickeninnpc3

The long-gone Coon Chicken Inn restaurant chain claimed in its advertising that it was “nationally famous.” I believe that was a bit of an exaggeration – then – but it might be true now. Its present-day fame, more accurately its notoriety, is based on its objectionable name and use of a grotesque racist image on buildings, delivery trucks, china, glassware, and printed advertising pieces.

To whatever degree it was nationally famous it can only have been for its racist depictions. Certainly it could not have achieved fame for its food. The menu of the Coon Chicken Inn reveals selections only a few degrees more ambitious than the drive-ins of the 1930s. Other than chicken dinners, the menu included chili, burgers, and ice cream desserts.

coonchickeninnphoto1947

Nonetheless, in its time it was a popular chain of four roadhouse restaurants with one each in Salt Lake City (est. 1925), Seattle WA (est. 1929), Portland OR (est. 1930), and Spokane WA. According to one account there were also Coon Chicken Inns in Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco but I’ve been unable to find any trace of them.

In 1930 Seattle’s NAACP protested against the restaurant’s racist imagery. Under threat of prosecution the chain’s owners, Maxon Lester Graham and Adelaide Graham, repainted the grotesque black faces on their restaurants’ entryways blue. They also obliterated the words “Coon Chicken Inn” painted on the figures’ teeth.

coonchickeninnSLCDec291926Having avoided prosecution they changed nothing else, keeping the chain’s name and logo, all of which seemed not to bother the restaurants’ white patrons at all. I would guess most people gave little thought to the large grinning heads, having already accepted the caricatures as merely another instance of the widespread “comical” portrayal of black Americans. They probably also saw them as just another example of an eye-catching building feature employed by roadside restaurants to attract motorists’ attention. Few white people perceived the restaurants as racist.

The Coon Chicken Inns regularly hosted meetings of clubs, civic organizations, and sororities ranging from a Democratic Club to the Junior Hadassah. They were the sites of wedding, anniversary, and birthday parties. In 1942 they were listed in Best Places to Eat, a nationwide guidebook published by the Illinois Auto Club. I can’t help but think that the restaurant in Portland was a peculiarly appropriate location for an Eastern Star group that chose it for their “Poor Taste” party in 1937.

mammy'scupboardLike the word “mammy” and its stereotyped image, “coon chicken” was supposed to communicate that the restaurant specialized in Southern cuisine, in this case fried chicken. Mammy names and images were widely used by restaurants in the early and middle 20th century. The crudely constructed Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez MS was another example of roadside “building as sign.” There was a Mammy’s Shanty in Atlanta, Mammy’s Cafeterias in San Antonio TX, and others in the South. Nor was the East without its Mammys: in Atlantic City was Mammy’s Donut Waffle Shop while Brooklyn had Mammy’s Pantry.

Several good articles have been published analyzing the Coon Chicken Inn’s everyday racism and the white public’s blithe tolerance of it. I recommend Catherine Roth’s essay for the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. Because of the volume and quality of what’s been written I hesitated at first to publish this post. I also hate the thought of increasing the desirability of Coon Chicken Inn advertising artifacts. Although there are good reasons to preserve historic racist ephemera, the extreme popularity of these images is disturbing. So great is the demand for them that the marketplace is flooded with fakes, including newly dreamed-up objects that were never used by the chain. Black faces have made a comeback along with “Coon Chicken Inn” on the teeth.

The Portland and Seattle branches of the Coon Chicken Inn closed in 1949 but the Salt Lake City unit remained in business until 1957.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under racism, roadside restaurants

Celebrating restaurant cuisine

“Recherché viands.” “Splendid appurtenances.” “Bibular veritabilities.” Wonderfully novel words of praise have been spun by proprietors, patrons, and reviewers in praise of restaurants and their fare. Although the modern era produces few phrases so elaborate as those before the Civil War, the examples below show there are no end of restaurant features that can be lauded.

1816 The owner of the Town and Country Refectory in Providence promises his meats and liquors are “calculated to make glad the heart of man, to revivify exhausted nature, to restore the valetudinarian to health, and to refresh the weary traveller.”

1838 A patron says of a dinner at the American and French Restaurant, Washington DC: “…it was one of the most splendid entertainments ever served up at a public house in the United States, and I much doubt whether the London Tavern, the Café de Paris, the Rocher de Cancale, or any other restaurant or hotel in Paris or London ever surpassed it, either in the qualities of sumptuous and recherché viands, splendid appurtenances, or fine wines.”

1855 Touting Shelley’s Restaurant Sans Pareil, NYC, a notice says “Gentlemen curious in gastronomy, and choice in their selection of Epicurean Varieties and bibular veritabilities, must of necessity visit this classically chaste Palazzo, sooner or later.”

1878 Tony Faust’s Café and Oyster House, St. Louis, claims to be where people can “enjoy the finest oysters ever introduced into this market; delicate brook trout, the most delicious wines, the excellent Anheuser beer, a fragrant cigar, or any of those palatable and delicious articles which make our appetites so vigorous and unruly.”

1896 At a small Brooklyn restaurant run entirely by women, a diner is dazzled by its graham bread, which “recalls the hasheesh of Monte Cristo, or the most entrancing story you ever read of the effect of opium. After the first taste you think you’ve found a new kind of nut, the sweetest ever known.”

1921 A Chicago tea room prefers cultured guests and claims “you will observe, seated about the blue tables at Le Petit Gourmet, discerning men and women, who delight in having found a dining room where the cuisine of the most celebrated continental cafes has been equalled.”

1930 At Trotsky’s, 155 West 35th Street, NYC, Hyman Trotsky (brother of Leon*) runs a restaurant “where unusually good food and a strict observance of the dietary laws goes hand in hand!” No butter is served with the meals and “the waiters delight in sassing you back.”

1936 According to its management, the mission of the Riviera Restaurant in San Francisco is to introduce “The famous foods and glamorous environment … of romantic Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, San Remo, Genoa! Tempting dishes, delightfully different menus, prepared by a master chef!”

1949 At Karl Ratzsch’s “old world restaurant” in Milwaukee, the management asserts “our Guest-Book proves that World Celebrities flock to us for their favorite Old or New World Dishes.”

1958 A columnist exclaims that L’Escoffier, in the Beverly Hilton, which brands the hotel “for all times as a gourmet’s paradise” is “the best expense-account spot in town.”

1961 In the Van Nuys CA area, The Quail bills itself as “The Gourmet Roadhouse – The Valley’s Most Elegant Secluded Twosome Restaurant.”

1969 Terry Lomax’s El Rancho in Amarillo TX advertises “All You Can Eat! A Wonderful World of True Authentic Italian Spaghetti Awaits You! Cooked the Old World Way. Truly a Gourmet’s Delight.”

1988 A reviewer writes of 72 Market Street, Venice CA, “The food is as wonderful as a perfect wave …”

* A reader has checked Leon Trotsky’s genealogy and found no sibling named Hyman, so it would appear the source I used for this was mistaken. The NY restaurant was, in fact, spelled Trotzky’s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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