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“Distinguished dining” awards

HolidayAward470After World War II American consumers were filled with pent-up demand accrued over years of rationing and deprivation. They wanted to sample the joys of the good life, which included American and world travel, even if only in their imaginations. A sophisticated magazine – Holiday — was created to cater to their aspirations.

HolidayMag1954Holiday’s first issue came out in March 1946. A couple of months later Madison Avenue advertising man Ted Patrick took over as editor. A gourmet and bon vivant, Patrick gravitated toward fine restaurants. In 1952 the magazine began presenting awards to American restaurants that achieved dining distinction, recognizing 49 the first year. Among the winners were Bart’s (Portland OR), Commander’s Palace (New Orleans), Karl Ratzsch’s (Milwaukee), and Win Schuler’s (Marshall MI).

Winners tended to remain on the list, though it was not guaranteed. Win Schuler’s (still in business today) featured steaks, prime rib, and pork chops, and hosted 1,200 patrons a day at its Marshall location [menu below]. In 1971 it won its 20th Holiday award, no doubt not its last.

Even if, as Harvey Levenstein writes in Paradox of Plenty, Holiday stuck to “safe, sound, and usually American” choices where “the steak, lobster, and roast beef syndrome . . . reigned supreme,” its recommendations carried weight and raised the seriousness with which many American diners and restaurateurs regarded restaurants.

HolidayWinSchuler'sMenuTo win, a restaurant’s offerings were supposed to compare to French cuisine. It’s hard to see how a steak-and-baked-potato place could do that, but plenty such restaurants won awards. On the other hand, many of the winners were French inflected, particularly in NYC. A quick scan of restaurants included in the 1976 Holiday Magazine Award Cookbook shows that nearly 25% had French names and many more specialized in French dishes.

What some thought was a bias for restaurants in NYC and, to a lesser degree, NY state prevailed until 1968 when California restaurants won as many awards as New York (even though the number of winners in San Francisco still lagged behind NYC, 17 to 25).

HolidayAug1953The overall volume of winners grew over the years, reaching over 200 by the mid-1970s. The numbers reflected the growth in dining out – and maybe the tendency of award programs to expand. In the beginning whole swaths of the country had nary a winner. Winners would boast that they were “the only” restaurant – for example, in Wisconsin, in the South outside of Florida, among Midwestern states, etc. But over time winners could be found in all parts of the country, requiring some adjustment in the meaning of distinction. Statements appeared saying that awards were not given solely to elegant places. As Patrick’s successor Silas Spitzer said, “Elegance has a certain value in making our judgment of restaurants – but it’s not essential.”

I suspect that the significance of the awards was greatest during Patrick’s editorship, which ended with his death in 1964. The magazine fell on hard times in the 1970s and was sold in 1977. Even earlier the awards were losing clout. Among those in the 1976 cookbook were several that had come under harsh criticism. Many specialized in “continental” cuisine which had lost its glamour by this time, or were considered uninspired. In 1974 John Hess wrote that The Bakery in Chicago and Ernie’s in San Francisco were “disappointing.” NYT critic John Canaday declared in 1975 that Le Manoir was the French restaurant where he had the worst meal in the past 20 months, Le Cirque the “worst restaurant in proportion to its popularity,” and the “21″ Club “least worth the trouble.”

The awards, called Travel-Holiday awards after Holiday’s 1977 merger with Travel, continued until 1989.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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