Tag Archives: restaurant cuisine

Taste of a decade: restaurants, 1800-1810

The American population is settled mainly along the Eastern seaboard. The largest city, New York, with almost 80,000 people, is one of only about 15 cities with more than 1,000 inhabitants. Meals are available in taverns, oyster houses, coffee houses, and French restorators. Most diners are male travelers, businessmen, or boarders, though religious societies and clubs of firefighters, politicians, or old soldiers gather for banquets from time to time. The dinner hour falls between noon and 3:00 p.m.

Highlights

1800 Meat, fish, and fowl are the principal offerings of eating places, and an establishment’s quality is measured by the amount and assortment of animal protein set out on the table. At the Portland Restorator in Portland, Maine, the proprietor proudly announces he has “potted lobster, potted eel, chicks fricaseed, and fine ragouts, beef alamode, and barbicues, sausage Bologna, Hamburgh, Naples, choice venison pastry, pork pie Cheshire, good beef steak, and bacon rasher” as well as “round of beef, fat Sirloin, turkey roast, or calf’s head boil’d with tongue & brains.” Beyond these main dishes, he supplies only soup and a few pies. Strangely, he does not mention one of the most popular edibles of the 19th century, oysters.

1801 Well-off Americans who read fashionable magazines are fascinated by the popularity of restaurants in Paris. There, it is said, “everybody” (who is anybody) dines frequently outside the home. The awkward term “restorator,” an Americanized version of restaurateur which refers either to a place to dine or to its proprietor, becomes a trendy metaphor for a publication, an essay, or an editor.

1802 Napoleon offers amnesty to his opponents and many French citizens who escaped to America during the revolution return to France, shrinking the number of skilled restaurateurs. Not all leave, however. Julien continues in Boston.

1802 The inimitable black caterer Othello Pollard, of Cambridge MA, beckons “select” clients from nearby Harvard with beefsteak, soup, cheese, ham, tongue, ice cream, custard, strawberries and cream, whip-syllabub, pies, jellies, olives, and fruit, along with a well-stocked liquor cabinet. In an unusual advertisement, he observes: “It is a wise saying … that the Body is as much a subject of education as the Mind. Both require tuition and discipline. The UNIVERSITY takes the Mind for its pupil; OTHELLO takes the Body. He, therefore, who has not been at both schools is half a Scholar.”

1803 In Charleston, South Carolina, a new hotel opens with a banquet room accommodating 300.

1807 The beefsteak and oyster house remains a popular sort of eating place. Turtle soup is a delicacy and restaurants place notices in papers when they are about to prepare it. On June 8 Wm. Fryatt, who has recently opened a Porter, Beef Steak and Oyster House on the corner of Pine and Nassau in New York, advertises he will prepare the last turtle of the season.

1808 Henry Doyhar of New York City announces that he will list his dinner specials in writing each day: “To accommodate those who wish to procure their Dinner …, the bill of fare, containing the dishes regularly numbered, will be exhibited every day from nine till eleven o’clock, A.M. for the purpose of engaging beforehand such dishes as may be wanted.” Since so many people are illiterate at this time, this suggests his clients are educated and probably wealthy.

1809 In Boston the elegant and expensively built Boston Exchange Coffee-House opens with a coffee room on the ground floor, furnished with a bar and 14 private and “handsome boxes, each containing a mahogany table, seats, and a bell rope.” On the second floor is a banquet hall and a dining room whose “walls are painted a beautiful green, and the windows decorated with curtains of scarlet moreen.”

Read about other decades: 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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When ladies lunched: Schrafft’s

Schrafft’s began as a candy manufacturer in Boston but over time morphed into a well-known restaurant chain. In 1898 Frank G. Shattuck, a salesman for the Schrafft company from upstate New York, opened a candy store at Broadway and 36th in New York. His sister, Jane Shattuck, was largely responsible for the introduction of light lunches into the stores. The first to serve food was the Syracuse store in 1906 where a “Japanese Tea Room” (shown here) was boldly advertised as “the daintiest luncheon spot in all the State.” By 1909 Jane also introduced meals to the second NYC Schrafft’s, at 54 West 23rd Street in the heart of a thriving shopping district. By 1927, when there were 25 units, most located in NYC, the Wall Street Journal estimated that around 75% of Shattuck’s business was in the restaurant trade, with the rest candy-related.

schrafft's1920Schrafft’s was known for reproducing an air of gentility typical of the upper middle-class WASP home. Cooks, supervisors, and even some executives were women. Menus of the 1920s and 1930s included many salads, more desserts than entrees, and non-restaurant-y vegetable selections such as creamed cauliflower and fried eggplant. Frank claimed Schrafft’s cuisine was inspired by his mother’s cooking. Repeated efforts to overcome connotations of a “women’s restaurant” and attract men met with disappointing results despite customers such as James Beard. Women dominated even after some units began to serve cocktails in 1934.

Rent cuts in the depression encouraged chain expansion and by 1937, when Frank died, there were 43 Schrafft’s, most in metro NYC but a few in Boston and Philadelphia. At its peak there were about 50 units in greater NYC. In 1961 the chain played briefly with the idea of selling frozen dinners on the roadside. In the late 1960s the Schrafft’s candy company was sold to Helme Products while Pet, Inc. took over the restaurants. Pet made a renewed effort to renovate Schrafft’s image and attract men. At the Fifth Ave location (between 45th & 46th) the soda fountain was removed and a bar installed. The second floor, men-only dining room was given dark wood paneling, zebra-stripe carpeting, and named “The Male Animal.” The 1970s saw confusion as a Schrafft’s opened in Los Angeles (sporting a Chinese room and an Elizabethan room), new ownership took control, and numerous NYC locations were shut down. In 1981 the candy company ceased while the few restaurants remaining were in various hands.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Taste of a decade: 1960s restaurants

Americans grew wealthier, traveled more, and demanded more exotic cuisine. Yet there were few trained restaurant cooks. Convenience food – in the guise of continental dishes (as in pineapple = Hawaiian) – offered the solution for many restaurants as the decade wore on. In other developments, old restaurant formats such as automats, diners, cafeterias, and drive-ins disappeared or shrank drastically in numbers. Fast food and dinner house chains, relatively scarce at the beginning of the decade, flourished by its end. Black Americans began to make headway in gaining civil rights in restaurants. By the middle of the decade signs of the counterculture could be seen here and there.

Highlights

1960 New Armour & Co. boiling bags filled with beef burgundy, lobster Newburg, and coq au vin mean that “Every drive-in can now be a Twenty-One Club, every restaurant a Maxim’s de Paris,” according to a trade mag. – In Columbus Ohio the opening of the Kahiki adds to the Polynesian restaurant boom, while in NYC La Fonda del Sol opens, offering exotica such as Empanadas, Grilled Peruvian Tidbits on Skewers, and Papaya Filled with Fresh Fruits.

1961 In Sherman Oaks the Wild Goose adds four dishes to its menu: Boned Pheasant Chicken Kahlua, Veal Cutlet Oskar, Fresh Gulf Shrimp Stroganoff, and Breast of Chicken Kiev. – Four-star Lutèce opens in New York, one year after La Caravelle.

1962 A café in Sioux Falls announces “microwave cooking,” while in New York’s Time Square a restaurant opens featuring frozen entrees which the customer is to pop into a tabletop microwave. – A new product for restaurants comes on the market: instant mouthwash in a sealed paper cup to be presented to customers after they eat heavily spiced dishes.

1964 Continental and Polynesian restaurants find they must add steak to their offerings. – Kelly’s steak house in Sherman Oaks announces it sold approximately 400,000 pounds of steak in the past year.

1965 Maxwell’s Plum opens in NYC with an eclectic menu that ranges from Pâté and Escargots Bourguignonne to a Foot-long Hot Dog with Chili. Rumors spread of a naked woman seen walking casually through the dining room. — Extra-thick Frymaster Jet Griddles are marketed to keep cooking temperatures stable even when “completely loaded with frozen food.” – Aggressively cheerful California-style coffee shops, which combine the features of drive-ins, coffee shops, dinner houses, and cocktail bars, spread across the country.

1966 After touring the US, a wine expert says that he believes 99% of licensed restaurants have no interest in promoting wine. He reports that not once did a server ask if he’d like wine with his dinner. Instead they asked if he wanted a cocktail, followed by “Coffee now or later?” – Alice Brock opens The Back Room in Stockbridge MA which will be made famous by Arlo Guthrie as “Alice’s Restaurant.”

1967 Students at the University of Washington, Seattle, boycott Aggie’s Restaurant because they believe it discriminates against students, especially if they are dressed in “funny clothes,” following an incident involving a long-haired “fringie.” – The adoption of frozen convenience foods increases in restaurants after passage of the Minimum Wage Act which raises kitchen workers’ pay.

1968 Countering the fast food trend, the menu at the Trident in Sausalito advises its patrons to be patient: “Welcome to Our Space. Positive energy projection is the trip. … Care in the preparation of food requires time especially if we’re busy! So please take a deep breath, relax and dig on the love & artistry about you. May all our offerings please you. Peace within you.” – In Fayetteville, Arkansas, a diner declares he is tired of an “unrelieved diet of chili dogs and waffle fries” and bemoans the lack of any “quality dining establishments.”

1969 The Scarlet Monk in Oakland advertises a “Topless Luncheon” Monday through Friday. – In Chicago, menu language has become more sophisticated, according to linguistic researchers. They report: “Du jour is an accepted form on menus and appears more often than of the day. Anything – pie, potatoes, sherbet, cake, pudding – can be du jour (or de jour, du jor, dujour, and du-jour), and the Florentine Room even has … potato del giorno.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Basic fare: fried chicken

Actually chicken, however it was prepared, was not so basic until well into the 20th century. Only then were poultry raising and marketing streamlined to produce the tender, year-round, low-cost product which made chain restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chicken Delight feasible. Until after World War II chicken was not terribly popular in most restaurants, often being rather expensive yet tough and stringy.

The chicken found on the menus of most American eating places of the 18th and 19th centuries was not fried, but roasted, boiled, or broiled. Fried chicken seemed to be limited to the South for many decades. The first instance of fried chicken in a restaurant that I have found occurred at the 1876 Centennial fair in Philadelphia where one of the concessions specialized in Southern dishes such as fried chicken and hominy. Despite this, fried chicken did not catch on in restaurants for some time. It could be found mainly in small, down-home style cafés run and patronized by Afro-Americans. An example in the 1890s was a small cabin called the Café Du Chat Noir in Washington, D.C., run by a former slave who went by the name Madame Early. A bit later, in San Francisco, a black restaurant provided possum and yams in season, corn pone, watermelon and chicken, fried, boiled, or roasted. Another type of early 20th-century fried chicken venue was the Chinese restaurant.

The third kind of eating place that made a specialty of fried chicken was the country tea room. In fact chicken of all kinds – fried, in salads, or creamed on waffles – dominated tea room menus. It’s likely that the substantial increase of women restaurant patrons in the 20th century, tea rooms’ main clientele, was behind the rise in chicken’s popularity. Restaurateurs often noted that while men preferred steak, women favored chicken. Taking the family for a Sunday automobile ride into the countryside for a fried chicken dinner at a tea room or family-style inn was a major form of entertainment for millions of Americans well into the 1950s.

The reason that fried chicken became popular primarily in out-of-the-way places, whether Afro-American, Chinese, or tea rooms, may have been due to these places having access to freshly killed chickens at a time when so much poultry served in restaurants had been ruined by long stays in cold storage. Cold storage chicken –- i.e., frozen — so dominated the market that in 1909 California law required restaurants to inform patrons if their chicken came from that source. On the other hand, restaurants run by blacks and Chinese often kept live chickens in cages, while rural tea rooms had local suppliers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Eating kosher

It is impossible to say when the first kosher restaurant appeared in the United States. Jews were among the earliest settlers and it’s likely they established restaurants at the same rate as other ethnic groups, so there may have been inns and taverns following Jewish dietary laws as early as the 17th century. (Of course not all Jewish-run restaurants kept kosher.) By the 1860s, nearly a million Jews lived in Brooklyn and New York City. At least 50 restaurants catered to them particularly, though patronage included non-Jews as well. Among the restaurants chartered to operate at the Centennial in Philadelphia in 1876 was The Hebrew Restaurant run by a Charles Collman of Philadelphia.

Although New York’s lower East Side Jewish population included Austrians, Russians, Poles and Lithuanians in the 1880s, Rumanians kept many of the restaurants there. By 1901, the American Jewish Year Book estimated that there were at least “one hundred and fifty restaurants, two hundred wine-cellars, with lunch rooms attached, and about thirty coffee-houses kept by Rumanian Jews.” Late into the night their patrons would engage in passionate discussions of politics and the arts and the names Marx, Tolstoy, and Ibsen were sure to be heard.

New York was the largest center of Jewish life, but not the only one. All cities had their Jewish enclaves and cafés. In 1901 in Pittsburgh, the Hotel Sablodowsky ran a kosher delicatessen where they served “Everything Fresh, Imported and Clean. Smoked Tongue, Cured Beef, Summer Sausage, Servelot, Imported Cheeses of all kinds. Holland Herrings, Pickles, Olives, Etc.” In McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Max Schwartz’s Café Liberty provided “Strictly Kosher Meals.” Restaurants in Chicago’s Jewish neighborhoods around 1908 reportedly served a dish known as “Jewish chop suey” containing various vegetables, spices, and sour cream.

Notable and well-known historic Jewish restaurants are too numerous to list, but a few striking examples include the NY kosher restaurant on West 35th kept by Hyman Trotzky, brother of Leon*; Reuben’s, grown into a celebrity haunt from, in Arnold Reuben’s own words, a “shtoonky delicatessen store;” Chicago’s Gold’s; and Al Levy’s in Los Angeles.

* Was Hyman really Leon’s brother? My source said yes, but a reader’s research casts this in doubt.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Fried chicken blues

The 1960s were a boom decade for marrying fast food to franchise businesses christened with celebrity names. Chicken seemed like the up-and-coming successor to hamburgers in a business more about marketing concepts and stock quotations than food or hospitality. Following the success of Harlan Sanders, whose 500-unit Kentucky Fried Chicken chain mushroomed to 1,700 when he sold to a corporate buyer, entrepreneurs looked around for other celebrities to hitch their schemes to. Performers Minnie Pearl, Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, and Eddy Arnold, along with many sports figures, were persuaded to lend their names, rarely assuming any further involvement.

Minnie Pearl’s Chicken System, Inc., was the creation of Tennessean John Jay Hooker whose political ambitions included becoming governor, then president. Minnie Pearl, a Grand Ole Opry comedien whose frumpy stage persona suggested down-home eating, covered the white market, while gospel singer Mahalia Jackson lent her name to the black-owned side of the enterprise aimed at black inner-city consumers. Around the same time, ca. 1969, “king of soul” James Brown figureheaded the Gold Platter soul food chain which failed to get beyond the pilot stage in Macon, Georgia. Minnie’s and Mahalia’s ventures, too, lasted only a few years. Hooker, chicken systems mastermind, did not make it into office, but Benjamin Hooks, co-owner of Mahalia Jackson’s Gloree-Fried chicken (carryout only), went on to become executive director of the NAACP.

Though hailed as a restaurateur, Jackson received royalties for the use of her name but did not choose to invest in the Mahalia Jackson Chicken System, Inc. Perhaps she did not approve of its slogan: “It’s Gloree-Fried, and that’s the gospel truth.” The Minnie Pearl system totaled several hundred locations at its peak but it’s not clear how many outlets the Jackson chain comprised, probably many fewer. Chicago had only two units, paired with gas stations. The chain also operated in Memphis, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Detroit. In addition to chicken, menus included fish sandwiches, sweet potatoes, fried pies, and a ‘Soul Bowl’ of chicken giblets in gravy on rice.

Minnie Pearl’s chicken — and later roast beef sandwiches — business went bankrupt in 1970.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Basic fare: toast

Toast wasn’t really new on restaurant menus around 1914 but it was beginning to enjoy a bigger vogue. The soda fountain, often located in drug or department stores, was expanding into a lunch counter and as it did it added electric toasters to its battery of equipment. Most Americans still lacked electricity in their homes at this time so toast was something of a treat to them. By 1923 a new type of sandwich place, the luncheonette, had caught on. At the Tasty Toasty Luncheonette in New Haven a diner could almost certainly order a toasted cheese sandwich, an item once found only in English-style chop houses way before the Civil War.

Considering that restaurants in the early 19th century laboriously toasted bread by turning it slowly over an open fire, it is surprising that it was offered at all in those days. And yet Mrs. Poppleton, a versatile New York restaurateur, pastry cook, and confectioner, advertised in 1815 that she would provide refreshments such as savory patties, mock turtle soup, and anchovy toasts between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day. Beyond being an accompaniment to eggs, toast also did service in many an eating place as an edible prop for such foods as quail, creamed chicken, or asparagus. Buttered toast floated in oyster stews and bowls of milk (“milk toast”). World War I put a temporary end to its sidekick role when the Food Administration ordered restaurants to conserve wheat by not using bread as a garniture.

After the war toasters stayed perpetually busy in luncheonettes. An Omaha chain of lunchrooms advertised “National Toast Week” in 1923. The R and C Sandwich Shops boasted in 1925 that “Our big double-deck special toast sandwiches are the talk of Chicago.” The following year there was a special demonstration on how to make toasted sandwiches at the National Restaurant Association convention.

The novelty of toast wore off over time until the cheap steakhouses that sprang up in the early 1960s revived it. Their dinners of sirloin steak, tossed salad, and baked potato came with garlic toast (called Texas toast when made of double thick bread), all for the magic price of $1.19.

Today toast can still be found filling all its historical restaurant roles, with the exception of milk toast which has been replaced with milk and cereal. But its leading role is perhaps in the club sandwich. As a 1960 restaurant trade magazine observed: “The dry, crispy consistency of toasted breads improves flavor and appearance, and also makes the customer feel he is getting a more exclusive product.” This, the article noted, allows toasted sandwiches to be priced a bit higher than plain ones.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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