Tag Archives: restaurant decor

Americans in Paris: The Chinese Umbrella

“Why do Americans stick to their own kind of food in France?” wondered an American aviator in Paris in 1917.

Good question, given that the Americans he was referring to were able to afford dining in the finest Paris restaurants. And that French cuisine had long enjoyed prestige in large American cities.

Perhaps it was simply longing for home that brought Americans to The Chinese Umbrella in the early 20th century. The Umbrella was a tea room serving American food that was located near the Bon Marché department store on Rue du Bac.

When it opened in 1905 it served only afternoon tea but soon expanded the menu and became a popular lunch spot. Shortly after its debut American newspapers took note and a story traveled around stating boldly that its luncheons “represent the finest cooking that can be obtained in Paris.” Although this seems unjustifiably boastful, The Chinese Umbrella was recommended in Baedeker and other travel guides.

Among its specialties were homey dishes, many associated with the American South where the proprietor’s mother was from. A journalist writing about The Umbrella in 1908 hailed its okra soup, chicken a la king, tomato and cucumber salad, fried hominy, sweet potatoes, roast lamb, corn fritters, cold asparagus, strawberry ice cream, and waffles with maple syrup. He declared, “Not one of these dishes, apart from the cold asparagus, can be had in any of the famous Paris restaurants.” [advertisement from NY Sun, 1907]

The Chinese Umbrella was the creation of Edith Fabris and her younger sisters, born in Shanghai of a father who was a British consul in Tientsin, China. While in China Edith gathered together a collection of Chinese artifacts that included embroidered satin hangings, delicate porcelain, and a four-yard-wide umbrella that formed a ceiling in one room of the restaurant. Her brother, who served with American-English forces to defeat the Boxer Rebellion, “picked up the valuable loot” that formed the tea room’s decorations. “Loot” is the correct word, since the aftermath of the anti-colonial, anti-Christian-missionary uprising has been described as “mad scenes of pillage.” [Douglas Rigby, The American Scholar, 1944]

Perhaps the looted items on display in The Chinese Umbrella explain why China’s ambassador to France who presided over the tea room’s opening was described in one account as seeming “a little bit dubious as to the dignity of the affair.”

Fabris also brought to Paris a recipe for Chinese vegetable curries that she described – with an authenticity claim that may strike us as odd today — as “true English-American colony China curries.” Fabris said that chefs from top Paris restaurants begged for her recipes. When she told them they could not be made without ingredients sent by her brother from China, they came to her tea room to sample curries and try to analyze how they were made.

Although most of the tea room’s customers were apparently American or English it also did a good business selling baked goods such as mincemeat pies, plum puddings, and gingerbread to French families. During World War I Fabris supplied cakes to American soldiers in French hospitals.

At some point the tea room moved to a new location as shown on the blue postcard shown above. I could find no trace of it after 1920.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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A fantasy drive-in

carl'sviewparkMenu

I am fascinated by restaurants that are bizarrely at odds with their location, climate, and cultural environment. Such as Polynesian restaurants in Arizona.

Drive-ins make sense in car-obsessed Southern California, but a grandiose drive-in such as Carl’s “Colonial” with an Old South theme in Depression-era Los Angeles? With architecture inspired by Southern plantations and white female servers costumed as Southern belles and top-hatted coachmen? With an ornate mahogany doorway leading from the staid dining room into a streamlined moderne barroom? [see below] And a thoroughly modern, thermostatically controlled stainless steel kitchen turning out spaghetti and turkey with New England dressing?

Carl'sViewparkdiningroomwithbar

All societies offer some form of escapism, traditionally wild festivals where revelers are released from everyday roles and inhibitions. But restaurants such as Carl’s offered a different kind of  escapism that shored up inhibitions and insured that roles were strictly adhered to. Far from allowing revelry or role reversal, gracious Southern dining took place in a forbidding room decorated with murals of slaves picking cotton and a portrait of George Washington looming from above the mantle. [shown above; the murals are barely visible]  Only white girls were allowed to dress as Southern belles; ice water and rolls were dispensed by dark-skinned “mammies.”

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Yet in another way Carl’s was totally in sync with its environment. A Los Angeles Times story in 1940 noted, “Los Angeles restaurants serving American food often reflect the architecture of other lands.” Undoubtedly part of the explanation for the scenographic quality of Carl’s – and many other unusual theme restaurants in Southern California – was that they played to tourists’ fantasies. And why not, since a hefty 25% of restaurant revenue was estimated to come from tourists?

carl'sViewparkMarch1938The “Colonial” Carl’s, on the corner of Crenshaw and Vernon, was built by the Los Angeles Investment Company and leased to its operators, Carl B. Anders and A. V. Spencer. The area was under development with about 13 new stores on Crenshaw skirting the residential subdivision of Viewpark. When Carl’s opened in 1938 there were close to 1,000 homes in Viewpark with more underway following the company’s acquisition of acreage that had housed the Olympic Village in 1932. Under restrictive covenants, houses could be sold only to white buyers.

Despite serving up to 4,000 customers a day, many of them groups such as women’s and businessmen’s clubs, Carl’s Colonial in Viewpark went out of business in 1953. After a brief run as Martha’s Restaurant, it was torched in 1954, destroying the building that had cost the fabulous sum of $115,000 when it was constructed.

Carl’s in Viewpark was one of five in the Carl’s chain (not to be confused with Carl’s, Jr.). The first was opened in 1931 on Figueroa and Flower as a simple hamburger stand built to serve people attending the 1932 Olympic Games. It was so successful it was enlarged three times in four years, serving up to 5,000 people daily in 1937. The chain became known for its multi-purpose restaurants that included a drive-in component as well as full-service dining rooms, banquet facilities, outdoor dining patios, and cocktail lounges. Other Carl’s included one on the Plaza in Palm Springs, one on the Pacific Coast Highway that was featured in the movie Mildred Pierce, and one on East Olympic Blvd. at Soto Street.

According to John T. Edge, Southern theme restaurants have recently resurfaced in Los Angeles.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Famous in its day: Blanco’s

blanco'scafePC

Blanco’s Café was one of San Francisco’s luxury restaurants of the early 20th century. Among the very first restaurants to open after the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906, it made its debut on November 7, 1907 at 859 O’Farrell Street.

It soon became a popular place for banquets, one of which is depicted in the 1915 postcard shown above. Typically such banquets were all male, often being made up of members of professional and cultural societies. Blanco’s was also a favorite after-theater spot for men and women who enjoyed a “cold bot and hot bird” as a light supper of champagne and quail was referred to in those days.

Its owners and managers were mostly old hands in the restaurant business, Italians and Germans led by a Spaniard, Antonio Blanco, who had been born in Malaga. Blanco’s reputation was built upon his pre-fire restaurant, The Poodle Dog, which he re-established a short time after opening Blanco’s. Two of Blanco’s managers had previously been at Delmonico’s restaurant in San Francisco, another victim of the fire.

blanco'sDec1914The city’s newspapers were effusive about Blanco’s when it opened, gushing over its Louis XIV entrance hall, marble pillars, murals, and chandeliers. The café’s first chef came from The Poodle Dog, while the dining room manager had earned his exalted reputation at Tait’s and the St. Francis Hotel. All in all, Blanco’s was “a temple of art and beauty” destined to become the envy of caterers around the world. In 1914 Blanco’s boldly advertised that it was “the finest café in the United States.”

Naturally it classed itself as a French restaurant, French cuisine being synonymous with the good life – and the only kind that could command a high price then.

Blanco’s continued in business until 1933 but not without problems. In 1917 a plan to add two stories to the restaurant was abandoned, perhaps because of the looming nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol. Prohibition in 1919 was indeed a blow to fine dining establishments such as Blanco’s. The restaurant blithely advertised in 1919, “Good-bye to good old wines. Good-bye to good old times. But good eats will remain.” But it was becoming increasingly difficult to operate a high-living restaurant in the style Blanco’s was accustomed to. In 1921 its manager was arrested for not keeping a register of transient guests at Blanco’s Annex, the hotel next door which the restaurant had constructed in 1908 and opened the next year.

Few San Franciscans would have failed to realize the significance of this infraction, even if they did not recall Blanco’s “scandal” of 1912. In July of that year a Sausalito woman hired detectives to shadow her husband who was enjoying a romantic dinner at Blanco’s in the company of another woman. Spotting the detectives but not knowing who was under surveillance, Blanco’s manager went from table to table notifying all the guests of the detectives at work. Numbers of couples made a quick exit from the back door. Needless to say, the privacy curtains on the mezzanine booths shown in the ca. 1915 postcard were more than merely decorative.

Yet, despite all, Blanco’s carried on and was recommended in San Francisco guide books of the 1920s. It is ironic that it made it through Prohibition yet failed just as alcohol was becoming legal once again in 1933.

In 1934 the contents of both the restaurant and hotel were sold off, including fine china, silver-plated cutlery, tapestry panels and hangings, 40 copper stock pots, French furniture, bronze statuary, and 140 Viennese arm chairs.

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In October 1935 the restaurant reopened as The Music Box, a supper club under the direction of stripper and “fan dancer” Sally Rand. It had been partially modernized. Murals were replaced with mirrors and many other decorations by artist Attilio Moretti had been removed. Ruth Thomas, co-author of Eating Around San Francisco (1937), reported that she was given a tour of the Music Box and saw Venetian glass chandeliers and life-sized plaster statues of women in a basement storeroom.

blanco'sGreatAmericanMusicHall

The chandeliers and some of the murals were restored, possibly during the late sixties when the building was occupied by the Charles Restaurant. Today the building still stands and is in use as the Great American Music Hall. [Photo shows the altered restaurant building front, much of it bricked in including the large center window above the door which now supports a sign; the building to the left was Blanco’s Annex hotel.]

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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“Atmosphere”

atmosphereschaber1941I put the word in quotation marks to acknowledge that what atmosphere in restaurants means is as elusive as air itself — which the word also refers to. It was often used to describe eating places in the 19th century, but not in a flattering way. A typical usage is that from 1868 where someone remarked that in a certain restaurant “the atmosphere is heavy with cooking vapors.”

The term atmosphere (or ambience, which came into use in the 1970s) became used in a more general way to describe the character of a restaurant – that intangible spirit of a place. The broader meaning could encompass an air that was sophisticated or homey, rowdy or relaxing, masculine or feminine, formal or casual, etc. I discovered a 1950s restaurant that claimed to have “Christian atmosphere” with home cooking by a Mrs. and “No Beer, Liquor or Smoking.”

In the 1890s the more general meaning almost always referred to the kinds of people associated with a restaurant, both owners and patrons. For example sawdust on the floor, pictures of athletes on the wall and the presence of prostitutes signaled a thoroughly masculine atmosphere while the presence of artists and writers in French, German, or Italian table d’hotes shouted “bohemian!”. A jolly host could also impart atmosphere, which might be altogether missing if he weren’t on hand, or if his most colorful patrons failed to show.

AtmosphereRomanyMarieSummer1921It didn’t take long before restaurant owners realized they could appeal to new patrons by bragging about their “atmosphere,” especially if it was bohemian. A San Francisco restaurant announced that it attracted “artists, writers, musicians, poets, painters, singers, draftsmen, balladists, literati and newspaper writers.” In 1903 NYC’s Elite Rathskeller Restaurant ran an advertisement claiming to have “Refined Bohemian atmosphere,” which sounds like a contradiction in terms since bohemians were supposed to be carefree souls who violated everyday norms of propriety.

The next step for restaurateurs was to merchandise atmosphere by generating it themselves. Since it seemed that so many people wanted to gawk at bohemians, why wait for them to show up if you could entice them with free dinners? Allegedly some restaurants did just that.

atmosphereVentureTeaRoomPhila

After World War I, following the reign of bohemian restaurants, came a new type of atmospheric eating place, the tea room of the 1920s. The tea room’s special atmosphere was  quaint and homey with artistic touches. In 1922 the Journal of Home Economics pronounced that “The very name of Tea Room has grown to mean a place with ‘atmosphere’ and with furnishings that are unique.” Ranging from the fashionable to the playful, tea rooms proved that women – their primary patrons – were in love with atmosphere.

atmosphere1918FlintMIBucking the trend toward atmospheric decor were a handful of holdouts. Anything like a “restaurant atmosphere” was anathema to a Y.M.C.A. cafeteria in Flint Michigan (1918). The Old Colony Coffee House in Richmond VA renounced “ordinary restaurant atmosphere” in 1924 and vowed it would have instead “simplicity in decorations” and “plainness in food.” Patrons of traditionally masculine restaurants feared that when Chicago’s J. R. Thompson’s tore out its white tiles for a more feminine look it had destroyed its no-nonsense atmosphere and gone “girly girly.” Likewise, design critic Lewis Mumford shuddered when the Childs’ chain replaced the “antiseptic elegance” of its “hospital ward atmosphere” for “fake fifteenth century English,” betraying the honest utilitarianism of the Machine Age. No doubt Mumford chuckled when Alice Foote MacDougall, queen of scenographic Spanish villas and French chateaux in NYC, went bankrupt in 1932. [see The Cortile below]

atmosphereCortile

In the 1950s there was still a tendency in the restaurant industry to see women as the constituency for atmosphere while men supposedly judged a restaurant first by its food quality. But by the 1960s this was no longer true, as indisputably demonstrated by the success of Polynesian restaurants. An executive of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) said that Americans’ demand for atmosphere had raised the cost of opening a restaurant to $4,000 a seat in 1962.

One of the early chains built around atmospheric theme restaurants was David Tallichet’s Specialty Restaurant Corporation in California. In 1965 the firm opened Gate of Spain, capturing the “atmosphere of old Castile” atop a tall building in Santa Monica. Restaurant industry consultant George Wenzel recommended the following year that restaurateurs “give your guests something to do or something to see, or something to make conversations about.” He suggested creating a Gay Nineties or a river boat atmosphere.

In the 1970s theme restaurants came into their own, classified by the NRA as one of three of the basic types of restaurant in 1976, and the one that drew the most affluent guests.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Dining by gaslight

GSThreeFountainsINTThough it seems fairly obvious when you think about it, the development of entertainment districts post-WWII encouraged the growth of restaurant-ing in many cities across the U.S. On the minus side, the fate of such restaurants was highly dependent upon the fate of the districts.

The Three Fountains [pictured] was the star restaurant in the entertainment district of St. Louis which began in the late 1950s and was officially named Gaslight Square in 1961. The one-and-one-half block area attracted affluent suburban St. Louisans and the city’s many conventioneers with restaurants, live theater, and clubs that featured national acts such as the Smothers Brothers, Joni Mitchell, Lenny Bruce, and Miles Davis.

Developing out of a racially borderline, transitional neighborhood populated with apartments, music schools, and antiques stores, its pioneering establishments included the Crystal Palace theater, the Gaslight Bar, Smokey Joe’s Tavern, the Laughing Buddha coffeehouse, and the Dark Side jazz club.

GSThreeFtnmenuThe Three Fountains exuded luxury with a multi-level interior lavishly decorated with  antique fixtures complemented by an oversize menu filled with expensive dishes (the $6.50 pepper steak would cost about $46 today). Its decor, like most of the restaurants and clubs in Gaslight, consisted of an extravagant, crazy melange of salvaged windows, doors, railings, paneling, statues, fountains, and light fixtures from structures mowed down by a city obsessed with urban renewal.

gsMillCreekValleySlum clearance in an area known as Mill Creek Valley brought its bounty. There the destruction of residences formerly housing 20,000 people (95% of them Afro-Americans) freed up tons of antique woodwork and hardware for decorators with a taste for Victorian. The transfer of objects from Mill Creek to the nightclubs and restaurants in Gaslight Square can also be seen as an illustration of a troubled relationship with the city’s black population who lived close by, worked in Gaslight’s restaurants, and performed in its clubs, yet whose patronage was not welcome.

According to Jorge Martinez, owner of a couple of jazz clubs, the block’s business association ruled against his proposal for a dance hall out of fear it would attract Afro-Americans. Terry Kennedy, an Afro-American who grew up in the neighborhood adjacent to the area and became a city alderman in 1989, observed that if you were black “you better not be there too long, or the police would run you off.” (Interviews with Kennedy, Martinez, and others are found in the book Gaslight Square, an Oral History, by Thomas Crone.)

Yet, Gaslight Square offered opportunity to a few Afro-Americans. Sandra J. Parks occupied a rare position in America, that of black female chef. She cooked in several of the area’s better restaurants, including Kotobuki and Port St. Louis and managed Two Cents Plain before moving to Chicago for a career in catering.

Compared to the city as a whole, Gaslight Square was a somewhat integrated area. Nonetheless racial tension would become a major factor in its downfall, most evident in white patrons’ grossly exaggerated fear of black-on-white crime.

From the area’s beginnings as an entertainment zone to its serious decline by 1968, at least 20 restaurants, dozens of nightclubs, and numerous coffeehouses and theaters were in business there [see map]. After-hour parties took place above street level, in apartment buildings and flats.

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There were steakhouses (Magnolia House, Marty’s, Jacks or Better, Mr. D’s), two Mexican restaurants (Tortilla Flat and a branch of Chicago’s La Margarita), a Polynesian restaurant (The Islander), a Japanese restaurant where servers dressed as geishas (Kotobuki), a fish restaurant where servers dressed as sailors (Port St. Louis), a Greek restaurant (Smokey Joe’s Grecian Tavern), a deli (Two Cents Plain), an Italian eatery (Bella Rosa), a tavern (O’Connell’s Pub), and several places whose cuisine I could not determine (Red Carpet, The Georgian, Carriage House, Die Lorelei, Left Bank).

Many of the restaurants were in converted town houses. Whenever possible they had patio dining in front, and most featured entertainment such as cabaret, folk music, or Dixieland, ragtime, or cool jazz.
GSLaughingBuhdaSTL60sThe more expensive restaurants were first to suffer from the area’s decline as well-dressed, well-heeled customers stopped coming. Conventioneers were warned off, in many cases, by cabdrivers who refused to drive there. Clubs with go-go dancers in the windows displaced coffeehouses with folksinging and poetry as a younger, more casually dressed crowd took over.

Although Gaslight Square was in ways a model for Chicago’s Old Town and Omaha’s Old Market, many businesses began closing or moving away by the mid 1960s. Port St. Louis and Two Cents Plain moved to more promising locations. In 1965 Craig Claiborne gave the Three Fountains a short – and horrid — review (“It is said to be the only French restaurant in the city and, if this is true, it is unfortunate.”) A few years later a number of gaslights were extinguished for nonpayment of gas bills. By 1972 when O’Connell’s moved to South Kingshighway, the area was largely in ruins.

Aside from a memorial constructed out of the pillars that once stood outside Smokey Joe’s, not a trace of Gaslight Square remains standing today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Find of the day: the Redwood Room

RedwoodRoom

Sometimes after a day of largely fruitless hunting in the antiques marketplace – such as a recent trip to the Brimfield flea market – it takes a while to realize I’ve acquired a gem. In this case it is the above postcard of the Redwood Room in San Francisco’s Clift Hotel, ca. 1965.

I bought it because it has features that I like: diners, a chef, paneling, and red carpeting. From looking at thousands of images I’ve learned that the last two signify Beef, Money, and Masculinity. But it wasn’t until I read the back of the card that I realized it was a “find.”

On the back is the printed message: “The Redwood Room is unexcelled for fine dining. With its huge panels of 2000-year-old Redwood and the spacious bar, it conveys a feeling of masculinity that has for years appealed to leading San Francisco executives and their wives.”

Little did the people on the postcard know, but “barbarians” were about to descend on the Redwood Room.

The hotel opened around 1916 and the Redwood Room and the French Room (shown through the doorway) were created during the 1930s. Both served the same food, but the hyper-manly Redwood Room was also outfitted with a long redwood bar not shown on the card.

Craig Claiborne visited the Clift in 1964, and declared it was one of the few U.S. hotels that still maintained a kitchen of “relative eminence.” Its decor, he said, was of “undeniable elegance” and its tuxedoed waiters exhibited “politesse.” The menu specialty, as might be expected from a restaurant that borrowed dinner carts from London’s Simpson’s, was “absolute first rank” roast beef accompanied by Yorkshire pudding ($4.50).

The postcard photograph was taken when the hotel was at its peak, prior to a slump in the early 1970s brought on by a poor economy aggravated by a policy of turning away guests who violated the hotel’s conservative dress and hairstyle code. When Burt Lancaster and his longhaired son were refused admittance to the Redwood Room in 1971, the item made newspapers across the nation.

The Clift’s president, Robert Stewart Odell, created the dress code. When the musical “Hair” opened at the nearby Geary Theatre in 1968, “They came in from the theater, barefoot and bareback. For a time . . . the Redwood Room entrance was the scene of an almost daily confrontation between longhairs and the maitre d’hotel,” said a manager. The hotel posted signs and ran advertisements that advised: “The Clift Hotel caters to a conservative, well-groomed clientele. Registration, dining room and bar service is refused to anyone in extreme or abnormal dress and to men with unconventional hair styling.”

In response to the hotel’s conservatism, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen ridiculed it relentlessly, claiming it maintained “standards set in the Coolidge era as opposed to the Cool era.”

After Odell’s death in 1973, the hotel’s new president (whose hair was longish) welcomed well-dressed stockbrokers, lawyers, and businessmen with hair descending below their collar tops, along with women in pantsuits.

In 1976 the Clift was renamed the Four Seasons-Clift after its acquisition by Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotels, Ltd. After almost two years of remodeling and restoration, the Redwood Room became a bar only rather than a bar and restaurant. Yet it was little changed as that would have brought howls of protest from San Franciscans. A 2001 re-do brought the by-then-shabby Redwood Room bar back into fashionability.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Eat and run, please!

I’ve always thought it odd that anyone would think of fast food eateries as friendly. The tersely scripted counter help and the characteristically uncomfortable, bolted-down tables and chairs seem anything but hospitable to me. Of course, most patrons know and accept the terms of doing business with fast food chains whose low prices are predicated on providing minimal on-site facilities at which customers gulp their food, crumple their bags, and depart.

The fast food formula was first developed by turn-of-the-century “quick lunch” establishments. Like later chains they provided few amenities that might have encouraged lingering. Patrons sat in chair & table combos resembling one-armed school desks. No coat racks were provided so diners usually left their coats on. Just as well, because the spaces were so tight that someone removing his coat stood a good chance of sweeping his neighbor’s food onto the floor.

The idea that patrons should not linger wasn’t really new even then. Mourning the passing of Brooklyn’s old-fashioned chop houses, a reporter noted in 1889 that chop houses had been replaced by restaurants “where all is hurry and bustle, and where he who lingers at the table after his bill has been paid is regarded as an incumbrance.”

It’s not clear whether quick lunch proprietors plotted their interiors with an eye to turnover, but certainly by the 1920s restaurant managers were well aware that turning tables faster could increase profits. Suddenly even restful tea rooms were under pressure as they were thrust into competition with chain restaurants that used economies of scale to reduce costs and prices. Writing in 1929, Madeleine F. Wolf observed that if they wanted to survive, “The Dew Drop Inn, the Bide-a-Wee Tea Room, the Cheer-Up Cabin, must go on pretending an interest in each individual guest whereas their true interest lies in numbers.”

Brisk modern style, in the form of cubist decor and streamlined furniture, provided assistance in the late 1920s and 1930s. Artist and industrial designer John Vassos, who illustrated the book Phobia, felt he understood psychology well and successfully applied it in his 1931 design of NYC’s Rismont Tea Room, where the tables were a bit too small and chair seats were triangular. “The chairs are comfortable – if one doesn’t sit too long on them,” he wrote. [see photo]

Uncomfortable chairs would become known in the restaurant industry as “15-minute chairs.” Charles Eames’ fiberglass scoop chair (shown above) might be an example, offering little possibility of posture realignment.

Bright lights, loud colors, and loud music also discourage coffee refills and relaxed conversation, often quite deliberately. In the Forum Cafeteria in Kansas City MO in the 1960s walls with stripes in mist, olive, turquoise, blue, and white were deemed perfect for that “friendly, but not too friendly” effect. Nooks decked out with red banquettes and red carpeting, likewise, whispered “goodbye,” as did armless turquoise chairs.

If all else failed to dislodge the diner, the server could always lean over and ask, “Can I get you anything else?” – or “All set?” as they so bluntly say in New England.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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