Tag Archives: restaurant entertainment

Famous in its day: the Public Natatorium

Sometimes a brilliant idea hits you, but then you wake up the next day and see why it won’t work. But other times you don’t see why it won’t work until much, much later – after you’ve lost a lot of money.

That’s what seems to have happened with John and Margaret Garlic’s plan to turn a 19th-century public bathhouse in Milwaukee into a restaurant with dolphin shows. The future looked bright when they bought the building from the city for a mere $4,000, but then things became more complicated.

They hoped to open the restaurant one year after their January 1978 purchase, but the actual opening date was delayed by a year by city regulations, trade unions, and late equipment deliveries. Gutting the building and reconstructing the interior purportedly cost upwards of $800,000. And then there were unexpectedly high costs of leasing dolphins and providing for their care and feeding, as well as for federal inspections and trainers’ salaries.

It was not the Garlic’s first foray into the food and restaurant business. Around 1976 they had opened J. J. Garlic’s, a casual restaurant that soon gained popularity in Milwaukee for its cheese fondue, soups, burgers, and jumbo shrimp. Around 1973 the Garlics had pioneered the industrial production of the now-ubiquitous gyro cone, beef and lamb scraps blended and pressed into a Spam-like substance supplied to concessionaires, roadside carts, and restaurant operators.

But then in 1978 J. J. Garlic’s received a devastating review by none other than the celebrated writer Herbert Kubly who wrote restaurant reviews for The Milwaukee Journal from 1970 to 1984. According to G&G Enterprises, Ltd., the official owner of Garlic’s, the review caused a 25% drop in business, amounting to a loss of half a million dollars.

As it happened, the menu at the Public Natatorium – as the new 1979 restaurant was named — borrowed heavily from J. J. Garlic’s. This was especially the case on the Natatorium’s “gourmet” second level where prices ran considerably higher than on the lower level.

While the lower-level menu had sandwiches in the $4 to $5 range, the upper level was meant to provide an elegant dining experience, with chilled golden salad forks, marble-topped tables, and a parchment-like menu. Yet even the lower level was deemed too expensive by some Milwaukeeans. A review that appeared shortly after the opening pointed to skimpy servings such as the Peel & Dip Shrimp at $7.50 which a reviewer described as “five small shrimp . . . with cocktail sauce, a slice of lemon and a lot of ice.” The writer also grumbled about a $1 entrance fee assessed on all customers.

Nonetheless, the Public Natatorium became a must for tourists attracted by the dolphin shows and as far as I can tell did reasonably well overall. At some point after its opening, G&G Enterprises opened a third place with the characteristically jocular 1970s name Fried Eggs & Tootsies, aka F.E.A.T.S. Located near the Milwaukee campus of the state university, F.E.A.T.S. was mostly a drinking spot with bands.

Still, the fine dining concept at the Public Natatorium showed signs of consumer resistance. A 1980 review in a Racine WI paper titled “Taking a bath at the Natatorium” was extremely negative. It described in great detail how, despite high prices, the wine glasses were dirty as were some raw appetizer mushrooms, while several main dishes were submerged in thick, tasteless sauces. The reviewer also cited a shrimp dish that “reeked of the freezer.” He found a small loaf of warm bread the best food served to his table. A 1982 Los Angeles Times story about places to visit in Milwaukee advised visitors to take the children there for the dolphin show but “certainly don’t go for the food, which is mediocre.”

It’s likely that the Natatorium was not doing too well by 1983, the year in which G&G Enterprises filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against The Milwaukee Journal for the 1978 Kubly review of J. J. Garlic’s and to forestall a forthcoming review of the Natatorium by Kubly which they believed would be negative. The suit, which went nowhere, claimed that the paper, an editor, and Kubly were “engaged in a conspiracy to put plaintiff out of business with yet another defamatory article.”

Kubly’s review came out anyway and was indeed negative, detailing slow service, cold food, and a high degree of inept pretentiousness. He included inauspicious quotations from the menu such as “Wild Boar Chasseur, cousin of the domestic sow” and “Hippopotamus Bordelaise, chewier than beef.” What was appealing about Lion le Blanc, Buffalo Navajo, or Veal Chop Andrea Doria (“once served on the famous ship that had the unfortunate collision”)? Kubly must have recognized some of the same dishes he had been served at J. J. Garlic’s, namely the cold fondue (“incorrigible, starch-laden, over salted”), cold consomme (“contained tough bits of meat, a few peas and carrot lumps”), and baked potatoes (“cold and had an unappetizing scorched taste”). A lengthy two and a half hours after arriving, he and his companions made their way out of the then-empty restaurant as the staff brought out a cake – which they took home in its Pepperidge Farm box supplied by the waitress.

The following year John Garlic announced he would sell J. J. Garlic’s and F.E.A.T.S. and move to Florida, while The Public Natatorium would remain open under a manager. But that didn’t last long. By January 1985 the remaining dolphin, Soda, was in peril due to a heating breakdown. A bankruptcy judge ordered that he and two sea lions be sold immediately as part of the restaurant’s liquidation proceedings.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under atmosphere, food, guides & reviews, menus, odd buildings, Offbeat places

Christian restaurant-ing

christianrestaurant1976riversidecajpgThere are a lot of reasons why a restaurant might choose not to sell liquor that have nothing to do with religious beliefs. But restaurants that brand themselves as Christian absolutely never serve alcoholic drinks. This has always been their defining characteristic.

In the U.S. Christian invariably means Protestant. Catholics, though doctrinal Christians, don’t consider drinking alcohol sinful, nor does its avoidance confer holiness.

christianrestaurantin-n-outjpgAlthough their predecessors date back to the 1870s when white Protestant women and men fought saloons by creating inexpensive, alcohol-free lunch rooms for low-income working men, Christian restaurants made their more recent return in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Some contemporary examples do not make a big display of their orientation. The Western burger chain In-N-Out, for example, prints a small biblical reference on the bottom of its soft drink cups that many customers probably never notice. The Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A chain has a religious mission statement and is closed on Sundays; but its religiosity was not known to all until a few years back when its late founder declared support for conservative family values.

christianrestaurant1980dec19Other common characteristics of Christian restaurants have included banning smoking and, like Chic-fil-A, closing on Sundays. Most have made an effort to offer some kind of ministry, ranging from offering religious pamphlets to preaching or providing live or recorded gospel music. Some have made free meals available for the poor. Typically they have had “biblical” names such as The Fatted Calf, The Ark, or The Living Bread. In some cases, the staff has been asked to assemble for daily prayers. Proprietors tend to be deeply religious, some having been redeemed from a troubled past. And, finally and not surprisingly, many (but not all) have been located in the “bible belt” where evangelistic religion thrives.

Some Christian restaurants went a little bit further. The Praise The Lord Cafeteria in Cleveland TN was unusual for a cafeteria in that it featured gospel singing, preaching, and testifying on weekend evenings. Waitresses at Seattle’s Sternwheeler often greeted customers with “Praise the Lord.” The owner of Heralds Supper Club in 1970s Minneapolis MN grilled prospective singers until he was convinced that they were genuine Christians. The owners of the Fatted Calf Steak House in Valley View TX, whose specialty was a 24-ounce T-bone, were more trusting: they let patrons pay whatever they could and even allowed them to remove money from the payment jar if they were in need. But the honor system was strenuously abused and the restaurant closed in heavy debt after just 1½ years.

christiankozycountrykitchenI became interested in this phenomenon when I noticed that a postcard in my collection – the Kozy Country Kitchen in Kingsville OH — said on the back, “Family dining in A Christian Atmosphere.” As shown on the card, it’s a highway restaurant with a big sign and parking lot looking as though it serves truckers, and was not the kind of place that would be likely to offer beer, wine, or cocktails even if it was run by licentious pagans. So what, I wondered, made its atmosphere Christian?

christianrestauranthaybleshearth1980Now that I’ve done some research I think I know the answer. It was probably an overtly friendly place, but one that frowned on swearing or arguing. Maybe it was similar to Hayble’s Hearth Restaurant in Greensboro NC. Hayble’s was very successful compared to most Christian restaurants, staying in business for nearly 20 years. In 1975 its manager said that she found Hayble’s a nice place to work because, “There’s no fightin,’ no fussin,’ no cussin.’” This made me realize that not everyone’s experiences with restaurants are like my own in which the norm is a focus on food and socializing, with moderate drinking in a cordial atmosphere.

A special type of Christian restaurant developed out of the more-urban Christian coffeehouse movement that had been aimed at a teenaged clientele. It was the Christian supper club which served a buffet-style dinner followed by a show featuring singing groups performing gospel hymns. Some were run under church sponsorship, but many were commercial ventures. The first was the Crossroads Supper Club organized as a non-profit in Detroit in 1962 by an association of churches and businessmen. Its manager, who had formerly worked as an assistant to Billy Graham, said it was called a supper club because “night club” had unsavory connotations. Its initial success inspired a Methodist minister associated with Crossroads to suggest that one day there might be a “Pray-Boy Club” whose members held keys to individual chapels. (He was joking, wasn’t he?) However, like many Christian restaurants and supper clubs, Crossroads soon fell on dark days.

christianrestaurant1977nashvillejpgThe heyday of the Christian supper club was in the late 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s it was fading. One of the more ambitious-sounding ventures was Gloryland in Hot Springs AR. The project rallied investors to transform a former nightclub called The Vapors — famed for being colorful in a non-Christian way — into a supper club. Slated to open in 1991, the venture never got off the ground.

Undoubtedly the most successful of the Christian supper clubs, the one that served as a model for others, was The Joyful Noise, with two locations in the Atlanta GA metropolitan area. The first was financed with contributions from 500 stockholders who, according to president Bill Flurry, wanted “clean entertainment” in a place without smoking or drinking. The Joyful Noise(s) enjoyed about 20 years in business, from 1974 to 1994.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, chain restaurants, family restaurants, night clubs, Offbeat places, patrons