Tag Archives: restaurant menus

Turkey on the menu

In previous years I’ve written about restaurants serving Thanksgiving dinners and about the special meaning of Thanksgiving to Chinese restaurant workers. Obviously Thanksgiving is about much more than turkey, but I found myself wondering how turkey has figured on restaurant menus the rest of the year. My first thought was that it is rarely seen in restaurants but I discovered that isn’t entirely true.

Turkey by the slice was seasonally available in taverns of the colonial and early-American eras. In 1800 NYC eating places put up pots of preserved turkey wings for sea voyages. Roast turkey was among the delectable dishes at Julien’s in Boston about this time.

Whole roast turkeys were part of the English tradition which prized big chunks of meat and fowl ready to carve up. Before the Civil War they were a staple of American plan hotels where copious meals were included with the room charge.

Although turkeys fell in the culinary category that one critic would later call “great vulgar joints,” they could be gussied up if boned and covered in aspic. Boned turkeys occasionally appeared on the menu of fine hotel dining rooms, such as Boston’s Tremont House. In 1843 the hotel menu offered “L’Aspic de dindon sur un socle, garni d’atelettes,” i.e., a pedestal on which rested a turkey in aspic decorated with little ornamental spears stuck into it.

The boning operation, performed from the uncooked turkey’s neck, wing tips, and drumsticks by loosening the flesh from the bones with a long knife, required great skill. According to directions published in 1860, after all the loosening was done, the person was to “take the turkey by the neck, give it a pull and the whole skeleton will come out entire … as easily as you draw your hand out of a glove.” The result resembled a deflated football which was then restored to turkey shape with stuffing and roasted.

Boning turkeys was a specialty of confectioners and caterers, including Afro-American Thomas Downing who prepared them during the holidays.

But generally turkey did not find favor with luxury restaurants that featured French cuisine in the later 19th century. Game birds were more highly prized. It remained plentiful on menus of everyday eating places and was popular enough that a 1902 restaurant run by Seventh Day Adventists offered a meatless turkey substitute. I wonder if it resembled “tofurkey”?

In ordinary lunchrooms turkey usually cost a little bit more than other dishes served around the turn of the last century. At the Electric Restaurant at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 a diner could have Roast Beef with Potatoes for 45 cents, while Stuffed Turkey and Apple Sauce was 50 cents. Cheap turkey could be hazardous. As a waiter revealed in 1908, “When you get young turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, celery, bread, butter, coffee, and mince pie for the sum of 25 cents, you can figure that something was wrong with the turkeys.”

Turkey burgers might seem like recent inventions but in fact they were found in California restaurants as early as 1938. Storing, roasting, and slicing turkey, as well as dealing with the carcass was a nuisance to restaurants, so turkey sandwiches were something of a rarity before WWII. In the 1950s boneless turkey rolls became available. They made it convenient for any restaurant to offer triple deckers with turkey (instead of chicken as previously) or turkey dinner specials with sliced white meat and gravy that undoubtedly came from a can.

A few restaurants, mainly those connected with turkey farms, have specialized in turkey, among them the 620 Club in mid-century Minneapolis: its owner grabbed publicity in 1944 by paying $6.20 a pound for a prize-winning turkey. Still, if you search for turkey recipes in books compiling the “great recipes of great restaurants” you may be disappointed by the absence of turkey dishes. I include a recipe for my favorite turkey dish, the famous open-face “hot brown” sandwich of toast and turkey covered with cheese sauce and bacon strips developed at Louisville’s Brown Hotel.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012/2017


Filed under food

Taste of a decade: 1880s restaurants


In the 1880s a wider range of foods became available to people living in cities, allowing restaurant menus to became more varied. Cold storage warehouses and refrigerated rail cars brought cheaper Chicago beef and out-of-season produce. Mechanically frozen ice, free from the impurities of lake ice, became available. Cheese and butter, once made on farms, now came from factories. Fresh fruits and vegetables remained luxuries for most people, however, and meat and potatoes dominated menus.

Larger, better capitalized restaurants installed electric plants that provided brighter lighting and badly needed ventilation systems.

1882HartfordHalfDimeLunchThe public demanded, and began to get, lower restaurant prices, quicker service, and more flexible meal times. The dining public expanded. Boarding houses that furnished meals as part of the rent were replaced by kitchenless rooming houses whose residents went to restaurants for dinner. More hotels switched to the European plan, freeing guests to eat wherever they chose rather than pay an inclusive charge for room and meals. New types of ready-to-eat food purveyors came on the scene, such as all-night lunch wagons and dairy cafes that specialized in simple, inexpensive meals such as baked beans and cereal with milk.

New ethnic groups arrived on American shores, among them Eastern European Jews and Southern Italians. Many settled in the East but others spread to cities throughout the westward-growing nation. They brought with them new cuisines, tempting the more adventurous eaters among the settled population.

Temperance coffee houses and soda fountains continued to thrive, particularly in Boston where authorities were always looking for ways to curb drinking.

As the rise of department stores and downtown retail shops brought women into city centers, restaurants catering specifically to them appeared on the scene.

But not everyone was welcome at restaurant tables, or in the society at large. Southern states made segregation the law, keeping Black Americans out of white-owned restaurants. Racially motivated legislation cut off Chinese immigration to the U.S. and encouraged hostility toward Chinese already in the country, mostly in the West, motivating many to move eastward and  introduce curious diners to new foods.


1883Macy'sNY1880 On the second floor of its newly expanded NYC department store, Macy’s restaurant for shoppers seats 200. [pictured] – In the silver-mining town of Virginia City NV, restaurants serve food from all over the world, including “fruits from every country and clime.”

1881 In December, Edmund Hill, proprietor of Hill’s confectionery restaurant in Trenton NJ totals up the proceeds of what he calls a “very satisfactory” year in which the business took in $18,146, netting him the handsome sum of $677.33 in wages and profit.

1880sRichmondCafe1882 Richmond’s Café in New Bedford MA informs customers that “The Café will be in charge of a lady . . . who will bestow especial pains upon lady patrons, taking charge of whatever parcels may be left in her care while the owners are out shopping.” – In Boston Charles Eaton and a partner open a temperance soda fountain and lunch room called Thompson’s Spa which goes on to become a local institution.

1883 One year after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rockaway Oyster and Chop House in Fresno CA advertises to prospective customers that it has “all white help.” Everyone, of course, understands that white means “not Asian.”

1889Chicago1885 In Boston and other large cities customers flood into cheap restaurants near railroad depots and wharves for 10-cent noon meals. Menus are chalked up on boards and customers eat rapidly without removing coats or hats.

1886 It is considered newsworthy when a federal judge orders a restaurant in Little Rock AR to serve a Black juror along with his fellow white jurors. A report notes that it was “the first time a negro enjoyed his repast at the leading hotel in the state and among white people.”

1887 After gathering menus from 40 prominent hotels from all over the country, a collector determines that salmon is the fish most often listed, and that it is found on menus across the United States, including Knoxville TN, Detroit MI, Milwaukee WI, Salt Lake City UT, and Cheyenne WY.

1883brooksdiningroom1888 At Chicago’s New York Kitchen, where a nickel buys Ham and Beans Boston Style or “One-third of a Pie, any kind,” the dining room is lighted by a Mather Incandescent Electric System and cooled by a steam-powered exhaust fan. — In Boston Brooks’ Dining Rooms is equipped with a telephone.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016


Filed under lunch rooms, patrons, racism, technology, women

Once trendy: tomato juice cocktails


Recently I acquired a 1947 menu from the Algonquin Hotel of “round table” literary fame. I noticed that one of the appetizers was tomato juice and I thought to myself how commonplace a selection that once was and how rarely it is seen today.

No doubt there are restaurants that still have it on the menu – nothing really ever goes away totally. It reminds me strongly of an old standby restaurant in Massachusetts that closed about ten years ago. I was fascinated by the quaint metal contraptions on each table holding little pots of appetizers such as cottage cheese, olives, and pickles. There must have been tomato juice on the menu, too, despite it being decidedly out of style by then.

I was so convinced that tomato juice was hopelessly unimaginative that I was taken by surprise when I did a little research and discovered that it was considered a fashionable snob drink in the 1920s and 1930s. It came into vogue in the 1920s along with other good-for-you foods such as Melba toast, cottage cheese, pineapple, and sauerkraut juice. Women’s magazines touted it as smart, healthful, and perfect for anyone wanting to lose pounds just like a Hollywood movie star.

It is said that a chef at the French Lick resort hotel in Indiana introduced tomato juice to  American diners in 1917. It MIGHT be true that he was first to serve it in a public dining room – it does not seem to appear on American menus prior to World War I. However tomato juice was well known and available in cans in the 19th century so he clearly did not invent it (as is often reported).

A tomato juice cocktail could be made by the addition of tobasco sauce, paprika, sauerkraut juice, clam juice, etc. Mix well, shake until foamy, and pour over crushed ice. Restaurants tried all sorts of combinations. The Wrigley Building Restaurant in Chicago came up with clabbered tomato juice which was tomato juice mixed with a goodly amount of cottage cheese. Denver’s Blue Parrot Inn blended orange and tomato juices, while The Colony in New York mixed clam and tomato.


Although tomato juice could be found on menus of all kinds of eating places, even Chinese-American restaurants, it tended to be an appetizer favored by those who eat luncheon, not lunch. It was especially popular in restaurants that appealed to women then such as tea rooms, quaint inns, and department store restaurants. [illustration shows portions of menus from China Garden, Filene’s department store, and Willow Tea Cottage]

Arriving on the scene as it did during Prohibition, tomato juice clearly served as a non-alcoholic cocktail. Non-drinkers appreciated it, as did serious imbibers who had overdone things at their neighborhood speakeasy. It was a well known morning-after tonic continuing into the 1950s (and perhaps the present). In 1939 a restaurant in Shawnee OK allegedly served a “hangover breakfast” of tomato juice with hot sauce, soft-boiled egg, whole wheat toast, coffee, and two aspirins.

Tomato juice was so popular by the mid-1930s, both in homes and restaurants, that government scientists were said to be working on disease-resistant tomato varieties that would yield more juice. But by the 1980s it was considered an appetizer totally lacking in sex appeal, analogous to vanilla ice cream as a dessert. But, who knows? It could make a comeback. Tomato and kale juice cocktails?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under food, restaurant customs

Basic fare: salad

To paint a complete portrait of the restaurant’s history, the iconic image of Man Carving a Roast should be accompanied by Man Mixing a Salad. For in haute restaurant-ology it is Man, not Woman, who rules the salad bowl.

In the 19th century wealthy men who styled themselves epicures often impressed their dining companions by rising from the table and mixing the salad. In the 20th century the custom passed into the hands of headwaiters at chi chi venues.

The tradition can be traced to peripatetic Frenchmen who wandered around Europe solemnly ministering to urban dinner parties with the contents of their small yet sacred chests of salad ingredients which included flavored vinegars, soy, caviar, truffles, anchovies, and other delectables.

In the 18th century sallad (spelled in the British manner) referred to a mixture of greens and herbs, possibly radishes, dressed with vinegar and oil and perhaps a raw egg. It could also mean chopped cabbage, known in the early 19th century as “cold” slaw. How many taverns, coffee houses, and other early eating places served salads is unknown but the number was probably very small and their salad days limited to springtime.

Although some green salads appeared on 19th century menus, the word salad more often referred to cold chopped meat or fish dressed with mayonnaise. Lobster and chicken were favorites. Combination salads and fruit salads did not come into popularity until the 20th century, largely due no doubt to the lower price of greens, vegetables, and imported bananas and pineapples.

The type of restaurant that did most to advance the green salad as a basic component of the American diet was the table d’hôte, a small French or Italian restaurant serving a fixed-price meal of about five courses. In 1844, patrons at the Café Tortoni in NYC enjoyed dinners of soup, stew-like entrees, roast meat, salads “mixed a la des Jardins,” and desserts. Head lettuce was rare, so typical salads featured romaine, chicory, dandelions, or field greens. Salad lovers particularly lauded Italian restaurants for their salads, both in the 19th and 20th centuries (despite the common appellation “Wop salad” ca. 1940-1970). In 1909 a patron wrote that Italian restaurant salads “are almost always good, and the dressing, made from red wine vinegar, is usually delicious. The mixed salad, in spring includes tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, celery, sometimes spinach and usually chives. Beet tops are also served as salad.”

In the New England countryside, on the other hand, salads were rare – and unsatisfactory. As a patron in a hotel dining room noted in 1881, “If by any chance there is lettuce on the table – for this happens rarely – and you manifest a desire to eat of it, the waiter puts before you the vinegar cruet and the sugar bowl. If you want to make a fool of yourself, call for salad oil. It will take some time to explain your meaning, and when you have done so the attendant will sneeringly inform her companions that ‘That feller eats grease on his lettis.’”

Although some thought salads were gaining popularity in the 1890s as sedentary city dwellers woke up to the wisdom of lighter fare, hotel cook Jessup Whitehead remarked in 1901 that “salads are not among the common popular dishes, and the average public seldom seems to think of them.” Many cooks had no idea how to prepare them, he added.

Salads became feminized in the 1920s. Perhaps it was the popularity of fruit salads in tea rooms, or the increasing use of flavored gelatin salads, but some male gourmets denounced women for preferring “comic salads” chosen for eye appeal rather than taste. Indeed there were some bizarre ones such as the Candlestick (illustrated), and others with names such as Clara Barton, Bon Ton, Butterfly, and Martini. Even a female tea room proprietor had to admit that “Atrocities have been committed in the name of salad.”

In the mid-20th century the tossed salad smothered under a layer of thick dressing became the standard start of a regulation meat and potatoes restaurant dinner. The high incidence of mediocre salads led syndicated columnist Inez Robb to launch a one-woman campaign in the 1960s against the two-pronged “red menace” to restaurant salads: chopped red cabbage and sludgy red-orange “French” dressing. Relief was on the way, for in the 1970s field greens returned, and ingredients rarely (but sometimes) found in salads of previous decades, such as olive oil, radicchio, and arugula came into wider use.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

See also: salad bars, caesar salad


Filed under food