Tag Archives: restaurant patrons

High-volume restaurants: Crook & Duff (etc.)

crook&nashADV1875Luxury restaurants are more likely to become memorialized by time, but often ordinary restaurants have a history that is equally rich and played a more significant role in the everyday functioning of society.

That was certainly true of a restaurant that opened in New York City’s “Newspaper Row” in 1858 under the name of its two proprietors, Crook & Duff. The popular restaurant persisted until at least 1906 under nine different names and with four different addresses. It was considered not only a fine place to eat — “a marvel of gastronomic entertainment” – but also a depot where ideas were exchanged.

crookNYT1874Proprietor John Crook was already an old hand in the restaurant business by 1858, having learned the business from his uncle who ran an eating stand in Fulton Market. Crook then went into business with a brother, and next ran several places on his own before he and theatrical manager John Duff opened a restaurant in the newly constructed New York Times building on Park Row. [Unfortunately no signs for the restaurant are visible in the 1874 photograph shown above.] It was an excellent location since City Hall, the main Post Office, a new court building, and many newspaper and periodical offices were located close by. Journalists and printers especially, with their odd hours and relative freedom to roam the city, were frequent patrons of eating and drinking places such as Crook & Duff, aka Crook, Fox & Duff; Crook, Fox & Nash; Nash & Fuller; Nash & Crook; Nash & Brush; George S. Brush; Brush & Foy; and Foy & Crook.

The people of prominence who ate at Crook & Duff and its successors were numerous, many of them lawyers, journalists, business men, and political figures. Feminist publishers of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, were frequent patrons in the 1870s – probably eating in a room reserved for ladies (assuming they found  that acceptable). The restaurant was popular with women clerical workers in the 1880s when their numbers were on the increase.

The restaurant remained in the Times building, occupying the basement and much of the first floor for thirty years, while doing business under five different names, the best known and longest lasting being Nash & Crook. In 1888 it moved a short distance to 16 Park Place.

Nash & Crook (etc.) was known for good food, reasonable prices, and fast, expert service. Broiled oysters and corned beef hash were specialties. Fruits and vegetables came from the Oneida Community, a religious commune in upstate New York. The bar did a brisk business in gin slings and brandy smashes, especially during election season.

crook&NashSept51870Serving food from early morning until late at night, the restaurant was a high-volume business, dishing out up to 2,000 mid-day meals daily. In 1870 it claimed to have the largest dining room in the U.S. The lunch counter was 60 feet long. Even so, from noon to 3 p.m. it would often become so crowded that customers would stand and eat from plates in their hands. Many customers were regulars, including men who took all their meals there – and only there – for decades.

Reputedly it was the second restaurant in New York City to hire African-American waiters. During the Civil War draft riots of July 1863 when white mobs attacked Black men, the restaurant sheltered its staff in the basement. Many of the staff from both races were long-term employees. A Black waiter, John Thomas Cooper, worked at the restaurant from 1859 until his death in 1893, becoming a favorite for his sense of humor.

As late as 1927 a letter to the editor of the New York Times mourned the loss of Nash & Crook’s corned-beef hash.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Eating Chinese

lynn1937KingJoy

While paging through a 1922 Massachusetts business directory I was struck at first by how many Chinese restaurants there were in various towns. But when I went back to the directory to take a closer look I realized there weren’t really so many except, perhaps, in manufacturing towns such as Fall River and Lowell.

I wondered who patronized Chinese restaurants in Massachusetts in the early 20th century – and then I remembered recently buying a diary that mentioned a place called King Joy.

After I managed to identify the family whose doings were chronicled in the diary (not easy!), I discovered a surprising and intriguing little story.

The diary, mostly written in 1935, was about three generations of a family living on the North Shore of Massachusetts. It was kept by the grandmother of the family who I will call Gertrude, age 76. Her husband Arthur was a retired dentist a few years older. They headed a socially prominent family with two homes, one in the affluent community of Hamilton and the other in the nearby resort town of Nahant.

Living with Arthur and Gertrude were their daughter Opal, age 49, and her son Jamie, age 5. Opal’s brother Perry, a 40-year old engineer, and his wife Ellen, also lived in Hamilton.

hotelvendomeThe overwhelming focus of the diary is the health of family members, who seem to be under the weather for much of 1935. There are large stretches of blank pages where nothing is recorded, but restaurants are mentioned six times, all but one of them Chinese. The exception was the time that Gertrude, Opal, and Jamie went to Boston and stayed overnight in the Hotel Vendome, a Back Bay hotel for the gentry that dated to 1871. While grandmother and grandson retired early, Opal had a late-night supper in the hotel’s Nippon Room. Gertrude, a woman of few words who loved to abbreviate, hints in the diary that the purpose of the trip was for Jamie to visit his estranged father.

WsEatChinese

Twice that year Gertrude records that someone, usually Opal and Jamie, went to King Joy in nearby Lynn MA. Another time Opal went to Lynn to bring back chow mein for her father, Arthur, who had fallen down the stairs at home. Once the family went to the Far East Restaurant in Lynn and once they went to the Canton Restaurant in Worcester, riding in Perry’s car.

OWP1904Opal’s liking for what must have been a fairly exotic cuisine to a Massachusetts native in the 1930s might be explained by her world travel as a young woman. In 1904, at age 19 [pictured], she was adopted by a wealthy retired Boston lawyer with real estate holdings. Divorced and thirty years her senior, he was a renowned animal rights advocate, free thinker, and globe-trotter. (Amazingly enough, Opal’s parents reportedly approved of the arrangement.) Shortly after the adoption, Opal and her new father set off for a visit to the World’s Fair in St. Louis followed by a trip to Brazil and winter in Egypt. It was the first of many trips she would take with him.

Opal married around 1921, at age 36, giving birth to Jamie nine years later. Her adopted father gave her his house in the Boston area as a wedding present and some time later moved to Los Angeles.

PGP1934By the time Opal’s paternalistic benefactor died in 1934 at age 77 [pictured], he had crossed the Atlantic 145 times, visited Russia 16 times, Egypt 13 times, and the Arctic 13 times. In his will he left all his money to animal protection and free-thinking societies and just $1 to Opal. She contested the will, probably without success.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Dining sky-side

airportO'Hare

Although a number of superior restaurants have opened in airports in the past several years, their run-of-the-mill food purveyors are often just passable. Customer comments reveal praise for certain restaurants, but opinions overall sound a negative note, rising to weak compliments such as “actually somewhat good” or “standard innocuous restaurant/hotel fare.”

In the beginning, there was no food at all. In the 1920s airports had no restaurant facilities. There were scarcely any commercial flights, facilities consisted mainly of fields and a hangar or two, and the few commercial passengers were lucky if they could get a cup of coffee.

By the mid-1930s more commercial flights were offered and airport conditions improved. The number of passengers multiplied more than 100 times between 1926 and 1935. To win greater traffic, bigger cities vied to create terminal facilities that could match those of their transportation rival, trains. Restaurants figured prominently among the amenities offered.

Most passengers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were businessmen or wealthy travelers who were unwilling to settle for bad food. Even though all air travel was essentially first-class then, passengers frequently rejected what was served on the plane and tried for something better in the terminal. Their demands, combined with the need to put airports in the black financially, brought about efforts to create first-rate airport eating places.

airportburbankskyroom (2)

The earliest image of an airport restaurant I’ve found is that of the Sky Room in Burbank CA’s Union Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport), in 1940, showing tables with white linens, goblets, and boudoir-style table lamps.

Airports were costly for cities and towns to build and run so income from concessions was needed badly. Managers expected income from non-aviation concessions at New York’s Idlewild airport to make up one third of revenues in 1949. Restaurants and coffee shops were the biggest single contributors of concession revenue in most airports.

But restaurants found it hard to operate profitably when serving only “captive customers,” particularly when their numbers were still relatively small. Beyond pleasing airline passengers, the solution for many airports was to reach out to customers living nearby. In 1947 the airport restaurant in Albuquerque NM went so far as to hire a chef who had studied with Escoffier and cooked for US presidents and royal families in Europe. His mission was to make the terminal restaurant one of the nation’s best known restaurants.

The early 1950s saw the debut of what might have been America’s premier airport restaurant, The Newarker in the Newark NJ terminal. With Joe Baum as manager and Albert Stockli as chef, it soon became famous, launching Restaurant Associates which owned many of NYC’s top dining establishments. Duncan Hines lauded The Newarker for its “flaming sword specialties, authentic East Indian curries, [and] regional Swiss specialties.”

airportCleveland1965Seattle1941

Evidently the tactic of pulling in locals worked, partly because even through the 1960s people were thrilled to see planes take off and land. Dining rooms typically overlooked the airfield. In 1953 Fort Worth’s new terminal at Amon Carter Field was touted as “a wonderful, quiet spot to have a leisurely evening meal and then sit on the observation deck and look at the bright lights of booming Dallas nineteen miles away.” Now it may seem an odd idea to go to an airport restaurant to celebrate a birthday or, even stranger, a holiday such as Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve, yet these festivities did indeed take place [advertisements: Cleveland, 1965; Seattle, 1941].

airportClevelandshreiberrestaurantSome airport restaurants were operated by local restaurateurs. Among them was Marie Schreiber, who became a restaurant operator for Statler hotels after providing meals in Cleveland’s airport restaurant [pictured] as well as on-board meals for departing United Airlines flights. Food service operations of two Chicago departments stores, Marshall Field and Carson, Pirie & Scott, handled meals at O’Hare for years.

At the same time, chains that ran airport restaurants and prepared meals for service during flights developed rapidly. Some, such as Skychef restaurants, were operated by the airlines (in this case American Airlines), but existing chains such as Dobbs House and railroad caterers Fred Harvey and Interstate Hosts also migrated into airports. Dobbs House units in airports from Wichita to Miami also earned praise from Duncan Hines in 1959 for dishes such as pompano en papillote and Colorado mountain trout.

Southern airports were protest sites because of their discriminatory treatment of Black passengers. Until summer of 1961, Blacks were not served in Interstate Hosts’ main dining room or the coffee shop in New Orleans’ Moisant International airport, but only at the snack bar. After lawsuits, Black customers gained equal patronage at all airport restaurants in recognition that airports, like bus terminal facilities, were fundamental to interstate commerce.

In the 1980s theme restaurants – often flight-themed – began to locate in the vicinity of airports. But that’s a subject for a future post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Restaurant-ing in Metropolis

Metropolis544

In the depths of the Depression, in 1934, Harper & Bros. published a book of 304 photographs called Metropolis. Most of the photos were by Edward M. Weyer, Jr., an anthropologist who wanted to show how people in greater NYC lived. Captions were supplied by the popular writer Frederick Lewis Allen.

In a 2010 NY Times story the book was described as a “romantic masterpiece of street photography” composed of “moody black-and-white coverage of day-to-day life in New York in the ’30s. Beggars, snow-shoveling squads, schooner crews, railroad commuters, subway crowds, tenement life, tugboats, a sidewalk craps game. . .”

I find it particularly interesting that a major focus of the book was to contrast how different social classes lived, illustrated in part by where they ate lunch.

The central narrative follows employees of a company headed by a Mr. Roberts. He lives in a house on a 4-acre plot in Connecticut, commutes to New York, and employs a house maid whose duties include fixing his wife’s lunch each day. On the day he is being profiled Mr. Roberts eats a $1.00 table d’hôte lunch at his club (equal to $17 today). So frugal, Mr. R.

Metropolis540

Mr. Roberts is visited by a Mr. Smith from out of town (shown above looking out hotel window). Mr. Smith “stands for all those who come to the city from a distance,” whether Los Angeles, Boston, or elsewhere. He is “reasonably well off.” Mr. Smith eats a $1.25 table d’hôte lunch – er, luncheon — in a dining room on a hotel roof (pictured). Prices are high there, making his meal a relative bargain. Had he wanted to splurge he could have ordered a Cocktail (.40), Lobster Thermidor ($1.25), and Cucumber Salad (.45) – total $2.10. I would guess that many visitors to New York tend to spend more on restaurants than natives.

Metropolis539

Mr. Roberts’ secretary, Miss Jordan, lives with her mother and brother in an apartment just off Riverside Drive. With a combined family income of less than $4,000 the three can barely afford their $125/month rent. She goes to lunch at a café (pictured) and orders To-Day’s Luncheon Special which consists of Tomato Juice, Corned Beef Hash with Poached Egg, Ice Cream, and Coffee, all for 40 cents. Frankly, I don’t see how she can afford to do this every day.

Metropolis538

Miss O’Hara and Miss Kalisch transcribe dictation from other executives in the firm and each makes about $22.50 a week. Miss Kalisch lives in Astoria, Queens, and is married. Evidently she is pretending to be single in order to hold her job (her name is really Mrs. Rosenbloom). Miss O’Hara lives with her father in a somewhat decrepit apartment costing almost half her wages. Her father has been out of work for three years. The two women eat lunch at a drugstore counter (pictured) where they order Ham on Rye Sandwiches, Chocolate Cake, and Coffee (.30). I fear Miss O’Hara is living beyond her means if she does this often.

Miss Heilman, a young clerk, makes about $16.50 a week and is subject to occasional layoffs. She lives with her brother, his wife, and their two children in a 3-room apartment in Hoboken NJ, for which they pay $15/month. Like the other “girls” at the bottom of the totem pole she brings a sandwich and eats it in the office.

Metropolis542

Mr. Smith, being on his own, must go out for dinner. Once again he chooses a hotel roof garden (pictured), where about half the guests are also out-of-towners. With a live orchestra and dancing, it is undoubtedly expensive. I’m guessing he went for the Cocktail and Lobster Thermidor this time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Dressing for dinner

FarmersinCafe

In the vast majority of eating places customers never had to be told to “come as you are.” That’s how they were going to come – or else they weren’t coming at all. Farmers wearing overalls were likely to show up in small town cafes, while white collar workers in shirtsleeves grabbed seats in city lunchrooms.

Nevertheless, there was a segment of society that “dressed” for dinner. People of high society were accustomed to donning formal wear for dinner parties given in private homes. Then, as New York society began to expand beyond “the 400″ in the late 1890s, growing ranks of wealthy newcomers adopted formal dress for dinners in hotel dining rooms and swanky restaurants.

Rector's1913Geo.HectorInc

In the late 1890s men began to wear tuxedos for such outings. Women wore long gowns, cut lower than their daytime dresses. [Rector’s, 1913, illustrated] But the era of luxury dressiness was brief. After WWI, with prohibition forcing the closure of many fine restaurants and “lobster palaces,” more informal clothing became acceptable in most restaurants. What was known as afternoon wear – coats and neckties for men and daytime dresses and hats for women – became the new standard. But even that dress standard tended to erode.

It isn’t as easy to enforce a dress code as it might seem. As long as a restaurant isn’t using a dress code as a foil for illegal discrimination, it can set the dress bar as high as it wants. But will customers constantly challenge it? Even worse, will they shun the restaurant entirely?

Rejection of the Café de l’Opera’s formal wear requirement was cited as one reason for its sudden demise in NYC in 1910. And the 1930s Depression encouraged a lower standard. After World War II some predicted a return to elegance, but that proved shaky. Many well-established fine restaurants struggled with turtleneck-wearing male guests in the 1960s and 1970s. At New York’s “21″ the maitre d’ developed a practice of requiring necktie-less men to put on a hideously garish tie that he provided. This had the effect of either making them (a) leave, or (b) feel so embarrassed they never dared come without a tie again. Other places relented and admitted guests in “dressy casual” wear.

Pittari's1963NewOrleansA new restaurant wishing to enter the esoteric fine dining ranks, underwritten by a dining room of well-dressed guests,  has to ask itself if it can pull it off. If it does not draw the “top-drawer” clientele it aims for it may find its dress code impossible to enforce. For instance, resorting to posting a “Dress Code for Ladies” notice near the front door, as a San Diego reviewer said of a restaurant there in 1981, is “simply tacky.” It is scarcely better than a sign reading “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

Likewise, a restaurant may portray itself as elegant, on a postcard, publicity photo, or website, but rarely will the actual guests look quite so sophisticated as those pictured. And, needless to say, fancy dress does not in itself project elegance.

SultansTableRestDunesHotel

Today there is a small top tier of restaurants whose guests would not dare to wear shorts, t-shirts, baseball caps, or overlarge rubber-soled shoes. But, most restaurants are far more informal. Overall, “come as you are” – a phrase first used by churches — has remained in effect.

The phrase itself attained widespread use by restaurants in the 1960s when it appeared in advertisements for suburban establishments wishing to attract families. A new segment of chain restaurants came into being, a few notches less casual than fast food establishments, but entirely non-intimidating in their standardized cuisine, friendly service, and “fun” decor. Philip Langdon, in his book Orange Roofs and Golden Arches, sees the “chain dinnerhouses” as coming from the West (where restaurant dress rules were always more relaxed). Examples included Victoria Station, originating in San Francisco, and Steak & Ale, from Dallas.

At the present moment, at least, it is difficult to imagine a return to turn-of-the-century formality. I’d guess that even the 1% don’t like to dress up.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Light-fingered diners

1920sPilferingIf the number of newspaper stories is a reliable index to a trend, then a fad for stealing small items from restaurant tables began in the 1890s. Its continuing incidence is perhaps one reason why table appointments gradually became far less elegant and costly.

A flurry of stories appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about affluent society people who “collected” cordial glasses, demitasse cups, salt cellars, silver spoons, oyster forks, and nut picks as “souvenirs” of first-class hotel dining rooms and restaurants. Anything small that bore an insignia from an elite establishment sent out an irresistible message: “Take me home with you.” Or, as a NYC restaurant owner would confirm decades later, “Put a spoon on a table with a fancy crest on it and kiss it goodbye.” 1906pilfering

The “thieves” – a term pointedly avoided by all – were usually identified as young women from the best families, though men were also known to freely pocket alluring items. It was especially attractive to pick things up while traveling. Women would display their booty in cabinets with little ribbons and tags that gave the date and occasion that each bibelot commemorated.

How cute! A little less cute, though, were college student pranks following athletic competitions. A gang of Amherst College students met with suspension after they raided three railroad restaurants on the return train trip from a Dartmouth football game in 1893. During their “wilding” episode they descended en masse on three successive Vermont depot restaurants, making off with everything they could grab from sandwiches and ginger ale to dishes and spoons to remind them later of their escapades.

Typically souvenir hunters were portrayed as feeling not the least bit guilty about their some-would-say-larcenous activities. “I must steal one of those lovely things,” said a woman at a fashionable restaurant. Her friends merely laughed. Another received encouragement from her luncheon companions when she declared she wanted to snag a silver match case for her husband. “So she tucked it in her muff and went out with the glee of a smuggler,” the story relayed.

Often these activities brought forth a degree of censure among reporters and readers. Was it not true, for instance, that these same people would probably condemn a poor man for stealing food? Was it really a victimless crime? Didn’t waiters have their small wages docked for missing silver? orsini'sDish

The moral code, such as it was, decreed that stealing from need was a crime, but stealing something you didn’t need or could easily afford to pay for was not a crime. Plus, as much as restaurateurs hated it, who wanted to accuse wealthy guests of stealing? Prosecution, or even confrontation, was rare though sometimes additional charges – curiously hard to read – were levied on a check. Over time menu prices crept up to cover shrinkage, tableware became ordinary, and pepper mills grew monstrous.

We’d probably hear more on this subject, particularly on the diverse range of things taken from restaurants, but restaurant managers prefer to keep silent. As one confessed in 1976, “We don’t like to talk about this sort of thing. It only gives the public more ideas.” © Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Putting patrons at ease

How many readers have thought about how very cleverly table-service chain restaurants engineer their establishments so that patrons feel no unease while eating out? They have relieved patrons of the embarrassment so many have felt historically – and which can still occur in formal restaurants today.

It doesn’t take much for restaurant patrons to become tense or self-conscious. They may feel that other guests are staring at them and judging their appearance or table manners. Or that their server is sizing them up. The menu can be mysterious, especially if it contains foreign or unfamiliar culinary terms. They fear they will mispronounce something and be sneered at for their lack of sophistication. Or order a dish they don’t like the looks of (does that explain why I once encountered a South Dakota menu that described salads as made up of “non-intimidating greens”?). If patrons have brought their children, they may worry they will misbehave and earn the wrath of all the tables around them.

Their fears are not entirely unfounded. I have a vivid memory of extreme discomfort I experienced in a restaurant considered among the top in the 1980s. Although the small dining room was fully occupied, it was almost totally silent. There were expensive arrangements of flowers everywhere. They, along with the preternatural quiet, conspired to create the ambiance of a funeral parlor. The waiter never smiled. I felt as though I was dressed for a barbecue. The melon ball-sized food was hard to identify and oddly assorted. I longed to flee to another room where I heard people laughing and imagined them eating real food.

Intimidation has a long history in restaurants. In 1859 a patron complained about his discomfort in the class of elite restaurants represented by Delmonico’s, admitting “we are made nervous by the sneerful smirk of the waiter, if we order the wrong wine . . .”

Snobbery was assessed as being greater in the East than the West. It’s certainly true that Eastern eateries did not run advertisements like the one in Portland OR in 1873 that greeted potential customers with “Hi You Muck-A-Muck and Here’s Your Bill of Fare. Now’s the time to get the wrinkles taken out of your bellies . . .”

Of course there were always casual eating places, but as some Americans grew wealthier in the late 19th century more foreign terms appeared on menus, leading to great puzzlement by diners. Even Easterners had to admit “a feeling of trepidation when confronted with an elaborate menu composed in the artistic and intricate terms of culinary French.” Jokes circulated about the bumpkin who randomly pointed to things on the menu and was dismayed when the waiter returned with two bowls of soup and some toothpicks.

Women were afraid to eat spaghetti in public lest they look foolish. No such worries at The Old Spaghetti Factory in the historic section of _____  [fill in the blank]!

Most sources of intimidation have been eliminated by chain restaurants (See 1973 Jacks Or Better advertisement). A circus-like sense of fun, raucous decor, and auditory buzz distracts everyone from other guests and blanks out children’s tantrums. The ethos is “come as you are.” Service is by relentlessly cheerful teenagers who reply to every request with a “No problem.” There are no pristine white tablecloths or carpets to ruin with spills. No foreign terms appear on menus. In the unlikely event that a menu contains unfamiliar items they will be carefully explained or illustrated. Even today a chain of Mexican theme restaurants in the South supplies a guide letting patrons know how to say the names of dishes, including Nachos (Nah-choz) and Chile Con Carne (Che-lee con Car-nay).

It is interesting to reflect on the deep message conveyed by mass market restaurants. Is it that the American public is juvenile in their tastes and easily manipulated? Or is it the more democratic thesis that Americans will accept being talked down to as the price that must be paid so that no one feels excluded?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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