Tag Archives: restaurant themes

Tablecloths’ checkered past

tableclothruggerisSTL50Throughout the 20th century red and white checked tablecloths in restaurants sent clear messages to patrons: this restaurant is inexpensive, friendly, and unpretentious. Whether ethnic or “American” they suggested that the customer was in a homey place, either authentically old fashioned or old world.

What kind of ethnic? Beyond noting that they were never Chinese (that I’ve discovered — so far), restaurants with checked tablecloths could be Italian or French, but also German, Viennese, Spanish, British, Greek, Hungarian, or Mexican.

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As for signaling old-fashioned Americanness, that could mean “Pioneer Days on the Prairie,” “Frontier Saloon,” “Old-Time Beer Hall,” “Country Barn Dance,” “California Gold Rush,” “Grandma’s Kitchen,” “Colonial New England,” or “Gay Nineties.”

I use the past tense when referring to red and white checked tablecloths, not because they aren’t still around, but because I sense their vogue has ended, at least temporarily. I would say their appeal was strongest from the 1930s through the 1970s.

tablecloths3751The fabric itself dates far back into the 19th century. Already by 1900 checked tablecloths were seen as old fashioned. But unlike other material culture of restaurant-ing, the meanings of the tablecloths were created as much by fundraising events and celebrations sponsored by churches, clubs, and schools as they were by restaurants.

In restaurants, as well as outside them, the tablecloths have been accompanied by at least one of the following decorative touches: candles in wine bottles, lanterns, travel posters, braided garlic hung from walls, murals of villages, beamed ceilings, knotty pine paneling, sawdust floors, wagon wheels, and peasant costumes. Candles in bottles were close to mandatory.

tablecloth21club1939A number of famed restaurants used the tablecloths at some point in their history. A few of them fell outside the inexpensive class such as the “21″ Club [pictured] and the London Chop House. In 1961, a New York restaurant reviewer wrote that checked tablecloths were “almost obligatory for unpretentious Gallic restaurants in this city.” Boston’s Durgin-Park used them on their long communal tables, furnishing the means for burglars to tie up the staff during a 1950s robbery. In Chicago, the Drake Hotel’s Cape Cod Room added the colorful cloths to its busy decor that included pots and pans hanging from the ceiling.

Surprisingly it wasn’t until the 1980s that anyone admitted they were tired of seeing the classic tablecloths in restaurants. The ascent of Italian restaurants into the higher reaches of culinary status provided the rationale. Now, for example, reviews would begin with the assertion that Restaurant X didn’t represent, “the Italy of checkered tablecloths and melted candles in Chianti bottles, but the Italy of designer Giorgio Armani.”

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen tables covered in red checks. Now it could be risky, suggesting not authenticity but tired mediocrity.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under atmosphere, restaurant customs

Image gallery: shacks, huts, and shanties

TheHutEvanstonLike stands, shacks most certainly represent a type of eating places whose origins stretch back into antiquity. Their simple structures can be erected hastily for fairs or to capture the pennies of hungry travelers. In an automobile culture they suggest open spaces and open roads.

They convey honest rusticity with uncomplicated, inexpensive fare for ordinary folks rather than elaborate cuisine accompanied by the pomp and ceremony of the palace as enshrined in posh restaurants. The kinds of food sold in shacks, huts, and shanties is likely to be lobster, fried chicken, barbecue, or other casual fare that is eaten with the hands, and quickly.

Shanties1930sFrontLow prices are implied in huts and shacks. The slogan of the Shack in Upper Darby PA was “Where Dining is an Event not an Extravagance,” while New York City’s eighteen Shanties of the 1930s promised “The Country’s Finest Products at the City’s Lowest Prices.” For 15 cents the menu offered orange or tomato juice, buttered toast, and coffee.

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On the other hand, low prices or not, how many people would want to patronize a true shack? The crude Depression-era lunchroom shown above has a tarpaper roof and scanty stock on its display shelves.

Jerry'sShackSLCToday, because such places are harder to find, they project a strong contrast with the manufactured food and decor of chain restaurants. In contrast with artless roadside shanties, McDonald’s and other fast-food outlets are carefully designed, highly managed food selling environments.

ShackNYCAt the same time, restaurants tend to look to the past rather than the future for themes that will attract customers. Shacks and huts are entirely capable of filling that role too, even in New York City, a most unlikely setting. The Shack, in Manhattan, is scarcely convincing. One of Chicago’s leading restaurants of the 1930s was the Chicken Shack, which was furnished with not-a-bit-rustic modernistic chrome tables and chairs. Its proprietor, Ernie Henderson, was invited to demonstrate his chicken frying methods at the 1939 convention of the National Restaurant Association, marking the first time an African-American was given such an opportunity.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under odd buildings, theme restaurants