Tag Archives: roadside restaurants

The “mysterious” Singing Kettle

singingkettlepcA veil of ominous mystery has spread over the remains of a California roadside tea room once known by the homey name Singing Kettle.

It was located near the summit of Turnbull Canyon, high above the San Gabriel Valley, on a winding road running through the Puente Hills in North Whittier. The road was completed in 1915, opening up a route filled with what many regarded as the most impressive views on the entire Pacific Coast.


Today young people drive into the “haunted” canyon at night determined to be frightened to death. Gazing out car windows they eagerly tell each other tales they’ve heard of satanic rituals, murders, and human sacrifice, hoping that behind that fence are unspeakable horrors they might be lucky enough to witness. Even the Singing Kettle tea room, perhaps because remnants of its entrance are visible from the road, has become enmeshed in dark fantasies.

Why am I laughing?

Because it strikes me as funny that a tea room from the 1920s and 1930s could be associated with horror and paranormal events. Or even that people would find its existence mysterious, wondering why it was ever there or what it really was.

I suppose that given enough time and imagination mysterious auras can envelop any mundane place, even a deserted mall or a parking garage. But still, finding a tea room scary is like being frightened by a club sandwich.

I have experienced a somewhat similar attitude before. I gave a talk on tea rooms of New York City when my book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn came out in 2002. Afterwards a man in the audience came up and asked me why I didn’t mention the darker aspects of tea rooms. He was certain that a lot of them had been speakeasies and houses of prostitution.

Really? If that had indeed been the case, why would I not have mentioned it? It would be a good story. I’ve found no evidence of prostitution in tea rooms. Only rarely were tea room proprietors found selling liquor during Prohibition. A few places in Greenwich Village were raided in the early 1920s, and here and there the mob would open a joint and call it a tea room, though that was purely a ruse. I feel certain it was impossible to order a diet plate or a Waldorf salad in a mob tea room.


The dining area of the Singing Kettle tea room was up the hill from the pergola entrance shown on the black and white postcard above. As can be seen from a bird’s-eye view of the property, terraced stairs with fountains and shrubbery led up to the main tea room which today appears to be a residence. The view while dining would have been spectacular.

The tea room was frequented by students and staff from Whittier College, the Whittier Chamber of Commerce, and women’s clubs. It was a popular place for business meetings, card parties, wedding receptions, and bridal showers. Weddings were held in the inner courtyard of its entrance pergola.

singingkettlehartwhittierheights1927I have not been able to discover the identity of the Singing Kettle’s proprietor. The area was filled with citrus and avocado groves and it’s possible that it was run by the wife of a grower. It’s even possible that major Southern California agricultural land developer, Edwin G. Hart, was involved in the business. That might explain why he promoted the tea room in a 1927 advertisement for his new residential development, Whittier Heights. (When he developed Vista CA he built an inn where prospective customers could stay.)

The Singing Kettle was in business from 1927 until at least 1936, but probably not much longer. It surely would not have survived gasoline rationing during WWII.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

With many thanks to the reader who told me about the Singing Kettle.


Filed under atmosphere, odd buildings, Offbeat places, roadside restaurants, tea shops

Odd restaurant buildings: “ducks”


Ducks are commercial buildings that look like what they sell, as illustrated by the Freda Farms ice cream stand in Berlin CT. The term was actually inspired by a Long Island store that sold ducks (to eat). It has been generalized to apply to any buildings that looks like some familiar object or animal, etc, whether or not their merchandise is related. These types of buildings are also known as programmatic or mimetic architecture.

duckstamaleThough they reached a peak of popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s, ducks trace back much further in history. An introduction to Jim Heimann’s book California Crazy by David Gebhard links the mimetic architecture of the last century to garden buildings of the 18th century and even earlier. One of the first examples in the United States was the 65-foot elephant of Margate NJ built in1881 to attract attention to a real estate development.

In addition to housing stores and offices, many ducks have featured restaurants over the decades. They have taken the shape of all kinds of animals, kegs, barrels, ships, castles, cups, coffee pots, bowls, hats, chuck wagons, dirigibles, items of food, shoes, and windmills.


The earliest restaurant duck I have found was a café planned for Cincinnati in the shape of a huge beer cask in 1902. Unlike later examples, though, it was meant to occupy a location in a row of Main Street storefronts. Most later ducks, arriving with the spread of car ownership in the late 1920s and early 1930s, occupied empty lots in developing areas of cities. Not too surprisingly, southern California’s car culture provided a nurturing environment. In addition the climate was favorable to the somewhat makeshift carnival-type structures, while the city’s movie industry supplied inspiration. As Los Angeles grew, giant dogs, toads, ice cream freezers, shoes, and other bizarre apparitions sprang up along the roadside, vying for the business of passing motorists.


The link between the movie industry and roadside fantasy was straightforward in the case of Harry Oliver, a leading designer who brought magic to sets for movies such as Scarface, The Good Earth, and Mark of the Vampire. Oliver designed windmill-shaped buildings for the Van de Kamp bakeries and drive-ins as well as a storybook building occupied by the Tam o’ Shanter Inn.

If architecture is about the enclosure of space, ducks are architecture only secondarily. In most cases mimetic architecture describes a building that serves more as advertising sign than as an innovative enclosure of space. Once a customer stepped inside a giant pig or coffee pot, all whimsy faded away as the interior revealed itself to be a standard rectangle as shown here in one of the many coffee-pot ducks that could be found across the U.S.


If ducks say anything about American restaurants, it is that they are only partially about food.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016


Filed under odd buildings, roadside restaurants

Find of the day: Wayside Food Shop

WaysideFoodShopCov990The historic Wayside Inn in Sudbury MA, a national landmark operating as an inn and restaurant, was memorialized by Longfellow and became famous throughout the world. Less famous was the other Wayside Inn in business in West Springfield MA from 1932 to 1967.

It was established as the Wayside Food Shop and Terrace Gardens by the head of a wholesale baking company, Colonial Fried Products, that came to Springfield in 1921 as a branch of a Worcester business called Edgerly Crullers.

Howard S. Edgerly opened the Wayside Food Shop at 1363 Riverdale Road on a site that was previously occupied by a diner. At the time Riverdale Road had not been developed commercially and was still mainly farmland and residences.


This past weekend at the Northampton Book and Book Arts Fair held at Smith College I found the impressive 18-page brochure from the Wayside Food Shop whose pages are shown here. It dates from around 1935, about the time the business was awarded a full liquor license.



The Wayside was elaborate and designed to host up to 600 people simultaneously in its facsimile Colonial inn (did it serve Colonial doughnuts?). It contained a dining room, an outdoor terrace and garden, a tap room, a dance salon, a banquet room, a soda fountain/bar room, and a club room for card parties.


Next door, at 1353 Riverdale, was an associated ice cream and sandwich stand in the shape of an ice cream freezer, known as the Algonquin Freezer. In May of 1933 the ice cream stand advertized that its 30-piece Algonquin Boys’ Band would give two evening concerts. It’s not clear whether this was an ongoing feature or a grand opening event.


The Wayside hosted wedding parties, clubs, and business and alumni groups. The brochure shows an 8-piece orchestra led by Ray Deleporte, whose nightly performances were played on WBZ radio. Alice May was the group’s “radiant songster.” Over the years many orchestras played there. The Wayside also hosted “New York floor shows” that included striptease acts, yet retained its reputation as a place ideal for family Thanksgiving and Sunday dinners.

In 1938, song writer Irving Berlin sued the Wayside Food Shop for copyright violations, asking $250 in damages for each of three of his songs: Goody, Goody; Let Yourself Go; and, Is It True What They Say About Dixie? Not long after this Howard Edgerly, who was not in good health, sold the business.

The business then passed through a number of hands. In 1957 its owner announced that the Wayside would close in early 1958 and be demolished to make way for a motel. Yet, though it did close in January of 1958, it was refurnished and in December it re-opened under new management. It continued in business until April 1967. The building was razed in 1968.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under night clubs, roadside restaurants

Find of the day: Mrs. K’s Toll House Tavern


Over the weekend, at a vintage paper and postcard show in Boxborough MA, I found a charming diecut menu from a restaurant in Silver Spring MD. Established in 1930 by Olive and Harvey Kreuzburg, the landmark restaurant is still in operation today though no longer owned by the founding family.

Shown through the window is page 2 of the menu illustrated with a fireplace inscribed with a cryptogram. Can you figure it out? Hint: the riddle is said to have originated in England. (Click to enlarge. Answer below.)

MrsKs941Judging by the prices, this menu is from around 1950. A Tenderloin Steak dinner accompanied by French Fried Onions or Fresh Mushrooms, cost $2.25. It was served with soup, fruit relish, salad, three vegetables, a sherbet course, hot bread, dessert, beverage, and after dinner mints. By 1962, when the Kreuzburg’s son Richard ran the restaurant, that dinner had gone up to $6.00. Burgundy, Sauterne, Claret, and Blue Ribbon beer were available. All meals were served family style with bowls filled with enough for the entire table. Mrs. K assured guests that everything was prepared from scratch on the premises and under her supervision.

Olive Kreuzburg was not new to the restaurant business when she and her husband took over the old toll house that had previously been the home of two other failed tea rooms. In 1923 it operated as the Seven Oaks Tavern where sky high prices must have contributed to its demise. Olive’s prior experience included running the dining room of the Hotel Wellesley in Clayton NY, a tea room in Miami FL called Mrs. K’s, and two tea rooms in Washington DC, one named Mrs. K’s, and the other Mrs. K’s Brick Wall Inn. Clearly using her abbreviated name served her well.

At its opening in 1930 the Silver Spring Toll House was listed in a DC newspaper under “Where to Motor and Dine.” At that time development had not sprung up around Mrs. K’s; although only “a 30-minute drive from the White House,” it was in the country. The early advertisement read: “This old Toll House with its charming furnishings and Terraced Gardens marks a delightfully smart Country Dinner Place.”


Getting through the Depression was no doubt aided by Duncan Hines’ recommendation of Mrs. K’s in his very first list of his favorite restaurants that he sent out to friends in a 1935 Christmas card. Later he expanded the list and published it as a book. In the 1937 edition, he said of Mrs. K’s, “You dine in the past here – so far as furnishings are concerned. Nothing is changed apparently from the Revolutionary days when it was built. Even the pretty girls who wait on you in Colonial dress seem to have been miraculously preserved from a more leisurely age when dining was a rite not to be passed over casually.”

Whether or not the building dated from the Revolution, the quaint restaurant was filled with antiques collected by the Kreuzburg’s.

The cryptogram explained:
If the grate be [great B] empty (m t), put coal on [colon].
If the grate be full, stop [ . ] putting coal on.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


Filed under family restaurants, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants, women

Find of the day: Moody’s Diner cookbook

moodysdinerbookAt a weekend flea market I found a copy of What’s Cooking at Moody’s Diner, a book of recipes and reminiscences published in 1989 (it was revised and redesigned in 2003). Although it is neither rare nor valuable in monetary terms, I consider it a “find” because of how I happened upon it when I was about to give up.

moodysdinercolor2The Route 1 diner in Waldoboro ME dates back to a small food stand built and operated by Percy Moody and his family in the early 1930s. After many additions and updates it is still going strong today as a substantial restaurant with a menu probably far more diverse than it was in the beginning, judging from a sample 1930s lunch menu included in the book. Then, hungry travelers on a budget might select plain sandwiches such as Bread & Butter (5c) or Fried Egg (10c). If they wanted something grander they could have Lobster or Crabmeat sandwiches at 20c apiece. Toasted sandwiches cost an additional 5c.

moody'sdinerjune1941Many people associate diners with prefab structures of stainless steel but Moody’s Diner is an example of a vernacular design constructed of wood. Before it was moved to Route 1, the initial Moody food stand accompanied Moody’s Cabins, a few of which had been built in 1927, a year when many a farmer in or near a vacation area decided to try to capture some of the tourist trade speeding by in their newly purchased cars. No doubt a roadside business helped offset some of the effects of the Depression.

The 1989 edition of What’s Cooking at Moody’s Diner, by Nancy Moody Genthner and edited by Kerry Leichtman, contains a wealth of recipes for “home-made” style dishes, desserts, salads, and breads. Twenty-five casserole recipes, many using canned soup, stand out for being far removed from routine restaurant fare.


Filed under diners, roadside restaurants


truckstop1943vachonIt seems that everyone has heard that truck drivers know all the best places to eat along the highway. [John Vachon, Farm Security Administration photo]

It also seems that no one believes it and never has. I suspect that the rumor was created by magazine writers so that they could debunk it. For instance, a writer in 1951 described the belief as “one of the most insidious myths in the folklore of American travel.” Anyone who is gullible enough to follow a truck to a restaurant or diner, he wrote, can expect to end up with “an acute case of gastritis and an awesome respect for the incredible powers of survival exhibited by the U.S. truck driver.”

truckstopAlbanyFew truck drivers have claimed to know the best places to eat. For drivers of 18-wheelers, eating, like everything on the job, has to fit into a punishing schedule if he/she wants to make money. About the only places a driver can stop are those with diesel fuel, big parking lots, and handy locations. Everything else is secondary, including food, which leads to heavy use of antacids and sentiments such as “I wouldn’t feed some truck stop food to a dog.”

Another aspect of restaurant-ing in trucker world is a breakdown of meal categories. Meals become interchangeable and can take place at any hour in a revolving day and night work schedule. Is 3 a.m. breakfast, lunch, or dinner time?


Reputedly truckstop patrons might encounter fluffy biscuits and fresh vegetables now and then, but I have the sense they were/are the exception. Overall, accounts point to dismal food choices. One of the worst examples was given in a 1962 story that described deep-fried chicken with a coating of cracker crumbs: “You strike a chicken leg and the crust falls away in a curved sheet to disclose a sight best forgotten.”

Although drivers would have been wise to follow the advice to “Never order anything fried at a truckstop,” many plunged ahead with chicken-fried steak smothered in cream gravy. Along with bacon and eggs and hash browns, chicken-fried steak held a high place on truckstop menus. Does it still?


Occasionally truckstop restaurants bought locally and did their own baking, though you can bet that most of the time drivers ate the same fare they hauled in their refrigerated trucks: frozen food. Nonetheless, some stops were known for their specialties. A 1969 guidebook recognized the 350 best truckstop restaurants, among them The Platter Restaurant in the Bosselman Truck Plaza near North Platte, Nebraska, that featured a parchment menu with catfish and “pastel fruit plates”; a New Mexico stop offering Mexican food; and a New Jersey truck plaza with a Ranch Hand Special of three eggs, three pancakes, and two ham steaks, all for $1.75 in 1970.

Earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s when long-haul trucking became established, truckers traveled on state roads and stopped at now-nostalgic though often mediocre “mom and pop” cafes. But with construction of interstate highways and vastly more trucks on the road by the 1960s, their limited hours and small parking lots could not handle demand. Roadside restaurants grew into full-service truck plazas, complete with motels, stores, laundromats, and 24-hour restaurants.


But whether eating took place in a small stand-alone café or a 200-seat restaurant in a 14-acre plaza, three constants held true. Waitresses had to be friendly and food had to be inexpensive and plentiful. The third? Coffee had to be strong. In truck driver slang, a restaurant was a “coffee pot” and coffee was “diesel fuel.”

Truckstop eateries have made up a significant part of the country’s restaurant industry. In 1977 Restaurant Hospitality magazine listed the Ohio 70-37 truckstop in Hebron OH as one of the biggest grossing independent restaurants in the U.S, despite its low check average of just $1.14 and the fact that all its revenue derived from food sales. (Needless to say, cocktails and 80,000 lb trucks are a bad combination.) According to Ron Ziegler, former Nixon press secretary and then-president of the National Association of Truckstop Operators, in 1986 truckstops were surpassed only by fast food chains as “the largest feeders of the United States.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under roadside restaurants

Odd restaurant buildings: Big Tree Inn


Was there ever a building or structure so strange, so awkward, so ugly that no one yearned to turn it into a restaurant?

Chicken coop, stable, giant tree stump. Why not? Especially if it was likely to catch the eye of speeding motorists and get them to stop out of sheer curiosity if nothing else.

BigTreeInnHumboldtCountyexhibit1915That’s not to say that the Big Tree Inn, for instance, had nothing to recommend it but its oddness, but it certainly had plenty of that. Built from two sections of a redwood log it was designed to exhibit Humboldt County CA’s wood products at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The stump house, 20 ft in diameter, plus its associated log structure, was contrived by the Rodney Burns Redwood Novelty Co. and shipped by rail in sections to San Francisco where it was reassembled.

Following the exposition, a realtor in Washington state bought the log structure, transporting it to Des Moines WA at great cost. Then he added a kitchen and dining room. The odd building quickly proved a great attraction to gawkers.

The realtor’s intentions in buying the two-part building are unclear – if he had hoped to make money from the redwood structure he was evidently disappointed. For several years the property languished among the real estate listings even though it was described as “very desirable for a chicken dinner place.”

Finally, in 1923 a couple from Seattle, middle-aged and recently married Andrew and Katherine Swanson, bought the Big Tree Inn. Andrew was a bookbinder, an occupation with no seeming suitability for operating a restaurant. Katherine, however, had worked as a cook.


The two managed to make a success of the venture, running it as a seasonal business for 20 years. A 1930 postcard shows Katherine standing in front of the Big Tree with her new Oldsmobile.

It was a popular destination for parties of city dwellers wanting chicken or steak dinners – or other dishes listed on the menu shown above such as Minced Ham and Pickle Sandwiches. In 1925 a Seattle newspaper advertised the Big Tree as “The Most Unique and Attractive Summer Resort in Washington” – On Des Moines Highway – Family Chicken Dinner, $2.00 – Special ½ Fried Chicken, on Toast, 50c. Not necessary to phone. We are always ready to serve.”

The Big Tree Inn’s location on a heavily traveled highway between Seattle and Tacoma was essential to its success, so when the highway was rerouted in 1938 the Big Tree Inn followed. The Swansons sold it in 1944. The building survived a bad fire in 1946 and was back on the market five years later, described as a “summer gold mine on main hiway” that was “ideal [for] couple management.” What happened to it after that I don’t know.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under odd buildings, roadside restaurants