Tag Archives: roadside tea rooms

On the 7th day they feasted

Sundaydinner1966In the weekly schedule of meals through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Sunday dinner was the peak in terms of the costliness of the food and the elaborateness of preparation. By the 1890s and early 20th century it became clear that more people were choosing to have Sunday dinner in a restaurant, a trend that appears to have begun in the Western U.S.

Earlier in the 19th century most Sunday restaurant goers were travelers staying in hotels or denizens of boarding houses that did not provide meals on Sundays. Otherwise, Sunday was not a busy day for eating places as far as is known. In 1853 Putnam’s magazine reported that although many New Yorkers patronized restaurants during the week, on Sunday they did not.

SundayDinneratGrandma's1942So the fact that people in full-service households began to eat Sunday dinner in a restaurant was a big change considering that it was largely regarded as a home-based meal often celebrated in the style of holiday meals today. Sunday dinner in the home was enough of a big deal that small town newspapers in the early 20th century were in the habit of reporting the names of guests who had been invited to the Smith’s or Wilson’s, etc.

The acceptability of Sunday meals in restaurants went hand in hand with restaurants becoming respectable to mainstream Americans, especially temperance advocates. Traditionally most eating places were also drinking places. In the 1870s some cities and towns went so far as to shut down restaurants on Sundays to stop drinking on what was generally regarded as a holy day. Philadelphia’s “Sunday Laws” closed saloons, but also restaurants, ice cream gardens, and confectionery stores. People who lived in rented rooms in New Hampshire had no place at all to eat after restaurants were ordered to close on Sundays. Although the West was generally more tolerant of drinking, Tacoma WA closed restaurants on Sundays in 1891, leaving hotels as the only eating places open for business.

A more common prohibition strategy in the early 20th century was to allow restaurants to remain open on Sunday but to make it illegal for them to sell alcohol that day. Another tactic had been tried, that of closing saloons on Sundays and only allowing drinks to be sold at places selling meals, but it didn’t take long before saloons began claiming restaurant status. NYC’s experiment with permitting only hotels to sell alcoholic drinks resulted in restaurants adding bedrooms on their upper floors, often devoted to illicit trade.

SundaydinnerclevelandJan61912In Washington DC, where the sale of alcohol was illegal on Sundays in 1905, restaurants that had bars and wanted to serve meals on that day were allowed to stay open if they completely enclosed their bar with wooden partitions running from floor to ceiling.

Sundayfinley'sphalansterie1908One effect of the separation of drinking and eating was to broaden the base of restaurant customers. Restaurants began advertising that they were home-like and welcoming to families. To the middle class, homelike definitely implied alcohol-free in the early 20th century (only during Prohibition did drinking in the home become normalized). A correspondence course in advertising in 1905 recommended the following copy, aimed at women, to attract restaurant customers: “After Church . . . You’ll hardly want to go home, doff your good clothes, and cook a big dinner. We can save you all that trouble. Just induce your husband to bring you here for your Sunday dinner.” [see advertisement for Finley’s, Cleveland, 1908]

Tea rooms were at the forefront of the home-like restaurant trend. They specialized in what had become the most popular of Sunday repasts, the chicken dinner. As Americans acquired cars, drives into the countryside with a stop at a tea room, inn, or restaurant for a Sunday chicken dinner became irresistible to city dwellers.

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By World War I it was old-fashioned to eat dinner in the middle of the day, with the custom living on mostly in rural areas. But, as is true of holidays now, Sunday remained an exception for many people. Even into the 1970s many restaurants that specialized in Sunday dinner offered it both around noon and in the evening. It even became fashionable to eat in a restaurant or hotel dining room on Sunday evening, as a 1920 headline in a Milwaukee paper attested: “Dine Out on Sunday. Once Famous Repast is Delegated to Restaurants.” The story reported that it was the biggest night in the week for restaurants there.

In a sense Sunday brunch, whose popularity grew in the 1960s, replaced mid-day Sunday dinners offered by restaurants. Another blow against Sunday dinners in restaurants came when Christian religionists took a stand against restaurant-going on Sundays, seeing it as a violation of the Sabbath. The status of Sunday dinners in restaurants today is unclear.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Filed under family restaurants, restaurant customs

“Eat and get gas”

EatandGetGasMO

When I first encountered that jokey phrase as a child I thought it was amazingly clever and funny. So did many adults, evidently, because over the decades numbers of roadside eateries adopted it as a catchphrase. Even as late as 1976 Stuckey’s was using it on a billboard near Dallas. A roadside gas station/café outside Omaha bore the equally cornball name Tank and Tummy.

AncestryChildressTXcafe

It wasn’t long after thousands of Americans acquired cars and took to the roads in the 1920s that all kinds of roadside businesses popped up to serve them. They ranged from campgrounds in farm fields to tourist homes and cabins, gas stations, tea rooms, and cafés. The Depression failed to stifle the urge to travel by car while inspiring thousands to try to make a living from passing traffic. Among the ideas included in a dispiriting little 1937 pamphlet called The Roadman’s Guide (“A Valuable Book of Money Making Formulas, Recipes, Ways, Plans and Schemes”) were carnival games, refreshment stands, and “eating joints.”

AncestryOzarkTavernWestphaliaMO

The gas station/restaurant combination was a popular one, often further combined with a gift shop or rooms for overnight guests. The logic is the same one-stop-shopping idea used by department stores: get customers to stop in for essentials and they may buy other things they didn’t even know they wanted. In Taunton MA in the 1920s, the Marvel Lunch and Filling Station not only had chicken and duck sandwiches on offer but also advertised “Stop and See the Trained Bears.”

Although it did tend to render them less refined, some tea rooms were linked to gas stations. Yet Duncan Hines’ 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating for the Discriminating Motorist gave a slightly grudging nod to The Old Elm Tree near Fremont OH, indicating “Just a wayside place with filling station adjacent but they serve a mighty good steak and chicken dinner, as well as all kinds of sandwiches and salads.”

Among those who tried combining gas and eating in the Depression – and succeeded – were Harlan Sanders and Gus Belt, respectively founders of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Steak ’n’ Shake.

AncestryTrouttCafeWoodlawnIL

Which came first in these combined ventures — the gas station or the restaurant? I’ve decided that in most cases it was – and still is – the gas station. And that might account for why so few roadside dining spots earn a reputation for fine food. Consider chains such as Stuckey’s, Nickerson Farms, and Dutch Pantry.

With superhighway construction in the 1950s and 1960s, highway stops institutionalized paired restaurants and gas stations, though by this time they were housed in separate buildings. In 1961 the Stouffer Corporation teamed up with Standard Oil of Ohio to test automat-style restaurants. They were not a success, but generally highway self-service food courts have proved acceptable to the motoring public.

Like many of the eat-and-get-gas highway oases before them, interstate service plazas also do duty as truck stops. But that is the subject of a future post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under roadside restaurants