Tag Archives: saloons

Dirty by design

Given the general fear of unclean restaurants, it’s hard to understand the fascination with cobwebs and dirt in eating and drinking places of the 19th century and early 20th. File this under “the past is a foreign country.”

One of the famous places known for its decades’ worth of dust and grime was Old Tom’s in New York City. In the judgment of its fond patrons, it only got better with time.

According to witnesses, the shabby building that housed Old Tom’s on Thames Street a block west of Broadway was dark and dingy and its windows had never been washed. In the corners were stacks of boxes and barrels. Its walls were adorned with dusty letters from old patrons, ancient notices for boxing matches, and somewhat repulsive relics such as a mummified bat and “a pair of shoes taken off a little forlorn waif found wandering in the streets.”

Although customers liked Old Tom’s chops, Welsh rarebits, and ale well enough, the fame of the place rested on its cobwebs (barely visible in this 1872 illustration). By the 1870s they had been allowed to grow quite luxurious for at least 30 years. One visitor compared them to an “air-plant” which absorbed fibers and floating dust along with ale fumes and the aroma of cooking. The webs hanging from the ceiling were so long that the owner trimmed them “like a garden hedge” so they didn’t catch on men’s hats. If the restaurant had wanted to move to a new location, it would have failed. Without Old Tom’s cobwebs “the soul of his business would vanish,” said a newspaper story in 1877.

Old Tom’s went out of business in 1880 but the name was so famous that another Old Tom’s popped up nearby. It was dowdy, but sadly lacking in cobwebs.
Old Tom’s had its match in San Francisco, at a dive known as the Cobweb Palace, established in 1855. Such places were as much saloon as eating place, yet the Cobweb Palace, located on Meigg’s Wharf (now the site of Fisherman’s Wharf), was known in its better days for its clam chowder, cracked crab, and mussels. By the time it was demolished in 1893, it was a near-total wreck.

The Cobweb Palace was decorated with spider webs, South Sea island clubs and masks, and a totem pole, among many other curios both valuable and worthless. Though it was hardly a family spot, children liked to stop by and see the parrots, magpies, and parakeets flying around. Roaming monkeys greeted patrons while outside the door was a caged bear.

Old Tom’s and the Cobweb Palace lived in lore long after they were gone, but many other cobwebbed saloon-style eateries disappeared into the mist and little is known but their names.

There had been a place called Cobweb Hall in New York and another in Detroit, both operated by men from Scotland. The owner of the New York saloon/chophouse on Duane Street died in 1868, putting an end to his menagerie of spiders, Siberian wolfhounds, and canaries. In Detroit, Tom Swan’s Cobweb Hall began in 1869, lasting into the 20th century. He attracted business men and actors to his web-filled restaurant whose walls were also adorned with old playbills.

The West had quite a few Cobweb Saloons, some serving food or adjoining a restaurant whose cook often was a Chinese immigrant. Some were in mining towns such as Prescott AZ, where Ben Butler’s Chop House, run by Fong, Murphy & Co., “the Finest Restaurant in Prescott,” was next to, or connected to the Cobweb Saloon.

I’ve also found Cobweb Saloons in Las Vegas NM, Lincoln NE, Spokane and Tacoma WA, San Antonio and Beaumont TX, Albany OR, New Orleans LA, and Honolulu HI [advertisement, 1905].

Alas, I don’t know whether these saloons and cafes were draped with cobwebs. Seems like those in the West would not have had enough decades to grow them. I’m guessing it was more of a declaration of manly, no-frills comforts.

The patrons of cobweb cafes, saloons, and chop houses were regarded as victims of the devil by Christian preachers and their flocks who thought the name Cobweb Saloon was just about perfect for a place that entrapped heavy-drinking men. In 1903 a Sunday School group in Roswell NM planned a temperance discussion to include topics such as “Do men drink whiskey for the taste or effect?” and “‘Cobweb Saloon’ – Why is this an appropriate name?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, odd buildings, Offbeat places, sanitation

Find of the day: Iffland’s Hofbrau-Haus

Iffland'sPC

Summer is the season for flea markets. A day at Brimfield this week yielded few thrills, unfortunately, yet I did find this interesting postcard of a Newark NJ restaurant.

iffland'sjohnIffland1893Iffland’s was established on Market street in Newark in 1867, just one year after John Iffland immigrated from Germany at the age of 25. [He is pictured here at about 51.] A few years later he moved to 187 Market, the location shown on the postcard.

Many of his patrons were businessmen, possibly of German heritage. Newark had a large German population. It also had many breweries, most of them run by German-Americans. Undoubtedly he served local beer, but he also imported beer from Germany. In the 1880s, when his business seemed to be more saloon than restaurant, Iffland ran advertisements in the German-language newspaper New Jersey Deutsche Zeitung announcing that he was serving beer imported from Munich. He also imported Salvator, a strong beer created to fortify those fasting during Lent.

It’s quite likely that by the time the postcard was produced, probably ca. 1910, John Iffland had retired and turned the business over to his two sons, Henry and John Jr. Perhaps it was they who installed the restaurant’s “beef-steak garret,” taking advantage of the popular fad for groups of men to hold dinners where they bonded while drinking beer and eating steaks with their bare hands. Possibly the restaurant’s kitchen was located in the basement, explaining why Iffland’s had a beefsteak garret rather than the typical “beefsteak dungeon” or “den” in an ominous looking cellar.

John Iffland died in 1917 and the business closed about that same time, allegedly because anti-German sentiment occasioned by the country’s entry into World War I on the side of the Allies against Germany, along with the impossibility of importing beer from Germany, had made it unprofitable.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

What would a nickel buy?

frankslunch

At a self-service restaurant in the town where I live, the menu includes a simple dish of beans and rice for only $1.25. It’s not steak but it’s better than a candy bar for anyone who is hungry but short of money.

It’s interesting to see typical restaurant prices from the past and to try to figure out if their prices were low or high. I remembered running across old advertisements for 5-cent dishes which I estimate might equal the $1.25 rice and beans of today. What, I wondered, did 5 cents buy in lunch rooms and restaurants of the past?

1869 – One quarter of a pie costs 5 cents in cheap and lowly New York City restaurants. (Five cents then would equal 87 cents today.)

1878 – Boston’s saloon eateries charge 5 cents for a schooner of beer. In some places the beer entitles the purchaser to free cheese and crackers. (Five cents then would equal $1.25 today.)

1880s – At the Old Albany Oyster & Eating House, patrons can take their choice of vegetable soup, meat stew, 1 dish of pickles, 4 slices of bread, or 1 dish of butter, each for a nickel.

1882CTlunchroomm

1880s – Visitors to the circus in Hartford CT can get a meal very cheaply [see menu], just as they can at Frank’s Dining Rooms in Boston [see above].

halfdime1890 – At the Half-Dime Lunch in Springfield MA, as in Hartford, every dish costs only a nickel. Half dimes were replaced by nickels in 1866 and are suggestive of the olden days.

1894 – Chicago’s sandwich wagons sell ham and egg sandwiches for 5 cents to patrons who don’t mind eating on the curb. In Worcester, night lunch wagons price all sandwiches at 5 cents except for sardine sandwiches which cost double. (Five cents then would equal $1.38 today.)

1894 – Five cents doesn’t buy much except a little something to eat. A Boston restaurant that covers its walls with folksy signs has one that says, “No napkins served with 5¢ orders. See?”

1905 – Five cents at the J.S. Mill’s Lunch and Sandwich Room in St. Paul MN will buy a sandwich of egg, wienerwurst, cheese, or pigs’ feet. (Five cents then would equal $1.35 today.)

1914 – About 1/4 of drug store soda fountains charge 5 cents for an ice cream soda.

1921 – At Thornton’s Cafeteria in Atlanta, fried oysters are 5 cents apiece. (Five cents then would equal 64 cents today.)

1929 – Following the stock market crash, a roadside stand in Great Falls MT named The Barrels slashes the price of a 10-cent glass of root beer in half.

1950 – The Horn & Hardart Automats finally raise the price of a cup of coffee from 5 to 10 cents. (Five cents then would equal 48 cents today.)

1979 – At a New Jersey surf & turf barn called The Wooden Nickel, nickels are valued only for their nostalgic aura. The Wooden Nickel’s specialty dish costs $12.95.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Filed under lunch rooms

Lunch and a beer

It won’t come as a surprise to learn that the free lunch wasn’t really free. As everyone knows the patron of a saloon had to buy a beer or some other sort of drink in order to partake of whatever edibles the proprietor had to offer. What might be news, though, is that it wasn’t exactly what we would call lunch nowadays. It was more of a snack eaten between meals, sometimes around noontime, sometimes not.

Although the standard free-lunch time began at 11:00 a.m. through much of the 19th century, some saloon keepers put out a spread as early as 9:00 in the morning, hours after most working people had their breakfasts. Or it might be at night – a kind of happy hour. At some saloons lunch on the house was provided every day, but at others it was more of a special occasion celebrating a grand opening, holiday, or proprietor’s birthday.

The dishes did not conform to our modern idea of a snack. In early June of 1872 the owner of a Sioux City IA saloon promised a Saturday morning spread where patrons could accompany their juleps and Roman punches with oyster soup, fish with egg sauce, deviled ham, lobster salad, pickled oysters, salmon, tongue, pickles, lettuce, and radishes – a very different kind of morning break than today’s coffee and doughnuts. Which proves that our snacks have become lighter, while lunch has gained the stature of a regular meal. It also shows that profit on the sale of whiskey and beer could be more than enough to underwrite a veritable feast.

It’s likely that the free lunch is a very old custom. Certainly there were plenty of free lunches to be had in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s. But in their advertisements saloons rarely described a spread equal to what the drinking man (respectable women did not enter saloons) could find in New Orleans, considered the country’s finest free lunch locale. In Northeastern cities often only plates of crackers and cheese made it onto the counter, possibly accompanied by a crock of soup. The New Orleans free lunch was more elaborate, with beef, mock turtle soup, “delicate slices of highly flavored buffalo tongue,” and “well dressed salads.”

The rule of thumb was that where there was intense competition, there would be high-quality saloon fare. San Francisco qualified, as did St. Louis and Chicago. Chicago’s spreads were rarely elegant, but they were hearty. Beer drinkers there favored sandwiches of dark rye bread piled with liver sausage or herrings, strong mustard, and sauerkraut.

In the 1860s, upscale saloons patronized by better-off customers started calling themselves buffets or cafés. Later some would charge a small charge for a “merchant’s lunch.” Business men liked these lunches because they were quick. The food was ready, no tipping was necessary, and little ceremony was involved. You could eat standing if it suited you, in fact there were few tables and chairs.

Feeling the loss of customers, restaurateurs repeatedly tried to abolish the free lunch habit, as did temperance advocates who wished there could be cheap but respectable restaurants that competed successfully with saloons for the workingman’s business. The average saloon normally charged only 5c for food and drink, an amount for which most restaurants could not furnish a decent meal.

The anti-saloon movement grew stronger with the approach of World War I. Alcohol-free quick lunch chains such as Thompson’s and Child’s — the McDonald’s of their day — learned that by doing a high-volume business they could serve lunches almost as cheaply as saloons. With national prohibition in 1920 the restaurant industry, freed from saloon competition, blossomed and took its modern shape.

Reformers from the 19th century would be thrilled to learn that cheap lunches today are no longer normally washed down with a beer.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under lunch rooms, restaurant customs