There are numerous historical links between restaurants on land and vessels that navigate seas, lakes, and rivers. Ocean going sailors arriving in port, for instance, made up a notable fraction of early restaurant customers. Their ranks also provided stewards, cooks, and chefs, bringing new skills and cuisines wherever they took up their profession on land. San Francisco in the 1850s provides a striking example. In the United States steamboats that traveled the rivers and Great Lakes contained dining salons that were among the 19th century’s most luxurious and among the few places where ornamental French cuisine flourished.
But . . . this post isn’t about that. Instead it illustrates how far restaurants featuring ship and boat themes have strayed from a connection with their watery history. Ship restaurants are for the most part little more than a novelty – but a novelty that can be traced back at least to the 1850s. Despite quite a lot of ship restaurants running aground or sinking, literally and figuratively, there is some kind of primal appeal that keeps them going.
Frank Bazzuro may have been first. He arrived in San Francisco from Italy in 1852 and installed a restaurant in one of the hundreds of ships abandoned in the Bay, introducing his customers to a Genoese fish stew, cioppina. In the 1880s Capt. Paul Boyton, a world-famous swimming champion who popularized rubber wet suits, opened a restaurant on West 29th in NYC called “The Ship” which resembled a ship’s cabin. On Venice Pier in CA, a developer constructed a replica of a Spanish Galleon in 1904, after which it rode the waves of good and bad luck until its demolition in 1946. After an underworld shooting in 1928, it went through a couple of name changes, from Show Boat Café to Volga Boat.
Most ship restaurants that float on water – which not all do – have had checkered pasts as more utilitarian vessels or ones that have spent some time under water. Before it became a floating restaurant in Wilmington NC in 1951, the Ark had transported troops, hosted gamblers, and housed the coast guard. The SS Catala was one of about ten ships that appeared in Elliott Bay during the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Previously it had served as a coastal passenger steamship, then fish transporter. When the fair ended it was towed to Los Angeles where it failed as a nightclub restaurant, then appeared in an Perry Mason TV episode before returning to restaurant-ing in Washington where a storm ran it aground.
Dining on a floating restaurant can be hazardous. A storm tore St. Louis’s Becky Thatcher Riverboat from its moorings, sending it downstream where it ran onto the opposite side of the Mississippi in 1969. Bar business was said to be brisk in the interlude before its 100 diners were rescued.
Ships moored on land are safer but rarely very convincing in their roles, particularly if they are in Dallas or Phoenix (below, respectively), smack on a roadway or surrounded by an asphalt parking lot where the water consists of a few puddles.
A parking lot might seem like a strange place for a ship but, a little reflection tells you that Noah’s Ark could have ended up almost anywhere. And that may be the reason enterprises with that name have done business not only on the beach in Leucadia CA, but near the interstate in St. Charles MO (pictured) and in Grovetown GA and Des Moines IA.
Some sites present a real challenge. How do you make your restaurant resemble a ship when it’s in the middle of a block? Boyton’s ship cabin restaurant where only the interior resembles a ship gives an answer, but so do a number of storefronts that have been adorned with protruding ship’s prows, such as Bernstein’s in San Francisco (pictured).
Many restaurants with ship themes specialize in fish and seafood, but not all. Why not Chinese and American cuisine as in the 1940s Ship Ahoy chain with restaurants in Atlanta and Augusta GA, Charlotte NC, Columbia SC, and Houston TX? Or hamburgers (McDonald’s, St. Louis riverfront, shown below)?
In researching this topic I learned that almost every city or town will sooner or later have a ship restaurant. And many of them will sink, be scrapped, or get towed to another location. The fate of the Showboat Restaurant in Beaverton OR was ironic. In 1981 it became Showboat Liquidators where “Selling Your Boat Is Our Only Business!”
© Jan Whitaker, 2013