Tag Archives: steak houses

Sawdust on the floor

Reformers of the 1910s would not have believed anyone who predicted that sawdust floors would make a comeback later in the century. But come back they did.

In the early 20th century, sawdust floors were seen as a vestige of disappearing filthy low-class eating places. Earlier they had been found in a great variety of places – English chop houses, French bistros, German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants, and saloons of every kind. In New York sawdust dealers of the 1880s made daily rounds selling 25-cent barrels to restaurants, saloons, and butcher shops (where sawdust collected blood).

But things were starting to change in the early 1900s as chains of sanitary lunch rooms with scrubbed white tile floors and walls became popular. In 1911, the Edison Monthly – a magazine devoted to promoting the use of bright lighting – confidently declared, “The old hole-in-the-wall lunch room, with its flickering lights, its smoky atmosphere, its greasy walls and sawdust carpeted floor, is a thing of the past.”

City health departments warned that cheap lunch rooms of the old sort rarely replaced sawdust, often covering one dirty layer with another and rarely cleaning the wood flooring below.

Concern with sanitation caused many municipalities to adopt ordinances forbidding the use of sawdust on floors anyplace food was produced or sold. San Antonio’s 1914 ordinance was typical, stating, “No person owning or managing any such business shall permit the use of sawdust, shavings, or other dust-creating or filth-collecting covering on the floor of any such room.”

Nonetheless sawdust had a strange appeal at the same time it was denounced as brimming with bacteria and vermin. Visitors to San Francisco were drawn to places such as Sanguinetti’s where they could earn cultural credits back home for inhaling its wild and crazy bohemian atmosphere. As a 1906 article put it, “No tourist could feel that he had really taken in all the sights of the city until he had sat at one of its tables and eaten of the very indifferent fare served there, and dropped his cigar ashes on the sawdust covered floor.”

And that was another thing about sawdust floors – they tended to catch on fire when cigar and cigarette butts were dropped on them.

Through the decades sawdust floors acquired strong associations with beef and beer – and male patrons. These associations formed a reservoir of meaning that theme restaurants of the future were destined to draw upon.

Steak houses were especially attracted to the winning beef-beer-men combination. The first inklings of sawdust’s return came with the legalization of beer in 1933. The Palm steak house in Manhattan, a man’s restaurant frequented by newspapermen, was one to use it. Steak houses were so strongly associated with men that it was newsworthy in 1947 when a woman restaurateur departed from their standard rough-edged ambiance which she characterized as “A smoke-filled room, too-bright lights and sawdust on the floor.” In order to please women customers, she instead chose oak paneling, sound-proofed ceilings, soft lighting, and window boxes with green plants.

Unsurprisingly, she did not start a trend. By the 1960s, if not earlier, the bad old days had been transformed into cheery “bygone days” when life was truer and simpler. Americans of the era hungered for amusement with their meat. “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ . . . all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out,” observed industry consultant George Wenzel, who also recommended sawdust floors.

Restaurants with sawdust floors proliferated, many adopting other nostalgic (might we say hackneyed?) decor features such as red-checkered tablecloths, gas lights, pseudo-Tiffany lamps, pot-bellied stoves, and elaborate dark wood bars. O’Henry’s in NYC used a “fun” butcher shop theme, with real carcass hooks hanging from the ceiling and butcher blocks for tables. In Phoenix AZ the notion of a “hole in the wall” was redeemed from the ash pit of history by a 1970s resort where everything in sight was designed to appeal to men. At the resort’s café named The Hole in the Wall there was sawdust on the floor, tintypes on the wall, fires in the fireplaces, mugs of beer, and a manly menu of beef and buffalo steaks, rattlesnake meat, “cowboy beans,” and corn on the cob.

Along with steak houses, versatile sawdust floors turned up at Gay Nineties restaurants, English pubs, Wild West eateries, barbecue joints, even Mexican restaurants.

It’s hard to figure just how many states and municipalities issued ordinances prohibiting sawdust floors. In 1976 the federal Food and Drug Administration banned sawdust in restaurants, yet the ban was not universally followed. Sawdust floors were permitted in San Francisco, but not in Washington, D.C., for instance. Some restaurant owners strenuously resisted health departments that advocated for a ban. In Arizona, the battle over sawdust became intense when state and county health departments cracked down on several dozen restaurants in Phoenix. The restaurants countered that they replaced sawdust daily and had never experienced problems with patrons becoming ill.

Today? I believe that restaurants are not allowed to use sawdust on the floors in the U.S. today – but I am not 100% sure about this. It seems that patrons who still long for that kind of atmosphere must content themselves with throwing peanut shells on the floor.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Filed under atmosphere, decor, lunch rooms, restaurant controversies, sanitation

High-volume restaurants: Hilltop Steak House

Until I moved to Boston in the 1980s and took a whale watch tour I hadn’t heard the boastful term “biggest grossing” thrown around. In pointing out the highlights of the Boston Harbor, the tour operator singled out several booming enterprises including Anthony’s restaurant. Had we been on a tour of Route 1 north of Boston, I’m sure he would have shouted the praises of the Hilltop Steak House, another mega-volume eatery, where a team of in-house butchers carved up millions of steaks a year, the parking lot held 1,000 cars, and customers waited in long lines outside the door.

I never went there. I was not one of the 2,350,000 or so customers who patronized the Hilltop in 1985, for example, one of a number of years when it ranked as the #1 independent restaurant in the USA from a high-grossing perspective, with over $24 million in annual sales.

Established in 1961 with seating for 125, the Western-themed restaurant continued to grow in subsequent years, with more dining rooms brightened with the standard steakhouse blood red color scheme, seating 1,100 by 1970, with an enlarged parking lot, and a huge 68-foot high lighted cactus sign out front.

Dining rooms were adorned with totem poles, reproductions of Remington and Russell paintings, and life-size Indian figures. The rooms had names meant to conjure up the Wild West such as Sioux City and Kansas City. No doubt the names rang true to diners from New Hampshire and Massachusetts but would have amused residents of those Iowa and Missouri cities which are conspicuously lacking in Western symbology.

Guests appreciated big steaks, low prices, and free parking. Prices were premised on sales volume, rapid table turns, cash-only payment, no reservations, and limited menu choices. Steaks could vary in grade, customers could not send back too-well-done steaks, orders could not be split, and there were no tablecloths. There was only one salad dressing and appetizers and desserts were uninspired – Jello was one of the three desserts on a 1981 menu. “I have nothing against lobster thermidor,” owner Frank Giuffrida told a reporter in 1984, “but don’t come to the Hilltop Steak House and expect to find it.”

The restaurant was prominently visible on Route 1’s tacky, wacky restaurant row where other high-grossing restaurants were also located, making the roadway a New England phenomenon in its own right. The Hilltop’s location was conveniently near the Mystic Bridge, the Callahan and Sumner Tunnels, Logan Airport, the Southeast Expressway, and Routes. 128, 28, 3, and 93. Busses were welcome!

The Hilltop’s founder, Frank Giuffrida, owned the restaurant until 1988, retiring as a rich man despite never having attended high school. In 1940, when Frank was 23, he was a butcher in the family meat market. His parents were born in Italy and had once toiled in a Lawrence MA woolen mill. In the 1950s he owned a tavern-style eatery called the Hilltop Lounge not far from where the steakhouse would be located.

Frank sold the Hilltop corporation in 1988 though he held onto the building and the large plot of land it occupied. The sale came with an agreement that the Giuffrida family would eat at the restaurant for free for the rest of their lives and that they would never have to wait in line for a table.

By the late 1990s restaurant competition on Route 1 had grown fierce. Weylu’s, another Route 1 top-grosser serving as many as 5,000 meals a day at its peak, went into bankruptcy in 1999 and closed. The Hilltop shrank its seating capacity to a mere 850 guests, but carried on until 2013. Both Weylu’s and the Hilltop have been demolished.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under decor, family restaurants, food, menus, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers, signs

Theme restaurants: castles

So often restaurant reviewers seem to struggle to say something positive about a restaurant. Is it my imagination or did they try twice as hard when reviewing restaurants with medieval castles and King-Arthur-and-his-knights themes? No doubt there were a handful of restaurants of this sort that really cared about food but, mainly, I think not. Of course most were actually steak houses in disguise — but what wasn’t a steak house around 1967, the year that the movie Camelot came out, almost certainly boosting this restaurant-ing trend?

In America Eats Out, John Mariani comments that during the 1960s many “strained and mawkish” restaurant themes prevailed. For example, he writes, “‘Old English pubs’ proliferated in places with names like Ye Olde Bull & Bush in Atlanta, The Golden Bee in Denver, and His Lordship’s in St. Louis. At Atlanta’s Abbey restaurant, waiters came to the table dressed as monks (a sartorial gimmick also featured at New York’s Monk’s Inn).”

The popular movie Camelot explains some but not all instances of medieval English resorts in this country. There were none in the 19th century that I’ve discovered, but a few can be found before the 1960s. I do not include White Castle hamburger stands. Despite their name and laughably minimal crenellated exteriors, they were so clearly not castles that they may be excused from consideration. They didn’t print menus on parchment scrolls, didn’t decorate with suits of armor, and didn’t dress countermen in monks’ robes or velveteen rompers with tights. As others have commented, White Castle interiors looked more like morgues than baronial halls. And while White Castles were sited near bus stops and factory gates, only a novelist like Vladimir Nabokov could have created the existential contexts for English castles: The Coat of Arms on Oracle Blvd. in the Casa Adobes Plaza; the Camelot Castle, a smorgasbord in Azusa CA; King Arthur steaks in Long Beach.

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Back in the 1920s entrepreneurs in Los Angeles were knocking together roadside castles – and windmills, Irish shanties, French Bastilles, giant igloos, anything that would catch the eye of a speeding motorist. It may have been a similar motive that led to the ca. 1920s erection of a castle in Westhampton, Long Island, once the home of the Gray Lion Tea House (another medieval castle would spring up in a Valley Stream shopping center in the mid 1960s housing a unit of the Steak Pub chain). The 1939 Chicago World’s Fair occasioned many theme restaurants including The Hunting Lodge, an English castle whose guests were attended by young women dressed as Robin Hoods.

Quite unlike White Castles’s tiny beef patties, Olde English castles encouraged “royal” self-indulgence, designed principally for male guests. Stiff drinks in front of the roaring fire, the color red, chunky chairs, cheese crocks, T-bone steaks, jumbo shrimp, and oversize desserts were typical of these castles.

The proliferation of restaurants of this type in the 1960s makes me think that it took a lot of coaxing to get men to go out to dinner in that decade.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Filed under restaurant decor, theme restaurants