Tag Archives: theme restaurants

Ohio + Tahiti = Kahiki

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In the heyday of Polynesian restaurants, the 1960s and 1970s, the business attracted operators because of high profits in rum drinks. Their marketing relied on bar decoration, bartender apparel, drink names, elaborate serving vessels, and imaginative presentation.

The same was true for “Polynesian cuisine.” There could be no such thing as a Polynesian restaurant without fabulously kitschy decor.

Whatever Polynesian cuisine was, it certainly wasn’t what real Polynesians ate past or present. The Kahiki’s reference point was Tahiti. So, what were Tahitians eating in 1961 when the Kahiki opened? According to a geographer, the traditional Tahitian diet consisted of baked fish, breadfruit, and taro, but natives then preferred French baguettes with Australian butter, rice from Madagascar, canned beef from New Zealand, and Canadian canned salmon, all “washed down with generous drinks of Algerian red wine.”

KahikiDrinksIt’s doubtful that Tahitians ate much in the way of Oriental Beef or Tahitian Flambee (flaming ice cream with rum). Not to mention Tossed Green Salads, Eggs Benedict, or Reuben Sandwiches.

But people didn’t go to the Kahiki mainly for its food. As an unenthusiastic reviewer wrote in 1975, “If decor is your reason for dining out, the Kahiki in Columbus is the place for you.”

Its drinks, on the other hand, were hard to resist. With three bars on the ground floor alone, the Kahiki’s menu at one point illustrated drinks served in 30 different glasses, goblets, and ceramic cups and bowls. The most expensive was the Mystery Drink served with four straws. Its presentation involved a scantily dressed server, a gong, a lei, and a kiss. There were also Smoking Eruptions, with fumes emanating from chunks of dry ice, as well as Pago Passages, Malayan Mists, Tonga Tales, and Native Nectars.

kahikiserverBeyond rum, customers were dazzled by the restaurant’s architecture, decor, and theatricality (e.g., periodic thunder and lightning). In the restaurant’s last decades its fans celebrated it as a temple of kitsch but, surprisingly, in earlier years it was often regarded as authentic.

The building reportedly cost $1 million to build in 1960 and, with 560 seats, was the largest Polynesian restaurant in the U.S. In a flat landscape peppered with indifferent utilitarian structures, it was a startling sight that promised relief from drab ordinariness. Stepping beyond the up-swooping 50-foot facade the visitor entered a darkened Tahitian village with tall palm trees, waterfalls, thatched huts, idols, and a wild profusion of South Seas-style artifacts.

The Kahiki’s decorator, artist and engineer Coburn Morgan, was a prominent Ohio restaurant designer whose career may have been launched by his work on the Kahiki. The flamboyant design of the Kahiki was undoubtedly due to him.

In 1960, when he drew the sketch shown above, Morgan was head of the design division of the Tectum Corporation which furnished many of the composite building materials used in the construction of the Kahiki, including pressed wood for roof supports as well as for soundproofing and decorative wall panels. It may also have been used for flooring and for the stylized fish arrayed along the roof’s crest.

kahikiTangierCMorganFollowing completion of the Kahiki, Morgan designed the Aztec-themed Thunderbird Restaurant (Lima), a red-fronted prototype for the Bob Evans chain (Chillicothe), McGarvey’s Nautical Restaurant (Vermillion), the Wine Cellar (Columbus), Jack Bowman’s Steak House (Columbus), the Brown Derby (Columbus), the 18th-century-themed Old Market House Inn (Zanesville), the Tangier Restaurant (Akron — pictured), Mawby’s (Cleveland), and the “Western Victorian-style” Judd’s (Cleveland).

For theme-restaurant inspiration, Morgan traveled to the American West for the Bob Evans chain and to Lebanon for the Tangier, which was modeled on the summer palace of the head of state. The Wine Cellar, owned by Kahiki creators Bill Sapp and Lee (Leland) Henry, had a Shakespeare theme. When it failed in 1991 “16 tall carved knight’s chairs” and a “grand piano bar with winged dragon” were among the furnishings auctioned.

During its more than 50-year run the Kahiki, which was also a nightclub and banquet center, entertained hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups such as Jaycee-ettes, senior citizens, anniversary and wedding parties, and so on. Despite its listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the efforts of local preservationists who felt the Kahiki was an important part of Columbus’ cultural identity, it was demolished in 2000.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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The power of publicity: Mader’s

Compared to cities of comparable size in 1910 — such as Los Angeles, Minneapolis, or New Orleans — Milwaukee at first appears to be a town where people rarely ate outside the home. But statistics can be deceiving. In the city made famous by its breweries, most eating places were primarily saloons before Prohibition, usually set up in business by one or another brewery.

This is how Charles Mader got his start, as a saloonkeeper who also served meals of the homely sort. Although 1902 is commonly given as the year in which he began, I suspect it was a few years later that he opened his own place. Throughout most of his early career he worked with a partner. He and Gustav Trimmel joined up in 1915, the year the saloon moved to the present-day restaurant’s address. In 1921 Mader had a new partner, Charles Ruge, with whom he remained in business until 1928. Thereafter his partners were his sons George and Gus who assumed ownership when Charles died in 1937. [pictured above, 1950s]

Although many restaurants get a good share of patronage from out-of-towners, relatively few located in America’s midsection make a determined bid for nation-wide recognition. Mader’s was one of those that did so successfully. A late 1920s photograph in the historic photo collection of the Milwaukee Public Library shows the restaurant with a prominent “Tourists’ Headquarters” sign in its front window. In 1929, a newspaper item suspiciously resembling an advertorial (publications didn’t identify them as such then) claimed that Mader’s had won a reputation for hospitality extending “the length and breadth of this land and to distant lands as well.”

Charles Mader was known for his belief in advertising, often remarking, “If your business is not worth advertising, advertise it for sale.” Beginning afer Prohibition, Mader’s would intensify its advertising program and accentuate its Germanness, following a kind of reverse assimilation common to other German-themed restaurants in the US. Very likely this reflected a proportionate shift in patronage from German-American Milwaukeans to a wider clientele of conventioneers, traveling businessmen, and tourists of all stripes looking for an identifiably ethnic experience. The trend would continue: a 1968 newspaper story reported that at Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s, mostly patronized by tourists, German dishes were popular, while at restaurants patronized exclusively by Milwaukeans such as the Fox and Hounds, filet mignon and lobster tail were favorites.

In 1935 the Maders remodeled the 3rd Street building to look more typically German in a style suggestive of medieval architecture with a high stepped gable and two bas relief panels depicting quaintly costumed servers. By contrast, only a couple years earlier Mader’s had a typical plate glass storefront with a centered, recessed entryway and a moderne sign with its name spelled out in bold aluminum lettering. In subsequent decades, the Mader’s compound has been further extended and embellished, given a vaulted ceiling and decorated with heraldic swords and shields. It has taken on a castle-like appearance.

Along with arch competitor Karl Ratzsch’s, a Viennese-inflected restaurant pursuing much the same strategy, Mader’s began to win awards and listings in national magazines and restaurant guides, such as Duncan Hine’s Adventures in Good Eating and those of the Automobile Club of America and Ford Motor Company. It began attracting visiting Hollywood stars in the 1930s, hanging their autographed photos on its walls. In 1937 and again in 1949 and 1952 a poll of traveling business men voted it America’s favorite German restaurant and one of their ten favorite restaurants overall. Accolades continued coming in up to the present day.

Mader’s is a survivor, having outlasted most of Milwaukee’s venerable German restaurants, some of which, Forst-Keller and the Old Heidelberg for example, were associated with the city’s breweries. Cafes originating with Fritz Gust, Joe Deutsch, and John Ernst have all passed from the scene, the last as recently as 2001.

Long considered “heavy” eating, German cuisine has perhaps sunk in popularity somewhat from the middle of the 20th century, although Pork Shanks – ever popular at Mader’s – remain on the restaurant’s menu to this day. Notably, though, this once-humble dish has become an expensive entree.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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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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Birth of the theme restaurant

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Credit for the development of the first theme restaurants goes to Paris cafés and cabarets which opened in Montmartre in the later nineteenth century. They were primarily drinking spots rather than full-scale restaurants but they served food also. Like American theme restaurants today they were built around a concept and created an environment which appeared to be something other than a mere eating and drinking place.

In their early years these artistic cafés had a counter-cultural impetus that in some cases celebrated the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871 which had been rooted in Montmartre.

That was particularly true of the Café du Bagne (Café of the Penitentiary) established in 1885 by Maxime Lisbonne (shown with waiters), a member of the Commune long exiled in a South Pacific penal colony. Posters on the wall of his café, which replicated a prison eating hall, hailed Commune heroes. Waiters were dressed as real convicts but with fake balls and chains. The place caused an instant sensation when it opened, with patrons lining up outside to get in. Possessed of a socialistic mission, Lisbonne posted a sign in 1886 announcing a free breakfast for the poor residents of Montmartre: “Come, and eat your fill, your appetite sharpened by the knowledge that it was from their [the capitalists] coffers the money was extracted.”

The Chateau d’If’ of the 1880s, possibly an imitator of the Café du Bagne, was designed to resemble the prison by the same name in Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Outside it had an imitation drawbridge which stretched from the street to a large oak door, while inside were cells and dungeons. The L’Abbaye de Thélème, with a medieval theme, dressed its servers as monks and nuns.

At Le Chat Noir, the decor was in Louis XIII style, with waiters dressed in the authentic green jackets of the Immortals of the French Academy whose job it was to protect the purity of the French language – the object being, of course, to mock them. When it was established in 1881, Le Chat Noir, which was also decorated with images of black cats throughout, served as a club for artists where they exhibited their work. Its fame spread quickly and it became a magnet for visitors to Paris. (Later incarnation of Le Chat Noir pictured below.)

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Many of the Montmartre cafés celebrated the macabre, with paintings and decor whose subjects included infanticide, crucifixion, and assassination, but in 1894 The Café of Death opened, furnished with coffins serving as tables. The police objected to its name and its habit of serving beer in imitation human skulls so its name was changed to the Cabaret du Néant [of Nothingness] (see above).

The 1890s marked a turning point at which original owners left the scene, artists stopped coming, bohemianism vanished, and new café owners took dead aim at tourists. Certainly few of the popular cafés and cabarets of the early 20th century had much connection with earlier enterprises even when old names remained. Many felt that the Café de l’Enfer (Café of Hell) exemplified the purely commercial type of enterprise.

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The spirit of Paris’s bohemian cafés passed into the United States first in New York City. Au Chat Noir was in business there in 1895, decorated with a wall frieze of black cats. Otherwise, though, it seemed like a fairly standard small French restaurant of the day serving dishes such as cold lobster, tripe, and deviled crabs. Later at least a couple of other cafés named The Black Cat appeared in NY and Coppa’s in San Francisco adopted a similar theme.

Other early theme restaurants undoubtedly inspired by Paris cafés include beefsteak dungeons in New York and elsewhere, as well as tea rooms and cabarets in Greenwich Village both before and after World War I, a prime example being the Pirates’ Den. As in Paris, theme restaurants and cafés rapidly lost any counter-cultural overtones.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Theme restaurants: barns

At the risk of offending anyone I have to say I find this one of the worst themes ever. I almost feel I don’t need to elaborate, that everyone is thinking “I agree.” Not only is the decor corny and the “atmosphere” non-existent, but the kitchen is usually totally lacking in ambition if not turning out food that is downright bad.

The 19th century was mercifully unafflicted with barn restaurants, presumably because barns were still needed for farming and restaurants that were more than plain, bare-bones eateries tended toward grandeur. Sometimes the grandeur was hokey but at least the aim was to provide guests with an experience that went beyond eating in a shelter designed for animals and fowls. Though theme restaurants weren’t totally unknown, the past had not yet been ransacked to come up with novelties that would attract jaded patrons looking for “something different” or catch the eye of passing motorists.

Barn themes were usually used to attract men. I’m guessing it was because subliminally they seemed to promise large quantities of food while not demanding overmuch etiquette. Some beefsteak dungeons, as they were called, where men ate steaks with their bare hands in basements of hotels and restaurants, adopted barn themes. Occasionally even tea rooms, supposedly appealing to discriminating women of delicate tastes, were tucked away in barns in the 1920s (Hyannis Tea Barn pictured). Men tended to avoid tea rooms, so a 1924 tea room trade journal suggested adopting a barnyard theme to draw them. A headline read “The Barnyard Lunch Shows How to Win and Hold Masculine Patronage.” Oof.

The nightclub and restaurant “renaissance” which occurred in 1933 right after the repeal of Prohibition inspired a host of barn eateries as well as many other kinds of theme restaurants. Many were night spots for drinking and dancing as well as “dining.” Examples included the Village Barn in Greenwich Village, as well as Topsy’s Roost near San Francisco which after Repeal relocated to a larger barn equipped to service over 1,000 merry imbibers at once. At Topsy’s, rooster images decorated the walls while chicken prints crossed the table tops. Is anyone thinking sucker joint?

The 1960s and 1970s saw another spate of barn restaurants, this time chains such as Red Barn and Nickerson Farms, which actually constructed barn-shaped buildings as restaurants. And some people loved them.  And pine over them even today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Chuck wagon-ing

chuckwagoncafe333Who was first to realize that they could cover bad plaster on their ceilings and walls with canvas and call their restaurant a covered wagon or a chuck wagon? The idea seems to have  struck initially in the 1930s, at least that’s when the first Covered Wagon restaurant I’ve found dates from. It was in the Old West – no, make that Minneapolis, with a second in St. Paul. Red checkered tablecloths covered the tables and  in the 195os the female waitstaff wore long calico dresses with aprons, a fact I know thanks to the well-illustrated book Minnesota Eats Out. There was also a Covered Wagon in Chicago in the 1940s, presumably under different ownership but with the same tablecloths.

ED'schuckwagon1The wagon-esque theme caught on big during the 1950s, inspired partly by TV westerns and  partly by the fame of Las Vegas chuck wagon buffets which provided grub for gamblers from midnight ‘til dawn. If not for Vegas envy, why else would there have been one in Miami Beach in 1955? Apparently seeing no local cuisine worth merchandising, restaurateurs there chose from a grab bag of themes such as Smorgs, Polynesian, and Ken’s Pancake Parade. (“Grandma’s Kitchen” was the town’s most venerable eating establishment at the time.)

Cuisine of choice in a chuck wagon? It hardly seems necessary to mention that it was steak. With cocktails. In 1956 the Highland Ranch Wagon, in Oakland CA, offered an All You Can Eat Prime Rib special, with the opportunity to “Create Your Own Salad” for only $2.25.

dillywagon334Around 1960 a Potsdam NY man got the idea of franchising Dilly Wagons as a way to market his hot sauce. The first franchisees were in Vermont (pictured), a region where he was no doubt correct, as his 1961 advertisement said, that the wagon was the “most eye-catching structure ever seen on the highway.”

Chuck wagons continued through the 1960s and 1970s, with names such as the Chuck Wagon Sandwich-teria (Appleton WI), the Wagon Wheel (many places), and the Fiesta Chuck Wagon (Chicago area). Chuck wagon restaurants live on today, many having become buffet-style eateries where children are welcome.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Don Dickerman

dickermanrev Don Dickerman was obsessed with pirates. He took every opportunity to portray himself as one, beginning with a high school pirate band. As an art student in the teens he dressed in pirate garb for Greenwich Village costume balls. Throughout his life he collected antique pirate maps, cutlasses, blunderbuses, and cannon. His Greenwich Village nightclub restaurant, The Pirates’ Den, where colorfully outfitted servers staged mock battles for guests, became nationally known and made him a minor celebrity.

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It might seem that Don’s buccaneering interests were commercially motivated except that he often dressed as a pirate in private life, owned a Long Island house associated with pirate lore, formed a treasure-hunting club, and spent a small fortune collecting pirate relics. He was a staff artist on naturalist William Beebe’s West Indies expedition in 1925, and in 1940 had a small part in Errol Flynn’s pirate movie The Sea Hawk.

piratesdenmenu225Over time he ran five clubs and restaurants in New York City. After failing to make a living as a toy designer and children’s book illustrator, he opened a tea room in the Village primarily as a place to display his hand-painted toys. It became popular, expanded, and around 1917 he transformed it into a make-believe pirates’ lair where guests entered through a dark, moldy basement. Its fame began to grow, particularly after 1921 when Douglas Fairbanks recreated its atmospheric interior for his movie The Nut. He also ran the Blue Horse (pictured), the Heigh-Ho (where Rudy Vallee got his start), Daffydill (financed by Vallee), and the County Fair.

bluehorsephoto226On a Blue Horse menu of the 1920s Don’s mother is listed as manager. Among the dishes featured at this jazz club restaurant were Golden Buck, Chicken a la King, Tomato Wiggle, and Tomato Caprice. Drinks (non-alcoholic) included Pink Goat’s Delight and Blue Horse’s Neck. Ice cream specials also bore whimsical names such as Green Goose Island and Mr. Bogg’s Castle. At The Pirates’ Den a beefsteak dinner cost a hefty $1.25. Also on the menu were chicken salad, sandwiches, hot dogs, and an ice cream concoction called Bozo’s Delight. A critic in 1921 concluded that, based on the sky-high menu tariffs and the “punk food,” customers there really were at the mercy of genuine pirates.

As the Depression deepened business evaporated, leading Don to declare bankruptcy in 1932. A few years later he turned up in Miami, running a new Pirates’ Den, and next in Washington D.C. where he opened another Pirates’ Den on K Street in Georgetown in 1939. In 1940 he opened yet another Pirates’ Den, at 335 N. La Brea in Los Angeles, which was co-owned by Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby among others. In the photograph, Don is shown at the Los Angeles Pirates’ Den with wife #5 (photo courtesy of Don’s granddaughter Kathleen P.).

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

Learn more about Don Dickerman’s life.

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