Tag Archives: wine

Basic fare: spaghetti

spaghettiMeatballs327In the 1890s it was considered daring to go to an Italian restaurant and eat spaghetti. The restaurants were not in affluent neighborhoods and some middle-class people worried (largely needlessly) about how clean they were. Non-drinkers didn’t approve of the “red ink” (wine) that came with the spaghetti. Some women felt it was not ladylike to eat spaghetti in public. Then there was the garlic, which was considered seriously foreign by many Americans. But others, especially offbeat types – artists, musicians, and free spirits known as “bohemians” — loved the whole experience: spaghetti, wine, garlic, low prices, and the friendly atmosphere found in most Italian places. The future of spaghetti belonged to them.

Italian pastas were not really new in this country. Thomas Jefferson brought several cases back from Paris in the 1780s and when he ran out he imported a piece of equipment for making macaroni (as all pastas were known then). Macaroni occasionally shows up on menus before the Civil War. In 1844 the Café Tortoni, a French restaurant in NYC, featured stewed beef with macaroni. Pastas were growing popular enough by 1888 to be manufactured in the United States, made of durum wheat grown in the Dakotas.

spaghettiwaiter04The bohemian fad for spaghetti grew stronger in the early 20th century, particularly in lower Manhattan and San Francisco. Diners flocked to Gonfarone’s in Greenwich Village. Despite its low prices, the restaurant made money because a 50-cent dinner with a complimentary glass of wine cost but pennies to put on the table – about 2 cents for the spaghetti and a few cents for a carafe of the red California claret bought by the barrel, 40 or 50 at a time.

In 1904 short story writer O. Henry swelled the fame of the spaghetti restaurant with “A Philistine in Bohemia.” The story involved a poor, unsophisticated daughter of a rooming house keeper who is taken out to a restaurant called Tonio’s by one of her mother’s boarders. When they arrive at the restaurant he disappears, later to emerge from the kitchen as the chef who is warmly greeted by the regular diners who regard him with awe.

Spaghetti sauces in the early Italian restaurants often were made of a brown sauce mixed with tomato sauce, the whole dish sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. The brown sauce was made with thickened beef broth, sauteed mushrooms, and sometimes truffles and chicken livers.

By around 1910 spaghetti had spread to restaurants run by non-Italians. It might appear on menus as “Spaghetti Italienne” or as “authentic Italian” if garlic was used, perhaps a warning to avoiders. On the other hand, bland American-style spaghetti quickly became a regular in cheap cafés and on cafeteria steam tables. In “home-cooking” places, such as Foster’s on South Wabash in Chicago, it joined a melange of 25-cent dishes like ham with macaroni, creamed eggs on toast, corn fitters with maple syrup, clam chowder, and baked beans.

tonysbantaminnCT42Spaghetti, Italian and non, continued as a staple restaurant dish during successive decades, in speakeasies of the 1920s, Depression dives and diners, and a variety of restaurants during the meatless months of World War II. Next came pre-cooked meatballs and prepared sauces in the 1960s and 1970s which meant even virtually kitchenless restaurants could serve spaghetti. Its cheapness and the fact that children like it also made spaghetti a favorite of family restaurants, and the basis of chains such as the Old Spaghetti Factory, the original of which was started in Portland OR by a Greek immigrant in 1969.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under food

Let’s do brunch – or not?

industrialchafingHaving brunch in restaurants became popular in the 1960s and 1970s and remains so today. It was not unheard of earlier – a few restaurants offered brunch in the 1930s. The Brown Derby in Los Angeles may have been the first to serve brunch, which was especially popular in Southern California. The meal itself was older but usually eaten at home. The word evidently was coined by British university students in the 1890s, late sleepers who woke at noon and combined their first two meals. Gossip columnists loved to twitter about Hollywood film stars and socialites who threw intimate brunches for their best chums in the 1920s, giving the informal meal a degree of cachet.

belgianwaffleAs modern as it might seem, brunch shares some aspects in common with the 18th-century Anglo-American tavern spread. Broadly speaking, both feature tables piled with edibles drawn mostly from two major groups: meat/fowl/fish (bacon, sausage, chicken, roast beef, ham, salmon) and pastry. They also share a third essential, the before-noon alcoholic beverage. In the 1770s the drink might be rum or ale, while in the 1970s it would be champagne or mixed drinks such as Mimosas, Ramos Fizzes, and Bloody Marys.

In 1950 a Los Angeles restaurant reviewer observed that most patrons turned down drinks, adding “After all, you got to be pretty far gone to drink before breakfast.” This abstinent attitude seems to have largely vanished by the 1970s. Then champagne, screwdrivers, and mimosas often formed a large part of the advertised brunch attractions. Many restaurants included a drink with the price of the brunch, while others charged extra but poured free refills.

buffettable203Especially popular on Sundays and holidays, brunch often features food that is — or once was — regarded as “special,” such as Canadian bacon, Hollandaise sauce, and Belgian waffles. Nonetheless, despite brunch’s ice sculptures and lavish food presentations, it has its detractors. Some would agree with the California critic who declared that she felt like Oliver Twist standing in line with plate in hand. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain spared no scorn, characterizing brunch as a restaurant’s “old, nasty odds and ends” prepared by its least talented cooks and way overpriced. Hence the Bloody Marys?

© Jan Whitaker, 2008


Filed under food, restaurant customs

Taste of a decade: 1960s restaurants

Americans grew wealthier, traveled more, and demanded more exotic cuisine. Yet there were few trained restaurant cooks. Convenience food – in the guise of continental dishes (as in pineapple = Hawaiian) – offered the solution for many restaurants as the decade wore on. In other developments, old restaurant formats such as automats, diners, cafeterias, and drive-ins disappeared or shrank drastically in numbers. Fast food and dinner house chains, relatively scarce at the beginning of the decade, flourished by its end. Black Americans began to make headway in gaining civil rights in restaurants. By the middle of the decade signs of the counterculture could be seen here and there.


1960 New Armour & Co. boiling bags filled with beef burgundy, lobster Newburg, and coq au vin mean that “Every drive-in can now be a Twenty-One Club, every restaurant a Maxim’s de Paris,” according to a trade mag. – In Columbus Ohio the opening of the Kahiki adds to the Polynesian restaurant boom, while in NYC La Fonda del Sol opens, offering exotica such as Empanadas, Grilled Peruvian Tidbits on Skewers, and Papaya Filled with Fresh Fruits.

1961 In Sherman Oaks the Wild Goose adds four dishes to its menu: Boned Pheasant Chicken Kahlua, Veal Cutlet Oskar, Fresh Gulf Shrimp Stroganoff, and Breast of Chicken Kiev. – Four-star Lutèce opens in New York, one year after La Caravelle.

1962 A café in Sioux Falls announces “microwave cooking,” while in New York’s Time Square a restaurant opens featuring frozen entrees which the customer is to pop into a tabletop microwave. – A new product for restaurants comes on the market: instant mouthwash in a sealed paper cup to be presented to customers after they eat heavily spiced dishes.

1964 Continental and Polynesian restaurants find they must add steak to their offerings. – Kelly’s steak house in Sherman Oaks announces it sold approximately 400,000 pounds of steak in the past year.

1965 Maxwell’s Plum opens in NYC with an eclectic menu that ranges from Pâté and Escargots Bourguignonne to a Foot-long Hot Dog with Chili. Rumors spread of a naked woman seen walking casually through the dining room. — Extra-thick Frymaster Jet Griddles are marketed to keep cooking temperatures stable even when “completely loaded with frozen food.” – Aggressively cheerful California-style coffee shops, which combine the features of drive-ins, coffee shops, dinner houses, and cocktail bars, spread across the country.

1966 After touring the US, a wine expert says that he believes 99% of licensed restaurants have no interest in promoting wine. He reports that not once did a server ask if he’d like wine with his dinner. Instead they asked if he wanted a cocktail, followed by “Coffee now or later?” – Alice Brock opens The Back Room in Stockbridge MA which will be made famous by Arlo Guthrie as “Alice’s Restaurant.”

1967 Students at the University of Washington, Seattle, boycott Aggie’s Restaurant because they believe it discriminates against students, especially if they are dressed in “funny clothes,” following an incident involving a long-haired “fringie.” – The adoption of frozen convenience foods increases in restaurants after passage of the Minimum Wage Act which raises kitchen workers’ pay.

1968 Countering the fast food trend, the menu at the Trident in Sausalito advises its patrons to be patient: “Welcome to Our Space. Positive energy projection is the trip. … Care in the preparation of food requires time especially if we’re busy! So please take a deep breath, relax and dig on the love & artistry about you. May all our offerings please you. Peace within you.” – In Fayetteville, Arkansas, a diner declares he is tired of an “unrelieved diet of chili dogs and waffle fries” and bemoans the lack of any “quality dining establishments.”

1969 The Scarlet Monk in Oakland advertises a “Topless Luncheon” Monday through Friday. – In Chicago, menu language has become more sophisticated, according to linguistic researchers. They report: “Du jour is an accepted form on menus and appears more often than of the day. Anything – pie, potatoes, sherbet, cake, pudding – can be du jour (or de jour, du jor, dujour, and du-jour), and the Florentine Room even has … potato del giorno.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008


Filed under miscellaneous