Tag Archives: women restaurant patrons

Girls’ night out


This is one of my favorite photographs, the kind I tend to hoard until the perfect moment. I put it in the same league with the wonderfully evocative photograph in That night at Maxim’s. It seems just right for the first post of a new year.

Once again, I invite readers to imagine what is going on. I know little other than that they are in a restaurant in New York City. Because they are seated  at a banquette, and because the photo was almost certainly taken by a professional photographer, I would guess it is a nightclub restaurant, or certainly a special occasion type of place. Judging from their outfits and the style of the mural behind them, I think it is the late 1940s or early 1950s.

I love how directly they look at the photographer and how contented they are. I think the woman in the middle is the mother of the woman on the left. Perhaps it is her birthday. Could the other be a cousin? She seems to have been interrupted just as she is about to present what looks like a check to the older woman.

They are drinking manhattans or martinis, not paying too much attention to their salads, and totally ignoring the mound of dinner rolls piled so unceremoniously on a too-small plate. The awkward way the rolls are served and the ordinary serviceable restaurant ware (water tumblers, dishes, and salt and pepper shakers) makes me think it is not an elite restaurant. Still, love those butter pats on the tiny plates!

The only objects in the photograph that I cannot identify are two small squares of paper on the table, one in the foreground right and the other just beyond the salad of the woman on the right. Forms to fill out for the photographer?


© Jan Whitaker, 2014


Filed under patrons

Restaurant-ing in Metropolis


In the depths of the Depression, in 1934, Harper & Bros. published a book of 304 photographs called Metropolis. Most of the photos were by Edward M. Weyer, Jr., an anthropologist who wanted to show how people in greater NYC lived. Captions were supplied by the popular writer Frederick Lewis Allen.

In a 2010 NY Times story the book was described as a “romantic masterpiece of street photography” composed of “moody black-and-white coverage of day-to-day life in New York in the ’30s. Beggars, snow-shoveling squads, schooner crews, railroad commuters, subway crowds, tenement life, tugboats, a sidewalk craps game. . .”

I find it particularly interesting that a major focus of the book was to contrast how different social classes lived, illustrated in part by where they ate lunch.

The central narrative follows employees of a company headed by a Mr. Roberts. He lives in a house on a 4-acre plot in Connecticut, commutes to New York, and employs a house maid whose duties include fixing his wife’s lunch each day. On the day he is being profiled Mr. Roberts eats a $1.00 table d’hôte lunch at his club (equal to $17 today). So frugal, Mr. R.


Mr. Roberts is visited by a Mr. Smith from out of town (shown above looking out hotel window). Mr. Smith “stands for all those who come to the city from a distance,” whether Los Angeles, Boston, or elsewhere. He is “reasonably well off.” Mr. Smith eats a $1.25 table d’hôte lunch – er, luncheon — in a dining room on a hotel roof (pictured). Prices are high there, making his meal a relative bargain. Had he wanted to splurge he could have ordered a Cocktail (.40), Lobster Thermidor ($1.25), and Cucumber Salad (.45) – total $2.10. I would guess that many visitors to New York tend to spend more on restaurants than natives.


Mr. Roberts’ secretary, Miss Jordan, lives with her mother and brother in an apartment just off Riverside Drive. With a combined family income of less than $4,000 the three can barely afford their $125/month rent. She goes to lunch at a café (pictured) and orders To-Day’s Luncheon Special which consists of Tomato Juice, Corned Beef Hash with Poached Egg, Ice Cream, and Coffee, all for 40 cents. Frankly, I don’t see how she can afford to do this every day.


Miss O’Hara and Miss Kalisch transcribe dictation from other executives in the firm and each makes about $22.50 a week. Miss Kalisch lives in Astoria, Queens, and is married. Evidently she is pretending to be single in order to hold her job (her name is really Mrs. Rosenbloom). Miss O’Hara lives with her father in a somewhat decrepit apartment costing almost half her wages. Her father has been out of work for three years. The two women eat lunch at a drugstore counter (pictured) where they order Ham on Rye Sandwiches, Chocolate Cake, and Coffee (.30). I fear Miss O’Hara is living beyond her means if she does this often.

Miss Heilman, a young clerk, makes about $16.50 a week and is subject to occasional layoffs. She lives with her brother, his wife, and their two children in a 3-room apartment in Hoboken NJ, for which they pay $15/month. Like the other “girls” at the bottom of the totem pole she brings a sandwich and eats it in the office.


Mr. Smith, being on his own, must go out for dinner. Once again he chooses a hotel roof garden (pictured), where about half the guests are also out-of-towners. With a live orchestra and dancing, it is undoubtedly expensive. I’m guessing he went for the Cocktail and Lobster Thermidor this time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under patrons

Dining in shadows

Until electricity became common no one thought dining by candlelight was the least bit romantic. In the later 19th century any restaurant that acquired electricity made a big bragging deal of it. A Chicago restaurant called The New York Kitchen boasted in 1888 that its dining room was “brilliantly lighted by the Mather Incandescent Electric System.” In the early 20th century going places with bright light was fashionable, especially because it turned restaurants into stages on which to be seen and to covertly stare at others.

But there were some ultra-refined people who considered the glare of bright light vulgar. Etiquette expert Emily Holt recommended in1902 that candles be used instead of gas or electric chandeliers for home dinner parties lest the dinner resemble a “blazing feast … in some hotel restaurant.” At that time restaurant patrons who wanted mellow light could choose a place such as Sherry’s in New York where wall sconces gave off gentle illumination and candles topped by artistic shades reposed on each table. So private! So French!

Candlelight promised the gentility of an elite dinner party, far removed from loud music, noise, and guests who drank too much. Candles suited the tea room perfectly. Not only did they shed flattering light, they discouraged the rowdy, fun-seeking masses from entering the door. Tea room owners, overwhelmingly WASPs, also liked how candles, as well as lanterns and fireplaces, created a quaint atmosphere that they imagined resembled how their Colonial ancestors lived.

In Greenwich Village some tea rooms of the 1910s used candles exclusively. The homey Candlestick Tea Room was described as “a little eating place chiefly remarkable for its vegetables and poetesses.” Like other tea rooms lit solely by candles it was undoubtedly atmospheric, but its owners Mrs. Pendington and Mrs. Kunze probably had a more basic reason for using candles. Many of the substandard Village buildings had no electricity. Nonetheless candles did not guarantee respectability. In Chicago, police declared the candle-lit Wind Blew Inn disreputable. A dilapidated, Bohemian student hangout, it had only three candles lighting its two floors.

Outside of Bohemian haunts, though, candles in tea rooms continued to suggest quiet good taste. Alice Foote MacDougall pronounced in her 1929 book The Secret of Successful Restaurants that “Tea time is relaxation time and lights are softened, candles lighted, music plays softly, accompanied by the rippling measure of water falling from our fountains.” She spent the considerable sum of $10,000 a year on candles in her tea rooms. In the 1930s genteel shoppers at Joseph Horne’s in Pittsburgh enjoyed tea and cake by candlelight while listening to organ music in the department store’s tea room.

Today candles are so common in restaurants that they are scarcely noticed, yet as recently as 50 years ago they were considered feminine tools of romantic entrapment. A kind of low-level warfare simmered through the 1950s and early 1960s in which women such as Patricia Murphy of the Candlelight Restaurant in Yonkers announced that wives could save their marriages with candle-lit dinners, while men countered they “liked to see what they were eating.” In 1962 a fire official in Beverly MA said that his ban against candles in restaurants was not motivated by a dislike of dining by candlelight but a need to protect the public from “open flames.” But change was on its way. In the 1970s millions of Americans, male and female, would flock to restaurants where they sipped wine while candles flickered against exposed brick walls.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under restaurant customs, restaurant decor