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Where We Ate

Mapping the places people went a century ago for a special meal, a quick bite, or a perfect cocktail

Jenna Weissman Joselit
July 28, 2021
Brown Derby coffee shop, Hollywood, 1955Courtesy
Brown Derby coffee shop, Hollywood, 1955Courtesy

As night follows day, restaurants come and go. Dependent on a fickle and finicky clientele, weighed down by ever-rising labor and food costs, and hemmed in by all manner of regulations, they’re hard to sustain. Most do not enjoy a lengthy shelf life.

In the past, when mourning the demise of a favorite coffee shop or a let’s-get-dressed-up eatery, chances are we reckoned our loss in personal rather than collective terms, chalked it up to “just one of those things,” and moved on. Did we give much thought to the broader significance of a restaurant closing its doors? Probably not.

Now we do. The pandemic has made us realize how critical these establishments are to the public square. Without them, streets are emptied, the pulse of urban life dulled, the economy thrown for a loop, and thousands of lives disrupted.

Where our generation might have had blinders on until recently, privileging the self and its appetites rather than the well-being of the commonweal, earlier generations recognized the imprint of public eateries—cafes, coffee houses, saloons, and taverns, restaurants with tablecloths and restaurants without—on the urban fabric. Their observations, which ranged from maps and guidebooks—a literal canvassing of gastronomic and potable opportunities—to more impressionistic ones such as short stories, set America’s abundant restaurant culture clearly within everyone’s sights.

In 1910, for instance, The New York Times published a highly detailed map of the Lower East Side—a “social geography,” the paper called it—in which the neighborhood’s cultural institutions were accounted for, block by block. By its tally, the “frightfully congested” Jewish immigrant neighborhood featured a whopping number of “little restaurants” and cafes: approximately 474 of them—and that figure, it acknowledged, was probably a bit too low.

Indulging in a spot of cross-cultural referencing, the map’s creator, Cornell University economics professor Walter Lagerquist, also took note of what went on within the precincts of neighboring Little Italy, where establishments given over to the drinking of hard liquor, or “saloons,” outnumbered those that featured tea and coffee. Within its radius of 70 blocks, he and his fellow investigators happened upon 256 saloons, or 3.65 per block. In contrast, within the 170-block radius of the Jewish section of downtown, they found 321 saloons, or 1.8 per block. Immigrant Jews, it would seem, preferred caffeinated substances to alcoholic ones by a margin of 2 to 1.

In an early adumbration of what we now call “data visualization,” the 1910 map was flecked with tiny icons, the equivalent of “X” marks the spot, to denote the presence on any given street of a saloon or a café, a billiards room or a penny arcade. Though these small-bore insignia are hard to make out today, their blurry shapes indistinguishable one from the next, taken together they reflect a vivid sociological imagination at work.

The pandemic has made us realize how critical these establishments are to the public square.

Back in the day when it first appeared and now, over a century later, the map’s literalization—its drawing of attention to the physical space occupied by popular haunts such as Sholem’s Café on Division Street, the “headquarters of all intelligent people of the East Side,” or Strunsky’s Café on Second Avenue, reportedly the “prettiest restaurant on the East Side” (hardly a tough sell in a neighborhood not known for its physical appeal)—made clear how vital they were to the cultural economy of New York’s neighborhoods, especially those enclaves that were home to the recently arrived.

Literary reflections, some contemporaneous and others retrospective, also capture the allure of the café among urbanizing, migrating Jews of the late 19th and 20th centuries. In A Rich Brew, his recent salute to the café in Berlin, Odessa, Vienna, Tel Aviv, Warsaw, and New York, literary historian Shachar Pinsker explored a stunningly wide array of short stories, feuilletons, poems and reminiscences to demonstrate the pivotal role of the café—its “astounding influence”—in creating a transnational, modern, urban Jewish culture. Noise, cigarette smoke, and physical proximity, caffeine and conversation characterized these newly established urban institutions, generating a buzz, a sensibility, all their own.

A construction of a different sort—a fanciful map, whose contours were defined entirely in terms of restaurant locations rather than street names—took pride of place on the flyleaf of Rian James’ 1930 Dining in New York. Colored a jaunty, inviting red, it alerted those who consulted its compass to the whereabouts of a good meal, uptown, downtown, and all around the town. The book’s contents elaborated on these culinary destinations, offering a “conscientious and intimate” look at what their menus held in store.

In breezy, snappy prose, James wrote of “halo”-wearing lamb chops at Kennedy’s 45th Street Chop House; of “maisons this and maisons that” in midtown, whose proprietors, no matter their age, answered to the call of “Ma’mselle” and “Cherie”; and of Harlem nightspots where the races mingled on the dance floor. “Go East! Go East with a vengeance—go thoroughly East! ... East Houston Street! New York’s East Side! The Ghetto,” James exhorted his readers, encouraging them to give East European Jewish cuisine a try even at the risk of experiencing a stomach ache. The “chicken giblets [are] delicious, albeit indigestible,” he cautioned. In these and other instances, James’ adventurous itinerary extended the boundaries of the American palate.

I’d be remiss were I not to say something about what was, arguably, among one of the most popular and certainly among the most frequently updated dining out guides of its time: Duncan Hines’ Adventures in Good Eating, first published in 1936.

Many of us may know his name from the cake mixes that bear it, but Duncan Hines was no figment of a PR person’s promotional skills, like Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Ben. A flesh-and-blood traveling salesman of the interwar years with a hankering for a good meal, his contributions to American gastronomic literature constituted a road map to where to eat when motoring throughout the United States.

Scribbling away in a tiny journal he kept in his coat pocket, Hines duly noted which establishments had air conditioning and which were cooled by a fan; which ones maintained a high level of cleanliness and which fell short; which served a mean cocktail and which offered thirsty passersby a carbonated beverage instead.

Eclectic in his tastes, he was just as likely to salute the humble fare served up by the “Good Enough Dairy Café” in Fulton, Illinois (pop. 2,706), as that enjoyed by the well-heeled customers who frequented Voisin on New York’s Park Avenue. Its fabled almond soufflé was “something out of this world,” Hines related, counseling his readers that even if, for a spell, they had to “live on corn bread and beans” to afford a meal at Voisin, it was worth it.

Hines likened his guidebook and the cookbook that grew out of it to “stepping on a magic carpet,” a transporting experience that heightened the senses and lifted the spirits. His work allows us, in turn, to reconstruct something of the nation’s bounty and the pull of its public institutions. Hines’ narrative, along with that of James and the Times’ map, brought home to the readers of their day the mutual pleasures of the palate and of sociability, informing them where to find these opportunities, whether staying close to home or on the road.

For the readers of our day, these gustatory signposts of the past serve a different function. While they no longer assuage our appetite, they comfort us in the knowledge that even though individual restaurants and cafes may not endure for long, they linger within the realm of the public imagination and the historical record.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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