Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Quick & Not-So-Quick Lunch

New York City, 1903

Crowds on Sixth Avenue (1903)
Europeans visiting the United States in the nineteenth century were endlessly fascinated with how quickly Americans ate their meals in public, especially lunch. By the 1890s, there were a number of new ways to feed those in a hurry, such as lunch wagons and cafeterias. However, it was the small restaurants serving the so-called “quick lunch” that most captured their imagination, for there was nothing like it in Europe at the time. In 1892, French writer Paul de Rousiers described the scene at one of these eateries in his travelogue La Vie Américaine:

“Lunch time, the streets fill once more. In New York nobody goes home in the middle of the day. They eat wherever they happen to be: at the office, while working, in clubs, and in cafeterias…In blue-collar restaurants, thousands of people eat standing up, with their hats on, all in a line, like horses in a stable. The food is fresh and appetizing, though, and prices are lower than ours. While lines of men dug into plates brimming with meatballs, others wait to take their place.”

Of course, not everyone who lived in the big cities had to work for a living. For those who could afford to spend more time over their midday meal, there were various fine restaurants that served lunch at a more leisurely pace. Two menus from New York in 1903 illustrate the lunchtime experience at both ends of the social spectrum, while shedding light on the nature of the class barriers that once existed.

Mink’s was typical of the many restaurants serving a quick lunch. Open twenty-four hours a day, it operated at three locations along a 17-block stretch in midtown Manhattan—426 Sixth Avenue (near 26th Street), 622 Sixth Avenue, and 1487 Broadway on Times Square. Despite the speed of service, Mink’s offered a wide selection of dishes, as shown on both sides of this menu card. Such places attracted all kinds of people, as indicated by the instructions and warnings, including one that bluntly tells the customers not to help themselves to the food displayed on the counter.

Despite the admonitions on this menu directed toward the customers, the tough waiters who worked at these places were not always above reproach, as revealed by an article in the New York Times on July 19th of that year, reporting that two separate fights broke out at one of the Mink’s locations during the previous day. Each fracas erupted after someone complained about being overcharged. In the first incident, an irate customer pulled out a revolver and supposedly threatened to shoot one of the waiters, causing everyone in the restaurant to dive for cover. After being hauled off to the police station, the man told the officers that before they arrived, he had been treated roughly by the waiters. Thirty minutes later, the police were called back to the same location, where they witnessed six of the waiters beating an African-American who had lodged a similar complaint about being over-charged. Beginning to see that there was possibly another side to the problem, the patrolmen arrested the badly-battered customer and one of the waiters, hoping that this Solomon-like approach would put an end to the violence.

Strolling in Madison Square Park (ca. 1900)

Geographically, the Café Martin was merely a crosstown-block away from the Mink’s on Sixth Avenue where these fights occurred, but in social terms, it was a world away. The chic restaurant opened the previous year in Delmonico’s old location on 26th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, facing Madison Square Park. The cuisine at the Café Martin was French, as shown below on this luncheon menu card, offering dishes like bouillabaisse Marseillaise, terrine de foie gras de Strasbourg, and hochepot gantoise, a Belgian-style pot-au-feu made with beef, pork, and mutton. An extensive wine list is provided on the back. The Café Martin has just one notice on this bill of fare, informing its patrons that the lower-priced “half portions” could not be shared, thereby thwarting any attempt by those lunching with friends to further reduce the economic and calorific impact of their meal.1 (The price of the smaller portion is the first of two prices listed by some dishes.)

Unlike the situation today, where there is a big price difference between the most expensive restaurants and those in the middle, some of the prices on these menus from 1903 are not that far apart. Disregarding the half portions, the prices at the Café Martin were only about two to three times higher. For example, the cost of three lamb chops at Mink’s was thirty-five cents, compared to seventy-five cents at the Café Martin. The narrower range in prices suggests that there were barriers other than money that separated the classes in fin-de-siècle America, such as dress code, social mores, and even the French on the menu, not to mention the luxury of having more time for lunch.

1. When menus were saved as mementos, they were often folded so that they could be slipped into a pocket, leaving a characteristic crease in the middle, as shown on this menu from the Café Martin. By contrast, menus from the quick lunches were seldom saved as souvenirs, making them relatively scarce today. The survival of this 6½ x 10¾ in. menu from Mink’s was made all the more improbable because it was printed on stiff, cardboard-like paper that was too thick to be folded without cracking.


ephemeralist said...

Mink's is a really great menu. That kind is rare indeed.

David Matthews said...

Greetings Henry,

These are interesting menus and they attest to the culinary spectrum that was New York. Whether they were Scalopax Minor donned with French titles, or the true European woodcock properly hung, makes little difference. Indeed, a French connoisseur found little to criticize in the 'fast food' of those days. If it were only the same.

Lisa Kelley said...

Interesting article....came across it in a search for menus for a history article I am researching and writing. Just a mention, my great uncle(along with his brothers and cousin) owned a lunch restaurant in New York City. It was called, 'The Richmond Co. Lunch Company', located at the foot of Whitehall St., directly across from the terminal for the Staten Island Ferry. Not sure if they had menus but if you ever come across one for said restaurant I would be very interested. Very nice article, enjoyed it and I have found some menu ideas for my article.