When I first saw this photograph, there was something intriguing about the scene, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. The inscription in the lower right-hand corner provided some information—Camille and Eugenie Mailhebuau celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary at this dinner party on February 9, 1920. (Click the photograph to enlarge.) Camille was the French-born restaurateur who ran the Old Poodle Dog, one of the finest and most venerable eateries in San Francisco. Although the couple looks happy, seated in the middle of a long dining room table, just behind the pretty cake, some of guests look disturbed, as if something is bothering them. Of course, it was entirely possible that this underlying anxiety was simply a figment of my imagination. However, when I came across one of the menus a few years later, showing where the dinner had been held and who was there, I had an idea as to what may have been on their minds, for the photograph marked a significant moment in their lives and in the history of American restaurants.
The menu cover shows that the anniversary party was held in the dining room of the Mailhebuau home at 726 Tenth Avenue. The initials “E.M.” inscribed in the upper right indicate that this copy probably belonged to Eugenie—one of several menus that can be seen on the table.
On the page facing the bill of fare, there is a composite photograph, showing their three sons in profile.
The dishes are similar to what you might find at a fine French restaurant like the Old Poodle Dog. This bill of fare includes three entrees, beginning with medallion de bass rayé, or stripped bass, followed by noisettes (d'agneau) de pré-salé, supposedly prepared using the loin of a lamb grazed in the salt meadows along the Atlantic and Normandy coasts of France.1 The next course is dindonneaux grille, maitre d'hôtel, a grilled young turkey served with a Béchamel sauce made with chopped parsley. The fine wines include an 1875 Château Lafite (sic), possibly one of the double magnums that can be seen standing on the table.
There are thirty-one signatures spread out over two pages, including the one with a photograph of Camille and Eugenie. Most of the guests were members of San Francisco’s vibrant French community, including fellow restaurateurs who were there with their wives. The professional lives of this close-knit group had been intertwined for years. In the early 1900s, Camille Mailhebuau and Louis Coutard were partners at Frank’s Rotisserie on Pine Street in San Francisco. A few years later, Camille joined Auguste Laurens and Jules Vigoroux as the proprietors of the Lamolle House in San Jose. Back in those days, Jean Baptiste Pon and Calixte “Cal” Lalanne ran the Old Poodle Dog, when Jean Bergez was the proprietor of the Bergez Restaurant. In addition to being friends and business partners, some of these men were related—Messrs. Lalanne, Coutard, and Pon married three sisters from France whose maiden name was also Lalanne.
The Old Poodle Dog, along with many other restaurants, was destroyed in the earthquake and fires that decimated San Fransisco in April 1906.2 Afterward, while temporarily operating out of a residence on Eddy Street, Pon and Lalanne joined forces with Mailhebuau, Bergez, and Coutard to establish a new restaurant named Bergez-Frank’s Old Poodle Dog. Opening on Bush Street in June 1908, this grand establishment featured twenty-one private dining rooms on the floors above the main restaurant. According to lore, it was shortly before this time that Louis Coutard created Louis Dressing, still one of the mainstays of San Francisco cuisine.3
For many years, these restaurateurs banded together, meeting the challenges posed by immigration, financial panics, earthquakes and fires. However, in February 1920, they encountered a seemingly insurmountable obstacle—Prohibition. Ratified the previous year, the Eighteenth Amendment had just gone into effect a couple of weeks earlier, prohibiting the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol. Unable to sustain operations without the sale of wine and other alcoholic beverages, many of the country’s best restaurants would soon be going out of business. On April 15, 1922, Bergez-Frank’s Old Poodle Dog shuttered its doors, closing after having been an integral part of the city's social life since 1849.
Cal Lalanne opened an eatery opposite the Palace Hotel on New Montgomery, but the others were still too angry and upset to do anything of the sort.4 “I am in despair,” Jean Pon said on the night of the closure. “I am going back to France.” Camille was befuddled by the new law, saying in an interview that a French chef needed wine to prepare “seventy-five percent” of the dishes. Sadly missing the bonhomie of their old establishment, he and Eugenie also packed their bags for Europe, leaving for an extended vacation. While dining in Paris at famed gastronomic temples like Marguery and La Tour D’Argent, enjoying the type of haute cuisine that was no longer possible in the United States, Camille pondered what kind of fine restaurant could be successful in San Francisco, competing against the speakeasies that specialized in “cheap booze and bad food.” The answer to that question came soon after they returned. In April 1923, Camille’s Rotisserie opened at 441 Pine Street, just a few doors down from where Frank’s Rotisserie had once been located before it was destroyed by the Great Fire seventeen years earlier.5
Dubbed the “the little Frenchman” by the local press, the diminutive (5 ft.-2 in.) restaurateur was a natural showman; the illustration on the cover of the menu below shows him holding a serving platter high in the air.
While the cuisine may have been a notch below the Old Poodle Dog, this bill of fare proudly proclaims that Camille’s Rotisserie is the place for the “bon-vivant, epicure, gourmet and the man who appreciates good things to eat.”
On the back of this menu, there is a photo of the new restaurant, along with the names of his previous establishments.
Camille Mailhebuau died in December 1924 and his eponymous eatery continued in operation for another sixteen years under family management. In an ironic twist, a McDonalds outlet was recently situated in the old building in the Financial District that once housed Camille’s Rotisserie.
In fact, if you look straight up, you can see the figure of Camille Mailhebuau carved into stone at the apex of the building, still holding a platter above his head, serving the gourmands of San Francisco.
The third decade of the twentieth century turned out to be a significant turning point in the history of American restaurants. However, in 1920, the French restaurateurs in San Francisco did not yet know the half of it. During the following year, just as the Old Poodle Dog was gasping its last breath, the first White Castle opened in Wichita, Kansas. Envisioning “the kitchen as assembly line, and the cook as infinitely replaceable technician,” the founders went on to develop the first fast food chain, selling small, square hamburgers by the sack from their turreted stands.
1. In the spring, the pastures close to the sea are often flooded, causing the grasses to be rich in sodium and iodine, possibly the minerals that give the pré-salé, or “salt meadow,” lamb a richer (not salty) flavor.
2. There was another restaurant in San Francisco called “Poodle Dog,” without the descriptor “Old,” that was operated by the Italian-born restaurateurs Antonio Blanco and Benjamin Brun. It was also destroyed in the fire in 1906.
3. Louis Coutard died on 23 May 1908, only three weeks before Bergez-Frank's Old Poodle Dog opened. His wife, Maria, and children, Pauline and Reine, attended the Mailhebuau anniversary party in 1920.
4. In 1933, with Prohibition ending, Cal Lalanne opened the Ritz French Restaurant at 65 Post Street in San Francisco. After he died in 1942, his son renamed the restaurant the “Ritz Old Poodle Dog.”
5. By 1923, the city's boosters had changed the name of the Great Earthquake, still the country's worst urban catastrophe, to the Great Fire, reasoning that outsiders would find fire less alarming than unpredictable rolling of the earth.
6. My thanks to Robert Bower and Erica Peters for their comments and kind assistance.