Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Moment in Time

San Francisco, 

When I first saw this photograph, there was something intriguing about the scene that I couldn’t put my finger on. The inscription in the lower right-hand corner provided some information about the event—Camille and Eugenie Mailhebuau celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary at this dinner party on February 9, 1920. Camille was a French-born restaurateur who operated the venerable Old Poodle Dog in San Francisco. Camille and Eugenie can be seen at the middle of the long table, just behind the pretty cake. While the couple appears to be happy, some of guests look as if something is bothering them. Of course, it was entirely possible that the underlying anxiety that I perceived was a figment of my imagination. However, when a menu surfaced a few years later, showing where the dinner had been held and who was there, I realized what may have been on their minds that day, for the photograph marked a pivotal moment in the history of American restaurants.

The party was held in the dining room of the couples home at 726 Tenth Avenue. The initials “E.M.” are inscribed in the upper right of the front page, indicating this copy—one of several menus that can be seen on the tableprobably belonged to Eugenie.

A composite photograph on the next page shows their three children in profile—Marcel, Irene, and Camille, Jr. 

The bill of fare reflects the type of cuisine you would expect to find at a fine French restaurant. The three entrees are medallion de bass rayé, noisettes (d'agneau) de pré-salé, and dindonneaux grille, maitre d'hôtel, a grilled young turkey served with a Béchamel sauce and chopped parsley.1 The fine wines include an 1875 Château Lafite, possibly one of the double magnums that can be seen on the table.

Thirty-one signatures are spread out over two pages, including the one with a photograph of Camille and Eugenie. The guests were mostly members of San Francisco’s French community, a close-knit group of restaurateurs whose personal and professional lives had been intertwined for years. In the early 1900s, Camille Mailhebuau and Louis Coutard were partners at Frank’s Rotisserie on Pine Street. A few years later, Mailhebuau joined Auguste Laurens and Jules Vigoroux at the Lamolle House in San Jose. In those days, Jean Baptiste Pon and Calixte “Cal” Lalanne ran the Old Poodle Dog and Jean Bergez was the proprietor of his eponymous restaurant. In addition to being friends and business partners, some of the men were related—Messrs. Lalanne, Coutard, and Pon were married to three sisters from France whose maiden name was also Lalanne.

The Old Poodle Dog was destroyed in the earthquake and fires that decimated parts of the city in April of 1906.2 After 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 of 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 culinary mainstays of San Francisco.3

These restaurateurs banded together for many years, meeting the challenges posed by immigration, financial panics, earthquakes, and fires. However, in February of 1920, they encountered a seemingly insurmountable obstacle—Prohibition. Ratified the previous year, the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect a couple of weeks before the anniversary party. Unable to survive without the sale of wine and spirits, many of the country’s finest restaurants would soon be going out of business. On April 15, 1922, Bergez-Frank’s Old Poodle Dog finally shuttered its doors. It had been an integral part of the city's social life since 1849. 

Cal Lalanne opened an eatery opposite the Palace Hotel, but the others were 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 Mailhebuau was befuddled by the new law, saying in an interview that a French chef needed wine to prepare “seventy-five percent” of the dishes. He and Eugenie also packed their bags and went on an extended vacation in Europe. While dining at famed gastronomic temples like Marguery and La Tour D’Argent in Paris, which served the type of haute cuisine no longer possible in the United States, Mailhebuau pondered how to compete with the speakeasies that specialized in “cheap booze and bad food.” 

The answer to that question was revealed soon after he returned. In April of 1923, Camille’s Rotisserie opened at 441 Pine Street, just a few doors down from where Frank’s Rotisserie had been located before the Great Fire seventeen years earlier.5  Mailhebuau was a natural showman dubbed “the little Frenchman” by the local press. The menu below shows the diminutive (5 ft.-2 in.) restaurateur holding a serving platter high above his head. 

The back cover shows a photo of the new restaurant and lists his former establishments. While the cuisine at Camille's Rotisserie was perhaps a notch below these previous endeavors, the menu declares it to be the place “for the bon-vivant, epicure, gourmet and the man who appreciates good things to eat.” After Camille Mailhebuau died in December of 1924, the eatery continued in operation for sixteen years under family management.

The third decade of the twentieth century turned out to be a significant turning point in the history of American restaurants. In 1921, just as the Bergez-Frank’s 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 of the first fast food chain sold small, square hamburgers by the sack from turreted stands. In an ironic twist, a McDonalds outlet was recently situated in the old building that once housed Camille’s Rotisserie. 

If you looked up to the apex, you could see the figure of Camille Mailhebuau carved in stone, still holding a platter.

Regrettably, this historic structure in the Financial District was torn down in October of 2014.

1. In the spring, the pastures in France 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 named the Poodle Dog (without the descriptor “Old”) that was owned by Spanish-born Antonio Blanco and Italian-born Benjamin Brun. It was also destroyed in the Great 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 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 the unpredictable rolling of the earth.
6. My thanks to Robert Brower and Erica Peters for their kind assistance.


Deana Sidney said...

Another great post.

I don't think many people realize today what effect prohibition had on dining in the US. Most fine food has wine or spirits lurking in their beautiful sauces. Without it, the coloring box of flavors was sad indeed.

Also, then as now, wine helped the bottom line... without it, the huge staff and fine ingredients were difficult to support.

No wonder the party had a wee pall over the faces of the group -- they had seen the face of doom and the end was nigh.

Jan Whitaker said...

A wonderful post and a fascinating photograph! It's a wonder how you assembled all the menus and the photo as well.

Jay said...

Just marvelous, as always.

Gary Gillman said...

Very interesting, and that was an evocative image (from a number of standpoints).

The dining room had a typically early 20th century "crowded" look (not because of the people). It's probably a continuation of the Victorian penchant for stuffed chairs, velours and the festooning of objects of all kinds. If you visit Tommy's Joynt in the same city today (venerable beer and food haven, at Geary and Van Ness), the atmosphere is somewhat similar: the wooden beams, the plethora of objects adorning the walls and ceiling, even down to the Germanic-looking beer steins. Different socio-economic contexts (honest beer tavern vs. plush bourgeois cove), yet Tommy's is the first thing I thought of when looking at the picture.

Speaking of beer, on the menu of the Rotisserie, albeit by then firmly in mid-Prohibition mode, you see names of some famous brewers: e.g. Budweiser, Rainier, Schlitz. This puzzled me for a moment but then I saw the rubric "Cereal Beverages". Thus, surely these drinks were near-beer, non-alcoholic that is. Will Rogers said of such drinks that those who brewed them were a poor judge of distance..


Drayton Bird said...

What an utterly wonderful piece. About 60 years ago I made my first money working in my parents' restaurant outside Manchester (England). Not as good as The Poodle Dog, but in The Good Food Guide for 20 years. There is something about the trade that fascinates and never leaves you!

Zach Georgopoulos said...

Sadly, Camille's was just torn down today, except for the facade. Looks like they might leave it up as an entrance to a new building, but can't be sure yet.