Echoes of the Jazz Age, 1920-1929
The Roaring Twenties marked the birth of modern America. It was the era of Art Déco and the flapper. The automobile, telephone, and radio entered the mainstream of society and household electricity became widespread. For the first time, more than half of the population lived in towns and cities, women could vote on a national scale, and the media began to focus on celebrities like sports stars and aviation heroes. This period of prosperity also sparked a powerful backlash that manifested itself in a resurgence of racism, stricter immigration quotas, and the ratification of Prohibition. Deprived of profits from the sale of wine and other alcoholic beverages, many of the country’s best restaurants closed, and cabarets were replaced by speakeasies where food was of little importance. Large numbers of single women entered the workforce, including the hospitality industry, where they began to replace men as servers. New kinds of eateries blossomed, such as cafeterias, tearooms, and drive-ins. Restaurants advertised home-style cooking in clean surroundings, prompting comedian W. C. Fields to advise: “Never eat at a place called ‘Mom’s,’ but if the only other place in town has a sign that says ‘Eats,’ go back to ‘Mom’s.’” 1927 was a particularly memorable year. Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic and millions of people flocked to showrooms to see the new Ford Model A. In sports, Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs for the New York Yankees, boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey floored Gene Tunney in a rematch only to lose the decision, and football fans witnessed the last of Yale’s eighteen national championships. And Americans flocked to Paris as never before, attracted by the fine cuisine, favorable exchange rates, and lack of puritanical restrictions (notably Prohibition).
À la carte. Fountain Room. New York City: June 18, 1924.
The firm of McKim, Mead & White designed the original Pennsylvania Station and later the Hotel Pennsylvania across Seventh Avenue. The hotel was the largest in the world when it opened on January 25, 1919, a few days before the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment was certified. When Prohibition went into effect the following year, many restaurants were squeezed into insolvency, while hotels were able to use other revenue sources to keep their dining rooms open. Some hotel bars were turned into soda fountains that served soft drinks, ice cream desserts, and a few soups, salads, and sandwiches.
À la carte. New York City: ca. 1924.
In the 1920s, confectionary chains like Huyler’s operated tearooms, which were then at the height of popularity. Still, most of the nation’s tearooms were small operations owned, operated, and staffed by women. “These little businesses were virtually synonymous with female self-expression,” recounts historian Jan Whitaker. Serving hot drinks, cakes, sandwiches, and home-cooked meals in cozy surroundings, these restaurants were largely patronized by traveling motorists and middle-class teetotalers who supported the temperance movement.
À la carte. Grill Room. Paris: December 23, 1925.
“No matter what café in Montparnasse you ask a driver to bring you to . . . they always take you to the Rotonde,” wrote Earnest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises (1926). While Hemingway may not have particularly liked the place, the restaurant was popular with other writers. Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay enjoyed dining at La Rotonde during a stay in Paris. This menu has caricatures of a few of its talented habitués, such as Japanese-French artist Tsuguharu Foujita, who depicted a fight in the café in his etching “A la Rotonde” (1925).
Cathay Tea Garden.
À la carte. Philadelphia: May 29, 1926.
The Cathay Tea Garden had a large dance floor and hosted a regular radio program. This menu follows the standard format of the era, with four pages equally divided between “American dishes” and “Chinese dishes.” By now, chop suey had become so popular that it was served at other kinds of restaurants, even though the cooks did not necessarily have the recipes or proper ingredients. After more than fifty years in business, the Cathay Tea Garden closed in 1973. Nevertheless, by the early twenty-first century, there were 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States.
À la carte. [New York City]: May 5, 1926.
Established in 1889, Childs evolved into one of the first national dining chains. It was widely known by 1912, when an exact replica of the restaurant was used as the set for David Belasco’s Broadway play The Governor’s Lady. To enhance the theatrical naturalism, the familiar aroma of its fresh buckwheat cakes and coffee was sent wafting into the stalls. By 1926, Childs operated 107 restaurants in 29 cities. The chain was a pioneer in sanitation, design, service, and nutrition. Reflecting scientific discoveries of the previous decade, this menu provides the vitamins, protein calories, and total calories for each dish.
Southern California Telephone Co.
Los Angeles: June 2, 1927.
This menu comes from a social gathering of “plant girls” who worked at the Southern California Telephone Company in Los Angeles. The amateur illustrations depict slim, young women dressed in the style that personified the era.
With their bobbed hair, short skirts and slender figures, the flappers are icons of the Roaring Twenties.
Charles Lindbergh. Honoree Banquet. Milwaukee: August 20, 1927.
When Charles Lindbergh returned after his nonstop flight across the Atlantic in May 1927, he embarked on a 22,350-mile barnstorming tour of the United States, attending numerous lunches and dinners in his honor. This municipal banquet featured tomato soup, filet mignon, head lettuce salad, and tortoni named after his plane, The Spirit of St. Louis.
Fixed Price. Chicago: September 22, 1927.
The rematch between world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney and former champion Jack Dempsey created more excitement in Chicago than had Lindbergh’s recent visit. The boxing match at Soldier’s Field was seen by an estimated 150,000 spectators. “The National Broadcasting Company linked eighty-two stations to form a national broadcast,” recounts Bill Bryson in One Summer: America, 1927 (2013). “More people listened to the fight that night than had witnessed any other event in history.” The bout was scheduled for 9:45 p.m., allowing time to eat dinner beforehand if you were lucky enough to get a table at one of the crowded hotels and restaurants. This menu shows that the Congress Hotel charged $10 (about $150 today) for a simple meal of chicken à la king. The hotel was a short walk from the gate, where fans could catch a pre-fight glimpse of the celebrities as they arrived, among them Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Ty Cobb, and Al Capone. As it happened, Dempsey failed to immediately go to a neutral corner after knocking down Tunney in the seventh round. Dempsey’s mistake allowed Tunney a few extra seconds to recover and ultimately win the fight on a unanimous decision. The controversial event is remembered as the “Long Count Fight.”
À la carte. Los Angeles: ca. 1928.
The Cocoanut Grove was located in the Ambassador Hotel, which onetime resident F. Scott Fitzgerald described as “the greatest, gaudiest spree in American history.” The glamorous nightclub was frequented by movie moguls and Hollywood stars. The large room was decorated in the Moroccan style, featuring life-size papier mâché trees hung with real coconuts and palm fronds. Stuffed monkeys swung in the branches, blinking with electrified amber eyes at the revelers below. The frolicsome theme was reflected on the club’s menus which showed monkeys in various guises.