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Throwback Thursday: Restaurant Industry Bounces Back — 100 Years Ago

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“I know you’re getting nicely lit, dear, but let’s not forget to tip the babysitter again.”

Lately, we’ve come across a startling assertion: COVID-19, it is said, could result in the most dramatic transformation of restaurants since Prohibition.

We’re already experiencing the worst pandemic since 1919. So it is sort of fitting, unfortunately, that the coronavirus could have a similar impact as the Volstead Act , which, after the Spanish flu of 1918-19, was probably the second worst thing to happen in the late nineteen-teens (not counting the Black Sox scandal).

But that got us thinking: What was the restaurant-going experience like 100 years ago, and how did the sudden loss of booze change it? Plenty, actually.

Prior to Prohibition, dinner outside of the home was a special occasion, particularly for those with disposable income. You and your spouse would don your finest clothes (Him: top hat and tails. Her: acres of fabric and lots of feathers.) for an evening at a sophisticated venue with a French-influenced menu. Meals could run to several courses: hors d’oeuvre, soup, fish entrée, poultry or meat entrée, vegetable, salad, dessert and an offering of cheeses or nut meats. This was the era of Oysters Rockefeller and cognac, and ample figures were fashionable for both men and women.

Something you would have counted on enjoying with your meal: a bottle of fine claret and assorted liquors. One thing you would have counted on not spoiling your experience: the sometimes distracting presence of rug rats.

“In the century leading up to the dry laws, children rarely ate out,” this Slate article described. “A child had to be relatively well-off in order to dine in public, and a guest at a hotel to boot. Restaurants not attached to hotels didn’t tend to serve children, reasoning that they got in the way of boozy grown-up fun.”

So, your child-free meal would have been long, the bill high and your brain a little bit woozy by the time you left the dining table.

Then came Prohibition. We tend to think of that era as a flickery black-and-white free-for-all of speakeasies, jazz and bootleg liquor — lots of it.

But what happened to Chez Cholesterol and other fine-dining venues? They shut down, because, for a lot of people, the only way to get through all those meal courses apparently was with a large helping of alcohol.

An epicurean seeking a fine meal after Jan. 1, 1920, was in for a shock. “Restaurants that relied on alcohol sales closed their doors, often replaced by diners, soda fountains and candy shops,” wrote the folks at Freakonomics. “This new breed of restaurant served hot dogs, hamburgers, chop suey and what we now know as classic American fast food.”

Savvy restaurateurs saw that they could make up for some of the money they had lost when booze sales ended by turning meals into something fit for the whole family. You might remember the 1920s as the decade that gave birth to trans-Atlantic flight, but this was also the era that gave flight to the kiddie menu.

It wasn’t an unmitigated disaster for dining outside the home, however, and restaurants actually grew in numbers throughout Prohibition. But the knock against the new generation of greasy spoons was that the food had become blander and the whole dining experience, according some, was “infantilized” with the new focus on children and families.

But you could argue that the public dining experience also became more democratized, with menus meant to appeal to many tastes and income levels, and restaurant atmospheres that now were designed to be welcoming, not intimidating. Post-Prohibition restaurants were an example of entrepreneurial resourcefulness — with Pie à la Mode if you wanted dessert.

Don’t worry foodies: Fine dining complemented by alcohol did mount a comeback when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, although it was never quite the extravagant event it had been earlier in the century. (Plus, there was that whole Great Depression thing to get through.) And, more recently, those mom-and-pop and chain restaurants long looked down on by gourmets began to offer much more sophisticated and adventurous fare, making the past couple of decades a sort of golden age of American dining. The industry also learned it could make money from once-simple things like a cup of coffee.

But, yes, Prohibition was indeed what today we’d call a game-changer for the restaurant industry, and one whose aftereffects we can see and taste a century later.

What we’re experiencing today could have an even bigger impact on restaurants, and it has certainly taken a dreadful toll on people who work in the industry. But more positively, restaurants are once again getting creative, this time by offering meal kits and other options that they hope will coax jittery consumers back to their venues, even if it’s just for to-go meals.

We won’t know for a while the full impact of the changes now underway. But we all can help in the meantime by supporting our local restaurants via deliveries and pickups, and by gradually getting back into the groove of in-restaurant dining. And remember, we have a powerful tool our great-grandparents lacked: food ordering apps. Take that, Model T.

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