What would the modern diner think of a nice dinner out from the 30s-60s?
March 29, 2012 11:03 AM   Subscribe

What would the modern diner think of a nice dinner out from the 30s-60s?

Watching people eat in Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire got me interested in what they're eating, specifically, would a good meal in those eras still be considered good today? For instance would steak and lobster be recognizably good today or would we consider them overcooked and oversalted? Would we consider the sauces heavyhanded and lacking finesse? Would cooking techniques be considered archaic by todays standards? Would variability in refridgeration lead to wilted broccoli being served at a high end restaurant or would they just forego the vegetable entirely? How would cooking preferences differ in a 60s steakhouse versus what's served at a modern steakhouse? I know super experimental cooking didn't really exist in the 60s so I'm mostly asking about steakhouses and "modern american" restaurants versus the restaurants of yesteryear.
posted by mikesch to Food & Drink (52 answers total) 108 users marked this as a favorite
My grandfather worked in lower Manhattan in the 60s, and ate dinner out most nights. Dives. Nice places. Mid range. He said that it was quite common for adults to have milk as the beverage with their evening meal.

Coffee was for breakfast.
Soda was for lunch.
posted by sandra_s at 11:21 AM on March 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

The movie "Big Night" explores this a little, with the main characters' authentic Italian restaurant unable to compete with the "nice" Italian-style place across the street.
posted by Mchelly at 11:21 AM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also seem to remember him saying something about no pre-meal salads.
posted by sandra_s at 11:23 AM on March 29, 2012

There's a great cookbook called American Gourmet by Jane and Michael Stern that talks about this stuff in great detail, including reproductions of menus.

Broccoli wasn't considered a "restaurant food" in that era. Vegetables tended to be among the more sturdy, like green beans and carrots, although fancy places did asparagus and artichokes.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:32 AM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I can tell you that food tasted better in the 60's, because food was still food, not engineered food-product. A tomato tasted like a tomato, it wasn't a hard, pink, mealy lump. Chicken tasted much, much better, because they weren't bred to have huge breasts at the expense of flavor. However, most places overcooked vegetables.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:32 AM on March 29, 2012 [13 favorites]

Also, in the 60's at least, refrigeration was just as dependable as it is today.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:35 AM on March 29, 2012

Also, The Taste of America By Karen Hess and John Hess is a great read which, if it doesn't answer your exact question, should illuminate some related issues.
posted by BibiRose at 11:40 AM on March 29, 2012

You might be interested in this wonderful history of food in America: The Taste of America by John and Karen Hess -- wonderfully opinionated and informative. Highly recommended.
posted by peacheater at 11:42 AM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Aw, damn.
posted by peacheater at 11:43 AM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also seem to remember him saying something about no pre-meal salads.
I grew up in Metro Detroit, not Manhattan, so our high-end restaurants were probably different. But pre-meal salads were common back then in my (and my parents') 1950s/60s experience unless it was one of the French restaurants across the river in Windsor (Ontario). I think if you grew up with that type of cuisine you would tend to prefer it over today's fare. I know my Mom, particularly, used to dine out frequently as a young adult from 1950 until she got married in 1958 (she worked downtown for the City of Detroit at that time) has often commented when we've taken her out for, say, Chinese food at an upscale restaurant that "this is delicious, but it doesn't compare to Victor Lim's...." and then go on about particular dishes and appetizers and such. Likewise the steaks and seafood served at the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars and Sinbad's. According to her, the portions were bigger, the service far more cordial, the patrons better dressed, and the food more flavorful.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:43 AM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could also try Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet by Levenstein (specifically the second to last chapter), or The Food of a Younger Land by Kurlansky, which is a history of average Americans' eating habits in the 30s.

You could also browse the Digital Menu Collection at NYPL for some other ideas.
posted by stellaluna at 11:45 AM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Umm, from my memory of the sixties:

The menus would have had less chicken and fish.

The presentations would look as dated as a 1960 dress. And effected the flavor about as much.

The steaks would be neither overdone nor oversalted. Rare, medium and well meant what they do today. The cuts would have been larger. You wouldn't have been able to get Kobe beef nor wood-fired.

Pork and lamb would be a little overdone by today's standards, and the salads bland and boring.

The veggies, in general, were unloved stepchildren.

The sauces wouldn't lack finesse, exactly: they'd just be heavy and rich. Steak sauces based on cream, for example. Steak au Poivre. Steak Diane. Wellingtons with demiglace. Bernaise on steaks. (Confession: I still cook like that sometimes). Fish sauces based on bechamel.

In general, just zero consideration for health concerns. Butter, not olive oil.
posted by tyllwin at 12:31 PM on March 29, 2012 [13 favorites]

I would also imagine that the smoking allowed in the restaurants would also affect the smell and taste of the food.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:59 PM on March 29, 2012 [11 favorites]

There's probably as much difference between the 1930s and the 1960s as between the 1960s and today. I would not segment eras this way.

That said, in the 1960s (US) compared to now:
  • Better beef and chicken. In general, ordering steaks rarer was considered posher then, and there was no concern for BSE. The trend now, I believe, is toward well done.
  • Heavy stuff like liver, beef stroganoff, etc. more popular.
  • Pork chops for breakfast.
  • Turkey only during the last 6 weeks of the year. No turkey 'products'.
  • Better fish (no tilapia, orange roughy, or 'chilean sea bass'), but fewer people prepared to contemplate it. Likely to be overcooked by today's standards. Away from the coasts, any seafood would likely have been frozen, and any shellfish would be quite suspect unless you knew the place flew it in fresh.
  • More potatoes, less corn, less rice.
  • Less variety of vegetables, and those likely overcooked by today's standards. You'd get something like succotash or stringbeans, not broccoli with dill.
  • Of course people ate salads, but at most places, it's going to be iceberg lettuce. The salad bar had yet to be invented.
  • Intelligent people were still willing to eat margarine undisguised by a butter-evoking brandname; a hangover from WWII.
  • Your bread options: white or rye. Rye was for the bohemian who had salami instead of bologna.
  • No bagels outside of cities with Jewish neighborhoods.
  • No yoghurt, but cottage cheese was plentiful. Counted as a salad.
  • Far less variety of cheeses, most of them bland.
  • In general, more sweets, less savouries.
  • Narrower variety of deserts; basically pie, cake, ice cream, and pie.
  • Did I mention pie? In the 1930s, an office worker might have a slice of pie and coffee as lunch. By the 1960s, they'd've graduated to an egg salad sandwich with chips and a pickle.
  • Far less 'ethnic', national, or regional eats. Limited pretty much to Chinatown Chinese and Little Italy Italian, with highly localized exceptions. I didn't see a taco in Cincinnati until the 1970s. On the other hand, there were several fine German restaurants in the city.
  • Fried chicken, soul food, other Southern or Western identified dishes rare above the Mason-Dixon line.
  • Sodapop made with sugar. Six ounces was a serving.
  • More drinking and smoking at table.
  • Uptight attitudes, bordering on outright paranoia, about wines. Domestic wines mostly lousy, though fewer people cared.
In general, Americans had much less interest in or awareness of what the rest of the world had to offer. At the same time, everything was far less processed.

By the early 1970s, post-WWII prosperity brought simultaneous broadening of American tastes and increasing industrialization of the food supply.

Finally, better coffee is available now, of course, but Americans still can't -- and don't care to learn how to -- make tea.
posted by Herodios at 1:09 PM on March 29, 2012 [36 favorites]

Lobster Newberg, Coronation Chicken, Steak Diane. You might find this site interesting: www.foodtimeline.org/fooddecades.html#1960s
posted by londongeezer at 1:33 PM on March 29, 2012

The No Reservations episode called Disappearing Manhattan, where Bourdaine goes to Le Veau D'or, would give you a great idea of a 50's-60's French restaurant menu.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:45 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

While British and not US, there's an interesting series called 'The Supersizers Go...[various eras]' that does some of the eras you're thinking of, and not just middle class or upper class in each episode. I remember them talking about the heavy sauces in the mid-20th century cuisine. The 40s were also a time for rationing here, but that's a topic I just don't know that much about. Episodes are available online in pieces to watch outside of the UK.

(Although I'm guessing Coronation Chicken would, uh, not be as big in the US, what with us not really having coronations.)
posted by cobaltnine at 1:48 PM on March 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

Addendum (re 30s vs 60s vs 2ks):

Sometime in the 1950s my mother purchased from a 'fancy' restaurant that was going out of business, a set of pinch bowls.

This restaurant placed them on their dining room tables to hold salt instead of salt cellars / shakers. Presumably, patrons were expected to use a spoon(!), but of course there was nothing but your conscience to bar fingers. And after all, they were called pinch bowls.

I don't know in what earlier era these things were considered acceptable on a dining table, but by the time I was eating in restaurants myself, they were thankfully extinct outside the kitchen and stayed that way for decades. We used the ones my mother brought home for other purposes.

Now I see they are making a comeback attached to a whole new sensibility. Presumably, these trendy folks will also expect guests not to pinch the pinch bowl.

Plus ca change, plus ce la meme that I chose to tell you about.
posted by Herodios at 2:11 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can tell you that food tasted better in the 60's,

What is the basis for this judgment, though? I understand it is likely true for certain specific things but it is also untrue for other specific things. I don't think a blanket "food tasted better" can be supported, particularly if it is based on "I tasted food in the 60s and food now and the food in the 60s was better", for so many different reasons I wouldn't know where to start.
posted by Justinian at 2:18 PM on March 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

While British and not US. . . I remember them talking about the heavy sauces in the mid-20th century cuisine. The 40s were also a time for rationing here. . . .

Thanks Cobaltnine for the excuse to mention this passage from Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. A lower middle class boy is getting acquanted with his fiancee's upper middle class lifestyle, c. 1960:
During that summer he ate for the first time a salad with a lemon and oil dressing and, at breakfast, yoghurt - a glamorous substance he knew only from a James Bond novel. His hard-pressed father's cooking and the pie-and-chips regime of his student days could not have prepared him for the strange vegetables - the aubergines, green and red peppers, courgettes and mangetouts - that came regularly before him. He was surprised, even a little put out, on his first visit when Violet served as a first course a bowl of undercooked peas. He had to overcome an aversion, not to the taste so much as to the reputation of garlic. . .

He encountered for the first time in his life muesli, olives, fresh black pepper, bread without butter, anchovies, undercooked lamb, cheese that was not cheddar, ratatouille, saucisson, bouillabaisse, entire meals without potatoes, and, most challenging of all, a fishy pink paste, taramasalata. . .

Some of the novelties he took to straight away: freshly ground and filtered coffee, orange juice at breakfast, confit of duck, fresh figs. He was in no position to know what an unusual situation the Pontings' was, a don married to a successful businessman, and Violet, a sometime friend of Elizabeth David, managing a household in the vanguard of a culinary revolution while lecturing to students on monads and the categorical imperative.

Edward absorbed these domestic circumstances without acknowledging their exotic opulence. He assumed that this was how Oxford university teachers lived, and he would not be caught out appearing impressed.
posted by Herodios at 2:27 PM on March 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

This is just my experience, but when my family and I would go dining at the local Chinese restaurant in Madison, WI in the '70's, I don't remember anyone eating with chopsticks, aside from the restaurant staff. Nor do I even remember them being available. I think you had to specifically ask for them.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:28 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know in what earlier era these things were considered acceptable on a dining table,

In every era. You will see them on my mother's table, and on mine. I use one because my mother uses one; my mother uses one because she would no more put a salt shaker on her table than she would use a paper napkin or - God forbid - a place mat.

Do you wash your hands before a meal? Yes? Do you put your hands in your mouth or pick your nose whilst eating? No? Then we're fine; please pass the salt.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:33 PM on March 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

I can tell you that food tasted better in the 60's

I have the opposite memory. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a middle-class WASP family, and the food was bland and mostly canned. I have never eaten better than I do today.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:06 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Salt cellars (the open bowls from which you take salt, rather than shaking it onto your food) were correct in US society, at least, until after World War I. The Wikipedia article is pretty accurate.

My grandmother apparently only converted to salt shakers after World War II. Salt cellars often have little salt spoons, so it's not as crazily unhygienic as one might think (no more unhygienic than a sugar bowl and sugar spoon rather than a sugar shaker).
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:10 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Los Angeles Public Library has an extensive menu collection that can be searched by date, which may be relevant to your interests. (I'm pretty sure I originally saw this linked on Metafilter, so hat-tip to whoever mentioned it previously...)
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 3:12 PM on March 29, 2012

I grew up in a middle-class WASP family, and the food was bland and mostly canned.

Calvin Trillin has written a lot about this -- satire on how WASPs only ate chicken à la king.

My grandfather (Midwestern branch of family) liked creamed dried chipped beef on toast -- the dried beef that comes in little jars.

Traditional French cooking was also still obligatory at posh levels.
posted by bad grammar at 4:35 PM on March 29, 2012

You might find The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution as I did, an entertaining though sometimes too detailed tale of how everyday Americans got to be sophisticated about food.

I remember being horrified at the descriptions of the foods the French chefs who were so in vogue in the beginning part of the 20th century were producing and their insane heavy cream sauces. The book is pretty much in chronological order, so you learn how people's palates changed from those cream sauces in the 20s and 30s to what would eventually turn into California cuisine/etc. in the 60s and 70s.
posted by librarylis at 6:50 PM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not a meal out, but I only realized how global the world has become when my father told me how the first time he ever tasted yogurt was in 1970 when he was on study abroad in Istanbul. YOGURT!
posted by raccoon409 at 7:13 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Things that my mother has told me about food from when she was growing up (1950s, Iowa):

1. Her father forbid them from having pizza for dinner when it became available (probably late 50s/early 60s) because it wasn't "real food." So they'd wait till he was away on one of his trips as a long haul truck driver and order it in secret.

2. Vegetables, which they grew in their own garden, were much better than grocery store vegetables today, but...

3. By the time my mom had a family of her own (1970s), food you raised on your own was looked down on. Pre-packaged supermarket food was the "right" way to feed your family. Only poor people grew their own.
posted by MsMolly at 7:19 PM on March 29, 2012

There's a place still going in Vancouver called Hy's Encore where the menu and ambiance are little-changed since the 50's and 60's.
The prices are, or course, much higher now and you won't find ashtrays on the table but you can still pull off a respectable Mad Men fantasy there.
I have fond but fuzzy memories of three-martini lunches at Hy's in the early '80s.
posted by islander at 7:35 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

For that matter, The Senator in Toronto has been open since '29 and retains the decor, if not the same menu as when it opened. They have several old menus from decades past framed on the wall though, and they seemed to consist of much more "hearty, stick to your ribs" type food than is currently available there.
posted by peppermind at 8:14 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ooh, I can help answer this question. I'm writing my thesis on the history of American food and nutrition, and though I'm not looking at the post-World War II era I can tell you about the early part of the century. I apologize in advance for comment length; the short answer is there was a lot less variety in restaurant fare during the '20s and '30s, and your options were generally much blander than we'd get at a nice restaurant today.

You didn't ask about the 1920s, but I think restaurant trends in the '20s were pretty interesting so I'm going to tell you about them anyway. Prohibition had a major impact on the restaurant industry because most nice restaurants made most of their profit from liquor and thus couldn't make enough money to stay in business. Some nice restaurants managed to stay in business in the big cities, but for the most part there was a flattening of the restaurant industry -- much fewer "gourmet" options at the high end combined with a homogenization of tastes as middle-class culture became more appealing. So, the equivalent of a "nice" meal in the '20s would probably not nearly meet the standard of what we'd consider a "nice night out" today.

Any type of food that wasn't "American" was seriously discouraged; second-generation immigrants generally abandoned their parents' cuisine in favor of less stigmatizing foods. So, outside of immigrant enclaves or really big cities, you wouldn't encounter much variety in the cuisine. Italo-Americans were somewhat resistant to this, though, and so Italian food slowly worked its way onto the American table. But it was a pretty bastardized version -- I read one recipe that recommended spaghetti be served with ketchup instead of tomato sauce, for example. In terms of taste, Americans had a pretty big phobia of spice, so while "nice" restaurant food might have included a little bit of flavoring, salt and pepper were generally the only seasonings on food. I recently interviewed one woman whose mother owned a restaurant in the 1920s Midwest who said they never used spices, and the woman today still doesn't use spices today because she "doesn't understand the point." So restaurant fare was also probably much blander than we'd expect today from a nice night out.

The '20s also saw a big explosion in cafeteria-style eating, which wasn't fine dining by any stretch of the imagination but was pretty important to urban workers who only had an hour for lunch and couldn't go home to eat. These cafeterias used almost entirely canned foods that they just heated up and laid out on big steam trays -- so the food was pretty bland and lifeless. Here's an article from 1923 decrying the popularity of cafeteria-style restaurants and encouraging women to pack boxed lunches for their families instead.

That article also hits pretty hard on the "yay sandwiches!" angle, which brings up another important change in American eating habits: middle-class Americans ate a lot more sandwiches and salads beginning in this period than they did before. This was due in large part to the efforts of home economists and nutritionists disseminating the latest information about vitamins. Salad dressing was generally something simple, oil mixed with a bit of seasoning or mayonnaise-based dressings (flip through a couple pages here to see recipes!). Salads were sometimes really bizarre by our standards today. They could be anything as simple as iceberg lettuce with dressing on top or as elaborate as cabbage and carrots suspended in gelatin and molded into fancy designs ("perfection salad"). But salads were generally considered "women's food" through the '20s and '30s; women ate "delicate" salads and sandwiches at lunch with their lady friends, and served more "manly" foods at dinner: french fries, steak, and generally "simple" meals. You weren't likely to eat a salad at a restaurant in the '20s and '30s unless you were a woman or your wife had put you on a diet.

I don't know as much off the top of my head about restaurants in the 1930s, but an excellent book to read would be David Strauss's Setting the Table for Julia Child: Gourmet Dining in America, 1934-1961. I do know that fine dining in general suffered a huge hit, and had a hard time recovering even after Prohibition ended. The appeal of French cuisine took a nosedive in the '30s but slowly recovered over time as the premier high cuisine. Cheaper restaurants were becoming a lot more popular; roadside restaurants like Howard Johnson's grew rapidly during the '30s, for example. Cleanliness was a major factor in what made a restaurant "nice." There were some chains, but not a lot; most were mom-and-pop shops.

Restaurants rarely gave up vegetables as side dishes. The standard "American" meal is the A+2B model -- a meat and two sides, often veggies. The woman I talked to said her mom's restaurant served lots of meat -- lots of beef and pork, and chicken once a week or so. Fish was generally served once a week. The vegetables and fruits they served varied by season, and since transportation wasn't great they'd only have some vegetables in the beginning of the week. Potatoes were by far the most common veggie but carrots, cabbage, spinach (not in salads), head lettuce, tomatoes, corn, and onions were popular. Apples were the most popular fruit at the beginning of the century but by the '30s were overshadowed in favor of citrus fruits and bananas. (Banana companies put out a huge advertising campaign in the early part of the century and were remarkably successful; every person I interviewed for my thesis remembered bananas especially as a food they ate a lot). Desserts were often fruit-based, especially during the Depression and again during World War II when budgets or supplies were tight.

Most Americans by far ate at a restaurant only rarely. Only about 20% of the meals eaten in New York City were at a restaurant by 1930; in the United States as a whole that percentage dropped to 7% (cite). So examining restaurants as an indicator of American food habits as a whole is going to give you only one very small part of the picture of what American food looked in the early 20th century. It is pretty neat, though.
posted by lilac girl at 8:49 PM on March 29, 2012 [177 favorites]

Oh, I forgot to link to the portion of the Good Housekeeping cookbook about sauces here. These recipes are fancier than the standard fare in middle-class kitchens (which consisted of either "white" or "brown" sauce), so maybe it will give you a better idea of the types of sauces served in nice restaurants in the '20s. That cookbook was published in 1922.
posted by lilac girl at 8:57 PM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Todd Haynes/Kate Winslet TV film of Mildred Pierce is scrupulously accurate in its research, and it is, after all, a movie about a woman who makes her fortune in the restaurant business during the 1930s. So that might give you some ideas of what the food was like then. Even more detailed in discussion of the details of the selection and preparation of restaurant food is the novel upon which the film is (closely) based, by James M. Cain. (You'd think there'd be pages and pages of sex scenes or catfights, but in fact a lot of the book is taken up with things like Mildred's method of cutting up a half chicken before frying it, or chatter about what kind of pies waitresses prefer to serve.)
posted by La Cieca at 10:15 PM on March 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

One of my previous Projects is sort of related to this topic, though it doesn't specifically focus on restaurant food. It does include old recipes, menus, ingredients and techniques that are different from what we are used to today.

One thing that is very different is that in the early-mid 20th century gelatin salads were a lot more common than they are now. I am not old enough to say whether they were common in high-end restaurants or not, but I would guess that they were in earlier years, and probably less so as the century went on and they gradually became less of a "classy" thing.
posted by litlnemo at 1:43 AM on March 30, 2012

My grandfather was in college in the 1930s. His food-related stories don't really tell of abundance. Before college, lunch was a biscuit and sorghum molasses in a pail. During college they would eat in a dorm diner, but the meals were very basic and designed mostly to fulfill basic caloric needs. Restaurant dining would have been unheard of. In the 1940s, he was in the Air Force and lived all over the world and had a much better life and exposure to the finer things. I've seen photos of dinners they had, and the focus seemed to be more on ambiance than food -- starched heavy linens on the table, leisurely meals with lots of laughter, everyone dressed up in their finest clothes.

My father (other side of my family) was a young man in the 1950s. He's told a few food-related stories about this time period. In one story, he saw for the first time a pizza. He was amazed at the man throwing the pizza dough in the air to flatten it. He also got caught staring at a Chinese man eating rice and Chinese food with chopsticks, because he'd never seen such a thing before and was amazed at how fast he could eat with the chopsticks. He also had his first rare steak (before that, all his steaks were cooked well-done), and pasteurized milk was a new thing that a local dairy advertised with a jingle, "Drink milk the modern way." However, it was sold in the store in a pail.

Both my mother and my father remembered entire restaurants in the 1960s that were kinda like cafeterias but entirely made of vending machines (like this) that served all manner of meals, not chips and candy bars.

My takeaway from the stories is that food changed a lot after WWII. Before the war was mostly privation, especially in areas outside the big cities (which fared better during the Depression). During the war, most men had been in the military and had traveled quite a bit. After the war and through the 1950s, there was lots of immigration to the US. People moved around the States for jobs quite a bit more than today. Household finances were generally better. So, in the 1950s there was slowly more exposure to the foods of other areas and countries. You could see your first pizza, your first chopsticks, your first pasteurized milk, and be amazed. It might not be what we think of as pizza or Chinese food today, but these were the new restaurants that started to spring up at that time. Eating at a restaurant was a Big Deal, worth dressing up for and really taking your time to enjoy.

By the 1960s, the interstate system was built, and so we could move food from one part of the nation to the other, and also had to deal with how to keep food fresh while it was in transport. That science (and a general interest in "modern" and "scientific" endeavors in general) naturally expressed itself in food -- from vending machines, from the far reaches of our country. The science also moved toward convenience -- Tang, flavored instant Jello, and McDonalds.
posted by Houstonian at 5:12 AM on March 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

Appetite City is specific to the New York restaurant business, so would be helpful for Mad Men comparisons.
posted by JanetLand at 5:30 AM on March 30, 2012

Salads were sometimes really bizarre by our standards today. They could be anything as simple as iceberg lettuce with dressing on top or as elaborate as cabbage and carrots suspended in gelatin and molded into fancy designs...

We never had cabbage Jello, but my mom for sure made (shredded) carrot Jello more than once in the 80s.
posted by DU at 7:58 AM on March 30, 2012

Pinging off of Lilac Girls' excellent comment --

In the 1920's, America was also going through a Chinoiserie phase, spurred on by a craze for the game mah jongg, so going to a Chinese restaurant was considered an exotic treat. The "Chinese food" of the time was almost entirely from Hunan province -- no Sichuan food at all. It was mostly -- well, you know "stereotypical" Chinese food from your corner takeout? That's what it was. Except in a fancier setting.

A lot of the restaurants also put "American fare" like french fries on their menus to, and featured that fact in their advertising, in an effort to lure Americans in and reassure them that Chinese food wasn't weird.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:01 AM on March 30, 2012

FWIW, this question reminds me of a classic Jack Benny / Frank Nelson routine, where Jack Benny and friends go to a classy restaurant (Nelson is the aggressive waiter that torments the nebbish Benny). They go around the table ordering food, until they get to Benny, where the comedy routine really starts.

I was always struck that everyone ordered a steak, and there was a distinction between the "men's" steak and the "ladies'" steak, which was typically a filet. They each ordered a potato in various preparations (baked, mashed, etc) and some kind of prepared green -- creamed spinach, for example. The ladies ordered Ceasar salads, which seemed to be meant to arrive with the steak, not before it.

So, not terribly dissimilar from a high-end steakhouse today, where everything is ordered a la carte.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:47 AM on March 30, 2012

a few comments upthread suggested places to eat that are preserved in amber.

I would be remiss should I fail to point out that Hollywood's Musso & Frank Grill has been open since 1919 and has also been used as a location for Mad Men.

This fansite includes old menus, back to 1944 (that I noticed).
posted by mwhybark at 10:04 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Both my mother and my father remembered entire restaurants in the 1960s that were kinda like cafeterias but entirely made of vending machines (like this [link to WP: "Horn & Hardart"]) that served all manner of meals, not chips and candy bars.

That's an automat. For a change, it's worth reviewing the items listed under "In media / In popular culture" on this Wickuhpeedia page, since these could be relevant to the original question. Shows how pervasive the things were mid-century. Though in serious decline by the 1960s, they continued to be referenced in movies, cartoons, etc.

But then, automats, correspond to modern fast-food' rather than "a nice dinner out".

More links here.

The last Horn & Hardart automat closed in 1991, but you can still get a copy of P.D.Q. Bach's Concerto for Horn & Hardart.
posted by Herodios at 11:46 AM on March 30, 2012

All I know is that the meals described in the Nero Wolfe books sound pretty darned tasty to me, and the restaurants in the Dashiell Hammett books that still exist have very old fashioned but very tasty food, so maybe we're back in the 1920s and 1930s in terms of food aesthetics.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:03 PM on March 30, 2012

OK, just a few more items and I'm done.

Canton Hunan & Sichuan, LLP
The "Chinese food" of the time was almost entirely from Hunan province -- no Sichuan food at all.

I think you mean Cantonese here. I believe that Hunan and Sichuan cuisine appeared in the US about the same time, c. 1970, decades after Cantonese had been established in the American mind and palate as "Chinese food".

I don't remember anyone eating with chopsticks, aside from the restaurant staff. Nor do I even remember them being available. I think you had to specifically ask for them.

My recollection is similar. I'd make it the mid to late 1970s when large numbers of non-Asian diners took up chopsticks as an essential part of the experience.

The Tiki con
Speaking of 'exotic' dining experiences in mid-20th Century America, don't negelect to look into the trend for Tiki Lounges such as the Kahiki Supper Club in Columbus, Ohio.
From time to time a nearby table would order up [the 'mystery drink'] a four-person flaming drink, which was delivered amid the sound of gongs by an exotic "mystery girl"—a ritual that, according to the menu, "symbolizes an ancient sacrifice, which reportedly stopped volcanoes from erupting."

In 1997 the Kahiki joined the nearly 70,000 other properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. [But in 2000 it was demolished to make way for a 15,000-square-foot Walgreens drugstore].

I realize that I'm hardly alone in saying I hate it when drugstore chains raze cool old buildings. . . [but] the Kahiki was, after all, a fake Polynesian restaurant that served mediocre, dangerous food. . . .

Then I called Nathalie Wright, the National Register coordinator at the Ohio Historic Preservation Office. . . .

Placed in its socio-historical context, Wright argued, the Kahiki vividly recalled a time when America inhabited a sort of South Seas Camelot. Songs from the movie musical South Pacific (1958) were on everyone's lips, Hawaii had joined the union as the fiftieth state just two years before (1959), and Elvis was starring in Blue Hawaii (1961). . . .

Furthermore, Wright said, tiki bars were among the original theme restaurants, dating from a time when Americans began to evince an apparently lasting appetite for the artificial over the real.

-- Wayne Curtis, "The Tiki Wars: How do we distinguish the historic from the sentimental?"
Filet-o-Fish on Friday
Despite what I'd said above about fresh fish not being available everywhere, some kind of fish was available nearly everywhere, in part because Catholics were expected to abstain from eating 'red' meat on Friday up until Vatican II. (Afterwards, you could substitute some other sacrifice instead).

In fact, in Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? (2005), Michael P. Foley claims that the practice was the reason for the creation of McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich in the first place. The owner of the McDonald's franchise in Cincinnati noticed that sales fell on Fridays, introduced the non-terrestrial alternative, and Friday sales picked up again.

Bon Appétit!
posted by Herodios at 2:07 PM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

There weren't many olives. Most of them were stuffed with pimento. None of them were black.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:15 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Food Timeline has a ton of info and looks really neat.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:00 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Related FPP: Senate Dining Menu, 1964.
posted by mwhybark at 3:37 PM on April 6, 2012

> The "Chinese food" of the time was almost entirely from Hunan province -- no Sichuan food at all.

I think you mean Cantonese here.

D'oh! You're absolutely right. Cantonese is what I meant.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:47 PM on April 6, 2012

What a fun question and juicy food nostalgia and history thread!

I remember restaurant food in the 60's being bland compared to now. Banal, really, lacking in subtlety, lacking complexity of flavor, stodgy, heavy on the flour, animal fats and gluten. It was incredibly limited then, compared to now. Fruits were often stewed for desserts, taking away their flavor and making the fruit mushy, lacking in bouquet. Vegetables were considered cooked when they verged on losing their color. Meats often came swimming in "gravy", often made with sliced mushrooms, overcooked.

Vegetables and fruits were much more limited then, I suppose due to being grown mostly locally. It was a huge treat to eat artichokes then, in the 60's, whereas now it's possible to buy artichokes year round. It was assumed then that men and children were not that interested in vegetables.

The herbs and spices used were mostly a limited assortment of European ones: thyme, bay leaf, mustard, oregano, paprika, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla. Not like the much wider variety that includes coriander, cardamom, lemongrass, chili pepper, rosemary, sage, basil, curry, turmeric, ginger, garlic and countless others of today.

There was much less authentically ethnic food in the 60's but Americanized, bland versions with a foreign name. Some were momentarily delicious but many left me feeling heavy, devitalized and drowsy. Examples:

Chicken Kiev, breast of chicken with a half a cup of melted butter trapped inside, so that when the knife cut the meat the plate swam in butter.

Vichyssoise - potato, leek soup with lots of heavy cream, served cold as an appetizer. If made nicely a subtle taste but swiftly overwhelmed by the heavy cream.

Salisbury Steak - basically meatloaf cooked in onion soup gravy. Salty and oily.

Shepherd's Pie - ground beef with a layer of mashed potatoes on top. Salty casserole dish.

Steak houses in the 60's were considered a luxurious place to dine, as they are today. Usually shrimp cocktail was the hors d'oeuvre, five or six overdone jumbo shrimp served in a parfait glass, hanging off the rim with a wedge of lemon, usually not squeezed, a sprig of parsley for decoration. Typically if one ordered steak medium rare it came with just a hint of pink. Not the more bloody medium rare of today. The vegetable was usually just a baked potato, served with sour cream mixed with chives. The salad was iceberg, a wedge or two of often tasteless tomato and slices of cucumber. The dressings were French, Italian and Blue.

Rolls served in a basket with pats of butter on the side.

Dessert usually hot apple pie, possibly served a la mode with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

In a French restaurant in the 60's there would typically be escargots, beef consomme soup served cold/jellied, pate for starters. For the main course there might be sweetbreads (organ meats). Coquilles Saint Jacques (sauteed scallops, butter, cream, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and wine sauce), filet of sole, Boeuf Bourguignon (beef braised in wine sauce) or a steak au poivre. Dessert would likely be creme brulee.

Fancy American restaurant food of the 60's might include oxtail soup with sherry, or pea soup with sherry. There was the Waldorf Salad, made with apples, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise. Avocado with shrimp salad inside. Main dishes included roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy. Lobster Thermidor (creamed lobster), potatoes au gratin. Baked ham dotted all over with cloves and covered in slices of pineapple. Tunafish casserole. Hungarian goulash. Weiner Schnitzel. Steak with Bearnaise sauce. Asparagus with Hollandaise sauce. Eggs Benedict. There might be something in aspic.

Typical 60's restaurant desserts might include apple brown betty, Baked Alaska, profiteroles (cream puffs with ice cream and hot chocolate sauce), baked apple with ice cream, stewed pears. Pistachio ice cream. Neapolitan ice cream that came in tri color squares of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla. Banana splits. On special occasions there would be something flaming brought to the table, the cognac sauce lit with a lot of drama and served only to a woman. Pecan pie. Chocolate mousse.

Pasta was then in the 60's called either spaghetti or "Italian food", when it came to Italian restaurants. The range was very limited, none of the pumpkin or lobster ravioli or many pasta shapes of today. Typically there was Spaghetti Bolognese, Spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, Spaghetti Alfredo. My favorite 60's Italian restaurant dessert was Zabaglione (alcohol flavored foam) served with Italian macaroons, called Amaretti di Saronno.

A very popular Chinese dish of the 60's was Sweet and Sour Pork, which was often delicious, succulent and a delicately sweet sauce. When I've ordered this in the last couple of decades in NYC, it's cooked very poorly, over fried and in a sickly sweet and grossly artificially pink sauce. However, most of what was called Chinese food then was pork fried rice and wonton soup, very predictable and Disneyfied versions, heavy.

Restaurant food these days is infinitely better then it once was. Salads are packed with deep green, a fantastic variety of fruits available all year round now, many marvelously exotic, tropical. Even the apples and pears come in a huge array of colors and flavors.

The whole of society was then, in the 60's very dominated by white, macho male tastes. Steak houses were a man's bastion of virile consumption, whiskey, cigar smoke. Vegetables, salads, desserts, variety, subtlety of texture, caloric content, health considerations were all considered female and not important. Ethnic dishes then were for foreigners, during a time just after the McCarthy era, when being foreign was not something about which to be proud. It was possible to eat ethnic foods but that was seen as something for "arty types".

These days nobody considers thinking twice about going to a Thai place, or Vietnamese, Peruvian, Cuban, Brazilian, Indian, Ethiopian, Mexican, Cajun or a Japanese restaurant. Diversity of ethnic restaurant options now is not a denigration but a routine luxury. The American palate has diversified exponentially, from Nutella, Greek yogurt to Vietnamese chili garlic sauce, available in supermarkets.

The restaurant food changes in America are definitely for the better, much healthier, geared towards pleasing not just white men but also women, children, and a huge range of ethnic tastes.
posted by nickyskye at 11:24 PM on April 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

It bears noting that in some areas of the midwest -- Chicago especially, and also Kansas City if memory serves -- oysters were easily had, as they will live on ice for something like two weeks.
posted by mr. digits at 1:27 PM on April 7, 2012

(which is to say that, as the oysters could make it ten days or a couple weeks, they could be brought in by train from the coast before the advent of cheap airline shipping)
posted by mr. digits at 1:31 PM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

While British and not US, there's an interesting series called 'The Supersizers Go...[various eras]' that does some of the eras you're thinking of, and not just middle class or upper class in each episode. [...] Episodes are available online in pieces to watch outside of the UK.

Yay! I am thoroughly obsessed on the Supersizers, as it combines my love of food and love of history into one glorious program. Plus it's hilarious.

Thankfully, it's now available in the States on the Cooking Channel, Food Network's spinoff that has actual cooking on it rather than "food competitions." It is perhaps telling that a goodly portion of Cooking's programming comes from Canada and the UK. :)
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:20 AM on April 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

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