New York Luncheonettes: No-Frills Dining in the Gilded Age

One problem confronting early twentieth-century New Yorkers was where to find a flea dip to go with a proper dish of ground beef. The Canine Luncheonette, one of the Gilded Age’s more charming innovations, supplied the remedy. To those four-legged companions of women who would disappear into the shops on Fifth Avenue the establishment offered comfort and refection. There pooches could dine in grand style and could even steal a nap. (Longer reposes, however, had to take place down the street at the doggie hotel, whose appurtenances naturally included a savory bone for gnawing.)

Of course, the dog-eat-dog spirit of the times meant that opulence often existed side-by-side with the most extreme privation. The Walther League Messenger reminds its readers that even as the Canine Luncheonette cossetted its clients, “human beings in Hungarian ‘Siberia’ are eating dog flesh in their despair.” In such a condition “the meat and biscuits which are fed to those pampered pets of New York society” these poor unfortunates would no doubt regard as “a rare delicacy.”

For luncheonette customers of the two-legged variety, delicacy took a back seat to expedience. Quick, simple fare was the order of business, and it proved popular among students, shoppers, transients, and others on the go. Initially adjuncts to soda fountains, luncheonettes featured vanilla milkshakes, toasted English muffins and hamburgers – all items that could sate pangs that surfaced between ordinary meal times. As an 1915 issue of The Dispenser’s Formulary reports, many a Manhattanite was delivered comfortably to the dinner hour thanks to the timely intervention of “a well-made bowl of soup, an individual service of chicken pie, a sandwich, and a strawberry dessert.”

The hustle and bustle of luncheonettes attested to their convenience. Customers perched above Formica counters gave their orders directly to the line cooks. Those seated in booths dealt with waitresses who translated their meal requests into an exotic idiom. “Doughnuts and coffee” became “sinks and suds.” “Make it high and dry” meant “Hold the mayonnaise and mustard.”

Indeed, bread, meat and cheese never admitted of as much combinatorial variety as they did at luncheonettes, where sandwiches dominated the menu. Bread “spread thinly with butter” The Dispenser’s Formulary considers best for sandwiches, provided the accompanying meat isn’t “dragged from its covers as the consumer bites through it.” To avoid such a mishap it’s better to swap cold cuts for fruit. The Dispenser’s Formulary thus presents this recipe for a tutti frutti sandwich, which you can be sure makes for quick, easy, orderly eating.

Tutti Frutti Sandwich

One pound stoned and chopped dates, two ounces of shredded ginger, one pound ground roasted and salted peanuts, one pound of seeded and chopped raisins, one half pound strained honey and the juice of two lemons. Pack in a jar and keep in refrigerator. Use as needed.

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