The Cafeteria Buffet Menu
Sitting on 484-486 Sixth Avenue between 29th and 30th streets in the heart of Brooklyn, New York, the Cafeteria Buffet was the first of its kind in terms of efficient and hearty dining in the early 1900s. Typically when a family dines out, the food is narrowed to a certain appetite. Dining would be sit down and one plate served to you. You eat, pay, and leave. The menu I chose exemplified the beginning of a new kind of dining pertaining to families in need of efficiency while still getting their money’s worth. The menu offers a wide array of items from sandwiches and soups to heavy hot plates such as corned beef and peas or eggs and bacon. The style of service offered at this restaurant is very similar to what we consider a diner establishment. The menu introduces a new era of dining for the fast paced American family.
Agriculture was the livelihood of the American family in 1908. Hunting and gathering was still practiced by rural families (dependent on personal farming.) Meat was the center of one’s diet which consisted of fish, shellfish, beef, pork, etc. Fresh fruits and vegetables were harder to get ahold of in the winter unless it was homegrown. Dairy was hard to keep from spoiling unless an ice box was available on the property. Canned or condensed milk was usually only used in cooking and coffee popularized by the Viennese drink. Everything is cooked in heavy cast iron or large pots. City dwellers had the convenience of inexpensive restaurants thanks to immigrants and their influence on food and culture. Unlike in the country, time was a huge factor in the city, and your diet had to go along with your schedule.
With this time-consciousness in mind, The Cafeteria Buffet menu offered a wide arrange of culinary options to satisfy everyone’s tastes. Sandwich options included a variety of meats and vegetables that can be seen on a regular menu today. Old fashioned items such as tongue and cream cheese sandwiches, things not seen often today, also appear. The menu is simple compared to the detail that people crave today.
This menu may look like an ordinary cafe or diner menu you might see at your local institution today. It is very special given the time and generation, for in the early 1900s, dining out and not cooking your own daily meals was a relatively new concept. The simplicity of the menu was a novelty.
The menu is arranged for breakfast and lunch meal times. This suggests that the location of the restaurant (New York City) was catered towards guests seeking fast and delicious food in a high volume area. Hours of operation are not included but you can see “Hot Lunch Department” on the third page of the menu. Today, you might see families eating dinner around 6 p.m. whereas dinner in the early 1900s was eaten around 6 or 7 p.m. Supper was a late night snack eaten much later in the evening. While not as common today, it was a more traditional form of eating and gathering with family and friends. The city life was vastly different from the country life so food on the cafeteria buffet menu was served in a much different style.
The front page of the menu reads “The only one of its kind in the country.” The style of service is not specified, but the food options resemble that of a diner establishment. It is safe to assume that the reason it is considered the first of its kind is because of the quick and high volume of food that they were able to serve in their downtown location. The simple food options make for quick and efficient service while still maintaining high quality. People in this time were used to good food at the cost of time whereas this menu offers an efficient version of this.
Diner service in the US comes out the nation’s immigrant experience. First-generation American diner owners tended to come from French Canada, slowly migrating from New England. While they were technically invented in the US, immigrants started their businesses in the US which later evolved into the iconic American classic. The first diner was on a horse drawn cart in 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island. Diners contained a kitchen in the back with customers separated only by a counter. This proved to be the best way to accommodate large families quickly.
Buffet style service came from Swedish heritage. Common feasts were featured at events in the 16th century to welcome guests with large amounts of prepared food to gather themselves. The term smorgasbord comes from this style of service to help feed people traveling long distances and have multiple food options. Dishes included a mix of cold and hot dishes for people to choose themselves. Food is strategically placed so guests don’t take everything at once but instead take their time and put thought into what guests are eating.
Today, food is quicker and more efficient than restaurants in the early 1900s. The transition of casual dining was long but the menu I chose exemplifies the difference it made in the city lifestyle. The food choices on the menu were the start of a new regulatory diet for families and city folk that is seen on menus today at many establishments. It’s influence on today’s dining experience cannot go unnoticed as it set the tone for generations to come.
The Cafeteria Buffet menu suggests the smorgasbord food options. Being the first of its kind in terms of service style means that it was the first to cater toward large parties and offer a large variety of dishes. A diner style food including sandwiches and pies mixed with the Swedish catering style of buffet makes the Cafeteria Buffet unique in its own right.