The World’s Busiest Restaurant with a Mouth-Watering Experience: The Toffenetti Restaurant

Introduction

The menu that I chose is from the Toffenetti Restaurant in New York. A formerly popular restaurant in urban New York that lasted nearly 30 years from 1939 to 1968. When this restaurant opened up in the 1940s, America was going through a rough time with the Great Depression still affecting many lives, and WWII causing havoc in Europe.

Dario Toffenetti

Dario Toffenetti was an Italian immigrant who moved to the United States in 1910. He started off working as an ice cream vendor, a baked potato salesman, and lastly a busboy before he was able to open his first restaurant. In 1914, the Triangle Restaurant was opened in Chicago with $3,500 in savings. He had a good start. His menu featured many of his staple dishes including baked potato, sugar-cured ham, and strawberry shortcake. He later catered for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, where he received a great deal of attention and success. Toffenetti was a big marketing man and created many different advertisements for his restaurant. His marketing skills gave him the avenue for success. By 1937, he managed to open six restaurants throughout the Chicago area, which were all under the name the Triangle Restaurant. Later, he became the president of the Chicago Restaurant Association between 1936 and 1943. In 1962, Dario Toffenetti took his last breath, but he will always be remembered as an inspirational man and model restaurateur.1

1930s Depression Advertisement picturing himself and his pledge to keep low prices on his food.
https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2009/10/26/anatomy-of-a-restaurateur-dario-toffenetti/

New York Restaurant

The main restaurant that I will focus on was located in New York. Toffenetti wanted to expand his business into New York after the 1939-1940 World’s Fair, where his catering was a huge success. He was able to purchase a spot on the corner of 43rd and Broadway (Times Square). This restaurant was constructed by the architectural firm Walker and Gillette to have a modern style. It was a two-story building connected by an escalator, an open stainless steel kitchen, and a glass facade.2 The restaurant seated 1000 guests and would serve around 8,500 customers per day. Toffenetti advertised this location as “The Busiest Restaurant on the World’s Busiest Corner.” This restaurant became a big hit and became his most popular restaurant of all. It was one of the main locations to eat in Times Square for nearly 30 years. After the death of Toffenetti, the family continued running the restaurant for another 6 years until the building was sold for $3 million to the Globe Theater in 1968. By 1990, the building had become out of style and was demolished.3

The effects of WWII

During the 1940s, WWII (1939-1945) was happening and caused labor shortages around the United States. Seventeen million new jobs opened up and caused married women to enter the workforce. This change caused the demand for restaurants to increase substantially from 20 million meals served per day to over 60 million. It became difficult for restaurants to stay open because of labor shortages, price freezes, and rationing of foods.4 Because of the war, people were encouraged to start victory gardens, a home vegetable and fruit garden planted to increase the nation’s food production during the Second World War. Also, there was a nationwide shortage of meat, and it got to the point where Tuesdays and Fridays became meatless. Restaurants that were able to stay open were led to have fewer items on the menu and most likely changed the dishes to have more accessible ingredients.5

Race and Culture in New York

New York was a popular place for foreigners to live after leaving their country. It became a melting pot for immigrants. The city had more than 7.4 million people in 1940; however, less than 7% ( > 500,000) of the population was non-white. These immigrants were primarily of European descent. They typically were German, Irish, Italian, Scandinavian, or Finnish.6 All Americans were hit hard by the Great Depression (1929-1939), but African Americans were hit the hardest. Approximately half of African Americans did not have any jobs. In some Northern cities, those that did have jobs were fired to provide a position for a white person that was in need of work.7 Dining was unfavorable for many non-caucasian races. Before 1945, restaurants in New York City refused to serve African Americans or Latinos. Once laws were passed that allowed all people to eat in restaurants, minorities received inferior service, poor treatment, and bad seat location.8

The New York Toffenetti menu contained 41 dishes with a few containing some variability such as different flavors of ice cream or pies.  There were eight different sections of the menu under the following names: Juicy-Mild-Appetizing, Steaks-Chops-Chicken, A Toffenetti Specialty (Baked Potato), A La Carte, Refreshing Salads, Sandwich Suggestions, Desserts, and Beverages. The Toffenetti Restaurant was for the average consumer. It served decent food at a moderately low cost. If I were to compare the Toffenetti menu to a current-day restaurant’s menu, I would say it is pretty similar to Applebee’s. Neither of these restaurants serves gourmet food, but they are both relatively cheap. They, also, serve a wide range of dishes for everyone to enjoy. 

After looking at the menu for a few minutes or even seconds, I am certain that you would notice that the description of many of the dishes uses a good bit of adjectives or added a story of how the dish was created to make it sound more appealing. My favorite description is of the Hot Baked Idaho Potato, which says “Precious beauty, born of the ashes of extinct Volcanoes, brings divine enjoyment, strength to dare do. Its farinaceous beauty makes life a perfect poem. What a gust of feeling it brings.” It astonishes me that this is a description of a potato, but I would be lying if I said it did not make the dish sound better. This tactic, although a bit misleading, made the menu more appealing to the customer, and from a marketing standpoint was a great choice.9

The majority of the entrees on the menu involve some type of meat. There was a vast array of proteins. Most of the meat appears to be either roasted, broiled, or baked with a few fried seafood dishes. It surprised me that a lot of different meat dishes are on the menu since meats were becoming rare due to the war. I can only assume that this was before the war had major effects on the type of foods eaten. One of the most notable of the meats is Toffenetti’s classic “Ham and Sweets,” which has been on the menu since he opened his first restaurant.10 It is a sugar-roasted ham with a side of coleslaw, where Toffenetti describes its fragrance as delightful and unforgettable.

The Baked Potato

Another important item on the menu would be the potato. Toffenetti has a history with potatoes from being a former potato salesman, and it was a staple menu item since the beginning. Toffenetti said that he first started buying and serving potatoes because a storage lot in Chicago had giant potatoes, and he liked the idea of serving a big potato to his customers. That shipment contained Idaho potatoes, and all of the smaller potatoes had been removed. When this purchase was made, he had already opened his restaurants in Chicago and New York. One other thing that he got from this purchase was a lifelong friendship. The man who shipped the potatoes was Joe Marshall, and it was known that whenever Toffenetti went to Idaho or Marshall went to Chicago, they got together. Serving the giant baked potato to customers was an inexpensive way to give the customer large portions of food. The baked potato gave Toffenetti a great reputation for being extremely generous with the amount of food given at a cheap price. His serving of the giant baked potato was not just a success for him, but also played a major hand in making baked Idaho potatoes famous.11

Dario Toffenetti (left) and Joe Marshall shaking hands at 1962 National Restaurant Show https://idahopotato.com/dr-potato/print/q-a-who-invented-the-giant-baked-potato

Then VS Now

One interesting topic I would like to cover is how these menu items hold up today.

The first dish is the Baked Virginia Ham Loaf. Frankly, I have never heard of a Ham Loaf, but it is basically meatloaf made from ham and ground pork. Pennsylvania seems like the only state today that still sells it regularly, and it appears to be quite popular.12 The next menu would be the delicious liver sausage. Whenever I hear that a dish has liver, I immediately think that it is gross. The only people that I know who eat liver are my grandparents, and this Thanksgiving brought over some liver dip, which I of course did not try. During WW2, pork and beef were being sent to soldiers overseas, and the government wanted Americans to eat organ meats as a replacement. It was widely disliked, but the government would push them into people’s lives and try to convince them to eat it by calling them “variety meats” and saying the benefits they have.13 Liver is still widely available today, but I presume that as availability for normal meats began to increase people got away from organ meats. They, unfortunately, are pretty accessible today, but most American restaurants do not serve organ meats.

There are two beverages from the menu that I would not say are common today. They are Buttery Buttermilk and Orangeade. Buttermilk is used quite often today for baking, but not as a beverage. I do not find the taste of buttermilk to be bad, but the thickness is a bit much. If I were to see it on a menu, I would think it was a mistake because I only see it as a baking ingredient. Orangeade is something that I never tried, but it sounds pretty good. It is a mixture of orange juice, lemon juice, and sugar. I’m not sure why these are not a popular beverage, but by no means do they sound bad.

Lastly is the Special Double Thick Honolulu Salad. The ingredients include lettuce, sliced pineapple, cream cheese, hard-boiled egg, a strip of bacon, quartered tomato, dressing, and whole-wheat toast and butter. Everything about the salad is pretty ordinary to me besides having cream cheese and pineapple. This combination does not sound the greatest, but you never know till you try it.

The menu item with its ingredients
http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/59943/explore

I already had all of the ingredients in my household and all that was left was to make the salad. First I rinsed and cut the lettuce, then put it in a salad spinner to drain the remaining water. I chopped two tomatoes into fours and added a recently made hard-boiled egg and microwaveable bacon. I fished some sliced pineapple out of the can and put a dollop of cream cheese on top. Lastly, toasted some bread and slathered them with butter. On the menu, there is no specific dressing mentioned and decided to use balsamic vinaigrette in its place.

Ingredients used. Photo by Colton Kendrick

It took approximately 15 minutes to complete the dish, not including the time it took to make hard-boiled eggs. I made 3 servings, one for me, my mom, and my dad. Overall, the salad tasted pretty good and no complaints from my parents. The flavors of this salad were bold and you could easily tell what was in your mouth. I’m sure that you are most interested in how the pineapple and cream cheese tasted, and they were better than I expected. The pineapple was not bad but may have been my least favorite part of the salad. I do not think it was that great of an addition, where I would not mind having it in my salad but I am fine without it. The cream cheese, on the other hand, was surprisingly my favorite thing. It gave every bite a richer flavor and most importantly tasted good with lettuce. One thing that could be taken away from this dish is to add cream cheese, and I highly recommend that you try it because I’m certain you won’t regret it. 

Final Product. Photo by Colton Kendrick

Notes

1. Whitaker, Jan. “Anatomy of a Restaurateur: Dario Toffenetti.” Restaurant-Ing through History, 26 Oct. 2009, https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2009/10/26/anatomy-of-a-restaurateur-dario-toffenetti/. Accessed 26 November 2021.

2. Taylor, Chuck. “Toffenetti Restaurant, ‘Famous for Ham & Sweets’.” NYC Vintage, 16 May 2011, http://nycvintage.blogspot.com/2011/05/nyc-image-toffenetti-restaurant-famous.html. Accessed 26 November 2021.

3. “Toffenetti’s Busiest Restaurant On The World’s Busiest Corner.” Society for Commercial  Archeology, https://sca-roadside.org/toffenettis/. Accessed 27 November 2021.

4. Whitaker, Jan. “Taste of a Decade: 1940s Restaurants.” Restaurant-Ing through History, 12 June 2009, https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2009/06/12/taste-of-a-decade-1940s-restaurants/. Accessed 27 November 2021.

5. “Rationing in WWII: How Some Restaurants Survived.” Yesterday’s America Editorial, https://yesterdaysamerica.com/rationing-in-wwii-how-some-restaurants-survived/. Accessed 28 November 2021. 

6. “New York From the 1940s To Now.” The Graduate Centerhttps://www.gc.cuny.edu/Page-Elements/Academics-Research-Centers-Initiatives/Centers-and-Institutes/Center-for-Urban-Research/CUNY-Mapping-Service/Projects/New-York-from-the-1940s-to-now. Accessed 28 November 2021.

7. “Race Relations in the 1930s and 1940s.” The Library of Congresshttps://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-timeline/great-depression-and-world-war-ii-1929-1945/race-relations-in-1930s-and-1940s/. Accessed 30 November 2021.

8. Opie, Frederick Douglass. “Eating, Dancing, and Courting in New York Black and Latino Relations, 1930-1970.” Journal of Social History, vol. 42, no. 1, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 79–109, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25096599. Accessed 2 December 2021.

9. Morabito, Greg. “A Trip to Toffenetti, Times Square’s 1000 Seat Restaurant.” Eater NY, Eater NY, 28 Aug. 2012, https://ny.eater.com/2012/8/28/6558333/a-trip-to-toffenetti-times-squares-1000-seat-restaurant. Accessed 26 November 2021.

10. Special to The New York Times. “DARIO TOFFENETTI, RESTAURATEUR, 72: OWNER OF CHICAGO, NEW YORK, ST. PETERSBURG CHAIN DIES OPENED HERE IN 1940.” New York Times (1923-) Jan 17, 1962: 31. ProQuest. 9 Dec. 2021. Accessed 30 November 2021.

11. “Q & A: Who Invented the Giant Baked Potato?” Idaho® Potato Commission, https://idahopotato.com/dr-potato/q-a-who-invented-the-giant-baked-potato. Accessed 1 December 2021.

12. “Ham Loaf, the Darling of Pennsylvania, Is a Good Way to Use up Leftovers.” Akron Beacon Journal, 26 Mar. 2013, https://www.beaconjournal.com/story/lifestyle/food/2013/03/26/ham-loaf-darling-pennsylvania-is/6557072007/. Accessed 1 December 2021.

13. Romm, Cari. “The World War II Campaign to Bring Organ Meats to the Dinner Table.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 25 Sept. 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/the-world-war-ii-campaign-to-bring-organ-meats-to-the-dinner-table/380737/. Accessed 1 December 2021.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.