On August 28, 1900, Rebecca Israel
decided to treat herself to dinner at Cafe Boulevard, a fashionable
restaurant in the heart of Manhattan’s Jewish theater district. Despite
being polite and well-dressed, Rebecca was refused a table and asked to
leave. The restaurant’s owner, Igantz Rosenfeld, had a strict policy
against serving women who were unaccompanied by men. Rebecca sued him
for discrimination, but the case was dismissed by the New York Supreme
Court in 1903.
Throughout the 19th century, restaurants
catered to a predominately male clientele. Much like taverns and
gentlemen’s clubs, they were places where men went to socialize, discuss
business, and otherwise escape the responsibilities of work and home.
It was considered inappropriate for women to dine alone, and those who
did were assumed to be prostitutes. Given this association, unescorted
women were banned from most high-end restaurants and generally did not
patronize taverns, chophouses, and other masculine haunts.
As American cities continued to expand,
it became increasingly inconvenient for women to return home for midday
meals. The growing demand for ladies’ lunch spots inspired the creation
of an entirely new restaurant: the ice-cream saloon. At a time when
respectable women were excluded from much of public life, these decadent
eateries allowed women to dine alone without putting their bodies or
reputations at risk.
The first ice cream saloons were humble cafes that served little more than ice cream, pastries, and oysters.
As women became more comfortable eating out, they expanded into
opulent, full-service restaurants with sophisticated menus that rivaled
those at most other elite establishments. In 1850, a journalist
described one ice cream saloonas offering
“an extensive bill of fare … ice cream — oysters, stewed, fried and
broiled; —broiled chickens, omelettes, sandwiches; boiled and poached
eggs; broiled ham; beef-steak, coffee, chocolate, toast and butter.” According to the historian Paul Freeman, the 1862 menu of an ice cream saloon in New York ran a whopping 57 pages and featured mother of pearl detailing.
Ice cream saloons proliferated in urban
shopping districts in the 1850s and were immensely popular with the
growing number of wealthy women who spent their afternoons shopping and
promenading along the avenues. After a long day at the department store,
the carriage trade headed to the ice cream saloon, to, in the words of
one commentator, “exchange a dish of scandal or gossip, as well as sweetmeats.” Towards the end of the century, department stores started to open their own restaurants.
But as the New York Timesnoted in 1866,
for a long time ice cream saloons were “almost the only place where
ladies could go unattended by gentlemen and satisfy their appetites,
rendered sharp by their shopping excursions.”
Beginning in 1839 with the Tremont Hotel
in Boston, large hotels regularly set aside space for a ladies’
ordinary, a separate dining room for women and children. Men were only
admitted if they were dining with women, generally their wives or other
female relatives. But few establishments had the space or resources to
provide unescorted women with such posh accommodations, and those that
did were only accessible to the elite.
Unlike ladies ordinaries’, ice cream
saloons didn’t formally restrict male patronage. Instead, they
established themselves as respectable restaurants simply by catering to
women’s culinary and decor preferences. Though many ice cream saloons
offered hardy meals, they tended to emphasize oysters, ice cream, and
other light bites. “Special pains are taken in many places to cater to
these fair lunchers,” wrote the New York Times in 1890. “While women are not all light eaters, most of them are partial to dainty tid-bits, pastry and ice cream.”
In an effort to create a female-friendly
atmosphere, many restaurants were outfitted with domestic decor. Heavy
draperies, plush armchairs, and marble fireplaces were used to create a
parlor-like atmosphere. Newspaper advertisements often used domestic
language to signal that ice cream saloons were respectable places for
women to dine alone. In 1888, an advertisement for a ladies’ lunch room
in San Francisco claimed to be “the only quiet, home-like down-town Restaurant for Ladies and Gentlemen.”
According to food historian Cindy Lobel,
this is why some women’s restaurants began to be referred to as
parlors, or more specifically ice cream parlors. As a result, many
Americans still go to “ice cream parlors” today.
In New York, the most famous ice cream
saloon was Taylor’s Saloon, which was crowned “the largest and most
elegant restaurant in the world” by Putnam’s Monthly in 1853.
The 7,500-square-foot dining room was lavishly decorated with marble
floors, mirrored walls, ceiling frescos, and a 17-foot tall crystal
fountain. Bowl upon bowl of fruit and candy were displayed on large
marble countertops, along with intricate sugar sculptures and freshly
cut flowers. The magnificent scene was described by Isabella Bird,
an Englishwoman visiting the United States, as “a perfect blaze of
decoration … a complete maze of fresco, mirrors, carving, gilding, and
Although ice cream parlors had an air of
dainty domesticity, they also developed more sultry reputations. At the
time, they were one of the few places where both men and women could go
unchaperoned. As a result, they became popular destinations for dates
and other illicit rendezvous.
“Did a young lady wish to enjoy the
society of the lover whom ‘Papa’ had forbidden the house?” the New York Times wrote in 1866.
“A meeting at Taylor’s was arranged, where soft words and loving looks
served to atone for parental harshness, and aided the digestion of
Innocent young couples weren’t the only pairs tucked together in the velvet booths. During a trip to Taylor’s, one writer observed “a middle-aged man and woman in deep and earnest conversation. They are evidently man and wife—though not each others!”
These charges did little to dissuade respectable women from patronizing ice cream saloons. In fact, their reputation as “a trysting ground for all sorts of lovers” may have made the saloons all the more enticing. According to the Times,
Taylor’s “always maintained its popularity, in spite of (or perhaps
because of) rumors that it afforded most elegant opportunities for
meetings not entirely correct.”
In time, restaurateurs
came to recognize that serving women was a lucrative business. By the
end of the 19th century, women had a variety of restaurant options to
choose from, including more reasonably priced lunch rooms and
cafeterias. To compete, the gilded ice cream saloons gradually evolved
into more modest establishments, which made them available to
working-class women. But while eateries such as Taylor’s served mainly
the wealthy, ice cream—and the palatial establishments where it was
served—played an important role in ensuring that American women could
enter a restaurant with or without a man.