Fascinating Images of America’s Finest Mid-Century Restaurants

By
Share:

Historian and author Peter Moruzzi is an expert on mid-century architecture, nightlife, and classic dining. For decades, this resident of Los Angeles and Palm Springs has collected the postcards and paper ephemera that helped form the basis of his books Palm Springs Holiday (a romp through Palm Springs from the early 20th century to the 1960s) and Havana Before Castro: When Cuba was a Tropical Playground. Now, thanks to the images and essays in his brand-new cultural history, Classic Dining: Discovering America’s Finest Mid-Century Restaurants , we can explore what it was like to swagger one’s way into swanky dining establishments in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, and New Orleans during the Mad Men era. Learn about the establishments, some still with us and many long gone, where shish kabobs and bananas foster were grandly presented in flames, Caesar salad was prepared tableside, prime rib was served from fancy carts, and dishes such as oysters Rockefeller and lobster thermidor were the norm. Check out some of the images, along with commentary from the author, after the jump.

Photo courtesy Mai-Kai Inc.

Mai-Kai, Fort Lauderdale, as it looks today

Built in 1956 and later expanded, the Mai-Kai still lures crowds eager to embrace the Tiki culture popularized after World War II. For many years, the Mai-Kai sold more rum than any restaurant or bar in the United States.

Peter Moruzzi: “The Mai Kai in Fort Lauderdale, Florida is without a doubt the best surviving Polynesian restaurant in America. Here, the great Tiki supper club practices of flaming food, expert cocktail mixology, ritual drink presentations, and live Polynesian floor shows can still be witnessed in a tropical setting.”

Photo courtesy Chicago History Museum’s Prints and Photographs Collection.

The Pump Room, Chicago, during its mid-century prime

A dining room captain at Chicago’s Pump Room presents a pair of flaming shish kabobs.

Peter Moruzzi: “During its mid-century heyday, the Pump Room presented its cuisine in unusual ways: on rolling carts, prepared tableside, or brought from the kitchen skewered on flaming swords.”

Image from the collection of Peter Moruzzi.

The Blackhawk Restaurant, Chicago

Postcard from Chicago’s now-defunct Blackhawk Restaurant, famous for its “spinning salad bowl.” The Blackhawk played host to visiting Big Bands including Louis Prima and Kay Kyser.

Peter Moruzzi: “The Blackhawk was one of Chicago’s most important musical venues. It opened in the early 1920s, adding live dance music in 1926. By 1930 it had become the most prestigious dance band address in the United States. Playing there could catapult a band to fame with the help of the remote radio broadcasts to a nationwide audience.”

Image from the collection of Peter Moruzzi.

Stear’s for Steaks, Beverly Hills, 1968

Beverly Hills’ Restaurant Row, which by the mid-50s became the prime LA dining destination for Angelenos and tourists alike, played host to Stear’s for Steaks.

Peter Moruzzi: “Stear’s for Steaks in Beverly Hills offered 19th Hole libations at the restaurant’s indoor putting green.”

Image from the collection of Peter Moruzzi.

Lawry’s The Prime Rib, Beverly Hills, 1948

The second location of Lawry’s the Prime Rib is still open for business and remains a popular restaurant destination.

Peter Moruzzi: “Lawry’s new location on Beverly Hills’ Restaurant Row as designed by famed Los Angeles architect Wayne McAllister in 1947.”

Photo courtesy Lawry’s Restaurants, Inc.

Lawry’s The Prime Rib, Beverly Hills, 1938

This original location of Lawry’s the Prime Rib, which later became Stear’s For Steak’s.

Peter Moruzzi: “Lawry’s The Prime Rib opened in 1938 at this location on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills. To attract customers, co-owner Lawrence Frank invented the carving cart that rolled to your table with standing rib roasts and side dishes. The idea was to have a restaurant where the whole show of the meal was in front of the customer.”

Photo credit: Meredith Publishing Group.

Perino’s, Los Angeles, early 1960s

Alexander Perino, owner of Perino’s, with his restaurant’s haute cuisine.

Peter Moruzzi: “Alexander Perino’s continental-style fine-dining restaurant was located at 4101 Wilshire Boulevard. Its sophisticated Regency-style design was by famed African American architect-to-the-stars Paul R. Williams. For over 37 years, until selling the restaurant in 1969, Perino lorded over his staff, ensuring perfection in service, atmosphere, and cuisine.”

Photo courtesy Chicago History Museum’s Prints and Photographs Collection.

The Pump Room, Chicago

The aforementioned Pump Room in Chicago, named after the famous Pump Room in Bath, England, was the ultimate in Midwestern fine dining during the mid-century era. Though the restaurant still exists, its modern incarnation bears little resemblance to the restaurant that was once a must for every Hollywood star visiting the Second City.

Peter Moruzzi: “Chicago’s most famous restaurant was the Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was the haunt of the visiting Hollywood crowd and featured extravagant dining in a regal setting.”

Image from the collection of Peter Moruzzi.

Stear’s Pacifica, Beverly Hills

A hostess at Stear’s Pacifica, after its conversion from Stear’s for Steaks.

Peter Moruzzi: “Stear’s Pacifica had originally been a steakhouse before morphing into a Japanese/Polynesian style restaurant in the early 1960s. Here a gracious hostess welcomes you.”

Postcard from the collection of Peter Moruzzi.

Sardi’s Diner, Hollywood, early 1960s

A waitress at Sardi’s Diner in Hollywood pushes the fashionable restaurant’s specialty: a rolling hors d’oeuvres cart.

Peter Moruzzi: “Sardi’s Diner at Hollywood and Vine was a swank celebrity hangout. As their postcard proclaims, ‘Sardi’s, mecca of Hollywood filmites and Southern California socialites. Here world-famous stars, producers, writers and studio executives gather daily for luncheon and dinner.'”

Photo credit: Sven A. Kirsten.

Tiki Apartments, Torrance, CA, as it appears today.

The Los Angeles suburb of Torrance is the home of The Tiki Apartments. Upon opening in 1961, its owners advertised its “authentic Polynesian atmosphere.”

Peter Moruzzi: “The male fertility idol “Tiki” first appeared in America as decorations for Polynesian restaurants after World War II. Soon, the so-called Tiki style was born, and by having many of its exotic concepts applied to other structures such as A-framed motels, bowling alleys, and apartment buildings – such as the Tiki Apartments in Torrance, California – it became the first and only restaurant-based architectural style in US history.”