The Taste Of Time

Sometimes a historic restaurant is made of bricks and mortar; Hattie’s is made of her recipes and her ways.

Keens still serves its most famous menu item, that gigantic mutton chop, along with other dishes that show a finer hand in the kitchen than at most chophouses. I dined alone the last time I was there, without faring too much better than Lillie Langtry, if the truth must be known. The waiter, when pressed, brought some food, but nothing else, such as, say, something to drink with it. It wouldn’t occur to me to sue, as Langtry did. If it happens again, though, I am going to ask them to locate my pipe. (I don’t have a pipe.)

St. Elmo, in downtown Indianapolis, is the American version of the chophouse. It’s just a narrow room, with a simple kitchen lining one side, near the entry. If you care to, you can point out the exact steak that you want as you pass the refrigerator case. If you really consider yourself a connoisseur, you can also point out your salad, but anyway, the restaurant has no secrets, because it doesn’t have a back room, other than for storage, and it hasn’t had any since it opened in 1902. The bill of fare could fit on an index card; it is dominated by half a dozen steaks, plain and honest, and the simplest of American dishes. It is a completely authentic old chophouse, no less so because the walls are plastered with pictures of the latest racing cars from the Indianapolis Speedway.

Italian restaurants followed the chophouses, as the restaurant fad of the 1890s. They have remained popular, of course, while German restaurants have flagged since their own heyday at the turn of the century. Milwaukee still has a handful of German restaurants from that time, but then Milwaukee is one of the country’s best cities for ethnic restaurants of all types. Karl Ratzsch’s (pronounced Rosh’s) evolved out of a café that started in 1904, and it still has the friendly personality of a café, even though it grew into the formal dining room that it now occupies. It’s very German, and in the vernacular of restaurants at the turn of the century, that meant it was hospitable and unpressured. I go there only about every other year, yet I have the impression that I’m its best customer. At least, everyone acts that way. Ratzsch’s serves the schnitzels and Sauerbraten popular in German-American cuisine but with enough respect paid to Wisconsin ingredients that you can also have a meal there that could have been served long, long before the first German ever set foot in America: Lake Superior whitefish, for example. Jacob Wirth (1868), a German restaurant in Boston, once summed up its own long history in a pugnacious sort of haiku that appeared on a poster there: “We haven’t changed for the better. We haven’t changed for the worse. We haven’t changed period.” Wirth’s certainly hasn’t; it hasn’t been redecorated since Chester Arthur was President (his is the sole portrait, hanging from a string tacked into the molding, in the large hall that serves as the dining room). While the fringes of the menu may jostle along the latest fads, the core cuisine is as homely as that in a Kneipe, a German pub, where lunch is a couple of wursts on a pile of sauerkraut, with potato salad and dark rye bread on the side. Wirth’s, however, is planted in downtown Boston: Of course you can have corn bread, instead of rye.

Hattie Gray Austin grew up in rural Louisiana without a mother in the 1920s. She was raised largely by her grandparents, and she learned to cook from them. What she learned apparently was to treat good ingredients with a delicate hand. As a teenager Hattie visited her sister in Chicago and stayed on, taking a job as a maid with a rich family that summered in Saratoga Springs, New York. Saving her money and watching her chances, she remained behind in the autumn of 1938 to open a restaurant straight out of her family’s past. Hattie’s Chicken Shack, it was called. There is a photo of her in her apron, standing out in front, and it really wasn’t much more than a shack on the edge of town. But that wasn’t the restaurant. Sometimes a historic restaurant is made of bricks and things; in Hattie’s case it was made of her recipes and her ways. Eventually Hattie’s moved to the middle of Saratoga Springs, but the menu remained the same as ever: chicken that becomes lighter, not heavier, for being fried; steamy biscuits; mashed potatoes with a savory air; succotash; and gumbo. Hattie, who has been widely honored as an African-American businesswoman, has finally retired in her nineties, but she still visits the kitchen, to make sure that the food remains true.

As the idea of dining out spread to the countryside, opening a restaurant became as easy as opening the door. Families—especially those in which a mother was fending by herself—had the option of pushing the furniture around in the front room and simply charging for meals there. The Krebs, which is also in upstate New York, has the feel of just such a place, though it actually started on a slightly firmer basis in 1899, having been opened by a couple named Fred and Cora Krebs to augment a hotel that they operated nearby in the lakeside town of Skaneateles. Mr. Krebs came originally from Germany, but it would be hard to think of a less ethnic restaurant than his; it seems to have pushed straight up out of the ground, to serve American food in an American way.