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When a Ten-Cent Tip Was Not an Insult

Most of you will not remember Childs Restaurants. I barely do. Or at least I think I barely do; maybe I’m just projecting. But they were ubiquitous. Not like McDonald’s or Starbucks ubiquity, but close. Other biggies included Stouffers, Longchamps, and Schrafts.

Here’s a bit of history:  Among the largest chains was Childs with 50 locations in Manhattan alone. It dated back to the days early in the century when “hygienic” had the same buzz word value as “organic” does now. At one point in the 1920s it had promoted vegetarianism until encountering customer resistance. By 1946 some found the antiseptic interiors of the original locations with their glazed white tiles, white porcelain table tops and nurse-like waitresses in starched white uniforms off putting. Child’s softened the look a bit with crystal chandeliers. Women cooked the chain’s signature pancakes and butter cakes (similar to English muffins or crumpets) at a griddle in the windows. It had both cafeterias and table-service restaurants. The latter were among the cheapest of their kind. By 1946 there was some variation in the decor and clientele. The one at Fifth Avenue at between 48th and 49th Street and the one at Lexington at 45th were art moderne. Childs in the Paramount Building near Times Square attracted a Broadway (think Damon Runyon) and “lavender” (code for gay) crowd.  A tony crowd frequented the Spanish-themed Childs on West 57th, which had a patio, and the one at 724 Fifth Avenue. Commuters accounted for much of the business at the one between Madison and Vanderbilt by Grand Central Station. Flotsam and jetsam of all sorts could be found at the one at Columbus Circle. 

Recently, I came across a small collection of Childs menus. They speak volumes. As I pointed out in the introduction to Menus Design in America (Taschen) by Jim Heimann, menus are a window onto our collective lifestyle. Just look at the prices. Childs was reasonable, but not a bargain. Roast loin of corn fed pork, 80 cents, anyone?

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