Lunch Counters & restaurants in department stores

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  • Joined: 2006/05/02 21:57:00
  • Location: Milwaukee WI
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2006/06/13 12:14:57 (permalink)

Lunch Counters & restaurants in department stores

I was having a conversation with a high schooler. He was telling me about his classes that day and mentioned in History they were discussing the Lunch Counter Sit-ins of the 50s.

Then he asked "What's a 'lunch counter'?"

After the initial shock of being reminded that I'm middle-aged (50), I explained to him how dimestores had a diner where you could get a simple meal for a buck or two.

"What's a 'dimestore'?"


Anyway, that got me to noticing how this once-plentiful aspect of the American hospitality business has pretty much gone extinct. Dimestores usually had their lunch counters right up in the window (seems to me the right side of a Woolworth's). Drugstores usually had the paperback stand and the magazine rack somewhere nearby, with a big sign telling patrons to BUY the magazines before taking them to the lunch counter.

Even as dimestores mutated into Woolco's and K-Marts, the lunch counters survived, at least for a time. A short-order cook was able to provide you with anything he could make on a grill or in a fryer. But then sometime in the past 15-20 years, the general purpose lunch counter was replaced by modules that served reheated franchise food.

I can't think of when I last saw a drugstore that had a lunch counter.

Department stores, depending on their size, had lunch counters AND restaurants. Higbee's Department Store, the haunt of my '60s Cleveland childhood, had a stand-up snack bar in the basement, a cafeteria, a coffee shop, and The Minotaur Room, a really nice restaurant with murals of Greek mythology.

Mall stores had their restaurants too, always smaller but at least worth the time to seek out. Higbee's Severance Mall store had a really good smorgasbord on Saturday, for example. The Gimbel's in Brookfield Square (here in Milwaukee, my current home) had their restaurant on a balcony overlooking the rest of the mall.

Now? Nothing. Department stores got out of the restaurant business, sending customer and employee alike to the food court. Of all the department stores in Milwaukee, only Goldman's Department Store stubbornly, proudly retains their lunch counter. They even exploit the fact that since such a thing is an anachronistic rarity, it can be a tourist attraction.

So...... anyone know any lunch counters or department store restaurants that survive? Or care to share any memories?


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