There were a number of restaurant chains in New York City in the 1940s that were designed to provide moderately priced meals in a comfortable, hygienic atmosphere to white collar workers and shoppers. Most had been hit hard during the Depression, but had sprung back in the more prosperous '40s.
Horn & Hardart was one of the largest with some 50 locations, including automats, cafeterias and retail stores in the 1940s. One of the cheapest options, it drew a broad-based clientele from suburban families in for a day at the movies to derelicts in from the cold.
Bickford's was another inexpensive option. It was cafeteria chain where a full meal could be had for 30 cents. The choice was limited and the food basic but people could linger there. The one in the Village was particularly popular with the Bohemian set.
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. Arthur Schwartz in Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food quotes a 1931 guidebook that noted that 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. The menu featured simple dishes, according to William Grimes in Appetite City. like corned beef hash, roast beef hash with mashed potatoes, ham cakes with tomato sauce, corned beef sandwiches, rice and milk, hominy and cream and eggs every which way. On Fridays they had clam chowder and fish cakes.
Founded by a candy company, Schrafft's was a lady's tearoom crossed with a soda fountain and cocktail lounge. It was a bit out of the price range of the working class and largely targeted middle-class women. The emphasis was on gentility with hostesses and prim waitresses often with Irish brogues. It was popular with lady shoppers and as a place for a mother to take her daughter for lunch. Portions were notably small but the lunch crowd often followed up their meager meal with an indulgent dessert. Most Manhattan locations also served cocktails.
Hyler's was a smaller chain that predated Schrafft's by decades. It was known for its candy and ice cream but they also offered a menu of sandwiches and other food.
Longchamps was the most expensive of the chains. It had nine locations in New York and was similar to Schrafft's but the portions were larger and, in the opinion of some, the food was better. Some found the restaurants elegant. Others thought they were pretentious and snooty. It was very popular despite the prices. It was begun by a produce man so fresh fruits and vegetables were not only the highlights of the menu but also the focus of the design scheme. Produce was arranged like still lifes in the small show windows . Later in 1946 it underwent change of ownership when its founder was sentenced to prison for tax evasion. The ads this week listed nine restaurant locations and three gift shops where you could buy Easter gift baskets with chocolate, toys, stuffed animals, dolls and novelties.
Caruso's was a small chain of Italian restaurants that specialized in spaghetti and meatballs and other moderately priced, heavily sauced Italian-American dishes.
For a really quick meal there were the counters at Nedick's and Chock Full O'Nuts. According to Elliot Willensky in When Brooklyn Was the World, the countermen at Nedick's were sullen while the light-skinned African-American counterwomen at Chock Full O'Nuts were genteel and polite and handled food with tongs and plastic gloves. The Chock Full O' Nuts were spartan and featured cream cheese and walnut sandwiches on raisin bread, brownies, cakey whole wheat donuts, thin lobster salad sandwiches and it's "heavenly coffee." They had a no-tipping policy. The original Chock Full O'Nuts were nut stands in the mid-1920s, becoming one of the first fast food places in the 1930s. Nedick's had watery, sweetened fruit drinks and hot dogs.
Further down the food chain were the ubiquitous lunch counters found in almost every drug store, five-and-dime and many candy stores where you could pick up a grilled cheese, BLT, hamburger or egg salad sandwich. Diners, greasy spoons, sandwich shops in office buildings, cafeterias, hot dog carts and stand-up hamburger stands rounded out the options for a quick, cheap meal for the noontime crowd of office workers and shoppers.