Did you ever think about what frontier town restaurants served to those who couldn’t or preferred not to cook for themselves?
In early frontier days, menu items were limited to local, seasonal foods. Meals were made up of the basics like meat, bread, syrup, eggs, potatoes, dried fruit pies, cakes, coffee, and vegetables. Beef was plentiful, and most everyone drank coffee.
|19th Century Common Restaurant Fare|
For dinner (or lunch) and supper, people usually ate bread and an overdone steak. Lamb fries (testicles) and Rocky Mountain oysters (bull testicles) were considered a delicacy. Some served rattlesnake meat. In parts of the southwest, the only vegetables were beans, corn, and squash. People ate wild onions sometimes to prevent scurvy.
Things were different in California with the gold rush. Bayard Taylor—a New York Times reporter, who traveled there in 1850, wrote, "It was no unusual thing to see a company of these men, who had never before thought of luxury beyond a good beefsteak and glass of whiskey, drinking their champagne at ten dollars a bottle, and eating their tongue and sardines, or warming in the smoky campfire their tin canisters of turtle soup and lobster salad."
Surprisingly, pioneers out west kept up with food fads. By the 1880s, French food was popular, and restaurants served a variety of meats, fish, vegetables, sauces of all kind, fancy desserts, cheese, and milk, plus the menus were often printed in French. The big trend was oysters shipped in from the coast.
Cost of Food
Saloons, hotel restaurants, and bars were known for their cheap eats. Also, there was such a thing as a free lunch—at least at some saloons. Patrons had the option of eating the free lunch or paying for the lunch of the day if they preferred. The lunch buffet offered a wide assortment of free food like cold roast beef, corned beef, sardines, olives, various sandwiches, bread and butter, clams, clam-juice, bouillon, and much more. Some saloons also served a hot dish at noon, another at five o'clock, and a final meal at midnight. At some saloons, for the purchase of a 25¢ drink, you’d get a free meal that included soup, fish, roast, an entree, and dessert.
Where Did They Get the Food?
Restaurants served regional and seasonal food purchased from local farmers, hunters, fishermen, and dairymen, or from the public market. However, over the course of the 19th century, thanks largely to demographic changes and technological developments, a wider range of food became available to people living in cities, allowing restaurant menus to become more varied. In the latter 1800s oysters shipped in from the coast were a big trend.
Keeping Food Fresh
Before freezers and rapid transit, menus were grouped by season and the food was made fresh each day. This limited what could be served. If the restaurant was in a town where steamboats docked or on a main railroad line a variety of food products were available such as flour, fruits, spices, raisins, crackers, ketchup, mustard, vegetables, oatmeal, glycerin, hog lard, dried fruit, cane sugar, molasses by the barrel, baking soda and baking powder, cooking oils, maple syrup, corn meal, canned fish and meats, and more. In towns with a railroad depot, there'd be hogs, sheep, cattle, stockyards, corrals, pens, and a feedlot, so fresh meat was readily available.
However, restaurants were able to keep food fresh and have more variety once technology and the railroads advanced. With cold storage warehouses and refrigerated railcars, restaurants were able to buy out-of-season produce. Also, cheese and butter were easier to get since they were made in factories in the latter part of the 19th century. Moreover, once mechanically frozen ice was available, the restaurants used it to keep the food fresh.
Well-Known or Infamous Frontier Towns
In the wild west of the 1800s, pretty much every frontier town had at least one restaurant. Boarding houses and saloons also served meals.
1. The Occidental Saloon in Tombstone
This saloon was frequented by Wyatt Earp and his brothers, plus Ike Clanton, and Doc Holiday. You could get a 50¢ Sunday dinner which included the following choices:
|Occidental Hotel, Tombstone|
Chicken Giblet and Consommé, with Egg
Columbia River Salmon, au Beurre Noir
· Hot Meats:
Filet a Boeuf, a la Financier
Leg of Lamb, Sauce, Oysters
· Cold Meats:
Loin of Beef, Loin of Ham, Loin of Pork, Westphalia Ham, Corned Beef, Imported Lunches
· Boiled Meats:
Leg of Mutton, Ribs of Beef, Corned Beef and Cabbage, Russian River Bacon
|Poulet aux Champignons|
· Pinons a Poulet, aux Champignons
· Cream Fricassee of Chicken, Asparagus Points
· Lapine Domestique, a la Matire d'Hote
· Casserole d'Ritz aux Oeufs, a la Chinoise
· Ducks of Mutton, Braze, with Chipoluta Ragout
· California Fresh Peach, a la Conde Salade
· Loin of Beef, Loin of Mutton, Loin of Lamb, Leg of Pork
· Apple Sauce, Suckling Pig, with Jelly, Chicken Stuffed Veal
· Peach, Apple, Plum, and Custard Pies
· English Plum Pudding
2. The Cowboy Bar and Outlaw Café in Meeteetse
In the 1800’s the town of Meeteetse, Wyoming had no law enforcement of any kind. So, the occasional bank robber used it as a sanctuary when a posse was hot on his tail after a holdup in Cody. Poses typically turned around when Meeteetse came into sight. And if that lucky outlaw was hungry or thirsty he’d go to the Cowboy Bar, which is still around today.
|Cowboy Bar & Outlaw Cafe Present Day|
The Cowboy bar and Outlaw Café has been in continuous operation since 1893, serving food and drink to wild west gunslingers, businessmen, saloon girls, cattlemen and cowboys, as well as gold-seekers riding into town from the Kirwin mines.
Nowadays the Cowboy Bar and Outlaw Cafe is known for its prime ribs and pork chops and that was most likely the case in the 1800s as well, since steaks and chops were a standard menu item.
3. The White Elephant in Fort Worth
The White Elephant began as a modest saloon and short-order kitchen. Then, in 1885, cigar shop owner, John Ward, and his brother bought the business, transforming it into a premier establishment that attracted both high stake gamblers and Fort Worth high rollers. A year later, John Ward became the main proprietor, and he added an elegant restaurant that attracted its own clientele. Ward introduced family dining and gourmet food. He advertised in the local paper—‘Stop here for good dinner or lunch'.
|White Elephant Saloon|
In addition to steaks and chops, he added fresh fish and wild game, but the house specialty was fresh oysters imported from the gulf in ice-filled kegs. After their meals, diners were served the choicest wines and liquors and smoked cigars from the house stock.
In 1894 the White Elephant relocated to another building in Fort Worth since it had outgrown its original one. The restaurant’s reopening menu included lake trout, Spanish mackerel, black bass, Gulf trout, redfish, pickerel, and fresh lobster.
Angel Peak, book 12, Redemption Mountain historical western romance series, takes place in Splendor, Montana, a town with several old west restaurants and cafes. It is available in eBook and paperback.
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