Guest Post: Chocolate on the Menu

Today’s guest post about the history of chocolate in American restaurants comes from restaurant historian Jan Whitaker. This post is an adaptation of a post on her blog, Restaurant-ing Through History.

Chocolate on the Menu 

The first instance I’ve found of a chocolate dessert on an American restaurant menu was chocolate ice cream in the 1860s. Before that, chocolate was available from importers and French confectioners, but was not found much in public eating places except as a hot beverage served to male coffee house patrons. By the later 19th century it was not too unusual to find chocolate eclairs on a menu. Chocolate cake turned up in the 1890s, but chocolate’s full debut in restaurants was in the 20th century when it became associated largely with women consumers.

In the early 1900s chocolate appeared on menus in various forms: as pudding, layer cake, devil’s food cake, ice cream, eclairs, and ice cream sodas and sundaes. In the 1920s, chocolate shops appeared and were similar to tea shops. Some sold chocolate candy of their own making, but also offered light meals. At Los Angeles’ Wistaria Sweet Shop “Fine Chocolates and Dainty Luncheons” were available. Chocolate shops were popular with women, as were department store tea rooms, another type of eating place where menus were loaded with sweet things. For instance, Shillito’s department store in Cincinnati offered numerous chocolate desserts on its 1947 menu.

Toasted Pecan Ice Cream Ball with Hot Fudge Sauce 35
Apple Pie 20
Black Raspberry Pie 20
Banana Cream Pie 20
Pineapple Layer Cake 20
Shillito’s Special Fudge Cake 20
Chocolate Doublette with Mint Ice Cream and Fudge Sauce 35
Chocolate Luxurro 35
Hot Fudge Sundae 25
Vanilla Ice Cream with Nesselrode Sauce 25
Fresh Peach Parfait 30
Pineapple or Orange Sherbet 15
Vanilla, Fresh Peach, Chocolate or Mint Ice Cream 20

Starting in the 1970s and reaching a high point in the 1980s a chocolate frenzy began that has not abated today. With the encouragement of restaurateurs, millions of Americans discovered they were “chocoholics.” The Aware Inn in Los Angeles was but one restaurant exemplifying dessert trends of the 1970s with its “dangerous Chocolate Cream Supreme,” rather expensive at $2 and described as “somewhere between chocolate mousse and fudge.” 

Restaurant reviewers from the 1980s jumped on the chocolate bandwagon with descriptions along the lines of “scrumptious” chocolate desserts “to die for.” Adjectives such as “dangerous” continued the sinful metaphor conveyed earlier by “devil’s food.” Soon “special” chocolate desserts were named for immoral inclinations (“decadence”) or perhaps fatal pleasures (“death by chocolate,” “killer cake”). All this led at least one journalist to protest against the unsubtle marketing of chocolate desserts in the 1980s. She pleaded with servers: “Do not expect me to swoon when you roll back your eyes in ecstasy as you recite a dessert list that offers nothing but chocolate, via cheesecake, chip cake, profiterols, madeleine, mousse, bombe, eclair, napoleon, torte, tart or brownie.” 

But quite a few were critical, especially of chocolate mousse, which was readily available to restaurants powdered or wet, even “pipeable.” After a 1978 visit to a restaurant expo overflowing with convenience food products, the Washington Post’s restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman observed, “The final insult of your dinner these days could be chocolate mousse made from a mix, but that is only another in the long line of desecrations in the name of chocolate mousse.” Often critical reviewers deplored chocolate mousse that tasted as if made of instant pudding mix combined with a non-dairy topping product, which very likely it was. “Chocolate Decadence” cake took a beating in a review by Mimi Sheraton who in 1983 no doubt irritated many chocolate lovers when she referred to the prevalence of “dark, wet chocolate cake that seems greasy and unbaked, the cloying quality of such a sticky mass being synonymous with richness to immature palates.” 

More recently, what I would call a “fantasy escape” restaurant in upstate New York was cited unfavorably for serving a boxed cake provided by a national food service that it merely defrosted, sprinkled with fresh raspberries, grandly named “Towering Chocolate Cake,” and placed on the menu for a goodly price.

Let the buyer aware, but no doubt many restaurant patrons do in fact realize that they are willing co-conspirators in fantasy meals. Along these lines, nothing can be too chocolate-y, triple obviously outdoing double. Decorations of some sort are de rigeur. Along with whipped cream, ultra-chocolate desserts might be adorned with orange rind slivers, raspberry sauce, or dripping frosting. In 1985 the Bennigan’s chain brought their “Death by Chocolate” into the world, consisting of two kinds of chocolate ice cream, chopped up chocolate candy bars, a chocolate cracker crust, with the whole thing dipped in chocolate and served with chocolate syrup on the side.

One theory about what brought about restaurants’ chocolate dessert blitz relates it to declining sales of mixed drinks in the 1980s as patrons became aware of the dangers of drinking and driving. Then, according to a 1985 Wall Street Journal story, elaborate, expensive desserts offered a way to make up for lost cocktail sales. Fancy desserts are undoubtedly higher-profit items than many entrees, but I suspect that another major factor favoring the rise of ultra-chocolate desserts was the culture of consumer indulgence that increased restaurant patronage in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.

Jan Whitaker became interested in social and cultural aspects of restaurant history as an extension of her interest in women’s tea room businesses of the early 20th century, explored in her book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn (St. Martin’s, 2002). She has also written about the history of American department stores (Service and Style, St. Martin’s, 2006), in which she explored in-store restaurants. Restaurants and department stores interest her because they serve as stages on which important social and cultural themes and meanings are established and played out. For the past ten years, she has produced the blog Restaurant-ing through history where topics range from three-martini lunches and blue plate specials to women’s roles and racial bias.