Plymouth's Public Dining
Dining out is a central feature of the tourist experience. Whether it be as simple as a picnic lunch for a day trip or a dinner in an exotic eating place on the other side of the globe, the meal away from home is an important part of the pleasure (or danger) of tourist travel. Before the Age of Tourism dawned in the 19th century, travelers relied on inns, taverns, market cookshops and private hospitality for their sustenance. Until independent eating establishments began to appear in the mid-19th century, most visitors ate at the hotels and boarding houses where they stayed. In Plymouth the hotels, boarding houses, tourist homes and, now, the "bed and breakfasts" have always fed their guests to one extent or another. It wasn't until the first Plymouth restaurants opened just before the Civil War that there was any real alternative to these resources.
Public dining in Plymouth was a bit rugged before the town’s first true hotel, the Samoset House, opened in 1846. The inn and tavern fare of old New England may be fondly remembered today but no one living ever had to actually ate in one, or we might have cause to think otherwise. English artist W. H. Bartlett (1809-1854) came to Plymouth while writing a book called The Pilgrim Fathers (London, 1853) , but the new hotel was not yet open for the season. He had to stay at the old-fashioned tavern on Main Street, called at the time, “The Mansion House” (later Ballard’s Saloon, which was about where the new Indian restaurant is today). There he found “one of the most comfortabe and well-furnished bed-rooms I ever met with in America,” which was high praise as the artist had earlier travelled all across the country to make drawings to illustrate Nathaniel P. Willis’ classic American Scenery (1839 – 1840). His experience at meal-time was not as comfortable.
At half-past five o’clock in the morning a bell was rung to rouse the guests and a second at six AM to summon them to breakfast. A decent if simple meal was spread out on a table in a long, bare room filled with mostly working-class boarders and a few travellers. The men all dove into their food with no talk or banter and were finished and the room empty in ten minutes. Bartlett found the same silence and speedy consumption at the noon dinner and “tea” – what in Plymouth would be “supper” – at six o’clock. When he tried to engage one of the men in conversation and remained longer than the customary ten-minutes, he was stared at by the amazed boarders and dining-room “help.” One ate but did not “dine” out in Plymouth in 1852.
Public dining changed a great deal between 1845 and today. The introduction of cookstoves, canned goods and the hand-cranked ice cream freezer in the ante-bellum period made food preparation easier and menus more diverse. The first independent eateries served such simple fare as cold tavern buffets, oysters, ice cream, bakery items and soda fountain treats- mostly to visitors. Local people seldom ate out if they were part of traditional family households with meals prepared at home, unless they were workers who couldn't return home at mealtimes. In the 1880s, refrigerated railroad cars brought better meat, fruits and vegetables from all over the country to the New England market, which improved the public cuisine. Restaurants offered basic regional alternatives to hotel fare, which was more expensive and along with fried, boiled and roast meats, included fashionable French entrees (in name at least). The distinctive local Plymouth cuisine was of course seafood, and many eating places offered fish, lobsters and shellfish or the combination "Shore Dinner" - a sort of kitchen-prepared clambake.
The rise of the automobile and the advent of Prohibition brought important changes to American public dining after World War I. The disappearance of liquor and the arrival of women in the workplace brought about the demise of the old taverns and similar masculine eateries with their heavy menus. A reaction against the elaboration and excess of the older French cookery took place and hotels and restaurants began to feature simple American dishes - the chicken, steak and lobster entrees which dominated dinner restaurant menus until the 1970s. New luncheonettes with lighter fare and salads, tea rooms, and first ethnic restaurants (Italian and Chinese) also helped in the transformation of the American popular cuisine.
The automobile was an additional factor in this development. People now had the freedom to seek out places to eat and stay away from the railroad/streetcar lines while visiting Plymouth. Although we have limited our survey to strictly Plymouth businesses (and only a sampling of those), restaurants and eateries in nearby Kingston, Bourne, Carver and even Boston became as available to Plymouth's visitors as local establishments. The other effect was the introduction of national chains and the creation of "commercial strips" on Routes 44 and 3-A at the periphery of the old downtown area. This mostly occurred after 1970 and has in recent years continued apace. The town now offers its visitors a varied and wide selection of places to eat, ranging from the strictly local luncheon restaurant or seafood shops in town to many of the national fast food and restaurant chains in the new commercial zones at Exit 7 and on Long Pond Road.
In 1845, restaurants were rare outside of urban areas. They were almost always connected with hotels and catered to the men who worked and traveled in the region. It was not yet considered respectable for women to patronize public eating places and certainly not by themselves. There were no independent eating places in Plymouth in 1845 and visitors had to rely on the meals served at the places they boarded. In 1851, however, a single independent eating place was advertised in the Plymouth Directory:
Collingwood -- Restorator
Corner of North and Water sts.,
|WOULD inform his old friends and cus-
tomers that he continues at his old
stand, where he will accommodate them with
|tea, coffee, cigars, candy and fruit.
William Collingwood had owned an ordinary shop in the same location in 1846, and had apparently chosen to become the town's first restauranteur (or "restorator").
The large hotels had dining rooms which local people might visit on certain occasions such as parties held on public holidays. Local boarding houses also offered simple meals for their tenants and the public. An early example was Ballard's Eating Saloon on Main Street, on the ground floor of a boarding house know as the Central House under later landlords. It should be noted that the name "saloon" didn't necessarily imply liquor at this time. The Ballards offered the popular, if to modern eyes unlikely, combination of oysters and ice cream, which was the fast food of the day. Other establishments in the ice cream and oyster trade included F. F. Besse's Restaurant, which was located across Main Street on the corner of Middle Street in 1887, at S. M. Hall's Ladies' and Gents' Restaurant at 22 Main Street while Samuel McClure offered oysters and "tonic" (soda, to non-New Englanders) at the Welford Oyster House at the foot of Leyden Street in 1890.
By the turn of the 20th century, there were a miscellany of lunchrooms, restaurants and dining houses in Plymouth. Most were in the center of town but two were south at the head of Plymouth Beach where the street car line now extended: Sylvester Wadsworth's Beach Park Restaurant and Benjamin Hodges's Beach Station Restaurant (open June 1 to November 1). Not surprisingly, they both specialized in fish, lobsters, chowder and ice cream. Another seafood restaurant was Charles F. Haire's Haire's Restaurant at 45 Main Street in 1898. Haire's later moved to the waterfront near Plymouth Rock where it became a Plymouth landmark. Haire's was operated by the founder's son and his wife into the 1930s, when it was sold to Frank Freitas, whose family operated as the Pilgrim Grill or Pilgrim Pantry before it became the Shipside Restaurant.
Another classic Plymouth restaurant, W. F. Currier's, opened in 1900. Beginning as an ice cream and baked goods shop, Currier's became Plymouth's most traditional restaurant, famous for its ice cream and for such local specialties as "Plymouth Succotash", a unique dish traditionally served on December 22, Forefathers' Day.
Some vintage Plymouth menus:
Ballard's Saloon, 56 Main Street, ca. 1860
Plymouth Rock Restaurant, Carver Street, ca. 1935
Mayflower Hotel, Manomet Point Road, 1947
House of the Blue Blinds, North Street, 1948
Mayflower Seafoods, Town Wharf, ca. 1960
China Dragon, 3A-Kingston Line, 1967