Saturday, March 25, 2017

Where To "Eat Out" In the Old West

I’m thrilled to say that in just a bit over a month, my next story will be released. “The Outcast’s Redemption” is one of nine stories in the upcoming Secret Admirers Romance Collection releasing on May 1. My heroine for this story works as a waitress in a small-town café as she struggles to support her ailing mother and two younger siblings.

Somehow, I never fell in love with cooking the way my mother did. She managed to provide our family with nutritious and tasty meals, no matter whether she was in her stay-at-home mom stage, her working night shift as an R.N. stage, or her keeping down a full-time day job in a busy financial office stage. She was—and still is—an excellent cook. But the love of preparing food never took hold in me, so eating out is a common occurrence for my family.

As I wrote “The Outcast’s Redemption,” I began to think about how different life was in terms of where one could grab a meal “out” in the Old West. Obviously, there wasn’t a Chili’s or P. F. Chang’s on every corner. So where could our beloved cowboys take their ladies for a dinner out? Were there places a weary traveler could get a quick bite without having to hunt for, skin, and cook his own meal? Yes, there were—and here are a few of them.

The Local Saloon

Western Saloon
While we most often think of the Old West saloons as being purveyors of alcoholic beverages, they also provided weary travelers (male-only travelers, that is) with the chance to get a meal. In fact, it was often a “free” meal. But there was a catch. The free food was free on the honor system—order, consume, and pay for two drinks, and then you could eat all the foods you wanted. Offerings ranged from cold cuts, breads, pretzels, smoked herrings, dill pickles, potato chips, salted peanuts, and a host of other salty fare. There was a method to the madness of the salted meats, cheeses, and finger foods. Salty food makes one thirsty, and selling alcoholic beverages was their big money maker. So saloon owners knew that by providing the all-you-can-eat meats and snacks so laden with salt, they were ultimately assuring themselves hours of beer, whiskey, and other beverage sales.

The Boarding House

Dinner at a Miner's Boarding House in Canada

A boarding house provided rooms for rent, as well as meals for those renting the rooms. Often, these businesses were run by women—single ladies or widows—who needed a way to make ends meet. They would open their homes to travelers, renting out a bedroom with the promise of at least one meal, if not two, a day. Most often, they provided breakfast, and those offering two meals would offer breakfast and dinner. The meals were often served around a large dining table with a family-type atmosphere, everyone passing plates and bowls of food, rather than being served food that’s been plated for the diners.


The Balkan Restaurant (and bar) in Utah

Every western town had at least one restaurant, but the restaurants varied greatly from place to place. The smaller the town, the more low-key and down-to-earth the restaurant décor and fare. In the early days of a town, the restaurant might be housed in a large tent or a lean-to. As a town grew and expanded, and as the restaurant owner gained resources from selling his food, he would often build a more permanent structure to house his establishment.

Food in western restaurants depended on many variables. Most often, they relied on what was most readily available. They would provide various meats (and most often beef, since it was so readily available in the West), breads, eggs, potatoes, fruit pies, cakes, coffee, and whatever vegetables could be had in the area. Some more upscale eateries would ship oysters in from the coast to tantalize their customers’ taste buds. By the 1880’s, the big rage in dining out was French cuisine, so restaurants served meats, fish, and vegetables in various French-inspired sauces, along with fancy desserts, milk, and cheese.

The First Restaurant Chain—The Harvey House

In the later 1870’s, a man by the name of Fred Harvey had begun to realize that many western restaurants were really quite a mess. They were a necessary commodity, but most were run by men, with male wait staffs, cooks, and dishwashers. The service proved to be unpredictable and sometimes chaotic. Harvey’s partner, Tom Gable, rightly saw that adding women to the staff of these restaurants might provide the balancing effect that was needed to make them function better.

Fred Harvey

Harvey opened his first restaurant in 1878 in Florence, Kansas, situated along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad line. Taking Gable’s idea, he staffed his restaurant with women between the ages 18 and 30, each of good moral character, intelligent, attractive, and well-mannered. He promised to provide good, wholesome food in a hurry. The restaurant model took off, and his company quickly grew. Between the 1870’s and 1965, there were as many as eighty-four Harvey House restaurants and lunch counters dotting the western lands along the railroad’s paths. (If you’d like to read more thorough accountings of Fred Harvey, his contribution to how our beloved westerners ate out, and the Harvey Girls who worked in his establishments, please click here to see what our other HHH Bloggers have written on the subject).

So there you have it. There were many various places that a resident of the Old West could eat food not prepared by his or her own hands.

It’s Your Turn: Do you prefer eating out or do you enjoy meal planning, preparation, and the satisfaction of cooking?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.

Declaring one’s love can be hard—even risky—especially when faced with some of life’s greatest challenges. Separated by class, time, distance, and more, some loves must remain secret until the time is right. Instead, notes of affection, acts of kindness, gifts of admiration, and lots of prayer are circulated. From New England mansions to homestead hovels, love is quietly being nourished and waiting for the right time to be revealed. But when love can finally be boldly expressed, will it be received by love in return?


  1. Love this post, Jennifer. Women to the rescue! I'm a big cook, but I wouldn't mind getting a night off to visit a Harvey's Restaurant with women "of good moral character, intelligent, attractive, and well-mannered." Seems like some fast food chains today could learn a thing or two from Mr.Harvey's business model!

    1. So glad you enjoyed it, Linore. Thanks for commenting. I would have loved to visit a Harvey House restaurant myself. It's an interesting part of American history that disappeared before I could partake of it. I'm totally with you that some fast food chains could learn from Mr. Harvey's example.

  2. In this day and age with a restaurant within easy reach of most people, it's hard to comprehend how difficult eating a meal out could be in the 1800s. For most, if they didn't grow or hunt their food, they had little to eat. I have wondered how people survived for long periods of time in the mountains and up north where they have short growing seasons.

    1. Considering my proverbial black thumb, I would have had a very difficult time putting food on my table in the 1800's, Vickie. I'm quite happy living in a place and time when restaurants are within easy reach! LOL

  3. It's difficult for my "home cooking" to compete when the cuisine of the world (literally) is just a short drive away. We take that for granted. I'll bet eating out among the folks frequenting the places you mention in your blog post was a rare treat. And I can't imagine running one of those places without modern conveniences in the kitchen!

    1. Hahaha. You are so right, Stephanie! I wouldn't want to think about trying to run a restaurant without a modern kitchen. After doing this research, I can honestly say I'm glad I live today and not in the 1800's. I like my modern conveniences too much! (But I still love the Old West history!)

  4. I loved your post! Thank you for sharing. I love eating out!