Let’s Read an Old Menu, featuring Childs’, New York, New York

Hello, everyone and welcome to Let’s Read An Old Menu! This is another in a I-really-can’t-honestly-call-it-weekly-anymore series looking at restaurant, hotel kitchen, and lunch counter menus from the 19th and 20th centuries. Sometimes things will be familiar, sometimes they’ll be weird. But one thing you can count on is that they’ll almost always have cottage cheese on the menu, and they’ll almost never actually explain what’s in anything.

What’s For Lunch?

Lunch indeed, in 1922, at Childs’ Restaurant, one of the nation’s first chain restaurants, based out of Manhattan.

Is The Restaurant Still There? If not, what can we find out about it?

Not anymore– Childs’ Restaurants gave up the ghost in the early 60s. Many of their buildings, however, have been preserved– the chain was well-known for having striking architecture.

Childs’ was founded by brothers Samuel and William Childs. The original restaurant, opened in 1889 was located on the ground floor of the Merchants’ Hotel on a site which would later play host to the Singer Building. (The Singer Building was at one time the tallest building in the world and still the tallest building to ever be intentionally demolished to make way for the US Steel building, today known as One Liberty Plaza, and the third-tallest to be destroyed ever, after only the twin towers of the World Trade Center.) An emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene (complete with spotless white uniforms for the staff), along with quick service and a broad working-class clientele allowed them to quickly expand, and within five years the brothers had opened five more restaurants. Among their innovations were the popularization of waitresses rather than waiters, as well as the invention of the “tray line” cafeteria service model for their location at 130 Broadway.

In 1898 the Childs brothers raised funds on the order of a million dollars from a number of wealthy investors, including Standard Oil and DuPont, to incorporate the Childs Unique Dairy Company in order to facilitate greater expansion. Part of this expansion was fueled by purchasing other restaurants operated by other members of the Childs family, including nephew F.O. Hendrick and brother Ellsworth Childs, both of whom were brought into corporate leadership positions, which they maintained until the family lost control of the company.

A Childs’ location on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ, circa 1906

Between 1919 and 1922, Childs’ introduced an employee stock-ownership system, initially for managers and subsequently for all employees, that would result in a full 25% of Childs’ stock in the hands of staff. By 1925, the chain would reach its peak, operating over 100 locations in 29 cities, and investing in the construction of the world famous Savoy-Plaza Hotel. However the late 1920s were far more tumultuous for the company. William Childs, still the president of the company and himself a vegetarian, introduced a new exclusively-vegetarian menu in 1928 that received significant backlash from the public, slowing business enough that Childs’ stock hit a record low price of $44. Over the next two years William would be ousted as president, attempt a coup against the board of directors, and ultimately cost his family the company entirely. Meat returned to the menu shortly thereafter, as did alcohol once prohibition was repealed. In the 1930s, the company developed a second, lower-priced chain, The Host, which was ultimately unsuccessful, and secured exclusive rights to operate hot dog vendors for the unfortunately interrupted 1939 World’s Fair. By 1943, Childs’ had filed for bankruptcy. By 1953, more than half of their locations relative to their peak had closed.

In 1955, hotel mogul Abraham “Sonny” Sonnabend became president of the Childs company and began pivoting their focus to hospitality, purchasing the Plaza Hotel from Hilton and leasing hotels in several other cities. The last Childs’ Restaurant closed in 1961, when their parent company sold all restaurant operations to the Riese Organization, a franchising company that operates KFC, Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts, Houlihan’s, and TGI Friday’s in New York. The original parent company still exists under the name Sonesta International Hotels Corporation. According to Wikipedia, they operate 25 hotels on 3 continents, as well as several cruise ships, still under the leadership of Sonnabend’s heirs.


The menu is a relatively handsome affair, printed in partial color. I think it might be one of the prettier ones we’ve covered, in fact.


The blurb about the Falkland Islands and sheep coming back around to the menu item is an interestingly modern touch– I could definitely see such a thing on a certain type of  chain menu today.


It’s strange to think of “starch in milk” as an entire genre of dishes, let alone thinking of them as dairy dishes rather than starches.

I didn’t cut “salads” off early, by the way– there are no specifically enumerated salads on the menu.

Sharp-eyed viewers may wonder what the numbers in parentheses to the left of each menu item are. Sharper-eyed viewers may already have noticed the small note on the bottom of the menu– yes, indeed, another of Childs’ innovations was being one of the first restaurants to include a calorie count for its menu items! They had a strong emphasis on being dietetic.

$1 in 1922=$15.31 in 2020


How are onions 150 calories?! I imagine butter is involved.


I have not been able to determine to my satisfaction what on earth differentiates New York style baked beans from Boston style.


There’s not much to say about the desserts, I think. I’m curious what types of pies could cost half again as much as the basic ones, I guess?

Next time, we come to my home town of Albuquerque for a classic stop on Route 66.