At the turn of the last century, New York was a city focused on time, speed, and efficiency. Pocket watches became widespread, and punch clocks were introduced to make sure employees arrived and departed strictly on time. The most important part of the lunch break was not the food but how long it took to eat. “Haste seems to be a controlling factor in the luncheon of the worker,” observed Munsey’s Magazine in 1901. Such a world required a new phrase, “quick-lunch,” which referred both to the high-speed midday meal and to the restaurants that specialized in it.
Geography, too, helped make New York the capital of quick-lunch. As the city’s commercial center nestled into the lower half of Manhattan, middle-class merchants, traders, and financiers gradually moved into quieter neighborhoods farther north. No longer could they easily get home for a meal at noon. Quick-lunch made it possible for them to bolt through a plate of food and get right back to making money.