NYPL Exhibitions

Cafeterias

When the Childs brothers opened the first New York self-service restaurant featuring trays and a tray line in 1898—Childs’ Lunch Room, at 130 Broadway—they launched a concept that would become one of America’s favorite ways to dine out. People liked the system of taking a tray, moving it along a counter as they chose what to eat, and sitting wherever they wanted, all for an affordable price. Cafeterias popped up in cities around the country, but New York made a specialty of them, and by the 1920s there were nearly a thousand. For men and especially women who disliked the chaos and jostling of many quick-lunch spots—or, worse, saloons offering “free lunch” with the purchase of a 5-cent beer—cafeterias were a place to find a cheap but respectable midday meal. But after World War II, rising costs made it difficult for cafeterias to maintain their low prices and the spotless surroundings for which they were famous. Many grew dingy, and young office workers turned instead to more upscale chains like Schrafft’s and Chock Full o’ Nuts. “Cafeterias Becoming Casualties of Age of Affluence,” announced The New York Times in 1969.