Hotel dining has experienced ups and downs throughout the decades

The Gilded Age took dining to new levels
Hotel dining has experienced ups and downs throughout the decades
Courtesy of The Edgewater Hotel
The Edgewater's former Rigadoon Room

During the nation’s early history, decorous people disapproved of dining outside the home. Options were few other than taverns and bawdy houses with a fine line of distinction between the two. Boarding houses and coaching inns were exempt from social stigma, but only fed those who slept there. The first real restaurants emerged in the early 19th century, but they were male bastions with women either banned or discouraged from patronizing them. Hotels began to accommodate solo female travelers by either serving them in private rooms or providing a separate entrance to the dining room. For most neophytes, choosing dishes from a list was a novelty, as was food served rather than passed. Hotel dining from its beginning strived to distinguish itself as the epitome of propriety.

The Gilded Age took dining to new levels. Hotel restaurants in the nation’s larger cities emulated those in Europe. French food increasingly appeared on the table and the French language was conspicuous on the menu. The cuisine at many hotels, like New York’s Waldorf Astoria and Chicago’s Palmer House, rivaled that of London and Paris, but also begot All-American classics including Waldorf salad and brownies.

With the advent of the automobile and upward mobility, Americans traveled more and hotels sprung up everywhere. Their dining rooms soon supplanted people’s homes as the preferred venue for the Sunday family dinner. The golden age of hotel dining followed Prohibition and the popularity of big bands. Patrons now expected more than just a good meal – they wanted entertainment, too. The Cafe Rouge at Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, the Blue Room at The Roosevelt in New Orleans and the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles were the epitome of elegance and glamour in the swing era.

During that same period, downtown Madison hotels created their own magic for visitors and locals alike. The Park Hotel’s clubby Oak Room and the Monona Hotel’s kitschy Indian Room featured supper club fare and nightly live music. Shoppers favored the Belmont Hotel’s Old English Room and civic clubs met at Hotel Loraine. The Edgewater boasted its bewitching lakeside Rigadoon Room. With its plush banquets and shish kebobs served on a flaming sword, it rivaled the legendary Pump Room at Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel.

The 1950s saw the rise of the suburbs and motels with free parking. Downtown hotels declined, as did their food service. In 1961, the Park Hotel’s response was to bulldoze its historic old hostelry and replace it with a motor inn that boasted a rooftop restaurant, The Top of the Park. The Edgewater also modernized, and The Admiralty Room replaced the Rigadoon Room as its fine dining option. Despite its pretensions, it never measured up to its predecessor. Fortunately, the 21st century gifted a renaissance for hotel dining – The Statehouse and The Boathouse at the new Edgewater, Capitol Chophouse at the Hilton Madison Monona Terrace, Eno Vino Downtown at AC Hotel by Marriott Madison Downtown – with surely more to come. To quote the J.K. Rowling character Luna Lovegood, “Things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end.”

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.

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