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Where Can A Lady Eat Around Here?

Club El Bianco at 2747 W. 63 St. Postcard published by Curt Teich Co., Chicago.

During the early 1900s, women had limited options for eating out. This posed a problem for women out on long errands or shopping trips, and it especially posed a problem for working women. What was a hungry lady in Chicago to do?

Chicago was home to about 8,000 saloons in the early twentieth century, and many offered free food with their drinks. However, it was not considered respectable for women to patronize these establishments, and many saloons officially banned women altogether.

The Berghoff Restaurant at 17 W. Adams St. Published by Thiessen Printing Corp., Chicago. Women were allowed in the restaurant area of The Berghoff but not the bar.

The Berghoff, located on Adams near State Street, was one of these places. In operation since 1898, The Berghoff served free corned-beef sandwiches on rye with their 5-cent beers. According to The Berghoff’s website (, women were not allowed at The Berghoff’s bar until 1969, when Gloria Steinem and other activists from the National Organization for Women entered the bar and demanded to be served. This action was part of a nationwide “Public Accommodations Week” protest during which women demanded service in men-only bars and restaurants across the country, as explained on the We’re History website (

Chinese restaurants, known as “chop suey houses,” were also popular during the first half of the twentieth century. Chop suey houses were known for serving affordable food that was exotic for its time. However, these establishments were generally considered to be risqué, especially for women, because they often kept late hours, offered live entertainment and dancing, and attracted a bohemian clientele. Some were located near Chicago’s vice district. Because these restaurants were largely run by Chinese immigrants, xenophobia also contributed to the tarnished reputation of chop suey houses.

The Berghoff Restaurant at 17 W. Adams St. Postcard publisher is unknown. 

Marshall Field’s department store soon caught on to the lack of dining options for women in Chicago. According to WBEZ’s Curious City podcast, the department store was the first of its kind to open a restaurant on the premises. The story goes that one day a group of women shoppers were about to cancel their purchases and leave the State Street store because they were too hungry to continue shopping. The saleperson helping them, however, had a better idea. She invited the women to share her lunch of chicken pot pie and had a table and chairs set up in the store for their impromptu meal break. When word of this reached Harry Gordon Selfridge, a top executive of Marshall Field and Company, he liked the idea so much that he decided to officially open a restaurant inside the store. Chicken pot pie became one of the Walnut Room’s signature dishes.

Women who worked in the shops and offices downtown during the early 1900s were also in need of lunch spots. Progressive women’s groups began opening low-cost tea and lunch rooms, sometimes called “suffrage lunchrooms,” in downtown office buildings. This provided a “win-win” opportunity: women had a safe place to eat an affordable lunch, and the women’s groups used the proceeds to fund their cause of promoting women’s rights, especially the right to vote. According to the “Restaurant-ing Through History” blog (, men were welcome to eat at suffrage lunch rooms, but they would likely be given feminist pamphlets and engaged in political conversations while there. One suffrage tea room that opened in Chicago in 1914 reserved its pie a la mode dessert for male patrons only, possibly as a way to butter them up to the cause. 

The New Forum Cafeteria at 64 W. Madison St. Published by Curt Teich Co., Chicago. 

Cafeterias soon opened up throughout the downtown area to offer quick and inexpensive lunches to women workers as well as men seeking an alternative to the saloon. Because customers served themselves at cafeterias, they were able to finish their meals more quickly and didn’t need to tip. Some of these cafeterias were furnished with only one-armed classroom chairs to discourage customers from lingering, which earned them the nickname “one-arm lunchrooms.” Thompson’s Cafeteria was one of the larger chains of these early “fast casual” restaurants in the city. A 1911 ad for Thompson’s states that a lunch at this cafeteria wouldn’t leave one “logy and lazy and dull” for the rest of the workday. However, the popular idea of what constituted “lighter fare” at the turn of the century was quite different from today’s. A common cafeteria lunch was chicken a la king, and some popular sandwich offerings from Thompson’s included hot frankfurter, cold boiled ham, and smoked boiled tongue.

Something as simple as a safe place to eat allowed women the option to spend more time away from home and less time cooking so that they could get on with the rest of their day, doing what they needed or wanted to do.

Written by Emily Ruzich

To hear more about Chicago’s dining options in the early twentieth century, check out these episodes of the Curious City podcast at “From Chop Suey Houses to Saloons: What Was Chicago’s Foodie Scene Like in the Early 20th Century?” (February 18, 2020) and “How A Department Store Became Part of Chicago’s Christmas Traditions” (December 10, 2020)

Special thank you to Judy Speer for telling me about the Curious City podcast.

P.S. The Berghoff still serves corned-beef sandwiches and beer, but it now costs more than a nickel.

Stouffer's "Top of The Rock" Restaurant. Postcard published by Colourpicture Publishers Inc., Chicago. 


  1. Found this online: Mrs. Hering's Original 1890 Chicken Pot Pie Recipe that Launched Marshall Field's Food Service and the Walnut Room Restaurant.

  2. The history of Thompson’s Cafeteria Restaurants of Chicago, Illinois.


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