The Britling Cafeteria Serves Those Who Serve Themselves

by Paula Bosse

britling-cafeteria_rear-entrance_degolyerBritling Cafeteria’s rear entrance on Jackson St., 1920s (click for larger image)

by Paula Bosse

A few weeks ago, I was zooming in on a view of the Dallas skyline when I saw an interesting restaurant sign: the Britling Cafeteria. After a little research, I learned that Britling Cafeterias are something of a cultural institution in Birmingham and Memphis (Elvis’ mother worked the coffee urn station in Memphis, and if that isn’t the sign of a Southern institution, I don’t know what is). Here in Texas, though … I’d never heard of it. It claimed to be the first cafeteria chain in the South, having begun in Birmingham in 1917 (and named for a character in, of all things, an H. G. Wells story). When the Dallas location opened at the end of 1922, it was only the sixth restaurant in the chain, joining others in Birmingham, Atlanta, and Memphis.

The Britling Cafeteria was at 1316 Commerce (“Right in the Heart of Things”), between Field and Akard. There were two entrances, one on Commerce and one on Jackson (seen in the photo above). It sounds pretty nice for a cafeteria — it was lavishly decorated in black and gold, lined with mirrors, filled with flowers, and it had a mezzanine and a raised platform for a live orchestra to provide background music. It had a seating capacity of 450, with an expected daily capacity of 3,000. We’re not talkin’ Luby’s here. Quick “Southern home-cooking” had arrived in Dallas, and it seems to have remained an active advertiser until the ads suddenly stopped in 1926. I hope Dallas enjoyed it while it had it.

Below is the interior of the Atlanta location, from about the same time as the Dallas location. Cafeterias were a whole lot nicer back then.

britling_atlanta

The first non-institutional cafeteria I can find mentioned in The Dallas Morning News was the one in the basement of the Praetorian Building (“Cleanliness, courteous, tipless”) in 1912, but the cafeteria “concept” must have still been fairly new to Dallas as the Britling advertisements that appeared in the week before the grand opening felt it necessary to explain how the system worked. “You’ll wait on yourself — and do it gladly.”

britling_dmn_112722abritling_dmn_112722bDallas Morning News, Nov. 19, 1922 (click to read)

But first, stop by for a “Day of Courtesy” preview — flowers for the ladies!

britling_open_dmn_112722DMN, Nov. 27, 1922 (Click for larger image.)

Below, a sample of some of the Southern home-cooking on the menu as well as the warning that there WILL be live music as “a charming quintet of young Dallas women play, sing and whistle (!) here twice daily.”

britling_dmn_030926abritling_dmn_030926bDMN, March 9, 1926

britling_logo_dmn-112722

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Photo is a detail from a larger view of the city from the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, seen in an earlier post here. The block in which the cafeteria was located is now 2 AT&T Plaza.

Postcard of the interior of the Atlanta Britling Cafeteria from somewhere on the internet.

All ads from The Dallas Morning News.

The DMN article “Britling Cafeteria Will Open” (Nov. 26, 1922) with details on the chain and specifics on the Dallas location transcribed in a PDF here.

Great short history on the cafeteria that every self-respecting citizen of Alabama and Tennessee is apparently familiar with can be found here.

An amusing first-hand account of a Texan (J. J. Taylor) visiting a newfangled cafeteria in San Francisco appeared in The Dallas Morning News on Aug. 25, 1912 and can be read here.

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Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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