Before Fast Food, There Was Childs’ Food

This is a guest post by Angela Harrison Eng

Before the modern fast food restaurant, there was Childs Restaurant. Childs was a chain that originated in New York City and spread southward, eventually opening franchises in Washington, DC. Though DC had multiple Childs locations, the most noteworthy were on Pennsylvania Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Samuel and William Childs created the chain in 1889. An 1889 article from the New Haven Register describes the opening of a new store:

“On entering the restaurant, three features which stand out pre-eminent are the beauty, cleanliness, and convenience of all the furnishings and appointments. The walls and ceilings are white glass tilings and enhanced with gilt mouldings and inlaid work. Floors are marble . . . Facing the north window is the large cake griddle, an elaborate affair which attracts considerable attention.”

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The interior of the Pennsylvania Avenue Childs around 1920 clearly reflects the clean, white aesthetic
The interior of the Pennsylvania Avenue Childs around 1920 clearly reflects the clean, white aesthetic

All Childs restaurants, it turns out, had these characteristics. The white tile and marble, Virginia Kurshan wrote in a 2003 Landmarks Preservation Commission Document, was to “convey a sense of cleanliness.” Cleanliness was one of the cornerstones of the chain. One Washington Post article rather wryly commented in 1929, “The early Childs restaurants were so glaringly white it didn’t seem right to enter them without a bath, shave, and haircut.” One blogger notes that the emphasis on cleanliness may have been linked to the New York Swill Milk Scandal a couple of decades earlier, in which a significant number of people died. Perhaps the emphasis on cleanliness is why this 1909 menu from a New York City Childs states, “Fresh Milk, Rich in Cream, Expressed From Our Own Dairy Every Morning.”

The first DC Childs opened on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913. A Washington Post article from August 24, 1913 proclaims the “New Building for ‘Childs’ on the Avenue Is Practically Complete” and would “seat 200.” It seems no copies of the DC menu exist online, but New York menus show simple fare such as sandwiches, omelets, salads, and desserts. In 1918, it seems there was an increase in food prices, which the Washington Post attributed to “taking advantage of war conditions to make money.” However, a follow-up article notes the prices were returned to normal not long afterwards.

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The Pennsylvania Avenue Childs around 1917
The Pennsylvania Avenue Childs around 1917

Another location on Massachusetts Avenue NW was built around 1926. A 1955 article in the Post, when looking back on the history of the chain, described the location desirable because it was so close to Union Station. The hope, according to Samuel Childs, was for “travelers coming to Washington to see the name Childs in lights as soon as they step off the train.”

Childs Restaurant logo c 1907
Childs Restaurant logo c 1907

This building differed from the other Childs Restaurants because a well-known architect was hired to design and build it: William Van Alen, who would go on to build the Chrysler Building just a year later. A truly unique building, it was a departure from the white tiled, marbled Childs of Pennsylvania Avenue. The materials used for construction were exceptional. One blogger painstakingly analyzed the structure. He inspects the worn etchings in the wall and the carving that reads CAPITOLINE, suggesting it was a nod to the nearby Capitol. He also mentions the travertine interior and largely unused basement. He speculates what the exterior is made of, as the walls contain embedded shell fossils.

The next couple of decades showed little to no mention in the news: a few holdups, donations to the Red Cross, and, oddly enough, a piece about an opera in development with Childs as the centerpiece. A New York Times article from 1930 mentions a man named Georges Antheil, a composer with an ear for odd instrumental usage, as the brains behind the operation. However, it does not seem that the opera ever materialized. John DeFerrari’s book Lost DC mentions a peaceful protest of about 80 people at the restaurant in 1949 following a rally to end segregation and discrimination. Otherwise, information about the chain is scarce.

The Pennsylvania Avenue Childs shut down around 1950 and was subsequently razed. The Massachusetts Childs closed to little fanfare in 1955. A Post article mentions the sale price as $100,000. The new buyers planned to remodel and make into realty offices. After a string of other businesses, it is now a SunTrust Bank.

You can visit the Massachusetts Avenue Childs location at Two Massachusetts Avenue, NW.

The former Childs Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue NW in 2008
The former Childs Restaurant on Massachusetts Avenue NW in 2008

About Angela

Dr. Angela Harrison Eng is a social media scholar and recent DC area import. Her interests include sewing, baking, and exploring DC history.

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  • ET

    I knew this was familiar before I even saw the image because I remember reading the Great Greater Washington blog post that is linked to in the References – and I used to live a few blocks away. There is an image from the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey collection at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.dc0812/photos.042814p

  • Kate Whitmore

    Was the Pennsylvania Avenue location close to Washington Circle? It looks likely, since I see what look like K Street brownstones looming in the background.