The Rise and Fall of the Free Lunch in Austin

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

We are all familiar with the old saw, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and that is certainly the case in Austin today, unless you happen to be at Costco at noon when they are handing out the free samples. If you are totally lacking in shame, you can fill up quite nicely for nothing more than the cost of the gas to get you there and back.

But once upon a time, long long ago, before the advent of co-ed bars and the Happy Hour, there was the free lunch. Saloons catering to the working man (and all saloons catered to the working man) offered some sort of spread, no matter how humble, to any man willing to plunk down a hard-earned nickel or two, for a foaming mug, or two. Sometimes it was just a platter of sliced ham, bread, and a pot of watery mustard, but other times, it could put any happy hour buffet offered today to shame.

February  26, 1881

The free-lunch men are doing a rushing business and the lunch fiend looks sleek, oily and happy.

Generally, the fancier name of the saloon, the fancier the lunch spread and the fancier the beer prices.

 On October 1, 1881, the Occidental Saloon offered


Chicken Gumbo a la Creole


Red a la Hollandaise


Oyster Patties, Drawn Butter Sauce, Chile con Carne, a la Mexicana

On April 5, 1882

The Grande Lunch at the Occidental from 10:30 to 3:00 PM featured

Soup: oxtail

Roast: beef with brown potatoes

Entrees: Chili con carne, Mexican style, or breast of lamb braised with green peas.

Relish: California salmon salad

Which provoked the Austin Statesman to observe, “The saloons are trying to see which one can excel in the character and quantity of their free lunch.”

The Cosmopolitan saloon, Denny & Brown, proprietors, next door to the temporary capitol building, entered the fray on August 5, 1882. The bar was supplied with the choicest wines and liquors, and everything conducted in a manner suitable to first-class places. The grand opening and christening included free lunch and free drinks from 12 noon to 2 o’clock.

Everybody in Austin, regardless of race, color, or creed, back in the day, was fond of chile con carne. The Cosmopolitan imported an artist from the City of Mexico to make it. All who patronized the Cosmopolitan on February 21, 1883, between the hours of 11 and 2, “blessed the Mexicans for bringing chile con carne to Texas.”

By October 1883, J.A. Bornefeld’s Palace saloon was getting to be quite metropolitan, and no mistake. His bill of fare on October 3 was chili con carne, pork and beans, herring salad, potato salad, green celery and vegetable soup. “If that was not a metropolitan free lunch, where were you going to find one?”

The cool weather produced plenty of pepper in the free lunch soup. Soupers rather relished it.

Lunch was not necessarily the sole attraction. At the Break of Day Saloon there was a lunch counter and sign combined in one, and it was a curiosity well worth looking at. Mr. Gus Sauter, proprietor of the Brueggerhoff Cellar saloon, had a Jenny Lind table, besides keeping the choicest of liquors, and serving a hot lunch every day. In February 1882, the Rosebud Saloon, on Pecan street, had received a new J.M. Brunswick & Balke Exposition Novelty billiard table, in addition to serving a hot lunch every day.

Everything that reaches its end must have its beginning, and the beginning of the free lunch in Austin was on September 7, 1868, when a Mr. Hathaway, who kept a saloon on the west side of Congress Avenue, began giving a free lunch daily between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. “This practice was a novelty in Austin,” The Austin Daily Republican noted, “but has worked elsewhere. Hathaway knows what he is about.”

Two weeks later, the Daily Republican pronounced, “Yesterday’s lunch at Hathaway’s was an unrivalled affair. The generous host is great on soups; one plate has nutriment enough for dinner, yet is delicately flavored. His chicken salad is not to be beaten.”


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