Think there's no such thing as a free lunch? You'd be wrong. Salty snacks, fancy European preserved meats & other gustatory enticements featured regularly in 19th American saloons -- free (up to a point).
Why? Because hungry men need food and thirsty men drink. Simple as that. A man chose a saloon for what was offered in addition to the alcohol. Some saloons provided hard-to-find newspapers for their patrons. Most served some sort of free, or nearly free, meal.
What was served? "After Prohibition had killed the saloons, old timers waxed lyrical describing the free lunches of the grand old palaces, or rather the gourmet buffet dinners of tiny, savoury meatballs, French Gruyere cheese, hickory-cured ham, and other dainties." Narrow, twenty-foot-long tables in these establishments would be covered with "spotless white linen and plates of delicacies to please the most discerning tastes."
The more plain saloon would serve cold cuts, or yellow cheese; beans, stalks of celery -- whatever was easy to procure and inexpensive to serve. Above all, the free lunch featured salted food: pretzels, rye bread, smoked herring, salted peanuts, potato chips, and dill pickles. The theory behind all this, and it was a good theory, was that a couple of shot glasses or steins produced appetite -- and the salty goodies, in turn, produced a mighty thirst. The chain-reaction process of drinking and nibbling, nibbling and drinking could go on for hours, during which time the customers spent a lot on booze.
Free lunches varied, of course. If the barkeep was German, there might be slices of blutwurst, zervelatwurst, and landjaegers to tempt the patrons. Italian saloon owners might serve calzone and pepperoni, though seldom west of the Mississippi. Two places in Chicago gave away thick, creamy pies to old customers. In the Southwest the faithful helped themselves from a bowl of chili con carne, or nibbled on nachos -- small, salty squares of crisp tortillas covered with frijoles and melted cheese...
Some bars had their daily free lunch specialties -- franks on Monday, roast beef on Saturday, baked fish on Friday, and so on. And some saloons were more generous than others. Many advertised, "A fried oyster, a clam, or a hard-boiled egg with every drink."
The word "lunch" should not be take literally. It often blended into free breakfast and free dinner. The same salted goods waited patiently on their fly-speckled plates morning, noon, and night. But the free lunch posed problems for many bartenders. The institution rested on the honor system. Supposedly no creature walking on two legs would be so low as to approach the free lunch table without having first consumed, and paid for, at least two drinks. "But there were many human skunks -- sad to say, great numbers of them -- who were not honorable."
Source: Saloons of the Old West, Richard Erdoes [Alfred A. Knopf: New York] 1979 (p. 110-114)
Teddy Blue, a Montana cowboy during the 1880s when the cattle trade flourished, wrote: "talking about food, do you know what was the first thing a cowpuncher ordered to eat when he got to town? Oysters and celery. And eggs. Those things were what he didn't get and what he was crazy for."
In Wyatt Earp's and Doc Holliday's Tombstone, the Occidental Saloon served a Sunday dinner to tickle "Doc's" fashionable palate:
Chicken Giblet and Consumme, with Egg
Columbia River Salmon, au Beurre Noir
Filet a Boeuf, a la Financier
Leg of Lamb, Sauce, Oysters
Loin of Beef, Loin of Ham, Loin of Pork, Westphalia Ham, Corned Beef, Imported Lunches
Leg of Mutton, Ribs of Beef, Corned Beef and Cabbage, Russian River Bacon
Pinons a Poulett, aux Champignons
Cream Fricasse of Chicken, Asparagus Points
Lapine Domestique, a la Matire d'Hote
Casserole d'Ritz aux Oeufs, a la Chinoise
Ducks of Mutton, Braze, with Chipoluta Ragout
California Fresh Peach, a la Conde
Loin of Beef, Loin of Mutton, Leg of Pork
Apple Sauce, Suckling Pig, with Jelly, Chicken Stuffed Veal
Peach, Apple, Plum, and Custard Pies
English Plum Pudding, Hard Sauce, Lemon Flavor
"And we will have it or perish. This dinner will be served for 50 cents."
from "The Restaurants of San Francisco," Charles S. Greene, Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, December 1892 (p. 8+):
"The cheapest places for men are supposed to be the so-called free lunches, though this is probably a mistake; for these free lunches are attached to bars, and it is expected that their guests shall patronize the bar sufficiently to pay all favors they get in the way of free food. In the cheapest of these places a glass of beer at five cents entitles a man to help himself to sundry pretzels, crackers, bits of cheese and sausage, and a salt pickle or a radish: a repast intended to provoke thirst rather than to satisfy hunger.
A few places give crab salad, also bouillon or clam chowder. In most of the 'bit' saloons, the fifteen cents paid for a single drink or the twenty-five cents, 'two bits.' paid if you had a companion, gives free access to a counter supplied with a considerable display of eatables in addition to those mentioned. Cold roast beef, corned beef, sardines, olives, sandwiches of various kinds, bread and butter, clams, clam-juice, bouillon, and similar viands. To these you help yourself, and eat standing.
At the various hotel bars and saloons of pretension a drink is 25 cents, and at these a regular meal is served to patrons sitting at tables; soup, fish, entree, roast, and dessert. But the trail of the serpent of all over these places. They do much to promote drinking habits. True, the drink ordered may be only one glass of lemonade, mineral water, or ginger ale, strictly non-alcoholic, and not even the barkeepers will sneer at you, unless he suspects you of doing it as a regular thing. Nevertheless the tendency is not to be content with such simple drinks, and that best there is the patronage and countenance given an unholy business."