A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 21, 2008
Blue Plate Special

"Blue plate special” (or “blue-plate special” or “blue plate dinner") is the name of a low-priced meal of meat (or fish) with vegetables, all served on one (often blue) plate. The term “blue plate special” was popular in diners and cafes from 1920s and is now a mostly nostalgic term for good, wholesome American food.

The “blue plate special” appears to have started in October 1915 by the dining cars of the Seaboard Air Lines railway. The “blue plate special” offered meat or fish, plus two vegetables, all served on one blue plate (with indentations to separate the meat or fish and the vegetables) for fifty cents. The Seaboard was a popular railroad of the southern Atlantic coast, especially in Florida.


Wikipedia: Blue plate special
Blue-plate special or blue plate special is a term used in the United States by restaurants, particularly (but not only) diners and cafes. It refers to a specially-low-priced meal, usually changing daily. It typically consists of a “meat and three” (three vegetables), presented on a single plate, often a divided plate (rather than more elegantly on separate dishes). The term was very common from the 1920s through the 1950s. As of 2007[update] there are still a few restaurants and diners that offer blue-plate specials under that name, sometimes on blue plates, but it is a vanishing tradition. The phrase itself, however, is still a common American colloquial expression.

A web collection of 1930s prose gives this definition: “A Blue Plate Special is a low-priced daily diner special: a main course with all the fixins, a daily combo, a square for two bits.”

History of the phrase
The origin and explanation of the phrase are not clear. Kevin Reed says that “during the Depression, a manufacturer started making plates with separate sections for each part of a meal—like a frozen dinner tray—it seems that for whatever reason they were only available in the color blue.” Michael Quinion cites a dictionary entry indicating that the blue plates were, more specifically, inexpensive divided plates that were decorated with a “blue willow” or similar blue pattern, such as those popularized by Spode and Wedgwood. One of his correspondents says that the first known use of the term is on an October 22, 1892 Fred Harvey Company restaurant menu, and implies that blue-plate specials were regular features at Harvey Houses.

The term became common starting in the late 1920s. A May 27, 1926, advertisement in The New York Times for “The Famous Old Sea Grill Lobster and Chop House” at 141 West 45th Street promises “A La Carte All Hours”, “Moderate Prices”, and “Blue Plate Specials”. A December 2, 1928 article, lamenting the rise in prices that has made it difficult to “dine on a dime”, praises an Ann Street establishment where you can still get “a steak-and-lots-of-onion sandwich for a dime and a “big blue-plate special, with meat course and three vegetables, is purchasable for a quarter, just as it has been for the last ten years.” The first book publication of Damon Runyon’s story, Little Miss Marker, was in a 1934 collection entitled “Damon Runyon’s Blue Plate Special”. A Hollywood columnist wrote in 1940, “Every time Spencer Tracy enters the Metro commissary, executives and minor geniuses look up from their blue plate specials to look at the actor and marvel.”

“No substitutions” was a common policy on blue-plate specials. One 1947 Candid Microphone episode features Allen Funt ordering a blue-plate special and trying to talk the waiter into making various changes, such as replacing the vegetable soup with consommé, while the polite but increasingly annoyed waiter tries in vain to explain to Funt that “no substitutions” means what it says. Our Man in Havana (1958) by Graham Greene has the following exchange regarding an “American blue-plate lunch”:

“Surely you know what a blue-plate is, man? They shove the whole meal at you under your nose, already dished up on your plate -roast turkey, cranberry sauce, sausages and carrots and French Fried. I can’t bear French fried but there’s no pick and choose with a blue-plate.” “No pick and choose?” “You eat what you’re given. That’s democracy, man.”

Contemporary usage
Road food experts Jane and Michael Stern entitled their 2001 guidebook “Blue Plate Specials and Blue Ribbon Chefs: The Heart And Soul Of America’s Great Roadside Restaurants”.

In contemporary use a “blue-plate special” can be any inexpensive full meal, any daily selection, or merely a whimsical phrasing. A travel columnist says that a Portland, Maine eatery offers “budget blue-plate specials along with more refined fare.” The Turner South cable channel calls a daily movie selection, scheduled at lunchtime, its “blue-plate special”. Mystery writer Abigail Padgett’s second novel about amateur sleuth Blue McCarron is entitled The Last Blue Plate Special; no meals here, the blue plates are part of the decor at a clinic where patients are dying mysteriously. A reviewer uses the headline “The Red, White and Blue Plate Special” for a review of a book on “Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks”. There is of course (at least one) blues band named Blue Plate Special. The Boston Children’s Museum presents a participatory-theatre show, sponsored by health insurer Blue Cross, which teaches good nutrition; the show is called “Blue Plate Special”.

South Carolina Railroads - Seaboard Air Line Railway
In 1892, John M. Robinson created the Seaboard Air-Line Company, which was a through rail-water route between Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. From 1892 to 1900, the new company operated a fairly loose affiliation of the various railroad lines owned by the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad and the Baltimore Steam Packet Company (referred to as the Bay Line) which connected several eastern seaports. The Old Dominion Steamship Company joined in this route by furnishing direct connection at Portsmouth, Virginia with its New York boats.
(...)
With the acquisition of the Carolina, Atlantic & Western Railroad in 1915, a newly-reorganized Seaboard Air Line Railway set up six operating divisions, with headquarters in Raleigh, NC. The Virginia Division managed lines north of Raleigh. The North Carolina Division managed lines from Raleigh to Hamlet, Monroe, Rutherfordton, Wilmington, and Columbia. The South Carolina Division managed lines from Hamlet via Andrews and Charleston to Jacksonville and Baldwin and from Columbia to Savannah. The Georgia Division managed lines from Monroe to Birmingham. The Alabama Division managed lines from Savannah to Montgomery and Columbus. The Florida Division managed lines that went south and west of Jacksonville and Baldwin. The division offices were at Raleigh (also hq), Hamlet, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Savannah, and Tampa.

The new company quickly built a new line from Charleston to Savannah (see route below) to compete with Southern Railway. This new route, which included a new bridge over the Savannah River, was opened in 1918, and since that time has been almost exclusively used for freight traffic between Hamlet, NC and Savannah, GA. Its easy grades allowed steam engines to handle about double the tonnage rated for freight lines coming out of Columbia, and was a very economical line to operate.

At this time, the new company began advertising itself as “The Progressive Railway of the South.” It added the lettering “Co.” to its rolling stock in 1916. In 1918, S. Davies Warfield became president of the company as well as the Old Bay Line.

After the Great War of 1914-1918, President Warfield led the Seaboard Air Line Railway Company into vast extension projects in the state of Florida to keep abreast of the real estate boom in that area during the early 1920s. Other railroads in both Florida and Georgia were added to the growing system.

Capital improvements were made over the entire system during this time, with heavier rail laid on the main line along with rock ballast. Beginning in 1926, Automatic Block Signals were installed between Richmond, Hamlet, and Monroe, as well as between Savannah and Jacksonville.

Upon the death of President Warfield in 1927, Legh R. Powell was named president. His administration leased a new building in Norfolk, Virginia for its headquarters. Thus stood the completed 4,500 mile line of the Seaboard Air Line Railway Company on October 29, 1919 (This should be 1929—ed.), when the stock market crashed in New York City and a state of business depression struck an unprepared nation.

Unfortunately, the Seaboard Air Line Railway was wedged in between the wealthy Atlantic Coast Line Railroad nearer the coast and the Southern Railway nearer the piedmont’s fall line. With this fierce competition, the Seaboard Air Line Railway had not been able to accumulate the necessary financial resources to weather the lean years of the 1930s.

In December of 1930, the company was placed in the hands of receivers, and operated for fourteen and a half (14-1/2) years as a ward of the United States District Court in Norfolk, Virginia. Judge Luther B. Way presided on that bench at the time, and he was assisted by former SAL president Legh R. Powell, E.W. Smith, and then Henry W. Anderson.

(Oxford English Dictionary)
blue-plate, U.S. (see quot. 1961)
1945 S. LEWIS C. Timberlane (1946) xix. 112 They were taking the *Blue Plate Dinner.
1952 AUDEN Nones 27 Having finished the Blue-plate Special And reached the coffee stage.
1961 WEBSTER Blue Plate. 1. A restaurant dinner plate divided into compartments for serving several kinds of food as a single order. 2. A main course (as of meat and vegetable) served as a single menu item.

11 October 1915, State (Columbia, SC), pg. 2:
Dining Car Innovation.
“Blue Plate Special” is the name of a dish that is being featured on the Seaboard Air Line dining cars. It consists of a fish or meat order, with two vegetables, served on a blue dish. The officials say its popularity is already established. The “Blue Plate Special” is aimed to please both palate and pocketbook.

14 October 1915, Manatee River Journal (FL), pg. 8 ad:
SEABOARD AIR LINE RAILWAY
Manatee County’s Greatest Developer
BLUE PLATE SPECIAL
Seaboard Dinning (sic) Car Service
Seaboard Folder No. 7 makes of a Blue Plate Special strictly a Seaboard dinning car feature. This Blue Plate Special will consist of a fish or meat with two vegetables and will be carried on the special list daily. This SPECIAL with meat or fish, as the case may be, will be served on a large blue plate, instead of having vegetables served on small side dishes. It is thought that this will be very attractive, and the price is only fifty cents.

30 October 1915, Miami (FL) Herald Record, pg. 2 ad:
SEABOARD AIR LINE RAILWAY
(...)
All solid steel trains with though sleepers and Seaboard diners serving the popular “Blue Plate Special Meals” in addition to a la carte service.

Google News Archive
20 April 1916, St. Petersburg (FL) Daily Times, pg. 26, col. 3 ad:
Consisting of all steel electrically lighted and cooled cars and Dining cars, serving famous blue plate special.
(Seaboard Air Line - The Progressive Railway of the South—ed.)

Google Books
American Adventures:
A Second Trip “Abroad at Home”

By Julian Street
New York, NY: The Century Co.
1917
Pp. 361-362:
All Seaboard dining cars offer, aside from regular a la carte service, a sexity-cent dinner known as the “Blue Plate Special.” This dinner has many advantages over the usual dining-car repast. In the first place, though it does not comprise bread and butter, coffee or tea, or dessert, it provides an ample supply of meat and vegetables at a moderate price. In the second place, though served at a fixed price, it bears no resemblance to the old-style dining car table d’hote, but, upon the contrary, looks and tastes like food. The food, furthermore, instead of representing a great variety of viands served in microscopic helpings on innumerable platters and “side dishes,” comes on one great plate, with recesses for vegetables. The “Blue Plate Special” furnishes, in short, the chief items in a “good home meal.”

18 December 1918, Miami (FL) Herald Record, pg. 6 ad:
THE DOUGLAS TEA ROOM
Something New and Different
“BLUE PLATE SPECIALS”
Served Each Day
You will enjoy these new and tempting dishes—Try them at the “Tea Room”

13 May 1919, Bridgeport (CT) Standard Telegram, pg. 7, col. 1:
Mrs. Lionel Levy is chairman of the Blue Plate dinner to be given by the Park avenue Temple Sisterhhod, tomorrow night.

1919, Atlanta (GA) Constitution:
All the above menus are very easily prepared and once the housewife learns to use this service successfully she will, like the Great Northern railroad, see the economy of it, for when the food is prepared and served from the kitchen right on the service plate, it spells economy. For you know that it is from the platter service known as the Blue Plate Special of the Great Northern railroad that the cafeteria sprung.

25 April 1920, Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, pg. 14 ad:
MEET ME AT
CHERI
1604 CHESTNUT
We Needed More Room—
so rapidly have out Big Blue Plate, Sunday Platter Dinners grown in popularity at the Chestnut St. Cheri.
(...)
BIG BLUE PLATE SPECIALS
Served as usual, Noon to 8 P. M.

27 October 1921, Washington (DC) Post, pg. 26, col. 1 ad:
Have You Tries the Blue Plate Dinner at $1.50. It’ll Surprise You. Every Evening—Daily and Sunday.
(New Ebbitt—ed.)

31 October 1921, Washington (DC) Post, pg. 3 ad:
For dinner tonight try this Blue Plate service of ours—You’ll like it. $1.50 a plate.
(New Ebbitt—ed.)

22 April 1922, Trenton (NJ) Evening Times, pg. 2, col. 1 ad:
Blue Plate Dinners
85c to $1.25
Choice of five different dinners. Including Rolls and Butter, Coffee, Tea or Milk.
(Hildebrecht’s Restaurant—ed.)

19 November 1922, Hartford (CT) , “Blue Plate Dinner at Le Bal Tabarin,” pg. X8:
Le Rai (sic?) Tabarin will present an added inducement next Saturday night to all those people attending the Yale-Harvard game and living north of the Elm Cly, as this handsome dance palace is making plans to give a specal Blue Plate dinner that night for those homeward bound…

5 May 1923, Bridgeport (CT) Telegram, pg. 4, col. 1 ad:
Chef Patterson’s
Blue Plate Specials
Make a delicious and economical meal.
SUBWAY CAFETERIA

2 November 1923, Syracuse (NY) Herald, pg. 31, col. 2 ad:
BLUE PLATE SPECIALS
Roast Chicken
Or a
Juicy Steak
(Blodgett’s—ed.)

January 1929, The Restaurant Man, “Quick Lunchplaces Have Own Vernacular,” pg. 50, col. 3:
A “blue plate” is the label given a special daily combination of meat or fish, potatoes and vegetables, sold at a special price, and is ordered with the word, “Blue plate.”

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • (0) Comments • Sunday, December 21, 2008 • Permalink