Penny restaurants were diners where you could get a decent meal without spending hardly any money. You could find them in some cities as far back as the turn of the 20th century, and they spread tremendously during the Great Depression. Penny restaurants were mostly run by charities, but the food wasn't free, because that would rob the transaction of its dignity.
T.M. Finney, who managed a St. Louis penny restaurant run by the local Provident Association, laid out the enduring modus operandi of charitable restaurants. “The aim of the scheme is to afford poor people to maintain their self-respect and reduce the number of beggars,” Finney stated.
At his establishment, every item cost a penny: A meal of half a pound of bread, soup, potatoes, pork and beans, and coffee only cost hungry customers five cents. Breadlines, where miserable hundreds waited hours for free food, were an all-too-common sight during the Depression. Penny restaurants were the dignified alternative.
Penny restaurants always appeared during times of financial trouble, but they reached their greatest prominence during the Great Depression. In 1933, unemployment was at 25 percent nationwide. A whole new cuisine of make-do was developing across the country, from starchy slugburgers to pork masquerading as higher-end chicken. At penny restaurants, food was simple and often meatless.
Some existing eateries got into the penny restaurant business as a hybrid, adding a section to their existing restaurant to serve the indigent. And at least one businessman could afford to give away free meals along with paid meals because the volume was so high. Clifford Clinton was some restauranteur, as one of his dining spots is still in business, although you can no longer get a free meal. Read about the rise and fall of penny restaurants at Atlas Obscura.