Two hundred and fifty years ago, people didn’t go to restaurants. There was very little dining out, apart from taverns, lodging houses and stands selling street foods such as oysters. What was available was hardly luxurious. The main meal of the day, as was the custom on farms, was consumed around noon.
That’s why, with its fine French food, immense menu, efficient service and gracious atmosphere, America’s first real restaurant, which opened in New York City in 1839 by the Delmonico brothers, was such a revelation. Its eleven-page menu shows an astonishing mastery of French gastronomy: forty veal dishes ranging from sweetbreads to blanquette de veau, no fewer than eight preparations of partridge and four styles of venison, a ubiquity of French truffles, sorrel, endive, and more!
In Ten Restaurants That Changed America Paul Freedman has made a delightful contribution to our knowledge of how restaurants came to be an important part of American culture, from the elaborate French foods offered by Delmonico’s to fast foods and the faddish, health-conscious cuisines of our times….
Paul Freedman has made a delightful contribution to our knowledge of how restaurants came to dominate American culture, from the elaborate French foods offered by Delmonico’s to fast foods and the faddish health-conscious cuisines of our times, in Ten Restaurants That Changed America.
Perhaps some would suggest that restaurants, such as MacDonald’s or The Brown Derby, have had just as profound an effect on American culture as these. However, these are Mr. Freedman’s choices and he tells the story of each with an abundance of information.
An exploration of American cuisine, Ten Restaurants That Changed America is as much a history of American eating habits as it is a chronicle of ten restaurants over three centuries. Of the list, Antoine’s, Sylvia’s, and Chez Panisse are still going concerns, while the Four Seasons has just been ejected from its landmark modernist home of over fifty years. Delmonico’s closed in 1923, but there is now a successor Delmonico’s at one the restaurant’s original locations.
This is not about the ten best restaurants that ever existed—some served marvelous food; others changed how we eat. His selection is based on influence: the importance for setting trends in how we eat and in eating out. The Twentieth Century saw a proliferation of burgers, pizza, doughnuts and other fast-food items that are the same from one end of the country to the other.
The list includes ten very different establishments, each with its peculiar story and colorful history—their successes were usually due to a charismatic personality at the helm. The reader will recognize in it a history on how his or her family ate from the 1950’s to the present.
For example, during the 1950’s when I was a child growing up in Billings, Montana, when we went to one of the half dozen Chinese restaurants in town, we ate the rather bland Chow Mein or Chop Suey. We thought egg rolls and fortune cookies were novelties. But, by the time I was a young married woman living in San Francisco, one of the gastric capitals of the nation, we were introduced to the much spicier and elegant foods--Mu Shu Pork and wonderfully bland Cabbage in White Sauce. Then, there was Prawns a la Szechwan and Fried Dumplings. Yum. I remember going to a downstairs, cheap restaurant open all night to imbibe freshly baked pork buns. Now Chinese food has adapted to the modern tastes and offers tofu and other things, cooked in variety of ways.
It’s hard to exaggerate its influence, for it set a pattern for what fine dining meant for the Nineteenth Century and had many worthy and successful imitators. It maintained its reputation until it was killed off in 1923 by Prohibition: people just couldn’t imagine eating fine French food with also drinking wine.
American disdain for gastronomic pretentiousness influenced its politics. During the 1840 presidential campaign the incumbent Martin Van Buren ate the best of what Delmonico’s served while his opponent, William Henry Harrison, was extolled for his simple tastes, favoring raw beef without salt. Ugh! Odd it is that the eating habits of Clinton and Trump were ignored in our recent election, but, until he was forced to change his eating habits due to poor health, Bill Clinton could be often found eating hamburgers at MacDonald’s.
At any rate, Delmonico’s was frequented by the leading personalities of the time: Oscar Wilde, Alexis de Tocqueville, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, and such.
The Delmonico’s nephew Lorenzo joined the staff in 1831, and he would mold the restaurant into an unrivaled temple to gastronomy and a shrine to upper-class social status. Like all brilliant restaurateurs, Lorenzo was a restless innovator, not just a manager.
“He was at the Washington Market at dawn where he made his purchases for the day, then returned to the Citadel to await his orders, drink a cup of strong coffee, smoke a cigar or two, look over the accounts and reservation lists, and then, after a nap, he would go to the front of house to supervised the comings and goings of diners.”
The food style, French with American accents and ingredients, was in place before the arrival of Chef Charles Ranhofer in 1862, but his reign, until the 1890s, coincided with the height of the restaurant’s prosperity and distinction.
Hardly any of the restaurants explored in this book, other than Chez Panisse, has remained in one location as they often opened new branches or relocated for various reasons.
At Delmonico’s a premium was placed on ostentation and excess. It was expected that at an elegant meal too much food would be served. Delmonico’s did not offer doggie bags. Wasteful as these meals must have been, they show a degree of enchantment and enjoyment that should challenge the common assumption that our age current is unique in its food obsessions, or that we eat far better than people did in the past.
Antoine’s is by far the oldest grand restaurant in continuous existence. Over its long history, the restaurant has been run by a single family, descendants of founder Antoine Alciatore. Established in 1840 in the French Quarter of New Orleans, close to its present location on St. Louis Street, with fifteen dining rooms, Antoine’s size is surpassed only by Mamma Leone’s and the Rockefeller Center branch of Schrafft’s.
Antoine was only 18 years old when he opened his restaurant. He would establish a dynamic restaurant that would endure for over a hundred years and create innovative new dishes against a background of traditional French cuisine.
In 1803, to finance his European wars, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Purchase, a huge swath of land stretching from the Mississippi delta up through the middle of the United States for a mere $11 million (about 4 cents an acre.) New Orleans was destined to become a great American city for its strategic position receiving goods shipped down-river and sending goods, such as rum and coffee, upstream as far as Minneapolis. New Orleans also had the greatest slave market in the United States, until slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. All of which gave New Orleans also one of the most diverse populations in the country: French, Spanish, Caribbean’s, Italians, African blacks, Indians—all flocked to this unique city, and some mixtures of the above formed what came to be called a Creole elite class of people.
Creole cuisine emerged from this mix. Its basics include roux (flour and butter cooked together), celery, onions and bell peppers, spices, tomatoes, local ingredients, such as Gulf shrimp and oysters, and rice, to make dish called gumbo.
When Antoine Alciatore died his son, Jules, took control of the restaurant. Jules is attributed with innovating Oysters Rockefeller, first served in 1899. Jules’s second son Roy took control after Jules died in 1934. Roy, who was a famous host and welcomed virtually every celebrity of the 1930s through 1960s, died in 1972. Hurricane Katrina devastated much of New Orleans, sparing the French Quarter due its being on higher ground. Antoine survived it and today has its doors open to whoever wants to sample its creations. Some of its recipes are over a hundred years old.
Schrafft’s was a chain of economical but gracious restaurants in the New York area during the 1920s that catered to ladies who wanted to dine alone or with other women in a pleasant setting. The demands of female diners coincide with women’s agitation for the right to vote and the campaign to ban alcohol. The passage to Prohibition in 1919 meant the end of bars that served free lunches and the demise of fancy French restaurants (as it was hard to entice customers without serving wine.) In this new environment, middle-class dining options, like coffee shops, luncheonettes, automats, cafeterias and ethnic restaurants flourished.
Schrafft’s was open all day, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but was primarily it was thought of as a place where women too busy or too far from home to return could come for lunch. Ice cream salons were the ancestor of Schrafft’s. The famous foods it served were salads buttressed with canned fruit and cottage cheese, Chicken á la King, chopped egg sandwiches, and banana splits, foods generally considered appealing to feminine taste.
Although Schrafft’s lasted until the Regan era of the 1970s, its decline is attributed to the rise of fast food chains like MacDonald’s and Burger King. Diners are a holdover, but control of the urban lunch market has passed to salad bars freighted with bacon bits, baby spinach, and bleu-cheese dressing and to quick-service chains including Dunkin’ Donuts.
I remember mourning this passage until someone pointed out to me that part of the success of the ubiquitous chains is that wherever you are in the country you know exactly what you will get. Nevertheless, our nostalgia for Schrafft’s is, I think, warranted.
Howard Johnson’s began at a single establishment in suburban Boston but its relentless entrepreneur, Howard Johnson, expanded it into a chain of roadside dinners, famous ice cream—all 28 flavors—and rather bland American food. It especially appealed to a middle-class clientele for whom cleanliness and consistency were all important. It especially welcomed women and families with children. Its motto was, “To serve the finest food on the America highways at reasonable prices to a large volume of family and medium-income Americans, and serve it in an attractive atmosphere.”
Howard Johnson was certainly a marketing genius—he pioneered franchising. Most of its restaurants were easily recognized from a distance with their orange roofs, octagonal steeples weathervanes, and blue-green accents, a color scheme repeated inside, and even on the menus.
Though the second world war was disastrous for business, Howard Johnson’s survived into the 1960s when it too was surpassed by MacDonald’s and blitz of fast food chains. In their early incarnations, the fast-food business were not the corporate behemoths they have become, but were the creation of obsessed perfectionists in the mold of Howard Johnson, men like Colonel Sanders, and Ray Kroc, the founder of MacDonald’s.>
Mama Leone’s, an Italian restaurant in New York City, flourished for nearly a century, from 1906 to 1994, and is a sample of the “ethnic restaurants” that have become popular: relatively inexpensive places to eat that serve international cuisine; the forerunners of these were Italian and Chinese, but Mexican, Japanese, Indian and Thai have also achieved prominence. They are a natural evolution of the many immigrant populations that have come here.
The fare from some of these—lager beer, hot dogs, hamburgers, pickles, coffee cakes, catsup, potato salad—have been so absorbed into the culture that they are thought of as American.
Mama Leone’s began simply as Leone’s, but when its founder Luisa Leone, died in 1944, it was renamed. Until it was torn down in 1988, it always made money.
Leone’s was originally located on 39th Street and Broadway. On its first night, April 27, 1906, it served antipasto, minestrone, ravioli, scaloppini, salad, cheese, spumoni and coffee. Mama’s dictum was, “I can cook good Italian good, and I’ll give the people plenty. They’ll come.” And, come they did. It usually served 4,000 a night and was as much a must-visit site in New York as Antoine’s was in New Orleans. In 1890 there were about 100,000 Italians immigrants in New York, and 100 cafés and restaurant serves their needs.
Rich and poor, famous, infamous and unknown—all came to Leone’s. Like it but on smaller scale, Sardi opened in the theatre district and became, as was Mama Leone’s, a favorite haunt of celebrities.
In the 1930s Chinese restaurants started to expand beyond chop suey, yet their menus didn’t vary far from standard Cantonese food. The establishment of the Mandarin was accidental, and its success was paradoxical. Cecilia Chiang, a woman of upper-class background, and raised in northern China—as such, she didn’t learn to cook until after she opened her restaurant. The Japanese invasion and the Communist rule caused many well-born Chinese to flee; Cecilia’s family fled to Japan, where they were introduced to American culture, and then they found their way to San Francisco. A 65-seat restaurant on Polk Street became hers because of a debt, and she was determined to make a go of it and to not serve the gooey Cantonese food. (It eventually moved to Ghirardelli Square.) Spicy Chinese cuisine proliferated in the 1970s, and Szechwan restaurants opened in shopping malls.
Sylvia’s opened in Harlem in New York on Lenox Avenue in August of 1962. The restaurant’s reputation was built on a tradition of African American cuisine, a rural, Southern, “down-home” style marketed to a Northern clientele as “soul food.” Sylvia Wood’s signature dishes included African American culinary classics such as fried chicken, barbecued spareribs, cornbread and collard greens. Sylvia’s is near Harlem’s main thoroughfare, 125th Street, and around the corner from the Apollo Theater. It created a welcoming atmosphere to celebrities without shutting out the people of the neighborhood.
Mr. Freeman points out that soul food largely originated on plantations in the South where black slaves had to forage and hunt in the woods and fields to supplement the oft-time merger fare of cornmeal, bacon and lesser cuts of pork.
In the north, long before the Civil War, blacks established restaurants to serve a more urban society than that of the South. Though soul food wasn’t especially healthy, the causes of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, are the modern fast foods, processed foods, large portion sizes, sodas and a largely sedentary lifestyle.
Le Pavillon was also founded by accident. Originally, it was part of the French exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, but when the fair closed, France was at war with Germany. In 1940 France fell to Germany, and the restaurant personnel decided not to return to France so they re-opened Le Pavillon at 5 55th Street in Manhattan.
Henry Soulé, its manager, known as “le petit tyrant” for his small size and his insistence on professionalism and politeness, ruled his kingdom with such authority that it would seem foolhardy to challenge him.
La Côte Basque opened with great fanfare and immediate success in 1958 and would have a longer life than Le Pavillon, which closed in 1975. (La Côte Basque closed in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2007.)
Of the restaurants portrayed in this volume the Four Seasons is one of my favorites. When it opened in 1959 it was something of a sensation, for it had taken $4.5 million to build (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, built at the same time, cost $3 million.) Everything, from flatware to bathroom faucets was custom-made. The glasses used cost $2, not much by today’s standards but then seemingly unheard-of. Space was used extravagantly, from a marble-lined pool to the ample room between tables. Everything changed exuberantly with the seasons—the menus, the waiters’ uniforms, the ashtrays, the indoor landscaping, and so forth. What I most like about this museum of a restaurant is that its owners saw fit to purchase and hang in prime locations excellent specimens of the paintings of Picasso, Miró, and Rothko. (I often see poor examples of actual art or prints in the restaurants I frequent.) Look magazine entitled its treatment, “New York’s New $4.5 Million Dollar Restaurant.”
Reports are that the food at the Four Seasons was very good, but perhaps one wouldn’t be picky, as just to sit in this elegant environment would be a pleasure enough. Perhaps its contribution to the evolution of restaurants is heralding the way for restaurants to locate themselves in fabulous environments.
My friend Saundra, a connoisseur of fine food, introduced me to Chez Panisse in 1980. One could have almost walked by and missed it, as it was hidden behind some wooden doors in a non-descript part of the Berkeley flats. I have no recollection of what we ate, only that it was different and quite delicious.
Chez Panisse arose from modest origins and soon enough became a restaurant of distinction in Berkeley, California, known for serving innovative quasi-French and new American food. It’s proprietor, Alice Waters, sums up its precepts: “Primary ingredients must be of high quality, quality must be defined in terms of freshness and naturalness, freshness and naturalness are to thought of in terms of seasonality, location, and small-scale, non-industrial agricultural practices.”
Sometime in the 1970s, with the inspiration of Chef Jeremiah Tower, it moved away from French cuisine to the preparation of seasonal ingredients in a more simple and vivid manner than allowed by French orthodoxy.
Finally, during the past two hundred years, American restaurant cuisine has moved away from serving fancy French food to fast foods, but also to serving foods fresh from farms, touting celebrity chefs (often preparing their signature dishes on television food channels), incorporating Asian influences.
As a footnote, there is an emphasis in today’s restaurants in cosmopolitan places such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles on healthy foods such a kale and quinoa. These items are very much subject to what is in vogue. (Recently, I attended such a restaurant in Santa Monica and didn’t know some of ingredients on the menu.) Something revered today may fall out of favor tomorrow
Meanwhile, I still prepare many of the same dishes that my mother made per the season—for example, as soon as summer comes I make her macaroni salad with tiny shrimp, chunks of cheddar cheese, scallions and green peas.
I heartily recommend Ten Restaurant that Changed America to anyone interested in food, restaurants, and how they have changed in the last 200 years.
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