Defining American food is more difficult than playing baseball with a ball made of good ol’-fashioned Jell-O. This is a time when people are lining up around the block for fast-casual burgers and clamoring for fine dining tasting menus simultaneously. So how’d we get here?
In the late-September book release, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, food historian and Yale professor Paul Freedman does his best to answer just that. For Freedman, who usually focuses on the Middle Ages, the four-year process of putting this research together was comparatively “easy” since it involved more menus typed in the English language than the usual 800-year-old parchment scrolls handwritten in Latin.
The result is a diverse list of restaurants—Le Pavillon, Chez Panisse, Antoine’s, Howard Johnson’s, Schrafft’s, Mamma Leone’s, the Mandarin, Delmonico’s, The Four Seasons and Sylvia’s—that “form a unified narrative about American taste.” Here’s what you need to know.
What Goes Around . . . Comes Back Around
Freedman cites Delmonico’s as the first true American restaurant. Though the 11-page menu with its 40 types of veal and venison four ways is a far cry from the minimalist, esoteric offerings of today, this game-centric style is staging a comeback. Over-the-top is the new boneless, skinless chicken breast: Whole pigs’ heads on platters and eating meat from any crevice we can find is the name of the game.
It’s also clear where those American restaurants found their inspiration. Le Pavillon, which was “unabashedly, even exaggeratedly French,” and the French Creole Antoine’s in New Orleans (where the menu items are still written in French) both make the list. In the midst of a Francophile resurgence, thanks to NYC restaurants like Le Coucou and MIMI, it’s a fond reminder of the escargot that got away.
“Delmonico’s menu, 1881” (c) Menu, Delmonico’s, 1881. Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 1881 – 0043
“Influential” Does Not Mean “Best”
Rather, these are the iconic places that led to “the rise of the restaurant.” It’s important to distinguish here between influential and best—in fact, it’s paramount to the 400-plus pages of Freedman’s book. Former New York Observer restaurant critic and current Tasting Table editor-at-large Joshua David Stein has discussed the perils of ranking restaurants, but Freedman’s classification is one he can get behind. “Evaluating restaurants like this, as if they have equal buoyancy with the culture that surrounds them, is the best approach ever,” he says.
The merit of these 10 restaurants lies in the way the carpet has been laid for future establishments, rather than, say, an exquisite meal enjoyed by a singular critic or publication. “As critical power is consolidated into monopolies of taste (ahem, New Yorker profile of Pete Wells), it becomes increasingly important that fruitful conversations of restaurants revolve around more than subjective assessments of quality,” Stein says.
It’s About More than the Food
“[My grandmother] always ordered some supposedly dietetic dish (involving cottage cheese) followed by a banana split,” Freedman recalls of childhood trips to Schrafft’s, a favorite of everyone from President Truman to Truman Capote to James Beard himself. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d call cottage cheese the pinnacle of haute cuisine, but the appeal of “this particular kind of middle-class leisure” endures far beyond a dish spelled out on a menu.
Despite the haze of iceberg lettuce and creamed chicken on toast, Schrafft’s paved the way for fast-casual giant Applebee’s and the diner-like restaurants of today. It was free from the soigné stuffiness of restaurants like Delmonico’s, which, though important in its own right, wasn’t accessible to the everyday diner.
“Schrafft’s on Madison Avenue” (c) Schrafft’s, 625 Madison Ave., New York City. Exterior, 1940. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-G612-38918.
Chain(s) of Command
McDonald’s, a location of which currently exists at every one out of 10 exits along I-95, is the modern-day Howard Johnson’s. For the unfamiliar, Howard Johnson’s was a mega chain of fast-food restaurants that peaked in the 1960s. As the highway system expanded throughout the country, so too did the roadside restaurant chain. It mastered the art of frozen prepared foods and, in turn, franchising, creating a reliable uniformity for weary travelers. They had 28 flavors of ice cream, but it was a particular seafood dish for which renowned food writer and longtime Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl remembers them fondly: “I still miss their fried clams,” she says. “We used to call them fried rubber bands.”
Before you write off Howard Johnson’s due to its fast-food wares, consider this: Jacques Pépin left his post at a top French restaurant to spend 10 years working at the innovative establishment, giving the food and ingredients a face-lift. Just one HoJo’s remains today; it’s in Lake George, New York—and it’s the very one where a teenage Rachael Ray worked in the 1980s.
Not Another Boys’ Club
It’s refreshing to note, especially for a dive into a history that predates women’s suffrage, that the book includes a strong female presence. Four of the 10 restaurants that compose the list were spearheaded by women. Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, remains popular to this day for leading the farm-to-table movement. Beyond gender, both Luisa Leone of Italian powerhouse Mamma Leone’s and 96-year-old Cecilia Chiang of upscale Chinese restaurant the Mandarin are immigrants who introduced Americans to new cuisines. And then there’s Sylvia Woods of the eponymous Harlem restaurant, otherwise known as the Queen of Soul Food, who began a revolution that is still going strong today.
“Sylvia Woods and her employees outside the restaurant.” (c) Carol M. Highsmith, Staff at Sylvia’s, A Legendary Soul-Food Restaurant in Harlem, NY, after 1980, transparency. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-HS5-3-4114.
Beyond these restaurant matriarchs, the opening of Schrafft’s meant a place for working women to meet for lunch midday. According to the New York Times, “Women felt safer in chain restaurants,” a theory that Freedman further supports. It also provided a welcome space for them to partake in Schrafft’s elaborate dessert menu, giving the middle finger to the archaic notion of women’s “dainty” food preferences.
With a current culinary landscape as rich as ever, all that remains to be seen is what of this generation will be most influential in the years to come. Freedman has a few early favorites, including Sean Brock’s Husk for its “revival of Southern food and ingredients,” Shake Shack for its “high-quality take on fast food” and San Francisco's Benu in all its “beauty and perfection.” Reichl also sees Momofuku and Blue Hill at Stone Barns as the ones that “we’ll look back on and say, ‘They really had an impact.’”
For now, Freedman is wary of placing too much weight on the future. “The past is both beautiful and important,” he writes. And, as it turns out, delicious.