Book Review:Restaurants in American Food History


Recommended reading for food and genealogy buffs: Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman

Restaurants and History

Today we take restaurants for granted. We ask “where do you want to go?” when celebrating birthdays, anniversarys and holidays.  Families have a multitude of choices for a quick meal. More upscale restaurants provide baby chairs and booster seats to accomodate the kids, assuming they will serve families. We expect five minute service, food that is predictably the same in any region of the country and refillable drink cups in fast food restaurants.  In finer dining establishments we take for granted they will offer a wide range of foods, many sourced from outside our country. Or they will offer seasonal, locally sourced food. The decor will be individual: calm, exciting, or exotic depending on the restaurant.

We can easily forget how recently restaurants as we know them today arrived on the scene.

Early Restaurants were Taverns

Old etching of Red Horse Tavern/ Wayside Inn, used with permission of Longfellow’s Wayside Inn archives.

The taverns that welcomed stagecoach riders came first in this country. My Howe ancestors ran Howe’s Tavern in Sudbury Massachusetts, and I have written about that tavern, and stayed at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, the descendent of Howe Tavern, now the oldest operating inn in the United States. And the header photograph on this page shows the family restaurant operated by my grandmother and grandfather in the 1930’s in Killbuck, Ohio.

The Restaurants That Changed America

A new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America by Paul Freedman traces the path by which we traveled from taverns to, for instance McDonalds or Chez Panisse. I highly recommend the book to family historians who want to know more about how the every day lives of their ancestors.

Clearly, this is not about the ten best Restaurants in America–a subject that could be argued vociferously at your next dinner party.  Instead, it is an analysis of what trends developed in our eating habits, and who started those trends. Freedman digs deep to find out what lies behind trends in dining out. The book is enlivened with insider information about incidents and people and the reader can visualize choosing what to eat from the historic menus that illustrate the book.

What restaurants would you put on a list of the innovators?  When I asked friends, they had a little trouble getting past the idea that I was not asking for best– I was asking for innovations that influenced the development of the way we eat today.

Where Did Your Ancestors and Family Dine Out?

Of course you can also play the game of “how many of these have you eaten at?”  Although some expired before you were born.  So a better game is, “do you have ancestors who might have eaten at these restaurants?

Delmonico’s

Delmonico's Restaurant

Supper after the Opera at Delmonico’s, New York, 1898, engraving by Albert Sterner, public domain

I think particularly of Delmonico’s in New York City, the place to be seen in turn of the century America, when emphasis was on elegant and lush surroundings and meals consisting of a bewildering number of courses and amounts of food.  My great uncle, William Morgan Stout and his wife Jean lived in Manhattan and were in the social class that could afford Delmonico’s.  I can imagine them dining there, and now have a better idea of what they might have ordered.  I knew oysters were popular in that period, but was not aware how people would choose wild game and duck, something I learned from the text and  the menu illustrations. Also, lush paintings of people give me clues about hair styles and clothing of the period.

Schrafft’s and Antoine’s

The section on Schrafft‘s in New York made me focus on how differently women were treated, even in the early twentieth century.  Antoine’s in New Orleans brings forward the dominance of French cooking in the United States and a “destination restaurant”.

Mamma Leone’s

When in college, I traveled with a friend from Ohio to New York City in 1959 and we dined at Mamma Leone’s. (While this qualifieds as current history for me, for my younger readers, it might be the experience of grandmother.)

At the time, I had no idea the restaurant  was setting new expectations for an ethnic restaurant. I just knew that Mamma Leone’s fame had spread all the way to Ohio. There Italian food, while not completely unknown, did not feature on many restaurant menus. I remember Mama Leone’s restaurant served a huge numer of people (4,000 a night according to Freedman). Dining here was an experience– huge portions food comfortably Americanized Italian. Noise and excitement characterized the atmosphere.

Freedman says:

Mama Leone’s combined many of these images {love of music, amorous appreciation, spontaneity, and volatile personality} refining them into an early example of a “theme” restaurant, a place where the staged ambience is as important as the food.

In its forty-year heyday, 1930-1970, it provided staggering portions in a setting that offered huge capacity, strolling musicians and distracting surroundings.

The authors points out that Italian food as transformed from its early small family-run places appealing to the “artsy” crowd, to mass dining for the middle class to the point where Italian food is now “the preferred cuisine of the upper class.”

HoJo’s Restaurant

Howard Johnson's Restaurants

Howard Johnson’s Restaurant, U.S. Alternate Route 1 (on the by-pass), Fredericksburg, Va. 1930-1945, Boston Public Library

My family has always loved road trips–going back to my grandfather and grandmother’s car camping and my mother’s summer trips with fellow teachers. Perhaps we should count great-great-grandfather Jesse Morgan and his insatiable wander lust in that group. But those road trips had something in common. The miserable food, either cooked over a campfire or poorly prepared stuff in a rooming house.

Road trips had changed by the sixties. My husband and I and our three sons set off for Washington D.C. and to Cape Cod. The New England portion of the trip included my husband’s parents and sister. Any trip with my father-in-law inevitably included stops at Howard Johnson‘s.  Paul Badertscher took a conservative approach to life and liked the predictability of Howard Johnson’s restaurants. You could count on the food from place to place. You could count on the cleanliness. And there was a comfortable hominess in eating in the familiar turquoise and orange collored surroundings. Besides, an Ohioan indulged in adventurous eating by ordering fried clams. Wayne County, Ohio menus did not include clams.

Freedman sees Howard Johnson’s restaurants known by the nickname HoJo’s, as pioneers.  Without Howard Johnson’s we might not have the roadside fast food places we have today like McDonald’s and Denny’s.  Johnson pioneered central food production sites that shipped food to individual restaurants. The operation included detailed instructions on preparation that guaranteed every site would be serving identical plates of food. In addition, the decor and architecture would be designed to be identical. The restaurants with their brightly colored, angled roofs could be found along major highways. The architecture attracted travelers because of their brightly colored, angled roofs even before you were close enough to read the sign.

Other Restaurants That Changed the Way We Eat

I have mentioned only a few of the ten restaurants Freedman talks about. The others, in roughly chronological order are:

The Mandarin, San Francisco, that took Chinese food upscale.

Sylvia‘s, Harlem, brought Southern black “soul food” to a white clientele.

Le Pavillion, New York, the New French cooking in mid-century.

The Four Seasons, New York, combining a modern aesthetic with the concept of seasonal foods.

Chez Panisse in Oakland, starting the strongest trend in today’s dining–locally sourced foods.

I hope you will leave a note and tell me if any of the restaurants in this list strike a note with you. Realizing that the restaurants are almost all in New York, your ancestors may not have eaten in that particular one. But in their time period, do the innovations shed light on how you family might have eaten?

Note:  I am not under the illusion that many people sit breathlessly waiting for a post from Ancestors in Aprons. However, for those who might wonder about my absence in the last few weeks, I would like to reassure you that all is well. And thanks for sticking around. I have pulled back from writing regularly in order to go deeper in some research.  I do have one more letter related to Jesse Morgan to share with you before I move away from his fascinating life. If you have not read about the wandering Jesse, please type his name in the search bar and decide whether he was a scoundrel or something less damning.

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