Joe Yonan is food and dining editor of The Washington Post.
Between Instagram, reality TV and $500 tasting menus, it’s easy to think we live in an age of unparalleled food obsession. But almost 150 years ago, a restaurant in New York was serving ostentatious, 14-course meals with French touches that would rival anything we could imagine today. The biggest difference? The chef expected such a meal to take no more than two hours and 20 minutes (10 minutes per course), although if a customer requested an acceleration, the whole affair could be sped up to two hours flat. (Imagine asking Thomas Keller to “accelerate the pace” of a meal at the French Laundry.)
The restaurant was Delmonico’s, and it is the first example in Paul Freedman’s fascinating new book, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America.” In his sweep through centuries of food culture, Freedman illuminates much more than what happened in the front or back of the house of these 10 distinct places (although he does plenty of that). He effectively makes the case that the story of America’s restaurants is one of changing immigration patterns, race relations, gender and family roles, work obligations and leisure habits.
Restaurants in some form go all the way back to Pompeii and ancient China, but the first modern Western versions started in Paris in the 1700s as an outgrowth of cafes aimed at clientele seeking “restoration” (the word originally referred to a broth or consommé drunk for health). In the United States, Delmonico’s stands out because it “became the first restaurant to serve as a gathering place for an elite that had previously dined and entertained at home.”
Delmonico’s foreshadowed many of today’s trends. Long before “farm to table” became a catchphrase (and then a cliche), the Delmonico brothers bought a 200-acre farm in Brooklyn because they weren’t satisfied with the produce they could get in Manhattan markets. Among its other innovations: installing big bars. Take one look at the ever-expanding drinking sections of the buzziest restaurants today — or the ever-diminishing line between bar and dining room — and you understand the influence.
Freedman is careful to defend his choice of restaurants: These aren’t the 10 best dining rooms America has ever had, just the most influential. Some of that influence seems obvious: Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., enshrined the idea that ingredients — local, seasonal and produced by small farmers — are primary, and without her it is hard to imagine our current world of menus that list the provenance of every carrot. But paving the way was New York’s Four Seasons, which made seasonal changes not just to the menu four times a year but also to the uniforms, ashtrays, indoor landscaping and more.
In each of the 10 cases, Freedman tracks the restaurant’s opening excitement and reception through waves of fortune and, at times, misfortune, leading to the inevitable decline and demise of all but the three that still survive. But the niftiest piece of his puzzle, to my mind, is the transition from one place to the next, his ability to place each restaurant on a continuum of complex changes and trends.
It’s all too easy, for instance, to think of Mamma Leone’s, which flourished in New York from 1906 until 1994, as simply “an early example of a ‘theme’ restaurant, a place where the staged ambience is as important as the food.” Instead, Freedman casts it, along with the Mandarin in San Francisco, as an example of America’s increasing openness to foreign cuisines — and to a loosening of the stronghold of French cooking held up by Delmonico’s and two other restaurants (Le Pavillion, in New York, and Antoine’s, in New Orleans) featured in the book. Sylvia’s of Harlem isn’t just a pioneering soul-food restaurant that brought white downtowners farther north than they had ever dared to dream; Freedman uses the restaurant as a jumping-off point for an enlightening discussion of the many influences of Africa on American food and cooking, an effective distillation of an incredibly complex (and increasingly current) subject.
One interesting thread in the book is the power of personality, and the relationship between hosts and customers. To a restaurant, each of these 10 was run by a larger-than-life figure, but they had widely different attitudes toward guests. The Mandarin’s Cecilia Chiang was known for her “immense personal charm and her memory for faces as well as tastes.” Sylvia Woods’s motto was “give love, show love”; she “showed affection to all, and to this day, political and entertainment notables are not singled out for particular seats or flattery.”
That’s in stark contrast to Henri Soulé at Le Pavillon. He took advantage of burgeoning celebrity culture by indulging the egos of famous and/or powerful guests, at the expense of others, to the point where “the obvious discrimination between the cosseted and the nobodies became an emblem of the restaurant as an intimidating ordeal of trial by snobbery,” Freedman writes. As he does so effectively in other instances throughout the book, Freedman shows how Le Pavillon paved the way for so many modern trends, even if Soulé never would have dreamed of them: “near-impossible reservations, no reservations, the speakeasy restaurant type with no visible sign out front, special telephone lines for favored customers, mandatory tasting menus, or forcing clients to pay in advance of their meal.” Sound familiar?
Another driving force, so to speak, in America’s restaurant development was, naturally, the highway. But long before McDonald’s and Burger King took over exits and rest stops, Howard Johnson’s was pioneering the idea of franchising and consistency. Until HoJo’s, Freedman explains, roadside food was aimed at truckers and single traveling men — and restaurants didn’t concern themselves with cleanliness or even high-quality food because they knew they’d never see the same customers again. The guiding principle of Howard Johnson’s was to become so known for good food — and so recognizable from the road, hence the distinctive architecture and orange-and-blue color scheme — that customers on long drives knew they could stop time and again.
Howard Johnson’s aimed its pitch at families and women, assuming that wives and mothers were the deciders. But there was a time, of course, when women weren’t welcome in restaurants, especially if they weren’t accompanied by a man, and that’s where Schrafft’s comes in: Like Howard Johnson’s after it, Schrafft’s began in New England with a focus on sweets (in its case, chocolates), then expanded its offerings, but always aimed its appeal at middle-class women. It became so ubiquitous in greater New York that for decades the New Yorker ran regular comical snippets called “Overheard at Schrafft’s.”
What does it all add up to? Freedman convincingly argues that his group of 10 led to the farm-to-table movement, molecular gastronomy, the cult of the celebrity chef, the influence of Asia, and a new informality characterized by open kitchens and fires, industrial spaces, artisanal beer lists, small plates and more.
He ends on a note that’s a bit too clipped, certain and even preachy, but I forgive him, because up until then, his insights are shrewd and demonstrate the power of historical study in understanding the world. Such study, he writes, “should lead to wisdom and modesty, specifically intelligent diffidence about predicting the future and assuming nothing ever existed in the past that resembles our world. A book about food, however important the subject, cannot pretend to instill an appropriate philosophy of life, but part of my purpose has been to show that the past is both beautiful and important.”
On that count, for sure, he has succeeded.
By Paul Freedman
Liveright. 527 pp. $35