Delmonico’s, America’s very first restaurant, is also one of its most influential, according to Yale University history professor Paul Freedman. “It defined what elegant food was in the 19th century the United States, and that has influenced, to some extent, the food that is eaten today,” Freedman says.
Founded in 1830, Delmonico’s invented lobster Newberg and baked Alaska, and continues to serve those and other dishes at its New York City location.
“America’s first real successful restaurant … Delmonico’s is kind of a no-brainer because it’s the first restaurant, but it’s also very enduring,” Freedman says. “It’s created in the 1830s, but in 1890, it’s still considered the best restaurant in the U.S. A lot of restaurants elsewhere called themselves, like, the Delmonico’s of Indianapolis, and it becomes a shorthand term for fancy.”
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In his book, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America,” Freedman names nine other restaurants that have had a far-reaching influence on what Americans eat.
“I chose them both for just the delight of restaurants as places, but also as a way of talking about American history,” he says. “Because you can’t talk about restaurants without talking about ethnicity, immigration, variety, and different social settings. … So, this was intended not as a kind of history of a bunch of dishes, but as a history of American society seen through its restaurants.”
Howard Johnson’s, the orange-roofed restaurant that once dotted American highways, makes the list.
“It was roadside food. It was a chain of food. It pioneered the franchise as a way of expansion, where you give the person running it a stake,” Freedman says. “He also pioneered logos and identity. Howard Deering Johnson, the founder, located his restaurants strategically on roads where the driver going 60 could see the restaurant in time safely and easily to break and pull up, and for that you need, you know, big and instantly recognizable features.”
Howard Johnson’s did not survive the competition it helped spawn, like McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants, but it left its mark as the first restaurant chain to guarantee patrons the same food and menu, no matter which franchise they visited.
Also on the list is the Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant opened in San Francisco in 1961 by Cecilia Chang. “Cecilia Chang didn’t invent high-end Chinese food — but almost,” Freedman says. “She really is the first person to successfully retail that.”
Other women-run restaurants Freedman highlights include Sylvia’s in Harlem. Born in South Carolina, Sylvia Woods brought Southern cooking and the idea of a neighborhood restaurant as a community gathering place to New York.
“Sylvia’s in Harlem does not invent what is sometimes called down-home food or soul food, but it exemplifies that kind of cuisine and is also an example of the story of African American migration from the South to the North,” Freedman says.
Mamma Leone’s, also in New York, helped bring Italian cuisine to the American masses. Luisa Leone opened her eatery in 1906 and was able to expand her clientele beyond Italian American diners, creating a model for other immigrant business owners to follow.
“Mamma Leone’s not only served something like 3,000 people a day, and many of them tourists, and so a lot of people got their idea of what Italian food ought to be,” Freedman says. “And a lot of people opened restaurants in small towns that imitated Mamma Leone’s.”
Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971. She pioneered a trend in American cooking with local and in-season ingredients that continues today. Although these female restaurateurs served up vastly different foods, they shared some attributes.
“Flair. Inventiveness. Doing something that was not completely unfamiliar … but was familiar but better,” Freedman says. “Better than the competition. And that better was because of an emphasis on quality, an introduction of dishes that expanded people’s horizons, or reminding people of home.”
The other restaurants on Freedman’s list include The Four Seasons in New York, (which opened in 1959 and pioneered fine American cuisine at a time when French food dominated that space), and Le Pavillon in New York, Antoine’s in New Orleans, and Schrafft’s in Boston.
Most of Freedman’s picks are on the East or West Coast.
“I think it has to do with New York and San Francisco being ports, and so, the first place where immigrants opened up restaurants, and also fashion leaders,” he says. “So, all these places are on the coast, including New Orleans, and they’re just places where immigrants came and polyglot places where new things were first tried out.”
Six of the restaurants on Freedman’s list are still open, or in the case of the Four Seasons, planning to reopen. The others are closed, but their influence on what Americans eat has endured. (VOA)