Ten Restaurants that Changed How Americans Eat

29 November 2020

America's first restaurant was called Delmonico's. It started in 1830 in New York. And Yale University history professor Paul Freedman says it had a big effect on the food Americans eat.

"It defined what elegant food was in the 19th century United States, and that has influenced...the food that is eaten today," Freedman said.

Delmonico's invented famous foods like lobster Newberg and baked Alaska. It continues to serve those and other favorites at its New York City location.

"It's created in the 1830s, but in 1890, it's still considered the best restaurant in the U.S.," Freedman said. A lot of restaurants elsewhere called themselves "the Delmonico's of" whatever city they were in, he added.

Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City in an undated photo. (Courtesy Delmonico's)
Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City in an undated photo. (Courtesy Delmonico's)

In his book, "Ten Restaurants That Changed America," Freedman names nine other restaurants that greatly influenced 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...and different social settings. So, this was intended... as a history of American society seen through its restaurants."

Howard Johnson's is on the list. It was one of America's first chain restaurants. A chain restaurant provides exactly the same food selections no matter which restaurant a person visits.

Howard Johnson's were built along highways. "It was roadside food. It was chain food. It pioneered the franchise as a way of expansion, Freedman said. The company's founder, Howard Deering Johnson, built his restaurants so that drivers could easily identify them, he added.

Howard Johnson's did not survive the competition it helped create, like McDonald's and other fast-food restaurants.

Also on the list is the Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant opened in San Francisco in 1961 by Cecilia Chang. She remade Americans' idea of Chinese food, making it luxurious, Freedman said.

Other women-run restaurants Freedman writes about 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.

It "is also an example of the story of African American migration from the South to the North," Freedman said.

Mamma Leone's, also in New York, helped bring Italian food to the American people. Luisa Leone opened her eatery in 1906 and was able to expand beyond Italian American diners. She created a model for other immigrant business owners to follow.

"Mamma Leone's served something like 3,000 people a day, many of them tourists, so a lot of people got their idea of what Italian food ought to be," Freedman said.

Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971. She changed American cooking by using only local and in-season foods - a tradition that continues today.

Although these female restaurateurs served widely different foods, they all created restaurants that valued quality food.

It "was familiar but better," Freedman said. "Better than the competition."

The other restaurants on Freedman's list include The Four Seasons in New York. It opened in 1959 and offered American food at a time when French food was popular.

He includes 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," he said.

I'm Jill Robbins.

VOA's Dora Mekouar reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.


Words in This Story

elegant – adj. showing good taste : graceful and attractive

delight – n. a strong feeling of happiness

pioneer – v. a person who helps create or develop new ideas, methods

franchise – n. the right to sell a company's goods or services in a particular area

luxurious – adj. very comfortable and expensive

tourist– n. one who visits a place for pleasure

familiar – adj. frequently seen, heard, or experienced