Ten Restaurants That Changed America

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Release Date: 
September 19, 2016
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“Globalization is here to stay. Let’s eat.”

To paraphrase the great French epicure Brillat-Savarin: Tell me where you dine and I will tell you who you are. It’s not just a matter of what we eat but where we eat that helps define us.

Since the first model for the modern restaurant appeared in Paris before the French Revolution, restaurants have served as a kind of signifier that reflects the diner’s values, socio-economic position, and sometimes even his or her politics. It is why restaurants like Delmonico’s, for example, appear as a minor character in novels written by Edith Wharton and more recently, Caleb Carr. Delmonico’s is meant to convey a certain social milieu to which only a select few belonged.

Moreover, like other cultural markers, the most celebrated restaurants simultaneously mirror our history, capture the present, and inform our future.

In Ten Restaurants that Changed America by Yale historian Paul Freedman, we are given a glimpse of how ten of the most celebrated restaurants in America helped shape the American culinary movement.

As he takes pains to point out in his introduction, the ten restaurants chosen were not necessarily the best, but rather those that made an important contribution to American dining. Like all lists, choosing the ten most influential restaurants in America is highly subjective, but Freedman offers a carefully curated and thoroughly researched roster that traces the arc of American culinary history from Delmonico’s—America’s first fine dining restaurant that grew out of a New York pastry shop opened in 1827—to Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse, which opened its doors in 1971.

There are two important takeaways from Ten Restaurants that stand out in this altogether remarkable and eminently accessible historical account: it is another example (and apparently we still need yet another example in this politically-charged era) of the cultural contributions of immigrants to the making of America. Not until we reach the ninth-placed Four Seasons, opened in 1959, is there is no real immigrant story at its heart.

The second notable takeaway is that by tracing the arc from Delmonico’s to Chez Panisse, the author takes us full circle. When Delmonico’s, begun by two brothers of Swiss-Italian origin, expanded from pastry shop to restaurant, they looked to France to set the standard for fine dining. By the 1860s the brothers opened up a third restaurant on Fourteenth Street and hired a Frenchman, Charles Ranhofer to run the kitchen. It was Chef Ranhofer’s eventual cookbook, The Epicurean, that informed Chef Jeremiah Tower at Chez Panisse in the early days. The same cream of corn soup that was served at Delmonico’s in the 19th century landed on the menu of Chez Panisse in the 1970s.

Of course the story of Chez Panisse—and many of the other restaurants featured in Ten Restaurants—moves beyond the hegemony of French cuisine that dominated American restaurant culture for so long. Still, highlighting the overlap between Delmonico’s and Chez Panisse in its infancy, Freedman helps to underscore how restaurants can be both new and old at the same time. Whether as a restaurant, a nation or as individuals we are always being defined by both the past and the present.

On the way from Delmonico’s to Chez Panisse, Ten Restaurants covers more than just fine dining. It features both high and low-brow eateries from New York’s Delmonico’s and Le Pavillon on the one hand to Howard Johnson’s and Harlem’s famed restaurant, Sylvia’s, on the other end of the scale. Each of which tells the story of a changing America that becomes increasingly diversified, affluent and open to new culinary adventures.

The story of America’s restaurants is the story of America. Howard Johnsons, for example, played a role in desegregation in the 1960s. Sylvia’s in Harlem was a reflection of the Great Migration that relocated millions of African-Americans from the south to the north in the first part of the twentieth century and Schrafft’s—which set out to offer a welcoming place for women to eat—reflected the growing number of women entering the workplace in the early nineteen-hundreds.

While it is true that Ten Restaurants that Changed America is an academic work, it is highly approachable to anyone interested in food culture. There are enough anecdotes, literary references and backstories to keep even the most casual foodie entertained. And for those not steeped in culinary history there are some delightful revelations like discovering that Oyster’s Rockefeller was invented at Antoine’s in New Orleans or that Pasta Primavera was a made-up Italian dish created at Le Cirque in New York in the late 1970s.

If there is any quibble with Ten Restaurants it is that it ends with Chez Panisse. While Freedman does offer further thoughts in his epilogue, it feels like an abrupt ending. Yet maybe he is right to end it there.

Restaurants—like any other segment of the economy—are now shaped more by global rather than national forces. The modernist revolution begun at elBulli restaurant in Spain in the 1990s, for example, had a greater influence on Chef Grant Achatz’s famed Alinea restaurant in Chicago than anything going on in the restaurant scene in America at the time.

Which brings us back to the present. Globalization is here to stay. Let’s eat.