As Yale history professor Paul Freedman set out to explore the sweeping history of dining in America through 10 influential restaurants, he immersed himself in sophisticated, French-inspired restaurants of New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. But he also examined clam strips and ice cream sundaes, the roadside comfort food of Howard Johnson’s.
Freedman, a medieval scholar, says his interest in American culinary culture grows out of a fascination for how class is represented through food, and was spurred by access to thousands of historical menus in the New York Public Library’s collection. In his new 500-page history, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America,” Freedman examines the long-term influences on American dining culture from a diverse set of restaurants that includes Delmonico’s, Le Pavillon, The Four Seasons, Chez Panisse, Antoine’s, Mama Leone’s, Sylvia’s, and The Mandarin. Restaurants on the list with a New England connection are Schrafft’s and Howard Johnson’s.
Q. What were the earliest restaurants in America like?
A. A restaurant, as opposed to an inn or a tavern or a takeout place, really only develops in the modern Western world in Paris around 1770. We define a restaurant as a place where you sit down, where you have some choice of time as well as dishes and also of company. A restaurant is more a destination in the sense that you can order from a menu of a fairly substantial range of choices. You can come at different times. You don’t sit at a large table with other people. There are some attempts at this as far back as a restaurant in Boston called Julien’s Restarator in the 1790s. But, in terms of a successful restaurant model, Delmonico’s is considered the first.
Q. What influences from Delmonico’s do we still see in restaurants today?
A. It presented itself as a French restaurant and its early menus were in French. But from the start, it also emphasized local ingredients. The Delmonico brothers actually bought a farm in Brooklyn because they didn’t like the produce from the markets in New York at the time, the 1840s. The fashionable foods of that era were things like oysters, terrapin, wild duck, particularly canvas back ducks. They were not relentlessly or purely French. What made them preeminent, despite efforts of competition from other places, was a level of elegance, service, atmosphere.
Q. Were restaurants initially only the domain of the upper class?
A. The rise of restaurants globally is associated with the bourgeoisie. Until after the Civil War, rich people in the US, like rich people in England, would tend to entertain at home. They had homes and servants and a way of life that didn’t need restaurants. By the late-19th century, everybody who was landed, old family, new money, entertained at restaurants. So, sure, a restaurant on the order of Delmonico’s wasn’t for ordinary people, but it wasn’t yet identified with the very top classes.
Q. What’s the enduring influence of Schrafft’s?
A. Schrafft’s is an early example of a restaurant that was supposed to offer the food that women liked — what was called “dainty food” at the time. It included what was considered light dishes and elaborate desserts based on this notion that what women liked was a rather austere entree followed by some kind of fancy dessert. My grandmother used to take me to Schrafft’s and she fit that pattern very well. She liked it because it was genteel. A polite, nice atmosphere, tranquil. There were lots of other women who had been shopping or worked in offices. Yet it’s not expensive.
Q. Why did you choose Howard Johnson’s rather than McDonald’s to represent family and middle-class dining?
A. You can’t have McDonald’s without Howard Johnson’s. Ordinarily, if you were in town, you don’t dine out with your kids. But if you’re traveling with your kids, you obviously have to figure out someplace to eat and that’s the niche that Howard Johnson’s identified. It also was marketing standardization, in a way that McDonald’s would as well. You know what you’re going to get. And you know exactly how it works. They had pretty much the same menu, the same design, the same look, the same level of service, although some things could change. But you pretty much ate the same stuff on Cape Cod that you would eat in California by the time it became a coast-to-coast chain. People liked that.
Q. When did American fine dining begin to come into its own and look beyond the French?
A. I think only around 1980. Of the restaurants in my list, Delmonico’s and Antoine’s at least present themselves as French. But Le Pavillon is the only one of them that was really French or strove to emulate Paris. Chez Panisse began in 1971 as a French auberge. It was 1980 when Chez Panisse turned into what could be described as New American. The local and the seasonal were now exalted as a type of food that didn’t really owe that much to France. It was the end of French hegemony because other places, particularly Italy and Japan, start to be prominent. The authority of France was no longer unquestioned.Interview was condensed and edited. Michael Floreak can be reached at email@example.com.