Sat, Sep 24, 2016 - Page 13 News List

The magnificent 10: Restaurants that changed how the US eats


Patrons sit for lunch service in July at the Pool Room of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. The Four Seasons, which historian Paul Freedman says established the idea of sophisticated American cuisine, closed after dinner service on in the same month.

Photo: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg

Paul Freedman was having lunch at Delmonico’s — not the original, which opened in the early 19th century, but a relic of it in the financial district. Lobster Newburg was still on the menu, the meat napped with a brandy-spiked butter.

“But the sauce used to have much, much more brandy in it,” Freedman said. “The style now is less severe.”

Whatever the brandy content, this plush dish and its environs hardly seemed the stuff of revolution. But to hear Freedman tell it, Delmonico’s fired the first real shot for American dining, giving rise to a huge, diverse industry that would thrive and adapt to every major shift in the nation’s identity.

In his navy suit and thin-rimmed glasses, Freedman, a professor of medieval history at Yale University, doesn’t look the part of a provocateur, either. But for his new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, he set out on a brash mission: culling through hundreds of thousands of restaurants, across a span of two centuries, to produce a list of what he believes were the 10 most influential.

The list is brief, but Freedman marshals deep research to map the changes each restaurant made to American culture.


Howard Johnson’s, the orange-roofed chain that still evokes nostalgia for the comforting sameness of its fried clams, was designed to be immediately recognizable from a moving vehicle: a wholesome, family-friendly restaurant for the growing, car-owning middle class. Until it became a fixture in the 1930s and ‘40s, Freedman writes, roadside dining options were mostly limited to truck stops that catered to men (salesmen and truckers) popping in on their own.

Though Howard Johnson’s was not able to keep up with chains that followed in its footsteps, like McDonald’s and Burger King, this was the restaurant that pioneered franchising as an expansion plan, strategically opening along highways and ushering in the era of big fast food.

“Uniformity in everything, not just food, was enforced by a manual,” Freedman writes, “a ‘Bible’ of rules and procedures covering kitchen equipment, decor, maintenance, uniforms and cleaning.”


Chinese restaurants had been in business here since the mid-19th century, after the California Gold Rush, but Freedman zooms in on the Mandarin, which opened in San Francisco in 1961. At a time when most Chinese restaurants were identified with a single dish, chop suey, the Mandarin showed off the cuisine’s nuance.

Its owner, Cecilia Chiang, focused on Northern Chinese home cooking, creating a highly successful restaurant that doubled as a bid to broaden Americans’ understanding of Chinese people and culture.


Freedman devotes a chapter to Sylvia’s, the restaurant that Sylvia Woods opened in 1962 in Harlem. Woods, who was born in South Carolina, was one of many black Americans who moved north in the early 20th century, and she built her business on the traditional Southern cooking she had known as a child.

Although in later years, Sylvia’s would become world-famous, a shorthand for the very meaning of soul food, for decades it was a prime example of how a neighborhood restaurant could thrive as a social center. Freedman writes, “It developed a group of regulars, whom Sylvia Woods and her family called by their occupations: ‘Coca-Cola man,’ or ‘Con-Ed man.’”

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