From Delmonico's to Howard Johnson's: Ten restaurants that changed America

Sep 27, 2016

Food historian Paul Freedman's book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, tells the history of American restaurants (and America itself, for that matter) through those ten establishments. He tells Lynne Rossetto Kasper why Howard Johnson's is on the list, why McDonald's isn't, and how New York City's famed Delmonico's started it all.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Which ten restaurants did you choose?

Paul Freedman (Photo: Bonnie Roe)

Paul Freedman: In the order of the chapters I devoted to them, it's roughly chronological. Delmonico's is the first, a restaurant in New York that defined elegant cuisine, from its founding in the 1830s until Prohibition closed it in the 1920s; Antoine's in New Orleans, a durable example of the most vibrant regional cuisine of the United States; Schrafft's, which was a middle-class restaurant that served ice cream sandwiches and salads. It was particularly appealing to women, not only as a place for women who were shopping or who worked in offices or stores might like, but one that also served food it was thought that women liked: light entrees and very rich desserts.

Then there is Howard Johnson's, which was like Schrafft's: a safe, family-friendly place for families with children. It was a roadside restaurant that, in the early 1960s, served more meals to anyone except the U.S. Army.

There's also Mamma Leone's, an Italian restaurant, which is an example of one of the most popular so-called "ethnic" or international foreign foods; The Mandarin, which is an example of Chinese food, the most popular foreign food in the United States; Sylvia's, an African-American restaurant that exemplifies the importance of African-American innovation and cuisine on American cuisine as a whole; and Le Pavillon, which was a French restaurant that defined elegant, high-end cuisine from when it was founded in 1941 to the mid-'60s.

The last two are the Four Seasons, founded in 1959, which was sleek, modern, very elegant, but deliberately not French. It's a place that defined seasonality and also pioneered the so-called power lunch, the business lunch of a certain kind of status and deal-making. The last one is Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Alice Waters' creation, a restaurant that moved from French to a kind of new American cuisine that emphasized seasons, quality of ingredients, and locality.  Without Chez Panisse, the way we dine out now would be inconceivable.

LRK: Why no McDonald's?

Howard Johnson's, Boston, 1954-1959 (Photo: MIT Libraries/Flickr)

PF: Partly because fast-food restaurants aren't restaurants in the sense that they don't have a very wide menu choice. There are no waiters, just menus posted above the order window, so it's not exactly a restaurant; it's closer to take-out. Another reason is that Howard Johnson's stands in for all fast foods. It was the first franchised restaurant, the first rigorously standardized restaurant, family friendly, and located on highways. You would look for this brand and know what to expect.

LRK: It had orange roofs. You couldn't miss it.

PF: That was deliberate, because Howard Deering Johnson, the founder, didn't believe in billboards. They were common in the '20s and '30s, but he thought they were tacky. In order for people to recognize the restaurant going 60 mph with sufficient distance to make up their minds and stop, it had to have the orange roof.

LRK: You refer to Delmonico's as the first real restaurant in the Unites States. When did it begin?

PF: It began around 1830. It had been a pastry shop, founded in 1827, and quickly turned into a restaurant. It was the first restaurant in the sense that it was elegant, it had refined service, and it emphasized the quality of ingredients. It was not relentlessly French, but it was a French restaurant. It described itself as "the Restaurant Français Delmonico."

There had been taverns with food, chophouses, places to have lunch, and hotel dining rooms, but they tended to be places to dine quickly, eat a lot of food, and get out. This was something new, something different, and immediately acclaimed as such. Everybody throughout the entire 19th century considered Delmonico's the leading restaurant in the United States.

LRK: The other restaurant that I'd love to talk to you about is Sylvia's in Harlem. This was a restaurant that welcomed everyone. It was a restaurant serving what people thought of as soul food but white New Yorkers didn't go there.


Ten Restaurants That Changed America

PF: White New Yorkers had gone to Harlem as an entertainment district in the '20s and the '30s, but by the time Sylvia's opened in 1962, Harlem was on its way to being isolated from white New York. Although people from Harlem traveled all over New York and weren't themselves isolated, white New Yorkers tended not to come to Harlem out of fear of crime or just out of a sense that there was nothing there.

LRK: Then Gail Green, restaurant reviewer for New York Magazine, did a review of Sylvia's. Tell us about that.

PF: It's an amazing review because it shows you this isolation that I was referring to. This was in 1979, and her editor expressed some doubts about the wisdom of advising the white readership to go up to Harlem: "Aren't we recommending that they do something dangerous if we write a review of a restaurant in Harlem?" She said she sort of agreed, but she went anyway.

She had trouble getting a taxi to take her to Harlem. Her review reads as if she was on some kind of exciting but dangerous expedition to an unknown territory. She was amazed and delighted by the welcome that Sylvia gave to her. Sylvia hugged her. She thought the food was great, although she had reservations about some things. She loved the ribs and the fried chicken but wasn't all that impressed by the cornbread, which she said was wishy-washy.

But she was amazed at what a good time she had. She was amazed at how good the food was. She was amazed at the welcome that she had. It gives you a sense, not that life is so great now in every respect, but it gives you a picture of a New York from not that long ago but sociologically and culturally very different.


Howard Johnson's Fried Clams