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The History of Restaurants

It’s no secret that here at Kapow, we love restaurants. Whether it’s a hot dog joint in Chicago, tamales in Las Vegas or a pig roast in Boston, good food and good company can often be considered our bread and butter. Consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from, but how much do they know about where their restaurants come from? The history of the American restaurant has a long and storied history, and we’re here to tell you how your gastropub came to be what it is.

1837–1906: setting the stage

Delmonico’s, located in New York City, wasn’t our country’s first restaurant. Far from it! However, it introduced several key innovations still used in restaurants today. Chief among them, Delmonico’s offered a wide variety of foods during their open hours, as opposed to a fixed menu available at specific times. Its other innovations? Family-style seating instead of one long communal table, and being the first restaurant to allow unaccompanied women to dine alone.

New Orleans staple Antoine’s opened in 1840, and although it wouldn’t reach its peak relevance until 1940 through 1960, but it is (and remains) our nation’s oldest restaurant that’s still in operation today. You can attribute this to their focus on Creole food, but also to its idiosyncratic preparations as well. Serving food like alligator and terrapin (an order of turtles for the uninitiated), Antoine’s infused a French flair into local dishes, often inventing entirely new ones in the process.

Schrafft’s, founded on the eastern seaboard, followed in Delmonico’s footsteps by allowing unescorted women to eat there on a routine basis—and earning high praise for it to boot. My, how far we’ve come. However Schrafft’s is also credited with originating what’s considered “middle class cuisine”—less fancy than Delmonico’s offerings, but more elegant than a truck stop hash house.

1906–1970: fast food and ethnic food

As the 20th century got into full swing, an orange-roofed franchise came onto the food scene in 1925. Howard Johnson’s focused on frozen, predictable, and easily reproducible cuisine, inarguably setting the stage for our current wealth of fast food chain restaurants. What Howard Johnson’s offered was stability and familiarity; the idea being that instead of taking a gamble on your road trip you could pull into one of their restaurants and know you were going to like (or at least tolerate) what got put in front of you.

Around the same time, a restaurant in New York City was singlehandedly defining the aesthetic of Italian restaurants for years to come. In addition to its focus on spaghetti and meatballs, Mama Leone’s in New York’s theater district also offered red-and-white checkered tablecloths, candles in chianti bottles and strolling accordion players—everything that would become gauche and cliche—decades before it would become well-trod pop culture territory.

On the other side of the country however, San Francisco’s The Mandarin was revolutionizing what most Americans consider to be Chinese cuisine. Started by Cecilia Chiang in 1952 when she received a $10,000 deposit for a space in Chinatown after the two friends she was financing for dropped out, Chiang is credited with introducing many specialties now considered a staple of Chinese cuisine, including hot-and-sour soup, pot stickers, Peking duck and sizzling rice soup among others. The Mandarin’s palatial space also served as a training ground for James Beard, Alice Waters, Marion Cunningham and Marlene Sorosky as well.

1970–present day: quality and craft reign

Started in 1970, Harlem gem Sylvia’s brought Southern soul food north during the civil rights movement. In addition to feeling like home to many relocated southerners, Sylvia’s stressed the craft and commitment to cooking, and garnered widespread critical acclaim because of it. Famous guests to Sylvia’s have included Diana Ross, Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee, Muhammad Ali, and President Bill Clinton.

When it came to high class establishments, none were more important than The Four Seasons and Le Pavillion. Le Pavillion paved the way for high end French cuisine in America (its owner, Henri Souli, was tasked with creating a restaurant by the French government but refused to return to Nazi-occupied France), and The Four Seasons was one of America’s first modern high-quality, high-end restaurants. No fewer than 12 restaurants can trace their lineage back to Le Pavillion, and The Four Seasons focused on inventive, opulent foods that helped underscore the space’s sense of power and prestige meeting over lunch.

In the wake of a trip to Paris in 1975, Alice Waters (trained at The Mandarin) decided that she wanted to try and get the American family to return to a family dinner and health, and thus Chez Panisse was born. Located in Berkeley, Waters converted an old home in a bistro that focuses on foods that are organically and locally produced and harvested in ways that are ecologically sound to protect the land for future generations. As if this wasn’t enough of a return to form, Chez Panisse also focuses on a five course prix fixe menu—the very thing that Delmonico’s pivoted away from—that kicked off an obsession for sustainability and farm-to-table food that continues today.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite for some high quality food, try perusing Kapow’s various dinner offerings—whether you want high class, dive-y or something in between, we’ve got you covered.

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