A Restaurant Timeline
There is an age-old hospitality industry in western culture. After all, as long as people have had to travel so far from home that they couldn’t sleep in their own beds or eat at their own tables, there have been entrepreneurs making a living by providing bed and board in exchange for money.
Photo by vaticanus
“Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, (3) he said, `My Lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. (4) Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. (5) And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on — seeing that you have come your servant’s way.’ They replied, `Do as you have said.’
Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, `Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!’ (7) Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. (8) He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.”
Genesis 18:2-8. Jewish Publication Society translation. New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.
The idea of the whole family leaving the home to eat a meal in a public place just for fun, or even for convenience, is much newer, though.
As with many other things — the moveable type printing press and gunpowder among them — the concept appears to have existed in the East for centuries before it arrived in Europe.
The following timeline features just a few high points in the story of the restaurant, which has taken on so many forms and become so much a part of daily life.
960 to 1279 Sung Dynasty, China
In the great Sung dynasty cities, Kaifeng and Hangchow, a fully developed restaurant-going culture flowers.
The Sung dynasty was a period of marked culinary (and general cultural) achievement in China. This was due, in part, to the introduction of a heartier and more abundantly productive strain of rice from the Champa area in Vietnam, which substantially lessened the incidence of famine.
People no longer had to struggle to eat; indeed, they could produce more than was necessary for their immediate families, and agricultural commerce thrived. Huge, open-air markets exposed urban cooks to a wider variety of produce than ever before.
Sugar cane became a cash crop as luxury foods made with refined sugars grew in popularity. Tea-drinking evolved from a indulgence for the rich to a daily necessity for people at all levels of society.
The major cities of this era, Kaifeng and Hangchow (both are in southeastern China), each had a fully developed restaurant-going culture similar to today’s. At least, this is true for men: the most luxurious restaurants, the “wine restaurants,” were usually affiliated with brothels.
Wine restaurants were lavishly decorated with works by renowned artists, offered changing menus, and regularly went in and out of fashion according to the whims of a fickle clientele. In addition to wine restaurants, there were less fancy options of noodle shops and tea houses for the mostly male day-laborers in the city who wanted to eat out.
Late 14th century England
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a group of travelers enjoy a jolly meal at an inn. Afterwards, their host secures their further patronage by encouraging them to engage in a tale-telling contest. The winner is to have his meal paid for by the others when they return to the inn — a clever promotional scheme.
1368 to 1644 Ming Dynasty, China
Tourism becomes a popular pastime. People travel for curiosity and enjoyment, and restaurants are in demand. They also offer take-out food and are frequently called upon to cater events at wealthy patrons’ homes.
17th century America
The Tavern in the Colonies
As in the Old World, there are plenty of public houses in Colonial America that are popular gathering places for men. Beer is the primary item served, but meals are available, but, the patron has little choice in the matter of what food he will get to eat.
The Coffeehouse and Commerce: England
The first known reference to Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse on Tower Street appears in a London paper. Lloyd’s clientele includes so many merchant shipowners and maritime insurance agents, who meet there to do business, that it becomes increasingly identified as the place to conduct insurance transactions. In 1771, ownership of the coffeehouse passes into the hands of the professional insurance underwriters and becomes, officially, Lloyd’s of London.
Gathering in Public for Business and Pleasure
Although in the mid-17th century coffee, tea, and chocolate were almost unheard of in England, by 1698 there are 2,000 coffeehouses doing booming business in London.
1762 New York
The Tavern Kitchen in 18th Century New York
Samuel Fraunces opens a public house in a building at the corner of Queen and Canal Streets (where a restaurant still operates under the name Fraunces Tavern today, although the structure has been for the most part rebuilt, and the streets have been renamed Pearl and Broad). It is a time when catering services are uncommon, but it is said that the Fraunces Tavern regularly sends meals over to George Washington’s quarters nearby.
The Arrival of the Word “Restaurant”
A Parisian soup vendor named Boulanger offers a sheep’s foot soup that he calls a restaurant (a restorative soup). The members of a competing guild of traiteurs (shop keepers at who sell prepared food for take-out) claim that his soup is, in fact, a ragout — a product which is, by law, only allowed to be sold by traiteurs — and they initiate a lawsuit. However, upon deliberating the matter, the judges decide that Boulanger’s dish does not fall into the ragout category. If anything, his business is only improved by the publicity aroused by the uproar.
The Concept of the Restaurant Arrives in the West
A Parisian traiteur named Beauvilliers decides to expand his shop, La Grande Taverne de Londres. He sets up a number of small tables and offers his customers a selection of different dishes, which are served up on the spot.
The First Star Chef of the Western World
Marie-Antoine Carême is known as the “Cook of Kings and the King of Cooks.” In spite of the fact that he came of age during the French Revolution and worked his way up from great poverty, he is not a man of the common people; he travels far and wide to serve in the noblest kitchens in Europe.
He cooks for Talleyrand in France, the Prince Regent of England (soon to be King George IV), and Czar Alexander of Russia, among others. He writes extensively on gastronomy and designs dishes and confections that are eye-catching in the extreme. He is often credited with being the founder of classic French cuisine.
Fall of the Bastille
The French Revolution is often given credit for bringing restaurants to the masses. Highly trained chefs, unable to continue working for the wealthy patrons who have become the victims of the uprising, must find a way to live in the new democratic society. Many turn entrepreneur and serve the food once reserved for the nobility to anyone who is able to afford it.
1794 New York
The Coffeehouse and Commerce: America
The Tontine Coffee House opens at the corner of Wall and Water streets. Within a few years it becomes the favorite hang-out of the group of speculative investors who later establish the New York Stock Exchange.
Early 19th century Europe
The Restaurant as a Way of Life
By the 19th century, restaurants are fully incorporated into the comfortable lifestyle of the middle and upper classes. In 1825, in France, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin defines the restaurant as a convenience in the modern lifestyle. At restaurants, he points out, diners can choose from a greater variety of dishes than can be made available in the home.
Birth of the Soda Fountain
Elias Durand, a pharmacist, begins offering his customers seltzer water remedies that are intended to be taken at his drugstore.
1827 New York
America Introduced to Fine Dining
John and Peter Delmonico decide to open a restaurant, offering businessmen an elegant, hot meal at lunchtime. For almost an entire century, the Delmonico’s restaurants set the standard for upscale dining in the country.
Luxury on the Railroads
Having met with overwhelming success with his luxurious sleeper cars for trains, George Pullman introduces the Pullman dining car. These cars provide a plush mobile restaurant for those railroad travelers who can afford it, complete with formally trained waiters and chefs. They feature menus that vary according to the fresh local produce available along the route.
1872 Providence, Rhode Island
The First Stage in the Evolution of the Diner
Walter Scott, a food vendor, decides to sell his wares from a horse-drawn wagon, in order to save himself the labor of having to return home to replenish his supplies during business hours.
1876 Topeka, Kansas
Respectable and Affordable Dining for Travelers
Fred Harvey opens his first restaurant at the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad depot in Topeka.
1890 New York
The Ultimate in Gilded Age Opulence
Louis Sherry, a confectioner, opens a restaurant and hotel. Eight years later, he moves his business to Fifth and 44th Street, where he oversees some of the most lavish dining events ever staged. Sherry’s is where the New York Horseback Riding Club held their famous horseback dinner in 1903, the tab for which was $50,000.
1893 New York
The Cult of the Maître D’
The newly built Waldorf-Astoria hotel opens its lavish mirrored dining room. It is managed for years by Oscar Tschirky, who is credited with being the original high-profile maître d’hôtel, known for coddling famous favorite patrons and snubbing the less-than-glamorous.
Birth of the American Cafeteria
At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, John Kruger opens a self-service restaurant based on the idea of the Swedish smorgasbord. He chooses to call it a cafeteria (the Spanish word for coffee shop).
1898 New York
William and Samuel Childs introduce the tray to make it easier for the customers in their self-service restaurants to carry their meals to the tables.
High Technology Enters the Cafeteria
The Horn and Hardart company opens the first of what will be a chain of “automats.” At these self-service restaurants, the food is obtained from coin-operated, food-dispensing machines imported from Germany. The appeal of such a gimmick in this era of fascination with cleanliness and newfangled technology is that the food seems never to have been touched by human hands.
1912 Providence, Rhode Island
The Diner Takes Its Place at the Side of the Road
Lunch wagons have become so numerous that they block the city’s streets, so a law is passed requiring them to be out of traffic by 10:00 a.m. In order to keep serving throughout the day, many wagon owners park their vehicles permanently in abandoned lots, and workers come to them.
1916 Wichita, Kansas
From Diner to Chain Hamburger-Joint
Walter Anderson opens a diner with a menu featuring hamburgers. By 1921, he is in search of a business partner to help him finance a fourth diner, so he joins forces with Edgar “Billy” Ingram. They name their enterprise White Castle.
1919 United States
The 18th Amendment — Prohibition
The act is passed by Congress on January 16 and goes into effect the following year. Many of the great Gilded Age restaurants do not survive. This is the heyday of wholesome family-oriented eateries such as the cafeteria. People who must have alcohol with their meals take to the speakeasies, where the foundations are laid for the onset of the supper club vogue, which comes into its own after Prohibition is repealed in 1933.
Birth of the First Great Restaurant Franchise
When Howard Johnson, who owns a small soda shop and newsstand in the town of Wollaston, is asked to open a second shop in Cape Cod, he hasn’t got the funds. But he persuades a friend to open a restaurant using his specifications and serving his products. The idea works so well that he continues to expand his business in this way. By 1941, Johnson has an empire of 150 franchises in the eastern United States from New England down to Florida.
1926 Los Angeles
Road Restaurant Gimmicks
The Brown Derby, a restaurant that is actually shaped like a hat, opens in Hollywood. Cobb salad was invented for the Brown Derby menu.
1929 New York
From Speakeasy to Supper Club
’21’ opens in the location it still occupies today. This is actually the fourth enterprise for its owners, Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns, who started with two so-called “tea rooms” in Greenwich Village. As their clientele grew increasingly lustrous, they changed locations to accommodate them. Their first club was at 42 West 49th Street (’42’).
When the building was scheduled to be razed to make way for Rockefeller Center, Kreindler and Berns threw a New Year’s eve party, at which guests were provided with axes, crowbars and mallets so that they could celebrate midnight with an orgy of demolition. ’21’ begins its life as a speakeasy, and the owners are never caught in a raid. They outfit the building with special mechanical cabinets that rotate to hide the liquor whenever the alarm is given that police are on the way.
1934 New York
“Continental Cuisine” Comes to America
The Rainbow Room opens at the top of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. At this deluxe supper club, the menu features dishes with a European flair, and the dance floor is illuminated with flashing colored lights that are activated by the notes played on the organ that is the centerpiece of the orchestra.
1936 Oakland, California
The Rise of the Theme Restaurant
Victor Bergeron, owner of a beer parlor called Hinky Dinks, decides to take advantage of the mania for theme restaurants that is sweeping California. After a field investigation of Los Angeles hotspots, Bergeron reopens his business as a Polynesian-theme supperclub and changes the name to Trader Vic’s. The tiki room concept turns out to be so popular that Bergeron soon has a whole chain of Trader Vic’s restaurants on his hands. Bergeron is also credited with having invented the Mai Tai.
Everyone is Welcome, but Some People are More Welcome than Others
Ernest Lessing Byfield opens the Pump Room at the Ambassador Hotel. His concept is to create a lavish atmosphere where all levels of society will mingle, and he models it after the Pump Room spa in Bath, England. Nevertheless, he adheres carefully to a fashion in evidence at such places as ’21’ in New York, and designates a rigid hierarchy of seating. The famed Booth One is reserved for only the crème de la crème, and if no one with the star power of, say, Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant appears during the evening, the table sits empty. Byfield increases the excitement of the event with his — literally — flamboyant presentations of the food. Even if the order is as mundane as hot dogs, it often arrives with the ultimate fanfare on a flaming sword.
1939 New York
Haute Cuisine Arrives in America
The 1939 World’s Fair opens in Flushing, Queens, featuring exhibits sponsored by 60 different countries. Many of the countries include restaurants serving local dishes in their exhibit pavilions, and the most popular restaurant by far is the one at the French Pavilion, where the waiting list for a reservation can be several weeks long. This is America’s first close-up glimpse of the traditional French chef system, and it is the event responsible for bringing the soon-to-be culinary giants, Henri Soulé (who will open Le Pavillion in 1941) and Pierre Franey, into the country.
1948 San Bernardino, California
The Invention of the “Fast Food” Concept
Fed up with the erratic quality of the people they have hired to work at their roadside hamburger restaurant, the brothers Richard and Maurice McDonalds decide to reorganize. They fire all the carhops and trim their menu from 25 items down to feature hamburgers, French fries, and milk shakes. From this time on, customers have to park and walk inside to get their food themselves. In 1952, in the process of redesigning the building, they add the distinctive “golden arches.” And in 1954, they are bought out by Ray Kroc, who builds the concept into a mega-empire.
The Soda Fountain Conquers Middle America
A whole culture rises up around the soda fountain counter at drugstores. It is now quite common to sell ice cream drinks, which have become more popular than the medicinal concoctions (“fizz water” came to be known as Alka Seltzer, and a “CO cocktail” is made with castor oil and soda) that originated the concept.
1972 Ithaca, New York
Restaurateurs with a Social Conscience
A group of friends who gather regular for collective meals decide to open the Moosewood Restaurant as a community project. In keeping with their political beliefs, it is a completely cooperative venture. The food served is vegetarian, and the owners make particular efforts to introduce dishes based on the cuisines of different countries.
Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives by Kwang-chih Chang (editor). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.
Larousse Gastronomique: The Encyclopedia of Food, Wine, and Cookery by Prosper Montagné. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1961.
America Eats Out: an Illustrated History of Restaurants, Taverns, Coffee Shops, Speakeasies, and Other Establishments That Have Fed Us for 350 Years by John F. Mariani. New York: Morrow, 1991.
From Boarding House to Bistro: the American Restaurant Then and Now by Richard Pillsbury. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990.