Ten Restaurants That Changed America

 

Paul Freedman, Liveright, 560 pages, $35. 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. 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. Freedman marshals deep research to map how each restaurant on his list changed U.S. 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 came along, Freedman writes, roadside dining options were mostly limited to truck stops that catered to men. Howard Johnson’s 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. Others that made Freedman’s cut: Mandarin in San Francisco, Sylvia’s in Harlem, the Northeast chain Schrafft’s, the Four Seasons, Le Pavillon and Mama Leone’s in Manhattan, Antoine’s in New Orleans and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.

NEW YORK TIMES