A robust historical trek through America’s restaurant cuisine over three centuries.
Rather than a mere listing of the 10 best restaurants in the country, Freedman (History/Yale Univ.; Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination, 2008, etc.) establishes these 10 as significant representatives of specific times, places, and trends in American culture. Delightfully illustrated with menus, photos, and other visual accompaniments, the narrative delves into each of the 10 restaurants’ unique stories, beginning with America’s first restaurant, Delmonico’s, which “would offer impeccable French cuisine worthy of Paris.” Opened in 1827 in New York City, “it set a pattern for what fine dining meant for the nineteenth century and had many worthy and successful imitators.” The author also recounts the story of Antoine’s in New Orleans; how the many branches of Schrafft’s courted women customers while expanding middle-class restaurant options; and why the rise of automobile travel created the need for consistent meals at reasonable prices and how Howard Johnson successfully filled this need and led to the concept of franchising. Freedman tracks the demise of the reverence for French food and the rise of the power lunch, and he shows how the mass migration of African-Americans from the South led to the hunger for what became known as “soul food.” The author concludes with a chapter detailing the still-reverberating changes in the food world wrought by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, where “the combination of uniquely delicious food and barely controlled chaos would remain a constant for decades.” For those intrepid readers wanting more tasty tidbits, Freedman includes a selected bibliography, dozens of notes, and an appendix containing such classic recipes as Sylvia’s Boiled String Beans with Ham or Chez Panisse’s Curly Endive, Radicchio, and Fuyu Persimmon Salad.
Culinary historians, those besotted with food culture, and curious general readers will all find something of value in this well-researched, entertaining social and cultural history.