August 25, 2017

A postcard of a Howard Johnson’s in Nashua, New Hampshire. Credit: Boston Public Library / Flickr

2015 was the first year that Americans spent more money on bars and restaurants than on groceries. And with attention-grabbing chefs and buzzy new places to eat… it feels like restaurants have never been more central to American life. But how did we get there? Paul Freedman, Yale historian  and author of the book  Ten Restaurants That Changed America, charts their course from Delmonico’s to Howard Johnson’s.

Three Takeaways 

  • In the 19th century, women were generally allowed into restaurants only in the company of men. That changed with Schrafft’s in the early 1900s, which catered specifically to (what they presumed were) women’s tastes, with dainty meals and decadent desserts.
  • The first chain restaurant that truly took advantage of America’s highways? Howard Johnson’s. They developed a wholesome, hygienic, family-friendly atmosphere that we now take for granted, but was wholly new in the 1920s.
  • Freedman attributes today’s emphasis on fresh, local, and seasonal food to Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. Before the 1970s, American consumers were concerned with variety instead of quality, but after Chez Panisse, that changed.

More reading 

food, innovation hub, Kara Miller, paul freedman, WGBH, howard johnson's, pri

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