Dining Out

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"In answer to my question of why dine out, the answers were repeatedly that it was fun, a convenience, a habit, an entertainment, a pleasure."

—Joanne Finkelstein

Few, if any, major forms of recreation in American history have changed as much as dining out. The trek from Victual Desert to Gourmet Cornucopia gained momentum as the Industrial Revolution made eating away from home a necessity for armies of workers as well as occasional travelers. But for the next 100 years, the typical restaurant aimed no higher than to emulate "home cooking." Then, in the 1960s, changing demographics, ethnic diversity, technology, and American ingenuity combined to change eating habits at a dizzying pace. By 2003, no country could match the United States in the variety of foods available nor in innovations in the preparation, service, and dining ambiance for a population that consumes 54 billion meals a year that are not prepared at home.

The Colonial and Early American Inn and Tavern

As would be expected, opportunities for eating away from home during the colonial period were largely inherited from the British. The concept of the ordinary, at which food was included with the price of overnight lodging, the tradition of having whatever was in the pot at the tavern's fireplace, the practice of eating while standing, the acceptance of a low order of food, and a disdain for soup and all other things French, had evolved in England with little change since the fourteenth century. Though the inns, ordinaries, and taverns were the main purveyors of food, something to eat could also be had for a price at various coffee shops, grog shops, and boardinghouses. In the taverns, men gathered to drink, to get the news, to enjoy companionship and good talk; food was secondary. In the ordinaries, a fixed menu was served at a fixed time at a fixed price. Food was plentiful enough in colonial times, but according to available accounts, most of it lacked variety, was not often enjoyed, and was devoured rather quickly. Breakfast and lunch might take ten minutes, dinner fifteen. Colonial newspapers made reference to the "bolting system" of eating that caused several to die by choking on their food. Contributing to the habit of rapid ingestion was that of serving all courses at the same time. Dining out in colonial America was most often a matter of "grab, gobble, gulp, and go."

It was not until late in the eighteenth century that some of the larger city taverns offered "fine cookery," but the farther one traveled from the cities, the plainer the food. In the more remote areas, dining out remained a matter of taking "potluck." Travelers from other countries often complained about the quality of the food, but never about the quantity unless it was too much. Dining out in colonial America was as crude a matter as public life itself.

The Origins of the Modern Restaurant and Café

A "café" was originally defined as any place where one could enjoy coffee and spirits. Today, it is indistinguishable from "restaurant," which William Brillat-Savarin defined as a business that offers to the public a repast that is always ready and whose dishes are served in set portions on the orders of those who wish to eat them. The origin of the restaurant may be argued at length, as food shops and chophouses can be traced back to the twelfth century. Attention usually focuses, however, on the French Revolution that freed the chefs from the aristocracy, abolished the chefs' guilds, and ushered in a burgeoning middle class eager to enjoy experiences formerly restricted to the aristocracy. By the end of the eighteenth century, there were hundreds of restaurants in Paris, and these, along with the new hotels, became the "palaces of the people." The American revolution against England and the assistance of the French in that struggle engendered an affinity for and receptivity to things French. Americans who visited Paris heartily reinforced these attitudes and none more enthusiastically than Thomas Jefferson.

"Jullien's Restarator" (the word "restaurant" had not yet entered the English language) opened in Boston in 1794, the first by a French immigrant. It remained for the Delmonico family, however, to grasp the full potential of elegant dining, and its New York City restaurants, once numbering four, made millions. From the 1830s to the 1930s, Delmonico's was the last word in fine dining. But the general public was not as enamored as the notables who had visited Paris and welcomed French cuisine. Both the cuisine and the manner of serving it were matters of contention. In the colonial inns, all guests sat at long tables and ate the same food, thus promoting democracy. Delmonico's à la carte menus were considered undemocratic. More objectionable to the majority of Americans was the food itself. It was thought to be too rich, embellished with needless frills, and bad for one's health. Simple food was the overwhelming preference, and the presidential election of 1840 turned on just that issue. Martin Van Buren was associated with "fancy food," and was defeated by William Harrison, who allegedly stood for plain food. To this day, American politicians profess to like plain food, and that is what is offered at fund-raising dinners. French cuisine would not take hold in the United States until reintroduced on television by Julia Childs in the 1960s.

Delmonico's restaurants also introduced snobbery and deference to public dining in America. It was the awe-inspiring ambience of their New York restaurants that encouraged the nouveau riche, particularly, to host elaborate dinners even though their capacity to appreciate the cuisine was woefully lacking. The influence of the restaurants founded by the Delmonicos, which lasted until Prohibition, can hardly be overestimated. Every city in the U.S. sought the distinction of having a fine restaurant in its downtown area. Delmonico's menus were copied far and wide.

The Development of Restaurant Districts

The industry calls them "food clusters," planners call them "eat streets," and journalists seem to prefer "restaurant rows," but no matter the form of reference, they have become an exciting feature of many American cities. For some cities, such as Minneapolis, restaurant rows are a recent development. Earlier, as one journalist put it, that city's restaurants were scattered about like toppings on a pizza. Other cities, like Nashville, have had restaurant rows for years and have enjoyed the many advantages inherent in having restaurants in close proximity to one another. Not only the customers but smart restaurateurs as well appreciate the clustering of cafés.

Restaurant rows are desirable for the same reason the restaurants of Paris are superior to those of its suburbs. The mix of natives and visitors lends volume and vitality to the dining scene. When simple directions to easy-to-find locations solve visitors' problems as to where to eat, everyone benefits. In the "Little Italy" of one American city, there are four Italian restaurants, one of which is by far the most popular. It fills to capacity early in the evening, and latecomers not wishing to go on a waiting list may partake of similar cuisine in the same block on the same side of the street. The lesser eateries are motivated to improve, the customer need not seek new parking, and that block of the city has a nightlife. Proximity solves many problems.

Many people go out to eat without a specific destination in mind and find it convenient to "shop" for one in a restaurant district. There, a variety of factors may influence their choice such as parking, how hungry they are, and how much they want to spend at dinner.. When all such considerations may be entertained at one general location, eating out becomes far more convenient.

Since World War II, many American cities have suffered a loss of vitality due to the middle-class "flight to the suburbs," the profusion of outlying shopping malls, and the intrusion of cold corporate towers in the best downtown locations. Efforts to revitalize cities are in vogue, and restaurant rows represent effective solutions to the problem. They create hubs of activity in the after hours reminiscent of nineteenth-century café society. Planners and city officials have come to realize the advantages of restaurant rows over convention centers, theme parks, and other

Landmarks in dining out in America
1763Fraunces Tavern opens in New York City offering "Fine Cookery."
1815The James cook stove replaces fireplace cooking.
1820sIce becomes readily available.
1831Delmonico's introduces elegant 'sit down' dining in New York City.
1868Delmonico's approves of women dining alone at luncheons.
1872William Scott of Providence, Rhode Island, introduces the first horse-drawn lunch wagon.
1876The first chain restaurant, The Harvey House, opens in Topeka, Kansas.
1885The Exchange Buffet, America's first self-service restaurant, opens in New York City
1902The first automat opens in Philadelphia.
1903Hamburgers on a bun first served at the St. Louis Fair.
1904The first cafeteria is opened in Los Angeles by Helen Mosher.
1919Prohibition begins and within four years even the most prestigious restaurants go out of business.
1928Clarence Birdseye introduces a method of quick-freezing food.
1936Duncan Hines's Adventures in Good Eating is published and in three years sells more than 100,000 copies.
1940sRailway dining cars are converted to lunch wagons.
1948The McDonald brothers introduce the "Speedee System" which will soon revolutionize food service throughout the world.
1948America's first serious cooking school opens in New Haven, Connecticut, later to be renamed The Culinary Institute of America.
1948Kentucky Fried Chicken opens and within ten years becomes the largest restaurant chain in the United States.
1964The New York Times begins reviewing restaurants.
1978Restaurant Design is first published.
1980sChain restaurants begin catering to diet-restricted customers.
1982The word "Foodie" first appears in an English magazine.
1983The London Times calls New York City the "Eating Capital of the World."

attractions more likely to fall to competition from other cities. A city's restaurant rows fare well in good weather or bad, twelve months out of the year.

In cities where restaurant districts are not anchored by tradition and cherished landmark establishments, the question of where to locate food clusters is usually not a problem. Upscale shopping centers attract people with money, and the two activities, shopping and dining, go together as well as fish and chips. It is the large restaurant chains, far more than city officials, that decide on locations, and the major chains have always favored high traffic areas and shopping centers. There is a good bit of following the leader in locating chain restaurants, for it is well understood that when many of them share the same general location, all do better. The decision to link cities with an interstate highway system and its exits undoubtedly made the location of dining clusters easy and obvious if only for the chain operations.

The Rise of the Chain Restaurant

In 1876, Frederick Harvey, having come to an agreement with the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, opened the first of a chain of restaurants along the route; by 1887, there was one of his restaurants every 100 miles all the way from Kansas to California. So well managed were those train depot eateries that they continued to thrive until rail travel in the United States waned. Harvey's successful operation became the model for the many chains that would follow. As the automobile took over, drive-in restaurants sprang up where customers were usually served by carhops. By the late l940s, however, employee salaries were consuming approximately 40 percent of gross restaurant income. At that point, Richard and Maurice McDonald took drastic steps that would eventually revolutionize food service throughout the world and not just in the realm of fast-food service. They fired the carhops, cut their menu from twenty-five items down to nine, eliminated china and flatware, and passed their savings on to their customers. Customers walked up to a service window to buy their food. Labor costs fell to 17 percent.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, trends favored chains in that middle ground between fast food and fine dining, referred to as "casual-dining" restaurants. These places offered comfortable seating, attractive decor, and ample helpings at moderate prices. A further trend, since the 1970s, was for casual-dining restaurants to limit their menus so that staff could be trained to prepare fewer dishes of better quality. Chains that once offered a large and varied menu restricted their offerings to Italian, or seafood, or barbecue, and so forth. New items were added only after careful taste testing and the elimination of any problems from procurement to service.

As in almost all areas of retailing, chains thrive to the extent that they are able to "kill off" small, local independent businesses. The chains enjoy many advantages that "mom-and-pop" establishments do not. The volume in which they purchase food and supplies gives them about a 25 percent cost advantage over small businesses, and they can afford the electronic technology that saves time and money, whereas small independents often cannot. Also strongly favoring the chains are the zoning ordinances imposed in American cities that disallow commercial establishments in residential areas. Chains depend on a high volume and fast turnover of customers and could not survive serving the small areas in which many independents once thrived. Americans desiring to eat out must drive out of the neighborhoods onto collector roads that take them to highly commercialized zones where only the chains can afford the leases. Finally, the chains benefit from the high rates of residential mobility and the high rate of automobile dependence in the United States. Whether living in a new area or traveling far from home, Americans are never far from a familiar dining logo where they know what they can expect.

The Social and Economic Impact of Dining Out

Since the mid-twentieth century, the restaurant industry has nearly doubled its share of the dollars people spend on restaurant food. In the late l950s, Americans spent twenty-five cents of each food dollar dining out; by the end of the 1990s, that figure had risen to nearly fifty cents per dollar spent on food prepared in commercial kitchens. As of 2004, some 858,000 restaurants brought in over $407 billion in annual revenues. Restaurants employed 11.3 million people, more than any other private sector industry in the nation. One out of every three adults in the United States has been employed in food service at one time or another. The major reasons behind the industry's gain over home cooking are threefold. In 1960, only three wives in ten worked outside the home, but that number subsequently doubled and women are not cooking nearly as much as they once did. Secondly, free time shrunk, and eating out, which Americans have always been able to do quickly, saves time. Finally, the relative cost of dining out, as opposed to buying groceries, changed in favor of the restaurant industry. Modern technology and other innovations in food service often result in savings in both time and money for those electing to dine out.

Though the industry as a whole is thriving, operating a restaurant is a precarious business. The average life span of a million-dollar-plus restaurant in any large city is only three years. Owners thus press for profits as quickly as they can. The usual means include "pushing" high-profit-margin items such as wine and soft drinks and attempting, always, to reduce labor costs. A significant part of the labor cost is due to chronically high rates of employee attrition that, even in upscale restaurants, exceeds 80 percent. Those on hourly wages are more than twice as likely to leave as those on salary. Waiters and waitresses in the United States do not enjoy the status of their counterparts in Europe, and the conditions of their employment reflect it. Employee benefits are virtually unheard of for wait staff, and the same may be said for overtime. The industry has the highest percentage of minimum-wage employees in the nation, and some of its chains are leaders in the effort to eliminate minimum- or "fair-wage" laws by making them optional at the state level. The distinction that needs to be examined, some critics say, is that between service and servitude.

The quality of the food and the quality of service were, until the 1960s, about all with which a suitably located restaurant needed to be concerned. But vastly increased opportunities brought with them sharply increased competition. Innovations in restaurant architecture exploded on the scene such that, in the early 2000s, establishments with per-person dinner checks of less than $20 spent $1,000 per seat on design and decor. Those with per-person checks exceeding $50 spent $3,000 per seat. Two-thirds of restaurant owners employed interior designers and three-quarters of them worked with architects to create enticing physical settings. Encouraged by the popular culture's emphasis on virtual reality, "theme restaurants" appeared, and though dining ambience will continue to be important, these ventures have an uncertain future. Customers all too easily become bored by the whimsical surroundings. As the French learned early in the twentieth century, features such as exotic centerpieces that distract diners from the food are usually short-lived.

As if concern over the quality of the food, service, and ambience weren't enough, restaurant owners of the early 2000s were beset with even more vexing demands. An ever-increasing number of Americans were looking for "something new, something different" when dining out. The fact that in any large city, twenty-six cuisine types were easily available (and in places like New York or Los Angeles, many more) didn't solve the problem, as evidenced by the emergence of "fusion cuisine" or the mixing of dishes from different localities. Leading the pack among those seeking new adventures in dining were the "Foodies," people who regard food as others regard paintings or drama. Once previously exotic dishes like chicken Kiev or fettuccine Alfredo become available in the frozen foods section of the supermarket, a true Foodie no longer considers them.

Satisfying an increasingly fickle diner was not only a matter of providing something new and different; by the 1980s another demand had been added. People wanted to continue to enjoy rich, tasty foods, but they didn't want as many calories. Americans were finally facing, head on, a paradox of abundance. They had become, as one observer put it, impassioned over cuisine and obsessed with dieting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers obesity to be of epidemic proportions in the United States and reports that the rate has doubled since the 1980s. Fast-food establishments get much of the blame, but it is a matter of concern for the entire industry.

Since that earlier period in the late 1940s and 1950s when dining out declined, due largely to the advent of television, it has become an integral part of the lifestyle of most Americans. The majority of adults now eat out more than six times a month and, though husbands and wives with no children are the most frequent diners, more and more households with children are dining out as parents find that "quality time" is more easily achieved in the restaurant than at home. Beyond familial "togetherness," the restaurant is now preferred over the home by seven out of ten Americans as a place to socialize with friends and better enjoy their leisure time.

The American appetite has expanded and refined considerably since those days in the l920s and 1930s when home economists implored immigrants to abandon their "unhealthy" eating habits in favor of plain American food. We've progressed beyond the quality of dining out in the 1950s, when the main attraction, for most, was the taste of deep-fried food. Dining out in America is an ongoing revolution fueled by fierce competition and a population awakened to the pleasures now available and the promises of things yet to come. The nation's leadership in restaurant dining is not strictly culinary. In food alone, French restaurants remain to be surpassed. Where the U.S. excels is in the totality of the dining experience. The U.S. is the most innovative in restaurant architecture and design, in interior decor, in the incorporation and creation of new cuisines, and in sensitivity to the market.

Evidence of the ongoing revolution in food service is abundant. By 1990, 1,850 students were enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, and leading chefs were earning $300,000 a year. The employment of personal chefs—about 6,000 in 2004—was expected to reach 20,000 within the next decade. Twenty-four hour a day cooking shows have emerged on cable TV, and in 2003, there were thirty-eight monthly online food magazines.

For many middle-class families, cooking at home is becoming a recreational activity while dining out has become a habit, and though the decline in home dining is lamentable in ways, few activities are as civilizing as dining out.

See also: Coffee Houses and Café Society; Diners; Fast Food


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Ray Oldenburg