Restaurants (and their critics) have often shown concern with patrons’ health, but the focus of concern has varied widely in different eras.
In the 18th century the idea that restaurants had a mission to restore health came to this country from France. The legend spread that a Frenchman named Boulanger invented the first restaurant, hanging out a signboard stating “I will restore you.” Whether or not this actually occurred — or whether he was “the first” — it is true that early restaurants in France promised to provide healthful dishes. The mission migrated to America as chefs arrived after the French revolution. When Julien’s opened in Boston the proprietor vowed to supply the infirm, convalescent, and weak with “nourishing” soups and broths, including turtle soups which, he advertised, would purify the blood.
But the early French “restorators” were voices shouting in the wilderness. For most of the next two centuries Americans believed their health depended on eating meat and lots of it. In the latter 19th century and into the 20th, concern shifted to unsanitary conditions in restaurants as health departments were created, ordinances established, and inspectors dispatched.
The vegetarian restaurants of the early 20th century demonstrated a renewed interest in healthy diets. Meat substitutes produced by the Kelloggs of the Battle Creek Sanitarium appeared on their tables, although breakfast cereals, whose popularity was aided by restaurant promotions, were undoubtedly the most successful of all health food products.
The food conservation guidelines of World War I lightened diets, with less meat and more vegetables on restaurant menus, as well as spreading knowledge of nutrition. A few chains, such as J. R. Thompson and Childs, provided vitamin and calorie counts in the 1920s. But the public was not too receptive. Stockholders booted out William Childs after he gained control of the mighty lunchroom corporation and removed meat from its menus, causing sales to plunge drastically.
After a prolonged beef-eating revival following the end of WWII rationing, health-conscious restaurants made a comeback as part of a counterculture critique of industrialized food. The “holy war against adulterated foods and french-fried, frozen, super sugar wastelands,” reported Mary Reinholz in the Los Angeles Times in 1971, had produced at least 25 organic restaurants in southern California, including H.E.L.P., Aware Inn, The Source, and Nucleus Nuance which served “evolution burgers,” “Virgo vege-loaves,” and carob mousse. One Los Angeles counterculture restaurant favorite, carrot cake, crossed over onto mainstream menus.
Natural food eating places, such as St. Louis’s Sunshine Inn, Long Island’s Shamballah Gardens, the Haven in Honolulu, Homeward Bound in Flagstaff, and Mary’s Natural Food Restaurant in Denton TX, to name but a few, soon spread throughout much of the country, laying the groundwork for the restaurant revival of the 1980s.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008