Despite an off-and-on economy, the 1980s was a decade in which Americans ate out more often than ever before. Gone were the days when people indulged in a nice restaurant dinner only when traveling or celebrating a birthday or anniversary. Now no reason was needed at all. Restaurants were for convenience, but also for entertainment, pleasure, new experiences, and sometimes only incidentally for nourishment.
A food elite emerged, composed of frequent restaurant-goers with insatiable hunger for new cuisines and unfamiliar foods. Paralleling the growth of the food elite were chefs who became famous as they gave interviews, dashed off cookbooks, and demonstrated cooking techniques on the dais and the small screen. “Food is now the stuff of status,” said wine and restaurant critic Robert Finigan in 1983, comparing the public’s adoration of chefs to their awe of fine artists.
A growing interest in healthier diets influenced restaurant menus, which began to feature less red meat and more pasta, fish, and chicken dishes. Concern with smoking and drunk driving brought changes too, as restaurants set aside non-smoking sections and saw their liability insurance premiums rise even as drink orders declined.
The food fashion cycle quickened as diners discovered a taste for arugula, radicchio, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, sushi, crab cakes, Pad Thai, mesquite grilling, and fresh ingredients. Meanwhile old favorites such as steak and baked potato, tossed salad, and cheesecake seemed dull.
Though shunned by the food elite, corporate chain restaurants continued to grow and thrive. By the middle of the decade 540 chains managed 60,000 fast-food restaurants, employing over half of the nation’s restaurant workforce. Restaurant groups proliferated, ranging from those that owned a dozen or fewer restaurants in one city to groups controlling hundreds of franchises throughout a region. Independent restaurateurs, too, found it increasingly attractive to operate more than one restaurant.
Traditional eating places, from the humblest to the grandest, suffered from intense competition. Losers included coffee shops, Cantonese Chinese and red-checkered Italian restaurants, and even sanctums of haute French cuisine.
Black men, who formed the basic waiter corps of the 19th century, largely disappeared from restaurant dining rooms and kitchens, replaced by immigrants, white college students, and white women. A 1981 study conducted in NYC found that Black workers rejected the low pay and poor conditions typically found in restaurant kitchens, preferring to take better jobs in industry if they could. Racial discrimination also kept them from waiting jobs in some instances and the limited number of Black-owned restaurants prevented widespread training in kitchen skills and entrepreneurship.
Though conditions were improving, women also faced continuing discrimination in restaurant work. Many luxury restaurants rejected them as waitstaff in the belief that patrons attributed higher status to male servers. Other objections were their alleged “boyfriend problems” and lack of “tableside” skills such as meat carving and salad making. An article in the trade journal Restaurant Hospitality noted that while more women had become bartenders, chefs, and managers by end of the decade, “For women, the American foodservice industry is still rife with barriers.” In the kitchen, women tended to be confined to pastry and pantry. Some women chefs said the solution was to open their own restaurants even though they might have to take on a male partner to get financing.
1981 Social indicators – small families, working women, projected long-term increases in real income and leisure, and more single-person households — promise growth in restaurant going according to a Bank of America Small Business report.
1982 Having introduced nouvelle cuisine at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, Chef Wolfgang Puck presents “California cuisine” to patrons of his new chic-casual Sunset Strip restaurant, Spago. Pizza with Duck Sausage wins quick stardom.
1983 The Food Marketing Institute reports that 2/3 of all fish consumed in the U.S. is eaten in restaurants. In Seattle, Colonial-themed Mad Anthony’s executes a style and cuisine turnabout, replacing a beefy Steak & Kidney Pye-style menu with seafood. Onto the auction block go pewter plates, crocks, jugs, and replica muskets, along with a Nacho Cheese Dispenser.
1984 With the opening of Spiaggia in Chicago, Chicagoans learn that Italian doesn’t inevitably mean spaghetti and candles in Chianti bottles, as they sample pumpkin-stuffed pasta and goose carpaccio with shaved white truffles. With dinner for two easily totaling $100 [about $228 now], they learn it often means higher prices too.
1985 Even as restaurant patrons in much of the country search out new restaurants and cuisines, Southerners remain loyal to cafeterias, with five major chains operating from 84 to 149 units each. In Milwaukee, taverns continue to do brisk business serving deep fried fish on Friday nights.
1986 Most restaurant reviewers contributing to John Mariani’s Coast-to-Coast Dining Guide report that their towns have better restaurants and a wider selection of ethnic cuisines than ten years earlier. A number of cities lag behind, though, including Minneapolis and Chicago where many cling to meat and potatoes, and Columbus OH which has the dubious distinction of serving as a test market for fast food chains.
1987 With new laws holding restaurants responsible for customers who cause drunk driving injuries, rising numbers of liability lawsuits against restaurants, and ballooning insurance premiums, American Express promises protection to restaurants that accept its charge card.
1989 The “largest ever” bias lawsuit involving a restaurant chain is filed against the 1,500-unit Shoney’s and its head Ray Danner. The suit by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund charges that Shoney’s sets limits on how many Black workers can be hired in each outlet, keeps them in jobs out of public view, and punishes white supervisors who refuse to go along with the program.
© Jan Whitaker, 2017