In the 1970s the restaurant industry and the custom of eating in restaurants grew rapidly. The decade was the gateway to the present in many ways. Despite economic woes (recession and inflation), the energy crisis, urban decline, crime, and escalating restaurant prices, restaurant-going continued to rise.
The president of the National Restaurant Association proclaimed “Dining out is a significant part of the lifestyle of this great country,” noting in 1976 that one out of three meals was being consumed outside the home.
Restaurant patronage was encouraged by all kinds of things, including relaxed liquor laws in formerly dry states and counties, which brought more restaurants into the suburbs, the spread of credit cards, more working wives and mothers, youth culture, and a me-generation quest for diversion.
New York exemplified the problems faced by restaurants in troubled inner cities. Fear of crime kept people from going out to dinner. Restaurants closed, few new ones opened, and cash-strapped survivors began to trade vouchers for heavily discounted meals for advertising. But as New York struggled, California experienced a culinary renaissance as did other parts of the country. Still, much of the U.S. wanted only steak and potatoes, and hamburger was the most often ordered menu item nationwide.
A number of restaurant formats and concepts faced senescence, but new ones came on the scene at a rapid pace. Going, going, or gone were automats, coffee shops, continental cuisine, diners, drive-ins, formal dining, Jewish dairy restaurants, and Polynesian restaurants, not to mention the rule of elite French cuisine.
Fast-food chains continued to grow, with the number of companies increasing by about two-thirds. Growth was especially strong in the Midwest which was targeted as a region susceptible to their appeal. Toledo was bestowed with Hardee’s, Perkins Pancakes, a Mexican chain, and, in 1972, the arrival of two Bob Evans eateries. Another Ohio city, Columbus, was christened a test market for new fast-fooderies while Junction City KS, bordering Fort Riley, looked like a franchiser’s fast food heaven. By contrast, greater Boston had only one Burger King and one McDonald’s in 1970.
Along with the chains and a shortage of (cheap) kitchen help, came an upsurge in restaurants’ use of convenience foods and microwaves. In response, municipalities across the country enacted ordinances to protect consumers against false claims on menus, many of them centering on misuse of the words “fresh” and “home-made.”
Yet as the country was swamped with fast food, it experienced the flowering of restaurants specializing in ethnic, artisanal, and natural foods. Hippie and feminist restaurants stressed honest, peasant-style meals. Burgeoning interest in nutrition made salad bars popular. Bean sprouts, zucchini, and more fish showed up on menus. Diners learned that Chinese food was not limited to Cantonese, but might also be Mandarin, Szechuan, or Hunan. Once languishing behind luxurious decor, impeccable service, and famous patrons, food took center stage in deluxe restaurants as they purged Beef Wellington from their repertoire and took up the call for culinary creativity and authenticity.
Though not unknown in earlier decades, the restaurant-as-entertainment-venue came into full flourish with the proliferation of theme restaurants with unbearably cute names such as Orville Bean’s Flying Machine & Fixit Shop. To supplement a shrinking supply of old stained glass windows, telephone booths, and barber chairs, restaurant fixture companies began to manufacture reproduction antiques.
However crazy and mixed up the foodscape, America had become the land of restaurants for every taste and pocketbook.
1971 – In Berkeley CA Alice Waters and friends found Chez Panisse, marking the movement of college and graduate students into the restaurant field, a career choice which is beginning to have cachet.
1972 – NYC’s Le Pavillon, considered the finest French restaurant in the U.S., closes. In Kansas City MO the first Houlihan’s Old Place, adorned with nostalgia-inducing decorative touches, opens, as does Mollie Katzen’s natural-food Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca NY.
1972 –Dry since 1855, Evanston IL, home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, grants liquor licenses to two hotels and six restaurants. Their business doubles in a few months.
1973 – Los Angeles County becomes the first jurisdiction in the country to enact a “truth in menu” ordinance. During the pilot program, the scenic Sea Lion Restaurant in Malibu is caught selling the same fish under five different names with five different prices.
1974 – A Chicago food writer throws cold water on arguments about which restaurant has the best lasagne, asserting that the debaters “might have found that same lasagne in restaurants all over the country” courtesy of Invisible Chef, Armour, or Campbell’s.
1974 – Restaurateur Vincent Sardi spearheads a campaign to get New Yorkers to eat out, claiming that the city’s major restaurants have lost up to 20% of their business in the past two years, thus precipitating the closure of 20 leading restaurants.
1976 – The CEO of restaurant supplier Rykoff says whereas his company once supplied whole tomatoes it now provides diced tomatoes “because the operator just can’t afford to pay someone to cut them up.”
1976 – Richard Melman’s Chicago restaurant company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, operator of RJ Grunts, Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food Show, and Jonathan Livingston Seafood, opens Lawrence of Oregano and prepares to take over the flamboyant Pump Room.
1977 –Industry journal Restaurant Business publishes survey results showing that, on average, husband & wife pairs eat out twice a month, spend $14.75 plus tip, prefer casual restaurants, and tend to order before-dinner cocktails and dishes they don’t get at home. Measured by sales, Lincoln NE is one of the country’s leading cities for eating out.
1977 – Once characterized by blandness, San Diego now has restaurants specializing in cuisines from around the globe, an improvement one observer attributes in part to the new aerospace industry there.
1978 – A reviewer in Columbia MO complains, “A brick floor and pillars, old photos, Tiffany lamps, stained-glass windows and trim on the tops of the booths as well as revolving single-bladed, old-fashioned fans [is] a familiar type of decoration these days and I’m getting a little weary of the sameness of so many restaurants.”
1979 – As the year ends restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman observes that more people are eating out than ever before, transforming once-lackluster Washington D.C. into “what is known as a Restaurant Town.”
Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; 1980 to 1990
© Jan Whitaker, 2013