Obviously there is something artificial about carving up history into decades. Everything doesn’t come to a dead stop or change unalterably from, say, January 1, 1900 to January 1, 1910. Why start a decade with a zero? Why bunch 10 years together rather than 11? Isn’t there frequently just as much continuity among decades as there is difference between one and another?
Arranging history decade by decade is a convention, and a slightly tired one at that.
But at the same time there is something appealing about decades too. If you study history and read primary documents from a particular time, you sense how it is different from other times, even ten years later. Maybe it’s superficial: the way people talk, the kind of printing used in magazines, clothing styles. These things may not be significant to historians who study broad patterns of national or continental history, but they are significant for studying ordinary, everyday businesses such as restaurants.
I’ve discovered that writing short essays on restaurant history by the decade is not an easy task. Instead of it getting easier since I wrote the first one in 2008, it’s become harder. The more I learn about the history of restaurants, the more difficult it is to capture the “essence” of a decade. One day I may look at what I’ve written and wonder why I included the details I did, or whether I totally missed the boat in characterizing the times. But for now, here are my “Tastes of the decades.” Some are still to be written.
1800 to 1810
Taverns, oyster cellars, and coffee houses far outnumber real restaurants serving elaborate meals, which are still seen as a French invention.
1810 to 1820
Luxury means steak, green turtle, and oysters. An eating place is judged as much by the quality of its champagne and sherry as by its food.
1820 to 1830
Slowly but surely the nation is growing, as the number of hotels and restaurants expands. Oysters still rule as a favorite food for all classes. Public dinners honoring France’s marquis de Lafayette show just how many dishes are to be found in America’s larder.
1830 to 1840 The French influence grows along with the number of eating places independent of hotels. Numbers of families save money by living in hotels and taking all their meals there. Temperance supporters go only to eating places that serve no hard alcohol.
1840 to 1850 Eating out had been so British-influenced but now it starts to turn to France, the home of luxury and gourmet indulgence. Puritanical Americans fear the worst in the developing restaurant culture as they crack down on drinking.
1850 to 1860
Restaurant excitement centers on San Francisco, where the miners have gold to spend. Chefs and cooks from all over the world head to California.
1860 to 1870
The lunch counter is born and in San Francisco there are experiments with moving the main meal of the day to the evening rather than the middle of the day.
1870 to 1880
With a severe depression spreading a pall over much of the decade, people see a need for cheaper restaurants. Yet elaborate restaurants, some imported from Europe, provide a bright spot at the country’s 100th anniversary fair in Philadelphia.
1880 to 1890
The number and quality of restaurants increases as more people live in rented rooms and hotels without meals provided. A wider variety of foods are available and prices are going down. As cities develop shopping districts, women find more places they can eat in comfort.
1890 to 1900
Coming out of a four-year-long depression in which the breadline was a popular public eating place, the “Gay Nineties” of the century’s waning years usher in luxury dining.
1900 to 1910
From the champagne bubbles of the high life to the humble lunchroom where drinking coffee and eating swiftly was the thing. White collar workers wanted fast food.
1910 to 1920
Eating in restaurants continues to grow along with urbanization and expanded white collar workforces. Beginning extravagantly with cabarets and after-theater cafes, the decade ends with chain lunch rooms and cafeterias.
1920 to 1930
Selling alcohol becomes illegal and restaurants struggle to figure out how to make money without it. Some fail, but even as luxury restaurants close the modern restaurant industry develops.
1930 to 1940
Restaurants lower prices and offer all-you-can-eat specials. They rejoice when Prohibition is repealed, many admitting they were on the brink of total failure.
1940 to 1950
Due to the upheavals of war, which include unprecedented numbers of working mothers, more Americans eat out than ever before. With rationing, restaurants scramble to replace beef and sugar.
1950 to 1960
With the growth of suburbia and automobile culture, casual dining in drive-ins and coffee shops becomes popular with American families and the growing teen market.
1960 to 1970
Fast food chains begin to spread around the country and restaurants use more and more convenience foods.
1970 to 1980
It is the best of times and the worst of times. Fast food and theme restaurants spread rapidly, many using frozen entrees and convenience foods not requiring experienced cooks and kitchen help. At the same time, ethnic restaurants and small, innovative places whose owners serve as chef do well catering to a public that is more demanding about food and nutrition. The economy falters but Americans eat more meals away from home than ever before, marking the 1970s as the gateway to the present.
1980 to 1990 Once again the economy is volatile, often bad, yet dining out rates go up, up, up and dining for pleasure and entertainment becomes commonplace. Celebrity chefs emerge as do diners who crave adventurous meals. Many Americans experience new foods for the first time in restaurants, even as they continue to eat burgers and pizza at the chains.