Earlier this month, the Howard Johnson’s in Bangor, Maine, which first opened in 1966, served its final order of “Tendersweet Fried Clams.” The closure left just one location remaining from this iconic restaurant chain — in Lake George, New York — and sparked a quiet, albeit profound, moment of reflection. During its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, there were over 1,000 HoJo’s scattered across greater America. This was the first roadside chain that successfully catered to America’s growing middle class. Its rise aligned with the number of car owners in this country, and paved the way for future fast food chains, including McDonald’s, that would come to dominate the nation’s Interstate Highway System.
To be clear, Howard Johnson’s was not the first, nor was it the only, restaurant or chain to impact the culinary landscape of this country. There was Delmonico’s in New York City, for example, its origins dating back to 1827; it was famously the first restaurant in America to allow patrons to order à la carte. A century later came the Four Seasons, home of the “power-lunch,” credited with fueling seasonally driven menus across the country. Then there were those restaurants that helped propel a mainstream interest in foreign cuisines, such as Mandarin (Chinese) in San Francisco, and Mamma Leone’s Ristorante (Italian) in Midtown, Manhattan.
These are the establishments covered in Ten Restaurants That Changed America, a new book by historian Paul Freedman, which chronicles the history of America’s obsession with eating out through the lens of ten establishments over three centuries. Others include Antoine’s in New Orleans, Schrafft’s in Boston, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and Le Pavillon and Sylvia’s, both in New York City. “This book is not about the ten best restaurants that ever existed in the United States,” Freedman writes in the introduction. Rather, it’s a thoughtful critique on what we eat, and how we’ve come to eat it.