Here in the U.S., we're prone to some swagger in how we talk about our restaurant scene. But, as with so much else, we may have a puffed-up sense of our own self-worth. According to Paul Freedman, the Yale professor who recently put out a bold list of our country’s 10 most influential restaurants, the rest of the world isn’t so impressed.
“Ask someone in another country what American food is, you’re going to hear ‘fast food’. The most impressive thing would be our variety of ethnic cuisines,” he says. “But once you strip away the Mexican, the Thai, the Italian and all that, is there any residue of something you could call ‘American cuisine?’”
But before you carpet bomb Freedman’s inbox with links to your favorite farm-to-table brasserie, hear him out. Freedman isn’t slagging our fine restaurant traditions—he just wanted to figure out what they actually are. Is there a clearly defined heart to this wild, sprawling beast, or are “American restaurants” just a sloppy stitch-up of global and regional influences?
Freedman’s book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, helps paints a more clear picture of what an American restaurant is in 2016. With a list that ranges from uber-posh to mainstream and accessible, he attempts to nail down some of the profoundly influential restaurants that helped create our contemporary dining scene. Freedman is very clear on one point: these are not our best restaurants, by any means. They are simply the places that shifted the conversation.
So how do you measure influence? Many of these spots are notable for introducing us to foods from around the world, while others made their name by streamlining and mass-producing a concept—a very American flourish. Some of them broke down class and gender barriers (unaccompanied middle-class women, sharing a meal), while some are noteworthy for pushing new boundaries of hauteness.
Keeping the list to 10 was a tough task; Freedman was reluctant to skip, say, BBQ or Mexican. He also avoided anything molecular, under the argument that it’s not a particularly American phenomenon (See: Spain, Denmark). Still, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that these spots didn’t leave deep footprints. “Our past is a splendid thing.”
Here are the 10 restaurants that changed America.