Major Themes Throughout the History of Restaurants

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Written by Eli Feldman

We recently partnered with C and J Katz Studios and RISD to showcase a timeline on the history of haute cuisine.  The article was published in the schools Journal of Interior Architecture and timeline was installed at C and J Katz Studios in Southie.

How did we get here?  Where might we be going and what is driving us there?
These were the 2 questions I was looking to explore when I started a timeline project in 2008 around the history of haute cuisine.  I used a relaxed methodology to juxtapose important world events with what was happening in restaurants around the same time.  The goal was to try and illuminate correlations between major historic events (war), economic (booms and busts), and technological advancements (flying and the Internet to name a couple) and the impact these things had on restaurants.  It’s important to note that these notes are just that, correlations.  We’ll leave causation to smarter folks with more time on their hands!  Even as correlations some fascinating things emerged, and I wanted to highlight a few:

  • The Recurring Theme of Coffee:  Everything old is new again.  Many argue that the modern restaurant can trace it’s routes to the coffeehouses of London in the 1650’s.  These coffeehouses grew out of the enlightenment which was in large part fueled by the mass democratization of information brought about by Gutenberg’s printing press.  As the population had access to more information they sought more opportunities to gather and share ideas and coffee proved a better fuel for this than beer.  If this sounds at all familiar, it should.  We’re in the midst of the largest democratization of information in human history with the Internet and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s coinciding with a pretty intense coffee movement.
  • War! What is it Good For?:  When it comes to restaurants, a lot.  Our modern modes of transportation came largely out of WWI and WWII.  The planes and interstate highway system that deliver ingredients from around the world came out of the two great wars.  We can also thank WWII for pizza as returning GI’s brought it back with them.  Seriously, pizza wasn’t a thing until the 1950’s.  We also got our first great French restaurant out of WWII.  Who could blame Henri Soule and Pierre Franey for going brick and mortar in NYC with their 1939 Queens World Fair pop-up after looking across the pond to see Hitler running roughshod over Paris.
  • It’s the Economy, Stupid:  Thomas Keller’s first NYC restaurant was called Rakel and it opened just before Black Monday in 1987.  The restaurant, though critically acclaimed, fell victim to the serious slump that followed the crash.  No Black Monday, no French Laundry?  Maybe not too far a stretch.  

In the 8 years since starting the timeline we’ve seen the growth of social media, YouTube, Uber, and so much more that is influencing our daily lives.  Each of these is helping shape the restaurant industry in the modern world and there will surely be more to come.  Me, I’ve got my eye on wages and compensation changes and virtual reality as the next big catalysts.  Right or wrong, I’ll keep adding to the timeline in an effort to understand how restaurants respond to disruptions, wherever they may come from.

About the author

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Eli Feldman

Eli Feldman is the founder of Three Princes Consulting and Clothbound and has worked in restaurants for over a decade. He is most excited about raising the dialogue around the hospitality industry. He often dances in the morning to start the day off right.