There are few things more central to a culture than what we eat, and over time a handful of influential restaurants have inspired a significant shift in how we eat. Whether stand-alone or part of a chain, the following restaurants are pioneers that have had an impact on the food scene we can still taste today.
Now part of the Omni Parker House Hotel, Parker’s Restaurant is a surviving 19th century eatery that helped define our conception of old-school fine dining, with white tablecloths, crystal chandeliers, button-down waiters, and lobster bibs. It’s also credited with inventing what later became Massachusetts’s official state dessert, the Boston cream pie, as well as the term “scrod” for whitefish and the crisp-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside Parker House rolls most Americans know today. It also had a storied roster of celebrity patrons and employees, spanning from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ho Chi Minh to Malcolm X and Emeril Lagasse.
New York City
Author Paul Freedman’s social history book “Ten Restaurants That Changed America” begins with Delmonico’s, an eatery that elevated dining out in America to new heights of service and formality. Reportedly the first eatery to even call itself a restaurant, Delmonico’s also originated many popular American dishes including eggs Benedict, chicken a la king, wedge salad, and lobster Newberg. Over the years it has hosted such icons as Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Nikola Tesla, and Oscar Wilde. It closed for months because of coronavirus, then announced a fall reopening.
Calling itself the nation’s oldest family-run restaurant, Antoine’s put New Orleans on the culinary map. As well as being the birthplace of famous dishes such as oysters Rockefeller and pompano en papillote, Antoine’s and the acclaimed restaurants it inspired helped New Orleans’s French-Creole cooking retain its identity and survive as our nation’s best-preserved regional cuisine.
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New Haven, Connecticut
This roadside luncheonette now in its fourth generation of family ownership is ground zero for the American hamburger, at least according to some. The legend goes that in 1900, a hurried diner asked for something he could eat on the run, and original proprietor Louis Lassen accommodated him with the ground excess from his usual steak sandwiches between two pieces of toast, and voila — culinary history was made. A hamburger ground and molded onsite is still the signature here 120 years later, but don’t hope for any condiments: It’s restaurant policy not to let anything but cheese, tomato, and onion distract from the simple pleasure of a patty grilled to perfection.
This lone candy store/soda fountain expanded quickly to a chain of 22 locations by 1923, and 42 by 1934. Schrafft’s innovation was in everyday accessibility and catering to women — in front of and behind the lunch counter. It was one of the first restaurants to employ female managers and target single female customers as well as men. Unfortunately, too many men were put off by a stereotype that Schrafft’s was a “woman’s restaurant,” despite devotees such as James Beard and Harry Truman. The chain struggled, and ceased to exist by the 1980s.
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New York City
Initially located in a 20-chair living room, Mamma Leone’s grew to 11 dining rooms with more than 1,000 seats and helped define the default Italian American eatery’s raucous, belly-stuffing, red-checkered tablecloth atmosphere during its nearly centurylong run. Before shutting its doors in 1994, signature dishes such as spicy baked clams and absurd portions of spaghetti and meatballs were known to attract history-making celebrities such as Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, Liberace, and Joe Namath.
Miami Beach, Florida
Joe’s Stone Crab was the only restaurant on Miami Beach when it first opened, and it would prove foundational both to the developing city’s culinary scene and the popularity of its titular specialty. Florida stone crabs weren’t even considered edible until 1921, when a Harvard ichthyologist visiting for research brought in a burlap sack full of them and experimented with owner Joseph Weiss to find the perfect preparation for them — chilled and cracked with hash browns, coleslaw, and mayonnaise. The restaurant today still plays a major part in the stone crab trade as a whole, financing crabbers’ livings and guiding wholesale prices.
Louis’ Lunch may lay claim to inventing the hamburger and Howard Johnson’s to popularizing roadside convenience, but it was White Castle that put them together to create the prototype for American fast food. When the first location opened, ground beef patties were considered undesirable due to well-publicized sanitation problems in the meatpacking industry, so founders Billy Ingram and Walter Anderson countered the perception by grinding the meat in customers’ view and employing sterile, stainless-steel decor. They also developed a prep system to ensure uniformity in every burger and a building style that made every White Castle location part of a recognizable brand.
Before it evolved into a hotel company, Howard Johnson’s was America’s largest restaurant chain, with more than 1,000 locations in the 1970s. It was started as a beachside stand in the mid-1920s selling owner Howard Johnson’s signature ice cream, which doubled the standard butterfat content and boasted a then-remarkable consistency in taste. That consistency turned out to be key as Howard Johnson’s proliferated throughout the states and set the template for other fast food franchises in its wake, establishing locations at major intersections and highway exits that could appeal to families and travelers just looking for something predictable and familiar.
New York City
Originally a feature of the 1939 World’s Fair, this restaurant opened formally in 1941 and closed just 30 years later, shortly after the death of founder Henri Soulé. Despite a fair share of kitchen drama during that time, Le Pavillon was then the nation’s most prestigious restaurant, which made high-end cuisine more-or-less synonymous with French cooking.
San Bernardino, California
Though McDonald’s mostly followed the model of White Castle and other fast food franchises in its early days, the ubiquitous burger chain’s contribution to America’s eating habit arrived in the ’70s in the form of supersizing. To boost sales, company director David Wallerstein decided the chain should start selling larger fry sizes, inducing customers to eat more without the guilt of a double-order. This marketing tactic helped McDonald’s survive the ’70s’ economic slump, but also led to increasing portion sizes and worsening health, with the large size of fries and drinks from yesteryear becoming today’s small.
New York City
Fancy food didn’t have to be French after the opening of the Four Seasons, one of the first high-end restaurants to specialize in “American” cuisine, which meant a huge variety of familiar and internationally influenced dishes. The restaurant is also credited with introducing the concept of seasonal menus, recently revitalized by the local foods movement. It was also a go-to spot for power lunches and business dealings in its early decades.
New York City
By opening a bar in his East Manhattan neighborhood with the goal of meeting girls, TGI Fridays founder Alan Stillman took advantage of the budding sexual revolution to launch the nation’s first singles bar. Though it’s since become known as an unfussy and family-friendly hangout, the original location helped public bars usurp private cocktail parties as a place for men and women to meet, not just for men to get drunk.
This Little Tokyo eatery is reputed to be the nation’s first true sushi bar, or at least the first to employ a trained chef. Kawafuku attracted Japanese businessmen as well as early adopters willing to try raw fish, the “sandwich of Japan,” as long as they didn’t have to prepare it themselves. It was only four years before the city’s second sushi bar opened, kickstarting a national love affair with Japanese cuisine.
Immigrant Cecilia Chiang was trapped in a restaurant lease, but her efforts to make it work would reinvent Chinese cuisine in the United States for decades to come. With its focus on North Chinese home cooking, her restaurant The Mandarin — soon relocated to Ghirardelli Square — would introduce American diners accustomed only to Cantonese flavors to Szechuan dishes that have since become staples such as Peking duck, potstickers, hot-and-sour soup, and many chili and garlic-infused sauces. It was only a matter of time before Chiang’s son Philip adapted her menu model to a more budget-minded restaurant concept he called PF Chang’s.
Born from the rich counterculture of this Bay Area college town, this neighborhood bistro was one of the first to emphasize the quality and natural pedigree of ingredients, forming a supply network of local farmers and ranchers to ensure farm-to-table meals year-round. Chez Panisse rotates its fixed multicourse menus for each season and day of the week, thus pioneering an organic- and eco-minded culinary subculture.
Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry may be the nation’s most influential restaurant of the modern era, at least according to some of America’s other acclaimed chefs. The Napa Valley institution elevates American cuisine with meticulous attention to detail, a mix of contemporary and classic influences, and elaborate nine-course tasting menus predicated on using no ingredient more than once.
New York City
If you mentioned “modernist cooking” before WD-50 opened in 2003, chances are no one would have any idea what you were talking about. Today, seven years after its closing, the culinary scene in New York and elsewhere is still influenced by chef Wylie Dufresne’s space-age culinary twists such as sous-vide beef, distilled cereal-flavored milk, and aerated foie gras puffs. It kicked off an interest in molecular gastronomy and encouraged diners to try weird, new things.
The Los Angeles area’s best-known food truck broke down barriers between international cuisines (in this case, Mexican and Korean) and heavily employed online social media and blogger outreach to gain prominence. While Kogi has spawned a culinary empire including a full catering operation and restaurant, the trends of gourmet food trucks, Mexican-Korean fusion, and high-end street food are still going strong in culinary scenes across the nation.