Without these ground-breakers, the restaurant business may have been much different today.
K Paul's Louisiana Kitchen
Today, Cajun fare is nearly as familiar to the dining public as Italian or Asian food presumably are. That wasn’t the case before chef Paul Prudhomme and his wife, known as K, opened a 62-seat bistro-style place in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1979. Paul Prudhomme was still cooking at the time for Commander’s Palace, one of the country’s most renowned fine-dining restaurants. At his own restaurant, which quickly became a favorite of tourists, the menu was more downscale, featuring items such as blackened redfish, a Gulf of Mexico trash fish then little-known outside of Louisiana. That dish alone became so popular that redfish was classified a protected species. The restaurant remains in operation today.
The industry’s dominant brand is remarkable for far more than its astonishing scale. When the brainchild of Dick and Mac McDonald grilled its first burger, restaurants at the low end of the pricing spectrum were largely dark, irreputable dumps where a genteel family wouldn’t dare set foot. The McDonald brothers, as chain godfather Ray Kroc would discover on his first visit to their Southern California outpost, had rethought what a restaurant could be.
Their creation was a gleaming beacon of glass, chrome and tile. The 15-cent burgers and 10-cent fries were a bargain mom and dad could trust, because the kitchen was visible and the whole facility was spotless.
What customers may not have grasped, but competing restaurateurs readily did, were the operational breakthroughs. The concept borrowed elements of Henry Ford’s assembly line strategy for boosting output at minimal cost—everything was conceived to maximize efficiency. Every element seemed like a reinvention.
McDonald’s also recognized the potential of the suburbs and the increasingly important role automobiles were playing in post-World War II America.
The concept would become as much of an American icon as Disney, Chevrolet or NBC.
Even by the free-thinking standards of Berkeley, Calif., circa 1971, Chez Panisse was a firebomb lobbed amid restaurant convention. Local iconoclast Alice Waters and her artsy, nonconformist acquaintances wanted to create a bistro that delivered the attention guests would enjoy at a small dinner party, but at a much higher level of quality and artistry. All the ingredients would be fresh, because they were seasonal and locally grown.
Decades before the notion of farm-to-fork fare would catch hold, Chez Panisse was specializing in it. The approach of using local components from a network of growers in the region was such a novelty for the time that it was given a new label: California cuisine.
Waters continues to rock convention. Her operations promoted sustainability long before that term was known to the mainstream. If there is a godmother of the ongoing trend toward fresher, more wholesome food, it is undoubtedly Waters with Chez Panisse.
The benchmark of indulgence set by the Gilded Age version of Delmonico’s has arguably never been surpassed, though scores of playgrounds for the ridiculously wealthy have scorched their truffles while trying. Many of the concepts on our list broke new ground by democratizing the experience of dining out. Delmonico’s was all about privilege and the mystique of eating in restaurants. The concept would take various forms, starting in 1827, but every early incarnation was aimed at the well-to-do hedonist who wanted to see his name in boldfaced type in the next day’s society pages. Celebrity patrons abounded, from Lillian Russell to Mark Twain and Diamond Jim Brady.
It was intended to catch the fancy of the dining-out crowd at a time when only the wealthy would eat in true European-style restaurants. For everyone else, it was fuel for their fantasies of someday being rich and famous enough to eat in a place like it. And plenty of indulgence meccas would follow.
Steak and Ale, Red Lobster
The onetime rivals split a spot on the list because their mission and influence on the business were so similar. Both helped to foster what’s known today as casual dining, bringing products usually associated with fine dining to the mainstream at an attainable price.
They offered baby boomers reared on fast food more ambitious options that still provided the consistency and affordability of quick service, and young adults an opportunity to regularly trade up for a more upscale experience, making casual dining a juggernaut in the 1990s.
Steak and Ale’s impact was felt in another way as well: It would serve as the training ground for virtually every casual-dining leader of the ’90s and beyond, such as Bob Basham, Chris Sullivan and Tim Gannon of Outback Steakhouse; Hal Smith of Chili's Grill & Bar; Wally Doolin of TGI Fridays and Buca di Beppo; and many more.
The history of the modern restaurant industry can be viewed as a constant effort to anticipate the preferences of young people. Seldom has that effort yielded a concept as fresh and startling as the original TGI Fridays.
The New York City outpost was the brainchild of Alan Stillman, who detected that young people just entering the white-collar workforce were looking for a place to knock back a few cocktails while pursuing the looser mating rituals of a generation armed with birth control pills. His solution was TGI Fridays, the progenitor of what would come to be known as fern bars (and, later, grill and bars). It abounded in quirk, from burgers served on English muffins to finger foods and sugary cocktails with offbeat names such as the Harvey Wallbanger. The epicenter was the bar, a novel distinction when most restaurant drinking was done at the table or in seedy saloons. Much effort went into attracting young single women, because Stillman knew young single men would follow.
The concept would go more mainstream as it turned into an iconic chain. But the original would give rise throughout the 1970s (and beyond) to scores of places chasing young singles who refused to eat and drink as their parents did.
The original Spago
Today’s fine-dining scene would likely be much different if it weren’t for the quirky spot chef Wolfgang Puck and then-wife Barbara Lazaroff opened on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in 1982. For one thing, its exterior suggested the enterprise inside was more likely to offer tattoos than the most talked-about cuisine of its time.
The fare was equally nonconformist. Most chefs with fine-dining backgrounds saw their mission as immaculately re-creating the classic dishes of France. Puck’s signatures included a pizza topped with smoked salmon. Long before the practice was fashionable in the U.S., he insisted on using fresh, local ingredients in simple combinations. “No truffles,” he famously said. No entree was priced over $15.
The restaurant would add topspin to the elevation of American cuisine in the 1980s, as well as the casualization of fine dining. More directly, it was the inspiration for California Pizza Kitchen, along with what consumers readily know today as gourmet pizza.
Spago moved after its lease expired; the new version is far more upscale in appearance and operation.
The Forum of the Twelve Caesars
Plenty of restaurants are built on showmanship,as any visitor to a Planet Hollywood or Rainforest Cafe can attest. The place that proved it may well have been an over-the-top fine-dining establishment hatched by Joe Baum, who helped shape The Four Seasons, Windows on the World and the Rainbow Room.
The Forum of the Twelve Caesars in New York City was unlike any of those. Some might say it lacked their tastefulness, though it was regarded as a pillar of dining sophistication for about 18 years, starting in 1957. Customers relished features such as wine buckets fashioned from gladiator helmets and waiters dressed in togas.
The menu was equally over the top. Signatures included squab baked in clay, served with a small hammer, and a number of dishes were flamed tableside.
By 1975, people had grown tired of the nod to ancient Rome. The space is now occupied by a steakhouse.
Much of America had never sipped a latte or espresso until Howard Schultz shoehorned his quirky New Age coffee concept into every nook and cranny he could secure. But its influence extends beyond the mainstreaming of high-end, high-priced coffee.
Starbucks proved patrons would pay double what they normally did for a product if it was imbued with enough cachet. Nursing one of its signatures was a telltale sign of the drinker’s hipness—the sign of Starbucks as a lifestyle brand.
Starbucks also quashed the notion that management’s objective was to see how much it could hold down compensation and benefits and still field a staff. Starbucks bet that a more solicitous attitude, a sensitivity to the staff’s needs, would ultimately benefit customers and be a competitive edge.
More recently, the coffee chain proved that employees appreciate a concept that professes to have a soul and social conscience.