The American Restaurant

I’m a foodie – meaning, I love food. I’m not so much a celebrity chef follower, but more a real lover of anything new I can taste. And along the way, I’ve become fascinated with the restaurant business in general, and some of its history. So I was really intrigued when I started reading about Fred Harvey.

Famous for his Harvey House “eating houses,” his historic and opulent string of railroad-adjacent hotels, his willingness to provide independent job opportunities to his “Harvey Girls” waitresses, and his near-monopoly of dining and retail outlets in the stations of the Atchison-Topeka-Santa Fe railroad, Fred started what’s widely recognized as America’s first national brand, America’s first business chains, and America’s first string of consistent restaurants.

Prior to 1827, America didn’t really have restaurants. Sure, most hotels would have a dining room, but it was usually frequented only by guests of the hotel, and it usually offered a set menu – you took it or left it, but you didn’t get to choose from an appetizer, entree, or dessert from a large a la carte menu. Dining out in public was considered somewhat gauche at the time; while France had plenty of restaurants, American culture at the time was far more influenced by British culture. In Britain at the time, public houses operated as small hotels with attached dining rooms. A local person might walk in for a pint, but it wasn’t a typical “let’s go out to eat tonight” destination. Modern pubs not only shortened the name, but also the business model, as few offer overnight accommodations anymore.

In 1827, in fact, even French restaurants weren’t the famous “classic French” restaurants of today. August Escoffier wouldn’t set down his principles for running a French kitchen – the origin of today’s “classically trained” canon – until the end of the 19th century.

Sure, America had coffee counters, food carts in large cities, and the like, but nothing like a true restaurant.

So what happened in 1827? Delmonico’s, the first iteration of what would become a New York institution. It’s generally recognized to have been the first “proper restaurant” in the US, complete with an a la carte menu where diners could choose their own meal. It wasn’t attached to a hotel, and it was a destination of its own. You made plans to go to Delmonico’s, and you often made an entire evening of it, complete with fancy attire.

In 1827, Delmonico’s was in fact just a pastry-and-coffee shop, like many others throughout New York. But in 1830, in a new location at 25 William Street, it became a full restaurant, serving French-style cuisine to an upscale American audience. It was there that the Delmonico steak – a thick cut, often of ribeye – was created and popularized.

Fred Harvey’s “eating houses” were probably the second “real restaurant” Americans could experience, although they generally had to travel to the midwest and southwest where Fred operated. Most Harvey Houses had a formal dining room for dinners, an attached “lunch counter” (which inspired the creation of similarly-arranged dining cars, many of which Fred owned), and often an attached coffee shop or sandwich takeaway window.

Fred named his company “Fred Harvey,” not “Fred Harvey & Son” (although his son and later grandson helped him run the company), and not “Fred Harvey, Inc.” Just Fred Harvey, and it quickly became a brand known throughout the United States – years before Coca-Cola hit the scene as a major national brand.

Much of this I learned from Appetite for America, a fascinating book on Fred’s career and journey as an English immigrant to the US. It’s definitely worth a read if this kind of thing interests you!