Adventure Dining in New York Before 1970: Good, Cheap and “Ethnic”
The city’s love affair with the cuisines of other places has evolved along with our concept of food itself
The term “ethnic restaurant” is misleading, as it assumes there is a complementary “regular” or “normal” restaurant type. It also might seem casually insulting, implying condescension toward people from foreign countries and their food.1 Los Angeles Times food expert Jonathan Gold is quoted as saying, “I hate the word ‘ethnic.'” Gold, who probably knows more about this category firsthand than anyone else, prefers “traditional,”2 yet this neutral formulation, along with others, such as “foreign” or “immigrant” restaurant, are either inadequate as descriptions or retain a taint of stereotype and subordination. In what follows, I use “ethnic restaurant” in awareness of its unfavorable or ambivalent connotations, because the success of these enterprises is related to ideas of exoticism in the minds of customers who do not form part of the immigrant group. Ethnic restaurants have been appealing to outsiders over the last 150 years because they offer inexpensive culinary novelty. That novelty has to attract the tastes of patrons initially unfamiliar with the cuisine, and so authenticity has tended to be less important than the impression of a safe exoticism.
Ethnic restaurants have been appealing to outsiders over the last 150 years because they offer inexpensive culinary novelty. That novelty has to attract the tastes of patrons initially unfamiliar with the cuisine, and so authenticity has tended to be less important than the impression of a safe exoticism.
Before about 1960, such restaurants were referred to as “foreign,” “exotic,” or most often simply by national type. It was quite possible to assume a patronizing attitude toward foreign cuisines without employing a general descriptive term. In Lawton Mackall’s 1948 guide Knife and Fork in New York City, grand as well as modest restaurants are grouped under breezily humorous headings such as “Chummy and Cheery” (festive atmosphere), or “Shelly and Finny Fare” (seafood). Mackall’s man-about-town diction lists Chinese under “Pagoda Provender,” Indian as “Curry Quest,” and Hungarian as “Paprika in the Pink.” Russian cuisine is summarized as “Shashliks and Vodka,” but Middle Eastern overlaps to some extent with “Pilaf and Shish Kebab.”3
The use of “ethnic restaurant” in publications begins with the 1960s. In a 1959 review of “A Bit of Bali,” New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne remarked, “Because New York is a city of sophistication and with tremendously different ethnic groups, the public here has extraordinary opportunities to dine on the ‘exotic’ fare of a hundred regions.” Here the word “ethnic” appears in association with “restaurant” for the first time. The formula “ethnic restaurant” henceforth would become established in the Times and elsewhere to describe places serving the cuisine of an immigrant group.4 The notion of ethnic restaurants as constituting a kind of complex code of hidden information was developed in the 1990s in New York directories such as Robert Sietsema’s Good & Cheap Ethnic Eats.5
New York City has been famous since before the beginning of the 20th century for the international diversity of its food offerings, part of the image and self-regard of the metropolis. For example, the cover drawing for The New Yorker issue for April 2, 1938, entitled “Lower East Side,” depicts scenes from eight restaurants: Japanese, Turkish, Scandinavian, Russian, German, Chinese, Jewish and Italian. To the left of the pictures are labels listing several dishes in each category. Some are standbys such as sukiyaki, risotto Milanese, “Borshch,” or Apfelstrudel. There are, however, a surprising number of dishes that would not now be widely recognized: Kezartma (a Turkish eggplant dish), Kissel (Russian berry soup) and Goma-aye (Japanese sesame-sauce dressing).
Notably missing here is French cuisine. Its absence shows that “ethnic” does not simply mean “foreign.” From the 18th to late-20th centuries, France defined international culinary distinction. The first real restaurant in the United States was Delmonico’s, established in the 1830s, which billed itself as French. Antoine’s in New Orleans, founded in 1840, always described its food as French and has only accepted the term “Creole” within the last 20 years. Of course Delmonico’s offered American specialties, such as Terrapin and Canvasback Duck and invented Lobster Newberg and the eponymous Delmonico Steak, and most of Antoine’s signature dishes, such as Oysters Rockefeller or Pompano en Papillote, are not French. Generally, however, the prestige of France imposed a certain uniformity on high-end restaurants. In mid-20th century New York, Le Pavillon was the leading restaurant, and under the authoritarian rule of Henri Soulé, the restaurant was intimidatingly French. The first New York Times Guide to Dining Out edited by Craig Claiborne and published in 1964, listed eight three-star restaurants, and all were French except for the Coach House, a purportedly American restaurant that in fact served something closer to what was called at the time “Continental Cuisine.”6
Le Pavillon was expensive, as were Delmonico’s and Antoine’s, so part of the separation of such establishments from the “exotic” or “foreign” category was that the latter were cheap and often in out-of-the-way places (from the middle-class viewpoint) such as Chinatown or the Lower East Side. Restaurant types are divided by class as well as nation, and ethnic restaurants were part of the growth of middle-class dining options (others included coffee shops, cafeterias, tea houses, luncheonettes and the Automat). Fancy restaurants might affect an ethnic identity; the Russian Tearoom in New York or Omar Khayyam’s in San Francisco are examples. The entire category of pseudo-Polynesian “tiki” restaurants included the very high-end Trader Vic’s at the Plaza Hotel in New York and in several other cities. The food might be faux-ethnic, more Chinese than anything else, but the tiki category certainly relied on a sense of the foreign exotic.
What the cultural historian Andrew Haley refers to as the celebration of New York’s “culinary cosmopolitanism” began in the 1890s. An article in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly in 1893 boasted that New York offered superior variety to Paris: “On a wager [one] could dine differently four times a day for a week, and have each repast composed of foreign dishes, served by foreign waiters, and eat with foreign-born men and women as his convives.”7 The diner being addressed here is, of course, generic “American” rather than “foreign” and it is worth noting the appeal of dining with members of the appropriate ethnic group as a diverting experience of authenticity. In fact proprietors of such restaurants tended to tailor their offerings to suit the tastes of the eclectic American diner. In a 1939 study of Chinese restaurants, Ling Lew distinguished between those that catered to Americans versus a smaller number with a predominantly Chinese clientele. The latter were modestly appointed, but offered better and more authentic food. At the New Hangchow, with primarily American customers, the menu featured chop suey and chow mein, along with pepper steak, shrimp with tomato and egg rolls. At the Lotus Inn, with a Chinese customer base, the menu included fried lobster Canton style, almond roast pork, roast pork with Chinese vegetables, and shrimp with lobster sauce and Chinese vegetables.8
Restaurant owners are motivated to appeal to generic American diners because there are more of them and they are less discriminating, unlikely to make invidious comparisons with how their mother or grandmother made a particular dish. Serving food adjusted to the tastes of an American clientele is a longstanding business strategy. Today, although there are many recent Chinese immigrants and specialized regional restaurants in Flushing or Sunset Park, the majority of Chinese restaurants in New York as well as nationally are patronized primarily by people who are not Chinese.
The Chop Suey Craze and After
New York’s mosaic of immigrant cultures notwithstanding, it was Chinese food that first defined ethnic dining and Chinese that has remained the leading imported cuisine on a national level. Today there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., more than there are branches of McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Burger King combined. The origins of this mass-market popularity date from the so-called Chop Suey Craze, which began in 1896 when a high Chinese government official visited New York. According to one version, Li Hongzhang’s chef introduced chop suey to the city, or else it was served at a reception for the envoy given at the Waldorf Hotel. In an article entitled “Queer Dishes Served at the Waldorf by Li Hung’s Chinese Cook,” chop suey was defined as “fricasseed giblets.” This was not inaccurate, but the impression of novelty was. Chop suey had been offered in Chinatowns in the United States and consumed by non-Chinese patrons at least as far back as the 1880s.9 The craze, however, was real: by 1905 there were more than 100 chop suey restaurants in New York outside of Chinatown, especially along Third and Eighth Avenues. The stir-fried preparation of offal that was common in the Pearl River Delta region, where most Chinese immigrants in New York were born, was transformed for the American palate into a dish of meat (beef, chicken, pork) with a thick, gravy-like sauce.
By the 1920s, chop suey was suspected of being not really Chinese, but rather something invented in America to fool Americans.
By the 1920s there was widespread awareness of its inauthenticity. Chop suey was suspected of being not really Chinese, but rather something invented in America to fool Americans. An article in the New York Times in January 1928 cited “differing opinions as to whether chop suey . . . is a real Chinese dish or an American’s conception of one.”10 By the end of that same year some disturbing new information was reported in the Times in an article entitled “Chop Suey, Popular Here, Is Hardly Known in China.”11 Although chop suey remained popular into the 1960s, it became an elementary mark of sophistication to disdain it. Chop suey would gradually disappear from menus, not because of the rise of authentic Chinese food, but because of changing fashions. The history of ethnic restaurants reflects a tension between catering to the taste of Americans and projecting a plausible authenticity. People are willing to relax their critical standards. Everyone knows General Tso’s Chicken is unknown in China, but many continue to order and enjoy it even with this knowledge.
The other great ethnic restaurant success story has been Italian. In 1890 about 100,000 immigrants from Italy lived in New York and something on the order of 100 cafés and restaurants solicited their business.12 Already in 1885, however, a reporter for the New York Sun observed with surprise that many patrons of these restaurants were not of Italian origin.13 The first American-born people who turned up at foreign restaurants in the United States, especially Italian places, were what contemporaries referred to as “Bohemians.” These were not the starving artists of the original French vie Bohème but rather urban men and women of mildly artistic temperament and enough income to spend on small indulgences such as dining out. They were artists or writers looking for exuberance, informality, and novelty, people whose unconventionality encompassed the possibility of cohabitation without marriage, extending even to a more-or-less obvious gay identity.14 By 1900 Bohemian neighborhoods such as New York’s Greenwich Village featured an eclectic, vibrant combination of nonconformists and Italian immigrants.
Italian restaurants provided a raffish gaiety and served as meeting places for the literary and artistic circles of Greenwich Village. The best-documented example of a first-generation Italian restaurant is Gonfarone’s on MacDougal and Eighth Streets. We know a lot about the restaurant through a memoir by Maria Sermolino, who worked at her father’s establishment from 1900 to 1917.15 In the 1890s Gonfarone’s had been patronized by Italians and functioned as a kind of boarding house, serving just 15 people at a time. Signora Gonfarone took in Analecto Sermolino as her partner, and they perfected a 50-cent table d’hôte menu and expanded the restaurant’s size. Gonfarone’s was soon sought out by artists and writers from the neighborhood and the family deliberately staged what passed for a colorful Italian atmosphere. Sermolino hired an Italian musical trio to play what his daughter recalled as “different sounding noises” to please its artsy but rather undiscriminating clientele. A lively tableau featured one of the busboys playing the harmonica, a waiter juggling, and a cook who would emerge from the kitchen brandishing a knife in picturesque fury as if recreating in farcical form the violent conclusion of I Pagliacci. Maria Sermolino summed up the appeal of Gonfarone’s: “a simple, Latin variety of hedonism,” a formula of playing at being Italian that the social changes of the next hundred years would not extinguish.16
Gonfarone’s offered minestrone soup, spaghetti, spumoni, and antipasto consisting of celery hearts, black olives, salami, sardines, anchovies, stewed tomatoes with bread, tuna, and pimento. The main courses showcased items that were more American than Italian, typically sweetbreads, roast beef, and broiled chicken. The 50-cent price rose to 60 cents on weekends, when half a lobster with mayonnaise was added to the menu.17 Like most Italian restaurants of the first part of the 20th century, Gonfarone’s offered a colorful atmosphere, but with familiar food.
The night Mamma Leone’s opened, April 27, 1906, the following table d’hôte menu was served:
This is a little more adventurous than Gonfarone’s, and the “typical” Italian dishes such as minestrone soup or veal Piccata were exotic at first before becoming established, much in the manner of chop suey or chow mein, if less dramatically. The conventional foreign dishes were, in fact, not so foreign. While the inauthenticity of Chinese-American favorites was obvious by the 1920s, it took longer for the same suspicions to overtake Italian-American adaptations, although visitors from Italy were not fooled. In the 1920s Niccolà de Quattrociochi, a Sicilian salesman for an Italian canning company, sarcastically typified spaghetti with meatballs, coteletta Parmigiana, Italian antipasto, and beefsteak Milanese as tasty American inventions that he hoped someone would introduce into his home country.19
The decades between 1920 and 1970 saw an expansion in the variety of New York ethnic restaurants. Indian, Middle-Eastern, Armenian, and Scandinavian places appeared. Many of these combined exotic atmosphere with what now seems surprisingly ordinary food with just a few stereotypical foreign dishes. A menu from the Punjab restaurant on Bleecker Street dating from the 1950s features a few curries, but also French items along with Chinese pepper steak, shrimp cocktail, London broil and spaghetti with red or white clam sauce. While Chianti was suggested to accompany the Italian fare and “vin blanc” for French, Far Eastern food, it was asserted, should be consumed with a king-size Martini.20
A 1930 review of another place called the India Rajah, on 48th Street west of Broadway, shows that despite the seeming simplicity of the ethnic restaurant menu, it was still confusing to outsiders. In his Dining in New York, Rian James identified the India Rajah as a “Turkish (Parsee)” restaurant. “Upstairs,” he reported, “you will find the Rajah, about as big as a medium-sized clothes press, and not nearly as sanitary; but you’re in Turkey now—and if you were terribly fussy, you wouldn’t have gone to Turkey in the first place. Besides, the food is worth the trip.” It gets more peculiar:
The table d’hote starts with Tamarind—a lemon-colored drink made from vegetables—as an appetizer. A watery, albeit true-to-type, native soup follows. Then the real business of the Turkish dinner sets in. Choose lamb, chicken, or beef curry—oh, such a fiery curry sauce! . . . You’ll enjoy your dinner speculating about the other queer-looking diners, and learn, astonishingly enough, that all sheiks don’t wear goatees, ride white horses, and brandish swords. 21
Thus New York, during the first two-thirds of the 20th century, was full of diverse restaurants representing many nations and cuisines, but for those patronized by a nondistinct American clientele, they fell into a few categories with predictable and not especially authentic dishes. This is not to say that restaurants or diners have a moral obligation to put a premium on authenticity, nor to deny the pleasure that people experienced in the past. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, my family ate regularly at the Tien Tsin on 125th Street and always ordered the same things: winter melon soup, beef with snowpeas, chicken with almonds, and lobster Cantonese. We were certainly too sophisticated to consider chop suey, but I recall being impressed when on one occasion my college-student cousin dined with us and ordered Moo Goo Gai Pan.
In 1965 the harshly restrictive immigration laws imposed in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution were radically liberalized. The Hart-Celler Act kept the general principle of limiting immigrant visas, but lifted the virtual prohibitions on immigrants from “non-white” parts of the world. The impact of this legislation reverberated throughout American life, including the proliferation in the 1970s of restaurants established by recent immigrants. Calvin Trillin likened the Hart-Celler Act to an Emancipation Proclamation for serious eaters.22 The result of resurgent immigration has been an increase in both the diversity and number of ethnic restaurants, some to serve the new communities, but a majority oriented toward American customers for the same business reasons as influenced earlier generations. Restaurant types are not simply an unmediated reflection of increased immigration, however. In 2014 there were 60,000 Filipinos in New York, but only four Filipino restaurants. 23 Most restaurants that present themselves as Indian are owned by people from Bangladesh or Pakistan, and half of all the cooks are from a single province in Bangladesh, Sylhet.24 Most employees below the chefs in any New York restaurant, including ethnic eateries, are from Latin America. The proliferation of ethnic restaurants and the fashions for different cuisines are therefore contingent, shaped by cultural shifts and the active efforts of restaurateurs.
Besides the increased diversification, recent decades in restaurant history have seen changes in relative culinary prestige. Certain Italian and Japanese restaurants are now among the most elegant and expensive establishments in New York. whereas before the 1980s, almost all of them were modest if not downright cheap. The Italian restaurant has gone through several stages, from the Bohemian family-style restaurant of Greenwich Village (roughly 1880–1920) to the large, palatial but still inexpensive spectacle epitomized by Mamma Leone’s (from the 1920 until about 1980), and most recently, the stylish, expensive, regional (usually Northern) style pioneered by Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia, which opened in 1983 and Tony May’s San Domenico, which opened in 1988.
A parallel development lifted Japanese restaurants. Establishments serving a non-Japanese clientele had featured sukiyaki, tempura, and other easily approachable dishes of the sort featured in the 1938 New Yorker cover. During the 1960s, sushi went from being portrayed as a strange and off-putting specialty appreciated only by the Japanese themselves to widely popular and diffused. In 1962 Craig Claiborne observed that raw fish was “a trifle too ‘far out’ for many American palates,” but three years later he acknowledged “a growing public enthusiasm for the Japanese raw fish specialties, sashimi and sushi.” The ascent of Japanese restaurants into the high-end was demonstrated in 1983 when Mimi Sheraton in The New York Times gave Hatsuhana three stars, the first time a Japanese restaurant had received such a ranking.25
In a city where Japanese and Italian destinations rank among the top and over-the-top levels, the contrast with Chinese and other Asian foods is glaring. After experiencing a rise in reputation and regional diversity in the wake of President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, some Chinese restaurants had great success as well-decorated and relatively costly gastronomic destinations, places such as the Shun Lee group in New York or the Mandarin in San Francisco. This was an unachieved revolution, however, and only recently, with the opening of La Chine at the (now Chinese-owned) Waldorf-Astoria, is there another attempt to raise the status, atmosphere, and innovation of the Chinese restaurant.
The real frontier in the New York landscape is not so much the next “new thing” geographically (Senegalese? Colombian?) or rediscovery (Italian-American; German), but rather a blurring of the categories of ethnic identity and prestige. David Chang, a second-generation Korean-American, is the pioneering example of mixing up ethnic and experimental, and combining high-end attributes with ostentatious informality. On the one hand, his restaurants are often difficult to get into and he has invented creative and daring dishes. His restaurants are talked about and publicized among a sophisticated crowd. On the other hand, they are informal. Chang said of Momofuku, “We were going to serve good food . . .regardless of the paper napkins, the shitty silverware, the fast-food condiment island in the middle of the dining room.”26 This ethnic haute cuisine and smart casual27 atmosphere do not resemble the fancy, “authentic” Japanese or Italian restaurant because the food isn’t recognizably Korean except by inflection or gesture, and also because its haute status doesn’t mean imitating the atmosphere and service standards of established elite dining conventions. Parallel to the rise of new American or farm-to-table fashions, we are starting to see an alternative to the complementarity of ethnic/picturesque/cheap with high-end/ European/expensive.
- Lavanya Ramanathan “Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food ‘Ethnic,’” The Washington Post, July 21, 2015. ↩
- Dana Goodyear, “The Scavenger: Pig’s Ears, Octopus and Fish-Kidney Curry with L.A.’s Most Adventurous Eater,” The New Yorker, Nov. 9, 2009, p. 40. ↩
- Lawton Mackall, Knife and Fork in New York (New York, 1948). ↩
- Krishnendu Ray, The Ethnic Restaurateur (London and New York, 2016), p. 73. Note that Ray, a leading authority on immigrants and food in America, uses the word “ethnic” in the title and his book is concerned with the apparent subordination as well as agency and strategies of his protagonists. ↩
- Good & Cheap Ethnic Eats in New York City (New York, 1994; revised ed. 1997). Contrast this with Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder, The Underground Gourmet of the 1970s (3rd ed., New York, 1977), based exclusively on price and including American and “Continental” cuisine. ↩
- The New York Times Guide to Dining Out, ed. Craig Claiborne (New York, 1964), p. viii. The Coach House was known for its black bean soup, pecan pie, and a few other American items, but a menu from the mid-1960s at the Culinary Institute of America Library features steaks, chops, broiled South African lobster tails, and veal piccate à la Française. A menu from 1978 reproduced in the restaurant guide by the pseudonymous “Stendhal” is quite similar except for the prices, Stendahl, Best Restaurants, New York (San Francisco, 1978), p. 31. In 1976 Seymour Britchky said most of the dishes were foreign and the rest were plain rather than American, Seymour Britchky’s Restaurants of New York, (New York, 1976), pp. 16–17. In addition to Le Pavillon, the three-star French restaurants in Craig Claiborne’s guide are: La Caravalle, La Grenouille, La Café Chambord at La Côte Basque (a short-lived amalgam of two restaurants), Le Veau d’Or, Quo Vadis, and The Colony. ↩
- Andrew P. Haley, Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880–1920 (Chapel Hill, 2011), p. 111. ↩
- Louis H. Chu, “The Chinese Restaurant in New York City,” M.A. Thesis, New York University, February 1939, pp. 47, 61–67. ↩
- Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (New York, 2009), pp. 160–179. ↩
- “Origins of Chop Suey Remain a Mystery,” New York Times, January 8, 1928. ↩
- The New York Times, November 31, 1928. ↩
- Cindy L. Lobel, Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York (Chicago, 2014), pp. 181–182. ↩
- Haley, Turning the Tables, pp. 100–101. ↩
- See George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Culture and the Makings of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York, 1994), pp. 33–46. ↩
- Maria Sermolino, Papa’s Table d’Hôte (Philadelphia and New York, 1952). ↩
- Sermolino, Papa’s Table d’Hôte, pp. 41–42; William Grimes, Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York (New York, 2009), pp. 127–129; Donna Gabaccia, We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), pp. 99–101. Asti on Twelfth Street, which featured waiters and customers singing operatic selections, lasted until 2000. ↩
- Sermolino, Papa’s Table d’Hôte, pp. 125–126, 130, 134. ↩
- Gene Leone, Leone’s Italian Cookbook (New York, 1967), pp. 1–5. ↩
- Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), p. 54. ↩
- A menu in the Henry Voigt Collection of American Menus, Wilmington, Delaware. Dating is based on prices. ↩
- Ray, Ethnic Restaurateur, pp. 41–42. ↩
- Calvin Trillin, Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties from Kansas City to Cuzco (New York, 2003), p. 71. ↩
- Ray, The Ethnic Restaurateur, p. 178. ↩
- Ray, The Ethnic Restaurateur, p. 179. In 1995 it was estimated that of the 8,000 Indian restaurants in Britain, 7,000 were owned by Bangladeshis, predominantly from Sylhet, Panikos Panayi, Spicing Up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food (London, 2008), p. 173. ↩
- Andrew F. Smith, “Sushi,” in Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City, ed. Andrew F. Smith (New York, 2015), p. 581. ↩
- Ray, The Ethnic Restaurateur, p. 169. ↩
- A term used by Alison Pearlman, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America (Chicago, 2013). ↩
Paul Freedman is a professor of history at Yale University, where he has taught since 1997. His doctoral degree was awarded in 1978 by UC Berkeley. His primary responsibilities are in the field of medieval European history. He is also interested in the history of food and cuisine. In 2007 Freedman edited Food: The History of Taste, which won a prize from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and has been translated into ten languages. His book Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2008) looks at the desire for spices in the Middle Ages and how it led to European exploration and conquest. Food in Time and Place, (2014) a co-edited volume, appeared under the auspices of the American Historical Association. Ten Restaurants that Changed America, a way of looking at US food history through ten examples, was published in September 2016 by W.W. Norton and Company. The book was a finalist in the 2017 IACP Cookbook Awards in the Literary or Historical Food Writing category.
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Adventure Dining in New York Before 1970: Good, Cheap and “Ethnic”