Although America has had its taverns and inns serving food ever since the Pilgrims got here, the restaurant as we know it — a place where you can sit at your own table, have your own waiter, and order from a menu — is of rather recent origin.
None is more famous than Boston's Durgin-Park café, still serving much the same kind of New England fare, although you'll sit just as they did when it opened in 1827, at common tables with visitors from all over the world.
Full-fledged restaurants began to open in Paris after the fall of the monarchy (the royal cooks needed the jobs), but the word "restaurant" doesn't even appear in American print until 1824 when novelist James Fenimore Cooper made note of the "renowned Parisian restaurants."
Seven years later, a Swiss sea captain named Giovanni Del-Monico brought the concept to New York's Wall Street area and named it after himself, Delmonico's. Its success made him and his family rich, and he opened successive Delmonico's further and further uptown, the last at 44th St. and Fifth Avenue. The second of these, opened on Beaver Street in 1832, is to this day one of the most popular restaurants in lower Manhattan.
By then the restaurant had become synonymous with fine dining, and just about every important personage in New York and famous visitor to the city, including Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, dined at "Del's," as its competitors, like Rector's and Louis Sherry, became equally notable for the grandeur and scale of their décor and cuisine.
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Other restaurants took their lead from the New York model, and in 1840 Marseilles-born Antoine Alciatore opened Antoine's Restaurant on New Orleans' Rue St. Louis in 1840, becoming so much a fixture of the city's social life — surviving the Civil War, Prohibition, and Hurricane Katrina — that local food writer Gene Bourg contends, "New Orleans without Antoine's would be like Giza without the Great Pyramid." It was at Antoine's that dishes like oysters Rockefeller were created, and generations of New Orleanians claimed not only their favorite dining rooms but the same waiters over decades.
As America expanded westward so did the restaurant concept, most often in grand new hotels like the Palmer House in Chicago, the Sinton Hotel in Cincinnati, the Planters Inn in St. Louis, and The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, which opened in 1892. Still the best hotel in the city, with four stars from the Mobil Travel Guide, The Brown Palace has maintained the glorious Gilded Age décor of its Palace Arms restaurant, a richly paneled, sumptuous place whose wine cellar has a "Best of Award of Excellence" from Wine Spectator. Every U.S. president since Teddy Roosevelt, except Coolidge, has visited The Brown Palace.
Ethnic restaurants — German beer halls, Jewish delis, Italian pizzerias, Mexican chili parlors — proliferated at the end of the 19th century, including many that are still going strong, like Katz's Delicatessen (1888) in New York, and Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (1925) in New Haven. The Mexican eatery El Cholo debuted in Los Angeles in 1923 as one of the first to attract a Hollywood celebrity crowd. The original, on South Western Avenue, has kept most of the décor and all of the leafy garden ambiance of those days, and finely honed the hospitality for which it has long been famous.
Many of the grandest restaurants are in historic American resorts, which once catered only to the very wealthy but which now have large family clientèle, and numerous restaurants for every taste. The Breakers, which opened in 1896, in Palm Beach is as spectacular as any resort in the world, with its magnificent verandah and long colonnaded hallways, and its superbly ornate award-winning L'Escalier dining room, which has one of the greatest wine cellars anywhere.
Much smaller — just 23 rooms — is the Hotel Maison de Ville, opened in New Orleans' French Quarter in 1905. Tennessee Williams wrote "Streetcar Named Desire" here, and James Audubon lived in one of the seven Audubon Cottages nearby. Its Bistro at Maison de Ville has a reputation for Chef Greg Picolo's easy-going French fare with a Louisiana lagniappe.
Few resorts can match the magnificence and period style of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich., opened in 1887, with its 660-foot verandah, suites named after First Ladies, pristinely maintained village, and fabulous main dining room where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served along with its more rustic, Carleton Varney-decorated Woods restaurant, with beamed ceilings and stag's horns like a Bavarian hunting lodge, and a menu of German specialties like wiener schnitzel, pfferesteak, and tafelspitz.
Great food can be found in the most out-of-the-way places, the smallest hole-in-the-wall, and the most spectacular new Vegas casino hotel. But when you add a large dose of American history to the dining experience, you will have a sense of what it was like when sheer wonder was part of the pleasure of dining out.
© 2012 Forbes.com