While the Bay Area has seen a renaissance of a sort in our food scene over the last five to ten years, our bigger-picture influence on the way America eats can be traced back at least five decades. A new book by Yale history professor Paul Freedman titled Ten Restaurants That Changed America, due out later this month, attempts to take a historian's-eye-view of the way certain restaurants and chains made broad impacts on American food culture, and two of those are/were right here by the Bay.
"The past is both beautiful and important," writes Freedman, noting that his focus was not on the 10 "best" restaurants the country has ever known, necessarily, but for various reasons they each had major impacts on American dining as a whole, from the low to the high end.
Among them are Cecilia Chiang's highly influential, high-end Chinese restaurant The Mandarin at Ghirardelli Square, which opened in 1961 and closed in 2006 (Chiang sold it in 1991); and, naturally, Chez Panisse, which was opened by Alice Waters in 1971 with the help of a film producer/comparative lit professor friend, Paul Aratow.
The Mandarin is credited with introducing America to imperial or Mandarin cuisine, after decades in which Chinese restaurants here served much blander fare that had been dictated by American tastes. Chiang said she came to San Francisco and was appalled by how boring and monotonous the menus were in Chinatown ca. 1960. "In China, such a big country, we have so many good dishes from all different provinces," she told KQED in an interview. "Now every day, you eat chop suey, egg foo young and egg drop soup.” After a couple of friends got her to invest in a restaurant project and then backed out at the last minute, Chiang, who had never owned a business, built the Mandarin from scratch based on memories of food she liked in China. The Mandarin ultimately attracted the attention of many journalists and foodies, and gave birth in the 1970's and 80's to the broad array of Sichuan and Hunan-style restaurants that now dot the country.
And while it had much humbler ambitions in its early days, Chez Panisse from the beginning was driven by Waters's insistence on using local, seasonal ingredients, influenced as she was by travels in southern France and the writings of Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. While never the primary chef in the kitchen herself, Chez Panisse became what it was in the 1980's as one of America's first self-consciously farm-to-table restaurants almost entirely by Waters's design, and through her unequivocal taste for seasonal eating (much the way the Mandarin reflected Chiang's vision, but she was never the primary chef either).
As Tasting Table notes, even though the restaurant world is often considered a boys' club, Freedman's list features 40 percent woman-run operations, also including Sylvia's in Harlem, and New York's Mamma Leone's, which shut its doors in 1994.
The other six: Delmonico's, Le Pavillon, Antoine’s, Howard Johnson’s, Schrafft’s, and The Four Seasons.
Also, in talking about the restaurants of the last decade that may prove to be widely influential to this century, he points to another Bay Area star: Benu, for all its "beauty and perfection."