The Bookmongers Book Review: Ten Restaurants That Changed America

ten restaurants that changed america

Much has been written about America’s restaurants, but until now, no book has ever covered the select few that changed the way we eat and dine.

Paul Freedman takes an in-depth look at ten American restaurants that created a movement, from the refined French eateries of New York to Howard Johnson’s and the Automat.

Because we live in San Francisco, I was particularly interested in the two chapters that focused on Bay Area restaurants: The Mandarin and Chez Panisse. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse still exist and thrive, so most of us are quite familiar with their story, influence, and fame. Less is popularly known, however, about The Mandarin, San Francisco’s most influential Chinese restaurant. Cecilia Chiang became an accidental restaurateur in 1961, when friends backed out of a restaurant deal and left her holding the loan. Rather than face the embarrassment of admitting to her husband that she had lost a $10,000 deposit on a space on Polk Street while visiting San Francisco from Asia, she took the space and turned it into a Chinese restaurant serving the refined cuisine of her youth. She immediately hired a couple of chefs from Shandong who knew how to pull noodles and wrap dumplings. The food of The Mandarin represented a sea change from the Chinese food that had been served to Americans for the past hundred years, beginning with Gold Rush–era immigrants opening Chinese restaurants and laundries from Sacramento to San Francisco. While the first Chinese restaurants catering to Chinese patrons were often luxurious and true to the cuisine of home, the ones that served the miners were “Americanized” to avoid unfamiliar spices and textures.

The early 20th century rang in the era of chop suey, and then the age of chow mein. Neither dish evolved to hold a scintilla of Chinese flavor or scent; they were almost more of an excuse to throw together a number of fried and wilting ingredients in a brown slurry of sauce. By the 1960’s, almost all Chinese restaurants in America offered the same list of Cantonese and Chinese-American dishes: Mongolian beef, fried rice, lo mein, egg foo young, fried won tons, fortune cookies, etc. Many if not all of these were invented by Chinese-Americans to appeal to the sweeter palates of non-Chinese Americans.

Mrs. Chiang was a different kind of restaurant owner. She had run a successful restaurant in Tokyo featuring fine cuisine, and with little experience in the United States, she saw no need to stray from that successful formula. Besides the authentic cuisine she served, Cecilia made the decor decision to ban dragons, lanterns, ebony, and other tropes of typical Chinese restaurants. Instead she decorated the restaurant with elegant furniture and dishware, and relocated to large, comfortable quarters with a bay view in Ghirardelli Square. This is where I come in.

The Ghirardelli Square of my youth held secret corners and fascinating rewards. Brick-lined stairways led to nowhere, and sometimes to somewhere. There was Jeffrey’s Toys, replete with whoopie cushions, magic sets, joke toys, and boxes and boxes of jacks, cards, and dice. The Magic Pan served flaming crepes tableside, which was a form of magic trick to a kid like me. Many birthdays were celebrated at the Ghirardelli ice cream parlor, where you could lean over the railing and ogle chocolate being made, and the Yellow Brick Road Sundae (with hot butterscotch) remains my favorite. But the pinnacle of sophistication was dinner at The Mandarin. My sister and I would wear our fanciest get-ups and tag along with our bell-bottomed parents to a table for four. It was at The Mandarin that we heard a Chinese waiter speak with an American accent for the first time, and I’ll never forget the look of surprise on all of our faces; that’s how novel it was in the 1970s. The famous dish to order was minced squab in lettuce cups, an invention of the restaurant that has since been popularized using chicken, across America. It tasted foreign yet familiar, crunchy yet velvety—a luxury that could only be experienced in that hallowed restaurant, along with their Pekin smoked duck and dessert of glazed bananas.

I would love to say that The Mandarin ushered in a new era of upscale Chinese restaurants, but sadly, the restaurant closed in 2006, and while Cecilia lives on quite well at the age of 97, truly great Chinese restaurants are still few and far between. She is a huge champion of Corey Lee’s Benu (she told me she’s been more than 40 times!), and trusts Lee to carry on the mantle. And her influence truly lies in having introduced Americans to authentic regional Chinese food—the kind that can actually be found in China—and opened the burgeoning palates of kids like me.

The Bookmongers Book Review: Ten Restaurants That Changed America was published in the Spring 2017 issue. © 2017 Edible San Francisco.