New Yorkers have long had a love affair with food. The way we eat, and eat out, has shifted with each decade, reflecting new trends, shifts in the economy, politics and health-related concerns. In New York, the food we enjoy and the places we eat have always reflected our world as well as our table. Here’s a glimpse back at some of the restaurants we loved and why.
As the 1950s came to a close, American kitchens were shifting in interesting ways. WWII’s food rationing days were way behind us and New Yorkers love of fine food was being influenced in large part by the French-inspired cuisine of Julia Child, and the new-day elegance of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
In many kitchens, both at home and in restaurants, quick and easy was being replaced with complex and beautiful to the eye. New Yorkers began their love affair with American-tinged, ethnic cuisine in earnest, heading out to local, neighborhood Chinese, Mexican and Italian restaurants in record numbers. The 60s also saw the rise of the Japanese Steak House when Benihana opened in New York, ushering in new, unique taste sensations and a fun, interactive customer experience.
Restaurants were also pivotal to the urban renewal efforts of the decade, led largely by famed steakhouse Delmonico’s, when it opened in lower Manhattan. The posh eatery soon became legendary for its unusual, new recipes, such as eggs benedict and baked Alaska.
New Yorkers’ love of glamour was well preserved by Maxwell’s Plum, an extravagantly appointed restaurant that breathed new life into old recipes as well as the singles scene when it opened in 1965.
A cultural revolution was taking place throughout the country, creating frictional shifts that were well represented in New York’s kitchens. Chemically-laden foods were the norm on supermarket shelves, yet the desire for natural alternatives was starting to take hold. New, bright yellow Kraft Macaroni & Cheese was a popular staple in homes, but when New Yorkers dined out, their desire for wholesome food and complex, vegetarian dishes were on the upswing.
As larger numbers of women joined the workforce, families began frequenting restaurants more often, partly for convenience but also for the sheer joy of it. The era of going out only for special occasions faded into the decades-gone-by past. Still, in many areas of the city, restaurants struggled to get by, as fear of street crime kept many New Yorkers at home. A casualty of this trend was Le Pavillon, forced to close its doors despite a reputation as the finest French restaurant in the country.
Rising to fame from far-away Ithaca, in upstate New York, was Mollie Katzen’s all natural-food mecca, the Moosewood Restaurant. Citing a 20-percent drop in business, legendary restaurateur Vincent Sardi initiated a campaign urging New Yorkers to get out of their kitchens and eat out. Sardi’s storied restaurant remains a New York theatre district staple to this day.
The age of the celebrity chef was upon us, yet people in 1980s New York got used to coming home hungry and broke after a night spent dining out. Beautifully prepared, sparse meals were the hallmark of hot, modern nouvelle cuisine, which was light and healthy, yet for many, un-filling. Manipulating the trend and shifting the way New Yorkers looked at eating out, possibly forever, was young restaurateur Danny Meyer when he opened the sprawling Union Square Café.
Committed to making dining out a fun, relaxed experience focused on extraordinary and affordable, satisfying food, Meyer was the forerunner of a new kind of food revolution in the city. Other trend setters made their own, unique mark, including then unknown Chef Alfred Portale, whose inspired flair brought the cavernous Gotham Bar & Grill to new heights, and Drew Nieporent and chef David Bouley, the team responsible for bringing unstuffy, French food to the city at reachable prices. The twosome breathed life into then-barren Tribeca, with the opening of Montrachet in 1985.
It seemed as if a restaurant dotted every corner of Manhattan for the entire decade. Many of these would succumb to early, recession-era woes and close within five years, with another popping up almost instantaneously to take its place. Many New Yorkers subscribed to fierce loyalty for their local eatery or pub, and tastes started to center on small, intimate restaurants, many of which were authentically ethnic.
In a departure from decades past, the Americanized take on international food took a back seat and flavorings popular in other countries reigned, allowing new tastes and food traditions to permeate the restaurant scene. Ingredients as diverse as the many new immigrant groups came to the forefront, and restaurants of all kinds, from Turkish to Russian, Ethiopian and Indian, enjoyed a consistent customer base.
Opulent restaurants and star chefs continued to make headlines. Nobu Matsuhisa led the pack at Nobu, with the help of legendary partners including Robert DeNiro and Drew Nieporent, by bringing an innovative new take to Japanese cuisine and winning a Michelin star. On the other side of the eating-out spectrum, the famous Arepa Lady, Maria Cano, continued to own Jackson Heights with the delectable Columbian treats she sold from her humble, family-run food cart. No matter where you looked, all across the city, there was a destination for every taste, and every wallet.
The Love Affair Continues
With the advent of a new century, foodie buzzwords like “locally sourced,” “regionally grown” and “artisanal” hit the mainstream in earnest, creating a new type of restaurant, and customer base, throughout the five boroughs. A continuing desire for natural and organic food was heightened, with increasing consumer awareness of the preponderance of GMOs in our diet. This trend often coupled magically with a desire to turn evenings out into experiential outings, and the chef’s table, a trend which began in earnest during the 1990s, took even stronger hold and held fast.
Restaurants like Brooklyn Fare, featuring French-Japanese fusion cuisine, became one of the borough’s most popular spots and an in spot for dining in-kitchen with local star chef Cesar Ramirez. Popular restaurants remained as varied as New York itself. The Shake Shack morphed from a food stand in Madison Square Park famous for its succulent fare and two-hour wait in line to a widespread, best-burger-ever phenomenon and blossoming chain.
Le Bernardin continued to hold court in midtown, gracing business lunches and stretching expense accounts with lush, French-inspired seafood. In 2013, beloved bastion of another time, Tavern on the Green reopened, bringing with it a new dedication to locally grown ingredients and rustic, seasonal fare.
Trends come and go, wallets expand and contract and tastes in food continue to change, and change again. Whether it’s a $2 slice in Coney Island or an opulent lunch at chef’s table, good food is always in style, no matter the decade. Just ask any New Yorker.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.