History Research Paper Sample: Cars, Consistency, and Cuisine: The Evolution of American Dining Post-War to Chez Panisse

Through our history curriculum, Commonwealth students learn how to be historians rather than passive absorbers of facts. They read and analyze primary sources from a variety of voices in their historical contexts. And they graduate knowing that a single textbook could never tell the whole story. Core to this discovery process is an annual research paper that hones students’ analytical and writing skills and challenges them to dig deep into a variety of sources on any topic of interest, whether it be debunking the “primitivist” myth around jazz, the impact of the breakup of the AT&T monopoly, or, as you will see in this recent example from Henry '24, how post-WWII American culture shaped the restaurant industry—and the restaurant industry, America.

In 1952, Martin J. Harding, president of the National Restaurant Association, issued a dire assessment of his industry. Because of “[t]elevision, the increase in the number of families with smaller children, and a general tightening up in spending by the public,” he said, the restaurant industry was “in decline.” In some ways, Harding was right. From its heyday in 1948, restaurants were making 30% less money per person, adjusted for inflation, annually in the United States. Over the following decades, however, Harding’s three supposed horsemen of this decline (TV, children, and decreased spending) would, rather than spawning a restaurant apocalypse, usher in an unprecedented era of expansion, exploration, and growth for dining out in the United States. Harding was, in a moment of great historical irony, correct in his identification of the forces that would transform the restaurant industry, but his conclusion couldn’t have been further from the truth: TV would help create a homogenous culture for the American middle class, giving restaurants a larger potential client base, and its eponymous dinners would become emblematic of the way industrialization could aid the food industry. Children and their mothers were to become an essential part of the restaurant economy, as it expanded to encompass new family dynamics. Decreased spending, finally, would be partially true, as families spent less of their income on food, but this would only be a sign of America’s post-War prosperity, and, in fact, by 1966, the average American was spending more money than ever before on dining out. This paper will trace these forces and others through the mid-twentieth century, as we discover how post-War American culture shaped the restaurant industry and the restaurant industry, America. As we travel across diners and family restaurants, through fine dining, and all the way to the revolutionary Californian restaurant Chez Panisse, we’ll see that changes in the way Americans dined out and the way restaurants catered to them in the decades following World War II reflected and affected the era’s immense societal changes and evolving views of what it meant to be prosperous.

Harding’s pessimistic view of the early ’50s restaurant industry was certainly relative to the incredible heights it had soared to just a few years earlier: 1930s and ’40s Americans, especially urbanites, had access to numerous restaurants. In New York at the time, a cultural and culinary hub, dining out opportunities of all sort existed for all classes: For the upper class, there was the venerable Delmonico’s or, if you could manage an invitation, Les Amis d'Escoffier, a society celebrating haute cuisine, which offered two dinners a year, each priced “at about $15,” around $200 today. For the middle and working classes, coffee houses, cafeterias, diners, and automats—art deco vending machines, which, alas, are now but a footnote in culinary history—provided quick, cheap meals. Even in New York, however, and more so in the rest of the country, “working-class families rarely took meals away from home unless they had to,” and the meals they did take were rarely in sit-down restaurants with menus and waiters. These finer establishments, reserved for the upper classes, served predominantly men predominantly French food.

Especially in cities like New York, where restaurants were already firmly established, World War II greatly stimulated the dining industry. Women, who were expected to cook all at-home meals, were brought into the workforce, limiting their ability to cook for the family. This, combined with rations that made finding ingredients for cooking more difficult for the typical housewife, but, crucially, still possible for restaurants, meant a significant uptick in dining out during the war. By 1945, the meals per day served by “New York's 19,000 public eating places,” were, according to a Times report, over 250% of their pre-rationing levels. Across the country, annual restaurant sales per person, adjusted for inflation, grew massively during WWII, roughly 67% from 1941 to 1945. Perhaps it was this financial boost and the cultural shift from this new pattern of dining that meant that, even after women had mostly returned to domestic work and rationing had ended, the idea of “dining out” was no longer so foreign to people.

Beyond this direct effect on the restaurant industry, WWII was also the source of a variety of indirect changes to American dining, among them, developments in food production during and after the War. War has often been a time of culinary innovation (modern canning, for example, was invented for Napoleon’s army) and World War II was far from an exception. Spurred on by the scientific advances that came with the war, as well as Americans’ newfound wealth after it, ’50s food manufacturers created the products we now know today as “industrial food.” Many of these products and techniques (artificial flavors, pre-packaged food, etc.) leave a bad taste in the mouths of twenty-first-century consumers, condemned as unnatural, unhealthy, and flavorless. But for 1950s American consumers, these same innovations were seen as a sure sign of and a direct contribution to their newfound prosperity. In articles from the time, frozen foods were touted for their convenience and consistency, while agricultural innovations were praised for increased yields and quality. For restaurants, too, these innovations cut down on labor costs and extended shelf-life. By the early ’60s, restaurants were embracing such time saving technology as “[m]odern refrigeration, the use of garbage disposal units, air conditioning, ice-making machines, [and] automatic dish-washer and food slicing chopping machines.” Even “pre-portioned and frozen foods,” i.e. now-maligned TV dinners, were showing up, according to a Times article from July 9, 1961, in restaurant kitchens by the end of the 1950s. The same article also noted that the “food equipment industry” grew a whopping 39% in the latter half of the ’50s.

This industrialization of food and restaurants in the ’50s was cyclically entwined with another major driver of innovation and change: uniformity. Mass production not only encouraged this uniformity through economies of scale and nationwide supply chains but was also incentivized by the American people's desire for uniformity: National advertising and a set of shared cultural experiences meant that ’50s Americans wanted to be, and were, more alike than ever before. For restaurants, this meant the possibility to not just cater to one small sector, some ethnicity or class, but to expand their customer base to the colossal American middle class. Gustaf Lundberg made fun of the expanded clientele of diners in particular, which before the war had served mainly working-class urban men, in a May 26, 1951, cartoon in The Saturday Evening Post, where two diner cooks, looking at a rich man in a tuxedo standing in their eatery, remark, “[y]ou must admit he gives the joint class.” Jerry Marcus did much the same in an October 9, 1954, cartoon for the magazine, in which a scruffy chef, holding a toilet plunger, asks a middle-class patron in a suit if he “[w]ant[s] them potatoes mashed?”

Many have unfairly criticized this middle class emphasis on uniformity as conformist. It was not quite conformity, however, with all the negative connotations that brings, but consistency, that Americans prized. Mass advertising and production were not dystopian forces, molding every American into a carbon copy of some idealized consumer, but assurances for the consumer that what they were buying was the same product endorsed and used successfully by their peers. Not in spite of but alongside cultural homogeneity, Americans also valued choice and, in fact, valued choice over quality: any old housewife could make a good dish; real prosperity was being able to choose from forty different dishes, all consistently agreeable, even if nothing more. Even when all eyes were set on a specific product, industrialization meant it was easier than ever for competitors and new trends to sweep in, moving eyes to the next "it." 

Besides uniformity and consistency, two of the other defining characteristics of the 1950s, the nuclear family and the automobile, had outsized impacts on dining culture and restaurants. In the ’50s, women returned to the role of the housewife and “middle-class status [became] synonymous with consumption rituals organized around the nuclear household.” Restaurants adapted, advertising to weary housewives and their hungry children alike. By 1955, Howard Johnson’s, a chain of restaurants that would pioneer the family model, displayed an advertisement featuring two children and a well-off mother being served ice cream at one of its establishments; its caption reads “[p]ut away the skillet, Mom, tonight it’s Howard Johnson’s.” Restaurants for women did exist pre-War, but these were mostly lighter lunch affairs: teahouses, some cafeterias, and the restaurant chain Shrafft’s, which all made conscious efforts to cater to a female clientele; the “family restaurant” was a decidedly post-War phenomenon. As dining out for families became more mainstream, the papers even reported that the nation's largest food holidays, times when the domesticity of motherhood was on no better display, were being contracted out to restaurants. On November 16, 1958, the Times reported that “Thanksgiving, like Christmas, was once primarily a family affair, customarily celebrated at home. But…the old pattern ha[d] been changing. Dining out [was] growing in popularity, especially with small family parties.” Four years later, on December 20, 1962, the DC-area Evening Star newspaper celebrated dining out on Christmas, for “[g]iving mom a Christmas break,” and told readers that there was “one big advantage to dining out that day: Mom doesn't have to work two days putting the feast together.” By the end of the ’60s, no day was sacred, with restaurateurs “attempting to make the Sabbath a day of togetherness for the whole family,” by having them dine at their establishments, of course. But these changes to American dining did not shake the deep-rooted fashions of American fine dining. As we shall see, until the late ’60s and ’70s, fine-dining restaurants lagged behind cheaper establishments in evolving with the times. In 1964, women still often received a “cold reception… in the luxury-class restaurants” but no longer “in the middle-class family-type establishments.”

Another driver, as noted, of post-War changes to dining out was the ubiquity of the car. By 1955, “week-end driving around New York City during summer,” reported a July 17 Times article, was already “bumper-to-bumper.” “The reward” for this traffic, claimed the article, was the “large number of suburban and country restaurants.” So too for the rest of America, where the car connected Americans to areas never before accessible. The next year, 1956, Congress would pass the Interstate Highway Act, creating a connected grid of super highways across the contiguous United States. The increase of cars and highways changed the very way Americans shopped and consumed. Before this expansion, restaurants did exist along roads, but they were characterized as “miserable” and where the “fastidious starve to death.” Worse than their perceived lack of quality was their lack of consistency, so important it was for Americans. For Howard Johnson’s, the most popular restaurant in the America in the 1960s, success came from its pioneering franchise model, which ensured a cheap, reliable, and acceptably tasting meal no matter where you were in the country, a model later perfected by the fast-food industry. Highways also supported the shopping center, and the restaurants that grew in and around them, catering to the suburban shopper. Teenagers, who now had purchasing power and free time, saw the car as an ultimate status symbol of wealth and freedom, creating a “see and be seen” culture of driving. While not always welcome, these teenagers did prop up many restaurants, both as cheap workers and, for the first time, as a class with real purchasing power.

Despite increasing choices for the middle class at the grocery store and at cheaper restaurants, and the adaptations these restaurants made to a new car-centric and family-oriented culture, high-end American cuisine in the ’50s remained largely unchanged. At the time, French cooking, specifically haute cuisine, was high class, and it was unquestioned that the “general level of Parisian restaurants [was] higher than that in New York,” as well as the rest of the country. High-end restaurants either followed the tenets of this now-decades-old French cuisine, or some homogenized American menu, consisting of a steak, a chicken, and maybe a fish dish, if you were lucky. In medium-sized college towns, where one would now find dozens of eateries specializing in sundry cuisines at every price point, finer sit-down restaurants in the ’50s were still often confined to these “steak-and-potatoes” restaurants, and dining out at these places was relatively rare, saved for special occasions. What other public fine-dining existed was frequently attached to hotels, trains, or other sources of revenue, not as a standalone venture. But this fine-dining stagnation would, eventually, give way to new innovations, which, like those that came to the cheaper restaurants before, were caused by new cultural outlooks on food and dining.

As is often the case, these changes to the fine-dining status quo came from two places: the upper class themselves and the counterculture. By the late ’60s and ’70s, seeking sophistication through differentiation, the upper classes turned to more exotic cuisines, embracing and financing new movements. Nouvelle cuisine, with its emphasis on light, fresh ingredients, emerged as a response to stuffy haute cuisine that had come to dominate fine dining, which it viewed as archaic and heavy, and to the trends of homogenization and industrialization that had so captivated America. Italian cuisine—adapted for American palettes, of course—was, also, now seen as a worthy competitor to the haute fine-dining monopoly. Later, Italian cuisine would also benefit from the positive press of the “Mediterranean diet,” first described in the mid-’70s, which focused on health and seasonality. This Mediterranean diet was foreshadowed by movements in the ’60s, which viewed seasonality and regionality as positives, a major shift from consumption habits of the ’50s and earlier, where prestige was garnered through the exact opposite ideas: anyone could get an apple in season; the real luxury was having it any time of year, or having fresh oysters shipped all the way from the Atlantic coast to Hawaii, as was the case for a particularly striking banquet in 1913.

Many upper-class cultural shifts were the direct descendants of those advocated for by the counterculture movements of the ’60s. As early as 1961, Beatrice Trum published The Natural Foods Cookbook, which contained such exotic foods as millet, nutritional yeast, and agar agar. In its introduction, Clive and Jeanette McCay, in language far ahead of their time, wrote that:

In spite of the deluge of TV dinners, mixes, instant puddings, precooked cereals, cut-up vegetables, tenderized meats, tempting sweets and foodless foods, there is a movement for food that is honest, natural, and healthful—a movement that is steadily gaining strength and momentum.

While only a small fraction of the populace embraced this movement, and a smaller fraction still moved to communes to live off fresh, local ingredients, the ideas these groups promoted had an outsized effect on dining culture. By December 12, 1971, the Times reported that the “foods once associated with faddists [were] becoming part and parcel of the diet of thousands, especially young people,” who were more likely to embrace and react to new societal trends. These new upper-class and counter-cultural movements were both embraced and perfected by a small Californian restaurant named Chez Panisse, which opened in 1971.

It is no coincidence that Chez Panisse opened where it did. No place was a better incubator of these new trends in dining than California, having a lack of long-established restaurant traditions and a culture of radicalism in the ’60s. It was also, from its relative isolation and its agricultural industry, a land “of rich salads and exotic fruits and vegetables” and “unusual food combinations,” with, from its geographic position, heavy influence from Asian and Mexican cuisines. As early as 1954, an April 18 advertisement for California oranges in the Evening Star, told readers that “California t[ook] pride in setting fashions in food,” while clarifying that “California cuisine [was] many things,” not one homogenous culture that ’50s readers perhaps expected of any cuisine. Indeed, Cooking California Style, a 1971 cookbook on the subject, described just how varied the cuisine was, from “Romanian” to “Indonesia[n]” to “Caribbean.” The same cookbook also reported that Californians, but not the rest of the country, had access to foods we now take for granted, like fresh ginger and cilantro. In Berkeley, California, a college town known for its ’60s-era protest movements, even the employee pool for restaurants was exceptional, full of “former graduate students and professionals who [found] ‘la cuisine’ more satisfying than white-collar work,” creating a climate of culinary radicalism.

So when counterculturalist Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, a restaurant that focused on healthy, local cuisine, in Berkeley, that was no shock. What was surprising, however, was that Waters combined her counterculturalism with the upper-class luxury of French cooking. Waters was inspired by trips to the French countryside, and Chez Panisse was as much influenced by France as it was by California, and specifically by the nascent Nouvelle movement. Chez Panisse, then, synthesized both major forces of upper-class ’60s culinary advancement: countercultural movements, which focused on healthy and natural foods and high class experiments, such as Nouvelle cuisine, which emphasized seasonality and locality, doing so in a region perhaps more suited for their adoption than any other.

Chez Panisse, understandably, soon went on to revolutionize the American dining industry. It inspired restaurants like Spago, established 1982, and its celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, who further solidified “the link between nouvelle cuisine and this new California cooking, between the formal and the informal.” More tangibly, the use of goat cheese in America can be credited almost entirely to Chez Panisse, which started serving it in 1981. Within just a year, the 1982 edition of The Silver Palate Cookbook, a cookbook focusing on higher-end cooking and ingredients, described “chevres (goat cheeses)” as “[c]urrently undergoing a vogue in this country.” But, perhaps, it is The Silver Palate’s introduction that best characterized the results of Chez Panisse and all those that had come before it. Through Chez Panisse, and the food personalities of the ’60s, who had brought culinary excellence to the masses—Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, James Beard, e.g.—trends at the outskirts of society, reserved for the strange or the rich, pierced the mainstream. Americans still enjoyed the comforts of consistency and convenience, increasingly manifested in America’s fast food industry, no doubt, but:

There [was] a growing appreciation of fine foods…thanks to an unprecedented availability of fresh and canned domestic and imported ingredients, mastered techniques, and a new adventurous, confident spirit in Americans’ search for culinary excellence. Day by day…unusual, rare, exotic, previously unobtainable, fragile, complicated, or newly created foods bec[a]me less mysterious and more familiar to people.

American restaurants had emerged from a war, still prosperous and ready for expansion. As America’s middle class developed, so too did its restaurants, as new ideas and ideals became embraced in the hearts and stomachs of millions. When fine-dining remained unchanged, it took new movements, which redefined luxury, to reshape it. By the time of Chez Panisse, American dining contained room enough for both prosperity through consistency, choice, and accommodation to a new American lifestyle, and through new experimentation at the higher-end with seasonality, regionality, and creativity. In the decades after World War II, restaurants wove an elaborate quilt, with room enough for both Howard Johnson’s and Chez Panisse. And throughout this weaving, societal developments consistently changed the American dining scene, which grew to better serve new American ideals. The story of mid-twentieth-century American restaurants is not one of a dark age followed by a renaissance, or of any other course but unflagging growth, and a constant redefinition of what it meant to cater to American prosperity and to the American palate.


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  • Primary Source.
  • Hurley, Andrew, "From Hash House to Family Restaurant: The Transformation of the Diner and Post-World War II Consumer Culture." The Journal of American History 83, no. 4 (1997): 1282–1308.
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  • Primary Source.
  • U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. G.P.O., 1940, 1944, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1960, 1965, 1968, and 1970.
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