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Early Restaurants in America

Golden Nugget Restaurant menu, Saturday, March 8, 1958


In America, what we would term a "restaurant"—a business existing solely to serve meals, as opposed to a place of lodging that also served meals—came into being in the late 18th century. Other eateries such as coffee houses and oyster houses also became prevalent in larger cities at this time.

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The term "restaurant," however, did not come into common parlance in America until the 19th century. Interestingly, there were a variety of regional names attached to establishments that we might call restaurants today; the phrase "eating house" might be used in New York City, while "restorator" was used in Boston and other places. Terms such as "dining room," "dining hall," and "victualing house" were also used in some areas.

Restaurants were concentrated around those areas with the largest populations in the early 19th century. As America expanded throughout the century, the urban restaurant began to grow in numbers and sophistication after 1850. According to Pillsbury (1990), the increasing number of restaurants came about as a result of the suburbanization of urban areas and a new affluent middle class. Interestingly, he notes that the standard pattern that developed in the latter part of the 19th century was that the greatest number of restaurants per person were concentrated in the West, with slightly fewer in the eastern industrial cities and the fewest per person in the South. The French restaurant, the model for elegant cuisine, also became popular after mid-century in the United States.