California's Role June 21 through October 26, 1997
In lieu of tradition, we have our restaurants. --Charles Perry
Whether it is the classic film " Life with Father," where the family is preparing to go to dinner at Delmonico's Restaurant, or the contemporary film "That Thing You Do," with the famous Brown Derby sign similar to the one in the exhibit, the dining experience is ingrained in our national consciousness
Brown Derby Sign 9 1/2 ft. x 4 ft. Neon Courtesy of Scott Hooper, Track 16
American Dining: California's Role
was created to provide an understanding of the history of the restaurant in America and to illustrate the role that California's restaurants have played within this historical context.
While not specifically about food, the exhibit is designed to appeal to the senses. Elegant and casual table settings, nostalgic memories of special meals, remnants of restaurants that captured the world's attention combine to pay homage to visionaries who have shaped our culinary past, present and future.
Menu from Simon's Drive-In Restaurant, Los Angeles, 1939 Photo by Jim Heiman
To provide a complete history of dining would require many exhibits, so the focus of this exhibit was narrowed to include eleven individuals, who through their restaurants, have made an irrevocable impact on our national eating habits. In addition, insights into the social and economic trends that were part of national and California history are explored.
The history of these restaurant pioneers spans over two centuries, beginning with founding father Thomas Jefferson and ending with contemporary California chef Joachim Splichal. Each of their innovations has set the standards for American food service and inspired restaurateurs across the nation.
To provide a framework for the objects on display, the exhibit has been divided into four sections. Fine Dining provides a historical background and an exploration of major New York restaurants where Americans were first introduced to the concept of dining out. American Archetypes traces the expansion of the nation and the types of restaurants that appeared as the result of the automobile, migration, and economic and social influences. California Classics features eleven examples of restaurants and architecture that flourished in the mild California climate. Fast Food examines the type of restaurant which has most changed contemporary America's eating habits.
There are recognizable changes in dining trends found throughout the exhibit. A comparison of a meal at Delmonico's Restaurant with one from Chez Panisse or Patina reflect a decrease in the number of courses served at each meal and a more healthful emphasis in food preparation. With the guidance of individuals like Joe Baum and James Beard, restaurants began to turn to American regional cooking rather than France for inspiration. The emergence of McDonald's represents a whole new type of restaurants that fulfill a need for affordable and convenient food. While the fast food restaurants constitute a major national economic force, it has come at the expense of many smaller regional "mom and pop" style restaurants.
Bob's Big Boy Menu Los Angeles, 1949 Photo by Jim Heiman
As the exhibit shifts in focus to California, there are several defining elements that create the unique character of the state's restaurants. A mild climate not only produced a land of agricultural abundance, it attracted immigrants from all over the world, who brought with them their culinary traditions. In the 1930s, the climate, affordable real estate and a culture addicted to the automobile was ideal for the development of drive-in restaurants. From the 1920s through the 1950s, an indelible image of Hollywood restaurants was projected worldwide by the film and media industry. As the 1950 post-war real estate prices rose, many of the drive-ins were replaced with coffee shops, such as those designed by the architectural firm Armet and Davis in the "Googie" architectural style. In the 1970s, food concepts originated by chefs including Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck helped to shift national attention from New York to California.
What makes a successful restaurant is difficult to answer, however, the individuals and restaurants in this exhibit can provide some insight into that question. Each individual seems to posses a combination of a unique and highly developed sense of taste, entrepreneurial skills, enthusiasm, energy, and the ability to give the people what they want before they know they want it.
American Dining is organized by the Fullerton Museum Center
You can order a catalog of this exhibit by visiting the "Museum Store" at this website.