For the kitchen-less, restaurants remained open
It is impossible to know if restaurants will reopen without knowing why they opened, why they stayed open during the 1918 flu pandemic, why they exist at all.
Our world is round and so is time more of a circle than a straight line. If that’s true, by November we’re due for a roaring ‘20s, followed by a great depression. But we don’t have quite the same limitations we did in 1918. To warn the public that it needed to avoid gathering, they first needed to gather; in fact, public spaces served as prime resources for New York City’s Health Commissioner at the time, Dr. Royal S. Copeland, to educate the public about the flu—at movie houses (PSAs were given before screenings), in schools (physicians took temperature checks and sent children home with pamphlets for their parents), and restaurants, for a city of commuters without kitchens.
A lot of changes occurred in 1920: New York adopted Emergency Rent Laws; the UK introduced unemployment insurance— which wouldn’t be adopted by the U.S. until the Great Depression, in 1932 in Wisconsin, and on the federal level as part of the Social Security Act in 1935. The first world war had just ended — not because of the pandemic, but rather the pandemic spread more easily because of the war — and we stopped talking about the pandemic because the war ended. (Outbreaks proliferated on military training sites, as in Boston, and at political gatherings, such as the infamous Liberty parade in Philadelphia.)
As is true now, a pandemic can end in one of two ways: it actually ends, or we stop counting. The Roaring Twenties didn’t come after the pandemic but after the war, which ended on November 11th, 1918. The Times reported an end of the pandemic six days later, just three months after it began, but the truth is that arguments had been won, rations were lifted, and the public was ready (or forced) to spend and celebrate. Prohibition came that same year, and Women’s Suffrage. It is not unpredictable that these eras could occur at once. A resistance only grows stronger when systemic weaknesses are revealed. The closing of saloons gave way to lunch counters, but we’d continue to debate over who was allowed to be served and who should do the serving.
It’s impossible to talk about restaurants without talking about revolution, about the fall of aristocracy and rise of a middle class; of travelers and tradesmen; the creation of city life, and homes without kitchens. Before restaurants, the act of having someone serve you, according to your specifications, was left to those who had a private cook: kings, queens, the elite, the noble. The public ate at communal tables at inns, taverns, boarding house, or from street vendors. The first restaurants served to heal the individual at a private table among strangers. And so it stands to reason that without a middle class, there are no restaurants.
In 1918, people who lived in the country had kitchens but those who moved to cities dared to live without one. Most tenements, boarding rooms, and studio apartments in New York were kitchen-less — if they weren’t, there was rarely gas, refrigeration, a window, or running water — so most residents couldn’t cook for themselves even if they wanted to, not that they had the time. They were too busy trying to pay rent. Apartments were so small that even if a family had a functioning kitchen, most opted to dine out. Maybe you bought from street carts a knish or some oysters — in what we now refer to as a Chinese take-out container, but was then an oyster pail — or a whole dried fish and a loaf of bread, which would hopefully last a few days.
On August 11th, 1918, when the first cases of the flu were reported in New York aboard the Norwegian ship Bergensfjord, all infected passengers and crew were met with an ambulance on the pier and rushed to a hospital where they were quarantined. All subsequent ships were treated the same. Copeland had a plan for isolating cases and vowed not to close schools or restaurants but to stagger other business hours to avoid crowding in public transportation, which he deemed the most dangerous. Shipbuilders in Staten Island complained of a drop in productivity due to sick employees and urged the mayor to close public spaces. But the mayor entrusted Copeland, who didn’t have much choice. This was a city of commuters without kitchens.
It’s also worth noting that at the time, no one knew the flu was a virus. We wouldn’t until 1930. There was also seasonal flu, which was not as voracious as the one in 1918. This particular strain would later be the first recorded of H1N1, a mutation of which we’d see again in 1957 (as H2N2), in 1968 (as H3N2), and 2009 as H1N1, all of which had the potential to be full-blown pandemics. Its genome wouldn’t be fully sequenced until 2005, but the first vaccine came in 1940. It was made available first to the military in 1945 and then to the general public a year later. But in 1918, we likely thought it was another bacteria, like the newly eradicated tuberculosis or cholera. So the best we could do was flatten a curve.
An addition to the Sanitary Code made sneezing or coughing without coverage a misdemeanor. You had to isolate and wear a mask, but before N95s, that meant gauze or cheesecloth. Many did, or you’d be met with a Boy Scout handing out a card that read: You are violating the Sanitary Code. “We live in a very different historical moment,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Mike Wallace this March in an essay adaptation for the Times of his book, Greater Gotham: A History of New York from 1898 to 1919. “We have greatly improved medical and communication and organizational resources available for dealing with such a crisis. But it’s worth remembering the alacrity with which the city’s civil and political society rallied to grapple with a deadly menace.”
On November 17th, 1918, when the first wave was thought to be over in New York, Copeland gave a summary to the Times in Epidemic Lessons Against Next Time, echoing the same: “I do want to mention what I think was the most interesting thing about it — the cordial acquiescence of the people in what could not fail to mean actual inconvenience.”
THE FIRST RESTAURANT
What we called restaurants in 1918 had only been in the U.S. for about eighty years; in Paris, since the 1760s; and in China since 1100 A.D., starting with the Song Dynasty — the first government in the world to issue banknotes, the Song invented printing, the compass, and the earliest form of dining out. All of these eras align, uncoincidentally, with an age of enlightenment and the growth of a mobile society that values the individual. It is a blessing and a curse of civilization that the customer is always right.
In the Song Dynasty, food shops opened to feed the tradesmen who started commuting between the northern and southern territories. They catered to those who were far from home and missed the food of their region. Northern shops featured southern specialties, and vice versa, while adventurous eaters could try something new. Originating out of the customs of tea ceremonies, an incredible variety of specialized cookshops clustered in the business centers of the two main cities, Kaifeng and Hong. Historians Elliott Shore and Katie Rawson do a deep dive — from a look at the earliest tools that allowed us to chop more than chew, to the mechanics of global, fast-food franchising — in their wonderful book, Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants.
In 1760s Paris, restaurants were places where the public could dine in private among strangers and order off a menu a la carte. You could eat almost like nobles, which led to at least the illusion that you could become one. By contrast, the old table d’hôte service, meaning the “host’s table”, offered a set menu served all at once. The scene was not unlike those old paintings of large banquets, except these weren’t large party reservations. What we think of as a chef’s table today gave cooks authority over the meal then too, but it was not a particularly special experience for the diner. That’s just when the cook was serving the meal that day. At the host’s table, you ate what and when everyone else ate, and with everyone else. Nothing was portioned out just for you or made to your taste. Culinary art wasn’t a thing yet, either. This was purely for nourishment. In a restaurant, the diner became the host of their own table.
At its most basic, a restaurant serves to heal its patrons. Restaurer means “to restore” and originally referred to the soup served at these new shops. They served “restoratives”, specifically bone broth. In contrast to the communal dining halls, these soup shops set themselves apart by claiming to be health houses. Historian Rebecca L. Spang tracks this cultural shift in her book, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, which, she notes, actually predates the French revolution. Those who lived an urban existence were often found to be “weak of the chest,” she notes, too weak for an evening meal, whether because of the city air or the intellectual exhaustion:
“Lazy, sickly, or simply busy, the restaurant patron needed bouillons available any minute. […] Unlike mealtimes, which might be set by shared social convenience, the need for restoration could never be so routinized.”
“Men of letters needed to take particular notice of their diets because their overactive brains easily disturbed the balance of the human machine; as they struggled to digest difficult ideas, no energy remained for digesting their food.”
Women were naturally seen as too weak to take an evening meal regardless of their activities — likely because men did not want them going to the dining halls, but nevertheless, women could be found sipping their broths at a restaurant. It became a safe haven, a private space in public, for all who could afford it. Even once restaurants served full meals, they maintained this promise, as Spang writes:
“In the restaurant, the eater enjoyed a new kind of personalized treatment […] the restaurant gave new significance to the individual’s emotions, utterances, and actions, and elaborated a whole new logic of sociability and conviviality. […] By definition, restaurants did not pose a possible threat to public order; instead, they remedied private, physiological disorder.”
This sentiment hasn’t changed much since. When the flu pandemic arrived in New York in 1918, health commissioner Copeland kept restaurants open to keep the peace and provide, for many, the only way to get a nutritious meal.
FOOD AS HEALTHCARE
Restaurants in 1918 were warned against carrying on as places of entertainment, such as the saloons, cabarets, and rooftop theaters where people would gather in large clusters, but the clean ones were needed to feed the public. In Chicago, restaurants could stay open as long as there wasn’t music or dancing. In D.C., you could get an all-day menu for a dollar. A perfect modern translation for this would be the meal kits and grocery provisions restaurants are selling now.
If you had the means, maybe you went to Coney Island and got clam fritters or smoked beef tongue from Joe’s. The very well-to-do could be found at the city’s first restaurant, according to the French classification of the term, Delmonico’s. Mark Twain could be found there in one of their private rooms, holding court.
None of this was ideal. Many perished, and at the time, no one knew why. But healthcare workers and food providers are always the ones to keep working during a crisis. They provide a public service and, in New York’s past epidemics, have worked in unison to provide those public services. If you were sick in a private home, you quarantined there, preferably in a room away from the rest of the family. If you lived in a tenement or other insufferable complex, you were advised to quarantine at a hospital. Lillian Wald made these efforts possible. The mother of public health nursing, and of the visiting nurses’ movement, she had opened Henry Street Settlement in 1895, and in 1918 formed the Nurses’ Emergency Council.
This new “settlement movement” encouraged public servants to settle in the neighborhood where they served to better serve that neighborhood. Nurses went door to door, canvasing for flu cases and delivering linens, pneumonia jackets, and quarts of soup. Among them was Millicent Hearst, wife of William Randolph Hearst, who was appointed to coordinate food relief and transportation. The Red Cross also set up soup kitchens around the country during the war and through the pandemic but more purposefully through the Great Depression.
Restaurants of today, by the nature of numbers, have each become less essential. They are no less loved, but most exist as competitive businesses, ones that the Department of Health has been tasked to monitor and to profit from, rather than work alongside. Efforts now are made by restaurants to provide food for healthcare workers and out-of-workers, funded by private donations from the public, a complete role reversion made necessarily by a shift in budgets that favor the NYPD. The Lillian Walds of today are on the battlefield in the streets, treating protestors in opposition of police brutality. The food relief and transportation comes from mutual aid networks, from those out-of-workers in the service industry, who are raising funds, running soup kitchens, and organizing community fridges. Schools that once had nurses now have police, and we hope to afford medical care when we need it.
For restaurants, the period following 1918 led to a rise in lunch counters with bright lights and white tiles; increased automation; requirements to clean dishes with scalding hot water; and the first disposable drinking device, the Dixie Cup, so you wouldn’t have to drink directly from a communal water fountain. With a perception of recovery and deferred spending, the working class made use of the lunch counters and underground bars, speakeasies and Blind Tigers of the 1920s, but the stock market crash shortly thereafter, in 1929, would lead us into the Great Depression. All the while restaurants remained opened but evolved with public needs.
WHO NEEDS A RESTAURANT?
If not for sustenance, a restaurant exists so we can be in the room among the mobile; to be an individual, and observe our relationship to other individuals. It is about access, power, reflection. Being able to sit in the room is as basic a right as being able to vote. If you are not at the lunch counter, you are not part of the conversation. Now they are talking about you.
To wonder if restaurants will come back is to wonder whether the middle class can collapse, and for that we can look to why any civilization has failed. No matter its structure, it falls when the lowest class can no longer afford to live. That is civilization’s most basic function. But for a civilization to be truly successful, this class must have the ability (not just the illusion) to be mobile.
When we talk about the middle class, we talk about mobility, the opposite of nobility, where no one moves. It is worth taking note that the U.S. has become a place where we can strive to be the king or queen of our own domain, no matter how small a slice that is. This experiment is very young, but there is a difference between aspiring for equal access and aspiring to be greater than. A minimum wage becomes meaningless without a maximum wage. Tipping is insufficient where there is no respect for those we’re tipping. It’s only the percentage between the two parties that counts.
To put it plainly, if for you to be where you are, others must stay where they are — and where they are, they can’t afford a place to live or a means to eat, meaning they can’t afford to live — what courses of action are they left? Without a place for themselves, a place for enlightenment, access to restoration, the commoner has no option but to storm the castle.
Before the fall of the French aristocracy, commoners could no longer afford the rising price of bread or the tax on salt, among many other things. There was famine and an elite looking to skip out on a bill. The Song Dynasty, which experienced a great age of invention and urbanization, ultimately failed after its military consumed a disproportionate amount of the government’s revenue. This followed with political corruption, civilian uprising, and, despite that big budget, a divided and weakened people that were susceptible to invasion from external tribes. The house divided did not stand. When we are busy pointing fingers, accusing our own, we fail to see the enemy as it slowly enters through the back door.
What will restaurants look like in 2021? This depends wholly on what our society will need to heal. But we know that having a kitchen of our own is not reason enough to cook for ourselves. We will still want to be served, to be restored, to be in the room. Or we’ll want help hosting others in our home.
If you remember, about twenty years ago, there was a service movement in the dining rooms of Brooklyn that Manhattanites referred to as rude. Really it was more that servers were starting to treat guests as equals, but that put some people off, for reasons not far from those in 1760s France who fought for public unity while leaving out the people making the soup.
In a way, those who open restaurants for reasons other than to provide a service, who fail to provide a worthy life for those who serve, have become the aristocrats of their own domain. Those who dine at restaurants now without masks, who have kitchens of their own and leave insufficient tips — that is, anything below 30% at a time like this — proclaim themselves a class above the person who serves them. And that is why we can’t dine like we did in 1918, or 2018, but for a revolution we might. With some sense of empathy, the kind required to evolve a society, we might dine better.