Restaurants are not democratic institutions. When I was growing up there were a handful of upscale eateries in each city, and they were frequented by society’s elites—wealthy individuals who were well-travelled and possessed knowledge of French food and wine (invariably, the only food and wine served at those places).
Today, the distribution of wealth has reach levels unimaginable 40 years ago, and everyone goes to restaurants. Even so, don’t get fooled into thinking that all customers are equal. Regulars take precedence over unknowns, and the most favored regulars (those who spend lots of money and tip well) generally get special treatment, even if the restaurant is full and they have no reservation.
I thought of all this recently as I read an interview with Andrew Haley, author of Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920. Although Haley’s book covers a much earlier time period, the pattern was exactly the same. Prior to 1900, restaurants were predominantly French and usually located in hotels in major cities. They were extremely expensive, which locked out the emerging middle class. To add to the cost, unmarried couples were expected to bring chaperones with them and pay for their meal as well.
As a result, the increasing members of the middle class sought out ethnic restaurants and blue-collar eateries in unfashionable parts of town. As those restaurants became busier, they hired more help and indulged in amenities such as tablecloths. Gradually, these establishments became legitimate categories of restaurants in their own right. By the 1920s, chaperones were unknown and it was socially acceptable for single women to dine by themselves.
This social progress was wiped out by the Depression and World War II, and by 1960 society was starting all over again. In the second decade of the 21st century, we seem to have reached a point where people of all social classes are treated in a fair and even-handed manner in restaurants—unless, of course, management knows who you are.