The Rich History of New York City’s Restaurant Scene

History of New York City’s Restaurant Scene
Photo by Peter Bond on
You can eat at a different spot once a day for 22.7 years and never go to the same place twice, according to data from Open Table. With a healthy mix of hole-in-the-wall hidden gems to top-of-the-line, Michelin-star establishments — not to mention the vast array of street foods, there’s no question that the Big Apple is made for foodies.
When looking into how it all began, however, many may be surprised to know that the city’s restaurant scene didn’t even exist back in the 1700s. From the first fine dining establishment to how the scene evolved into what it is today, here’s a short history of how it all came to be.

Where it all began

Taverns and coffee shops of the 1700s were frequented by primarily “rowdy young men” back in the day, though they serve as the city’s earliest example of restaurant culture, with some still open to this day.
Fraunces Tavern, which was opened by Samuel Fraunces, and dates back to 1762, is one great example of the beginning of NYC’s restaurant history. Having been used for trading and even as a dance school before becoming a tavern, the establishment currently has an on-site museum that sits above the tavern.
It allows today’s visitors to explore the rich history of the place — such as when the British took control of the restaurant to feed their soldiers during the American War of Independence.
Check out this video to get a glimpse of Fraunces Tavern:
The first resemblance of restaurants we know and love today came into existence back in the early nineteenth century and was known as “eating houses,” according to JSTOR. While these were the places to go for a quick lunch for businessmen, they soon evolved into something more, and they became a place for women, too.
That said, the first fine dining restaurant didn’t come about until the mid-nineteenth century in 1837, when Swiss immigrants John and Peter Delmonico opened the first of its kind in the country, their inspiration coming from similar establishments in France.
Known as Delmonico’s, the restaurant had a French chef, private dining rooms, and white linen tablecloths, making it a luxurious place for the elite to gather. From there, JSTOR explains that the trend of eating out caught on soon after, and the concept of only catering to the wealthy quickly evolved into one that catered to all demographics — and it wasn’t long before the mid-1800s when New York became known as one of the most notable culinary destinations in the world.

The beginning of street food

Near the end of the nineteenth century, it wasn’t uncommon for restaurants to close from 7:30 pm to 4:30 am, presenting a great opportunity for what was once known as “Owls,” or food wagons that sold hot food and beverages to workers in the off-hours. However, when it comes to the closest example that resembles today’s food trucks, the Church Temperance Society brought the first lunch wagon to the streets back in 1893, leading the Women’s Auxiliary of the Church Temperance Society to open more around the city after finding success, according to
Serving items such as tea and coffee in addition to sandwiches (for just five cents each), the lunch wagons became increasingly popular and were eventually replaced by motorized versions in 1930.

The evolution of the food itself

When restaurants first came about in NYC, there’s no doubt that what was on the menu differs greatly from those of today. In the 1850s, menus typically were catered towards accessibility to travelers, as well as the upper class.
Much like the early lunch wagons, menus were rather simple in taste, and those closer to ports generally served seafood due to their location. However, as time went on and the city diversified greatly, more and more foods that cater to a multitude of cultures, tastes, and cuisines could be found throughout.

New York City’s Restaurant Scene, Today

Today, these can be largely sampled through the city’s food trucks in addition to restaurants, allowing tourists and locals alike to sample food from around the world without ever leaving the city.
The food scene in NYC is undoubtedly iconic, especially when considering how it came to be. From the taverns of the 1700s to the beginnings of fine dining in the nineteenth century to how the food itself has evolved from simpler tastes, the history behind it all makes for an unforgettable dining experience.