Rib Room, Somerset Hotel, ca. 1960
On November 1, 2016, Dining Out in Boston: A Culinary History will be published by the University Press of New England. This book seeks to conjure up the world of restaurants that developed in Boston over two centuries. Such a survey can help us understand how our eating habits have developed, how people have forged social identities by dining in restaurants, and how restaurants have shaped Boston’s metropolitan community and American society at large.
The foundation of Dining Out in Boston is historic menus, which, not only indicate what diners ate, they summon the taste of the dishes and a restaurant’s ambience and clientele. Menus can produce a similar effect to the way maps help us envision distant places or music scores help us hear the notes. They have been an underutilized source in culinary history and open up new vistas on the restaurant experience. This book is illustrated with three dozen historic menus and is informed by hundreds more.
Boston has ranked with the leading restaurant cities in America since the early nineteenth century, when its hotels and restaurants were helping to create the template for dining out. The city’s restaurant style has been a blend of traditional New England cooking, fine cuisine, ethnic influences, and culinary innovation. Yankee food was the foundational locavore cuisine, adapting British traditions and drawing upon the products of the region’s countryside and the bounty of the sea. As a global port and a center of wealth, Boston always had an audience for cosmopolitan dining, evidenced by the presence of French food and a taste for luxury ingredients. Ethnic fare has played an important role since the late nineteenth century, when Italian, German, Chinese, and other foreign foods entered the culinary repertoire. As one of the country’s foremost laboratories of urban innovation, Boston’s restaurants have embraced creative approaches to serving the public interesting food.
Taking its cue from Yankee moderation, Boston’s restaurant style has placed a premium on basic good dining. Writing in the 1970s, Waverly Root and Richard de Rochement had a similar take on Boston’s restaurant culture, which prioritized good eating over display: “In its enthusiasm for dining out it [San Francisco] surpasses Boston, where one goes to restaurants for the sake of their food, not, as in New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco, in the same spirit in which one goes to the theatre.”
Dining Out in Boston explains the evolution of the distinctive culinary culture that has been embodied by Boston’s restaurants.