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From the start, "dining out" was more than just eating; it was a social event. In society, food has always served as a class marker. In the early European restaurants, a court tradition of high cuisine and elaborate table manners came to be observed, distinguishing the bourgeoisie from measly rabble.

The original French restaurants featured dapper waiters and remarkable wine cellars. Individual portions were prepared out of sight and brought to each guest. Food once restricted to the aristocratic few became available to anyone who could pay for it.

But not until 1827 did the idea of the restaurant catch on in the United States. One factor in the lag was a suspicion that Americans had (and still have) regarding extravagant or pretentious things. This country was founded upon values of prudence and practicality, with a resulting antagonism toward foreign foppery.

By the 1820s, however, American tastes were more developed. The expanding economy facilitated a new sophistication in food and fashion. In urban centers, especially, Americans turned to France for inspiration.

Delmonico's, which began as a small café and pastry shop on William Street in New York City, is considered the first restaurant in the United States. By 1836, Delmonico's was a three-story "restaurant français," with inlaid floors, expensive decor, and 16,000 bottles of wine in the cellar.

There were many taverns in the United States before Delmonico's. The difference between a tavern and a restaurant may be traced to the difference between the etymology of the two words. Tavern is from the Middle English, meaning "a hut made of boards." Restaurant is from the French word for "restorative."

Throughout the countryside, in towns, and in cities for many years public dining (except for occasional feasts and events) was tavern dining. Taverns served common meals at specific times during the morning, afternoon, and evening and featured hearty, simple fare that could satisfy travelers and businessmen.

Eighteen twenty came and went, and taverns near the center of business in larger cities were becoming "hotels," which offered their traveling guests sizable meals. These establishments also kept a lavish dinner table for merchants, lawyers, and clerks in the city who did not wish to travel home to eat in the middle of the working day.

San Diego was scarcely a glimmer in the country's eye in the 1820s, much less a hotbed of California Cuisine. Over the next hundred years, San Diego grew, shrunk, and grew again. It underwent a war, changed nationalities twice, and became a military town. Although cafés and eating houses had popped up downtown by the 1880s, most cooking was done at home.

In an interview conducted with Herbert C. Kelly (1888-1984), his answer to the question "Were there any restaurants around?" in his youth was a succinct "Restaurants were few and far between." After indicating that people didn't eat out much, Kelly went on to paint the following picture of early-20th-century San Diego.

Kelly said, "On the northeast corner of Fourth and F there was a building...which was Benoit's Restaurant, where we sometimes ate out on Sundays after church. Or on Third and F Streets on the northwest corner was the Carleton Hotel, which had an extensive dining room, we thought, where a Sunday dinner cost probably 25 cents, or something of that sort."

Herbert C. Hensley writes about early scenes of dining out in San Diego in his article "Mutton Chops, and a Round" (San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, October 1956). In one hotel in the 1880s, "The tired and dust-covered passengers came streaming across the street and through the backyard of the hotel, the men lining up at the long sink just off the kitchen for their ablutions before entering the dining room.... [T]he general practice in those days was for the 'heavy meal' to be taken at noon. All three meals were good hearty ones, and the uniform price was 'two bits' -- twenty-five cents. The Horton House charged 'four bits' for dinners, which, said the knowing, weren't a bit better -- except, maybe, as regarded 'style.'... The Horton House, in the interest of that 'style,' essayed to change its dinner to the more fashionable evening hour, but most patrons weren't used to it and wouldn't have it."

Later, Hensley mentions restaurant service. "Waiters in nearly all eating houses in those days were men and, rather naturally there were no tips. The amount of any tip certainly would have been negligible, and, anyway, pennies were entirely unused then, here and throughout the West."

In two long-since-discontinued annual guidebooks for the city, The San Diego Tourist and Guidebook of San Diego, advertisements centered on the public eating experience. One food establishment in 1885 boasted a "separate entrance for ladies." In 1904, ads flaunted "one side of the restaurant reserved for gentlemen." In 1914, an eatery offered "private booths for ladies" and "the best luncheon in the city for 40 cents." (The place was called the Oyster Loaf Cafe.) In the 1915 version of Tourist, the following tidbits caught my eye: "Visitors from the East, who are accustomed to the many delightful tea rooms of the larger cities, will be glad to learn that San Diego has an up-to-date, well-managed tea room." According to another ad, "This pleasurable necessity of eating is sure to claim your attention while in this city."

Golden Lion

San Diego Historical Society photo

By 1920, San Diego's population had swelled to nearly 75,000, and there were modern amenities all over town, including dozens of fine restaurants. Although most of the restaurants have long since closed, the buildings that housed them are home to other businesses. The Hard Rock Cafe downtown, for instance, in 1920 was the Golden Lion. And the Prado restaurant in Balboa Park stands on the spot where the Cafe Del Rey Moro opened in 1935.

Cafe del Rey Moro, 193

San Diego Historical Society photo

The U.S. Grant Hotel houses the oldest continuously open, still-operating restaurant in San Diego. It started business on October 15, 1910. Ulysses S. Grant Jr. had come to San Diego to find a healthful climate for his ailing wife. He bought the old Horton House, razed it, and built a $1.95 million luxury hotel named in honor of his father, the ex-general and ex-president. Immediately, the U.S. Grant offered one of only a handful of fine restaurants in the booming new Southwestern metropolis of San Diego.

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