Illustration Possibly Depicting the Location of Julien's Restorator, the First French Restaurant in the U.S. // Wikimedia Commons
Illustration Possibly Depicting the Location of Julien's Restorator, the First French Restaurant in the U.S. // Wikimedia Commons

The First U.S. Restaurants to Serve 8 Foreign Cuisines

Illustration Possibly Depicting the Location of Julien's Restorator, the First French Restaurant in the U.S. // Wikimedia Commons
Illustration Possibly Depicting the Location of Julien's Restorator, the First French Restaurant in the U.S. // Wikimedia Commons

Naming the first person to do something is not an exact science, as demonstrated by Ohio and North Carolina’s epic war over where the airplane was invented. However, food historians have charted the timelines of some foreign cuisines in the U.S., and they have a pretty good idea of the first restaurants to serve them—or, at least the first well-documented ones. Here are eight.


When Jean Baptiste Gilbert Payplat dis Julien, an immigrant and former steward for the French consulate in the U.S., opened Julien’s Restorator in 1793, it wasn’t just the first French restaurant in the States but also, arguably, the first restaurant in America, period. In her book Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York, Cindy R. Lobel calls Julien’s both the first “full-scale French restaurant” and “the earliest-known American restaurant.” Although hotels and boarding houses served food, it was the only establishment solely dedicated to cuisine. (The concept of the restaurant was even new in Paris.)

Julien's introduced the concept of a menu to Americans, and they could choose from an array of soups (which is what made it a place for restoration, hence "restaurant"), oyster dishes, coffee, and wine. Julien ran it until his death in 1805, at which point his widow took over. The Boston Phoenix and the Boston Hospitality Review, a trade publication, have also deemed Julien’s America’s first French restaurant.


Many sources list America’s first Chinese restaurant as Macao and Woosung, founded by Norman Asing in San Francisco in 1849. Among them are Smithsonian Magazine and the Chinese American Restaurant Association. A few others grant the distinction to The Canton Restaurant, which also opened in San Francisco in 1849. It is known that “chow chows,” marked by yellow triangle flags, popped up across the city in the mid-19th century to feed its surging population of Chinese laborers. Asing, the owner of Macao and Woosung, was an English-speaking immigrant businessman who acted as a spokesperson for the Chinese-born population. At the restaurant, he entertained politicians and policemen, bridging the immigrant community to local authorities. Legend has it that the joint invented chop suey as a way to quickly serve a group of drunk miners (though some modern anthropologists think chop suey is actually a traditional Chinese peasant dish, and Asing didn’t invent it on the spot at Macao and Woosung).


Stefano Moretti founded Caffé Moretti in a basement in the Financial District sometime in the 1850s. Moretti claimed to be a priest, and rumors circulated that he fled Rome to outrun an arrest due to his involvement in a revolutionary group, according to Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York by William Grimes. This rumor could have been due to the unsavory reputation of Italians at the time. According to John F. Mariani, author of How Italian Food Conquered the World, Caffé Moretti was the likely the earliest Italian restaurant in the U.S. Established a few decades before the first large wave of Italian immigrants, it served spaghetti, topped with Parmesan cheese and beef gravy. Mariani writes that the dish was the “cause of amusement among American patrons, who had no clue how to eat the stuff.”


Miltiades Mandros of Oakland, California, has been on a mission to prove that Peloponnesos, founded by his ancestor, Spiros Voulomanos, in 1857 on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is the U.S.’s first Greek restaurant. A heritage group for Greek immigrants from the Tsintzina region backs him up. In Greek Americans: Struggle and Success, author Peter C. Moskos calls it “the first recorded Greek-owned restaurant” in the U.S., and Peloponnesos was dubbed the first Greek restaurant in New York City in prior newspaper accounts and The Encyclopedia of New York City. Mandros has offered to pay for a plaque for its place on Roosevelt Street.


Lynne Olver, a New Jersey reference librarian who ran the online culinary history project Food Timeline, wrote that “[t]racing the origin, evolution, and dispersion of Japanese restaurants in the USA is a complicated and challenging project.” References to “Japanese restaurants” appear in West Coast newspapers in the late 19th century. Another researcher, H.D. Miller, who runs the website An Eccentric Culinary History, found that many of these mentions were actually referring to eateries owned by Japanese immigrants that served American food. Miller does have a pick for the U.S.’s first documented Japanese restaurant. In 1889, writers for Harper’s Weekly visited a Japanese restaurant in New York City. They described fish “served unbroken on a handsome platter, and decorated in a manner altogether Eastern” and described meat dumplings and vegetable displays that sound distinctly Japanese. The place was connected to a flophouse for Japanese sailors. Its closure and the odd happenings around it, detailed on Miller’s site, are worth a read.


Exquisite Taste Magazine and Food Timeline name Denver’s Chada Thai as the first Thai restaurant in the U.S. “Some of the Thais in Denver said it would be a big mistake, that Americans don't like spiced food,” its owner Lai-iad “Lilly” Chittivej said in a 1963 Denver Post article dug up by Food Timeline. This was a miscalculation of Excite-passes-on-Google proportions, as Thai food has skyrocketed in popularity in the U.S. over the past 50 years. Chittivej immigrated to the U.S. with her doctor husband and ran Chada Thai until 1972. Her daughter-in-law and grandson run a new restaurant of the same name, also in Denver.


Exquisite Taste and Food Timeline point to an August 15, 1961 New York Times food review as the earliest documentation of a Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S. “The most recent establishment to join the roster of [New York City’s] oriental dining rooms is the Viet Nam,” writes Craig Claiborne of the restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue. He described it as “a small, poorly air-conditioned, unpretentious place with an interesting cuisine modestly priced” and added that, “It is reputedly the only Vietnamese restaurant in America.”


When Mamma Desta opened in Washington, D.C. in 1978, The Washington Post wrote that it was the first Ethiopian restaurant “in this country and maybe the first anywhere outside of Africa.” However, when researching Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., author Harry Kloman learned about a tiny eatery dedicated to Ethiopia’s mix of spicy stewed meat, vegetable dishes, and sour injera bread that operated for a few months in Long Beach, California in 1966. Simply called the Ethiopian Restaurant, it was “a former house converted into a modest dining place which seats 30 in two rooms,” according to the July 21, 1966 Long Beach Press-Telegram. Founder Beyene Guililat was in the U.S. studying to become a commercial pilot. He later tried to sustain a revamped Ethiopian Restaurant in San Diego in 1969.

A Forgotten George Gershwin Musical Just Made Its American Debut

In 1982, dozens of crates containing handwritten musical manuscripts—inked with the scribbles of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin—were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Many of the scores contained lost or unpublished songs that had not been performed in decades, if ever. In an interview with The New York Times, Miles Kreuger, the president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical, called it "one of the monumental discoveries in the history of American musical theater."

Included in the crates were about 70 Gershwin tunes, including an autograph score to his largely forgotten 1924 musical, Primrose.

George Gershwin was one of the most popular, and important, American composers of the 20th century. His music, prized for being equally adventurous and accessible, was chameleonic. It seemed to fit in everywhere, comfortably toggling the jazz, theatrical, and symphonic worlds. In the theater, Gershwin helped establish a musical idiom that dominated for decades. (Fun fact: His Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.) In basement jazz clubs, much of his work became the bedrock of the Great American Songbook, the launching pad for generations of jazz musicians. In the classical concert hall, his symphonic work remains wildly popular—the pillar of Pops concerts.

But Gershwin’s reputation as the "All-American" composer belies the fact that a significant number of early staged scores remain missing. Some of Gershwin's Broadway music has not been heard in nearly a century. In the case of Primrose, it's been 92 years.

That's not unusual. During Gershwin's heyday, most showtunes vanished the moment the final curtain closed. "Musicals back then were like comic books," Michael D. Miller, founder and president of the Operetta Foundation, tells Mental Floss. "People waited and waited for the next one, and when it came out, the public devoured it. And when it was all said and done, they threw it out."

Take Gershwin’s other early Broadway shows: Many parts to the scores of Dangerous Maid (1921), Our Nell (1922), The Rainbow (1923), and Half Past Eight (1918) have disappeared. "If they didn't make it into one of the warehouses that belonged to companies that rented out scores, the scores might have just been destroyed," says Michael Owen, Consulting Archivist to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. The practice has left behind a trail of musical breadcrumbs. "That's the case with Gershwin's pre-1924 shows," Owen said. "There might be one fully-orchestrated song from a musical that still exists. Or there might be half a show that exists, but only as a piano with vocals. Or there might be some lyrics without piano, or piano without lyrics."

The same goes for recordings. The truth is, despite Gershwin's popularity, you can't listen to much of his work as it originally sounded. According to Miller, even recordings of tunes that Gershwin wrote at the height of his popularity, like those in Treasure Girl and Show Girl, are AWOL. Owen estimates that 25 percent of both George and his brother Ira Gershwin's oeuvre has not been recorded. "If you're talking 1923 and earlier, it gets very skimpy."

Primrose is lucky in that regard. A complete piano-vocal score was published when the show debuted in London, and cast recordings were sold. The musical simply slipped into obscurity, and the score plunged with it. It has never been performed in America—until now.

At its heart, Primrose is a tale of unwanted relationships—and a tribute to the lengths people will go to find happiness. In it, the novelist Hilary Vane uses his imaginative talents to cook up real-life schemes to unchain a web of unhappy characters from undesired paramours, freeing them to run off with their true loves. (Along the way, there are some cheerful Arthur Sullivan-esque songs, including one about the headless Mary, Queen of Scots.)

The play, which debuted on London's West End, brought Gershwin to Britain in 1924. He sailed the Atlantic with seven polished tunes already stuffed in his suitcase, many of which were attempts to write in the style of classic Edwardian romps. "I have inserted several numbers in 6/8 time, because the English are a 6/8 nation," he told the London Standard. "The Americans are a 4/4 nation and their music is essentially the fox-trot. But the English, who are used to good lyrics, like the 6/8 rhythm, which approaches most closely to ordinary speech."

The result—a unique fusion of brassy across-the-pond blue notes and British patter song—was distinctly different from anything playing on either side of the Atlantic. The English playwright Noël Coward was gobsmacked. He called the score's variety "extraordinary."

The great significance of Primrose, however, is that Gershwin not only wrote the music—he also orchestrated three tunes himself. Gershwin's orchestration skills have long been a point of controversy. Classical critics, in a fit of anti-showbiz snobbery, griped that he lacked the knowledge to write for large ensembles. Indeed, Gershwin's first stab at opera, Blue Monday, and his famed Rhapsody in Blue were orchestrated by other musicians.

It's here, on Primrose, that Gershwin cut his teeth writing for large ensembles. "These orchestrations are considered to settle a scholarly controversy—when did George learn orchestration?" writes theater expert James Ross Moore in the The George Gershwin Reader. These newly honed orchestration skills would make history, helping Gershwin write pieces that eventually cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of American composers: his "Concerto in F," American in Paris, and all of Porgy and Bess.

Primrose saw 255 performances on the West End and even hopped to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. But the Great American Composer's show never appeared in the United States. After premiering down under in 1925, Primrose was forgotten—interest wasn't rekindled until the handwritten scores popped up in that Secaucus warehouse 57 years later.

In 1987, the Library of Congress dusted off the recently discovered score and hosted a performance of Primrose. The play itself, however, was not staged: The dialogue-rich script was cut. Conversely, in 2003, Musicals Tonight!—a New York City group dedicated to reviving classic musicals—performed the musical, but, this time, the orchestrations were cut in favor of a lonely piano. Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the Village Voice, wrote that, "Enough comes across to make you see what the work could be, in the hands of knowing professionals, as part of a living tradition."

Well, pros have finally gotten their hands on it. Michael Miller and his colleagues spent days sifting through the Gershwin archives at the Library of Congress and reassembled the entire original score.

Now, for the first time in 92 years—and the first time in the United States—the curtain has finally opened on a fully-orchestrated, fully-staged production of Primrose, revived under the care of the Ohio Light Opera. Based in Wooster, Ohio (about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, and a shorter jaunt from Cuyahoga National Park), the Ohio Light Opera will put on seven more performances between now and August 11. I had the privilege of taking in a dress rehearsal, and I can verify that it's a hoot.

As for the sea of other incomplete Gershwin works, there is hope. Scholars are currently working to bring them—all of them—back. At the University of Michigan, folks leading The Gershwin Initiative are working to publish critical editions (including full scores) to all of George and Ira Gershwin's works—including their embryonic stage pieces. (Perhaps they will resurrect the missing score to The Rainbow, which now stands alone as the only Gershwin musical to never enjoy an American premiere.)

In the meantime, Gershwin fans and music history buffs looking to take a road trip should look no further than Ohio: Click here for dates and tickets.

American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
The Bold Van Buren Sisters, Who Blazed a Trail Across America
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain

Descendants of American president Martin Van Buren, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren were born into a life of privilege that assured them the safe and respectable existences of society women. But with America on the brink of war, the sisters ditched their gilded cages for a cross-country adventure they hoped would change their beloved nation for the better.

By July 1916, America was readying to enter World War I, and 32-year-old Augusta and 26-year-old Adeline were eager to do their part as motorcycling military dispatch riders, transporting crucial communications to the front line. Women were flat-out barred from combat duty in the U.S., but as bikers with thousands of hours logged on the roaring vehicles, the Van Burens felt they were uniquely qualified for such arduous and dangerous missions. And they were determined to prove it. By the end of their journey, they would become the first women to travel across the country on two solo motorcycles.

Fittingly, Addie and Gussie—as they preferred to be called—set forth on Independence Day. From Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay racetrack, they headed to the Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in Manhattan to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. They had top-of-the-line bikes: $275 Indian Power Plus motorcycles that boasted Firestone "non-skid" tires and gas headlights that would allow them to barrel through the darkest nights. They had an indomitable spirit. They had each other. And they'd need all the courage and resources they could muster for this daunting endeavor.

“There were no road maps west of the Mississippi," their great-nephew and historian Robert Van Buren explained to the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram of the sisters' epic journey. "The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails, things like that.” The Lincoln Highway was far from the paved superhighways of today. Heavy rain proved a major problem, wiping out roads and throwing the Van Burens off-course and off their bikes. “They had no helmets. They just had goggles with a leather cap and leathers on. They were really exposed to the elements,” Van Buren said. “They had a tough time.” Yet weather and murky maps weren't their only obstacles.

Just west of Chicago, the motorcycling mavens were pulled over by police—not for the way they were driving but for the way they were dressed. Though women's fashion was shifting from corsets to more comfy attire, dresses were still the norm. In some states it was actually illegal for women to wear pants. So the Van Burens' military-style leggings and leather riding breeches got them arrested again and again by confounded cops. Between arrests and weather delays, the sisters' one-month journey stretched into two.

By August, Addie and Gussie reached Colorado's Rocky Mountains and earned their first record, becoming the first women to reach the 14,109-foot summit of Pike's Peak by motorized vehicle. Running behind schedule, the sisters abandoned their plan to ride north through Wyoming, favoring a more direct path through the Rockies. Unfortunately, relentless rain transformed the mountains’ dirt paths to sucking mud that mercilessly trapped their tires. Exhausted, freezing, and filthy from their fruitless efforts to free their wheels, the dejected duo was forced to abandon their bikes and seek out help on foot. Hours and miles later, the sisters slid out of the darkness upon the small mining town of Gilman, Colorado. They were quite the sight to the awed miners: two angel-faced ladies draped in leather and caked in mud.

The miners offered them rest and food, then helped the sisters free their bikes. But another brush with disaster came 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, where the winds had whisked away the desert's path, and the pair was woefully low on water. Thankfully, their luck held up again: A prospector came along who not only had a horse-drawn cart packed with supplies, but also a keen sense of direction to get them back on their way.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Exhausted and elated, Addie and Gussie Van Buren reached San Francisco at long last on September 2, having traveled 5500 miles, and completed their journey on September 8 after arriving in Los Angeles. And still, they pressed on, traveling down to the Mexican border and Tijuana.

Their remarkable ride earned headlines, but much of the media coverage disappointed. Leading motorcycle magazines focused on the bikes, not the bikers. Others ignored the purpose and historical import of their journey, publishing puff pieces about the ladies' curious "vacation." Worse yet, The Denver Post accused the sisters of exploiting World War I to abandon their duties at home to "display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms." But most vexing, the U.S. government was unmoved, and rejected the Van Burens' application for dispatch service.

Following their cross-country adventure, the boundary-busting sisters pursued new passions. In a time when female lawyers were unheard of, Addie earned her law degree at prestigious New York University. Meanwhile, Gussie became a pilot, flying in Amelia Earhart's Ninety-Nines, an international organization dedicated to creating a supportive environment and opportunities for aviatrixes. With these accomplishments, each sister added credence to Gussie's famous maxim, "Woman can, if she will."

While their journey didn't deliver the immediate impact the sisters had hoped for, today they are remembered as pioneers for women and motorcyclists alike. Addie and Gussie's courageous spirit and intense independence is celebrated by descendants and admirers who have kept their legacy alive through cross-country rides that traced their path on the trip's 90th and 100th anniversaries. Plus, both the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum's Hall of Fame in South Dakota and the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame of Ohio have posthumously inducted the Van Burens as esteemed members.

Both Addie and Gussie enjoyed full lives with careers that thrilled them, and family that loved and still rally around them, decades after their deaths at ages 59 and 75 respectively. In their time, these headstrong and hearty sisters witnessed the passing of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote. They cheered the female patriots who rushed into the workforce as World War II demanded. They relished in a world that was changing to meet them, the industrious, rebellious, and brave Van Burens.


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