How does a restaurant become “historic”? For most American eateries, it’s a feat to survive even a few years—much less decades or centuries. In the brutally competitive industry, statistics suggest that 60 percent of eateries don’t make it past their first year; 80 percent close within five years.
These historic eateries offer diners an astonishing panorama of the country’s political, social and demographic history, as well as its culinary traditions. Some feature menu items dating back to the country’s founding—tavern foods, oysters, steak, turkey. Others reflect successive waves of immigrants, offering new arrivals a taste of home. Still others catered to Black Americans migrating north in the first half of the 20th century, offering grits, fried chicken and other southern favorites that came to be known as “soul food.” As the decades passed, a core group of these institutions survived and thrived by redefining the very meaning of “American” cuisine to include their dishes.
“We are like a living museum,” says Niki Russ Federman, a member of the fourth generation to run Russ & Daughters, the iconic New York eatery that has served up bagels, lox and other Jewish dishes for 100-plus years. “What restaurants with this kind of history and heritage contribute to the country is unquantifiable. We reflect and represent our country’s mosaic of cultures.”
That doesn’t mean all historic restaurants stand on a firm footing, economically. All face increased competition, rising wage costs and razor-thin margins. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic posed even greater challenges, causing restaurants to close their doors temporarily, drastically limit capacity and seek new ways to retain loyal customers, from expanded delivery services to online cooking lessons.
Below, a selection of enduring American eateries.
WATCH: Full episodes of The Food That Built America online now.
Where: Santa Clarita, California
The History: Founder James Herbert Tolfree began dishing up coffee, steak and eggs to Saugus Eating House patrons from the north end of the city’s brand-new train depot. In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt allegedly sampled the New York steak (verdict: “splendid”). In the 1920s, as automobiles displaced trains, the eatery moved across the road and took on its current classic SoCal diner look. It became a hangout for movie stars filming Western movies nearby. Framed photos of John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich and other Hollywood royalty make up the décor.
Customers Return For: Community gossip, diner staples like chicken-fried steak and corned beef hash.
READ MORE: When Did People Start Eating in Restaurants?
Jones Bar-B-Q Diner
Where: Marianna, Arkansas
Opened: c. 1910
The History: Run out of the Jones family home, the diner has only two tables. That’s a big expansion from the days when founder Joe Jones began smoking pork in a pit in the ground and selling the meat from a washtub at his back door. Today, it’s the country’s oldest Black-owned restaurant (now in the hands of the third generation) and keeps everything simple: BBQ pulled-pork sandwiches on Wonder bread, sliced meat by the pound, and sides of slaw.
Customers Return For: The family recipe, which won a James Beard Award and routinely makes BBQ “bucket lists.” They know to show up early, since owners James and Betty Jones close whenever they run out of meat—sometimes before noon.
White Horse Tavern
Where: Newport, Rhode Island
The History: This colonial-era tavern-turned-fine-dining-establishment calls one of Newport’s oldest buildings home and may well be the country’s oldest restaurant. During the 18th century, it was (variously) owned by a pirate, occupied by British and Hessian troops during the Revolutionary War and (allegedly) hosted George Washington and his staff when they planned the Battle of Yorktown. The Preservation Society of Newport County saved it from demolition in the 1950s, after which it reopened as a fine dining establishment. An original beehive oven survives in the kitchen.
Customers Return For: New England staples, ranging from lobster mac and cheese to oysters—and (possibly) a glimpse of one of the resident ghosts near the dining room fireplace.
SAVE OUR RESTAURANTS: HISTORY is partnering with the James Beard Foundation for a philanthropic initiative aimed at providing resources and aid to help preserve historic, landmark restaurants in America who are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Find out more here.
Where: San Francisco
The History: The roots of California’s oldest continually run restaurant lie in a wharf-side coffee stand set up by three Croatian immigrants to cater to the Gold Rush—first in a tent and then under a corrugated iron roof. The restaurant that followed became known for pioneering mesquite-grilled fish. In the 1960s, Wells Fargo Bank, which owned the premises, delayed redeveloping the block Tadich stood on until the owner found new a new home; turns out, the bank’s CEO was a daily customer.
Customers Return For: The Art Deco décor, oysters and that iconic grilled fish.
Where: Oklahoma City
The History: Founded to feed ravenous ranchers, cattle haulers and others doing business in the Oklahoma City’s stockyards. Some of the beef slaughtered in the area, known as “Packing Town,” ended up on the casual restaurant’s tables. Famously, a roll of the dice determined the restaurant’s fate in 1945, when local rancher Gene Wade rolled a double 3 to acquire the steakhouse from its former owner, an incorrigible gambler. Over the decades, everyone from rodeo stars to presidents (Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr.) has dined on its steaks.
Customers Return For: Those steaks (especially the T-Bone) and lamb fries, a.k.a. fried lamb testicles.
READ MORE: Automat: Birth of a Fast Food Nation
Nom Wah Tea Parlor
Where: New York City
The History: Entering its second century of operations, this classic dim sum eatery in Chinatown is now run by the second member of the second family to own it. (Wilson Tang walked away from a Wall Street job in 2011 to take over Nom Wah from his uncle.) In the early 20th century, the Doyers Street location was notorious for gang warfare among the various Chinese “tongs.” Decades later, ruthless business conflicts among Chinatown bakeries pushed the Tang family to give up their popular mooncakes to focus on dim sum dumplings.
Customers Return For: Soup buns, rice rolls and Nom Wah’s “The Original” (OG) egg roll.
Where: Ybor City, Tampa, Florida
The History: Local cigar workers flocked to the original small saloon for its Cuban coffee and sandwiches. During Prohibition, the family owners expanded and upgraded, offering fine dining and live entertainment. (Today, it’s flamenco dancers, nightly.) Over the years, luminaries like Babe Ruth, Liberace, Jack Dempsey and Marilyn Monroe flocked to savor both the food and the city’s first air-conditioned restaurant—now Florida’s oldest.
Customers Return For: Latin flavors, from Cuban black bean soup to arroz con pollo. Now that Prohibition is history, they savor sangria and mojitos.
Recommended for you
Where: New Orleans, Louisiana
The History: The iconic home of Louisiana French Creole dining, Antoine’s is now headed by the sixth generation of the Alciatore family, and named in honor of its creator, who launched his new business at the age of only 18. Antoine’s son, Jules, created Oysters Rockefeller. (The family recipe remains a secret.) The restaurant became a main character in the 1948 bestseller, Dinner at Antoine’s, by Frances Parkinson Keyes.
Customers Return For: Those oysters, and baked Alaska. Fine dining in rooms devoted to Mardi Gras themes.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Where: Washington, D.C.
The History: Segregation, riots, gentrification: Family-owned Ben’s Chili Bowl has ridden out all manner of challenges from its perch on U Street, the heart of a social and cultural center once known as Washington’s “Black Broadway.” Habitués have included Martin Luther King Jr., Stokeley Carmichael and Jesse Jackson; Barack Obama made it one of his first restaurant outings as president-elect in early 2009.
Customers Return For: Ambiance at the long diner bar and the famous “half smoke”—voted the signature dish of Washington, D.C.—smothered in chili, of course.
Where: Tucson, Arizona
The History: The original owner of this Sonoran-style Mexican family café, Monica Flin, is said to have invented the chimichanga when she accidentally dropped a burrito into a frying pan while surrounded by children in the kitchen. It got its name from her rapid attempt to transform a curse word beginning with “ch” into the Spanish word for “thingamajig.”
Customers Return For: The trademark carne seca, dried on the building’s roof; handmade salsas and tamales.
Where: New York City
The History: By 1910, the Katz cousins (Willy and Benny) had bought out the founders of this Lower East Side Jewish deli. It became a second home for actors and comedians performing in the Yiddish Theater, and during World War II, urged New Yorkers to “send a salami to your boy in the Army.” Katz’s gained national fame as the site of famous movie scenes, including Meg Ryan’s faux orgasm in When Harry Met Sally.
Customers Return For: In the early 20th century, families noshed Friday nights on franks and beans; these days, it’s the pastrami on rye, day in and day out.
Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The History: Francesco Dispigno had always dreamed of running a restaurant, and seven years after moving from Naples to Philadelphia, he opened a neighborhood eatery named in honor of his son Rafael, renamed “Ralph” by Ellis Island officials. Today, it’s the oldest Italian restaurant in the country and run by fourth- and fifth-generation members of the family. Ralph’s has catered to presidents (including Teddy Roosevelt and Joe Biden) and celebs: Frank Sinatra was a frequent customer, and Taylor Swift dropped a $500 tip after a family gathering.
Customers Return For: Mussels, calamari and the meatballs. Veterans suggest saving space for tiramisu.
READ MORE: Meet a Long-Lost Father of New York Pizza
Where: Portland, Oregon
The History: Frank Huber, originally a bartender at the original Bureau Saloon, bought out its owner and put his own name on the business in 1895. Back then, anyone ordering a drink got a free turkey sandwich with a small dish of coleslaw. Today’s owners are descendants of Way Fung (Jim) Louie, the Chinese-born chef hired by Huber to roast all those turkeys back in the 1890s. It was Louie who oversaw the transition of Huber’s from a saloon into what is today Portland’s oldest restaurant. Turkey dinners remain a specialty.
Customers Return For: Stained glass skylight ceiling; the spectacle of Spanish coffee being created tableside; turkey and ham dinners.
Where: Harlem, New York City
The History: Sylvia Woods hadn’t even been inside a restaurant before moving from South Carolina to New York in 1946, part of the “Great Migration.” Three decades later, food critic Gael Greene dubbed her the “Queen of Soul Food” and her eponymous restaurant is second only to the Apollo Theater as a Harlem landmark. A center for the Black community, it remained undamaged during the 1968 riots. Spike Lee has filmed there; Aretha Franklin rented out the place for a private party. Other patrons range from soul music doyen James Brown to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.
Customers Return For: Community gatherings, Sunday gospel brunches, fried chicken or catfish dishes and (on weekends) chitterlings.
Where: Bessemer, Alabama
The History: Family patriarchs Bill and Pete Koikos bought the 25-seat café founded by fellow Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris in 1923, when the Birmingham suburb of Bessemer was a flourishing factory town. Today, the eatery—the oldest restaurant in Alabama, and the first in the state to win the James Beard “American Classic” Award—has more than 300 seats, but retains old-time touches like its marbled walls and hand-laid tile flooring. First-time customers get a free bowl of the restaurant’s seafood gumbo.
Customers Return For: Greek-influenced seafood dishes, made from fish brought in daily from the Gulf Coast.
LISTEN: The Food That Built America Podcast, based on the hit documentary series, tells the extraordinary true stories of industry titans who revolutionized the food industry and transformed American life and culture. Try it here.