By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
The year 2017 will mark the first time in history that Americans are spending more money in restaurants than in grocery stores. There are a few reasons for that—two go hand in hand.
Our youngest generation is dining out far more than any prior generation, which is coupled with a phenomenon that is the MTV equivalent of my generation, otherwise known as food TV. You know, the world where everyone is a chef.
But the third reason may not be so obvious.
Many historians equate the rise of the casual restaurant in America to a little old hamburger stand named McDonald’s. And while the chain undoubtedly has had a profound impact on what, how and when we eat, there was another significant influence on the rise of the American restaurant. It was our president, and I don’t mean our current one.
That president was none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower.
What connection could a former five-star general, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and eventual President of the United States possibly have to the rise of the American restaurant?
In 1956, championed by President Eisenhower, the Federal Aid Highway Act was passed. It would signal the beginning of what would become 35 years of the most massive interstate construction in our nation’s history.
Previously, our great land of restaurants could be described as a sort of “bourgeois and proletariat” dining selection. There were a handful of the now iconic restaurants, most of which are still flourishing: Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s in New Orleans, L’Escalier in Palm Beach, Florida, and what is recognized as America’s original fine dining restaurant, Delmonico’s in New York City. At all of these destinations, dining was a production and catered to the wealthy and/or the most special of occasions.
Contrarily, the United States was also pockmarked with small taverns and cafés, mostly in more densely populated areas where a beer and a meal had not strayed too far from the Old West days when sustenance was nothing more than a necessity or a matter of convenience.
Enter a young officer, crossing the country in a 1919 army convoy on the Lincoln Highway, the first road across America.
Remembering the logical efficiency of a German highway system that would eventually become the Autobahn network, President Eisenhower believed if America was to be strong and impervious to domestic attack, a national, organized highway system was imperative.
And the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways was born.
Unintentional to its original mission, it created exponential growth of tourism by car, as well as urban sprawl. It also created something else—the diner.
Soon, gas stations opened diners. They were still a mere convenience while traveling, but as cities grew upward and outward, more diners opened. Towns grew around oasis’ of convenient stops, and diners expanded into restaurants where families actually went to eat as its own destination.
This growing trend, coupled with the symbiotic relationship of the fast food burger stand, and we didn’t stand a chance as consumers.
The National Restaurant Association tells us we have just over one million dining establishments in the U.S. Taking into account the country’s size, that is an average of one restaurant every 3.7 miles.
Thanks to a visionary whose steadfast goal was to keep America safe, I never have far to go when I’m hungry.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky