Salted, smoked, preserved, and pickled foods were the great equalizer
Of course, not everybody had the wherewithal to eat wild game or fancy foragings. But even laborers, migrants, and peasants craved a good meal out from time to time, which made the common practice of salting, smoking, jarring, pickling, and preserving the easiest way for early restaurants to keep their fares somewhat fresh. The fact that most lower-class people ate simply to fill their bellies, not for pleasure, meant flavor, texture, spice, and seasoning weren’t that important, of course. In early New York, restaurant workers slaughtered the pigs that roamed the streets, and roast pork became an early staple. But in the hands of capable chefs doing the best with what they had, old-timey basics like beans, bacon, biscuits, and beef eventually became the soulful, hearty fare that every American diner was built on.
Psychological tricks were often played on diners
Sounds crazy, right? But in the early 20th century, when modern science identified a definite link between health and hygiene, the desire for cleanliness gave rise to a whole new kind of restaurant tactic: the all-white environment of popular early hamburger joints like White Castle and White Tower. These sterile, modern settings often soothed a worried parent’s mind when it came to food safety -- even if the actual procedures and protocols in the kitchen weren’t anywhere near contemporary health standards.
Just remember, the restaurant experience we enjoy today -- anything available anytime, anywhere, and fresh -- only came about because of hundreds of years of hard work and countless technological advancements. So next time you bite into that piece of custom-caught, never-frozen salmon, say a little “Thank you” to our forebears who had it much harder when it came to both dining out and running a restaurant. Then you can tell yourself “Bon appétit!” without the first-world guilt.