Life In The East Village
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The Evolution of America's Classic Restaurants

Walking into Katz's Delicatessen, Kossar's Bagels & Bialys, or Wo Hop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, customers in 2022 are greeted with basically the same décor, menu, and ambiance as someone who would have dined there in the early 20th century, when these restaurants first opened. The same goes for decades (or centuries!) old places like the Berghoff in Chicago, the Pine Club in Dayton, Ohio, the Arcade Restaurant in Memphis, and the White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, which is the oldest operating restaurant in the U.S. and the 10th oldest in the world—it opened in 1673.

These restaurants are considered "classics," but so are evolving spots like Ipanema in Manhattan, Genghis Cohen in Los Angeles, and Gott's Roadside in Northern California, which have changed their menus and décor and developed through the years.

So what makes a restaurant a classic beyond simply being, well, old?

"What makes a restaurant 'classic' beyond just being open for a long time is the restaurant being in service to its community via its good food, the hospitality extended to guests, and the legacy of doing so," explained Kysha Harris, who sits on the Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee of the James Beard Foundation, which awards an America's Classic Award annually. "Sustaining a restaurant is not an easy task. It is these intangible nuanced acts of being in service to their community that make our America's Classic classic."

Outside The Berghoff Restaurant
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Many think consistency is key. "In my mind, restaurants that I consider classics are not only ones that have been around a while, but that maintain a quality in the standard and a consistency of some type of cuisine or ambiance that they are trying to achieve," said Nicholas Thanas, president at Lou Mitchell's Franchise LLC. Lou Mitchell's, a classic diner in Chicago, will celebrate 100 years in 2023. "We have had customers come in who have not visited in 50 or 60 years. They are happy that so much remains familiar, especially our freshly baked breads and other made-from-scratch items."

Also in Chicago, The Berghoff has been open in the Loop since 1898. For brand manager Colleen Silk, it's all about creating memories. "Being a classic means that we create lasting memories across all demographics and generations," Silk said. "Offering an experience that makes you feel a certain way, whether that is the aesthetic or a specific menu item, it needs to transcend beyond the meal and service."

Others believe restaurants that avoid trendiness are likely to become classics. "What makes a restaurant classic, aside from longevity, is a design, atmosphere, and ambiance that is built timeless rather than trendy," said Chris Himmel, owner of Harvest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which opened in 1975 and was known to be a favorite of Julia Child.

It all comes down to community. "Classics don't have to be super old establishments; they just have to be well respected by the community as places that are guaranteed to bring good food, smiles, and hospitality that makes you feel like you're family once you step in," said Amanda Maneesilasan, chef and co-owner of Chao Krung, the second Thai restaurant ever to open in Los Angeles. "A 'classic' in our eyes is a restaurant that has had the same integrity in their food and service and has been well-loved by the community."

Sometimes, a classic restaurant gets on the map for creating a dish. In the 1920s, Louisville's Brown Hotel drew 1,200 guests each evening for its dinner dance. By morning's wee hours, guests would make their way to the restaurant for a bite to eat. Sensing their desire for something more inventive than ham and eggs, Chef Fred Schmidt set out to create something new, and, in 1926, the Hot Brown was born. An open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and a Mornay sauce, the Hot Brown became Louisville's (and arguably Kentucky's) most famous dish, frequently mimicked throughout the state. But purists know to come to the hotel's onsite restaurants, the English Grill, J. Graham's Café, and the Lobby Bar and Grill for the original Hot Brown.

Imagine if the Brown Hotel stopped serving the Hot Brown: many customers would probably stop coming. Once a restaurant is deemed a classic in the eyes of Americans—and maybe even by more official institutions like the James Beard Foundation—are they allowed to change?

Once a restaurant is deemed a classic in the eyes of Americans—and maybe even by more official institutions like the James Beard Foundation—are they allowed to change? 

Some classic restaurants made most of their changes in their early years, such as moving to a larger location or renovating to add space for more customers. Arcade Restaurant in Memphis first opened in 1919 in a small, one-story, wood-framed building with potbelly stoves in the kitchen. By 1925, founder Speros Zepatos tore down the original building and built the Arcade Building in a Greek revival style, which remains today. But the more time that passes without changes, the more likely new changes will be greeted with frowns by longtime customers and pilgrimaging tourists.

“At one point in time, we had these little wooden bowls that we served our side salad in, and they were not very nice,” recalled Karen Watson, the longtime general manager of the Pine Club in Dayton, Ohio, which has been operating for 75 years. “We decided to upgrade to a ceramic bowl. It was commented on for years—people wanted to know what was going on, why we were making changes, what will be next.”

The Pine Club, in particular, has hardly made any alterations in its long tenure—so much so that they still don’t accept credit cards. They retain a house account system, sending out invoices that people pay with personal checks.

“It was a big deal in the early ’80s when we added a computer to our office and started printing our statements instead of typing them by hand,” says Watson. “We just started giving the option to receive your statement in the mail.”

Peter Luger's Steakhouse
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Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn also doesn't accept credit cards for on-site dining and only recently started accepting debit cards. However, during the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, they began to offer delivery, like so many restaurants that had never done delivery before, and accept credit cards for online orders. The pandemic afforded—really, forced—change from many classic restaurants that would have never dared to make changes before. They would not have survived if they hadn't adapted to things like takeout, delivery, and outdoor seating.

Many feel that the joy of going to a classic restaurant is being able to step back in time, and making changes would ruin that. "I believe the charm, or the lure, is being able to dine in an establishment that has been around since before the turn of the twentieth century, as well as being owned and operated by the same family for 124 years," said Silk of the Berghoff. "You become transported, in a sense, to Old World Chicago, and it gives you a small taste, both literally and figuratively, of what that period might have been like."

But some changes are necessary for restaurants that have remained open for a century or more, and even the Berghoff has had to evolve with the times. "The most drastic changes people notice or comment about are that women are allowed in the bar, that we've added stools to a historically known 'walk-up' bar, and most recently, Pete Berghoff (fourth generation) had the bar very carefully restored. He also built a brewery directly inside the heart of the building," Silk said.

In the case of Chao Krung in Los Angeles, when the restaurant was first opened by a Thai immigrant family more than 50 years ago, they served both Thai and Chinese food because they thought a Chinese food concept would resonate with customers more since Thai food wasn't popular yet then. "A lot of our dishes were fusion, the layout of the restaurant was a lot more casual, and it didn't really have a cohesive style," said Maneesilasan, who, together with her sister Katy took over the restaurant from their parents in 2018.

"Over the years, we realized that what people loved the most about the restaurant is how it is family-owned and operated and how we share authentic Thai culture with the community here in L.A. We really leaned into that aspect and brought back recipes that have been in our family for generations."

 A 'classic' in our eyes is a restaurant that has had the same integrity in their food and service and has been well-loved by the community

Even the James Beard Foundation encourages change.

“Once a restaurant is deemed a classic by the James Beard Foundation and its community, the only responsibility that restaurant has is to do what is best for their business and their community that made them classic; a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will,” said Harris. “An America’s Classic can and will evolve over time, and that evolution should continue to be rooted in what is authentic to and in service to its community.”

This can mean anything from renovations to new motifs and themes to new chefs and menu items.

Although, menu changes are often the most difficult to pull off, depending on how drastic they are. Genghis Cohen has been a staple in the Los Angeles restaurant scene for almost 40 years, serving classic New York-style Chinese food and “foo foo” cocktails to Angelenos since 1983. The original owner sold the restaurant to longtime Maitre D’ Raymond Kiu, whose family ran it until 2015, when they sold it to regulars Marc Rose and Med Abrous. After a year of keeping things the same, they were able to launch a new, shortened menu (although it still has over 100 items) by removing the least popular dishes, and they began sourcing organic chicken and sustainable seafood.

Adding healthy options or dishes that cater to those with dietary restrictions is one way classic restaurants have managed to update their menus.

“We try to maintain the quality and consistency that our customers expect while evolving to meet the changing dietary concerns,” said Josh Carswell, owner of the Shed in Sante Fe, New Mexico, a decades-old institution known for serving New Mexican classics like posole, green chile burgers, and chile smothered enchiladas. “Most of our menu has evolved to be gluten-free, and we have many vegetarian options.”

The Shed

Courtesy of The Shed

Gott's Roadside, whose original location is in St. Helena, California, in Napa Valley, was an instant classic when it opened in 1999, inside an old burger joint from 1949.

"While our culture has remained the same, our menu has evolved quite a bit over the years. Our focus is on diversifying the menu to ensure there is something for everyone," says Clay Walker, president of Gott's Roadside. "While we have kept our stable of classics—burgers, fries, and shakes—we have increased our market share by offering more plant-based foods."

The next generation of owners often makes the necessary changes to bring a restaurant into the next era. At Memphis' Arcade Restaurant, in the 1950s, Speros' son made the cafe into a hip, contemporary (at the time) diner, complete with tables with boomerang designs, wood paneling, vinyl seating, and neon signage, which have stood the test of time, thanks to their retro appeal. At Ipanema, a beloved Brazilian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, the founder's two sons ushered in a new location, style, chef, and menu earlier this year after the restaurant closed during the pandemic. While they kept some classic menu items and the general motif of the restaurant, Ipanema might feel unrecognizable to some longtime patrons.

Carswell of the Shed in Santa Fe is the grandson of the founders and said, "Our food is a reflection of traditions passed down for generations and is inspired by recipes from my grandparents," but he has overseen several vital transformations. "When I became more involved thirty years ago, we only served lunch, our menu was limited, and we did not have a liquor license. Back then, most of our staff were women working while their children were at school. Now we have a larger menu, we are open for lunch and dinner, we have a full bar, and our staff is younger and more balanced."

Christina "Christy" Vega understands firsthand the unique pressure and honor of taking the reins of a family restaurant that's a landmark. Casa Vega is a Los Angeles institution awarded the 2022 James Beard Classic Award. The restaurant has been going strong for over 65 years (it grew out of an earlier iteration called Café Caliente dating to the 1930s), and it has always been in the Vega family. Rafael "Ray" Vega, the founder of Casa Vega and Christy's father, passed away in January 2021 from COVID-19.

Casa Vega 60 Years
Jim Steinfeldt / Getty Images

Today, the Vega family keeps his legacy alive with Christy at the helm. She had worked side-by-side with her father for more than 15 years and has been spearheading operations for nearly 25 years. She has modernized operations and menu options, expanded the restaurant's original footprint, and become a pillar in the Los Angeles restaurant community, championing the nonprofit No Us Without You, which helps provide food security for immigrants in the hospitality industry.

The truth is, though, most classic restaurants don't get rewarded very often. There are numerous magazine issues and website homepages devoted to the best new chefs and hottest new restaurants. But longtime establishments are never included in these.

"There are thousands of restaurants in our country who have weathered recessions, inflation, natural disasters, and so much more, without any acknowledgment," said Harris. "America's Classic is a James Beard Awards category because these restaurants are the foundation and inspiration for other restaurant owners to bear witness and to model for the longevity of their business and the restaurant community at large."