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.
1. FIRST FRENCH RESTAURANT // JULIEN'S RESTORATOR, BOSTON, 1793
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.
2. FIRST CHINESE RESTAURANT // MACAO AND WOOSUNG, SAN FRANCISCO, 1849
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).
3. FIRST ITALIAN RESTAURANT // CAFFÉ MORETTI, NEW YORK CITY, 1850s
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.”
4. FIRST GREEK RESTAURANT // PELOPONNESOS, NEW YORK CITY, 1857
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.
5. FIRST JAPANESE RESTAURANT // UNNAMED EATERY, NEW YORK CITY 1889
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.
6. FIRST THAI RESTAURANT // CHADA THAI, DENVER, 1959
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.
7. FIRST VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT // VIET NAM, NEW YORK CITY, 1961
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.”
8. FIRST ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT // THE ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT, LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA, 1966
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.