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  • Restaurant Republic: The Rise of Public Dining in Boston by Kelly Erby
  • Kathryn Lasdow (bio)

Food, Culinary history, Restaurants, Boston, Urban history

Restaurant Republic: The Rise of Public Dining in Boston. By Kelly Erby. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016. Pp. 176. Cloth, $79.00; Paper, $22.50.)

Though scholars often associate the Big Apple, New York City, with the emergence of American restaurant culture, Kelly Erby proclaims Bean-town’s importance in her recent book, Restaurant Republic: The Rise of Public Dining in Boston. This succinct, well-illustrated book traces the rise of dining culture in Boston, from elite hotel dining rooms, to working-class eateries, to “ethnic” cafés showcasing immigrant cuisine. Erby’s work is a welcome addition to the scholarship on nineteenth-century foodways and dining as she seeks to address both cuisine and [End Page 716] culture simultaneously. Her work is right at home alongside Kenneth L. Ames’s Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture (Philadelphia, 1992), Andrew Haley’s Turning the Tables: American Restaurant Culture and the Rise of the Middle Class, 1880–1920 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011), and Cindy Lobel’s Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York (Chicago, 2014), among many other seminal texts. Erby argues that the variety of restaurant options in Boston reflected Americans’ increasingly democratic relationship to food, while masking a deeper stratification of urban society by race, class, and gender.

Erby begins her story in 1829 with the opening of the elite dining rooms of the Tremont House hotel. She closes her narrative in the 1870s with emergence of immigrant-owned restaurants featuring Polish, German, Italian, and Chinese food. Other chapters focus on the dining culture of working-class men, elite women, and cafés catering to a mixed-gender patronage. Working-class restaurants, she argues, became spaces of performative masculinity through the exclusion of women and the act of efficient eating. Female-frequented restaurants provided respectable environments for women to socialize and dine in public at a time when separate-sphere ideology still dictated proper behavior. Cafés offered customers cheap fare and an array of immigrant cuisine. As a space where men and women could eat together, the casual atmosphere of the café reflected a shift away from “the separate-sphere ideology of the nineteenth century . . . to the mixed-sex social interactions of the twentieth” (86). Whether formal and elaborate, or casual and inexpensive, Boston’s burgeoning restaurant scene had a “dining venue to fit every taste and pocketbook” (ix).

Despite the inclusive allure of dining out in the nineteenth century, white Bostonians never fully welcomed immigrants and African Americans into the growing atmosphere of dining and socializing. Rather, Irish immigrants and black laborers often filled low-paying, low-status service positions: tending to patrons, clearing tables, and toiling in hot kitchens to make a restaurant successful. “These jobs,” Erby explains, “went to the dregs of Boston society, those whose occupational options were strictly limited due to racial and ethnic discrimination and prejudice against them” (28). White patrons confronted the social tensions their prejudice generated. As they admired the skill and acumen with which waiters performed their jobs, white patrons’ approval did not translate into support for employment equality. Waiting tables remained one of [End Page 717] the few respectable occupations available to the city’s black and Irish populations until the early twentieth century.

Using an array of source materials, including menus, newspapers, city directories, and guide books, Erby interprets the restaurant as a space of both cultural cachet and labor. She seamlessly situates the restaurants within Boston’s urban fabric. Maps inserted strategically throughout the text place the reader on the city’s winding streets and crooked alleys, while engravings and photographs provide visual context for Erby’s meticulous descriptions of Boston’s many eating establishments. “The spacious ladies’ dining room at the Tremont House,” Erby explains, “was outfitted with large plate-glass windows . . . that flooded the room with light . . . [which] conveyed a sense of innocence and transparency as if nothing untoward could happen here” (67–68). She guides readers through the eating experience at a men’s-only eating house, which...


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