When an editor in Arizona asked me to cover the lethal injection of a convicted killer, I wondered whether "witnesses to an American execution" was the most rarefied group to which I belonged. I figured there couldn't be more than a few hundred of us. But I've lately realized I'm a member of an even more exclusive club: People who care about the historical accuracy of restaurant signage.
Icon Grill this month unveiled its new facade, including a fresh theater marquee to replace the marquee which two years ago was damaged by bricks falling from the three-story building's roof. "We're starting to put our old slogans up," manager Chris Ruzicska says.
Inside the restaurant, "everything's the same," Ruzicska says, although some of its wall hangings are being updated. Retired artwork will be sold on Apr. 2 at a charity auction benefiting Art With Heart.
Also unchanged is the quote engraved above the restaurant's front door, which I noticed while checking out the redone entryway. Since the restaurant's opening in 1998, patrons have passed under a quote reading, "Man has not yet contrived anything by which so much happiness is produced as a good restaurant." The quote's attributed to Samuel Johnson.
The hugely influential Johnson, author of the first great British dictionary, said many, many things. But it seemed to me unlikely that he did any restaurant opining. Johnson died in 1784, a full 22 years before the earliest known use of the word "restaurant" occurred in the English language.
As it turns out, the Icon Grill quote is almost right. But instead of using the word "restaurant," Johnson said, "tavern or inn." There's a real difference.
Johnson frequently patronized taverns, which functioned more like the suddenly voguish communal dining salons than an Applebee's. As Adam Gopnik described the standard French version of the 18th-century tavern in his recent restaurant history, The Table Comes First, "This was a big public table where you took what was being served. As you ate, you were expected to talk and joke and kid around with the other people at the table...This could be fun, but if the guy next to you was drunk and beery, you were stuck, and if you were in the mood for chicken and only veal roast was being served, you were stuck too."
Frank Lynch, who administers the Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page, says Johnson's tavern visits were sometimes disappointing. While traveling in Scotland, the essayist wrote, "Of the provisions the negative catalogue was very copious. Here was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine. We did not express much satisfaction."
"(It's) one of my favorite Johnson lines," Lynch says. "A real zinger which you might think about next time you feel harsh."
Frustration over taverns helped give rise to the restaurant, a word that first appeared in the 1750s as a synonym for meat broth. By the 1770s, the Parisian venues in which bouillon was served were also known as "restaurants." These establishments featured menus; private tables and plain food delivered with a promise of cleanliness. Unlike taverns, restaurants welcomed guests of both sexes.
The restaurant concept didn't become a global sensation overnight. It took decades for the restaurant to penetrate British and American cultures. The modern restaurant is a relatively new invention, a fact that Icon Grill's tweaking of Johnson's quote obscures.
Although Johnson never recorded his thoughts on restaurants, Lynch says it's possible he visited one.
"Johnson did visit France with the Thrales, in 1775," Lynch says. "He didn't write anything about it, though I believe he took notes."