From Hippie to Mainstream, Enchanted Broccoli Forest to Dragon Bowl
The Aesthetic History of Health Food Restaurants
The New York Times recently declared that when it comes to the state of food in this country, “the hippies have won.” Items like granola and tahini that used to be relegated to your weird aunt’s community food co-op are now household names. The counterculture has finally become culture.
While a large part of that is due to Americans becoming self-aware about the obesity epidemic and the shortcomings of the food industry, the rebranding and new aesthetics of healthy lifestyle play an important role. Wellness is in vogue and the clean lines and pastel colors of the trendy vegetable-forward restaurant interiors prove it.
Personally, I was never turned off by the crusty aesthetics of neo-hippie food culture. After spending a summer living at a student housing co-op in Berkeley, eating at Café Gratitude, and overusing the phrase “radical amazement”, I became a card-carrying member of the Slow Food movement. It peaked during my stint as a self-appointed apostle of Sandor Katz, dreaming of selling my homemade pickles and kimchi at local farmer’s markets.
But the foods I ate and spaces I frequented were niche and definitely not on-brand. Cut to now and there’s a line every morning to get a matcha turmeric latte in a sleek café covered in millennial pink. I’m in heaven.
So what happened? How did this:
Turn into this?
Let’s do a quick history lesson to trace the origins of the American health food movement’s journey from obscurity to ubiquity.
1793: Julien’s Restorator opens in Boston. Argued by some to be the first restaurant in the country, as you can tell from the name, this restaurant was about “restoring” its patrons to full health with soups, broths, meats, and green turtle soup. Because what better way to kick that cold than with a bowl of green turtle soup?
Early 1900s: Lebensreform, a back-to-nature movement, takes off in Germany. In response to the negative effects of the industrial revolution, an ideology develops of returning to a simpler way of life that is closer to nature and less reliant on factories and urbanization. Basically, the subject of every Herman Hesse novel. As Lebensreform starts to be coopted by fascist ideology, many German dissidents make their way to California to live in the wilderness. The Nature Boys, as they were called, built shacks out of natural materials, ate a mostly raw vegetarian diet and took a lot of nude photos. (They were nudists)
1917: Eutropheon, a vegetarian raw food cafeteria, opens in Los Angeles to promote the healthy lifestyle of the Nature Boys. As it gains popularity, it begins to attract likeminded folks that would eventually become the Beat Generation. One major advocate was naturopath and gym owner Phillip Lovell, who later would hire Richard Neutra to design a house for him in line with his healthy lifestyle. This would become the first steel-frame house in the country and an early example of American Modernism.
1960s: As the Beat movement morphs into the hippie movement, the countercultural alternative lifestyles of free-love, macrobiotic food, and new age spirituality becomes a national phenomenon. Their rejection of Mad Men-style diets of tv dinners, cake mixes, and grain alcohol will eventually prove to be a pretty good idea.
1969: The Source Restaurant, the perfect embodiment of the radical hippie lifestyle in restaurant form, starts serving organic food and psychedelic teachings on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip to celebrity regulars like John Lennon. Founded by Jim Baker, AKA Father Yod, AKA YaHoWha, the restaurant was also the home base of his spiritual commune and New Age sex cult, The Source Family, and his psychedelic rock band, Ya Ho Wha 13. Though influential within health food circles, the Source Restaurant was derided and mocked by the general public, most famously by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, who orders a lunch of “alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast.”
2018: According to Bon Appetit, the explosion of design-centric all-day cafes only began a couple years ago. The clean but vibrant aesthetic that transformed the design landscape can be traced to NYC design and branding studio MP Shift. Inspired by minimalist art and attempting to accommodate a flexible customer base, MP Shift turned hippie into hipster in their design for Tilda All Day (miss you!) and later De Maria and Golda. The aesthetic trend then quickly spread to LA where wellness fads get gobbled up and churned out. Restaurants like Kismet, Destroyer, and Botanica all show a similar design sense of light woods and cloudy hues to make you feel as light as the calorie content of the grain bowls they serve.
The fact that Chez Panisse and Moosewood Restaurant are still around is testament to their long-term influence. But they were never “cool”. Now a new generation of healthy restaurants have bucked that stigma as the trend continues to spread to cities throughout the country. Pass the bowl of mashed yeast!
Title image: Chillhouse, a healthy cafe and day spa. Image Source: Domino