I am still struggling to write more relevant, entertainment- or history-related lists that haven't already been done to death elsewhere on the Internet. (There are now so many, many other list makers I have to compete with.) To keep the List of 9 alive and unique in its 20th(!!) year, I often have to resort to more personal and/or arcane material. Still, hopefully you'll learn a little something from this list of things I have eaten and drunk in the very spots where they were invented. It's one of my hobbies.
- Caesar salad, Caesar's, Tijuana. In 1998, some coworkers invited me to spend a day with them in Tijuana. I'd never been to Mexico before (or since), so I agreed. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the Caesar salad, that classic American menu staple, was invented in scruffy TJ. There's been some dissent over this – an author named George Leonard has stated, with scant evidence, that the salad was invented in Chicago in 1902 and named for the Roman emperor – but it makes more sense that the Caesar salad was invented at a place called Caesar's, run by an actual Caesar (Cardini), in the 1920s, when Californians flocked to Tijuana to booze up during Prohibition.
- Sachertorte, Hotel Sacher, Vienna. My epiphany in Tijuana – and by the way, the Caesar salad at Caesar's was excellent – turned me on to the idea of enjoying dishes and drinks in the locations where they were first served. And so it continued in 2004 when I was in Vienna, and my friend took me to the Hotel Sacher for a slice of Vienna's signature chocolate cake, distinctive for its apricot jam filling. (The Austrians are big on apricots.) As many Viennese will tell you, the Hotel Sacher's sachertorte is not as good as the one at Demel cafe. I didn't care.
- Mai Tai, Trader Vic's, Emeryville. The most famous tiki cocktail in the world was invented in 1944 at the original Trader Vic's (née "Hinky Dink") in Oakland, California. In 1972, the restaurant was relocated to nearby Emeryville (home of Pixar). So I drank the Mai Tai not at its exact point of origin, but close enough. As with nearly every item on this list, there is some argument over who really concocted the first Mai Tai. Trader Vic's rival Don the Beachcomber insisted that they first served the drink in Hollywood in 1932. You'd think a 1930s menu from Don's would settle the debate, but things like this never seem to be around when you need one.
- Sidecar, Harry's New York Bar, Paris. Naturally, there's disagreement here too: Paris's Ritz Hotel lays claim to the invention of this citrusy cocktail, basically a margarita with brandy instead of tequila and sugar instead of salt. But I vote for Harry's, which also supposedly gave us the Bloody Mary, the French 75, and the Monkey Gland, as the likely birthplace.
- Grasshopper, Tujague's, New Orleans. At last, a cocktail whose origin is undisputed. Everyone agrees that this drink, best described as an alcoholic Shamrock Shake (créme de menthe and créme de cacao shaken with heavy cream), was born in one of the oldest restaurants in the French Quarter. The high-caloric grasshopper's popularity peaked decades ago, but I have recently seen signs of a comeback. In any event, Tujague's never stopped serving it.
- Oysters Rockefeller, Antoine's, New Orleans. Speaking of the Crescent City, this legendary seafood dish was invented at Antoine's, one of the oldest restaurants in America. I'm not too keen on oysters, but a friendly barfly was willing to give me one off of his own plate, so I could at least say I tried it. It was tasty.
- Piña colada, Barrachina, San Juan. Here's yet another hotly contested origin story. The piña colada was undoubtedly invented in Puerto Rico, shortly after the revolutionary Coco Lopez brand coconut cream was introduced. But who invented it? The Caribe Hilton presents a convincing argument – they say they came up with it in 1954 – but of course they have no drink menus from the '50s to back up their claim. When I was in San Juan for just a day last December, I drank my piña colada at its other possible birthplace, Barrachina, an affable restaurant near the cruise ship docks. The plaque on their wall – yes, they have a plaque – says it was they who came up with it in 1963. In any event, they make a good one.
- Fortune cookie, Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco. I always knew this Chinese restaurant treat was actually made in America. What I didn't know, until a few years ago, was that its origins are in fact Japanese: Makoto Hagiwara, who ran the Japanese Tea Garden in SF's Golden Gate Park after the 1894 Expo, adapted a savory Kyoto cracker, sweetened it with sugar and vanilla, stuffed a paper fortune inside, and served it to teahouse guests. It goes without saying that there was a dispute over this invention as well – a now-defunct Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles also claimed credit – but the San Francisco theory is solid.
- French dip sandwich, Philippe's and/or Cole's, Los Angeles. Perhaps the most famous culinary feud of them all, at least in LA, is the title of French Dip Sandwich Inventor. As foodstuffs go, the French dip is a footnote, just a meat sandwich soaked with au jus drippings. But Cole's, the oldest restaurant in LA (founded 1908), and Philippe the Original, the second oldest restaurant in LA (also founded 1908, but moved to its current location in 1951), have fought over this for decades. Philippe's argument has more merit, and folks far and wide praise its sandwich as the superior one. It's been years since I had a French dip at Cole's, so I can't speak to this, but Cole's is definitely the cozier place.