This article tracks and analyzes the steady drift of immigrants of color out of fields and into California’s swelling restaurants, especially its fast food, Chinese, and Mexican varieties, as they sought employment, community, and cultural purpose from the 1940s to the 1980s. It argues that their entry reshaped the rhythms and reputation of restaurant service as well as the prevailing habits and expectations of dining out. Their labor assured and normalized eating out, eating culturally diverse foods, and eating in public settings both formal and casual. Yet, the very visibility and necessity of immigrant rather than white labor in restaurants also complicated, broadened, and heightened the era’s debates about immigration restrictions, which had traditionally focused upon agriculture and the needs of growers. Operation Wetback in 1954 and a series of immigration bills proposed and deliberated through the 1970s and early 1980s increasingly centered the restaurant industry and its more urban and dispersed locations, its more nocturnal rhythms, and its greater accessibility to and appreciation by the public. Acknowledging these unique features of restaurants and their dependence upon migrants, the culminating Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986) protected the migrant workforce in restaurants, without correcting their vulnerability, and thus maintained Californians’ routines of diverse dining out.

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