When Did People Start Eating in Restaurants?


People have been eating outside the home for millennia, buying a quick snack from a street vendor, or taking a break from a roadside inn for a bowl of stew and a pint of mead.

In the West, most of the first versions of the modern restaurant came from France and a culinary revolution was launched in 18th century Paris. But one of the first examples of a true culture of restoration started 600 years earlier and on the other side of the world.

Song Dynasty Singing Servers

A scene in what is believed to be the ancient capital of Kaifeng showing food stalls from a scroll entitled “Going Up the River at the Qingming Festival” by Zhang Zeduan, around 1100.

According to Elliott Shore and Katie Rawson, co-authors of Eating out: a global history of restaurants, the very first establishments easily recognizable as restaurants were born around 1100 AD in China, when cities like Kaifeng and Hangzhou had densely populated urban populations of more than a million inhabitants each.

Trade was booming between these northern and southern capitals of the 12th-century Song dynasty, says Shore, professor emeritus of history at Bryn Mawr College, but Chinese traders traveling outside their hometown n weren’t used to strange local foods.

“The original restaurants in these two cities are mostly southern cuisine for people from the south or northern cuisine for people from the north,” says Shore. “You could say that the” ethnic restaurant “was the first restaurant.”

These prototypical restaurants were located in lively entertainment districts that catered to business travelers, with hotels, bars and brothels. According to Chinese documents of the time, the variety of dining options in the 1120s resembled a downtown tourist district in a 21st century town.