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
According to Elliott Shore and Katie Rawson, co-authors of
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.
“You could go to a noodle shop, a dim sum restaurant, a huge place that was created in a fantastic and opulent way, or a little chop suey joint,” says Shore.
The dining experiences in larger and more sophisticated restaurants were surprisingly similar to those of today. According to a Chinese manuscript from 1126 cited in Dining out, customers of a popular restaurant were first greeted with a selection of pre-plated demonstration dishes representing hundreds of delectable options. Then came a team of well-trained and theatrical waiters.
“The waiter took their orders, then stood in line in front of the kitchen and, in turn, sang his orders to those who were in the kitchen. Those in charge of the kitchen were called “master potters” or called “preparation table controllers”. It ended in a few moments and the waiter – his left hand supporting three dishes and his right arm stacked from hand to shoulder with twenty dishes, one above the other – distributed them in the exact order in which they had been ordered. Not the slightest error was allowed. ”
In Japan, a distinct restaurant culture was born out of the Japanese teahouse traditions of the 1500s that preceded the “seasonal” and “local” movements by at least half a millennium. 16th century Japanese chef Sen no Rikyu created the course kaiseki culinary tradition, in which entire tasting menus have been designed to tell the story of a particular place and season. Rikyu’s grandsons extended the tradition to include specialty serving dishes and cutlery that matched the aesthetics of the food served.
Despite centuries of trade between East and West, there is no evidence that the earliest catering cultures in China or Japan influenced later European restaurant designs.
The common midday meal
Around the same time that Japanese chefs were creating fully sensory dining experiences, a distinct tradition took hold in the West, host table, a fixed price meal eaten at a common table.
This type of meal, eaten in public with friends and strangers gathered around a family spread, might look like one of the trendy farm-to-table establishments today, but Shore says it’s not was not a real restaurant in many ways.
First, only one meal was served each day precisely at 1 p.m. If you were not paid and sat at the table at an hour, you would not have to eat. There was no menu and no choice. The host or hotel cook decided what was prepared and served, not the guests.
Variations on the host table appeared in the 15th century and persisted beyond the arrival of the first restaurants. In England, community working class meals were called “regular” and the Simpson’s Fish Dinner House, founded in 1714, served a popular “regular fish” for two shillings that included “a dozen oysters, soup, roasted partridge, three other first courses, mutton and cheese “, according to Dining out.
The first French restaurants were broth shops
Legend has it that the first French restaurants appeared in Paris after the French Revolution when the gastronomic chefs of the guillotine aristocracy went to look for work. But when historian Rebecca Spang of Indiana University looked at this story of popular origin, she found something completely different.
The word restaurant comes from the French verb restore, “To eat”, and the first real French restaurants, opened decades before the Revolution of 1789, claimed to be health food stores selling a main dish: broth. The French description of this type of bone broth or slow simmered meal is a bouillon restaurant or “restorative broth”.
In his book, The invention of the restaurant: Paris and gastronomic culture, Spang explains that the very first French restaurants arrived in the 1760s and 1770s, and that they capitalized on a growing sensitivity of the Enlightenment era among the rich Parisian merchant class.
“They believed that knowledge was obtained by being sensitive to the world around you, and one way to show sensitivity was to not eat the” rude “foods associated with ordinary people,” says Spang. “You may not have aristocratic ancestors, but you can show that you are more than a peasant by not eating brown bread, not tasting onions and sausages, but by wanting dishes delicate. ”
Bouillon perfectly matches the invoice. It was all natural, bland, easy to digest, but packed with invigorating nutrients. But Spang attributes the success and rapid growth of these early broth restaurants not only to what was served, but to the way it was served.
“The restorers innovated by copying the service model that already existed in the culture of French cafes, ”says Spang. “They had customers sit at a small table the size of a cafe. They had a printed menu from which people ordered dishes, unlike the tavern attendant who said, “This is what’s for lunch today.” And they were more flexible in their meal times – not everyone had to go to 1:00 p.m. and eat whatever was on the table. “
Once the bouillon restaurants made their way, it didn’t take long for other items to appear on the menu. A little wine, maybe, cooked chicken. By the late 1780s, health-conscious bouillon stores had become the first major Parisian restaurants like Trois Frères and La Grande Tavene in London that would serve as an archetype of restaurant gastronomy for the next century.
Restaurants come to America
As the history of restaurants in China and France shows, you cannot have restaurants without a large and hungry urban population. So it makes sense that the first gourmet restaurant in America was opened in New York in the 19th century.
Delmonico’s opened in 1837 and offers luxurious private dining rooms and a 1,000-bottle wine cellar. The restaurant, which remains in the same location in Manhattan (although it closed during the Covid-19 crisis in 2020), claims to be the first in America to use tablecloths, and its star chefs not only invented the famous Delmonico steak, but also gourmet classics like Benedict eggs, baked Alaska, Newburg lobster and Keene chicken.