A History of the Restaurant, Part 1

Colosseum, Italy
••• Palazzo Manfredi.

Restaurants are an institution in nearly every country and culture in the world. The restaurant, which emerged during the French Revolution, continues to serve as a place where people come together to eat, drink, and socialize. But even before Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were sent to the guillotine, restaurants have been around in one form or another for thousands of years.

Restaurants in Ancient Times 

The idea of selling food for profit existed during the earliest civilizations. It's no coincide the growth of restaurants through history correlates with the growth of cities. The need for public eateries was firmly established as far back as the Roman Empire and Ancient China. When peasants and farmers brought their livestock and other goods to urban markets, often they traveled for several days at a time and needed a place to eat and rest. This brought about the earliest form of restaurants, the roadside inn.

Usually located in the middle of the countryside, inns served meals at a common table to travelers. There were no menus or even options from which to choose. Every night was chef’s choice.

Within city walls, where living conditions were cramped and many people did not have the means to cook their own meals, vendors sold food from small carts or street kitchens, which is still popular in many parts of the world. The meals they sold were usually precooked and affordable, a forerunner to modern fast food. These early inns and taverns were more than just a place to eat; they served an important social function by bringing people together.

Restaurants in the Middle Ages

In Europe through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, taverns and inns continued to be the main place to buy a prepared meal. In Spain, these establishments were called bodegas, which served small savory Spanish dishes called "tapas." In England, food such as sausage and shepherd’s pie were popular; while, in France, stews and soups were offered. All of these early restaurants served simple fare commonly found in peasant or merchant homes.

Following Columbus’s voyage to the Americas in 1492, global trade increased, introducing new foods to Europe. Coffee, tea, and chocolate were soon being served in public houses alongside beer, ale, and wine. By the 17th century, while full meals were still typically eaten at home, moderately well-to-do people would hire a a caterer or take their meals in a private salon, rather than in the main dining room of a public house.

The French Revolution and the Rise of Fine Dining

In France throughout the Middle Ages, guilds had monopolies on many aspects of prepared food. For example, charcutiers were the guild who prepared cooked meats for sale. If you did not belong to that particular guild, it was illegal to sell cooked meat in any form. In 1765, a man named Boulanger added cooked lamb to a stew he sold in his shop near the Louvre. The caterer’s guild sued him, but Boulanger won the case. Over the next 20 years leading up to the French Revolution, more shops like Boulanger’s began opening in Paris.

When Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI went to the guillotine, the old ways of French society went with them. The guilds were swept away and many chefs employed in aristocratic, even royal, households found themselves unemployed. Many of these displaced workers opened their own restaurants in Paris, bringing with them a new way of dining. Delicate china, cutlery, and linen tablecloths, all trappings of aristocracy, were now available to a whole new echelon of French citizens. Menus became more diverse, offering both prix fixe and a la carte options.

Though public houses continued to exist, the rise of fine dining in France would soon spread throughout Europe and into the New World.

Public gatherings over food and drink have long been a part of human society, as they offer a place for people to come together for a meal and to socialize with others. Following the French Revolution, fine dining restaurants expanded across Europe and to other parts of the world. In the United States, the restaurant industry would become one of the leading employers during the 20th century, discussed further in A History of Restaurants, Part 2.