Rise of the Restaurant (BLOG)

Thermopolium in Pompeii (Flickr CC via @DivesGallaecia)
Thermopolium in Pompeii (Flickr CC via @DivesGallaecia)

Living in a major city and loving most foods, the only difficulty I face to eat out is choosing the restaurant.  But before the age of farm-to-table dining, McDonald’s on the go, and everything in between – when did people skip past the kitchen and head out for dinner?

Travelers’ Table: Restaurants by the most basic definition, a place to sell some food, go back as long as people traveled. Farmers would often travel for days if they wanted to sell livestock in urban markets, so the roadside inn became the earliest form of a restaurant.  Usually located in the middle of the countryside, weary travelers refueled on the dish du jour, without menus or choice, seated at a common table.

Ancient Rome Got Rowdy: Ancient Romans stopped by the local thermopolium when they didn’t feel like cooking.  The ruins of Pompeii contain many thermopolia with stone bowls nestled into counters, probably to hold cheese baked with honey and herbs, savory lentil dishes and mulled wine. The majority of homes lacked cooking facilities so many locals frequented thermopolia for convenience, but they gained a reputation for breeding rough crowds and crime scenes.

Marco Polo Loved Chinese Food:  When Marco Polo reached a city in eastern China, Hangzhou, in the late 13th century he marveled at the sheer variety of food. Hangzhou was the seat of the Southern Song Dynasty starting in 1132, and the population boomed to over a million people. Some historians say it was the largest city in the world at that time, when London or Paris had only tens of thousands of people.  Along the main drag of Hangzhou’s wide Imperial Way, the masses ordered from menus in tents, cafes and tea houses.  Shops specialized in roast pork or noodles, while rice wine vendors and street performers circulated.  Marco reported back about delicacies like silkworm pie, bean curd soup and pork-stuffed dumplings.

Renaissance Scenesters:  Even though most people still ate at home, taverns were typical in Europe by the late 17th century, offering common fare like stews or shepherds pie in England,  or delicatessen, sauerkraut, and cheese in Germany, Austria, and Alsace. Spanish bodegas made tapas. Coffee, tea and chocolate were found in public houses alongside the alcohol thanks to Christopher Columbus and other explorers. Cafes did not offer food but became popular for sipping and chatting with newspapers and chessboards, as restaurants provided a new space to socialize.

French Foodie Revolution:  The guild system strictly regulated food sales throughout the Middle Ages – charcutiers, for example, prepared cooked meats. If you didn’t belong to that particular guild it was illegal to sell cooked meat in any form. In 1765, a man by the name of Boulanger added cooked lamb to restorative soup he sold in his shop and the caterer’s guild subsequently sued. Boulanger won the case on a technicality, and more shops like Boulanger’s began opening up all over Paris in the next 20 years.  When Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution, the old ways including the guild system went with them.  Many private chefs to former aristocracy were left unemployed and opened their own restaurants in Paris.  Suddenly accessible to many French citizens for the first time, restaurants served diverse menus on delicate china and linen tablecloths.  This revolutionary fine dining in France would soon influence Europe and the New World.

American Takeaway:  French restaurants set the style in 18th century America, until the Prohibition Era caused many shutdowns.  As a result, more cafeterias, luncheonettes and teahouses encouraged new crowds, like females. Fast food rose in the following decades, probably a far cry from what Boulanger had in mind.

Fact Bites:

  • Leaving gratuity for service originated from the 17th century English taverns, where jars labeled “T.I.P.: To Insure Promptness” sat on the bar. After Europeans brought the custom to the United States in the late 1800s, rich Americans liked the idea to flaunt their wealth.
  • Before the French Revolution, there were less than 50 restaurants in Paris. By 1814 3,000 restaurants were listed in the Almanach des Gourmands– a popular travel guide. Today Paris boasts over 40,000 restaurants.

Sources: Oxford Companion to FoodHistory Channel, Food Timeline


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