French Origins of the Restaurant

French Origins of the Restaurant


ED GLAESER: Restaurants are a distinctly
urban phenomenon in many ways. Recent innovations have been billed as
being the harbingers of a sharing economy. But cities have always been about sharing. What is a restaurant but
a shared dining room, a shared kitchen. But, even though some form of urban sharing of eating has been going on for
millennia. There were so called “thermopolia” in
Pompeii, 2000 years ago, the restaurant is really a more modern invention that
came about in Ancien Regime Paris, so we’re thrilled Rebecca that you’re here,
tell us about how it happened? What was before restaurants,
how did this change occur? REBECCA SPANG: Okay, so what you need to know is that for as you said, millennia, centuries, there had,
of course, been many ways to eat out. In fact, most people were
too poor to have kitchens. So most of their food did get
prepared outside of their own homes, if we’re thinking about an urban setting. GLAESER: Mm-hm.
SPANG: But what’s distinctive about restaurants is that people go
to restaurants even though they don’t have to. Restaurants are the moment at which it
becomes enjoyable to go out to eat. Or rather in the first
restaurants from the 1760s and the 1770s, a restaurant was a place
where you went out not to eat. GLAESER: So, it has some link to the word,
restore, no? It’s a sort of funny thing. It’s not about luscious overindulgence,
it has a totally different origin, right? SPANG: That’s right. So as you say, the word restaurant
comes from the French verb “se restorer”. Which means “to restore” or “to refresh,” and what’s been restored or
refreshed, is your appetite. For people who are too sensitive, and the key term is weak of chest,
to eat an evening meal, they can instead go to this
special establishment that’s called the restaurateur’s room, and
there they will be restored. Their health will be restored. So the key thing you need to know is that
the first restaurant is also the first health food restaurant. GLAESER: [LAUGH] And what were they serving? SPANG: Well they were serving what
the contemporary food writer Helen Rosner, who writes for “Eater,”
what she calls “princess food.” So they were serving things
that were white and pretty. So rice pudding, chicken consomme,
water from the king’s wells. Wine that was marked as
specifically not adulterated. And their main feature, the reason why you went to
a restaurateur’s room, was that they served a kind of bullion known as a restoral. A restorative bullion. A bullion made of large
quantities of very high quality meat sweated over very high heat. You don’t add any water. There are other places where a restaurant
is specifically defined as being waterless soup. So it’s basically meat juice. And the idea of having meat juice
is you need the nutritive value. GLAESER: Mm-hm. SPANG: But you’re too weak to
actually digest it yourself. GLAESER: So how do we get the move from bouillon
to more robust forms of eating? SPANG: Right, so from the very beginning,
these places called restaurants are distinguished by having small,
separate tables, so they don’t have a host’s table, by having menus,
GLAESER: Mm-hm. SPANG: and by having flexible meal hours. So again an inn keeper or
a caterer, dinner was at one. GLAESER: Right. SPANG: The restaurant innovates in
all three of those start parts of how service is done. In the beginning it’s serving
this restorative bouillons. But then. Well maybe your appetite
does get restored. And maybe a few oysters
wouldn’t go amiss. And if you’re gonna have oysters, then maybe you should have
champagne to go with the oysters. And if you’re going to have oysters and
champagne, well then maybe you could eat
just a little lamb cutlet. So there’s a bit of a creep going on there.
GLAESER: Right, sure. SPANG: But what really happens,
is that the inn keepers and the caterers see how popular this
new style of service becomes. So that you don’t have to sit
at the shared host’s table and you can arrive at any hour. Of course, that’s good for innkeepers. They’ve got more customers
coming throughout the day. And well then you do have to have a menu. But so it’s that style of
service that is the distinctive quality of a restaurant,
more in the long run than what they serve.

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