Updated: May 15, 2022
“The waiter took their orders, then stood in line in front of the kitchen and, when his turn came, sang out his orders to those in the kitchen."
Chinese Manuscript, 1126 CE
In 1765, as the story goes, a Parisian soup vendor by the name of Boulanger hung a sign outside his door that read: “Boulanger débite des restaurants divins,” (“Boulanger sells restoratives fit for the gods.”) The restoratives advertised were rich broths purported to have a positive influence on one's health.
Hence the word restaurant enters our vocabulary.
Boulanger, some argue, may well have established what we conceive of as a restaurant in France. However, the Larousse Gastronomique, an encyclopedia of all things French cuisine, lists the Grande Taverne de Londres as the first true restaurant, at least in the West. It was opened by the noted French gastronome Antoine Beauvilliers in 1782, and he catered to the growing class of wealthy bourgeoisie in Paris. He introduced Paris to the notion of a menu listing available dishes and then serving those dishes at individual tables. Yet the idea of a restaurant goes back much further than that to at least medieval China.
The Song Dynasty of China (960 CE - 1279 CE) was a period of economic expansion and innovation. China's iron industry thrived and developed the use of coal-fired blast furnaces. New canals were constructed, which along with the Grand Canal and the Yangzte River, created a vast internal trade network for moving goods and people. Overseas trade expanded as well, spurred by innovations in nautical science such as the maritime compass and watertight hull compartments. Gunpowder is invented and used not only in fireworks but in a variety of weapons. These include early types of flamethrowers, grenades, cannons, and land mines. In agriculture, new strains of rice from South Asia are introduced. These strains grow faster and lead to increased rice production. This fueled population growth and the rise of urban centers. The continued development of woodblock printing and the invention of movable type results in a publishing boom that leads to a more literate society. Polymaths, like seen later in early modern Europe, studied a wide variety of fields: astronomy, metallurgy, optics, geology, mathematics, and medicine.
Peace and prosperity led to the expansion of the government bureaucracy. The Song emperors built upon the civil service established by their Tang Dynasty predecessors. They greatly expanded the civil service examinations based on Confucian teachings. This enabled many who studied and worked hard, no matter their social status, to rise up into the ranks of the scholar-elites. This was the highest class within the Chinese social hierarchy. Their ranks filled government posts from their ranks, and they held positions of the local authority as well as at the imperial court. Many traveled widely as part of their official imperial duties.
The two main urban centers were Kaifeng, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, and Hangzhou, later the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. Both these cities greatly surpassed Paris, then the largest city in Europe, in population. The cities were genuinely cosmopolitan, drawing people from all different regions of China. People mingled, traded, exchanged ideas, and increased wealth offered opportunities for leisure activities and an interest in art and literature. This included food and brought about the development of a culinary culture derived from regional aspects of Chinese cuisine. During this time, tea became an important part of Chinese culture. These cities had hundreds of different eating establishments, from street vendors to teahouses to restaurants. The 12th-century Chinese historian Cai Tao wrote that Kaifeng had a dedicated street “teeming with night markets and restaurants…carriages and crowds, and lanterns that lit up the sky.” A later Chinese writer, Wu Zimu, would note that he believed at least 600 different dishes were being served in Hangzhou's teahouses, bars, and restaurants.
In Europe, the primary eating places were inns and taverns. Guests sat at communal tables and served whatever food the host prepared. Prices were haggled over. In large urban centers like Paris, people bought food from street vendors or cookshops (caterers) called traiteurs. (The Italian word trattoria is derived from the French.) Economist Nicholas Kiefer outlines how the concept of a restaurant is different from these other types of eating establishments. At a restaurant, a guest is presented with a menu of choices from which to select, prices are fixed, and there is private table seating. Based on these criteria, many places in Song Dynasty China fit this description long before appearing in Western Europe.
These early restaurants catered to traveling wealthy merchants and government officials. Just like today, these establishments were located in the city's entertainment district, close to hotels, brothels, and theaters. There were various places to suit every taste, from a simple noodle shop to opulent dining palaces. In some places, the dining experience became entertainment, complete with singing waiters and stage productions. There was a high degree of specialization in the food scene of medieval Kaifeng and Hangzhou. Many of the regional cuisines were represented. A homesick traveler could easily find a place offering his favorite hometown fare. The more adventurous could partake of many dishes that blended different culinary styles. According to Wu Zimu and other contemporaries, a typical menu included soup, steamed lamb, hare, roasted quail, fried fish, fruits and nuts, served with tea, wine, or other alcoholic beverages.
Like during the Song Dynasty, the early forms of restaurants in 18th century France appeared in response to Paris's emerging wealthy merchant class. Many members of the new bourgeoisie had not been aristocrats, but they wished to affect the sensibilities of the aristocracy. This meant separating themselves from the lower classes. Most were influenced by the sentiments of the French Enlightenment. In terms of food tastes, this meant giving up the coarse foods of peasants and the working class in favor of more delicate fare. Msgr. Boulanger's restorative broths fit the bill perfectly. These soups were simple, bland, but filled with nutrients that helped maintain a healthy constitution. Restaurants grew in popularity in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution with the expansion of this wealthy business class and the emerging middle classes. In the United States, the first restaurant was founded by two Swiss brothers, John and Peter Delmonico. They opened the original Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City in 1827. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Delmonico's was the center of New York high society.
With the coming of COVID in 2020, many people missed going out to eat. Food has always been integral to human interaction and bonding. Restaurants and other eating establishments provide important social spaces. During the Song Dynasty, dining at a restaurant became less about the food itself and more about different aspects of the experience. It is no less true today. Restaurants are places for social gatherings, and where people transact business, negotiate, entertain, and immerse themselves in another culture through their cuisine.
Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants: Katie Rawson and Elliot Shore