The concept of dining away from home is now so engrained and advanced that we drive up to tiny windows for our food. For many people, a night of “fine dining” is hitting the Cracker Barrel or Applebees! Luxury dining to the average person is a rare occurrence saved for special celebrations or cruise ships. How ever one eats when away from home, we expect the ready availability and accept the activity as normal.
Obviously this was different in ages past. Yet, despite the vast majority of meals cooked and ingested within the home, the existence of public eating establishments within many cultures is a reality. In general the idea was to cater to travelers. Food was typically provided at inns, taverns, and hostels, as well as monasteries and other religious locations. In larger cities street vendors were plentiful, as were pubs and coffee houses (the genesis of a “cafe”). In all of these cases, the main difference from today was the lack of a menu with multiple choices. The traveler was obliged to eat whatever the establishment’s cook chose to make. Usually this was basic fare, or more what we might refer to as a “snack,” and rarely a gourmet meal!
High class hotels and inns would offer course-style meals of a better quality, but the true restaurant as we envision when saying the word is a product of the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution. Several factors led to the evolution.
For one, advances in technology made it possible for mass production of foodstuffs, quick distribution of goods, safer storage facilities, and more efficient cooking appliances. Secondly, as roads improved and methods of transportation became more comfortable and varied (notably trains and then automobiles), folks started traveling in larger number. Naturally this created a huge demand for public dining venues. The third factor we owe to the French.
The word restaurant is derived from the French word restaurer, the meaning being “to restore.” Pre-Revolution French restaurants were regulated establishments that sold meat-based consommes intended to “restore” a person’s strength if ill or traveling. These places were essentially the same as those in England or elsewhere. The alteration came after the French Revolution when guilds previously licensed and controlled by the king were able to freely function. Educated chefs no longer had rich, aristocratic employers, but they wisely turned the situation to their advantage. It was they who, for the first time in history, opened public restaurants with menus offering dishes individually portioned, priced and prepared to order.
The first French chef credited with opening the first such restaurant is open for debate. But whether in 1765 or 1782, the idea caught on like wildfire. According to the Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, well before the turn of the century restaurants in high class hotels reported offered patrons “choices of 12 soups, 65 entrees…and 50 desserts.”
“French-style eateries” cropped up in America first when chefs migrated, followed by England and other European countries. Skip forward a few decades to Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner!