May I Take Your Order?

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.

Baked Potato Man

Street vendor selling baked potatoes.

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!


Simpson’s Tavern, oldest in London established 1757



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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[…] May I Take Your Order?  Dining out is normal to us, but how about Jane Austen? A short history of restaurants and the varied ways one could eat when away from home. […]

CJ Fosdick

Informative, as usual! My hub and I were talking recently about our habit of “eating out” at least twice a week now, compared to how often–or less often I should say–we did as children. It was a BIG deal when we went to a good restaurant with our parents growing up. I remember my mother and aunt having to actually take off their “girdles” after a big meal dining out! Ha!

I guess it doesn’t surprise me to learn that the French started it all. French cuisine has always been a benchmark for restauranteurs. The TV trend for cooking shows now is amazing. It would be interesting to see just when and where the lst FAST FOOD trend caught on. I do remember (vaguely) when McDonald’s burgers were 15 cents and some “Custard Stands” had roller skating waitresses who came to your car for orders! Good old days! 🙂

Kat T

I cannot source this at the moment, but I do recall reading somewhere of a person who did not eat meat(or recommended a meatless diet) during the Georgian/Regency era[I believe it was one of the period imprints I’ve come across from various historical archives when they’ve given free access]. I do think it was considered odd at the time but not unknown.
I also found what I believe was Georgian/Regency description of what we would consider milk/lactose intolerance, but later when I tried to re-find reference I could not[I THOUGHT I saw it in Memoirs of a Highland Lady].
References like this fascinate me.


Love your post, Sharon — so many things we take for granted that didn’t exist very long ago. If I may respond to the comments about vegetarianism, there have of course been followers of a vegetarian diet since the philosophers of early Greece. Some aspects of the diet reached the west from India and China when the trade routes were opened up. While there were vegetarians in Europe for centuries, it was not a popular diet until the mid-19th century when the first vegetarian society was organized in England (there is still a sizeable society in existence today, as well as in other Western countries.) The diet was embraced for philosophical, ethical, and health reasons, much as it is today. Plato, Leonardo, St Francis, Shelley, Mary Wolstoncraft, and Charlotte Bronte are amongst the more well-known vegetarians. It was also embraced of course by those who could not afford to buy meat, or at times when meat was not available.

Being a long-time vegetarian/vegan myself I have often wondered how I would have fared as a dinner guest in Regency times, and discovered it might not be so difficult inasmuch as a number of clergymen felt that avoiding meat was healthier for the body and soul, and so accommodations were made for them.

Not so sure about coaching inns or other public accommodations; even now it’s not always easy to find a restaurant to accommodate!

Vicky Dreiling

Great post Sharon – thanks!

Stephanie L

Okay, first I’m somewhat diverted by Cracker Barrel being considered fine dining…LOL Moving on…I guess I’ve never really thought about the roots of “dining out” per se. I know it would be very difficult for me (who does not eat meat) to consume anything in days of old. I guess I would just have to live on ale…LOL I just wish I could go across the pond and visit some of these lovely places. The picture of Simpson’s is just gorgeous! I’ll have to go by myself since hubby is not inclined to fly anywhere, but maybe someday I can make it over to Europe just to see the history.


Simpson’s is very handsome.:)

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