Restaurants, Yesterday and Today

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menu parisWhere did the restaurant come from? How has it changed over time? What elements have remained constant? These were just a few of the questions that I had in mind as I began reading two books that claimed to describe very different eras in the life of the restaurant. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture by Rebecca Spang documents the establishment of the very first restaurants in Paris, France, while Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America by Alison Pearlman examines the more recent changes in restaurants that seem to have grown wildly popular among restaurateurs and diners alike. My hope was that these volumes would both inform my dissertation research1 and satisfy my own curiosity.

Given how ingrained the restaurant is in modern culture, it is difficult to conceive of a world without places to buy prepared food—and in fact, such establishments, including roadside stands and purveyors of cooked meals, can be traced back at least as far as the 14th century 2. These establishments, however, differed from restaurants as they currently exist in a number of important ways; for one thing, many of these businesses were akin to what we would call “carry out” today—that is, food was meant to be purchased and consumed off-premises. Some taverns and inns (called tables d’hôte in France, meaning “host’s tables”) allowed diners to eat on the premises, but generally speaking, diners were at the mercy of the cook, if one was employed at all. Travelers and locals alike would crowd around the same table at a prescribed time and help themselves to whatever was being served; there were no choices. If you were hungry, you ate—though these establishments won no prizes for their hospitality or food quality—in 1790, Helen Maria Williams, an Englishwoman, visited Paris and noted that the “conditions in French inns were so miserable that they could move most English people to suicide”3! Assuming you were not a member of the aristocracy, able to afford your own cook, these were the only real “dining” options available until the middle of the 18th century—dine with others and take your chances, or pick up something and eat it at home 2.

The Invention of the Restaurant picks up at this point and identifies Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, a serial entrepreneur and wannabe economist as the inventor of the “restaurateur’s room” in Paris in the 1770s. A “restaurant,” at this point in time, was the name given to a specific dish—a cup of broth or bouillon. In fact, the word “restaurant” actually derives from à restaurer, a French verb meaning “to restore” or “to recuperate.” Thus, one went to a restaurateur’s room to purchase and consume this specific dish, which was believed to hold nourishing and restorative powers. It was for this reason that restaurateur’s rooms were known as maisons de santé (health rooms) through the 1780s, for those who were otherwise unable to consume a proper meal could sit and sip a cup of broth.

The question can be raised, however, as to why this would be a valid business model—in other words, what could possibly compel someone to sit and drink a cup of bouillon instead of eating a proper meal? The answer is distinctly cultural: 18th century Parisians were fascinated (obsessed?) with health, medicine, diet, and cookery4. At this point in time, it was fashionable to be fatigued; Parisian doctors would often diagnose those who were prone to “overstimulation” with “weak-chestedness,” a sort of generic catchall term that essentially denoted a “delicate constitution.” Such a diagnosis was a popular way to publicly display one’s sophistication:

Moved to extremes of feeling by beautiful sunsets, resolute orphans, unhappy lovers, or Roman ruins, the man or woman “of feeling” most stereotypically revealed his or her sentiments by copious tears and occasional fainting spells, but the same condition might just as well manifest itself in the “inability to eat an evening meal.”

Spang, p. 39

Indeed, such a constitution could be viewed as a social marker that differentiated the “sophisticated urbanite from the coarse worker capable of digesting whatever was placed before him” (p. 39)3. Because such an individual could never know when his or her capacity to eat a proper meal might falter, restaurateur’s rooms were open all the time—broth only required reheating. This argument—that “the delicate people of Paris… would not necessarily all fall weak at any one particular moment” (p. 68)3—worked in favor of the restaurateurs, who received a royal exemption in 1786 that allowed their establishments to stay open an hour later than any other food purveyors in Paris. Before long, restaurants began to serve foods other than simple broths, though initially offerings were confined to foods that were believed to be healthful and restorative; while today’s health science might call these qualities into question, it was perhaps the evocation of the rustic French countryside and its pastoral idyll that at least offered some psychological benefit to customers.

At some point, the existing traiteurs, or “caterers” of the day (these were the individuals that oftentimes operated tables d’hôte), annoyed by the advances that restaurateurs had made, began to offer “both ‘ordinary’ and ‘restaurant’ service” (p. 66)3. In other words, they adopted the main quality that made restaurateur’s rooms different from inns and tables d’hôte—on-demand, personalized service at any time, with at least some degree of choice5. Indeed, even a small amount of personal choice over none at all was a marked improvement over the one-size-fits-all approach taken by tables d’hôte.

The physical environment of the restaurant, as described by Spang, is perhaps not what one might initially imagine. Going to a restaurant was largely a solitary affair; unlike the cafés of the day, which usually consisted of large open spaces where people could intermingle and converse with one another, restaurants tended to offer single tables or cabinets, which were private walled-off rooms typically furnished with a table, mirrors, and seating for a small group. Spang explains: “Better suited to confidential tête-à-têtes than expansive sociability, the restaurateur’s new spaces emphasized the private, the intimate, and the potentially secret” (p. 78)3. This cocoon of privacy almost seems to have extended well beyond the four walls of the restaurant; noting a dearth of historical analysis of restaurants, Spang laments that “the restaurant seems, for most historians’ purposes, to have been neither public nor private but instead nearly invisible” (p. 85)3. We see the emergence of the restaurant as a publicly private space, one that allowed for “public display of private self-absorption” (p. 87)3. Questions were not asked about what went on behind the closed doors of the restaurant cabinets; indeed, restaurants were often half-jokingly called public boudoirs, perhaps in part because “restaurant cabinets legally provided philandering (male) spouses with homes away from home” (p. 213)3—legal in the sense that wives who were being cheated on had no recourse unless they managed to catch their husbands in the act.

The physical separation created by the cabinet walls between diners and the outside world was not the only barrier in place in most restaurants—kitchens were largely off-limits to anyone but the cooks and chefs de cuisine. For the most part, Parisians were content with this arrangement; gastronomic discourse and literature of the day “regularly reiterated the necessary chasm separating preparation from consumption, kitchen from dining room” (p. 163)3. Indeed, as early restaurant critic Alexandre Balthasar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière wrote in one of his many restaurant-related volumes, “With food, as with the law, to find it good, you must not see it being made” (p. 163)3. Despite the fact that the invisibility of the kitchen occasionally resulted in scandal related to foul, spoiled, or altogether inedible ingredients being employed6, many restaurateurs used such scandals as means to crow about their own food quality.

By the 19th century, the restaurant had been cemented into culture as one of life’s pleasures, and had spread well beyond Paris, thanks to journalists, authors, and tourists who took the concept of the restaurant and spread it far and wide. Restaurants ranged from those that primarily serviced poor students and paupers to those whose astronomical prices precluded anyone but the wealthiest aristocrats from sitting down at a table. But even this differentiation is not pure socioeconomic stratification; even in 18th and 19th century Paris, with its distinct class differences, anyone with a few francs in hand could feast like a king7. As Spang puts it,

Lurking within the tidy stratigraphy of restaurants lay the uneasy suspicion that they might actually blur, rather than reinforce, social distinctions… The sense of taste, after all, was meant to know neither social rank nor economic limits; within a restaurant, where every customer was presented with the same menu, social distinction threatened to collapse into gastronomic equality.

Spang, p. 223

This sense of “gastronomic equality” persists to this day; no one is barred from a restaurant, as long as he is able to pay his bill when the check arrives8.

Restaurants took a certain trajectory that extends beyond the scope of Spang’s book, which concludes in the mid-19th century—just as Auguste Escoffier was born, in October 1846. Escoffier served as an apprentice in his uncle’s restaurant in Nice, France, and by age 19 he was working in the kitchen of Le Petit Moulin Rouge in Paris (Trubek, 2000). Escoffier published the first edition of Le guide culinaire in 1903; the book, which remains in print, was Escoffier’s attempt to codify what he deemed to be the best practices of French restaurant cookery and technique in order to better educate future chefs9. The exacting techniques dictated by Escoffier’s book, coupled with opulent décor, fine tableware, service à la russe (serving dishes in courses, rather than all at once), and an insistence on nothing but the best ingredients and wines, all came together to create a certain type of restaurant—the haute cuisine establishment—that many viewed as the “pinnacle” of the restaurant’s evolution10.

Smart Casual picks up the story in the mid-1970s, with Pearlman noticing that gastronomic palaces had begun to change—“convergences of haute and ordinary” (p. 1)11, as she calls them, started to materialize. For example, restaurants began to simplify their décor, eliminate pretentious uniforms, and retire dress codes—but simultaneously, a marked sophistication of the food as it was presented on the plate began to emerge. Michelin stars, the most coveted of restaurant awards, were awarded to restaurants other than establishments specializing in haute cuisine in the mid-2000s—even food trucks, mobile food purveyors, found themselves collecting awards. Indeed, “gourmets no longer saw the link between [formality] and the finest, most costly dining out as axiomatic” (p. 15)11.

Pearlman identifies several restaurants that stood out in the 1970s as particularly pioneering, in the sense that they emphasized innovative dishes and meticulous presentation while confining such demands to the food and the plate. Chez Panisse, launched by Alice Waters in Berkeley, California in 1975, is identified as one of the first, if not the first, examples of this distinctly American approach to the restaurant experience. Chez Panisse, which is still in operation, is described as embracing a perfectionistic but informal approach to dishes, while the restaurant’s rustic décor (wildflowers on the table, quilts on the walls) and the lack of pretense combine to create a certain sense of sincerity rather than snobbery. Certainly this description stands in stark contrast to restaurants specializing in haute cuisine that demanded “urbanity, proper conduct, and cultivation in a specifically French cuisine” (p. 6)11.

Chez Panisse would, in 1980, open a “café” on one of its floors after a kitchen fire; just like the main dining room had done five years prior, Chez Panisse Café incorporated a number of novel innovations that would, in just a matter of years, become trends amongst restaurateurs, including an open kitchen and a wood-burning oven. The open kitchen in particular, now sometimes referred to as a “display kitchen” by restaurant design consultants, is a drastic shift away from the Parisian restaurant’s insistence on a stark separation of the kitchen from the dining room. Modern conceptions of health and hygiene are quite different from those that were popular in 19th century Paris, however; indeed, the first open kitchens were conceived of as a way to conspicuously display the hygienic practices and cleanliness of the restaurant12. The open kitchen also allows the chef and staff to become real to the patron—the kitchen is no longer a gastronomic “black box.” Whatever the specific reasons for the uptick in popularity of open kitchens, Pearlman notes that they convey benefits to both restaurant patrons and kitchen staff. For customers, the open kitchen can create a psychological connection to the food they are about to consume, not to mention the entertainment value that such a spectacle can create; for chefs, the visible fascination and admiration from the customers can translate into a morale boost, plus “kitchen visibility ensures that… [a] cooking staff maintains a professional demeanor” (p. 79)11.

The open kitchen as a feature of the restaurant is accurately described as an American innovation, but what can be said about the decidedly eclectic menus of American restaurants? In a large city, it isn’t difficult to find a French restaurant across the street from a Japanese restaurant and around the corner from a Spanish tapas bar. Where did this widespread differentiation come from? Pearlman gives a hefty dose of credit to the rise of the so-called “creative class” (identified by urban studies theorist Richard Florida in his 2002 book entitled The Rise of the Creative Class) and its healthy respect for individual expression13. Chefs, Pearlman argues, have a newfound freedom to indulge themselves creatively in a way that was previously unthinkable, given haute cuisine’s obsession with the classics and methodology. Seen most clearly at the end of the 20th century, American chefs felt enabled to experiment with both classic dishes, or borrow from other cultures and cuisines, leading to the “gourmetization” of such everyday foods as pizza and the elevation of organ meats to epicurean status14.

But where did this relatively new American appetite for innovative cuisine come from? Pearlman notes that the major players in the American food industry (food processors & packagers, warehouses, supermarkets, and the agro-industrial complex) during the 20th century “together created a common concept of ‘American’ food that was neither diverse nor regional” (pp. 64-65)11. For much of the 1900s, the American plate was generic, homogeneous, and largely devoid of ethnic influence, thanks in no small part to supermarkets, which accounted for 62% of all grocery sales in the United States by 195611. The emergence of the creative class, which Florida pegs to the tail end of the dot-com bubble, began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, again may have had some influence, as this was precisely the same time that the Food Network (originally called the “TV Food Network”) launched. Around the same time, food bloggers began to increase in popularity and influence15; even hardened and notorious chefs like Anthony Bourdain observed that food bloggers always seemed to be at the bleeding edge of culinary development16. Americans responded enthusiastically to this increase in food media; in the five-year span between 2005 and 2010, “the number of food-program hours on TV more than tripled” (p. 47)11, and by 2008, nearly fifteen percent of all American adults were describing themselves as “foodies.” Restaurants have responded in kind; innovative restaurateurs nationwide continue to look for fresh and innovative angles that will make their food stand out. Indeed, food has become a legitimate pathway to fame and fortune in a way that Parisian restaurateurs could probably never conceive of.

In certain ways, restaurants have remained very much the same since their inception as maisons de santé in the 18th century—people seek out restaurants as a place to see and be seen while consuming food that someone else prepared, at any time of day. In other ways, restaurants couldn’t be more different, given the innovations that restaurateurs have introduced, including open kitchens, not to mention the celebrity status accorded to many of our best and most innovative chefs. These two books provide intriguing glimpses into the invention and development of the restaurant; I only regret that they are unable to predict the ways that restaurants are certain to change and evolve in the future!