Birth of a World’s Heritage: The Modern Restaurant
(Joséphine, Napoléon’s wife is “Empress Joséphine”, by François Pascal Simon Gérard, 1806)
(English style setting of cutleries)
While travelling, lunches and dinners are delightful moments. We allow ourselves to spend some time discovering the culinary particularities of the visited region. The chances are that we have all enjoyed these moments at a restaurant, as we can find them in most place we visit, whether a tourist destination or not. This is a fact: restaurants are nowadays such a commonplace that we can hardly picture ourselves in a world without them. However, it hasn’t always been the case. Did you know that the French Revolution deeply influenced the development of the restaurant as a major cultural practice, and made it nowadays a marker of world heritage?
Historically, inns and hotels have always provided meals for their guests, but it was related to hospitality and not on the culinary experience itself. Moreover, there were mostly taverns which were notoriously crowded, noisy, not very clean and serving food of dubious quality at large common tables. The first modern restaurant appeared in rue des Poulies in Paris in the 1760s, owned by Mr Boulanger; he opened a place with his motto written on the top of it “Venite ad me, omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabo vos” (“Come to me, you whose stomachs hurt, and I will restore you”). Mr Boulanger was serving healing “bouillons” to his guests, in order to cure their aches. This is why he created the word “restaurant”, which comes from the verb “se restaurer” (to restore), a place where you would find something to restore your strength. But quickly Boulanger adapted his place to the expectations of his clientele, giving birth to the modern restaurant and bringing three disruptive innovations.
The first was on the food itself. Indeed, the client could choose from a much larger selection of dishes, up to 250, of a higher quality. Also, it was possible to enjoy various types of food, from bouillons to meat, and vegetables to pastries, while taverns mostly proposed a daily meal. The concept of eating “à la carte” was born.
The second innovation seems commonplace for us today: at Boulanger’s restaurant it was possible to be seated at an individual table, and no longer on collective benches, as was the case in inns and hotels. And finally, the restaurant displayed fixed pricing in advance. Thus the client was able to choose the table he wants, be seated with the persons he has invited, eat the dishes of his choice and know how much he would have to pay for it. How innovative!
Very often disruptive innovations break the situation of wellestablished competitors. It has also been the case at that time. The industry of the “traiteurs” (caterer) were the only ones allowed to serve dishes cooked in sauce, thus they decided to sue Boulanger, who won the trial. This affair had a major impact with enlightening the new concept of the restaurant, making it even more successful by attracting philosophers and intellectuals. Quickly, several competitors appeared, the most famous was “La Taverne de Londres” at the rue de Richelieu, held by Antoine de Beauvilliers, the chef of the Count of Provence, King Louis XVI’s brother. In a very delicate and refined environment, he invited his guests to eat like at the court of Versailles. The wine was served by the bottle, according to the custom in effect in London, which was fashionable at that time. “La Taverne de Londres” was the first grand restaurant, and remained the largest one in Paris for 20 years from 1782 without any rival. Joséphine de Beauharnais, the future Empress and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, enjoyed dinners there. But the take off of the modern restaurants happened thanks to a major historical event – the French Revolution.
Without doubt, the French Revolution helped indirectly the development of this trend. Before that time the profession of cook was almost exclusively dedicated to serve at bourgeois and aristocrats’ private mansions. No chef was on his own. But during the French Revolution most of the nobility emigrated outside of France, leaving their cooks and domestic servants unemployed. In order to use their talents, many of them became restaurant owners. With fewer than 100 restaurants before 1789, 10 years later Paris had more than 1,000 of them and 3,000 in 1815. The competition became fierce, each place trying to make a difference by offering different styles and varieties of food, and also enhancing the quality. The trend went quickly abroad: the first restaurant in the United States opened in Boston in 1794. And slowly, the fashionable trend became a well-integrated habit, which went during the 19th century from an elitist custom to a well-popularised practice.
Another revolution, the industrial one, also deeply influenced the development of the modern restaurant. People from the countryside left their provinces in numbers to come to Paris to work in factories. They arrived in a city where they had no family to feed them, and no place to cook for themselves after the day’s work. Therefore, cheaper versions of the restaurant appeared, called “gargote” or “guinguette”, where it was possible to enjoy some basic meals at a very low price. The trend went on and later, in Paris during the Second Empire (1853-1870), each neighbourhood had a restaurant offering choices of food matching the tastes of the local population. This is why, in 1867, the “Almanach des étrangers à Paris” wrote, “Paris is the city in the world where people enjoy the most dining at restaurants.” The author also added “This is the city where you can taste the best cuisine if you are not paying too much attention to your expenses, but also the capital where you can get fed for very moderate prices”.
In 1900 the Michelin guide was created to go with the development of automobiles as a common practice, giving drivers a list of mechanics, doctors and maps for each listed cities. Some 20 years later, the guide also started to list restaurants and gave its first stars in 1926 for the best tables. At this moment, the restaurant already was a worldwide custom, one whose success has not declined since.
For your next travel you should think about your ancestors, who 250 years ago, could not choose their own food while traveling and could thus face some difficulties to adapt with local culinary customs. Nowadays you can make your own choice, and it is even no longer luxury. So, probably one of the best things to do for the next Bastille Day could be … to have dinner at a restaurant!