(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

While historians have long agreed that the French invented both the concept of cuisine and a method of delivering it, received wisdom had it that the restaurant did not come into being until after the French Revolution, which, by disenfranchising the aristocracy, had the effect of making previously private chefs who had served only the wealthy into public servants. In Rebecca Spang’s new book, however, the true origins of the culinary palace can be found in a cup of concentrated broth first served up to the French public in about 1766. This bouillon was the original “restaurant,” cooked up by Mathurin Roze, an entrepreneurial soul who adopted the grandiose surname “de Chantoiseau” while also calling himself—with reference to the Marquis de Mirabeau’s 1758 attack on luxury, L’Ami des hommes (The Friend of Man)—“The Friend of All the World.” Actually, restaurants had been lovingly prepared and served in France since about 1750, but it was not until Chantoiseau published his 1769 Almanach listing the particulars of all the “most famous and important” Parisian trades and businesses that the French learned that a certain “M. Roze” was the city’s “first restaurateur.”

Chantoiseau had opened a maison de santé (literally, a house of health) in Paris on the rue Saint-Honoré in 1766, but this was not his only venture. He was also the author of a novel—and thoroughly Byzantine—scheme to abolish France’s punishing national debt, which, after it was published in 1769, led not to acceptance and acclaim but to Chantoiseau’s arrest and imprisonment. His hopes dashed on this score, Chantoiseau turned his considerable energies toward expanding his role as a restaurateur. As Spang is careful to point out, however, he clearly saw a connection between his two novel endeavors:

For Roze de Chantoiseau . . . selling restorative bouillons to individuals was less like running a tavern than it was like peddling credit schemes to the monarchy. . . . The “invention” of the restaurant, the creation of a new market sphere of hospitality and taste, was but one component in Roze’s plan to fix the economy, repair commerce, and restore health to the body politic.

Certainly nondomestic eateries existed prior to Chantoiseau’s day, but before 1766 dining out in Paris consisted mainly of attending a table d’hôte, a large public table where one took what was offered—usually at an appointed hour. In such settings there was no choice, no privacy, and considerable risk of infection. Restaurants were created in response to the public’s dislike of all these characteristics, but the health issue led the way. Chantoiseau’s restorative liquid condensations were meant, above all things, to be healthful. They were cooked in clean kettles and consisted, more or less, of the concentrated essences of some form or forms of protein. Served in maisons de santé to those suffering from such ailments as “weak chests,” they soon became popular with effete Parisians who hankered to be seen indulging in a private activity in a public place. Chantoiseau’s genius was to capitalize on this impulse, turning a cup of broth into the restaurant as it is known today.

M. Roze’s rue Saint-Honoré establishment was made to feel like home—only better. Not only could patrons place an order for refreshments any time they chose, but they were also personally attended to by formally dressed individuals while seated comfortably in mirrored, well-appointed rooms. Menus came next, as other maisons de santé—such as that of Jean-François Vacossin, France’s second restaurateur— introduced other supposedly healthful items; one menu promised “Breton porridge, orange-flower-flavored rice creams, semolina, fresh eggs . . . fruits in season, preserves from the most famous manufacturers, fresh butter, and cream cheeses.” Such comestibles, with their suggestion of the cult of nature spawned by the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in fact constituted the first nouvelle cuisine. (For his own part, Rousseau found that he much preferred the offerings of rustic inns to the refined cuisine and atmosphere to be found at the newfangled Paris eateries.) By the 1780’s restaurants offered full meals, which permitted patrons...

(The entire section is 1768 words.)