The Invention of the Restaurant

by Rebecca L. Spang

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1768

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...

(This entire section contains 1768 words.)

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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 to indulge their personal tastes in the pseudoprivacy afforded by separate tables and at an equally artificial remove from the laborious preparation of their food. The only jarringly real moment arrived with the presentation of the bill, known as le quart d’heure de Rabelais, or “Rabelais’s fifteen minutes,” named for the sixteenth century satirist François Rabelais, who, embarking on a trip to Paris that he could not afford, found himself equally unable to pay for a meal taken along the way. Ingeniously—and ostentatiously— Rabelais placed two packets on the table in front of him, one labeled “poison for the king” and the other “poison for the dauphin.” After the innkeeper had him arrested, Rabelais was whisked away to Paris, where he revealed his ruse to his delighted monarch, François I.

Rabelais’s legendary sleight was not, as the French were quick to recognize, far removed from that performed by restaurateurs, who were able with the use of mirrors and other trappings to turn a cup of bouillon into a pot of gold. From the outset, as Spang’s emphasis on Roze de Chantoiseau clearly shows, restaurants were big business, the worth of their ephemeral product inextricable from its marketing. With the advent of the first restaurant review, Alexandre Balthasar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière’s Almanach des gourmands, in 1803, dining out became a cultural institution. In the interim, however, the restaurant took a detour around the French Revolution. During the Old Regime, the French populace was able to purchase tickets to witness their monarch at table, a spectacle known as the grand couvert. For the French, then, eating in public was a time-honored tradition. During the Revolution, however, what had been an act of sovereignty—aped by those rich enough to afford the establishments of Roze de Chantoiseau and his fellow restaurateurs—was transformed into an act of fraternity as enormous public banquets were staged in the streets of Paris.

The demise of the traditional grand couvert was underscored by popular reaction to word that Louis XVI’s attempted flight from the Revolution had been arrested at an inn at Varennes, where the king had stopped for some light refreshment. Subsequent accounts of Louis’s capture are contradictory in many respects, but they are surprisingly consistent in their emphasis on the king’s repast—usually portrayed as ample and interrupted. To Spang the significance of this seemingly unimportant detail is clear: For France, the monarch was a glutton who did not realize that his free lunch was over. Spang contrasts pictures of Louis’s arrest at Varennes with those of another, nearly simultaneous event: the assassination of Michel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, whom Spang calls “the Revolution’s first martyr.” A Jacobin politician, Le Peletier had voted in favor of the king’s execution on January 20, 1793, only to be stabbed to death by a royalist less than twenty-four hours later in a restaurant. Accounts of the assassination typically stressed Le Peletier’s abstemiousness, and many pictured the deputy being killed while in the very process of paying for his meal. The lesson Spang draws from these apparently starkly contrasting events points again to her thesis: “revolutionary images of tableside reckoning served as a reminder that the generosity implicit in a restaurateur’s willingness to provide what an eater desired was based in relationships of the marketplace.”

The return of French monarchy in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte roughly coincided with the emergence of French gastronomy, the “art of good eating.” With the appearance of Grimod de la Reynière’s Almanach, dining out became a form of art appreciation and restaurateurs and chefs were elevated to the status of theater impresarios and playwrights. One candymaker, Spang writes, charged admission to those who simply wanted to look at his creations. Gone forever was the original medicinal meaning of “restaurant,” although confusion over nomenclature remained: Unable to decide just what to call their Palais Royal establishment, one Paris family settled onmaison de commerce de bouche, or “house of mouth business.” The traditional table d’hôte had almost ceased to exist—at least in the City of Light. With the restoration of the Bourbon kings in 1815, Paris once again became a tourist destination, and visitors considered her famed restaurant sites every bit as important to their experience as the city’s other monuments. What is more, although admission to museums and libraries required letters of introduction, restaurants were open to all who had the price of a meal.

Foreign visitors were quick to spread the gospel of this novel French institution, but the letters they wrote home dwelled not on what they had eaten, but on what they had seen. The Parisian restaurant was, for all intents and purposes, a new form of grand couvert, as Spang says, “an enclosed space full of people” who, after they had perused the menu, turned their attention to the other diners whose images were reflected in the room’s many mirrored surfaces. A newlywed American, Martha Amory, wrote of her pleasure in watching others while “at the same time [feeling] almost as secluded from the rest as in your own home.” Parisians, for their part, viewed their restaurants as places to partake of a privacy unavailable to them at home, and indeed, private rooms, or cabinets particuliers, remained an important aspect of well-appointed French restaurants well into the nineteenth century. These sparsely furnished rooms, cut off from the restaurants’ main salons, were used in the eighteenth century for political conspiracy, but by the end of the 1790’s they had become associated with debauchery in all its forms. Still, the lurid reputation of the cabinets particuliers only added to the glamour associated with Parisian restaurants, which had, Spang argues, been transformed from semipublic to semiprivate spaces.

This last point, Spang admits, may seem a minor one, little more than a linguistic trick. Indeed, Spang, a lecturer in modern European history at University College, London, has written a book that at times seems thesis-ridden: Her emphasis on the contrasting symbolism of the events surrounding Louis XVI’s arrest and Le Peletier’s assassination is particularly strained. Still, this is a book filled with fascinating detail about how the “inventions” of a few enterprising individuals helped turn such a basic fact of life as the need to eat into a set of expectations so stylized and, at times, rarefied as to revolutionize Western culture.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (March 15, 2000): 1325.

The Economist 356 (August 5, 2000): 80.

Los Angeles Times, April 3, 2000, p. E3.

The New Republic 223 (September 25, 2000) 38.