In the 21st century, we’re perhaps guilty of taking our modern conveniences for granted. Dining out has long been an occasion many of us look forward to, and with the cornucopia of restaurants packed into our towns and cities, we’re spoiled for choice.
But, This Was Not Always So.
Throughout history, people mostly ate meals in their own homes. Leisuretime as we now know it was sparse because most time and energy went into fulfilling basic life necessities (without the use of mod-cons, of course!).
There were exceptions, of course. In Asia and Africa, street food has always been popular . And in colder climates, highway inns would satisfy the needs of weary travellers with a hot meal and perhaps a pint of local brew. But it’s safe to say dining out was not the enjoyable pastime we partake in today.
Le Premier Restaurant
Historians tend to agree (although this is disputed) that the first real restaurant appeared in Paris in 1765. Of course! Where else but the ultimate City of Gastronomy? On the central Rue de Louvre (now Rue Pouille) - which is now lined with quintessentially Parisienne cafés spilling onto the streets - stood a lone shopfront.
Displayed over the door was a sign saying ‘Restaurant’. Francophiles may already know that ‘restaurant’ derives from the French verb ‘restaurer’ meaning ‘to restore’. Restoration of the food variety was precisely what the proprietor, Monsieur A. Boulanger, intended for his patrons.
Soup, broth and other wholesome meals were served. It is thought that the first meal to actually come from the restaurant’s kitchen was ‘sheep's feet in broth’. Yummy.
Then, in 1779, the first modern cookbook (of sorts) was published. It was named La Cuisiniere Bourgeoise - a brave title, as the Revolution was looming.
Some say the first restaurant genuinely deserving of the moniker was La Grande Taverne de Londres, a few streets away on Rue de Richelieu, notable for its varied menu and individual table structure.
Despite the tumultuous politics of the time, the idea was a popular one: less than 50 years later, in 1804, Paris was home to over 500 of these newfangled ‘restaurants’ and began to look a little more like the Paris we know today.
In an epoche where good ideas landed on fertile soils, it will come as no surprise that the restaurant concept flourished and could soon be found in other areas of Europe.
Were Restaurants Invented in China?
However, a little more digging unearths a far earlier origin of restaurants, far off in the East.
In 11th-century China, trade was bustling, and long-distance travel was often necessary, particularly for merchants. As we know, China encompasses a vast land and is home to many subcultures and languages. This, of course, extends to cuisine.
Eating Out in 11th-Century China
So, in 11th-century China, you could find dining venues in the southern provinces serving cuisine from the north, and restaurants in the north serving traditional food from south. This made everyone happy, as they they could still indulge in a taste of home while on their travels. Like tea-drinking, it appears that China was the first to the party.
Much like Chinese restaurants in the West today, the noodle-houses and banquet restaurants of Song Dynasty China, typically offered hundreds of choices. From wide varieties of meats to a myriad of sauces, to a dazzling array of buns and cakes, they appeared to cater to even the fussiest of patrons.
There is evidence to suggest that customers were fussy, too. In an account from 1265, it was written that the people of Hangzhou were rather demanding. The account states ‘the people of Hangchow (Hangzhou) are difficult to please… this person wants something hot, another something cold, a third something tepid, a fourth something cold’.
Where Did the First Ever Restaurant Open?
Due to the glorious complexities of historical records (and lack thereof), it’s still somewhat problematic to claim that China was the first culture to open restaurants. For example, it’s thought that the Ancient Greeks used to transform their homes into drinking and eating establishments!
Well, whoever lays claim to the invention, here at Esquires Coffee, we’re certainly grateful for it. We love to know that our heritage is so fascinating, even if not wholly clear-cut.
We love to explore the history of the formidable world of food; we’ve also written captivating stories of Tea in Great Britain, the Espresso and the Cappuccino. Why not combine your favourite read with a delicious brew? Almost all of our coffee shops have now reopened!
Or even better, ever thought about opening your own coffee shop? Check out our franchise opportunities in London at Esquires Coffee to see how it all works!
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