Chocolate and Gold Coins

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Brief History of Restaurants

Ravikiran Rao who writes an interesting blog called the Examined Life wrote to me to ask about the origin of the restaurant in the west. He wondered how it came about. He could think of several cultural roadblocks that would hinder the starting of restaurants in India and he wondered how it evolved in the West.

There were restaurants in ancient Roman times. There is evidence in Pompeii of some restaurants. But there were no restaurants in Europe after the Roman times until about 250 years ago and they didn’t really become popular until after the French Revolution.

What factors hindered the formation of restaurants? A restaurant doesn’t seem like a high tech business. Anyone who can cook could set up a few tables in and sell food, right? But this business plan was a tough sell initially.

First, restaurant cooking is different than home cooking. You need to operate at a much larger scale and being a chef is specialized skill. However, there were chefs in Europe dating back many hundreds of years ago. They could have been employed by restaurants (at least in theory) but they were not. Many belonged to guilds that specialized in catering. Caterers would cook for special events like weddings and royal events. So people would have opportunities to eat restraurant-quality food. They just would not pay for it.

This is an important point: the tradition was that the diner never paid for food – the host pays. People might have liked to “eat out” but they were expecting an invitation. There are many examples today of markets that just don’t happen because people expect someone else to pay. For example, we expect someone else (an employer for example) to pay for our health care. Also, we are not comfortable with paying for an adopted child or for a vital transplant organ. Food seems to us to be a natural thing to pay for but people rarely (maybe never) paid for food 250 years ago.

Inns served food but I believe it was always included in the price of the room. This came with the culture of “host pays for food”. I think you can kind of understand this issue if you have ever flown on an airline that asked you to pay for your food (which some do). You think, “Hey, I’m captive here. I have no choice. It is unfair to make me have to pay for something like that.” So I doubt Inns really sold meals to the locals because they really weren’t in the business of selling food.

One factor hindering the restaurant model was that in the absence of restaurants, alternatives sprung up. Many people with disposable income hired their own cooks. Then they wanted to invite friends and family over because the cook was paid for, they might as well use him. This lead to a culture of “food barter”. People would invite business associates and politicians to dinner frequently.

Another establishment that served the purpose of a restaurant was a private club. Clubs were male-only and were by invitation only. Clubs were designed for meeting and drinking and discussing politics, but they later started serving meals as well.

The first restaurant in modern Europe opened in Spain in the early 18th Century. A. Boulanger started the first French restaurant in 1765 and also coined the word “restaurant” which derives from a French word for “something that restores” (a refreshment). His business was immediately sued by the trade guilds for copyright infringement. Apparently almost all recipes were copyrighted by these food guilds. But the court ruled in Boulanger’s favor and his business survived. And it proved to others that there could be a market for this kind business.

The French Revolution had an enormous impact on the French restaurant scene. Basically, it put out of business many hundreds of chefs who worked for the nobles. It also destroyed the food guilds. So many chefs with enormous skills needed some way of making a living. The restaurant model was already in existence. The revolution acted like a great supply shift. It lowered to cost of chefs and made it profitable to open hundreds of little restaurants. And like Say’s Law: supply created its own demand. In this case, the supply of restaurants effectively marketed the idea of dining in a restaurant and the culture of “host pays” was replaced with “diner pays”.

Apparently, these restaurants quickly spread throughout Europe and to America as well. The first restaurant in the U.S. started in Boston in 1794. Naturally, it was French.

Once restaurants came about, there was a natural venue for restaurants: the hotel. You had the captive guests that you had to feed anyway, so why not get double duty out of your dining hall by offering it as a restaurant to the locals? So once the culture of paying for food developed, it began replacing the older barter for food system and “host pays” system.

As disposable income rose, more people had the money to occasionally dine out. The culture of taking a girl to a restaurant for a date didn’t start until the early 20th century. A big factor for the growth of the restaurant industry was cheap transportation.


  • One for us foodies! Could you take a gander at the origins of the word "Tip" as well? I've always belived it was "To Insure Propmtness" but given that it's customary to tip as a post-prandial activity, it more properly ought to be "To Insure Promptness-At-Your-Next-Visit", what?

    Have linked to this post at:

    Drop by when free.

    By Blogger blr bytes, at 11:02 PM  

  • Thanks Michael.

    I've posted my original query here if anyone is interested.

    As for the origin of "tip", I'll bet that it comes from the the practice of tipping the hat to thank someone.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:30 AM  

  • Hi Bangalore Bytes and Ravikiran

    BBytes: Intialisms like T.I.P. for to insure promptness are really back formations. The word already existed and people created a mneumonic probably as a memory aid or as a joke.

    Ravikiran: I think the interesting thing is that the main impediment to starting the restaurant industry was not technological but cultural. People were initially unwilling to pay for served food. They liked to have it but they only would acquire it as a gift, not as a paid commodity.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 8:44 AM  

  • The word "tip" comes from an Old-English slang "to give". Simple as that.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:47 PM  

  • hi michael, just want to thank you for the sharp dissertation on restaurant's history. in addition i like the way you write and focus points.

    ciao from italy and take care.



    By Blogger SIBA, at 1:43 PM  

  • Thank you for the interesting history of the restaurant it was very informative.

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