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Culinary Curiosities: The origins of restaurants

It’s hard to imagine a time when restaurants weren’t a part of our cultural and social landscape. Sure, plenty of folks enjoy cooking at home, but eating out has become an integral part of our everyday lives: On average, Americans eat out 4.5 times a week. In 2014 spending on meals away from home surpassed food-at-home sales for the first time ever, according to the USDA. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that from 2013 to 2016, the average spending on food away from home increased $529, while food at home purchases only went up by $72. Restaurants are, happily, here to stay. But how and where did they begin?

Since the earliest civilizations, food has been for sale. In ancient Greece and Rome, thermopolia (cook shops), served hot and cold foods in a simple buffet style to anyone with coin to spend. In 11th century China, the city of Hangzhou’s tea houses and taverns offered patrons a choice of dishes from a menu. And in Constantinople the first coffee house, serving drinks and snacks, was established by 1550. But we owe the French for the first restaurant.

Before restaurants, the only place to get a meal was at an inn or tavern, where a hungry traveler would eat whatever dish was served that night at a common table. In the mid-1700s, it became fashionable to flaunt one’s delicate constitution and eat “restoratives,” a rich boullion meant to boost health, at a “restorator” or restaurant. A mysterious man only known by his last name, Boulanger, is often credited with opening the first restaurant in Paris in 1765. His establishment featured a sign that read, “Boulanger débite des restaurants divins,” roughly translated as, “Boulanger sells restoratives fit for the gods.”

Historian Rebecca Spang disagrees that Boulanger was the originator of the restaurant in her 2001 book, "The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture," finding no written evidence that Boulanger or his famous “restorator” ever existed. Instead, she suggests that entrepreneur Marthurin Roze de Chantoiseau opened the first health-focused restaurant in Paris. Still others claim that the Grand Tavern de Londres, which opened in Paris in 1782, is the first true restaurant, featuring private tables and a menu.

The years after the French Revolution had many cooks and private chefs looking for work as the noble families who used to employ them had died or fled. Many opened up their own establishments and some emigrated to the United States, including Jean Baptiste Julien, who opened Julien’s Restorator in 1793 in Boston, one of the earliest restaurants in America. Based on the old French model, he specialized in healthful broths, pastries and meats. He was famous for his turtle soup and became known as “the prince of soups.” Restorators, dining halls, eating houses and the like began to take root in the country, although it was not until the 19th century that restaurant became the preferred nomenclature in the U.S.

In the decades that followed, restaurants multiplied and thrived thanks to a growing middle class, economic growth and urbanization. In 1921, White Castle opened in Wichita, Kansas, as one of the first “fast-food” restaurants. The all-white decor was fresh and modern, indicating that cleanliness and hygiene were important. McDonald’s was started by two brothers in 1948, who wanted to use Henry Ford’s assembly-line approach to food. They sold the business to Ray Kroc, a foodservice equipment salesman, in 1954 and Kroc successfully franchised the business nationally, then worldwide.

Today there are roughly 647,000 restaurants in the U.S. and in 2017 food and drink sales totaled $799 billion, up from $766 billion in 2016. Who could have imagined the 21st century economic powerhouse that grew from the fastidious “restorator” of pre-revolutionary France? 

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