The Invention of the Restaurant

Introduction: To Make a Restaurant

"Beginning with a moment in which restaurants were conceived as a potential site for social, as well as individual, regeneration and continuing to a time when such an understanding of them is almost unfathomable, this book outlines historical developments responsible for the definition of the restaurant as a subject for analysis by gourmets and guidebook writers (but not for historians or literature scholars). It explores how the gastro-culinary became its own realm of expertise; how "taste" became distinct from "Taste"; how the myth structure called "gastronomy" came to be predominant in the picture of modern Paris. By attending to the significance of the restaurant's general omission from prior scholarship, we confront gastronomy's sucess in defining a realm of "taste" widely accepted as autonomous and unsusceptible to external comment. (De gusitbus, after all, non disputandum est.) In this book I scrutinize the development of practices specific to restaurants and to gastronomic sensibility, rather than simply accepting the gourmet's self-perpetuating claim that "the table is a country like any other, with its own usages and customs." [Grimod de la Reynière, Almanach des Gourmands vol. 5 (1809), 233]"

  1. The Friend of All the World

"If Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau's scheme to reduce the French national debt had been as successful as his bouillon-selling establishments, he might have prevented the French Revolution. Instead, he invented the restaurant." (p. 12)

"Roze de Chantoiseau was neither the most famous nor the most successful of eighteenth-century restaurateurs; in fact, his stint in the restaurant business was quite brief and largely anonymous. Nor was his a particularly powerful name with which to reckon in the retail food trades... or the era's most ingenious gustatorial entrepreneur: the [Dijon] mustard manufacturer Maille established a dynasty whose name endures to this day and the boulevard entertainer Comus (named for the Greek god of cookery) made a fortune with his display of electrical entertainments. [see Emile Compardon, Les Spectacles de la foire.] Nevertheless, Roze's role in the invention of the restaurant is especially significant for he epitomizes the restaurant's place in intricate networks of market expansion and commercial growth. Like others of his era, the first restaurateur saw the long-stigmatized mechanisms of trade (the circulation of goods and the stimulation of desires) as potential conduits of social benefit and national improvement." (p. 14)

"Le Restaurateur, like the other hoteliers and innkeepers with whom Chantoiseau initially catalogued him [in the Almanach général he edited], catered to the needs of those from out of town... those who were, literally, in circulation. More dour critics of the commercial spirit (for instance, the author of the Encyclopédie's article "Hospitality") bemoaned the expansion of the market and increased movement of goods that, by converting the world to a monetary system, had (at some ill-defined moment in history), destroyed the links of simple person-to-person human generosity. Roze de Chantoiseau's restaurants (the one he briefly operated, the several others he endorsed, and the many he inspired), on the other hand, implied that commerce itself could be perfected to offer the comforts of modern hospitality. If the first restaurateurs were not quite "friends of all the world," they did open their doors "at all hours" to ladies and gentlemen who required a cup of restorative bouillon or some other "dainty and salutary dish." (pp. 32-33)

2. The Nouvelle Cuisine of Rousseauian Sensibility

"In March 1767, ... a new type of establishment opened in Paris's rue des Poulies. Specializing in "excellent consommés or 'restaurants' always carefully warmed over a hot water bath," the restaurateur provided a takeout service, but especially stressed the pleasures to be had on the premises: "Those who suffer from weak and delicate chests, and whose diets therefore do not usually include an evening meal, will be delighted to find a public space where they can take their consommé without offending their sense of delicacy'... The [first] restaurants catered not to the hungry, but to the enervated who had lost their appetites, suffered from jaded palates and weak chests." (pp. 34-35)

"Nerves did not so much replace the stomach as the century's "magical human organ" [see Georges Rousseau, "Towards a Semiotics of the Nerve"] as they extended its domain. ... A "nervous sensibility" manifested itself in visceral response to any and all stimuli: beautiful landscapes and strongly seasoned foods alike. The more delicate one's nerves, the more likely one was to weep at a tale of woe, or fall ill after a poorly prepared meal. By this logic, to be 'weak of chest' was also to make a statement about nervous sympathy, and to have good taste in food was to be exquisitely sensitive to the stimuli of nature. ...

Since weak-chestedness was both a function of nervous acuity and a factor contributing to its development, French men and women were not thought to be equally susceptible to the effects of bad air or suspect diet. All humans were sensate, but some were more sensitive than others. ... Assumptions about the transparent correlation of moral and physical states allowed, of course, for the manipulation (whether conscious or otherwise) of symptoms and outward appearances. If spiritual sensitivity and moral awareness betrayed themselves in fits of weeping or by a delicate appetite, then surely alimentary fastidiousness necessarily indicated a caring heart and totured soul? In this almost obsessive discussion of maladies, health may have been the putative goal, but the search for it made a spectacle of ailments and afflictions." (pp. 38-39)

3. Private Appetites in a Public Space

"Habermas saw the emergent bourgeois public sphere based physically in provincial academies, urban cafes, freemasonic lodges, and aristocratic salons. These innovative semi-public institutions served as meeting places for individuals from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, all united by their capacity for rational dialogue. The new physical spaces made possible the development of new discursive and linguistic "spheres" as well: in these new contexts of interaction, Habermas argued, people came to think and behave differently than they had formerly done in market square, church, or royal court. ... When the restaurant is reintroduced into discussions of eighteenth-century France, however, a far more complex picture of the 'public' aspects of modern life emerges. For in the restaurant, new forms of publicness could be as much about consumption, display, and spectacle as they were about dialogue or discussion. Innovations in public space did not necessarily coincide with the expansion of public spheres: urban topography and political engagement never matched up so neatly." (pp. 84-85)

"To the degree that they promised individual attention to personal preferences, restaurants differed strikingly from many of the other new institutions of the eighteenth century. In the freemasonic lodges and academies, we are told, members who spoke as private individuals (with no acknowledged regard for rank or status) might eventually discover a shared interest. In a restaurant, however, the customer sipping bouillon at one table did not enter into rational debate with the stranger at the next table who had just ordered chicken and vermicelli. ...

Like a conceptual lens, the restaurant here focuses issues and problems of where and how the "public" in the sense of the visible, the "public" in the sense of the accessible, and the "public" in the sense of the common, do and do not coincide. The restaurant was a publicly private place... it offered the possibility for a public display of private self-absorption. Public life as it developed in the late eighteenth century was--and is--as much about the ability to ignore other people (even while being in their presence) as it was about the common good." (pp. 86-87)

4. Morality, Equality, Hospitality!

"By the terms of the [1790] Festival of Federation's ideals, hospitality was a basic virtue to be respected, not a service to be sold for five or fifteen livres per head. As theorized, the Festival created a bond and forged a nation. Its organizers attempted to insitutionalize fraternity on a national level in a fixed moment of union, rather than leaving that important work to the thriving and piecemeal market in military music, restaurateurs' tables, and patriotic fireworks.... Hospitality if practiced properly, with everybody's home open and hearth ready, would render the division of domesticity from publicity nearly obsolete. France's 1791 Penal Code came very close to doing just that, by indiscriminately stressing the sanctity of apparently hospitable interactions no matter where they occurred." (p. 103)

"It is almost certainly because of the 1790s' pervasive interest in the table as a place of possible solidarity, corruption, or final reckoning that the restaurant looks like a product of the Revolution. If that is the case, then the restaurant is not a peripheral, chance, or even purely utilitarian offshoot of that turbulent period; rather, in the era's revaluation of symbols and cultural forms, it was not only political culture but restaurant culture as well that would eventually take on its distinctive modern shape." (p. 117)

5. Fixed Prices: Gluttony and the French Revolution

"Restaurant reviewing in 1795-1799 was table talk in its still political mode, bitter and caustic, celebratory only long enough to torment, cornucopic only to tantalize. It was politically engaged and harshly satiric; whether eater or eaten, one could not help but notice, when pineapples appeared in the market and sold for 36 francs apiece--and when stories about those who could afford them littered the popular press--that the Revolution's promise of equitably divided bounty had fallen far short of the mark, that égalité was now but a palace's fashionable surname. Gastronomic rumor, the suspicion that somebody else is eating better and the desire to do so oneself, was born in this period, as an acutely political form of criticism, a reinscription of the revolutionary conflict of the eater and the eaten. For a brief time in the early- and mid-1790s, discussions of the restaurant's place in Paris life had come to be as much about justice and human equality, as they were about sensibility and medical conditions. But the language of the fat and the lean was rendered ineffective when stripped of any legal, judicial means of enforcement: no Maximum but a return to the free world of the market; no revolutionary sections but singing societies that banned explicitly political topics from their monthly competitions...In May 1795, Gilbert Romme spoke passionately to his colleagues in the Convention about the need to re-instate the "Bread of Equality" policy and to prohibit the making of brioches, but he persuaded no one and was arrested shortly thereafter as a dangerous and unrepentant terrorist. On his way to being guillotined, he committed suicide. The communitarian critique of selfishness had been divested of its power; the "hungry and suffering," in the words of the Ministry of the Interior's Houdeyer, "do not even get the cooking steam" from the Palais Egalité's restaurants, and were left with little recourse but envy. A light radiated from the restaurants of the late 1790s, but it was the harsh glitter of ill-gotten gold, not the rosy glow of democratized haute cuisine." (pp. 144-145)

6. From Gastromania to Gastronomy

"Gastronomic literature, led by Grimod de la Reynière's Almanach des gourmands, evoked a world where restaurateurs and pastry-chefs were the equivalent of theater entrepreneurs and playwrights, and where one candymaker charged admission simply to look at his new bonbons. For eight years in the early nineteenth century, Grimod annually sketched an oneiric, Bosch-like tableau of heroic partridges and pyrotechnic pastries, describing a realm of fantasy where sardines rose, Venus-like, from the sea, and fresh green peas offered "the most unspeakable delights."... uUnlike commentary about the restaurant in the immediate post-Revolution years, the new gastronomies and guides of the Empire and the Restoration demarcated the table as an autonomous realm, one structured by rules distinct from those that governed other aspects of social life. Within this newly circumscribed context, authors might interpret meals without reference to overtly political concerns, either aristocratic or republican. With the development of gastronomy, the restaurant table would become significant in its own right." (pp. 150-151)

"While Grimod's polyphonic, ludic, and often downright disturbing text was forever playing with the heteroglossia and hyperbole characteristic of Renaissance and Classical table talk, reviewers overlooked these generic conventions to concentrate on Grimod himself. They, as much as Grimod de la Reynière, can be said to have invented the ideal nineteenth-century eater. In the many readings of the Almanach that treated it as a transcription of Grimod's every desire, perversion, and whim, any distinction between author and text, between what the Almanach predicated of "the gourmand" and what Grimod de la Reynière actually did in daily life, disappeared. By reading the Almanach as as a work of Rousseauean confession, rather than as a work of menippean (that is, multi-genred) satire, even Grimod's harshest critics actually furthered the triumph of gastronomy. For by insisting that a single authorial presence had to be, in some sense, responsible for the Almanach, they contributed to the cult of individual choice and personal taste that the notion of "gastronomy" exemplified. Grimod and his critics shared a language of post-revolutionary individualism, a tendency to emphasize the personal over the political or the social. While eighteenth-century writing about food and eating had pleaded its relevance by demonstrating its civic usefulness, nineteenth-century gastronomy argued for its own autonomy and told tales from classical sources for reasons more antiquarian than didactic. Making no claims for the morality of the ancients, it recycled the hardly exemplary anecdotes of Domitian asking the Roman Senate how to cook his turbot and of Cleopatra drinking a pearl." (p. 162)

7. Putting Paris on the Menu

"Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the restaurant’s trope was “copia” — cornucopia, to be precise. The restaurant, everyone said, was full to overflowing: full of people, full of stories, full of food. Bedazzled tourists and calm gourmets, philandering husbands and proud wedding parties, Mardi Gras revelers and reform-minded banqueters, silverware thieves and stock-exchange gamblers — all filled restaurateurs’ opulent rooms. There were well-mannered old gentlemen, dandies with long black curls and champagne, parents with their children, and 'deputies, and proprietors, and gentlemen of fashion, and ladies and young people, and Germans and Italians; throngs promiscuous, differing in ten thousand points, and resembling in two; — they are all hungry and they are all conversational.'" (p. 170 more here)

"Fixed and susceptible to mechanical reproduction, the restaurant menu had the advantage of being more amazing than any single meal, or even a series of them, could ever be. A single patron usually ordered four or five dishes, but no one ever sampled everything listed on the menu. Its variety was far greater than the kitchen's; what may have been, in the dining room, "veal, amplified into 22 distinct dishes," was in the kitchen just a few cutlets, a steak, two kidneys, three ears. From a finite number of ingredients, a chef could concoct dozens of dishes, each of which had its own name and occupied its own space on the menu. In merely quantitative terms, it was cooking methods and names of ingredients that dominated early 19C menus; dishes "in broth... baked... or sautéed" occupied much more space than those few served "à la Soubise" or "à la flamande." Yet the former could be just as difficult to understand as the latter, because these restaurant patrons were rarely people who cooked or read cookbooks. Nearly any cookbook of the previous two centuries included many more dishes than even the longest menu. The restaurant's innovation was to set this list not before a cook, but in front of a diner." (pp. 184-185)

8. Hiding in Restaurants

"By the first decade of the nineteenth century, merriment had been established as a by-product of restaurant life. ... Though winking accounts of private-room shenanigans were far more licentious than guidebook descriptions of dining room splendor, they still supported the notion that restaurants were among the least of the capital's dangers. A grand restaurant presented a series of hurdles, but those were for the individual to negotiate: how a young woman was to maintain her virtue, or the gastronomically ignorant to order a tasteful dinner. Restaurants may have been threatening to personal solvency or eternal salvation, but they posed no overt danger to the municipality or the state. ... It is not surprising, then, that the repressive regimes of the Restoration and the July Monarchy, which outlawed nearly every other form of meeting or association, did not touch the table, the private meeting place of happy individuals." (pp. 215-216)

"In the privacy of a restaurant, it was possible to host banquets calling for legislative reform; in the obscurity of a long, drawn-out series of associations and satires, it was possible to treat the July Monarchy as a cheap restaurant and the king as a portly grocer. Public and private were not features of physical spaces, but of how people used those spaces. One often shielded the other: gastronomy, the public face of restaurant culture, might conceal (and maybe eventually contaminate) fraternally equitable meals." (p. 232)

All text copyright by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Some passages slightly adapted for clarity and concision.

Harvard University Press website; select Invention of the Restaurant reviews.