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When Did People Start Eating in Restaurants?

May 18, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

France may be famous for its culinary legacy, but the first restaurants appeared some 600 years earlier on the other side of the world.

People have been eating outside of the home for millennia, buying a quick snack from a street vendor or taking a travel break at a roadside inn for a bowl of stew and a pint of mead.

In the West, most early versions of the modern restaurant came from France and a culinary revolution launched in 18th-century Paris. But one of the earliest examples of a true restaurant culture began 600 years earlier and halfway around the world.

Singing Waiters of the Song Dynasty

A scene in what is thought to be the ancient capital of Kaifeng showing food stalls from a scroll titled ‘Going Up the River at the Qingming Festival’ by Zhang Zeduan, circa 1100.

According to Elliott Shore and Katie Rawson, co-authors of , Spang explains that the very first French restaurants arrived in the 1760s and 1770s, and they capitalized on a growing Enlightenment-era sensibility among the wealthy merchant class in Paris.

“They believed that knowledge was obtained by being sensitive to the world around you, and one way of showing sensitivity was by not eating the ‘coarse’ foods associated with common people,” says Spang. “You might not have aristocratic forebears, but you can show that you’re something other than a peasant by not eating brown bread, not relishing onions and sausage, but wanting delicate dishes.”

Bouillon fit the bill perfectly. It was all-natural, bland, easy to digest, yet packed full of invigorating nutrients. But Spang credits the success and rapid growth of these early bouillon restaurants not just to what was being served, but how it was served.

“The restaurateurs innovated by copying the service model that already existed in French café culture,” says Spang. “They sat customers at a small, cafe-size table. They had a printed menu from which people ordered dishes as opposed to the tavern keeper saying, ‘this is what’s for lunch today.’ And they were more flexible in their meal hours—everybody didn’t have to get there at 1 p.m. and eat whatever was on the table.”

Once the bouillon restaurants caught on, it didn’t take long for other items to show up on the menu. A little wine, perhaps, some stewed chicken. By the late 1780s, the health-conscious bouillon shops had evolved into the first grand …read more