Culture Day Sunday – Birthplace of the Modern Restaurant

Arriving at the front of house, being guided to your table, handed a menu, ordering your food and drink of choice for the occasion, and then enjoying the rest of your time. I bet in this whole process you’ve never wondered how or why a restaurant came to be. Perhaps you’ve always just accepted it as a given, that such a place has always existed and served many different food options. But is that really the case? What if you were suddenly asked by someone the origin of the restaurant? Could you describe it? Until now, this even for myself has never been a thought to cross my mind, and yet if I think about it, where do restaurants originate from? To answer this question, we must travel back in the history of France to where many consider to be the birthplace of the modern restaurant as we know it. We must travel to Paris. And moreover, as the word restaurant comes from the french word restaurant, et la nourriture c’est la vie, wouldn’t it be an adventure to uncover its history?

A Restaurant in Montmartre
A Restaurant in Montmartre

Tracing back the origin of the word restaurant, we know that it comes from the french and came about in the early 19th century. As for the word itself, it originates from the french verb restaurer, meaning to restore or to refresh. So why is this dictionary lesson of use? Well we must look back on what it really meant to restore and how a legend came to be because of this word. A legend that is now just over 250 years old, and traces itself to an establishment in the city of Paris.

Now back in the 18th century, very few people within the city were able to afford or have a space for their own personal kitchens. Instead they would eat out at communal meals in inns, or buy food such as oysters from street vendors. If a city-dweller had more time on their hand, they could go visit lots of different traiteurs (specialist food caterers) who would sell baked goods, or roasted meats, etc. depending on their specialism. Personally I can’t imagine the idea of having to walk to multiple places just to have a meal, and it makes me so thankful that these days we can have our own kitchens! But it was at these such places that you could come to restore yourself.

So if this was the norm, wouldn’t it be entrepreneurial to make a change and make eating out less of a hassle and more of a convenience by providing food in one location? For one legend, Monsieur Boulanger, this was his business venture in approx 1765, and was what placed him down in history as the creator of the modern restaurant. Well in any case at least according to the bible of French gastronomy, Larousse Gastronomique. So what Monsieur Boulanger did, was he displayed a sign that allegedly read: “Boulanger débite des restaurants divins,” (“Boulanger sells restoratives fit for the gods.”) And here we return briefly back to the dictionary lesson. In the case of this sign, the word restaurants holds the meaning of restoring one’s health as very specifically it was used to describe a type of rich broth that was thought to hold such an effect at that time. So in a way, it’s a very bold move for Monsieur Boulanger to be saying that he makes the best restorative broth.

A boulangerie and patisserie at night
A boulangerie and patisserie at night

Now to begin with, just selling this broth was not what made his place a modern restaurant, you could say he was just one of the traiteurs. But things rapidly changed when he became a traitor to the traiteurs, and began to challenge the rules of the time. What he did according to Larousse and other encyclopedic food tomes, was he also began to serve sheep’s feet in a white sauce—pieds de mouton à la sauce poulette. So where is the issue in this? Well leaving aside the imagined taste of sheep’s feet, just by including this food item, he was no longer sticking to his specialism of soup, but was now supposedly producing stews, and for his competitors and the authorities this was a big issue. Remembering that Monsieur Boulanger established his place circa 1765, which was at a time in France when the French Revolution had yet to take place (5th May 1789), the authorities required that all butchers, bakers and other tradesmen stick to their trade.

His flair for cooking creativity and challenge to the rules of the time landed Monsieur Boulanger in court where he had to present his case that his preparation methods were different to those of traiteurs who cooked multiple ingredients slowly together in a ragout. He argued that because the mutton was prepared separately from the egg-yolk enriched sauce which was then poured over the meat, this was not in fact a stewed dish. And well apparently he won his case as otherwise we wouldn’t know about his first restaurant in the history books. A place where unlike inns, offered guests a menu from which to choose meals.

The Obelisk In Paris
The Obelisk In Paris

Now his restaurant was actually probably fairly modest and, as according to the Larousse Gastronomique, the first establishment worthy of being called a restaurant, was the Grande Taverne de Londres, opened in 1782. In fact, this place was opened by Antoine Beauvilliers, who earned his reputation as an accomplished restaurateur and host, and in 1814 released a cookbook, L’Art du cuisinier, which became a standard of French culinary art. But still, despite being the first worthy of the name restaurant, Monsieur Boulanger still beat him to the kitchen so to speak.

And then, just a few years later, the French Revolution led to a “Restaurant Revolution.” All the private chefs who had previously worked for the aristocracy, found themselves unemployed and now due to the abolishment of guilds and strict trade rules, they could now take Paris by storm and feed a new middle class looking for luxury dining experiences at restaurants.

Now isn’t that a fun story about the birthplace of the modern restaurant and an interesting piece of supposed history? Unfortunately, despite the legend of Monsieur Boulanger, and his place in food tomes and encyclopedias, his existence is a questionable one. Not to say that he didn’t exist, but we aren’t able to say that he did exist either. There is actually a notable writer who went on a journey to uncover the mystery of Boulanger, Rebecca Spang, who talks more about this legend in her book The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, for anyone interested in discovering more. But as far as she could uncover, Monsieur Boulanger is not mentioned in any records.

The steps of Montmartre
The steps of Montmartre

In any case, should I ever be asked about the origin of the modern restaurant, I for sure will talk about the legend of Monsieur Boulanger, a man who challenged the rules and found loopholes through his creativity. An inspiration for anyone who loves the kitchen.

I hope you enjoyed the read, and look forward to the next Culture Day Sunday, all about bringing to life destinations through history and culture. Pour aujourd’hui, au revoir.

Editor: Leonardo Buter
Uncover Our World
Instagram: @lwcbuter

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