The History of Restaurants
From Ancient Rome to Today at Home
The restaurant in the format we know today — a place where people can sit down, order a specific meal, and eat it — wasn’t established until the 11th or 12th century in China. These still hosted a fairly narrow group of clientele, and as legend has it, the very first restaurant used by the general public wasn’t opened until 1765 in Paris, France.
Prior to this, however, predecessors to the restaurant had existed for centuries. Over the years, the concept of “dining in” has developed in a number of different ways: from the early 6th century in Egypt to Rome, China, Japan, and back west again. These eateries changed over time to cater to lower classes, upper classes, and finally the middle class as we know it today.
ANCIENT EGYPT AND ROME
The first ever recorded account of something similar to a restaurant is from around the year 512 BC, in Egypt. At this time, public eateries were used by lower class workers who did not have cooking facilities in their homes. This business served only one dish: grains, wildfowl, and onions. It was enough to sustain workers through the desert heat.
The early Greco-Romans were host to thermopolia (literally “a place where something hot is sold”) and popinae (wine bars). Thermopolia were comparable to today’s fast food restaurants and offered ready to eat offerings. They generally consisted of a simple stone counter in front of someone’s home, but fancier versions began to develop large murals of religious imagery and foods that they sold. Like the shop in Egypt, these shops were used by extremely lower class people who did not have access to kitchens at home.
Another option for the poor man in ancient Rome was the popina. Popinae were wine bars wherein workers could socialize and enjoy a selection of wines. Like today’s wine bars, they often also sold a small selection of food, like olives, bread, sausage, and porridge. People would enjoy time here, but both of these places were looked down upon by the upper classes due to the people who frequented them often being slaves or freedmen. Additionally, patrons of these establishments would often partake in dice games despite their illegality, and murals of men playing dice adorned the walls.
THE SONG DYNASTY, CHINA
China developed the first of more luxurious predecessors to the restaurant over the course of the 11th century. These businesses catered to the needs and tastes of more wealthy travelers and merchants from different areas, offering a handful of simple selections shown on pre-plated dishes. Guests would dictate their choice to a waiter, who would tell the chef, and the kitchen prepared dishes in the order that requests were received. This was the logical step up from tea houses and taverns, and would very often be connected to brothels. Over time, these became more popular with well-to-do locals. These restaurants would struggle with the same types of requests a modern day chef might relate to with hundreds of customers asking for variations on the menu items available.
A much more common choice at the time was street vendors and noodle shops, the latter of which would be open 24 hours a day and frequented by laborers and working class people. Old manuscripts note that noodle shops in particular would be open even in the most uncomfortable winter weather.
JAPANESE TEA HOUSES
In the 16th century, a tea house owner and chef named Sen no Rikyu instilled the tradition of kaiseki, or a traditional multi-course dinner. Large tasting menus would be crafted in accordance with a region and season with the purpose of telling a story through food. When he grew old, his grandsons expanded on this notion with decorative plates and cutlery to match the aesthetic of the food itself.
Sen no Rikyu is also known for his enormous influence on the Japanese tradition of wabi-cha. He elevated simplicity and humbleness and became one of the most esteemed tea masters known to history. From Rikyu and his descendants came three of the greatest tea ceremony schools of Japan — Urasenke, Omotesenke, and Mushanokojisenke. Sen no Rikyu continues to be widely honored as a culinary legend in Japan to this day.
MEDIEVAL EUROPEAN TO EARLY AMERICAN TAVERNS AND INNS
Taverns that dotted Europe and the colonial United States between the 14th and 18th centuries are the most well known early versions of the restaurant. These establishments served as rest areas for travelers moving long distances and offered beer, ale, sleeping quarters, and a meal. The meal was generally available during a specific time and served communally.
Food served in these taverns and inns was typical peasant or merchant fare: the English would serve sausage or shepherd's pie; the French served soups or stews. These meals were extremely affordable; the wealthy preferred to have their meals catered privately. Around the 16th century, many lower and middle class workers would enjoy the tavern for a simple meal, drinks, and socialization. Like ancient Rome, the only kitchens were in more large, well-to-do, private homes.
THE WORD RESTAURANT, AND FRENCH BROTH
In the year 1765, Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau of Paris, France opened the first “restaurant.” Elegantly decorated and with a given menu of “restorative” broths and other items, it became a giant success among the upper class. For the first time, customers could order a dish they liked at the hour they chose, with a private table. The offerings were described as “fine and delicate” by the Almanach géneral in 1769. He had created the first eatery to draw in wealthy patrons.
Prior to this, as far back as the 11th century, lower class French people had enjoyed the tradition of table d'hôte, or “the host’s table.” This was a large, communal meal with one fixed price, laid across a large table for guests to enjoy. Table d'hôte patrons would socialize and enjoy a cooked meal, although the quality could vary greatly, especially as the gap between upper and lower class French people grew.
Restorative properties within food were the focus of the new, luxurious restaurant. Weak, asthmatic, and fatigued upperclassmen were encouraged to enjoy an array of poultry, eggs, soups, macaroni, and cakes that promised to strengthen them. On the entryway, a Biblical phrase was inscribed in Latin: “Come to me, those whose stomachs ache, and I will restore you.” The word restaurant itself originates from the Latin “restaurare,” or “to renew.”
DELMONICO’S, THE FIRST AMERICAN RESTAURANT
After the birth of the first restaurant, the concept took off completely. Multiple restaurants cropped up across the western world with a range of general price points. People of all classes enjoyed eating out. In 1827, the first restaurant would be opened in the United States: Delmonico’s in New York City. Starting as only a pastry shop and cafe founded by the brothers Giovanni and Pietro Delmonico, Delmonico’s expanded in 1837 and became the first fine dining restaurant in the New World.
The restaurant gained renown across the world. It would become host to royal visitors and expand to own even more restaurants, becoming its own empire of ten locations. Each location would be bought and sold by various affluent-types, with the central location being on Fifth Avenue. When prohibition came to America, this location suffered greatly, and it closed in 1923 as a result.
EATING OUT TODAY
Today, there are restaurants for every economic class group. Eating out has become not only a normal thing to do but the norm. Between 2009 and 2019, food and drink sales in restaurants were increasing every year, reaching $773 billion. When the pandemic hit, food delivery sales skyrocketed, with Uber Eats, Door Dash, and Postmates collecting $5.5 billion between April and September 2020. Among people who eat out, a study found that 56% do it two to three times a week, and 10% eat at a restaurant five to six times a week. A full 6% eat out every single day within a week.
That’s fantastic for the restaurant industry, but what about our bodies? A study conducted by the University of Iowa found that eating out frequently increases the risk of early death by 50%. They studied a group of 35,084 adults aged twenty or older over the course of 16 years. Within that time, 2,781 deaths occurred, with those who ate out two or three times a day 50% more likely to die than those who ate out once a week or less.
Why is this so? For many, eating out is a time to indulge in desserts, condiments, and other treats they can’t simply recreate at home. Additionally, restaurants are now within a well-established industry. Gone are the days of Sen no Rikyu creating a humble, artful experience — these places exist for money. Canola oil is cheaper than butter, and bread is cheaper than meat. Many, many people are more than willing to spend 10% of their annual income on cheap, fast food. It’s simply not profitable on a large scale for restaurants to produce genuinely nutritious and healthy meals.
Public eateries began as a necessity, grew into a luxury, and are today simply another way to make money. Where in Ancient Egypt and Rome many people had no kitchens, we now do. Where Medieval Europe and Colonial America had no vehicles or refrigeration, we now do. This is great news for anyone concerned by the information laid out above. Another study concluded that people who cook at home six to seven nights a week generally have a lower caloric intake, even when they go out. If you’re concerned about the ingredients in your food, the quality of your meals, your finances, and your longevity, the simple answer today is to reap the full benefits of your own kitchen. Want to keep it as beneficial as possible? Try eating locally farmed foods in some simple, seasonal recipes. While the history of restaurants is beautiful and exciting, these new times call for old answers.