Newsletter Archives

April 2002 - Dining in Paris with Rebecca L. Spang

Rebecca L. Spang, lecturer in modern European history at University College, London, has written a marvelous book, The Invention of the Restaurant (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), that traces the history and development of the dining institution that we call the restaurant from its founding in 1766 to its mid-19th century splendor.

Before there were restaurants as we know them, there were inns and tables d'hôte. These latter establishments were places where cooks served fixed-price meals to local folk assembled at a set hour around a common table. Many travelers to France detested these places because they found the food there badly prepared. Moreover, as foreigners, they were outsiders who often did not understand local dining customs. So they did not have the habit or presence of mind to grab the choicest morsels of food laid out on the table before these were snatched up by the locals. Because they were strangers, travelers were regarded suspiciously and sometimes accused of stealing silverware.

The restaurant, however, did not develop to meet the needs of travelers who wished to dine at a solitary table and order individual servings. Rather, it developed as a place to serve a bouillon, a watery broth called a restaurant (in English, "something that restores" or "a restoring agent"), that was prepared to impart vigor to sensitive and feeble individuals. The innovation of the salle de restaurateur (the room of the proprietor of a restaurant), as the early restaurants were called, was that they served a variety of healthful dishes, including bouillon, at individual prices. In contrast to the tables d'hôtes, diners at restaurants could order service at individual tables at any hour.

Spang's book traces the development of the restaurant from this restorative broth to an institution associated with gracious living and fine dining. Her story begins with a 15th century recipe for bouillon (put one freshly killed capon in a kettle, add some gold ducats), jumps to the mid-18th century to credit one Roze de Chantoiseau with the invention of the restaurant as a place to eat and ends in the mid-19th century, regaling the reader with anecdotes about entrepreneurs, philosophers, kings, police agents, writers and other scoundrels. Her story is complex and multifaceted, and by the end of the book the reader can no longer view the restaurant simply as a place to go to get a meal. For example, one of the aspects of splendid 19th century restaurants is that they were the favorite places for foreign travelers to go to observe local French culture. Enormous mirrors on the walls permitted them to cast secretive glances to view the dining habits of the other, presumably French, diners.

One does not need to read Spang's book in order to enjoy a fine meal in Paris. But for those who wish to learn from her keen insight of the development of gastronomic culture, and as a bonus, gain a greater understanding of cultural developments of 18th and 19th century Paris, this book is highly recommended.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2002