Left: The table in the dining room of the Peyton Randolph House is set for a holiday meal. Right: Barbara Scherer prepares and cooks a ham in the Peyton Randolph kitchen. Photos: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia.
THE INSTITUTION OF DINING OUT IS ALMOST AS OLD AS CIVILIZATION ITSELF. HISTORY BOOKS PAINT A PICTURE OF FOOD SERVICE DATING BACK TO ANCIENT TIMES. IN EARLY ROME, THE STREETS HUMMED WITH THE CALLS AND SONGS OF COLORFUL STREET VENDORS AND PUBLIC COOKS SELLING THEIR FARE. STREET KITCHENS FILLED THE MARKETPLACE WITH TANTALIZING AROMAS. THE RUINS OF POMPEII CONTAIN THE REMNANTS OF A TAVERN THAT PROVIDED FOOD AND WINE TO PASSERSBY.
A Soupmaker’s Tale
It is often told that a soupmaker named M. Boulanger opened the first restaurant in Paris in 1765. His shop offered a menu with a choice of dishes.
Some believe that Boulanger chose to open his soup shop to avoid paying a bill. Back then, bread makers, pastry makers, roasters, and winemakers were required to pay guild dues to sell their goods on the street or in shops. There was no soupmaker’s guild!
Boulanger claimed his signature dish – a soup made from sheep hooves – had restorative properties.
THE RESTAURANT AS AN OUTGROWTH OF TRAVEL
Eating out began as a practical means for hungry travelers far from their own cooking pots to sustain themselves. Historians believe that 18th-century France was the birthplace of what we now call the restaurant.
With the exception of inns catering to travelers and street kitchens, tavern-restaurants in France became the place to go for meals outside the home. Simple, inexpensive dishes were cooked on the premises or ordered from a nearby inn or food shop, along with the wine, beer, and spirits that made up most of their business.
By the end of the 18th century, dining outside the home evolved from a functional institution to a display of societal status. When the French Revolution left many hundreds of chefs who cooked for the nobles unemployed, many sought work in restaurants or opened their own fine dining places.
“The French upper classes had previously made a great public show of attending court or church,” wrote Robin Fox in The Challenge of Anthropology. “When both these institutions declined in importance after the (Industrial) Revolution, attendance at great restaurants became a substitute.”
Elaborate, multicourse banquets often lasted for hours and even included performances. Dining venues featured sophisticated décor, resembling the palaces they replaced.
“The very word restaurant comes from the verb to restore and has more than practical overtones,” according to Fox. “From these grand beginnings, eating out came to be imitated by the bourgeoisie, ever anxious to give themselves upper-class airs, and finally became general in the culture and in all Western countries.”
Why? Because the middle class was hungry, too, and its members relished the ideals of egalitarianism – the belief in human equality. Anyone who could foot the bill could enjoy the same fine dishes as nobility. At last, fine dining was no longer the privilege of the wealthy who could afford to maintain a cook and a well-stocked kitchen.
Soon, restaurants began to appear in other countries. Just before the turn of the century, restaurants proliferated across the United States. In his book America Eats Out, author and influential food and wine critic John Mariani wrote: “Travelers to France excitedly brought the news of these Parisian restaurants to an American public that already enjoyed a spiritual kinship with France ever since that country allied itself with our own Revolution. This affinity for French cooking convinced a former cook to the archbishop of Bordeaux to open his own French-style eating house in Boston in 1794. His name was Jean Baptiste Gilbert Payplat, and he called his establishment by his nickname, ‘Jullien’s Restarator.’”
WHAT’S ON THE MENU?
Today, America’s restaurants are cornerstones of the nation’s economy, providing career opportunities for more Americans than any other private sector employer. From small diners and bars to top-rated, five-star restaurants, there are approximately 695,000 eating establishments across the nation, catering to just about every taste (U.S. Census Bureau).
When we dine out, our culinary choices are bountiful – seafood, fast food, family restaurants, and everything from sophisticated steak houses to hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries.
“In any one month we may order food in 10 or more different languages, none of which we speak, and which can be as different as Urdu, Thai, Cantonese, Italian, Arabic, Armenian, and Hungarian,” explained Fox.
SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE
Dining out today still is considered “an event” by most, whether we patronize the city’s most expensive restaurant or the neighborhood sports bar and grill.
“We spend not so much for the food as for the entertainment value and the naughty thrill of being (we hope) treated like royalty in an otherwise drab democratic environment,” Fox wrote. “Even lesser expeditions still have the air of an event. The family outing to the local burger joint still has an air of preparation and difference; it can still be used to coax youngsters to eat, and provide a mild enough air of difference from routine to be ‘restorative.’”
Memorable occasions continue to be a reason to splurge on dining experiences outside our own kitchens.
“Romantic dinners, birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, retirement dinners, and all such celebrations are taken out of the home or the workplace and into the arena of public ritual,” Fox wrote. “Only the snootiest restaurants will not provide a cake and singing waiters for the birthday boy.”
And how we love to talk about our culinary adventures! Conversations often include restaurants we have visited recently and an extensive elaboration and evaluation of each. As much as we enjoy discussing our own dining experiences, we have always appreciated the good, the bad, and the ugly, dished out regularly by savvy restaurant reviewers.
“There is now an industry of critics and restaurant writers as large and as attentively followed as the theater, sports, and fashion critics,” Fox revealed. “To be literate in the world of eating out – to be even ahead of the trends (knowing that fantastic little Portuguese bistro that no one has discovered) – is to demonstrate that one is on top of the complex cosmopolitan civilization of which eating out has come to be a metaphor.”
LET’S DO LUNCH
Dining out has even wound its way into the business world. The concept of “doing lunch” to discuss and conduct work ventures and transactions is firmly established in our day-to-day lives.
“Just to be having business lunches at all marks one down as a success in the world of business, for only ‘executives’ (the new order of aristocracy) can have them,” Fox wrote.
Many important deals have been known to happen during these lunch dates, so the invitation “Let’s do lunch” is sometimes viewed more as an opportunity to network with powerful people than an actual meal between friends or co-workers.
SAVORING THE MOMENT
At this point in history, many of us are reconsidering how we spend our precious resources of time and money. We may not splurge as often as we used to, but when we do we want to soak in the experience. Our reasons for eating away from home haven’t changed much, but we seem to bring awareness to the experience that might not have been there before.
That’s the kind of encounter that we purchase when we sit at a restaurant table. To be sure, there’s sustenance of the physical variety going on, too – satisfying a basic human need – but dining out is about so much more. It serves up time to think great thoughts and take a break from the real world.
Special thanks to Robin Fox, who contributed to this article. He is an anthropologist, poet and essayist, and University Professor of Social Theory at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where he founded the Department of Anthropology in 1967. Watch for his soon-to-be-published book, Civilization and the Savage Mind, and other titles at www.robinfoxbooks.com.
DINING OUT FOR LIFE®
Subaru of America, Inc. is a host for Dining Out for Life, an annual fundraising event for AIDS service organizations. On the last Thursday in April, more than 3,500 restaurants in more than 55 cities donate a portion of their proceeds for this cause.
Find out more at www.diningoutforlife.com.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
- New York’s Fraunces Tavern, the site of George Washington’s farewell to his troops, was a popular watering hole in Revolutionary times, and still operates today.
- By 1955, there were close to 200,000 eating places in the United States, one for every 800 persons, serving more than 60 million meals a day.
- About 20 percent of all restaurant sales are now rung up on the cash registers of large American chains, including Howard Johnson and McDonald’s.
- It’s been estimated that a New Yorker can dine out every night of his life until age 65 without visiting any establishment twice!
HUNGRY? TRY A SLICE OF HISTORY
A growing number of living-history establishments offer visitors a taste of authentic dishes from bygone eras, serving up a history lesson along with a meal!
Sample the links below to learn how you can partake in a 17th-century tavern dinner, savor delectable fare enjoyed by American colonists in Williamsburg, Virginia – even experience a Sunday dinner at an Iowa family farm in the early 1900s.
Living History Farms