Hungry History

Restaurants, B.C.E. (Before the Contemporary Eatery)

By Stephanie Butler
First Restaurant

Mosborne01/Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, whether it’s for a sandwich or a 10-course tasting menu, many people don’t think twice about getting a bite to eat at a restaurant. In fact, nearly every street corner presents a new opportunity to enjoy a meal without the hassle of messing up our own kitchens. Of course, it wasn’t always this way, and our ancestors survived quite well for millennia long before the birth of taco Tuesdays. But the restaurant as we know it is nearly unrecognizable from the earliest eateries of ancient Rome and China—and even a far cry from the first dining establishments in Paris and New York.

When Romans didn’t feel like cooking, they could stop by their local thermopolium, a precursor to today’s fast food joints. There, deep stone bowls inlaid in L-shaped counters are believed to have held such delicacies as cheese baked with honey and herbs, savory lentil dishes and mulled wine. The ruins of Pompeii feature many well-preserved examples of thermopolia, and experts think much of the population regularly patronized them; indeed, the majority of homes in the town lacked cooking facilities. For all their convenience, thermopolia could apparently draw a rough crowd and were often the scenes of crimes. Claudius once demanded their closure, and Caligula had a man killed who dared sell food at a thermopolium during a mourning period for the emperor’s sister.

The closest ancestor to today’s restaurant originated in Hangzhou, a city in eastern China. Beginning in 1123, Hangzhou was the seat of the Southern Song Dynasty, and it quickly became home to well over a million people. (By contrast, London and Paris counted just tens of thousands of inhabitants at the time.) Hangzhou’s flourishing economy and bustling population set the stage for a restaurant revolution. Industrious cooks rolled up their sleeves in tents, taverns and tea shops along Hangzhou’s broad Imperial Way, lined with street performers, rice wine vendors and cafes specializing in roast pork, noodle soup and other snacks. Unlike at a thermopolium, where diners simply ate whatever was being served that day, patrons received menus from which to choose their meals. Marco Polo visited Hangzhou and reported that delicacies like silkworm pie, bean curd soup and pork-stuffed dumplings were enjoyed by many a weary merchant or traveler.

But what of the first American restaurant? That distinction is generally given to Julien’s Resorator, a Boston establishment opened in 1793 by Jean-Baptiste Julien. A chef to nobility before the French Revolution, Julien specialized in a common treat of the day: turtle soup. In fact, he went so far as to take out advertisements in local papers exalting his “fresh supply of green sea turtles, of a midding size” prepared “in the best manner.” Taking a cue from eateries in his native land, Julien emphasized the healthy nature of his dishes, promising to nourish, invigorate and strengthen bodies with his various cordials, broths, soups and meats.

Categories: Ancient History, Ancient Rome, China, Restaurants