People have been eating outside of the home for millennia, buying a quick snack from a street vendor or taking a travel break at a roadside inn for a bowl of stew and a pint of mead.
In the West, most early versions of the modern restaurant came from France and a culinary revolution launched in 18th-century Paris. But one of the earliest examples of a true restaurant culture began 600 years earlier and halfway around the world.
Singing Waiters of the Song Dynasty
According to Elliott Shore and Katie Rawson, co-authors of Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants, the very first establishments that were easily recognizable as restaurants popped up around 1100 A.D. in China, when cities like Kaifeng and Hangzhou boasted densely packed urban populations of more than 1 million inhabitants each.
Trade was bustling between these northern and southern capitals of the 12th-century Song Dynasty, explains Shore, a professor emeritus of history at Bryn Mawr College, but Chinese tradesmen traveling outside their home city weren’t accustomed to the strange local foods.
“The original restaurants in those two cities are essentially southern cooking for people coming up from the south or northern cooking for people coming down from the north,” says Shore. “You could say the ‘ethnic restaurant’ was the first restaurant.”
These prototypical restaurants were located in lively entertainment districts that catered to business travelers, complete with hotels, bars and brothels. According to Chinese documents from the era, the variety of restaurant options in the 1120s resembled a downtown tourist district in a 21st-century city.
“You could go to a noodle shop, a dim sum restaurant, a huge place that was fantastically and opulently put together or a little chop suey joint,” says Shore.
The dining experiences at the larger and fancier restaurants were strikingly similar to today. According to a Chinese manuscript from 1126 quoted in Dining Out, patrons of one popular restaurant were first greeted with a selection of pre-plated “demonstration” dishes representing hundreds of delectable options. Then came a well-trained and theatrical team of waiters.
“The waiter took their orders, then stood in line in front of the kitchen and, when his turn came, sang out his orders to those in the kitchen. Those who were in charge of the kitchen were called ‘pot masters’ or were called ‘controllers of the preparation tables.’ This came to an end in a matter of moments and the waiter—his left hand supporting three dishes and his right arm stacked from hand to shoulder with some twenty dishes, one on top of the other—distributed them in the exact order in which they had been ordered. Not the slightest error was allowed.”
In Japan, a distinct restaurant culture arose out of the Japanese teahouse traditions of the 1500s that predated today’s “seasonal” and “local” movements by half a millennium. The 16th-century Japanese chef Sen no Rikyu created the multi-course kaiseki dining tradition, in which entire tasting menus were crafted to tell the story of a particular place and season. Rikyu’s grandsons expanded the tradition to include speciality serving dishes and cutlery that matched the aesthetic of the food being served.
Despite centuries of trade between the East and West, there’s no evidence that the early restaurant cultures of China or Japan influenced later European notions of the restaurant.
The Communal Midday Meal
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Around the same time that Japanese chefs were creating full-sensory dining experiences, a separate tradition took hold in the West known in French as the table d’hôte, a fixed price meal eaten at a communal table.
This type of meal, eaten in public with friends and strangers gathered around a family-style spread, might resemble one of today’s hip farm-to-table establishments, but Shore says it wasn’t a real restaurant in several senses.
First, only one meal was served each day precisely at 1 pm. If you weren’t paid up and sitting at the table at one, you wouldn’t get to eat. There was no menu and no choice. The cook at the inn or hotel decided what was prepared and served, not the guests.
Variations on the table d’hôte first appeared in the 15th-century and persisted beyond the arrival of the first restaurants. In England, working-class communal meals were called “ordinaries” and Simpson’s Fish Dinner House, founded in 1714, served up a popular “fish ordinary” for two shillings consisting of “a dozen oysters, soup, roast partridge, three more first courses, mutton and cheese,” according to Dining Out.
First French Restaurants Were Bouillon Shops
Legend says that the first French restaurants popped up in Paris after the French Revolution when the gourmet chefs of the guillotined aristocracy went looking for work. But when historian Rebecca Spang of Indiana University looked into this popular origin story, she found something completely different.
The word restaurant comes from the French verb restaurer, “to restore oneself,” and the first true French restaurants, opened decades before the 1789 Revolution, purported to be health-food shops selling one principle dish: bouillon. The French description for this type of slow-simmered bone broth or consommé is a bouillon restaurant or “restorative broth.”
In her book, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Gastronomic Culture, Spang explains that the very first French restaurants arrived in the 1760s and 1770s, and they capitalized on a growing Enlightenment-era sensibility among the wealthy merchant class in Paris.
“They believed that knowledge was obtained by being sensitive to the world around you, and one way of showing sensitivity was by not eating the ‘coarse’ foods associated with common people,” says Spang. “You might not have aristocratic forebears, but you can show that you’re something other than a peasant by not eating brown bread, not relishing onions and sausage, but wanting delicate dishes.”
Bouillon fit the bill perfectly. It was all-natural, bland, easy to digest, yet packed full of invigorating nutrients. But Spang credits the success and rapid growth of these early bouillon restaurants not just to what was being served, but how it was served.
“The restaurateurs innovated by copying the service model that already existed in French café culture,” says Spang. “They sat customers at a small, cafe-size table. They had a printed menu from which people ordered dishes as opposed to the tavern keeper saying, ‘this is what’s for lunch today.’ And they were more flexible in their meal hours—everybody didn’t have to get there at 1 p.m. and eat whatever was on the table.”
Once the bouillon restaurants caught on, it didn’t take long for other items to show up on the menu. A little wine, perhaps, some stewed chicken. By the late 1780s, the health-conscious bouillon shops had evolved into the first grand Parisian restaurants like Trois Frères and La Grande Tavene de Londres that would serve as the archetype of fine restaurant dining for the next century.
Restaurants Come to America
As shown by the history of restaurants in both China and France, you can’t have restaurants without a large and hungry urban population. So it makes sense that the first fine-dining restaurant in America was opened in New York City in the 19th century.
Delmonico’s opened its doors in 1837 featuring luxurious private dining suites and a 1,000-bottle wine cellar. The restaurant, which remains at the same Manhattan location (although it closed its doors during the 2020 Covid-19 crisis), claims to be the first in America to use tablecloths, and its star chefs not only invented the famous Delmonico steak, but also gourmet classics like eggs Benedict, baked Alaska, Lobster Newburg and Chicken à la Keene.