Francis Mathieu Explains: the History of the Restaurant

Sojourner Tours Guest: I’ve noticed that a lot of French words are the same as in English, which helps! Take the word “restaurant”, for example, it’s exactly the same in both languages.

Francis Mathieu: That’s right! Half of the English vocabulary actually comes from medieval French, courtesy of good old William the Conqueror. But the word “restaurant” is a more recent borrowing, which was first coined in 18th century France.

Sojourner Tours Guest: What? You mean it didn’t exist before that?

Francis Mathieu: Actually, the whole concept of the restaurant itself wasn’t invented before the second half of the 18th century, in Paris.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Really? I had no idea!

Francis Mathieu: Restaurants are such an ordinary part of our lives and surroundings that we take them for granted and never think twice about them or their history.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Right! Haven’t they existed forever? Or at least, you know, since the first big civilizations, like the Romans, or something like that?

Francis Mathieu: Nope. There were no restaurants until they sprang up in 18th century Paris. Or at least not as we know them today.

Sojourner Tours Guest: So how did people eat out before?

Francis Mathieu: They didn’t. Most people were dirt poor and those with money employed cooks or personal chefs. When on the move or visiting a city, travelers would eat at inns, but inns were not like restaurants. For starters, all diners had to eat the same food, usually some daily stew from a huge pot. There was no menu to pick items or dishes from. There was no private seating either as guests had to sit at large communal tables.

Sojourner Tours Guest: Doesn’t sound great. Do you know how those first restaurants came to being in France?

Francis Mathieu: Yes, you’ll see it’s quite interesting. In the 1760’s, a few Paris chefs started to offer healthy meals served in an innovative setting and manner. They had the brilliant ideas to sit diners at private tables and to list available dishes and their prices on a menu, so that each guest could individually pick what they wanted to eat. Since the idea was to offer healthy food, they first specialized in soups and bouillons that were supposed to be “restorative” or to “restore” one’s health. That’s how the word “restaurant” was coined, as the place that restores your health. The name stuck, even as these restaurants quickly diversified to serve all kinds of food. One of the first such restaurants, called “Le Grand Véfour” is still in business today. It was Julia Child’s favorite restaurant in Paris. I guess it’s the oldest restaurant in the world!

Sojourner Tours Guest: Wow, that’s fascinating! Thanks for sharing this with me. I had no idea that restaurants started in France not so long ago.

Francis Mathieu: You’re welcome. I love sharing that story with our guests. There’s a bit more to it, actually. So as you can imagine, this new concept turned out to be hugely popular and quickly took off all over Paris, and then spread to other French cities. Now remember, this was the second half of the 18th century, so what huge historical event was about to take place?

Sojourner Tours Guest: I don’t know. The French Revolution?

Francis Mathieu: Exactly! Well, most chefs were employed by the aristocracy, the nobles at that time. But what happens to them with the Revolution? They are jailed, guillotined, they flee into exile, and their chefs are out of a job, so what do they do?

Sojourner Tours Guest: They open a restaurant!

Francis Mathieu: Yes! They just copy that new concept that’s been very popular and the number of restaurants multiplies. Quickly, some of the best French chefs start spreading this new successful concept in other big European cities and there you go, restaurants spread all around the world in the 19th century.

Sojourner Tours Guest: I’ll have to think about that next time I go to my favorite restaurant at home in Austin!

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