What, exactly, is a restaurant, and when and where did restaurants first appear? According to Rebecca Spang, the "received wisdom" would have us believe that "restaurants were illegal until after the French Revolution."
The widely believed version runs something like this: Byzantine regulations of the ancien regime prevented the existence of restaurants. The Revolution not only abolished such restrictions but left the talented chefs to the vanquished aristocracy in search of new ways to earn a living. Voila cooking for the general public. Voila restaurants.
Spang, however, rejects this version as oversimplified. In its place, she offers a more complex account of the restaurant that takes us back to 18th century Paris, a city then regarded by many travelers as food hell. The coarse, shoddy fare served at French inns and cook-shops offered few choices. It was served at a fixed hour, and woe betide the late-arriving guest, who had to fight his way to the table d'hote only to find that his fellow guests had already stripped the duck, goose or chicken bare.
Before it came to denote an urban landmark, Spang shows us, "restaurant" referred to a kind of food: a special sort of condensed consomme that was supposed literally to restore (restaurer) the health of sickly or delicate individuals. Spang includes a typical recipe for restaurants, which featured meats, such as chicken, veal and beef, long-simmered with carrots, onions or parsnips into a thick liquid essence.
It was the therapeutic function of these concoctions, Spang explains, that set the tone for the establishments that served them. "Unlike mealtimes, which might be set by shared social convention, the need for restoration could never be so routinized," she remarks. The restaurateur was thus obliged to be open at all hours to serve "the feeble Parisian or exhausted foreigner [who] might need . . . a genteel atmosphere in which to drink his or her restaurant." Menus, set prices and service that catered to the individual became the hallmarks of these establishments, which became known as restaurants.
Readers hungry for mouth-watering accounts of sumptuous meals or paeans to the glories of French cuisine will not find them here. Spang's focus is on the restaurant as an institution, and her history pretty much ends in the mid-19th century. Spang is far more interested in viewing restaurants in a wider social, political and historical context. Her book is well (if somewhat repetitively) argued, dryly witty and full of fascinating details.
Spang looks at the connection between the growth of pre-Revolutionary restaurants and the then-reigning cult of Sensibility, which associated "delicacy," "weakness" and a finicky appetite with sensitivity, refinement and intellect. Other topics she treats are 18th century notions of nutrition, the symbolism of public feasts, Revolutionary ideals of hospitality and the sans-culottes' resentment of aristocratic gluttony.
Under Napoleon, one learns, freedom of religion and the freedom to pursue gastronomic, theatrical and other pleasures were not only allowed, but encouraged. One censor even alerted his superiors to an impending shortage of "literary and theatrical gossip." If citizens lost interest in debating the merits of rival actresses, the censor warned, they might turn to politics! A citizenry more interested in gossip and private appetites than in current events and public issues? Does this sound familiar?