Monday, May 27, 2019
Food Legends


The birth of the modern restaurant is quite recent. And it is also somewhat debated.

The need to satisfy those who were out of town on business was born thousands of years ago.

Picture a Roman “Macellum” (differently from the Greek agora, the Romans replaced stalls with basilicas and curiae, moving the markets into real indoor supermarkets, from which derives the term butchery and “slaughterhouse”, that is chaos, noise ): farmers who bring their products to sell (not corn, tomatoes or prickly pears, those were still in America), butchers, fishmongers, oil producers, etc.

A huge mass of people joined by pilgrims, travelers, and businessmen. Where to eat?

In the thermopolia, they sold hot dishes stored in dolia (amphorae) directly built in the counters. The meals could be eaten directly at the counter or in special rooms, placed at the back of the business (the Romans used to eat and write lying down).

But if the menus can be traced back to the Chinese Middle Ages, the modern restaurant, as we know it, was born only in the 1700s in France.

The first coffee in Paris and Europe was founded by the Italian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, the Cafè Procope, opened in 1686. It still exists today and is a restaurant, but when it was born, it served coffee and ice cream (Coltelli was Sicilian, from Acitrezza ).

On the birth of the modern restaurant, however, there are two theories and a legend. The confusion, then, is enormous.

Let’s take into consideration, for example, the lemma “Restaurant” of the Italian Wikipedia. We read that the first real modern restaurant (with the guests sitting at their table and trying to choose dishes from a menu) «it was the Grand Taverne de Londres, founded in 1782 by a man named Antoine Beauvillier. It seems that the name derives from the motto “Come, I will give you rest” posted in the first business of this kind.» It is not the first time that Wikipedia spreads fake news and we will soon understand why.

But first things first…

Should we start with the legend? Good. According to a rumor that has only recently been refuted, the restaurant was born as a consequence of the French Revolution, which left the great chefs unemployed as a result of the aristocratic clean-up carried out with the Monsieur Guillotin’s tool. It is true that the restaurant, born before the Revolution, also spreads thanks to the latter.

Regarding historical truth, a rather coeval source (1810), indicates as the first restaurant the one open near the Louvre in the Rue des Poulies in 1765. To open it is someone called Boulanger, and the restaurant is “Champ d’Oiseaux” or “Chantoiseau.”

It will be the activity of Boulanger to give the name to the restaurant. In fact, in his restaurant, “cure-all broth” are sold, that is consommé based on meat, spices, herbs, candied sugar, bread and butter which, according to the owner, are able to refresh customers.
In fact, the sign of the Boulanger’s business says:

“Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego vos restaurabo” Matthew (11, 28)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.

The idea of Boulanger is completely disruptive. The eighteenth-century entrepreneur relies on the bourgeois needs to overcome the old trattorias. Before the restaurant, hot meals were served on common tables, and the menu did not offer a huge selection of dishes, quite the opposite. So it could happen that a customer of the old taverns-trattorias was forced to eat what he did not want with those who did not want to.

Moreover, it was likely that the hygiene in those businesses was not the best. Boulanger used this propaganda to present his preparations as more healthy, allowed his customers to have their table covered with a tablecloth and began to compose a menu (he used to serve feet of mutton in white sauce). This struck the interests of the trattoria owners’ guild which, therefore, sued him in court: he incredibly won the cause, and this brought to new openings.

In recent years, however, Rebecca Spang has reinterpreted the birth of the modern restaurant by attributing the intuition to the gentlemen De Roze and Pontaillè. According to Spang, it was De Roze who invented the definition of “Restaurant” and relied on the health of the customers to promote their goodness. Spang, among other things, is based on the Almanach du Dauphine, a source almost contemporary to the facts since it was written in 1777, while the De Roze and Pontaillè’s restaurant foundation dates back to 1765.

Lately, however, the diatribe between the Spang, a supporter of De Roze, and the historians following Boulanger could find a meeting point. Apparently, after a year from the opening, Boulanger moved his businesses for some issues with the building: not only, therefore, we would be talking about the same place, but also the two entrepreneurs (De Roze-Boulanger) would be the same person.

And what about the man the Italian Wikipedia is pointing? Brillat-Savarin, French gastronomist who defined Beauvilliers as «the best French restaurateur for at least 15 years», writes about him. Beauvilliers, however, was neither the first modern restaurateur nor the one who used the motto belonging to Boulanger.

We conclude with a couple of curiosities:

  • The oldest restaurant still in operation is in Madrid, the Botìn, a restaurant built in 1725 in a 16th-century apartment building. It was founded by the nephew of the French cook Jean Botìn, who moved to Spain in the early 1600s. Here he married an Asturian woman and opened a tavern: at the time he could sell wine, but he was forbidden to serve food. Customers, therefore, brought it from home.
  • The philosopher Diderot also describes Boulanger’s restaurant in a letter to Sophie Volland. Here is his review: “I went out […] to go to dinner to the restaurateur of the rue des Poulies; you eat well but at a high price”.


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This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

Pierluigi Capriotti
My name is Pierluigi Capriotti to be exact. Despite a degree in Architecture I'm a journalist. I write following temporary monomania and others that are chronic such reading, soccer, travels and food. When I write I use many asides – because I have the impression there is always something more to say. Because in those asides I talk about my passions. So that everybody will notice them but with nonchalance. I've never had a high regard for wisdom. And, thanks God, this helped me to leave for the foodiestrip journey with a spiritual-creative mathematician, an IT engineer who plays the Star Wars soundtrack with the coffee stirrers and a businessnerd. One way ticket. No return.