When Did People Start Eating in Restaurants? | History Hit

When Did People Start Eating in Restaurants?

Shannon Callahan

22 Feb 2022
Antoine Gustave Droz, 'Un Buffet de Chemin de Fer', 1864.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over the millennia, from ancient Egypt to modern times, dining trends have changed both in and outside of the home. This includes the evolution of the modern-day restaurant.

From thermopolia and street vendors to family-centred casual dining, eating at restaurants has a long history that spans the globe.

But when were restaurants developed, and when did people first start eating in them for fun?

People have eaten outside of the home since antiquity

As far back as ancient Egypt, there is evidence of people eating outside of the home. In archaeological digs, it appears these early places for dining out served only one dish.

In ancient Roman times, found in the ruins of Pompeii for example, people bought prepared food from street vendors and at thermopolia. A thermopolium was a place that served food and drink to people of all social classes. Food at a thermopolium was typically served in bowls carved into an L-shaped counter.

Thermopolium in Herculaneum, Campania, Italy.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Early restaurants were created to accommodate tradespeople

By 1100AD, during the Song dynasty in China, cities had urban populations of 1 million people largely due to increased trade between different regions. These tradespeople from different areas were not familiar with local cuisines, so early restaurants were created to accommodate for the differing regional diets of tradespeople.

Tourist districts emerged, with these dining establishments sitting alongside hotels, bars and brothels. They varied in size and style, and this is where large, sophisticated places that resembled restaurants as we think of them today first emerged. In these early Chinese restaurants, there were even servers who would sing orders back to the kitchen to create a unique dining experience.

Pub grub was served in Europe

During the middle ages in Europe, two key forms of eating establishment were popular. Firstly, there were taverns, which were typically spaces where people dined in and were charged by the pot. Secondly, inns offered basic foods like bread, cheese and roasts at a common table or to be taken out.

These places served simple, common fare, without a choice of what was being offered. These inns and taverns were most often located on the side of the road for travellers and offered food as well as shelter. The food served was at the discretion of the cook, and often just one meal was served a day. 

In France in the 1500s, the table d’hôte (host table) was born. At these places, a fixed-price meal was eaten at a communal table in public with friends and strangers alike. However, this does not really resemble modern-day restaurants, as there was only one meal served a day and at precisely 1 pm. There was no menu and no choice. In England, similar dining experiences were called ordinaries. 

At the same time as establishments emerged across Europe, the teahouse tradition developed in Japan which established a unique dining culture in the country. Chefs like Sen no Rikyu created tasting menus to tell the story of seasons and would even serve meals on dishes that matched the aesthetic of the food.

Genshin Kyoraishi, ‘The Puppet play in a teahouse’, mid 18th century.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

People ‘elevated’ themselves through food during the Enlightenment

Paris in France is regarded as the originator of the modern fine dining restaurant. It is believed that gourmet royal chefs spared from the guillotine during the French Revolution went looking for work and created restaurants. However, the story is untrue, as restaurants appeared in France decades before the Revolution began in 1789.

These early restaurants were born out of the Enlightenment era and appealed to the wealthy merchant class, where it was believed that you needed to be sensitive to the world around you, and one way to show sensitivity was through not eating the ‘coarse’ foods associated with common people. To restore oneself, bouillon was eaten as the preferred dish of the enlightened, as it was all-natural, bland and easy to digest, while being full of nutrients.

France’s restaurant culture was adopted abroad

Café culture was already prominent in France, so these bouillon restaurants copied the service model by having patrons eat at small tables, choosing from a printed menu. They were flexible with meal hours as well, differing from the table d’hôte style of dining.

By the late 1780s, the first fine dining restaurants had opened in Paris, and they would build the foundation of dining out as we know it today. By 1804, the first restaurant guide, Almanach des Gourmandes, was published, and France’s restaurant culture spread across Europe and the United States.

First page of Almanach des Gourmands by Grimod de la Reynière.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the United States, the first restaurant opened in the growing city of New York in 1827. Delmonico’s opened with private dining suites and a 1,000-bottle wine cellar. This restaurant claims to have created many dishes that are still popular today including the Delmonico steak, eggs Benedict and baked Alaska. It also claims to be the first place in America to use tablecloths. 

The Industrial Revolution made restaurants normal for common people

It is important to note that these early American and European restaurants catered mainly towards the wealthy, yet as travel expanded throughout the 19th century due to the invention of railways and steamships, people could travel greater distances, which led to an increased demand for restaurants.

Eating well away from home became a part of the experience of travel and tourism. Sitting at a private table, selecting your meal from options listed on a printed menu, and paying at the end of the meal was a new experience for many. Further, as changes in labour evolved throughout the Industrial Revolution, it became common for many workers to eat in restaurants at lunchtime. These restaurants started to specialise and target specific clientele. 

Further, new food inventions from the Industrial Revolution meant that food could be processed in new ways. When White Castle opened in 1921, it was able to grind meat on-site to make hamburgers. The owners went to great lengths to show that their restaurant was clean and sterile, meaning their hamburgers were safe to eat.

Chain fast-food restaurants were established after World War Two

Post-World War Two, more casual dining spots opened, like McDonald’s in 1948, utilizing assembly lines to make food quickly and cheaply. McDonald’s created a formula for franchising fast-food restaurants in the 1950s that would change the landscape of American dining

The first drive-in hamburger bar in America, courtesy of McDonald’s.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the 1990s, there had been a shift in family dynamics, and now it was more likely that two people earned money in one household. The increase in income paired with the increase in time spent outside of the home meant that more people were dining out. Chains like Olive Garden and Applebee’s catered to the growing middle class and offered moderately priced meals and children’s menus.

Casual dining centred around families changed the ways in which Americans ate yet again, and restaurants continued to evolve with the times, offering healthier options as the alarm was sounded over the obesity crisis, creating farm-to-table offerings as people worried where food came from, and so on. 

Today, restaurant food is available to eat at home

Nowadays, the rise of delivery services in cities allows people to access countless restaurants that offer a variety of cuisines without ever leaving their homes. From taverns offering one meal at a fixed time, to ordering from endless options at your fingertips, restaurants have evolved globally alongside new technologies and shifts in social conditions.

Eating out has become a social and leisure experience to enjoy both while traveling and within the routine of everyday life, while restaurants offering fusions of cuisines across cultures as mass migration has occurred are popular.

Shannon Callahan