The restaurant is a modern invention, writes Adam Gopnik in The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, created in France in the years surrounding the French Revolution. It is not, he admits, “the most original of modern instances and institutions” but it is “one of the most tenacious.”
He elaborates: “It is the primal scene of modern life. Most modern urban people mark their lives by their moments in cafes and restaurants, just as ancient people marked their time on earth by visits to the local oracle, or medieval people by pilgrimages: we are courted, spurned, recruited, hired, fired, lured to a new job, or released from an old one at a table while a waiter hovers nearby. There are few marriages that did not begin at dinner at a table leased for the evening, and few divorces that did not first show signs of approaching doom in a sigh of resentment or an eye roll of exasperation in a similar setting” (pp. 14-5).
Gopnik summarizes the latest theory about the origins of the restaurant, a combination of philosophy, commerce, and sentiment:
“The reasons of the mind have to do with a new cult of health and simplicity; the reasons of merchandising have to do with a new site of commerce, the Palais Royal, and the birth of the modern street store there; the reasons of morality have to do with a breakdown of a neat caste hierarchy already long underway before the revolution – the neat thing about the restaurant was that anyone with a sou to pay can buy his meal. Along with the new social model came a new belief that appetite, the animal part of man, could be defined and civilized but need not in the end by remade” (19-20).
Public eating houses preceded the birth of the restaurant, but in the table d’hote, you sat at the same table with everyone else and ate whatever was being served (like home!). The first restaurant offered a list of possible meals, a private table for yourself and your friends. A “restaurant” was originally a bouillon, a supposedly healthy broth that eventually gave its name to the place where it was served. Because of its association with health and cleanliness, the restaurant became a place that women were permitted to go: “This was, perhaps, the single greatest revolution the restaurant wrought: under the pretext of health, women could come alone to an open social theater.”
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 1:30 pm
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