Rebecca Spang explodes a culinary myth that has lasted nearly two hundred years. The story goes more or less like this. Restaurants as we know them were a product of the French Revolution and came into being in order to ensure that pleasurable eating would not remain the privilege of the wealthy. Kitchenless provincial Revolutionaries crowded into Paris, and at the same time the highly skilled chefs of beheaded or émigré aristocrats found themselves out of work. The cooks saw their chance to become entrepreneurs.
Before the Revolution, restaurant meant a kind of soup: a distillation of meat essences, served by restaurateurs in luxurious establishments, to an aristocratic clientele who came to restore their languid energies by drinking small cups of bouillon. These restaurateurs aroused the envy of the traiteurs or cook-caterers of Paris. In 1765, a man called Boulanger began to serve, in addition to his soups, sheep's feet in white sauce. The traiteurs took him to court for infringing their rights. The magistrates of the Paris Parlement listened to the arguments on both sides, and declared that Boulanger was allowed to serve only restaurants in his shop - sheep's feet in white sauce was a ragout. Under the Ancien Régime, traiteurs alone were allowed to sell ragouts.
LRB 30 November 2000 | PDF Download