Restaurants… We can thank the French revolution. Vive les restaurants!

(The origin of the restaurant. Level B2+)

Food. Glorious food. It’s one of our great pleasures and an eternal subject of conversation. Many English words that concern cooking and eating come from the kitchens of France. Terms such as cuisine, omelette, entrée, sauté, au gratin, cordon bleu, toast, vinaigrette, paté… have slipped seamlessly into English like an oyster down a diner’s throat. I could go on, but I may start dribbling on my keyboard.

And, of course, the restaurant. Remember restaurants? A favourite place to be, armed with a knife and fork and with a napkin, (not a mask), tucked under your chin.

 

A restaurant was originally the name of a soup

 

The word restaurant was originally the name of a soup. It was the term used for a meat soup or bouillon – made from concentrated meat juices and considered to be quasi-medicinal back in the 16th century . It was a dish to restore/restaurer the strength and health of the diner. The English called it a beef tea. A dictionary of 1708 defined restaurant as a “food or remedy that has the property of restoring lost strength to a sickly or tired individual”.

Thanks to the French revolution – restaurants, as we know them today – started to take off. Royalty and nobility lost their heads in the guillotine and their chefs and kitchen staff lost their jobs. To put food on their own tables they began opening their own restaurants.

 

Thanks to the French revolution – restaurants, as we know them today, started to take off. Royalty and nobility were rendered headless and their chefs and kitchen staff rendered jobless.

 

It is widely believed, and disputed by some, that the first restaurant was opened in 1765 by a Parisian named Boulanger. Boulanger’s establishment on rue des Poulies, near the Louvre, served mostly bouillons or restaurants, in other words, meat soups or broths.

Boulanger painted on his shop window the Latin invitation: “Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego vos restaurabo” (Come to me all who suffer from pain of the stomach and I will restore you);  a play on the words of Jesus found in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

But, it was not the French that introduced the concept of a à la carte menu to a youthful United States of America in 1837. It was Swiss immigrants; two brothers Gian and Pietro Del Monica and their cousin Lorenzo Delmonico from Tichino, the Italian part of Switzerland.

 

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Delmonico’s in it’s heyday in New York

 

Delmonico’s Restaurant was the first à la carte luxury restaurant in New York, and for almost 100 years defined “haute cuisine” in America. Delmonico’s introduced to America the French concept of a menu, with a range of plates at different prices. Patrons could dine at any time. Food was served on fine china. The menus were in French and English.

Prohibition (the criminalisation of alcohol consumption) spelt the end of restaurants like Delmonicos. The only place to drink a glass of wine was in safety of your own home with the doors locked.

 

Delmonico’s also introduced the luxury of private dining rooms where discreet entertaining was the order of the day. The basement held the largest private wine cellar in the city – an impressive 1,000 bottles of the world’s finest fermented grape juice.

Delmonico’s was legendary, not only for its food, but for its high prices and its celebrated patrons. US presidents, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Astors, the Goodyears, the grand dukes of Russia, the Prince of Wales, Napoleon III, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain all tucked a napkin under their chins in this fine establishment.
The Delmonicos were quite brilliant at marketing. Legend has it that the pillars at the entry to their restaurant came from the ruins of Pompeii.

 

Delmonico’s menu April 1899

 

“Delmonicos:  Good enough for every President since Lincoln”, was their wonderful marketing line.

By the 1880s there were a chain of 10 Delmonico restaurants in New York.

Prohibition (the criminalisation of alcohol consumption) spelt the end of restaurants like Delmonicos. The only place to drink a glass of wine was in the safety of your own home with the doors locked and the curtains drawn.

Delmonico’s Restaurant still exists today and feeds off the legacy of its entrepreneurial Swiss founders.

Garry Littman

Garry Littman

Garry Littman est le fondateur de The Language House à Genève. The Language House propose des coachings d'anglais à Genève pour les particuliers et les entreprises, ainsi que des cours intensifs d'anglais dans les pays anglophones. Garry a été journaliste en Australie et en Asie, il a travaillé pour World Radio Switzerland.

4 réponses à “Restaurants… We can thank the French revolution. Vive les restaurants!

  1. Thank you, Garry, for your interesting presentation of this newyorker « swiss » restaurant !
    Reading the Delmonico’s menu of April 1899, one can observe at the bottom that the Swiss « Gruyere » was the cheapest cheese, only 25 cents for one plate, in comparison with the costly Dutch « Edam » at 80 cents !
    In my opinion, today, the prices in the States surely are ten times higher and in the reverse order, considering the fact that our exportations only are of the best pieces of cheese made in the Gruyere county, with the true trade mark of authenticiy « AOC Gruyère ».

  2. Thanks for your comment Christophe. Much appreciated. Always good to know there is someone out there reading our words. I see you are an avid reader of menus. A good menu is better than a book, especially in this period. Yes, the prices are pretty amazing. Probably more like 20 times higher today.
    Is it AOC or AOP Gruyère?

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