Boulanger and the restaurant: the snowballing of a myth

For centuries it was accepted that the restaurant was founded in 1765 by a certain Boulanger. And that is still the account readers will find in many sources. But in fact it is now firmly established that Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau founded it in 1767. Knowing this, it is piquant to view the ways in which the Boulanger myth – as it can only be called – not only was born but developed over the years.

Did Boulanger even exist? In fact, no period record documents even that basic fact. His name first appears long after the first restaurant itself, in a classic work by Pierre Jean-Baptiste Le Grand d’Aussy from 1782:
Restorants [restaurans] gave rise to Restorers [Restaurateurs]. This is an establishment which came about in Paris towards 1765, and which was thought up by a certain Boulanger, who lived on the rue des Poulies. On his door, he had put this motto, which was a not very respectful application of a very respectable book: Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabo vos. {“Come to me all whose stomachs labor, and I will restore you”, a parody of Matthew 11:28]. Boulanger sold bouillons or consommés. One even found things to eat at his place when desired. It is true that not being a Traiteur, he could not serve ragoûts [today, “stews,” but then any flavorful dish]; but he provided fowl with coarse salt, with fresh eggs and all this neatly served on these small marble tables, known from cafés. In imitation of him, other Restorers soon set up shop.
Note that, though Le Grand goes on to say more about how restorers themselves became traiteurs, this is ALL he says about Boulanger himself.

It is not, however, all you will find written about him.

The first mentions of Boulanger after Le Grand are essentially (uncredited) paraphrases of his text. In 1800, when Pierre de La Mésangère wrote an entry for "Restaurateurs" in his Le Voyageur a Paris, he closely followed Le Grand:
Restorants or bouillons gave rise to Restorers. This establishment which arose in Paris in 1765 was thought up by a certain Boulanger, who lived on the rue des Poulies. On his door one read this hardly respectable application of a passage from the Gospels. Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabo vos. Besides the fact that Boulanger sold bouillons, one found food at his place; but, since he was not a traiteur, he could not serve ragoûts, in their places he provided fowl with coarse salt, fresh eggs, etc., and this was served, without a tablecloth, on small marble tables.
Here is the English writer Francis Blagdon, writing in 1803:
But, in 1765, one Boulanger conceived the idea of restoring the exhausted animal functions of the debilitated Parisians by rich soups of various denominations. Not being a traiteur, it appears that he was not authorized to serve ragouts; he therefore, in addition to his restorative soups, set before his customers new-laid eggs and boiled fowl with strong gravy sauce: those articles were served up without a cloth, on little marble tables. Over his door he placed the following inscription, borrowed from Scripture: "Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego restaurabo vos."
Such was the origin of the word and profession of restaurateur.
Blagdon's main embellishment here – aside from the witty reference to "debilitated Parisians"– is the "strong gravy sauce". Otherwise, this is substantially Le Grand's version.

Here is the start of the entry for Restaurateurs in Lebrun’s 1828 Manuel Complet du Voyageur de Paris:
Before 1774, only tables d’hôte, serving at a set time, were known in Paris. An English traiteur, named Boulanger, who lived on the rue des Prêcheurs, was the first to think to import from England the invention of restorants. Not only did he introduce the thing, but further the name, having written over the door of his establishment: Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego restaurabo vos; Come to me, all you who suffer from the stomach, and I will restore you. The import made a fortune: one now counts over three hundred restaurants in Paris.
Note the variations here – the later date (adopted by some writers after this), the curious idea of Boulanger having been English, not to mention a traiteur (the reverse of what Le Grand wrote) and the transfer of the location from the rue des Poulies (now part of the rue du Louvre, near the Seine) to the rue des Prêcheurs (then and now deep into the Halles, an area to the north of the rue du Louvre). Several subsequent sources would cite that location. Lebrun is also the first to claim (wrongly) that tables d’hôte were the only public dining option before the restaurant.

In 1830, a writer in the Gastronome gave this version:
It was in 1765 that the street, rather glum, des Poulies, near the Louvre, had the honor of being the witness of this noble innovation. Boulanger, who had made his name as a skillful cook, quit the stoves of a miserly master in whose place his talent remained under a bushel, and put the favorite project of his imagination into action. A lovely low room, garnished with small round tables in marble, such as one sees now in cafés, opened in the fine days of spring. One was promptly served there and with a marvelous neatness. At all hours one found bouillons or consommés, fowl with coarse salt, fresh eggs, salads prepared with taste and choice wines. Soon people spoke only of the house of Boulanger: bourgeois and gentlemen, high class women and girls of frank humor, all wanted to pay homage to his table; all wanted to respond to the invitation written on his door: “Venite ad me, omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabo vos.” Come to me, all you who have a weak stomach, and I will restore you. Novelty and fashion provided to Boulanger a small fortune with which he retired to the end of the world, and lived honorably for ten more years.
The writer goes on to, accurately, name Roze et Pontaillé as the proprietors of the first restaurant, but makes the error of saying they bought their place (which in fact they founded) from Boulanger.

Here we have an intriguing melange of Le Grand’s original version with the peculiar claim that Boulanger was known as an (unappreciated) expert cook, not to mention that he made a fortune and sold his place. Or that a long list of specific groups (none cited by Le Grand) frequented the first restaurant, which is now shown as first opening in spring.

In 1838, Charles Nodier again cited the Latin motto and the rue des Prescheurs, using the date of 1774, before writing: “One found at his place bouillon, fresh eggs, capons with coarse salt at a set price, and one will not be unhappy to learn that this brave man called himself Boulanger, because he took a great step in civilisation: he invented the Menu and the Restaurant.” Le Grand of course sends nothing about Boulanger displaying a menu; but this would not be the last source to credit him with that innovation.

In 1881, Camille Husson outdid himself in the account he included in his L'alimentation animale; ce qu'elle a été, ce qu'elle doit être, ce qu'elle devient, ce qu'elle produit, comment on la prépare: La viande; son histoire, ses caractères, son utilité, ses dangers, statistique, hygiène, police sanitaire.
To well born stomachs, how dear is this date!
This is the year when the restaurant was born in Paris and substituted for the tavern and the cabaret.
A fine morning in May, businessmen and strollers and idlers of every sort stopped at the corner of the rue des Poulies and the rue Bailleul, and stared open-mouthed at a large sign on white cloth on which were traced in red letters this motto imitated from the Gospels:
Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabo vos
(Come to me all whose stomach tugs at them, and I will restore you)
The price of the offerings was written on a sign. It was unbelievably cheap! The crowd swarmed into the restaurant's space, and all over Paris people stopped each other to ask:
- Have you dined at Boulanger's restaurant?
The tavern and the cabaret were done.
The favorite dish of the new restaurant was sheep's trotters à la poulette, which became hugely successful. The great tables of the hotels d'Angivilliers, of Béthisy, of Aligre and of the Fermes did not disdain to have the new dish served by Boulanger's own kitchen hands. It was delivered to houses.
Several great lords of the court went to taste the sheep’s trotters: the baron of Breteuil, M. de Maurepas, M. de Sénac, M. de La Vauguyon met at the restaurant.
Moncriff, the academician, eminent gastronome, became Boulanger's customer. As the Queen's reader, with free access at Versailles, he spoke of the new dish to the head chef who did not fail to place it on Louis XV's table in ordinary menus.
Boulanger asked for and received a patent for his invention.
Husson then goes on to give an equally fictive version of the earlier state of dining out which was replaced by the restaurant.

It should be plain that almost none of this is in Le Grand’s original version. Where Husson found these “facts” (if he did not indeed shamelessly make them up) is impossible to tell. But more than one made its way into later accounts. Still, note that even this version, apparently the first to cite the sheep’s trotters dish, says nothing about a lawsuit by the traiteurs. He also cites (a bit anachronistically) taverns and cabarets as the popular eateries before the restaurant, when in fact the traiteurs and, yes, the tables d'hôte were already in the forefront by then.

Numerous other writers cite variants on these later versions. But in 1938, the first edition of the Larousse Gastronomique much expanded the mythology in its article on the restaurant:
In 1765 a man named Boulanger, a vendor of soup in the Rue de Baiileul, gave to his soups the name of restaurants, i.e. restoratives, and inscribed on his sign: "Boulanger sells magical restoratives", a notice which he embellished with a joke in culinary Latin: Venite ad me; vos qui stomacho laboratis et ego restaurabo vos.
Wishing to augment his menus and unable to serve sauces or ragoûts, because he was not a member of the corporation of traiteurs, he had the idea of offering his clients sheep's feet in white wine sauce. The traiteurs did not fail to bring a lawsuit against him, which was a tremendous advertisement for the innovator and his sheep's feet. This was a great triumph; all Paris rushed to Boulanger's to taste this extraordinary dish of the recommendation of Moncrif, who raved about it. Louis XV himself had it served at Versailles, but the king, who was a real gourmand, did not share the enchantment of his lector.
The article echoes Husson's in placing the restaurant at the rue de Bailleul (which intersects with the rue des Poulies) – something Le Grand does not mention at all. But now we see Boulanger – previously described as a traiteur, a cook and even an inn-keeper – described as a soup vendor (there was no such profession in eighteenth century France) and credited with inventing restorants (which had existed for almost a century before the restaurant opened). The idea of Boulanger advertising "magical restoratives" appears, apparently, out of nowhere. And now his dish of sheep’s trotters is shown as a way to “augment his menus”. With this, the dramatic – and much repeated – claim that he was sued by the traiteurs first makes its way into culinary lore. (The references to Louis XV and Moncrif, equally fictitious, can of course be traced back to Husson).

Any reader who cares to seek out accounts of Boulanger’s first restaurant after 1938 will find these claims often repeated and even further embellished. But for now this is a fair stopping point. To review: Le Grand’s original, and minimal, description of Boulanger (who almost certainly did not exist in the first place) as a man who sold bouillons and consommés “and fowl with coarse salt, fresh eggs, etc” on small marble tables, has been expanded to show a person who originated the written menu (an entirely different, and complex, question), sold choice wines, advertised "magical restoratives", made a fortune with a very popular place and retired on the proceeds, and, notably, originated a dish of sheep’s trotters with white wine sauce and made it the centerpiece of his offerings, drawing the attention of Louis XV and attracting the wrath of the traiteurs, only to defeat them in a major decision.

Several of these “facts” can be found in numerous subsequent texts, extending right up to the present day – which is to say, long after Rebecca Spang firmly demonstrated that Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau in fact founded the first restaurant in 1767. No doubt attentive readers will find still further claims added to this accumulation of elements piled on top of Le Grand’s original (and erroneous) statement. But these examples should suffice to show how easily such a myth grows.

Interested in Paris food history? 

Read about the new book A History of the Food of Paris 
and more at the Paris Food History site.


Most popular posts