Itemized bills for meals before the restaurant

Why seek out itemized bills from before the first restaurant (1767)? Above all to combat a common idea that, before the restaurant, one could not order individual items – a claim which is quickly disproven simply by reviewing the numerous itemized accounts surviving from French meals across the centuries. For more about this aspect, see “The Restaurant Was No Big Deal (Seriously)”.

But these bills – or more typically, the account items corresponding to them – are also informative, and often entertaining, in themselves and offer a vivid glimpse of how French dining shifted across the centuries, one which goes beyond the usual aristocratic feasts found in cookbooks. Even an early aristocrat here largely orders peas, cheese and herring, often with mustard, in inns. Not a peacock in sight.

Most of these bills are from cooks (or sometimes traiteurs, who were effectively the same). Several others are from taverns or inns. More rarely, some are from pastry cooks, even if the meals provided go well beyond pies, tarts and other (typically savory) pastry of the time. Meals for official functions were almost always itemized, even if providers could otherwise offer meals at a price per person. Many other records of this sort exist which however neither specify nor hint at the provider, and so are not included here.

Still, what follows is only a selection. An increasing number of such records is available as modern times approach, making it clear that, with all the meals advertised at a set price per person, taverns, cabarets and traiteurs were offering individual dishes long before the restaurant. And in fact many continued to do so, even as the restaurant became established.

(In most cases, s. = sols, d. = deniers; later records tend to reference livres [pounds], sols and sometimes francs; the presentation generally mirrors that of the original text.)

Fourteenth century

An exceptionally early set of these comes from the accounts for a trip taken by the lord of Noyers in 1338. (“Les Sires de Noyers”, Bulletin de la Société des sciences historiques et naturelles de l'Yonne 1874,) Along the way, he stayed at what sometimes are clearly inns, but in other cases might have been private households (as when one host refused any payment for his stay). Here are two out of a long list of the prices paid for food at these places. Note that bread, wine and sometimes other items were paid separately to the host, whereas other items were grouped under “Cuisine” (kitchen). The latter were often bought from specific suppliers, suggesting that people would buy basics from the inn itself, but might (as a later statute would specifically allow) assemble the bulk of their meals from shopping, just as they would at home.
December 11... in the inn of la Festue
Pantry and bottle cupboard, for bread [paid] to the host 8 sols, for wine 21 sols, to him for fruit, 3 deniers...
Kitchen to the hostess for peas, oil and onions and mustard, 3 sols. To her for cheese and eggs, 4 sols; to her for half a hundred herring, 4 sols, to her for a pound of almonds 6 deniers, to her for salt, fire, verjuice, vinegar [and logs] for all, 15 sols, to her for rice, sugar and ginger 2 sols 6 deniers, item to Jenannott of la Daillibonde, for melons 16 deniers, to him for fish 8 deniers....
December 12 at the inn of the Checkerboard
Pantry and bottle cupboard, to the host, bread at 6 sols, for wine 22 sols. To master Jean, for fruit, 2 deniers.
Kitchen, to the hostess for peas, oil, onions, salt and mustard, 3 sols, Item, to Aceline la Couverte, for 2 eels and other fish, 17 sols 6 deniers. Item, to Perrin of the square for 1 large pike, 17 sols. Item. to the host half a hundred red herring, 4 sols. To him for cheese and eggs, 3 sols 8 deniers. To him for mustard, 6 deniers. Item, to Guilliot the pastry cook for making of small tarts, 2 sols.
Some of these lists also include rental of tablecloths and napkins (once from a seamstress) and the line item for bonne chère. The latter most often refers to a “good feed” or “good welcome”, but on a bill it was essentially a cover charge, applied to the tablecloth and napkin, but possibly other sundries as well. It is striking to see it referenced this early.

Overall the items listed give a good overview of common fourteenth century foods: basics such as bread, wine, eggs, cheese, bacon, salt meat (probably pork), mutton, venison, chicken, herring, other fish, onions, garlic, even peas (then very common); greens including sage, parsley and leeks; flavorings such as verjuice, vinegar, oil, lard, honey, mustard, salt, and cumin; desserts including fruit, a finer sort of bread called a gastel (“cake”), flans and tarts; and more period specific items such as almonds, rice, sugar, and preserved ginger

Taken together, this mix of general and period-specific items outlines a very fourteenth century diet. Aside from cumin, spices are not mentioned, except ambivalently (as a gift, these could be very like a bribe). So the selection emphasizes how exceptional spices were even in a medieval diet.

The list also includes several references to “heads of poultry”, a phrase found elsewhere in the period which seems to imply the same thing as today’s “head of cattle”; that is a count of individual items. But elsewhere a number of chickens, for instance, are specifically mentioned, so the usage is curious.

Fifteenth century

Two things are striking about this municipal meal (preceded by one for a fast day) from April 14, 1440. (Mémoires de la Société des antiquaires de Picardie 1927) One is that it was organized by a pastry cook (Jaque Loeutieul, from Amiens). This in fact was not rare; pastry cooks often acted as caterers, even though this was not always officially allowed (since it infringed on the prerogatives of meal providers such as cabarets). The other is that, as in the earlier accounts here, the bulk of the prices paid are to specific providers, even another pastry cook; Loeutieul is acting as an executive producer here and is the one to provide the final bill – which includes a separate amount for his services – to the town authorities. This practice of breaking out costs by the individual providers seems to have been standard in earlier centuries.
Jehan de Roquegnyes, baker for six dozen white loaves, at 2 deniers each...
At the Flagos tavern, to Pierre Pertrisel, for 6 pots of white wine at 15 d. the lot...
At the Cow's Foot tavern, to Symon Dippre, for 4 pots of red wine, at 16 d. the lot...
At the Dragon tavern, to Jehannin Gualopin, for 19 pots of red wine, at 16 d. the lot...
For greens, 2 s.
To Jehan le Fever, butcher, for 5 pieces of beef at the price of 2 s. 8 d. the piece...
To Raoul de Beaquesne, butcher, for mutton, 14 s.
To Jehan Descrois, butcher, for 4 loins of veal, 12 s.
To Miquel Hurtault, for a kid, 12. s. p.[iece?]
To Gencien le Flamencqu for three suckling pigs, 24 s. p.
To Gille Castel, pastry cook, living at the Seraine, for seven goslings, at the price of 6 s. the piece… [A pastry cook could also sell certain items used to make pies.]
To the above-named Jehan le Fèvre, butcher, for five and a half pounds of lard, at the price of 16 d. the pound...
For a pot of red wine carried to the Cloquiers, the day of the revision of the said account, with two fouaces [fancy breads], 3 s. p. [This was probably a kind of gift to the person reviewing, and typically reducing, the offered bill]
For Capendu apples at this dinner, 2 s. 8 d.
For sauce, cameline, pepper, cinnamon, verjuice and mustard, 5 s. 4 d.
[that is, the makings of cameline sauce, based on cinnamon]
For coal, wood, courtesies, troubles and salary of the above mentioned Jaque Loeuriel for having administered all the said above for this dinner, 14 s. p.
This bill is also a reminder that if taverns often served meals, they were officially wine shops and so natural places for another meal provider to buy wine

In 1451, meals were served to officers of the Fécamp abbey in Normandy at the “much frequented” Agnus Dei tavern by the church of Saint-Vincent. (Bulletin de la Société de l'histoire de Normandie June 13 1892) The supper was of 2 shoulders of mutton for 3 s. 4 d.; 6 chickens, 4s. 6 d.; peaspods and bacon, 12 deniers. The dinner, the next day, was of beef and mutton, 4 s. 2 d.; a hock of veal, 3 s. 4 d.; 2 goslings, 7 s. 6 d.; 6 chickens, 4 s. 6 d., 2 [measures] of broad beans, 9 d.; 1 chopine of verjuice, 5 d.; half a cheese, 7 d.; 1 mullet, 15 d.; a dozen and a half [loaves?] of bread, 3 s.. Wine was counted for 24 s. 8 d. and the table linen (the cover) 3 sous. Exceptionally, this bill mentions a tip to the serving girl (3 s.).

Sixteenth century

In the sixteenth century, French kings issued a number of statutes intended to regulate prices in inns, taverns and cabarets. This include lists of ingredients which show that at least some of these places could have made very complex food.

This report on a meal from 1506 was published in 1781. (Affiches du Poitou 12 avril 1781) The language makes it credible as an older piece, in particular the use of the word goret for a pig. In older texts, to flamber often meant to singe the hairs from a pig, but also to baste the animal with melted lard, which appears to be the meaning here, given the mention of lard (the same word here in French, though in many contexts that means "bacon" and even here may imply some meat with the fat).

This is for the second of two meals. The provider is not named, but was certainly a professional, probably a cabaret, but possibly an inn or a tavern. The provision (probably rental) of bowls and glasses and the entry for belle chère make that clear.
For two coutrets of wine, that is twenty five pots per coutret, 33 s. 4 den.; for six suckling pigs, 30 s; for six legs, six shoulders and a loin of mutton, 14 s; for 24 capons, 29 s 2 deniers; pepper, ginger, clove, grain of paradise, cinnamon,, nutmeg, sugar and saffron, 10 s. 11 deniers; eight pounds of lard to flamber the said pigs and lard the said capons, to make the pottage, 10 s; five dozen eggs to stuff the said pigs; Belle chère, 10 s; a dozen tin bowls weighing 24 pounds, at 3 s. the pound, 72 s.; three dozen glasses, 3 s. 9 deniers. Total, 100 tt [?] 17 s. 9 deniers
Note too that at this point rarer spices like grain of paradise and saffron, more exclusive in the fourteenth century, were now included in a meal which was not overall very elegant. Potage (pottage) today means “soup” but for a long time referred to a more solid (semi-liquid) dish prepared in a pot.

On November 16, 1555, the council of Bayonne paid a master de le Mothe (probably a cook, though it is not specified) for a meal he had provided for which he delivered this bill in the Gascon dialect: Primo 12 ard. [probably ardit, equal to a liard, or one twelfth of a sol] of bread; Item beef, 8 ard.; – Item two shoulders of mutton, 13 ard.; – Item in pork, 7 ard, Item "chiqs vedades" [probably small pastries] worth 12 ard; – Item in spices 2 ard. (Bulletin de la Société des sciences, lettres et arts de Pau, 1889)

In 1555 or 1556, an abbé in Nantes ate with three friends at a "traiteur"'s (probably a cook) named M. Francois; their dinner was made up of 1 beef tongue for 2 s., a larded capon of 4 s., a couple of pigeons of 2 s. 6 d., 1 quince pie of 6 d. 6 d. powder [a mixture of spices], plus a 4 d. tip to the waiter. (Les anciens corps d'arts et métiers de Nantes, Volume 1) (The term traiteur did not come into use until after the corresponding trades group was founded in 1599; but it essentially referred to cooks and/or caterers and earlier editors were not always meticulous about usage.)

When Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV) went hunting, he stopped with his train for what look like snacks at an inn in Barbaste; three of these light meals were recorded in 1577 (le cayer des despense de la cour de Bearn 1520-1623):

To Christophe de Joanlong, innkeeper at Barbaste, the sum of 14 tournois pounds for spending by the King of Navarre and his suite going and coming from the hunt, that is: ... bread, 20 tournois sols: eggs, bacon, cheese, 20 sols; 20 pots of wine, 40 sols; bread, 20 sols; wine, 12 pots, 24 tournois sols; pastis [pies], 18 sols; bacon and ham, 12 sols; a dozen eggs, 13 tournois sols; one cheese, 13 sols; for hazelnuts and other 5 sols;.... for bread, 18 sols; 16 pots of wine, 32 tournois sols; two dozen eggs 6 sols; bread for the dogs, 20 tournois sols...

Henry could be cheap, but it is unlikely these were meant to be full meals, just something to tide a group of hunters over. Still, the very casual nature of the meals makes this record of them all the more rare.

On February 10, 1590, officials in Brive met to review accounts at La Prodigue (very likely a local inn or tavern) for "a supper or snack" with the following expenses (Mémoires de Jean Burel, bourgeois du Puy):

4 pounds 13 sols
18 s.
20 s.
Dishes and linen [cover]
10 s.
Dessert, sugar or spices
[probably the actual dessert was fruit, flavored with the sugar or spices]
20 s.
For a leg of lamb or salad [error for "with salad"?]
20 s.
Otherwise a barbel paid by M. the judge Reynard
5 s.

The barbel (fish) appears to have been bought elsewhere and prepared with the meal. Diners were officially allowed to buy their own food and have it prepared; the actual practice however seems to have been more common in England.

Seventeenth century

Monetary shifts mean that instead of sols and deniers, prices now begin to appear in pounds (livres) and sols. Salads become regular parts of meals, which otherwise remain notably heavy in meat (or, for fast-days, fish).

On July 13, 1619, the pastry-cook Martin Havernat provided a breakfast for a count at Senlis (Comptes Rendus et Mémoires. Société d'histoire et d'archéologie de Senlis V4, 1878): Four large veal pies, 20 sols – a piece of mutton, 6 sols – a pigeon pie, 20 sols – four stuffed chickens, 36 sols – a salad, 3 sols – four baked items [probably small pastries]. 20 sols – a dish of fruit, 5 sols.

In 1643, in Dijon, another pastry cook, J. Loysoa, prepared a fast-day dinner for a preacher (Bulletin d'histoire et d'archéologie religieuses du Diocèse de Dijon 1904):

first service
A large bisque 8 l.
A pottage of almond milk 30 s.
A salad garnished with pomegranate and lemon 30 s.
A dish of burbot with sauce 5 l.
An entrée tourte 40 s.
A large trout with sauce 7 l.
A large pike with daarlemaigne [d'allemagne?] sauce 9 l.
A dish of two large perch 4 l.
A dish of olives 20 s.
A large carp au court-bouillon 8 l.
A beatille pie 4 l.
A large pike à la daube 8 l.
A large pike à la daube 8 l. 10 s.
A dish of large fried burbot 8 l. 10 s.
A dish of cardoons 20 s.
A dish of cauliflower 20 s.
A dozen oranges in bouquet 36 s.
A tourte of lemon rinds 40 s.
A marzipan of 50 s.
A dozen bon chretien pears 3 l.
Three dishes of compote 4 l. 10 s.
Two dishes of preserves 6 l.
A dish of Verdun anise [candies] 30 s.
Twelve bottles of wine 6 l.
Two loaves of pain bourgeois and eight of coarse bread 40 s.
Total 100 pounds [adjusted down to 90]

Melaine Crosnier was very likely a seventeenth century inn-keeper, like others of that family name who ran the Croix Verte inn. His various bills are interesting for how they vary by the groups served. (Bulletin de la Commission historique et archéologique de la Mayenne 1909)

On July 10, 1655, he provided a the following supper for a group of men:

Six loaves of bread
6 s.
plus a pot of red wine
12 s.
plus 2 pots of white wine
18 s.
plus a salad of headed lettuce
5 s.
plus three dozen olives
9 s.
plus half a dozen oranges
5 s.
plus a large entrée tourte
2 l
plus three fat squabs
1 l 10 s.
plus 3 fat chickens
1 l 10 s.
plus a young hare
1 l.
plus a large dish of strawberries
6 s.
plus a large dish of cream
5 s.
plus two large dishes of cherries
4 s.
plus two angelots [small cheeses]
4 s.
plus a dish of sugar
2 s.
plus a dish of artichoke in salad
8 s.
plus a large dish of fried artichokes
12 s.

In June of that year, he prepared a far more delicate snack for a group of women (presumably young, being Mlles.)

six craquelins
6 s.
plus a pot of white wine
9 s.
plus dozens of biscuits and macarons
1 l. 4 s.
plus two dishes of cream
8 s.
plus a dozen apricots
3 l.
plus a dozen plums
1 l. 4 s.
plus a half dozen walnuts and a half-dozen quince
1 l. 4 s.

On August 7, he gave actors and their friends a snack, starting with an unusually large variety of alcohol:
three pots of white wine
1 l.
plus two pots and a pint of red wine
1 l 10 s.
plus a pot of beer
8 s.
plus a beef tongue
1 l.
plus two cervelas sausages
6 s.
plus a dish of almonds
2 s;
plus six dozen olives
1 l. 4 s.
plus two dozen preserved walnuts
1 l. 4 s.
plus two dozen plums
1 l. 4 s.
plus two dozen quince
1 l.
plus a broken glass
3 s.

The last note, for a broken glass, is not absolutely unheard-of (one bill includes it as a matter of course with the rental), but rare enough to be striking. The inclusion of beer is also unusual and suggests this gathering was as much about the drinking as the snacking.

Records from late seventeenth century Montauban record several meals the traiteur Pierre Lasserre provided to a client. (Société archéologique et historique de Tarn-et-Garonne, Bulletin archéologique et historique 1876) Like most such catered meals, the bills for these were itemized as a matter of course, even if, exceptionally, some were billed by the head. (Lasserre’s relationship with his regular client was close enough that several times he lent him money.) Note that dishes like young hare and turkey appear, as well as dishes in sauce (ragoût).

On February 19, 1669, the Baron de la Motte gave a dinner for friends in Monsieur Gautie's garden. Lasserre provided the following:

1 young hare
3 pounds
2 partridge
3 pounds
1 snipe
1 pound
3 grain fed chickens
1 pound 10 sols
3 pigeons
1 pound
1 large piece of veal
2 pounds 5 sols
A large dish of truffle sauce and calf sweetbreads
2 pounds 10 sols
2 cutlets in a marinade
1 pound 4 sols
8 quarts of wine
1 pound 12 sols
18 sols
On the 12th of May, the baron gave a breakfast with a large dish of veal sweetbreads with artichokes, truffles and mousseron mushrooms, 3 pounds; a plate of tongues, 1 pound; a quart of wine, 4 sols; 2 loaves [no price].

On the 20th, he gave a dinner for four friends:

A soup with four stuffed chickens, garnished with andouille sausage
3 pounds
A breast of veal with sauce
3 pounds
Three turkey cocks
3 pounds
A young hare
3 pounds
A salad
5 sols
For the Entremets:
A large dish of calf sweetbreads with truffles and mousseron mushrooms
2 pounds
A flavored dish of peas
1 pound 10 sols
A plate of cream
1 pound 10 sols
For Dessert:
A large dish of strawberries
1 pound
A dish of apples
5 sols
A dish of curds
5 sols
A dish of artichokes
10 sols
Bread or wine
1 pound

The artichokes were prepared (as a dessert) à la poivrade; they were a common dessert in the period.

Lasserre also provided a meal with the charge set per person, rather than being itemized. This is interesting because it is a reminder that the same provider could charge in both ways. Conversely then, when a food provider advertised a price per person, that does not mean the same person did not offer à la carte dining.

From 1685- to 1686, two soldiers were quartered in Normany at the Golden Eagle inn at the expense of a local Protestant, as part of an oppressive policy called dragonnades, imposing soldiers on Protestants as a form of persecution. (Bulletin de la Société de l'histoire du protestantisme français, 2 1854) They were not of course careful about what they spent. This is a sample of far longer bills in the inn; it looks at first like a bill for one person, but the twelve glasses suggest the dragoon here was treating others as well.
Supper at the Golden Eagle inn on December 5, 1685 given by the provost of a regiment:
Three pots of wine, 3 liv., 12 s. - Bread, 4 s. - 2 chickens, 1 duck, 2 pigeons, 4 quail, 2 snipe, a dozen larks 5 liv. 10 s. - Celery salad, 8 s. - 2 dishes of chestnuts and apples, 12 s. - 1 doz. preserved walnuts, 12 s. - 1 doz biscuits and macarons, 12 s. - 2 pieces of kindling and 12 crystal glasses, 1 livre 15 s.
This excerpt from a late seventeenth century poem is not a bill, but does give an idea of what was considered pricey at that point:
But your Traiteurs are expensive: thirty sols a tourte,
Of which the sauce often is quite skimpy;
Ten sols each chicken, and twenty sols a turkey,
Isn't that, at this price, a liard by barding strip;
Wine eight sols a pint, with a small pour,
Isn't this robbery pure and simple?
I flee your devils of Innkeepers like Hell.

Eighteenth century

By the eighteenth century, the habit of eating at a common table at an inn – a table d’hôte – was established, not only at inns but often at traiteurs’. Many later sources claim this was the only way to dine out (other than at taverns) and that the food tended to be basic. But itemized accounts continue to appear for meals. Nor would dishes like round fillets of veal with cucumbers or chickens stuffed with oysters be considered simple fare.

On April 24, 1724, in Dijon, the traiteur Minelle prepared a dinner in honor of a Dominican (Bulletin d'histoire et d'archéologie religieuses du Diocèse de Dijon 1904):
First a piece of garnished beef of 6 l.
and a julienne [probably a soup] of 6 l.
and a pottage of turnips garnished with four pigeons on top of 6 l.
and a terrine of 8 l.
and a warm kid pie of 10 l.
and three round fillets of veal with cucumbers 10 l.
and 5 chickens with white [meaning the white of the chicken, or a white sauce?] of 8 l.
hors d'oeuvre six mutton tails 3 l.
another hors d'oeuvre six veal cutlets en cahier [?] of 3 l.
another hors d'oeuvre twenty pies a la Mazarine of 2 l.
roast a cartie [quarter?] of kid of 10 l.
and two young hares of 5 l.
and six grain fed chickens of 7 l. 10 s.
and 8 fat quail of 4 l.
and two salads one of a head of lettuce and the other of small purslane of 2 l.
entremets a ham pie 20 l.
and a croquante of 5 l.
and three stuffed loins [of veal?] and one of beef of 2 l. 15 s.
and two dishes of mousserons of 4 l. 10 s.
and two dishes of asparagus of 3 l.
and two dishes of truffles of 10 l.
and for bread and wine of 10 l.
the bill comes to 143 l. 15 s.

When some men met in Dunkirk in honor of Bonnie Prince Charlie, they ate a meal prepared by Lonati, the traiteur said to be in fashion at the time. (Bulletin de la Société polymathique du Morbihan, 1893) If, as the editor notes, they ate at Lonati’s place, this would substantially have been like dining in a restaurant (still twenty years off).
December 31, 1748
7 bottles of Saint-Emilion
7 l

4 bottles of Burgundy

2 pottages and boiled beef

Entree of cutlets in fricandeau

2 chickens stuffed with oysters

A dish of small pies

A dish of blood sausage and sausages

A young hare
2 wild ducks garnished with larks

A fine fattened hen

A fruit tourte
A dish of beignets
A chocolate cream

A cream in a double boiler
A fine dish with sauce

2 green salads
Small pickles
A set of crystalware [probably rented]

2 compotes
2 dishes of wafers
For dessert garnishing

Kindling and logs


Other itemized accounts exist after this and both before and after 1767, when the first restaurant opened on the rue des Poulies. But this selection should suffice to show that itemized bills were standard in France long before the restaurant appeared.


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