Dining out in London and Paris before the restaurant

In 1810, Grimod de la Reynière partially attributed the success of restaurants to “the fad for imitating English customs (because the English, as everyone knows, almost always eat at the tavern).” By Grimod’s time, the restaurant was the standard place to dine out and have a full meal. But when Roze de Chantoiseau founded the first restaurant in 1767, it supposedly served not regular meals, but only “restorants”, meant for health. No such institution existed in England. Still, that same year, Vacossin, in founding his own restaurant, cited London as a model. And at the start of the nineteenth century, Beauvilliers called his restaurant, one of the most famous, “The Great Tavern of London”.

Clearly, the French themselves saw some connection between going out to eat and the English. Yet soon English tourists were coming to Paris to dine at the specifically French restaurants and by mid-century, when the first foreign eateries became popular in Paris, they were English taverns, viewed as entirely separate from the French restaurants. Any idea that the English had influenced the first restaurants fell away.

The idea that English eating places in any way inspired, or even preceded, what became a quintessentially French institution is, to say the least, counter-intuitive. It does not help, that until recently, the English side of this history has been far less studied than the French. But in 2008, Martha Carlin published a very thorough and richly researched study of that history: “ ‘What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?’: The Evolution of Public Dining in Medieval and Tudor London”. This paper provides a wealth of details which show that, if the English did not actually inspire the French restaurant, they could have, given their history of public eating places. Comparing Carlin’s paper against similar data for Paris over time suggests an image much like a double helix, with some English practices closely approaching those in France while others widely diverge from them.

Cookshops, roasters and pastry-cooks

In the twelfth century, William Fitzstephen wrote: “there is in London on the river bank, among the wines in ships and cellars sold by the vintners, a public cook shop; there eatables are to be found every day, according to the season, dishes of meat, roast, fried and boiled, great and small fish, coarser meats for the poor, more delicate for the rich, of game, fowls, and small birds.”

UPDATE 8/12/2019
Martha Bayless has made me aware of an even earlier - late 10th-eleventh century - reference to a priest convincing a tapster it would be no sin to serve wine and oysters before noon. So public food service is documented at least that far back.

No similar text exists for Paris at this point. It is likely that some form of cookshop existed in any major city frequented by people away from home, but we can only guess, from later records, what then existed in Paris.

In the thirteenth century, new options appeared in both cities (probably simultaneously, though it is always possible one city inspired the other). Carlin writes:
By the early 1200s, the specialist food-vendors in English towns also included pastelers, who sold hot pies filled with meat, poultry, game, or fish; flan-makers, who sold hot cheese flans made with eggs, bread, and cheese; and waferers, who sold wafers and little cakes (‘wafras vel lagana’) hot from the iron or oven.
As it happens, it was an Englishman, teaching in Paris, who noted what the French called “pastry-cooks” (pasticciers). In English, the same word has been translated as “pie-men”; Carlin calls them “pastelers”. John of Garland shows them selling both pies (of pork, chicken, and eel) and flans, which in London were sold by separate flan-makers. In Paris, wafers too were sold by separate vendors, who made the wafers by baking dough between two hot irons. And so in regard to “pastry” (not ornate sweets, but any food cooked in dough) and wafers, the two cities shared what would be an enduring practice.

On the other hand, both the English cooks and the French roasters mainly sold meat and poultry and so in England “cooks were very like French roasters. In fact John of Garland shows public cooks selling only roasted meats, such as goose, pigeon, and fattened fowl. But soon roasters would be a separate trade. In Paris, for centuries, the main public food options were roasts and pies. Note that, as much as the French would later love fried foods, no early source shows such vendors selling (as in London) boiled or fried meats; roasted meat was the Parisian norm. On the other hand, both English cooks and French roasters mainly sold meat and fowl, making the English cooks very like the French roasters. And so by the fourteenth century vendors in Paris and London offered similar, but not identical, foods: meat (prepared different ways), pies, flans and wafers. But by then public cooks in Paris differed significantly from the roasters, selling, at the least, not only meat, salted meat, sausage, and fish but pottage, broad beans, and peas. Street cries too show items like pureed broad beans and peas being sold in the streets.

Similar abuses existed in both cities as well. John of Garland accuses the early Parisian cooks of selling undercooked meat to students. When the pastry-cooks got their first statutes in 1440, it specified that they could not use "stinking meat", rotten meat unfit for human consumption or curdled milk for flans - which of course suggests some had been doing so. Writes Carlin, “In London in 1380, ...the pastelers were found to have been illegally making pasties of unwholesome rabbits, geese, and garbage [offal], ‘sometimes stinking,’ and had also been baking beef into pasties and selling it as venison.”

English cookshops effectively sold “fast food”, hot and ready-to-eat, not made to order, but meant to be eaten immediately. These cooks typically worked in limited spaces, sometimes only movable stalls. In thirteenth century Oxford, many cooks boiled or roasted food outside their doors. But by the mid-1370’s a number on Westminster’s King Street had put out seating.

It was mainly the poor, who lacked the means to cook at home, who ate at such places in London and other medieval towns. The better off, at home and when traveling, steered clear of the cookshops and instead had meals cooked to order where they lived or were staying.

Taverns and inns

The cities diverged somewhat in the history of taverns. At the start of the fourteenth century English taverns were often located in cellars and evidently did not serve meals. In Paris too, taverns were theoretically limited to selling wine - their statutes addressed only their role as wine merchants. But taverns had sold food in France since Roman times and thirteenth and fourteenth century poems show them offering bread, herring, cheese, tripe, bacon, wafers, roast goose, roast garlic, pears, walnuts, and, as elsewhere, roasts and pies.

In England, inns had been the first to offer full, seated meals, but at first only to their own guests. Many commercial inns grew up there at the end of the fourteenth century, perhaps because the Black Death had made land cheaper. The better ones now offered meals not only to their own guests but others as well.

Sometime between the fifteenth and sixteenth century, English innkeepers and taverners began to offer full, restaurant style meals, attracting even up-scale clients where cookshops and alehouses still catered to a rougher (and poorer) crowd. In the sixteenth century French kings began to regulate pricing in inns, taverns and cabarets. The list of foods cited shows that these were already offering rounded fare:
white, brown or black bread, wine by the pint in all colors, . . . beef, mutton, veal by the pound or size of the piece, and according to the place, kids, lambs, pigs, geese, goslings, capons, hens, chickens, hares, rabbits, partridge, snipe and other birds commonly sold in these places, bacon, cheese . . . oil, verjuice, vinegar, mustard by measure, sugar and all other spices by weight, fresh and salted fish by weight or measure, eggs by the number and butter by weight, greens, legumes and other required and necessary things.
While the lists would vary (poultry and game were often eliminated), this series of statutes shows varied food overall being sold in these places. In England, similar places were more often limited to bread, milk and drink, though as in Paris pies might be offered too.

As it happens, two different Venetians gave contrasting images of the two cities in this century. In 1562, Alessandro Magno, a Venetian merchant, noted that the English were comfortable not only eating and drinking in inns themselves, but inviting friends there: “if anyone wishes to give a banquet, he orders the meal at the inn, giving the number of those invited, and they go there to eat.” In 1578, the Venetian ambassador Lippomano made a similar observation about Paris, but cited different specialists:
If you want your goods prepared, cooked or raw; the roasters and the pastry-cooks in less than an hour will prepare you a dinner, a supper for ten, for twenty, for one hundred people; the roaster will give you the meat, the pastry-cook the pies, the tourtes, the starters, the desserts; the chef will give you the jellies, the pottages.
Lippomano also cited the range of meals at different prices offered by cabarets. Inns served meals in Paris, but were not the first choice for the more selective.

In London at this point, it was the better cooks and pastelers who catered weddings and other large get-togethers. Most cookshops however remained dubious places. One period source lists a variety of foods offered by English cooks: steak, roast beef, tripe, salad, chickens in pike sauce, capon, lobster, herring, sprats, cider, and wine with sugar or other ingredients.

While Lippomano noted excellent meat to be had in Paris, he emphasized the French love of “pastries, that is, meat cooked in dough; in cities and even in villages are found roasters and pastry-cooks who sell all sorts of dishes already prepared, or at least prepared so that they only need to be cooked.”

Though the English too ate pastry – that is, pies –, Magno was struck above all by the English love of meat. “Truly,” he remarked, “for those who cannot see it for themselves, it is almost impossible to believe that they could eat so much meat in one city alone.” As important as roasters were to Parisians, no observer makes a similar note about them.

The ordinary

When Grimod wrote that the English regularly ate at taverns, he was probably thinking of what was often called an “ordinary”. And in fact by his time one could have an “ordinary” in a tavern. But originally it was provided by inns. Carlin provides a rare explanation of the term:
The ordinary may have had its origins in price regulations that were intended to ensure affordable meals for the growing numbers of the urban poor. In mid-sixteenth-century York, for example, innkeepers were required to offer soldiers, strangers, “poor suitors,” and servingmen a set meal, “ordinarily boyled & rost beif or motton &c,” at a price not to exceed 4d. In 1562 this fourpenny “Ordynarie dynar or suppar” consisted of pottage (soup or stew), one boiled meat and one roast, served with “sufficient” bread and ale or beer, and the innkeepers also were required to offer an eightpenny dinner or supper to gentlemen and “other honest personages that will have bettar fare.”
These were common by the late 1580’s. An etiquette manual from 1609 says to join a “table of other diners to partake of such dishes as stewed mutton, goose, and woodcock, with fruit and cheese for dessert. The fixed price for such a dinner was 12d.; wine was extra.” This idea of a set meal served at a set price to diners at a group table anticipates the table d’hôte (“host’s table”), which would only appear in Paris towards the end of the seventeenth century, and then first at inns (it was originally known as a table d’auberge; an “inn’s table”).

In the same period, English taverns only offered meals à la carte. If the food was better than at an ordinary, the bill also tended to be much higher. In Paris, the statutes suggest that taverns and cabarets also charged by the item (at least initially), but the taverns were considered down-market. Going into the seventeenth century, it was the cabarets which offered the better fare. One of the more popular, near the Louvre, was run by a woman named La Boisselière’s. In a ballet from 1612, the author has her confront a creditor, incidentally itemizing her offerings:

On Sunday, a half-pheasant,
Plus a soup from the pot;
For Monday, new peas,
A turnip soup,
A cooked pear for dessert;

For Tuesday, as for Wednesday,
And for all of Thursday,
A shoulder with a leg [of lamb];
Always the roast, the boiled beef
And no lack of good wine,
Nor of white bread, or a white tablecloth.

On Friday, good fresh eggs;
In summer, broad beans;
Winter, fresh sea fish.
On Saturday, the same,
No lack of salad,
Capers nor chicory.

For a great bald lackey,
Mutton or salted beef,
And victuals of the season;
Plus, without slices of ham,
In wood, candles, coal,
All this can come to two hundred pounds.

In a word, one ate well and the food was varied, including salads, vegetables and legumes, in contrast to the meat-heavy meals of the English.

The ordinary would remain a London institution into the nineteenth century. But the idea of it as a meal for a set price seems to have become fluid by the seventeenth century. When Samuel Pepys ate at one ordinary, he was obliged to dispute the cost, which clearly had not been set before: “He and I and Dr. Williams... to the ordinary over against the Exchange, where we dined and had great wrangling with the master of the house when the reckoning was brought to us, he setting down exceeding high every thing.” By the eighteenth century, writes Emma Kay, one could even order an ordinary in a coffeehouse: “One such coffee house is mentioned in King’s Bench Prison…. An ‘ordinary’ (standard basic meal) could be purchased for two shillings.”

And so a Londoner might dine “at” an ordinary (that is, typically, a tavern offering a meal) or “have” an ordinary. (For a Parisian, by then, the closest equivalent in both cases would have been a table d’hôte.) 

In the seventeenth century, too, one could bring one’s own food to a tavern to cook. Pepys: “So into London by water, and in Fish Street my wife and I bought a bit of salmon for 8dand went to the Sun Tavern and ate it”; “in Fish Street bought a Lobster, and as I had bought it I met with Winter and Mr. Delabarr, and there with a piece of sturgeon of theirs we went to the Sun Tavern in the street and ate them.” An earlier French statute does mention customers bringing their own birds to cook, but anecdotal accounts do not cite this practice and it seems to have been, at the least, rare in Paris. 

At this point, a uniquely French institution appeared in Paris. The cooks’ corporation became known as the traiteurs (from traiter, to treat or serve guests). The latter soon displaced taverns and cabarets in upscale dining. The traiteurs were a particularly French institution. Though the restaurant was still a century off, eating at a traiteur’s was not greatly different: the quality of the food varied with the price (which might be à la carte or by head). (The one big difference seems to be that traiteurs did not yet offer the same individual tables used in cafes, which would be adapted from the start by restaurants; the restaurant also introduced a concern with decor which previously had only been apparent in cafes.)

In the eighteenth century, another dining option arose for well-off Londoners: private clubs. The French would later imitate these in the nineteenth century cercles, but with far less success.

And so, before the first restaurant (1767), Londoners were indeed dining out in taverns, coffeehouses, inns or clubs. But Parisians too had a number of options for dining away from home, notably traiteurs and table d’hôtes, though taverns, cabarets, roasters and pastry-cooks all still offered some form of meal. Did the Parisians frequent these any less than the English did taverns and inns? Or, to put it differently, did Parisians eat at home more often than Londoners? That is not at all clear and it is unlikely that Grimod had studied the subject methodically. The best one can say by the start of the nineteenth century is that the French thought eating away from home was more English than French, even as they themselves made it very tempting to do so.

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.


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