What were the very first restaurants like?

The first restaurant opened in Paris in 1767 on the rue des Poulies. By 1789, as the Revolution arose, restaurants were, by all accounts, very much like what we know today. Unfortunately, some very confident statements about the first restaurants seem to be based on these later places, with only the most cursory reference to the restaurants which first opened as “restorers” selling “restaurants”. In fact, we know very little about the very first restaurants, most of it based on one passage from Diderot and several surviving ads from the first restaurant and its immediate imitators. These outline something significantly different from what would exist two decades later. The purpose here is to try and bring that slim information into focus; that is, to understand just what the first restaurants were.

At least two of these had already been open for months when, on September 8, 1767, Diderot wrote to his mistress: “I left there to go dine at the restaurateur's [that is, the ‘restorer's’] on the rue des Poulies; one is well, but expensively, received there.”i What most impressed the great philosopher was... the hostess, “really a very beautiful creature.” His comments the next day were only slightly less general: “Have I taken a liking to the restaurateur! Truly yes: an infinite liking. One is well served there, a little expensively, but at the time one chooses… One eats alone. Each has his own little space which all [the hostess's] attention surveys; she comes by herself to see if you need anything...”

It is very likely here that he is describing the very first restaurant; that is, the “Restorer’s” opened that year by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau. Slim evidence suggests that Roze (who was not then a traiteur and so not authorized to serve meals) was working under the privilege of a traiteur named Minet, probably the same person who appears in other records as an important member of that trades group. Diderot highlights the personal service (still a feature of the restaurant) and the unrestricted hours (no longer a defining feature of a restaurant). The fact that he finds it expensive, yet agreeable, underlines its slightly luxurious and exceptional nature at this point. Beyond that, he tells us nothing about the food, how it was served, whether it was ordered item by item, etc. Notably, he says nothing of the establishment’s signature product: the restorant, a bouillon made by distilling the juices of various meats. This was said to be the cure for a condition that was briefly of concern – indeed, almost fashionable – in France, a “weak chest”. One of the advantages of the new establishments was that one could find these ready-made rather than having to go through the lengthy process of preparing them at home.

That same year, two ads had already appeared in the Avantcoureur, one for Minet’s (very likely the same as Roze’s), the other for Vacossin, an early imitator. (See below for the text of each.) A few years later Roze himself would describe his restaurant, under several different headings, in his own directory to Paris businesses. These texts may be the most extensive descriptions we have of the very first restaurants.

The first two ads not only show the establishments as selling restorants, but present them almost as cafés selling these instead of coffee, tea or the bavaroise (tea mixed with maidenhair syrup). They have the same studious elegance (introduced in the previous century by the Italian Procope); they have the same small tables; they provide reading and even writing materials. All of this sounds more like a period café than what we would today call a restaurant. If they sell a number of items – gruels, eggs, capon with coarse salt, etc. - beyond restorants, their offering of the latter is not pro forma; they emphasize the convenience of being able to buy them ready-made rather than having to go through a lengthy process at home and both reference the health issues – notably, a weak chest – treated by their use.

Vacossin, Roze’s first imitator, copies the original on numerous points but also emphasizes the beauty of his facilities, the separate accommodations for ladies and the excellence of his wines. (The last point is striking for an establishment whose main function was to serve another liquid product.)

Note that the main point of the ads in regard to pricing is that it is said (probably falsely) to be modest; there is no emphasis on being able to order à la carte, even if that was likely the case. Though this would later be cited as a distinguishing feature of the restaurant, the proprietors themselves did not then consider it worthy of note.

In the same year, the traiteurs raided a restaurateur owned in part by Dangis, where they found substantial foods such as braised veal, sweet green peas cooked with meat, chicken fricassees, breaded chops and, on a spit, chickens and mutton chops flavored with garlic and parsley. That is, within the first year, this imitator was already moving beyond the exceptional offerings of a restorer’s to the more conventional foods offered by traiteurs and cabarets.

In his own directory, published after he had changed locations, Roze describes the restaurant in several different ways. Two entries present it much as the earlier ads, a place mainly selling restorants or related dishes. But under “Traiteurs”, he simply shows it, like other traiteurs, as selling meals (aside from all the items relative to its founding”), even citing prices per person (by head) as earlier traiteurs had done. This makes it clear that, having established an eccentric institution selling bouillons, he soon added the more conventional approach to selling meals which had already existed in Paris for a century. And so the innovative idea of a restaurant was already being united with the existing idea of food service; the result was the restaurant as we know it, which in fact owes as much to the pre-existing traiteurs as it does to Roze’s new establishment.

Basically, a look at the very slim evidence on the first restaurants shows little which remained twenty years later, as the restaurant became something closer to what we know today. The idea of serving restorants or similarly tonic foods would disappear completely (along with the ultimately ephemeral concern for a weak chest). The ability to dine at any hour may have survived into the nineteenth century, but today it is only true of some restaurants. The individual service which so pleased Diderot did indeed survive, as did the elegance of the ambiance, even if ultimately the use of the small round tables found in cafes would become exceptional in restaurants.

Overall, the first restaurant only changed public food service in incremental ways; the idea of serving sophisticated food and even sometimes ordering individual dishes already existed among the traiteurs who had been the main public meal providers in Paris for over a century. Above all, what survived from the new establishment was its name – restaurateur – and the name of its main product – restaurant. The traiteurs seem to have found it fashionable to attach the first term to theirs – creating traiteurs-restaurateurs – and to become more attentive to décor and service. But the core of their business model did not greatly change and the great restaurants which appeared towards the end of the century owed more to the traiteurs than they did to the ultimately eccentric and exceptional “restorers” who first bore that name. If the label of the first restorers endured, the institution itself had substantially disappeared by the time the first great restaurants arose.

Interested in Paris food history? 

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Ad for Minet’s (very likely the same as Roze de Chantoiseau’s original restaurant)
Master Minet, Master Traiteur, has just created, on the rue des Poulies St. Honoré, a new public Room modeled on our most brilliant Cafés. Excellent consommés or restorants, carefully kept warm in double boilers, are sold at a very modest price at all hours and delivered about Town.
This new establishment is announced to the public on its ceiling by this Latin couplet:
Hic sapidè titillant juscula blanda palateum;
Hic datur essaetis, pectoribusque salus.
[Here tasty tempting broths flatter the palate;
Here the feeble are given healthy chests.]
The vessels in which one is served are of white faience, edged with gold; their neat air pleases the eye as much as the dishes they contain please the taste.
In this room are fine butter, fresh eggs, rice creams and Brittany gruel for meat days and with milk; Bar preserves and other dishes as healthy as they are refined.
Those lodged in furnished Hotels not being able to procure consommés which would become too expensive to prepare with fowl, old partridges, pheasants, etc. such as those made by Master Minet will no doubt applaud this useful establishment.
Those who have weak and fragile chests, and whose diet does allow them to sup, will be no less pleased to find a known place, where, without offending the sensibilities, one can go take one’s consommé as one goes to the Cafés to take one’s bavaroise and enjoy there the pleasures of society.
So that nothing is lacking it has been thought necessary to provide reading, periodic and new works which appear each month in this Capital, so that one finds at once in this new establishment relief for the body, and respite for the spirit.

Ad for Vacossin, an early imitator of the first Restorer

By privilege of the King, to the true Restorer
Accurrite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis & ego vos restaurabo
[Come to me all whose stomach labors and I will restore you]

Master Vacossin has just founded on the model of London, & in imitation of the establishment made by Master Duchêne rue des Poulies, a large Room, decorated, on the ground floor, rue de Grenelle St. Honoré, facing the Hotel of the Fermes de Roi.
To make this establishment as pleasant as it is useful, reading will be provided of Periodicals, of the Avantcoureur, of the Gazettes, Announcements and Posters; pens, ink, paper and wax will be provided gratis according to etiquette.
Dishes will be served at a modest price which can uniquely contribute to either preserving or restoring health; the most scrupulous attention will be made to only provide old natural wines of Burgundy, of the best possible quality, to completely follow the idea of the Founder who has never claimed that this place resembles either a Café, or an Inn.
Ladies can, without wounding decency and the rules of public propriety, go to a very neat apartment uniquely intended for them on the second floor.
People lodged in furnished Hotels, above all Mssrs. the Officers who could be inconvenienced, will find a great advantage in this room, in that they will have at their convenience and will and at a modest price Restorants ever warm and ready to take. For those with a weak and feeble chest or who by diet are not in the habit of taking two meals or supping, it will be convenient to find a decent spot where they can, while benefiting from the pleasures of society, take their restorant.
Those who have momentary indispositions, or exercises followed too eagerly, or people for whom pressing business will not allow them to go to the Inn, will have the facility of finding at once a solid and nourishing food without delaying them in their business.
There will be an apartment Master so that the service is performed with the most scrupulous propriety and the greatest alacrity. Beside the multitude of lights in the Room, the Tables will be lit by candles, only water from the King’s Fountain will be served, and ice will even be given to those who desire it at no additional cost.
The apartments will be very cool during the summer, and will be kept very warm during the winter.
The modest prices, the prompt service, the neatness of the vessels and the Servants unite all the pleasures which can please the public. Domestics will be protected there from the weather, one can go up to the apartments using the coach entrance. Above the Room is a lantern on which one reads the inscription, Foods.
Beyond the excellent Restorants always kept warm in Double-Boilers to avoid the smell of smoke or a reheated taste, one may ask for Brittany gruels, rice cream for meat days and with orange blossom, semolina, fresh eggs, capons with coarse salt, Palais Royal biscuits, fruits of the season, preserves from the most famous places, fine butter, cream cheese, and breakfasts with fines herbes.
The wines will be from the good regions of Burgundy, white Chablis, Alicante and Malaga.
Regarding those who wish to subscribe by the month, they will be brought their Restorants or cream at the hour of their choice by paying a month in advance.

Mentions in Roze de Chantoiseau’s own guide, printed two years after founding the original location.

Traiteurs, Inn-Keepers and Furnished Hotels
The Restorer – Formerly on the rue des Poulies, and now on the rue Saint Honoré, - At the Hotel d’Aligre. Only inventor and possessor of the art of making the true Prince’s Consommés, nourishing and refreshing, continues with the same success to provide at his place at any hour, and to send into town excellent Capons with coarse salt, rice Creams and Brittany gruel, Macaroni, fresh eggs, fine Preserves, Compotes, and other dishes as fine as healthy as they are refined, served with the most careful taste and propriety.
The price of Capons is 3 livres, 12 sols. The half 1 livres, 16 sols and the quarter 18 sols. Other small dishes are similarly at a modest price, always set and invariable.

Roze, rue saint Honoré, Hotel d’Aligre, first Restorer, aside from all the items relative to its founding, gives with success fine and refined meals on command at 3 to 6 livres by head, where one is superiorly well served.

Sciences and Secrets of Crafts and Trades, and Other Various Items
Roze, Hotel d’Aligre, Restorer of the King following the Court, founder of the first establishment known under the title of House of health, successfully sells, at all hours, the true consumables, called Prince’s restorants or bouillons, excellent soups of every sort, capons with coarse salt, compotes, etc. at a set and modest price.


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