The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture

Why do restaurants exist? Why do we go to restaurants? Reading Rebecca Spang’s Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture does not directly answer these questions on a personal level but it does, with many insights, help illuminate the history and sociology of eating out.

Back to Pre-Revolutionary France, which is when and where Spang starts her investigation: The restaurant was not a place to eat, but rather a “thing” to be consumed. This medicinal concoction was not for everyone, though, and the restaurant was aimed to serve the weak or sensitive eighteenth-century man or woman. It was an expression of what the society valued most: sensibility and health, with an emphasis on scientific discourse. One did not go to a “restaurant” because one was hungry but rather to restore a “delicate chest,” if not a depressed or melancholic one. By the 1770’s, the medicinal restaurant, the thing, eventually came to mean a place, but one that served exclusively the concoction or bouillon. It was not until later on that what was already called “nouvelle cuisine” gained additional meaning as a place of pleasure and refinement. Spang’s work here often refers to literature, showing, through Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloise for example, how this new culinary concern penetrated society.

The burgeoning restaurant scene was not greeted with universal approval, however, and debate about it soon erupted into a veritable querelle of the Ancients and Moderns. This battle involved much more than just cooking professionals, as is evidenced by Voltaire’s point of view on the new cuisine in a letter to a friend: “as for cooks, I can not stand the ham essences, mushrooms, pepper, and nutmeg with which they disguise dishes that are, left by themselves, perfectly fine and healthful” (45).

As an established place (Spang talks in great detail about its hours, service, infrastructure, etc.), the restaurant-though a public space-became a privileged retreat to conduct affairs of a more private nature. With the Revolution in full swing, restaurants were understood as a locus of counterrevolutionary action in which one spent time “restoring” oneself, flaunting concern for the fate of the nation. Not surprisingly, if the future of the restaurant changed during the revolutionary years, it is less in the plate than in what surrounded it. Spang is right to constantly wonder if food the real concern in this analysis of the restaurant, for indeed, the food is only a relatively small part of the story here. Indeed, the spaces of public consumption come to play a larger role in the society and the 1790’s saw the development of other types of eating establishments (cafés, tables d’hôte and traîteurs are largely discussed), which as sites of political debate, became public sphere.

Ironically, though, the French Revolution, in its apparent democratization of the restaurant (less regulations surrounding the establishment of a restaurant; every citizen could dine wherever he or she wished), this opening in reality led to its exclusivity. Indeed, the early 1800’s were marked by the triumph of the bourgeoisie, a shift in power that might be resumed: “The king is dead, long lives his cook!” During this time, restaurant prices soared (to the particular fascination of those who could not afford gourmet food), and so did restaurant critics. Spang establishes an interesting link between this public fascination and the production of extensive literature through guides, reviews, gossip and social critique. Once again, then, food is not as interesting as what it reflects: the plate overflows with symbolic content.

In this respect, the chapter on the Napoleonic years admirably shows how the Emperor successfully turned the restaurant into a diversion. Napoleon’s highly political strategy was, ironically, to depoliticize eating out, making the restaurant a place for divertissement while turning public attention away from government affairs.

As the restaurant achieved autonomy, gastronomy or “the art of good eating” simultaneously developed so that, in the aftermath of the Revolution, the shift from delicacy of being to delicacy of appetite became a symbol of social distinction.

Given these changes, the culinary Paris of the first half of the nineteenth century increasingly intrigued and attracted foreigners and travelers (a fascination nourished by the proliferation of gastronomic literature such as guides, reviews and even maps). Yet, this urban phenomenon (Spang might have insisted more on comparing Paris with provincial France to emphasize what was still a highly Parisian phenomenon) remained a mystery for the traveler, who was in all ways foreign. Since going to the restaurant meant familiarity with codes, its complicated lexis of menus, its implicit rules of etiquette, the restaurant also became the perfect symbol of an evolving representation of France in the eye of the foreigner or the traveler, constructing a “national character.” This resulted in some peculiar interpretations of life in France, one of the most interesting regarding women, for, according to some tourists, the fact that women were part of restaurant scene led visitors to conclude that domesticity did not exist in France.

During the Restauration, the institution blossomed in the popular psyche. The restaurant itself became less interesting than its idealization, than the rêverie it inspired (Spang uses Balzac’s hero of Lost Illusions as an example), and this finally led to its aestheticization. During this period also, the very existence of the nineteenth century Paris restaurant depended on the people who would never see or taste the food, which is made acutely clear in the book by H. Daumier’s caricature of a street man whose access to the restaurant is blocked by a giant wall.

No such exclusion exists for the reader, however. Rebecca Spang’s book, while thoroughly researched, is highly readable and enjoyable. This French Revolution of the table will obviously interest amateurs and professionals of culinary topics. I would argue, though, that the book should intrigue even more many readers with no knowledge or particular love of the kitchen. Because every chapter is well introduced and focuses on a particular aspect of the restaurant, such varied fields of study as sociology, history, economy, science, literature and law find their place. As a result, the book will appeal to many types of readers including undergraduates and graduates. Of special interest is the way Spang considers the public-and-private-sphere debate as well as her unique approach of the French Revolution. Her analysis is accomplished in great detail-starting with the various definitions of the evolution of the word “restaurant”-and includes many frontispieces, caricatures and copious notes. Finally, Spang’s book is an engaging portrait and a serious but accessible tool for understanding the metamorphosis of the emerging modern French society. The Invention of The Restaurant deserves to be read by all.