An Economic History of Restaurants

From the Economist:

April 9th 2020 was the restaurant industry’s darkest day. The imposition of lockdowns to slow the spread of covid-19, combined with people voluntarily avoiding others, meant that on that Thursday bookings in America, Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Ireland and Mexico via OpenTable, a restaurant-reservation website, normally in their millions, fell to zero. Now, as economies unlock, many restaurants, even the fanciest, are facing labour shortages. Le Gavroche, one of London’s swankiest French offerings, has had to stop its lunch service and has lost its general manager.

Covid brought to a halt an astonishing expansion. In 2010-19 the number of licensed restaurants in Britain grew by 26%. Americans were, for the first time, spending more than half their total food budget on eating out. Well-paid folk from Hong Kong to Los Angeles were happily renting kitchenless apartments: why bother cooking when good food was so lavishly available beyond your front door?

Being deprived of restaurants has made people realise how much they value them. Eating out fulfils needs which seem fundamental to human nature. People need to date, to seal deals and to peer at their fellow humans. At a good restaurant you can travel without travelling, or simply feel coddled.

Yet restaurants in their current form are a few hundred years old at most. They do not satisfy some primeval urge, but rather those of particular sorts of societies. Economic and social forces, from political reform to urbanisation to changing labour markets, have created both the supply of and demand for restaurants. Their history also hints at what their future could look like in a post-pandemic world.

People have long feasted outside the home. Archaeologists have counted 158 snack bars in Pompeii, a city destroyed by a volcano in 79ad—one for every 60-100 people, a higher ratio than many global cities today. Ready-cooked meat, game and fish were available for Londoners to eat from at least the 1170s. Samuel Cole, an early settler, opened what is considered to be the first American tavern in 1634, in Boston.

These were more like takeaways, though, or stands where food might be thrown in with a drink, than restaurants. The table d’hôte, which appeared in France around Cole’s time, most closely resembled a modern restaurant. Clients sat at a single table and ate what they were given (trends now making a comeback). Many of these proto-restaurants resembled community kitchens, or quasi-charities, which existed for the benefit of locals. Strangers were not always welcome.

Nor were they destinations predominantly for the well-heeled. Before the use of coal became widespread in England in the 17th century, preparing food at home involved spending a lot on wood or peat. Professional kitchens, by contrast, benefited from economies of scale in energy consumption and so could provide meals at a lower cost than people could themselves. Today dining out is seen as an indulgence, but it was the cheapest way to eat for most of human history.

It was, thus, a low-status activity. Cicero and Horace reckoned that a visitor to a bar might as well have visited a brothel. According to “Piers Plowman”, a late-14th-century poem, cooks would “poison the people privily and oft”. Some rich types rented private dining rooms; Samuel Pepys, a 17th-century diarist, enjoyed eating “in the French style” (that is, with communal dishes) at one in London. But most wealthy people preferred to eat at home, enjoying the luxury of having staff to cook and clean up.

Over time, however, the notion that a respectable person might eat a meal in public gradually took hold. Wilton’s, a fish restaurant in London, got going in 1742. Dublin’s oldest, established in 1775, traded under the name of the “Three Blackbirds” and was “noted for a good bottle of Madeira, as well as for a Chop from the Charcoal Grill”. Fraunces Tavern, New York City’s oldest restaurant, probably opened in 1762 (it is still open today and serves determinedly American fare from clam chowder to New York prime strip steaks).

Some historians look to the supply side to explain this shift, arguing that the restaurant emerged as a result of improvements in competition policy. Powerful guilds often made it hard for a business to sell two different products simultaneously. Butchers monopolised the sale of meat; vintners that of wine. The growth of the restaurant, which serves many different things, required breaking down these barriers to trade.

A Monsieur Boulanger, a soup-maker in Paris, may have been the first to do so. He dared sell a dish of “sheep’s feet in white-wine sauce”. The city’s traiteurs (caterers) claimed the dish contained a ragout, a meat dish only they were allowed to prepare, and was therefore illegal. They took their case to court, but Boulanger triumphed. The tale, supposedly marking the beginning of a movement in mid-18th-century France towards more open markets, is probably apocryphal. But other regulatory changes did help. In Britain reformers worried about public drunkenness passed a law in 1860 allowing places serving food to serve wine as well (thus encouraging people to eat something to sop up the booze). Around the same time American states started passing food-safety laws, giving customers more confidence in the quality of the food.

Yet for restaurants to flourish, richer people had to demand what Pepys did not: eating in full view of others. Until the 18th century elites largely viewed public spaces as dirty and dangerous, or as an arena of spectacle. But as capitalism took off, public spaces became sites of rational dialogue which were (putatively) open to all. And, as Charles Baudelaire, a French poet, observed, 19th-century cities also became places where people indulged in conspicuous consumption.

Link to the rest at The Economist (sorry if you hit a paywall, but give it a try anyway)

The OP is a bit farther afield than PG typically goes, but the traditional book business always gives itself a little-deserved holiday at the end of the year, so PG has to scrounge a bit.