Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Restaurants high and low

In Antiquity and the Middle Ages

“The Victor-Hugo, The Unique French Restaurant Par Excellence, 623 South Hill St., Los Angeles, Cal.” Postcard. Via Malina Jones on Flickr.

Restaurants, like facilities caring for the sick, have existed in one form or another since the dawn of history.

In ancient Greece and Rome, the common people in Rome bought their food from small “thermopolia” or from “popinas”, some of which like our pubs or wine bars provided only light fare. The lower classes also socialized there, and occasionally committed crimes. The very wealthy, however, such as the immensely wealthy Lucullus, often hosted exquisite banquets in their villas, where guests reclining on couches could savor exotic foods obtained from all corners of the empire. In Egypt, according to a papyrus dating from 512 BC, there was a restaurant that served only one dish: a plate of cereal, wildfowl, and onions. Restaurants in the large cities of China during the Song Dynasty (about AD 1100) were situated alongside hotels (and also brothels), providing dining experiences similar to those of our modern restaurants. In addition, smaller places catered to travelers on Silk Road “relay stations”.

In the Middle Ages of Europe, travelers and pilgrims generally stopped for food and lodging in roadside inns—which often were mere large houses with extra rooms to rent. As in the time of Tom Jones, they served food such as sausage and shepherd’s pie, had barns for the horses, and were poorly lit by candles made of tallow. Toilet facilities consisted of seats and a barrel that was emptied every morning. Several people sometimes had to sleep in one bed.

Dining for the high and mighty

The French were among the first to develop fine dining. Even their Gaul ancestors had a penchant for good food, their national dish consisting of a spit-roasted wild boar stuffed with garlic, spices, and served whole with hares, chickens, and geese. In late medieval France, the arrival in 1533 of Catherine de Medici with her retinue of Florentine cooks turned French cooking into French cuisine, and this was further refined under the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV.

After the French Revolution, the mass emigration of nobles from the country left many cooks from aristocratic households unemployed. Some went to Paris to open elegant establishments. The one started by Méot, the former chef of the Duke of Orleans, offered a wine list with twenty-two choices for red wine and twenty-seven for white. In 1804, Grimod de La Reyniére published the first restaurant guide in Paris, the Almanach des Gourmands. There were other haute cuisine restaurants in Paris such as the Rocher de Cancale or the Café Anglais, which in 1867 held the famous Three Emperors Dinner hosted by King William III of Prussia in honor of Tsar Alexander II, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and Otto von Bismarck during the Exposition Universelle of 1867.

Food for the common man

Since at least the thirteenth century, the French and Italians have served food for pilgrims and travelers—and later for the common man in small restaurants with relatively inexpensive menus, often eaten at a common table. Parisians could also buy food from rôtisseurs, the predecessors of take-out places; and Spain developed bodegas that served paella and tapas. The first traditional restaurant in Paris was opened in 1765 on what is now the Rue du Louvre by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, sometimes listed as Boulanger. It served bouillon, a soup made of meat and eggs and claimed to “restore” the health and vigor of the jaded and fatigued.

Restaurants for the middle and lower classes have since become commonplace in all parts of the world. Some became known as bistros, though not necessarily serving French food. Others are to this day incorrectly called cafés, though unrelated to the original ones that served only coffee and believed to have opened around 1500 in Mecca and Constantinople, later in Belgrade, Vienna, Italy, and London (1652). They became in eighteenth century England a meeting place for businessmen, authors, and literati, and in Vienna a means for the middle class to socialize and watch the world go by from elegant cafes on what later became the Ring. More recently, in different parts of the world, some cafes have remained small establishments offering mainly coffee, while others greatly expanded their food service and (by not necessarily providing table service) became the predecessors of the modern cafeteria.

As might be expected, eating habits, and even the hours of taking meals, have always varied from country to country. Traditionally, the lady of the house in Cairo never cooked but ordered food from street vendors. To this day in Spain people eat abominably late to an American. In Australia the main evening meal is taken at 6 pm and called “tea”; “dinner” would be a little later, perhaps before the movies, and “supper” at an even later hour.

Eating in the New World

Originally restaurants in America served traditional fare, such as soup, meat and vegetables, and dessert. Fine dining arrived later, at first drawing its inspiration from French cuisine but later evolving into a distinct culinary culture. It was popularized by restaurants such as Delmonico’s in New York City, established in 1837. It hired as chef Charles Ranhofer, who further increased its renown by publishing in 1893 his book, The Epicurean. The growth of immigrant populations gave rise to traditional ethnic trattorias, chop suey houses, or Greek restaurants. It added diversity to the traditional fare and caused the imperceptible amalgamation of ethnic cultures. It eventually impacted the choices of the average person, who nowadays would think nothing of being served paella, pizza, guacamole, feta cheese, hummus, and fillet in the same restaurant, while in the course of a busy working day he would order Big Macs, Chicken McNuggets, a Spicy McCrispy, and French fries from McDonald’s and Burger King. In recent years fine dining has developed to an extraordinary degree into a sophisticated subculture, offering food prepared by chefs as famous as football stars featured in newspapers, magazines, on television, and social media.

Recent technology has transformed the restaurant industry with online reservations, food delivery apps, and digital menus. Like hospitals, restaurants have become increasingly regulated. They are often inspected by Health Departments’ Food Safety Inspectors, who inspire as much fear in their owners and operators as the Joint Commission on Accreditation does to hospitals.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Winter 2024



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