There would appear to be an element of dispute as the whereabouts of the first restaurants, and to the time that they appeared.
According to some it all began in eighteenth century France, when a guy by the name of Boulanger, a soup vendor, opened a shop selling a variety of broths and dishes that could be partaken of on the premises. The sign over the shop read “Restaurants”, meaning restoratives, and the term caught on and eventually made its way into the English language about a century or so later.
Prior to this food had been available to eat in at sundry taverns and coffee shops, not least in England, but these had tended to serve just the one meal of the day rather than customers being offered a choice. According to one English writer the coffee shops “are a resort for learned scholars and wits; others are the resort of dandies, or of politicians, or again of professional newsmongers, and many are temples of Venus.”
But the French claim is disputed by many historians, who point to much earlier examples both in Ancient Rome and eleventh century China.
Roman citizens visited what was known as thermopolia, small restaurant-bars which had storage vessels physically built into the counters, in which food and drink were contained. Communal dining of this kind formed an important part of the social interaction enjoyed by the Roman population. In Pompeii alone 158 thermopolia have been identified, giving some idea of the scale of the phenomenon across the Empire.
And in China a culture of eating houses serving a wide variety of dishes emerged in Kaifeng, the northern capital during the earlier part of the Song dynasty. This spread to Hangzhou during the latter half of the dynasty, of which it was written “The people of Hangzhou are very difficult to please. Hundreds of orders are given on all sides: this person wants something hot, another something cold, a third something tepid, a fourth something chilled; one wants cooked food, another raw, another chooses roast, another grill”.
It is the availability of choice that seems to define the restaurant as opposed to the mere tavern or coffee house. Today one has a wide choice available not just on the menu of every restaurant, but also between types of restaurant. In the cities in particular foods from all around the world are on offer, from Indian and Chinese to Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. The world is your oyster, or indeed your curry, your paella or your spring roll.
The Eco Restaurant in Clapham Common caters for those whose love is pizza, although a large number of other dishes are sold and all are prepared and cooked to our demanding high standards. We’ve come a long way since diners had to sit at the counter and eat from communal bowls, but our own little thermopolium is as popular and as friendly as any restaurant ever was.