Legend says that the first French restaurants popped up in Paris after the French Revolution when the gourmet chefs of the guillotined aristocracy went looking for work. But when historian Rebecca Spang of Indiana University looked into this popular origin story, she found something completely different.
The word restaurant comes from the French verb restaurer, “to restore oneself,” and the first true French restaurants, opened decades before the 1789 Revolution, purported to be health-food shops selling one principle dish: bouillon. The French description for this type of slow-simmered bone broth or consommé is a bouillon restaurant or “restorative broth.”
In her book, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Gastronomic Culture, Spang explains that the very first French restaurants arrived in the 1760s and 1770s, and they capitalized on a growing Enlightenment-era sensibility among the wealthy merchant class in Paris.
“They believed that knowledge was obtained by being sensitive to the world around you, and one way of showing sensitivity was by not eating the ‘coarse’ foods associated with common people,” says Spang. “You might not have aristocratic forebears, but you can show that you’re something other than a peasant by not eating brown bread, not relishing onions and sausage, but wanting delicate dishes.”
Bouillon fit the bill perfectly. It was all-natural, bland, easy to digest, yet packed full of invigorating nutrients. But Spang credits the success and rapid growth of these early bouillon restaurants not just to what was being served, but how it was served.
“The restaurateurs innovated by copying the service model that already existed in French café culture,” says Spang. “They sat customers at a small, cafe-size table. They had a printed menu from which people ordered dishes as opposed to the tavern keeper saying, ‘this is what’s for lunch today.’ And they were more flexible in their meal hours—everybody didn’t have to get there at 1 p.m. and eat whatever was on the table.”