From Wikimedia Commons
It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but restaurants as we know them today did not always exist. French Revolution Paris in the late 18th century is usually cited as the birthplace of the restaurant (the word itself is French), but many of the characteristics that define a modern restaurant were already in place in Song Dynasty China (ca. 1127–1279).
In this fascinating article about the history of restaurants (warning: PDF), Nicholas Kiefer compares restaurants in Song Dynasty China and the development of the restaurant in France. He makes the distinction that restaurants were different from inns in that the latter primarily catered to travelers.
If a customer ate at an inn, he would eat in the common room, seated with a bunch of strangers at a table. There wasn’t a menu where the traveler could choose from a variety of choices, he ate what the restaurant served. Pricing was opaque and flexible: the owner of the establishment quoted what he thought he could get away with, and bargaining was standard. Timing was also at the inn’s convenience, if they weren’t serving food when you wanted it, then tough luck, head over to the next one.
By comparison, restaurants provided stability. They had menus and set prices. Customers were seated by themselves, or with their party, rather than their brand new acquaintances at the public table. Service was provided for the individual rather than the table. Under this distinction, Song Dynasty Kaifeng and Hangzhou already had a thriving restaurant culture some 400 years before the pre-Revolution restaurants of Paris.
Kaifeng was the capital of China at the time, and like Beijing today, there were restaurants that specialized in regional specialties from all over the country, catering to the merchants and traders that flocked to do business in the capital. For the cosmopolitan citizens of the world’s largest city, “eating at restaurants was an inseparable part of being a city dweller.”
With tea houses, noodle shops, taverns, and banquet restaurants, food culture was already a highly developed art in China. The discerning Song Dynasty foodie could pick from menus serving just about everything:
A Southern Sung source gives a ‘casual list’ to two hundred and thirty-four famous dishes that such places served, a list from the Northern Sung has fifty-one. Dinners probably started with a soup or broth like ‘hundred flavors’ soup, which heads both list. They could then choose from dishes made from almost any variety of flesh, fowl, or seafood–milk-steamed lamb, onion-strewn hare, fried clams or crabs. Several kinds of ‘variety meats.’ lungs, heart, kidneys, or caul were cooked in various manners. Some kinds of buns and cakes were also available, though other kind of restaurants specialized in such things. (source)
These elaborate cuisines took place “at a time when fine food in western Europe was confined to a handful of great monasteries.”
Then and now, customers were already known to be pretty fussy. Take the people of Hangzhou:
Quoting an account dated 1275, Gernet continued: “‘As soon as the customers have chosen where they will sit, they are asked what they want to have. The people of Hangchow 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.…’” (source)
How reassuring that complaining about service and being fussy about food isn’t a modern phenomenon. Imagine how feisty Song Dynasty food culture would have been if they had had dianping.com!
I’m not sure I completely buy that restaurants were invented by any one culture, since this doesn’t seem to be one that China takes credit for (remarkable!) and serving food is key to all cultures. The ancient Greeks even turned their own homes into pubs and brothels. However, it looks like one key element of restaurants was a Chinese invention: the menu. Kaifeng was, after all, the capital of the country that invented paper.