Why Restaurants?

Today, we all take restaurants for granted. Those not in the industry marvel at their good fortune to have so many choices. The fact that there are now more restaurants than ever in every city, village and township of every first world country on the planet has not gone unnoticed by both consumers and the media trying to keep up with the next big thing. Having one or more meals per day not prepared at home is more the norm now than ever before. Which is why people in the industry are so focused on creating so many new restaurants while at the same time trying to avoid the inevitable discussion of oversaturation and the exact time of a resultant market collapse, but that’s another story.

With all these restaurants recently or soon to open, it raised a question in my mind of why? Not why now or why here or there, but just why. Why do restaurants exist in this generally accepted form we see at all? What was the human condition that existed to create the original need for a business like the modern-day restaurant that sells food via a menu to be eaten within the same four walls where it was prepared? Centuries of history existed without a restaurant. Sure, there were inns and taverns and such, places where people would gather to sleep and or consume both beverages and food. But these were simple affairs without the trappings of a modern-day restaurant that served no other purpose other than to eat and drink from a list of available goods…a menu. Consensus is that the French Revolution created the phenomenon of the modern-day restaurant. At the time, most noble houses maintained a well-supplied kitchen with well-trained kitchen staff to produce the opulent banquets in fashion before the time of the guillotine. Once these houses crumbled and the staff was disbanded (or dispatched with their masters) the talented cooks and Chefs scattered. Some landed in noble households in other parts of Europe or, went to work in existing taverns and inns. But a few industrious individuals went into business for themselves creating the first restaurants. The line from this point in history to the McDonald’s down the street is fairly direct. As society grew with more urban centers of commerce, there was more money available to spend on food away from home. So, food consumed away from home became both necessity and luxury. Later, advances in transportation made the distribution of products from growers to users faster and more accessible while at the same time making country inns and restaurants more accessible to city dwellers.

Even though there are sound cultural and economic reasons why we have restaurants in our society, it opens another question of why we have the variety of restaurants we do. Despite the obvious ethnic or regional reasons. Why do we build restaurants that try to accomplish more than just the simple commerce of foodservice? Meaning, how and why did the artistry of cooking, service and ambience become as important as they’ve become? Is it the demands of the consumer or is it the ambition of the restaurateur to serve two masters; achieve a successful business and become a respected artist?