by Tony Perrottet
The next time you’re at your favorite café, raise a glass to the aristocrats who lost their heads so that you could enjoy your foie gras.
France gave birth to restaurants, but it was no civilized affair. In fact, today’s restaurant business is actually a byproduct of the class warfare that arose during the French Revolution.
Back in the Middle Ages, fine dining was a privilege enjoyed exclusively by feudal lords who had their own grand kitchens and personal chefs. The only commercial eateries for the masses were seedy roadside inns, where strangers crowded around mediocre buffets of tepid roasts and over-sauced legumes. But sometime in the 1760s, the merchant class of Paris developed a taste for healthy light broths known as restoratives, or restaurants. By the 1780s, this new Parisian “health food” craze led to a handful of reputable dining halls, where customers could sit at individual tables and choose from a wide range of dishes.
Ironically, the popularity of these restaurants grew at a time when the bulk of the French population couldn’t afford bread. Decades of harsh winters and oppressive taxation had taken their toll on kitchen tables. Worse still, the greater part of the nation’s tax dollars had gone to pay for the excesses of the aristocracy and monarchy. By 1789, the starving French masses could no longer be controlled. Looting and riots erupted throughout Paris, ushering in the French Revolution.
Aristocrats fled to the countryside, leaving behind their highly skilled chefs and the fine wines from their cellars. Suddenly, unemployed cooks and abandoned bottles found their way to the city’s eateries, and within a year, nearly 50 elegant restaurants had popped up in Paris. These epicurean temples catered to the new class of French deputies and businessmen and were featured in travelogues throughout Europe. As word of their deliciousness spread, Parisian restaurants became tourist attractions on par with Notre Dame.
Admittedly, fine dining hit a rocky period during the Reign of Terror of 1793-94, when anyone suspected of ties to the aristocracy risked facing the guillotine. One unfortunate proprietor, Jean-François Véry, hung a sign over his door that read, “We welcome people of the best sort.” The elitist sentiment quickly landed him in prison. Still, Véry was the exception. Most Parisian restaurants kept up a lively trade, their tables replete with fine hams and pâtés. And most patrons felt safe enough within their walls to joke about Robespierre, the grandmaster of the Reign of Terror, and how he couldn’t afford to send his spies there.
The restaurant business truly came into its own during the early 1800s, after the upstart general Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of the country and granted “freedom of pleasure” to all citizens. Napoleon reasoned that people who were focused on Champagne and sauce reductions probably wouldn’t conspire against him. A few years later, when Napoleon’s military conquests brought fantastic wealth to Paris, restaurants began to compete for customers with marble décor and salacious entertainment. One establishment featured bare-breasted women dressed as Amazon warriors, who were lowered from the ceiling in golden chariots.
In the end, many more Frenchmen dined out than could actually afford the experience. Oddly, it became almost commonplace for customers to steal knives and spoons. One waiter at the upscale restaurant Naudet’s spotted a patron pocketing the flatware and politely handed him a bill that included “Cutlery, 54 francs.” The customer paid up cheerfully, tut-tutting, “How dear things are getting these days…” But this only goes to show how far restaurants had come. In less than a century, fine dining went from being the exclusive privilege of people born with silver spoons in their mouths to a must-have for people who stole them.
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in mental_floss magazine and was adapted from Tony Perrottet’s Napoleon’s Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped (HarperCollins).