Restaurants and the experience of eating out

Venite ad me, omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabo vos“. 

Translation: “Come to me, whose stomach screams in misery, and I will restore you.”  Motto on the door of the first restaurant, Paris 1765.

It seems strange to think that there was a time without restaurants in either America or Europe until a certain Roze Boulanger opened his business in pre-revolution France.  There were taverns that served alcohol, and inns where clients could expect a meal prepared by the innkeeper served at a common table, but no menu selection was available, nor was it offered all day. There indeed was no establishment that served selected cooked meals to their clientele.  The term “restaurant” itself used to mean a broth  of concentrated meat juices that was prescribed to restore one’s strength (hence the origin of the name).  Mr Boulanger had to fight in court for his right to serve meat (forbidden at the time unless you were member of a guild) as part of a variety of dishes available to the public in his establishment, but others quickly opened their own “restaurants” and the rest is history.

I discovered this by reading The invention of the restaurant: Paris and modern gastronomic culture by Rebecca Spang, which tells of the evolution of the early history of restaurants, and of the concept of gastronomy (fancy eating) as a new facet of popular culture.  Something that was once the realm of aristocracies and their personal kitchens became available to the emergent bourgeoisie, and eventually to everyone.

Canada is not exactly the most high-profile country as far as haute cuisine is concerned, but we have carved our own unique niche in the gastronomy and hospitality business.  Canadians at table : food, fellowship, and folklore: a culinary history of Canada by Dorothy Duncan covers the entire length of Canada’s history with food, starting with its first European settlers’ attempt to adapt their food habits to a new world with First Nations’ practices (most notably pemmican), and to integrate local plants and fauna into their diets. In addition to providing glimpses at what Canadians ate and how it evolved to the present day, the book covers topics like the importance of public markets for new settlers, the proliferation of cookbooks written by organizations for fundraising, and the history of local supermarkets and restaurant chains that became national brands.  Restaurant menus from different eras give readers an idea of what Canadians’ experience of eating out involved.

For those in the mood for a lighter read, You gotta eat here! : Canada’s favourite hometown restaurants and hidden gems is all about the lesser known but still excellent local restaurants and diners all over the country, including some in Winnipeg, which are worth discovering when you visit.  The book includes recipes of favourites from each establishment and fun descriptions of the author’s eating experiences.  The book has just arrived in our collection and has inspired me to try out “maple fried oatmeal.”  Also, kudos to the authors for including Schwartz’s Deli, a Montreal institution.  On a more local note, Russ Gourluck’s books about Winnipeg’s North End neighborhood and Portage Avenue contain many stories about popular local eateries, some no longer in existence, but others who are still very much part of the city’s popular attractions.

If you are looking for the best places to eat in the whole world, if you want to REALLY eat out, there is a book for that: Ultimate food journeys : the world’s best dishes & where to eat them. Whereas a travel guide is a book filled with information on what to see and where to stay with some recommendations on where to eat, this book is the reverse: it’s all about global gastronomy and the best places to eat with some recommendations on where to stay and sights to see.  The book is gorgeously illustrated and is very thorough in its coverage of every continent.

After World War II, speed – as symbolized by the automobile – became a symbol of the new modernity and restaurants adapted by introducing fast food (or, if you prefer, “good food, quickly”) and the drive-in/drive-through service.  Car hops and curb service : a history of American drive-in restaurants, 1920-1960 tells the story of this trend which first appeared in California and spread to the entire continent.  The book is full of great historical photographs as well as reproductions of menus and memorabilia spanning the 1920-60’s decades that preceded large fast food chains.

Food trucks : dispatches and recipes from the best kitchens on wheels deals with another aspect of the evolution of restoration: the mobile kitchens, or food trucks which serve an incredibly diverse variety of meals to a pedestrian clientele (hence the term “street food”) at affordable prices.  Even though the focus is on American cities, it is worth the read for the personal anecdotes from the owners of those movable feasts.

I am sure everyone has their own favourite eating-out spots, so please give suggestions, or share memories of places no longer open for business.


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