A public eating establishment similar in characteristics to a restaurant is mentioned in a 512 BC record from Ancient Egypt. Its offerings were sparse as it served only one dish: a plate of cereal, wildfowl, and onions. The forerunner of the modern fast-food restaurant was an establishment that was called a thermopolium, which existed in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome and sold and served ready-to-eat food and beverages. As far back as ancient Egypt, there is evidence of people eating out rather than at home. In archaeological digs, it appears these early places for dining out served only one dish. They were most often frequented by people who lacked private kitchens, which was most families at the time. In the Roman Empire, they were popular among residents of insulae. Food at a thermopolium was typically served in bowls carved into an L-shaped counter.
It’s easy to see why restaurants became popular. In ancient times, long before cars or other means of transport, in search of trade, peasants and farmers would bring their livestock and other goods to markets in towns. Their journey was often long and arduous, and after travelling for several days, they needed a place to eat and sleep. The earliest form of restaurant, the roadside inn, emerged – located conveniently and serving meals at a common table to weary travellers. There were no menus or even options from which to choose. You ate what the chef provided, or you went hungry.
In Pompeii, 158 thermopolia with service counters have been identified throughout the town. They were concentrated along the main axis of the town and the public spaces where the locals frequented them.
The Ancient Romans also had the popina (plural, popinae), a wine bar which, in addition to a variety of wines, offered a limited selection of simple foods such as olives, bread, cheese, stews, sausage, and porridge.
The popinae were regarded as places for the plebeians of the lower classes of Roman society (slaves, freedmen, foreigners) to socialise. These places provided food, drink, sex and gambling. Because they were associated with gambling and prostitution, the popinae were seen by respectable Romans as places of crime and violence.
The early-2nd century AD Roman poet Juvenal even mentioned the popinae was frequented by assassins, some sailors, thieves, fugitive slaves, executioners and even coffin-makers. While some places were confined to standing room only, others had tables and stools, and a few had couches.
Most ancient Greeks either dined in their own homes or as a guest in the home of a friend or associate. Some Greeks ate meals at the expense of their city. Public dining was a privilege bestowed upon public officials, generals, visiting government officials, and victorious athletes. The meals were fairly modest, consisting of barley cakes, cheese, olives, leeks, and wine.
The Arthashastra references establishments where prepared food was sold in ancient India. One regulation states that “those who trade in cooked rice, liquor, and flesh” are to live in the south of the city. Another states that superintendents of storehouses may give surpluses of bran and flour to “those who prepare cooked rice, and rice-cakes”, while a regulation involving city superintendents references “sellers of cooked flesh and cooked rice”.
Early eating establishments recognisable as restaurants in the modern sense emerged in Song dynasty China during the 11th and 12th centuries. According to Katie Rawson and Elliott Shore, co-authors of Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants, the very first establishments that were easily recognisable as restaurants popped up around 1100 AD in China, when cities like Kaifeng and Hangzhou boasted densely packed urban populations of more than one million inhabitants each – largely due to increased trade between different regions.
Kaifeng and Hangzhou were large cities, and food catering establishments catered to merchants who travelled between cities. Probably growing out of tea houses and taverns which catered to travellers, Kaifeng’s restaurants blossomed into an industry that catered to locals as well as people from other regions of China. As travelling merchants were not used to the local cuisine of other cities, these establishments were established to serve dishes familiar to merchants from different parts of China. They were located in the entertainment districts of major cities, alongside hotels, bars, and brothels. The larger and more opulent of these establishments offered a dining experience similar to modern restaurant culture. According to a Chinese manuscript from 1126, patrons of one such establishment were greeted with a selection of pre-plated demo dishes representing food options. Customers had their orders taken by a team of waiters who then sang their orders to the kitchen and distributed the food in the exact order in which they had been ordered.
There is a direct correlation between the growth of the restaurant businesses and institutions of theatrical stage drama, gambling and prostitution, which served the burgeoning merchant middle class during the Song dynasty. Restaurants catered to different cuisine styles, price brackets, and religious requirements. Even within a single restaurant, choices were available, and people ordered the entrée from written menus. An account from 1275 writes of Hangzhou, the capital city for the last half of the dynasty: “The people of Hangzhou 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.” The restaurants in Hangzhou also catered to many northern Chinese who had fled south from Kaifeng during the Jurchen invasion of the 1120s, while it is also known that many restaurants were run by families formerly from Kaifeng.
In Japan, a restaurant culture emerged in the 16th century out of local tea houses. Tea house owner Sen no Rikyū created the kaiseki multi-course meal tradition, and his grandsons expanded the tradition to include speciality dishes and cutlery to match the aesthetic of the food.
In Europe, inns which offered food and lodgings and taverns where food was served alongside alcoholic beverages were common into the Middle Ages and Renaissance. They typically served common fare of the type normally available to peasants. In Spain, such establishments were called bodegas and served tapas.
Cookshops were also common in European cities during the Middle Ages and served dishes such as pies, puddings, sauces, fish, and baked meats. Customers could either buy a ready-made meal or bring their own meat to be cooked. As only large private homes had the means for cooking, the inhabitants of European cities were significantly reliant on them.
France, in particular, has a rich history with the development of various forms of inns and eateries, eventually forming many of the now-ubiquitous elements of the modern restaurant. As far back as the 13th century, French inns served a variety of food — bread, cheese, bacon, roasts, soups, and stews – usually eaten at a common table. Parisians could buy what was essentially take-out food from rôtisseurs, who prepared roasted meat dishes, and pastry cooks, who could prepare meat pies and often more elaborate dishes. Municipal statutes stated that official prices per item were to be posted at the entrance; this was the first official mention of menus.
Food was also served in taverns and cabarets. A cabaret, however, unlike a tavern, served food at tables with tablecloths, provided drinks with the meal, and charged by the customers’ choice of dish, rather than by the pot.
Cabarets were reputed to serve better food than taverns, and a few, such as the Petit Maure, became well known. A few cabarets had musicians or singing, but most, until the late 19th century, were simply pleasant places to eat.
The first café opened in Paris in 1672 at the Saint-Germain fair. By 1723, there were nearly four hundred cafés in Paris, but their menu was limited to simpler dishes or confectionaries, such as coffee, tea, chocolate (the drink; chocolate in the solid state was invented only in the 19th century), ice creams, pastries, and liqueurs.
At the end of the 16th century, the guild of cook-caterers (later known as “traiteurs”) was given legal status. The traiteurs dominated sophisticated food service, delivering or preparing meals for the wealthy at their residences. Taverns and cabarets were limited to serving little more than roast or grilled meats. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, both inns and then traiteurs began to offer “host’s tables” (tables d’hôte), where one paid a set price to sit at a large table with other guests and eat a fixed menu meal.
French restaurants of the 19th century
Britannica.com describes Paris and the progress of restaurants in the 19th century:
“During the Napoleonic era, the Palais-Royal, the collonaded, tree-lined area adjacent to the Louvre, became the site of many of the finest restaurants in Paris. The menu of the Véry, a leading restaurant of the era, listed a dozen soups, two dozen fish dishes, 15 beef entrées, 20 mutton entrées, and scores of side dishes.
“The novelist Honoré de Balzac often dined at the Véry, consuming prodigious quantities of oysters, fish, meat dishes, fruits, wines, and liqueurs. It was a favourite haunt of gourmet-author Grimod de la Reynière, who considered it the finest restaurant in France.”
Maxim’s is another top restaurant in Paris, located at No. 3 rue Royale in the 8th arrondissement. It is known for its Art Nouveau interior decor. In the mid-20th century, Maxim’s was regarded as the most famous restaurant in the world. Maxim’s was founded as a bistro in 1893 by Maxime Gaillard, formerly a waiter. In 1899, it was given the decor for which it became famous in preparation for the 1900 Paris Exposition. & 
Some of the Oldest Restaurants in the World
In my research for this paper, I found several places listing some of the oldest restaurants that are still operational. Here’s what I found:
|Name||Location||Established||Cuisine||Source (see below)|
|St. Peter Stiftskeller||Salzburg, Austria||803||Traditional Austrian||1|
|The Old House||Llangynwyd, Wales||1146||Traditional Welsh||2|
|The Brazen Head||Dublin, Ireland||1198||Irish (speciality, Irish Stew)||2|
|Blackfriars||Newcastle, England||1239||Traditional English food||3|
|La Couronne||Rouen, France||1345||French (speciality, Duck a la Rouennaise – pressed duck)||2|
|Zum Franziskaner||Stockholm, Sweden||1421||Traditional Swedish and German||1|
|Zum Franziskaner||Stockholm, Sweden||1421||Traditional Swedish and German||1|
|Honke Owariya||Kyoto, Japan||1465||Japanese||1|
|La Tour d’Argent||Paris, France||1582||French||1|
|Zur Letzten Instanz||Berlin, Germany||1621||German||1|
|Queen’s Lane Coffee House||Oxford, England||1654||Traditional food is served alongside more exotic fare||3|
|White Horse Tavern||Newport, Rhode Island, USA||1673||American||1|
|Sobrino de Botín||Madrid, Spain||1725||Traditional Spanish and Castillian||1|
|Rules||London||1798||Traditional food, specialising in classic game cookery, oysters, pies and puddings||3|
|The Union Oyster House||Boston, Mass. USA||1826||Fish, particularly oysters||4|
|Simpson’s||London||1828||Traditional British fare||3|
More about Food and Dining in the Roman Empire
Food and Dining in Roman times reflected both the variety of foodstuffs available through the expanded trade networks of the Roman Empire and the traditions of conviviality from ancient Rome’s earliest times, inherited in part from the Greeks and Etruscans. In contrast to the Greek symposium, which was really a drinking party, the equivalent social institution of the Roman convivium (dinner party) was focused on food. Banqueting played a major role in Rome’s communal religion. Maintaining the food supply to the city of Rome had become a major political issue in the late Republic and continued to be one of the main ways the Emperor expressed his relationship with the Roman people and established his role as a benefactor. Roman food vendors and farmers’ markets sold meats, fish, cheeses, produce, olive oil and spices; and pubs, bars, inns and food stalls sold prepared food.
Bread was an important part of the Roman diet, with more well-to-do people eating wheat bread and poorer people eating that made from barley. Fresh produce such as vegetables and legumes were important to Romans, as farming was a valued activity. A variety of olives and nuts were eaten. While there were prominent Romans who discouraged meat eating, a variety of meat products were prepared, including blood puddings, sausages, cured ham and bacon. The milk of goats or sheep was thought superior to that of cows; milk was used to make many types of cheese, as this was a way of storing and trading milk products. While olive oil was fundamental to Roman cooking, butter was considered an undesirable Gallic foodstuff. Sweet foods such as pastries typically used honey and wine-must syrup as sweeteners. Various dried fruits (figs, dates and plums) and fresh berries were also eaten.
Salt, which in its pure form was an expensive commodity in Rome, was the basic seasoning and the most common salty condiment was a fermented fish sauce known as garum. Locally available seasonings included garden herbs, cumin, coriander, and juniper berries. Imported spices included pepper, saffron, cinnamon, and fennel. While wine was an important beverage, Romans frowned on drinking to excess and drank their wine mixed with water; drinking wine “straight” was viewed as a barbarian custom.
The Guardian reported that a well-preserved frescoed “fast food” counter is among the latest discoveries unearthed by archaeologists in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. The 150 or so thermopolia, or snack bars, dotted across the city were mostly used by the poorer residents, who rarely had cooking facilities in their home, to grab a snack or drink. Typical menus included coarse bread with salty fish, baked cheese, lentils and spicy wine.
Over the years, archaeologists have discovered several thermopolia not just in Pompeii but also in Herculaneum, as this town was also destroyed (and preserved) by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
The thermopolia at Pompeii is now open to the public. Visitors won’t be able to try the Roman delicacies that would have been served at the original restaurant—the people at that time had different taste buds to those of the 21st century – the Romans thought that honey-roasted rodents were a delicacy. Still, today’s visitors can see the establishment’s colourful fresco paintings. For the ordinary Roman, their day started with ientaculum (breakfast, this was served at daybreak). A small lunch, prandium, was eaten at around 11 am. Dinner or Supper (cena) was the main meal of the day. If they were still hungry, a late supper called vesperna was eaten.
Not for the Faint-Hearted
Ohio State University published the results of a study on failed restaurants in 2005 and found that 80% of new restaurants fail within five years. While this may be true of many modern eateries, numerous old-world restaurants have withstood the test of time and remain in operation today. The 2005 study explored restaurant ownership turnover rates using qualitative data, longitudinal data (1996-1999), and data from Dun and Bradstreet reports. In contrast to frequently repeated statistics, a relatively modest 26.16% of independent restaurants failed during the first year of operation. The abstract reported that results from this study indicated marginal differences in restaurant failures between franchise chains (57.2%) and independent operators (61.4%). A qualitative analysis indicated that effective management of family life cycle and quality-of-life issues is more important than previously believed in the growth and development of a restaurant.
Economics and the Origin of the Restaurant
Revolutionary Paris is often cited as the birthplace of the modern-day restaurant, but as Nicholas M. Kiefer, PhDsays in his August 2002 paper Economics and the Origin of the Restaurant, “restaurants existed long before the French Revolution in other locations when economics and social mores made them feasible. In the article, he explains the history and economics of restaurant development, both in eighteenth-century Paris and in thirteenth-century China.” Professor Keifer says the restaurant as it is known today originated in the taverns, inns, traiteurs (cookshops), and boarding houses of an earlier day. Those establishments offered food service (along with alcoholic beverages or lodging) well before the appearance of the modern restaurant, with its cook-to-order menu. Those early “ur-restaurants” (that is, primitive restaurants) existed in Paris and other commercial cities in Europe (and elsewhere) well before the eighteenth century.
“Legend has it that a soup salesman named Boulanger opened the first modern restaurant 250 years ago in Paris. But when one historian went looking for proof, she found things were not so clear. Back in the 18th century, few city-dwellers had the means for personal kitchens at home. So before a brasserie sprung up on every corner, they ate from communal platters laid out for inn guests or bought oysters and such from street vendors. If they had a little more time and money to spend, they could visit multiple traiteurs (cook caterers) specialized in particular trades or guilds, like roasting meat or baking bread. Everything changed with Monsieur Boulanger around 1765, at least, according to the bible of French gastronomy, Larousse Gastronomique.”
British Restaurants in Wartime
‘British Restaurants’ was not a general term for restaurants in Britain. It was the name given to dedicated communal restaurants set up to meet the needs of wartime on the Second World War British home front, particularly to help people who had been bombed out of their homes, had run out of ration coupons or otherwise needed help. They were more like canteens than restaurants. Customers collected a tray and queued up to receive their food which was cooked on site.
In 1943, 2,160 British Restaurants served 600,000 very inexpensive meals a day. They were disbanded in 1947. There was a political dimension as well, as the Labour Party saw them as a permanent solution to equalising consumption across the class line and guaranteeing a nourishing diet to the poor.
Called Community Feeding Centres, the name “British Restaurants” was chosen by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who feared that the Ministry of Food’s original name – communal feeding centres – was too ‘redolent of communism and the workhouse’.
They were set up by the Ministry of Food, following an initiative led by Britain’s Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, to improve the nation’s health and strength in the war. On Lord Woolton’s instruction, the Ministry of Food formalised the establishment of communal feeding centres in 1940. They were also known as community kitchens, community meal centres, and civic or municipal restaurants. They had already been established by local authorities and volunteer groups across the country, some of whom had the experience of similar initiatives in the First World War when they were called national kitchens.
Run by local government or voluntary agencies on a non-profit basis. Meals were sold for a set maximum price of 9d (in old money). No one could be served with a meal of more than one serving of meat, game, poultry, fish, eggs, or cheese. In one in ten restaurants, the meals were prepared at central depots. Schools and churches were often used because they had dining halls and kitchens. In London, mobile canteens delivered meals to air raid shelters and on the street in the aftermath of air raids.
By contrast, ordinary private restaurants continued in operation and were not subject to rationing. They did have some restrictions: for instance, no meal could be more than three courses, and the maximum price was five shillings (old money).
By mid-1941, over two hundred British Restaurants operated in the London County Council area alone, although the Wartime Social Survey conducted in 1942–43 indicated they were more popular in London than elsewhere in the country. By November 1942, there were 1,899 restaurants. By 1943, there were some 2,160 British Restaurants across the country, serving around 600,000 meals per day for around 9d a time (old money).
Some smaller places did not qualify as a British Restaurants, but, instead, had what was termed a Cash and Carry Restaurant with meals being delivered to them from a nearby British Restaurant.
The ministry’s dieticians prepared food based upon regional preferences and health. For example, the food served in Scotland was very different from that served in London due to the taste preferences of the population. Health was also a concern for British Restaurants, as they were supposed to provide diners with a third of the day’s energy needs. The dieticians were especially concerned with Vitamin C intake. Due to the war efforts and rationing, fruit intake was extremely limited. Vegetables such as cabbage, which has a high percentage of Vitamin C, were implemented as a staple vegetable in British Restaurants to provide diners with beneficial nutrients. There was concern that, with mass catering, vitamins such as Vitamin C would be destroyed in the food sources.
The food in British Restaurants was said to be filling and of good quality. For 9d (again, old money), customers could get a three-course meal. Traditionally, customers wanted a meal of meat and two vegetables. Most British Restaurants served choices of five meat dishes, five vegetables, and five desserts. British Restaurants in more populated areas had even more options. Popular dishes included roasts and potatoes, which acted as a substitute for bread. The foods served in British Restaurants could be prepared in large quantities, which made them good options for feeding several hungry people.
Food preparation in British Restaurants was industrialised, which also helped with inexpensive, commercial food preparation. For example, volunteers sliced potatoes with machines rather than by hand. After 1947 some restaurants were converted, under the Civic Restaurants Act, into civic restaurants run by the local council. In 1949, 678 still existed throughout the United Kingdom. The restaurants moved beyond the privations of wartime and into the new world of a Labour government, making many changes to the social fabric of the country. The Labour Minister of Food, John Strachey, noted that “private enterprise in the catering trade has, on the whole, and by and large, catered for the middle class and not for the working class.”
If a civic restaurant operated at a loss for three consecutive years, the Civic Restaurants Act provided that ministerial consent would be needed for it to continue to remain open. These restaurants existed at least into the late 1960s, and in some areas later still – for example, Cambridge had one until the redevelopment of Lion Yard in the early 1970s.
In an article called ‘National kitchens: communal dining in wartime’, at: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/all-notices/content/100292, Dr Bryce Evans, senior lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University, describes the rise and fall of national kitchens, which offered simple, cheap, communal meals to combat hunger during World War 1.
The restaurateurs’ innovation was selling individualised meals
The word restaurant originates from Paris, where a Mr A. Boulanger started as a soup vendor in 1765. A sign on the door said ‘restaurant’, referring to the restorative quality of the soups and broths served within the establishment. Entrées and main courses joined the menu, and the modern restaurant as we know it took shape.
‘The rise of the restaurant and the fate of hospitality’ is the title of a paper by Michael Symons, published by the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management. The abstract says:
“The aim of this paper is to examine the early history of restaurants, as invented in Paris around 1766, deciding whether a market orientation ruled out genuine hospitality. The restaurateurs’ innovation was selling individualised meals within the emerging consumer market. While Brillat‐Savarin recognized the commercial cynicism of even such brilliant exponents as Antoine Beauvilliers, their enterprises were hospitable to the extent that, emerging from domestic households, they were directed principally at meal‐making rather than money‐making. Highly “McDonaldized” corporations, whose primary purpose is profit, are a largely twentieth‐century development.”
Sources and Further Reading
- Book: Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants (Hardcover – Illustrated), by Katie Rawson and Elliott Shore, published by Reaktion Books, 15th July 2019, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dining-Out-Global-History-Restaurants/dp/1789140579/
- Book: The Restaurant: A 2,000-Year History of Dining Out, by William Sitwell, published by Simon & Shuster, 9th April 2020, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Restauranha-William-Sitwell/dp/1471179613/
 Explanation: The Latin word insula (literally meaning “island”, plural insulae) was used in Roman cities to mean either a city block in a city plan, i.e. a building area surrounded by four streets, or, later, a type of apartment building that occupied such a city block. Insulae were known to be prone to fire and rife with disease.
 Source: “Take-out restaurants existed in ancient Rome and were called “thermopolia””. The Vintage News. November 26, 2017.
 Source: Ellis, Steven J. R. (2004): “The Distribution of Bars at Pompeii: Archaeological, Spatial and Viewshed Analyses”, Journal of Roman Archaeology, Vol. 17, pp. 371–84 (374f.)
 Sources: Visiting a Bar in Ancient Rome”. Lucius’ Romans. University of Kent. July 15, 2016, and Potter, David S. (2008). A Companion to the Roman Empire. p374. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-4051-7826-6.
 See: Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants (Hardcover – Illustrated), by Katie Rawson and Elliott Shore, published by Reaktion Books, 15th July 2019, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dining-Out-Global-History-Restaurants/dp/1789140579/
 Source: West, Stephen H. (1997). “Playing With Food: Performance, Food, and The Aesthetics of Artificiality in The Sung and Yuan”. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. 57 (1): 67–106.
 Source: Gernet, Jacques (1962). Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250–1276. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
 Source: Gernet, Jacques (1962). Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250–1276. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
 Source: Symons, Michael: A History of Cooks and Cooking, p. 312, available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Cooks-Cooking-Food/dp/0252071921
 Sources: (1) Chevallier, Jim (2018). p67/80. A History of the Food of Paris: From Roast Mammoth to Steak Frites. Big City Food Biographies. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1442272828, and (2) Fierro, Alfred (1996). Histoire et dictionnaire de Paris. Robert Laffont. p737 ISBN 978-2221078624.
 See: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0010880405275598 published in Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, Vol 46, Issue 3, 2005
 Nicholas M. Kiefer, PhD wrote as the Ta-Chung Liu Professor of Economics at Cornell University
 The article was written by Christine Bednarz and was published on 13th March 13, 2015.
 Researched from the sources shown below and excerpted from text at those sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Restaurant, https://www.1900s.org.uk/1940s-british-restaurants.htm, https://www.1900s.org.uk/1940s-british-restaurants-experiences.htm, https://www.findmypast.co.uk/blog/history/british-restaurants and https://www.thegazette.co.uk/all-notices/content/100292