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Oct 20, 2008 11:07 AM

Where were history's first restaurants?

From history's earliest beginnings there were inns and rest stops that offered food to weary travelers and pilgrims. The food was indifferently prepared, and a good meal was one that didn't make you sick. (I suspect that in medieval times the inns along the pilgrimage route to Compostela in northeast Spain were places where pilgrims from all over Europe exchanged cooking tips with the host, and perhaps this was true of the hostelries in ancient times too, but if so there is no record of this.) But where were history's first restaurants to offer meals that compared to home cooking, meals that would make an ancient Chowhound happy?

My candidate for the first restaurants to do better were the public baths of Imperial Rome. These were grand affairs of porphyry and marble. Open to anyone (both sexes) who could pay 10¢ in present-day money, these offered far more than baths. Patrons could exercise in health clubs or get a massage, followed up by a warm or hot sauna, a hot bath, a cold dip and then a swim. Then on to various salons that offered music, philosophy or science lectures and classes, or places to meet, chat and flirt. There was a restaurant that offered dinner. My guess is that the food, so as not to be out of place in such an elegant establishment, would be very good indeed. So I think these were the first restaurants to offer gourmet repasts. Or did another civilization beat the Romans to it?

Note: some historians say the food at the baths was primarily sold by vendors. The vendor food was probably chow-worthy if not safe. (One kind of sausages often sold by vendors, botula, gave its name to food poisoning.) For more on vendor food at Roman baths, see This link incorrectly refers to Apicius as a chef. He was a rich gourmet. He spent all his money on food and when he was down to his last $3 million he killed himself rather than live in what he considered poverty.

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  1. Standard food history says that the first true restaurants were started by newly-unemployed cooks following the French Revolution. There were laws prohibiting the selling of cooked meats to eat on the premises, probably to protect the monopoly of the charcutiers, and so the first restaurants offered soup (as a restorative, you see). The popularity of these establishments led to commercial pressure to allow complete meals to be served. Of course, this rather facile explanation ignores the existence of La Tour d'Argent, which was in existence a good 200 years before the Revolution and is still packing them in... however, I think that the bulk of the establishments catering to the public at large probably did come about as a direct result of all that cooking talent let loose.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Will Owen

      There were restaurants in the true sense of the word way way before the French Revolution, in the Middle East and certainly in China.

      1. re: PeterL

        Yup even in Western Europe... El Botin certainly qualifies as a modern restaurant... it has been open continuously since 1725 its such as Madrid institution that the even the artist Goya was associated with it... as in 1765 he worked as a dish washer there!

    2. Perhaps around 2650 BC from which there is evidence from wheat regarding regular trade between China and the middle-East (and thank you, PeterL).

      2 Replies
      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        there were certainly inns for travellers then, but I'm looking more for restaurants that people might prefer to eating at home, not eat there because they were miles away from home. In T'ang Dynasty Changan (now Xi'an) there were stalls in the marketplace where you could get meals prepared in the style of Western Asia (and 1300 years later, their successors still serve similar food in the same place -- the Muslim quarter) I bet there were gourmet restaurants in Chang'an then too... but the Roman baths were 700 years older. 50 AD is the date to beat, unless I'm wrong about the food at the Roman baths.

        1. re: Brian S

          Brian, you know that I always enjoy your posts and this is no exception. Your distinction between inns and restaurants is a good one. I missed the importance of your basic question, "But where were history's first restaurants to offer meals that compared to home cooking, meals that would make an ancient Chowhound happy?"

          Of course, I (and I assume PL) was responding to what might otherwise be an overly Euro-centric discussion.

      2. As always, Brian, wonderful thinking...

        As far back as foodstuffs have been made in quantities more than what an individual household could consume, there have been trade and barter centers where food was consumed. Restaurants? Not exactly, but certainly feeding areas. There were large gathering halls where food was served, as Brian mentions.

        With mobility comes the need for sustenance away from home. With more travelers, more restaurants. The Inns/monasteries along the Campostela pilgrimage walk are certainly important, and it was there the philosophy of Hospitality as an outgrowth of spirituality was formalized: what are the specific things I can do as your host to make your stay as a guest comfortable and rejuvenating?

        At what point did the dining rooms of country inns become more than dining rooms, but restaurants, I'm not sure. But I do know that when the Model-T car became affordable and popular in the early 20th century in the US -- and lots of Americans hit the roads, the number of restaurants skyrocketed. A market was created.

        1. Interesting. But the Minoans have the Romans beat by at least a millenia. The earliest "restaurants" I know of were found in Akrotiri, the remains of the Minoan city being dug out from under tons of volcanic ash on the Greek island of Santorini (Thera). It was buried by a volcanic explosion purportedly ten times bigger than Krakatoa. It occurred in 1600BCE, and archaeologists have uncovered what are believed to be "walk up food stalls" with vending windows that open onto the street.

          I suspect that anyplace where "civilization" evolved, as opposed to "culture" in the anthropological/archeological sense, there were at the very least "fast food" vendors, and in all probability there were some forms of "restaurants" where one could eat without taking a room.

          I would be greatly surprised if something similar to the Minoan "restaurants" wasn't present for a millenia or two before. For example, the predynastic Egyptian city of Hierekonpolis (circa 3500BCE) a brewery with a manufacturing capacity to turn out and distribute 300 gallons of wheat beer a day has been unearthed. It's considered unlikely it was the only brewery in town. Where there's beer, can food be far away? The problem with "every day life" artifacts of ancient Egypt, and many other ancient civilizations, is that temples and monuments were made of stone, but everything else was made of mud, waddle and daub, and other "non-eternal" building materials, and you can only surmise so much from kitchen middens.

          An interesting thing about humans, individually or as a society, is that each successive generation thinks that all that came before it was primitive and substandard, and that the world was waiting for me/us to discover the "right" way to do things. My own personal guess is that cooking for barter came about shoulder to shoulder with flint napping! '-).

          5 Replies
          1. re: Caroline1

            Actually, the Minoans "have the Romans beat" by at least a MILLENIUM.


            1. re: Ted in Central NJ

              They also have them beat by at least a MILLENNIUM… ;;--))))

              1. re: DeppityDawg

                <sigh> Are you guys insinuating I need to go back to proof reading? '-)


                1. re: Caroline1

                  No. They are insinuating that I am the only one on CH, who actually remembers the Minoans. Nice folk, but their restaurants left a lot to be desired.


                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    Oh, I don't know. They were the only restaurants in the ancient world that I know of that had flush toilets in their restrooms. That's gotta count for something! '-)

          2. So for a food-serving establishment to count as a restaurant, the food has to be good, is that (part of) the definition? I don't think food historians take the quality of the food into account at all. Instead, they look at more objective criteria. For example, the clientele: it shouldn't only be travellers and people stuck at the baths all day, but also local residents who leave the house specifically with the idea of going somewhere to eat a meal prepared by someone else, and pay for it. It should be a single establishment with one proprietor (i.e. the "food court" model with multiple vendors mentioned by several people already doesn't constitute a restaurant.) A single vendor selling something that's ready to eat and corresponds to a full meal, who appears in the same place every day, and who thinks of setting up some tables… this is getting pretty close. But there should also be an established menu with choices (not just "table d'hôte") and of course some system of pricing. Etc. etc.

            The definitions I've seen generally include a lot of modern concepts and so they presuppose a kind of society that didn't really exist until quite recently. And admittedly they sometimes seem to be formulated deliberately so that the first restaurants turn out to be Parisian, or in any case European (QED). But the Wikipedia article mentions restaurants corresponding to this kind of definition appearing already about 1000 years ago in China and in the Islamic world.


            6 Replies
            1. re: DeppityDawg

              Some descriptions of urban life, both in classical Rome, and cities like London, make it sound as though many lower income residents ate most of their meals at street stalls or taverns. If you were so poor that you could only afford to rent a room or bed, you wouldn't have cooking facilities. Out of concern over fire, some cities might even have prohibited cooking in lodgings.

              Does this qualify as restaurant eating? Without menus and choices, it probably does not.

              1. re: paulj

                I agree - such establishments would qualify more as for-profit soup kitchens, since the customers would be eating there from necessity rather than as a chosen alternative to a home meal. Regardless of the quality of the food, I believe that the proper criterion for determining what's a restaurant is that it be an open choice: "Gee, honey, do we want to eat in tonight or go to Marcellus's?" And I also believe that street food might come nearer to that definition than, say, a coaching inn, even though the inn's physical setup might more closely resemble that of a modern restaurant, with tables and table service.

                1. re: paulj

                  I don't know, there seem to be an awful lot of present day NYC residents who only eat out....

                  1. re: sebetti

                    lol-- we've come full circle, just with mcdonald's advertising and hcfs for the poor, personal chefs & personal trainers for the rich! ;-)

                    1. re: sebetti

                      By choice, though - that's the difference. Now, some people I've heard of in NY make the choice early on to force the issue, and either convert the kitchen to a kind of coffee/snack bar that you CAN'T cook in or choose an apartment that's already like that. But they have still CHOSEN to dine out for every meal...and they can do that because (ta-daaah!) there are plenty of restaurants.

                      1. re: Will Owen

                        Where are the people who enjoy a leisurely breakfast in robe and slippers! If I lived in NYC, I would open a breakfast restaurant and call it just that: "Robe and Slippers." And that would be the dress code!