Interesting Mustard

The modern restaurant has its roots in revolution

HUMANITIES, March/April 2008, Volume 29, Number 2

From “Romantic Gastronomy: An Introduction,” by Denise Gigante, published in Romantic Praxis Circles series, January 2007. Romantic Circles is a project website of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

While some scholars of late have wanted to downplay the influence of the French Revolution on the rise of the restaurant as a public forum for discretionary dining, there is little doubt that, in its modern instantiation, the restaurant is a result of revolution. The political events of the 1790s released the best French chefs from aristocratic patronage into the open market of Paris, where they set up as restaurateurs in abandoned hotels or in the arcade of the Palais-Royal. With the aristocrats having escaped to other cities in Europe, these talented culinary professionals found themselves catering to a new bourgeois clientele, the nouveaux riches. Whereas Addison and Steele had mingled with wits, scribblers, politicians, and other members of the growing bourgeoisie (financiers, bankers, lawyers) over stimulating cups of coffee in the coffeehouses that spread from Paris in the 1680s, the birth of the restaurant following the French Revolution was a phenomenon distinct from the coffeehouse culture that helped shape intellectual life of Enlightenment Europe. The key difference between the coffeehouse, where information and conversation were exchanged (contributing to the formation of the so-called public sphere), and the restaurant of the Romantic period was that the former did not feature food as its primary concern. While refreshments and pastries had been served in cafés, and even more substantial victuals in some of the British coffeehouses, conversation, political and cultural, not food, was the focus of attention. This all changed once the restaurant, spurred by talented French chefs, encouraged the application of aesthetic principles to the culinary arts.

In the culture of gastronomy that soon spread to England, food was taken seriously as an object of appreciation, offering an occasion for aesthetic judgment and the exercise of the higher mental faculties, much like other forms of art. Grimod de la Reynière thus spoke of syrups "considérés philosophiquement," just as his pseudonymous British imitator Launcelot Sturgeon wrote "On Mustard, Philosophically Considered."