Restaurants: their story began with a soup

Restaurants: their story began with a soup

Restaurants are the trademarks of most countries and cultures. No trip is complete if you haven’t eaten out like a local. Yet the idea of people dining out in Europe was not socially accepted until 200 years ago.

The word restaurant derives from the French word restaurer meaning “to restore”. But what is it that restaurants restored?

In this article, we investigate the unknown story behind the evolution of the restaurant concept in Europe and reveal its most improbable origin. 

It began in the Far East but never reached Europe

In the middle of the 10th century A.D., a variety of eating establishments are recorded in densely populated Chinese cities of over 1 million inhabitants.  Such places offered a selection of good quality meals to satisfy the varied cuisine differences from different regions of China. Their customers were mostly merchants, travellers and families to enjoy a nice meal and have a pleasant experience.

Meals were presented on a board, which made the Chinese the inventors of the restaurant menu. In their neighbouring country Japan, eating-out bloomed out of tea houses around the 16th century. Due to its popularity from all social layers of the society, the restaurant culture of the Far East was constantly evolving every century. 

Pre-restaurant Europe 

Despite the exchange of ideas between East and West along the Silk Roads, the advanced Chinese concept of fine dining-out didn’t reach or influence dining out in Europe until the beginning of the 18th century.  

Inns and pubs did exist since Roman times, but they had a bad reputation as places where thieves, criminals, and people from the low classes hang out. A meal might occasionally show up as an option, but the ingredients used for its preparation was of the lowest quality.  

By the 16th century, eating establishments in Paris introduced the concept of table d’hôte (the host’s table). According to that, one meal chosen by the host was offered at a specific time every day for a fixed price. Customers would sit and eat around a collective table with strangers.

People from higher classes never dined out even when they travelled. They preferred travelling along with their servants, who carried and prepared high-quality meals for them or they stayed at the homes of friends which provided the meals. 

The birth of the restaurant: The legend and the truth 

The general impression that the concept of the restaurant evolved after the French revolution in 1789, from the chefs of fallen aristocracy seeking jobs is simply a legend. According to Rebecca Spang in her book The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Gastronomic Culture, the first European restaurants showed up in France decades before the revolution. 

The concept began in the most unexpected places: in health shops selling bouillon soup. Those establishments offered a slow-simmered bone broth, which became popular due to its nutritious benefits. It strengthened the immune system and restored health. From the French word “restaurer” which means to restore yourself, such stores were referred to as restaurants.  

The health benefits of the soup set the ground for the social acceptance of eating out in bouillon stores.  As broth soup could be cooked in advance and warmed up prior to serving, it allowed restaurants to serve food throughout the day unlike other eating establishments. 

As restorative stores became more popular, the selection of meals they offered increased. A small chalkboard – a la carte – was providing a list of choices of the served meals. The price varied per meal, so the customer could choose how much they wanted to spend. Copying the coffee culture of the time, small tables were introduced where customers could sit by themselves rather than with strangers. 


While the concept of the restaurant continued to evolve and take different forms, it established itself as an institution. Nowadays, you can have local or international cuisine anywhere in the world. But the origin of the social habit of eating out in Europe began in stores selling broth soup that shielded eaters with a strong defence against sickness.