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The Restaurant: A History of Eating Out
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What is it about restaurants that we’re most missing? Is it restaurant-only treats, such as sweet potato fries served vertically in a chrome beaker with a greaseproof-paper lining? (I miss those.) Or is it the ambience? The simple magic of casting off the domestic self, enabling that vital recharging of relationships that only seems to happen during the first bite of restaurant bread and butter washed down with the first sip of ice-cold white wine poured by someone else?
Whether it’s the food or the ambience, we’re given a welcome reminder of both in William Sitwell’s warm-hearted romp through the history of eating out, from the food stalls of Pompeii, via the “sharing dishes” of the Ottoman Empire, to the first mention of a tablecloth in medieval London, to the out-of-work domestic cooks (whose employers had been guillotined) who opened the first restaurants in revolutionary Paris, to the clubbing Victorians and their 10-foot-high puddings, to dismal postwar British hotels, to Charles Forte’s Festival of Britain cafeteria, to the Roux brothers’ dainty French portions at Le Gavroche, to Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge at the Fat Duck, to 35 tiny courses at El Bulli in Barcelona, to the restoration of sausage and mash as an acceptable menu item at Kensington Place, all culminating in, er, veganism.
This wide-ranging literary feast is particularly apposite at a time when many of us are noticing how much money we’re saving by not eating out, and are thus wondering why on earth we felt the compulsion to do so when we we could. Sitwell quotes the historian John Burnett on this: the question of why we choose to eat out “takes us into a realm of social and psychological desires, in which physical needs are subordinate to mental and emotional satisfactions.”
That’s surely right. It’s the mood as much as the food — hence the eternal disappointingness of the restaurant takeaway, which brings us the food without the mood. Hear what true words Samuel Johnson spoke (quoted by Sitwell): “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good tavern or inn.”
Sitwell — who was editor of the Waitrose magazine until, in a mischievous response to a journalist pitching a piece on plant-based meals, he unwisely suggested a series of pieces on killing vegans one by one, and had to resign — approaches his subject like a food-loving journalist rather than an academic. Each chapter reads like a self-contained article, often with a central character to “profile”, and he’s more comfortable when he reaches post-Second World War than being a historian of Ancient Rome. He’s a generous quoter of others, such as Mary Beard who described Pompeii as “a cross between Las Vegas and Brighton”. One hundred and sixty properties in that snazzy town were bars or restaurants, often doubling up as brothels, and they probably made pizzas in the wood-fired ovens.
After his Roman Empire opening chapter, Sitwell whizzes us forward 1,200 years (wot, no Dark Ages diners?) to the Ottoman Empire and introduces us to a man called Ibn Battuta who “ate out for over 30 years on an extended gap year” and described the experience. (I noted Sitwell’s rather “Waitrose” terms of reference, eg medieval travellers on a “gap year”).
Get me to Britain, I pleaded, much as I’m (quite) interested in the origins of “sis kebaps”, as they used to be spelled. Hooray, we’re soon in 1410s London. A poem, London Lickpenny, recounts the story of a visitor who entered an establishment in Westminster where “a fayre cloth they began to spread”. Annoyingly, this man didn’t stay for the meal; but that tablecloth is evidence of Britain’s first fancy restaurant.
Then, off we go for a brief history of coffee houses. This gastronomic whoosh through the centuries reminded me of the taxi ride through time at Madame Tussaud’s: great fun, simplistic, full of colour, omits the boring bits. By 1700, London had one coffee house for every 1,000 inhabitants: 40 times New York City today.
Political revolutions bring forth culinary ones. The two main restaurant-spurring European revolutions, according to Sitwell, were the dissolution of the monasteries and the French Revolution. The dissolution let loose thousands of unemployed monastic kitchen staff, plus more thousands of travellers who now had nowhere to lay their heads. This situation caused a boom in the alehouse-with-rooms sector: by 1577, there were 24,000 of them in Britain, one for every 142 human beings.
The French Revolution flooded the market with unemployed domestic cooks who roamed the streets of Paris, pining for the château kitchens of their dead or exiled aristocratic bosses. So what did they do? M. Robert, chef to the exiled Prince de Condé, opened a restaurant on the rue de Richelieu (the word “restaurant” having been coined in 1765 by a M. Boulanger, who made restorative “pick-me-up” bouillons). Imprisoned aristocrats ordered takeaways from Robert’s restaurant to be delivered to their dungeons. (Talk about the food without the mood.)
Sitwell takes us briefly and journalistically to unexpected places, such as to Mumbai, where a delightful restaurant called Britannia & Co was opened in 1923 by a Parsi called Rashid Kohinoor, and is still going strong. Its lease runs out in 2022 and now I’m worried sick it will have to close and will be turned into a McDonald’s.
I found the final third of the book the most enjoyable, when Sitwell chronicles the gradual change from dismal postwar English restaurant and hotel food (creamed spam casserole was on the menu at Simpson’s in 1950) to today’s celebrity chefs and their taster menus, and the plain food “revolution” that put chips back on to the menu in smart restaurants.
The lingering postwar rot was exposed by Bernard Levin in 1962 when he suddenly ranted on That Was the Week That Was, “Why is it that, in a city in size and importance as Manchester, say, there is not a single hotel I could recommend to a foreigner without blushing?” And “Why is restaurant food in Glasgow so cold?” George Mikes had perfectly expressed the situation with his bemused Hungarian take on Britain in How to be an Alien (1946): “On the continent, people have good food; in England, they have good table manners.”
From 1957, Egon Ronay was sending his legion of anonymous inspectors to every restaurant, provincial hotel and motorway service station in Britain, and they “lashed out” about them in the annual Ronay guidebook. It sounded like a glamorous life for those travelling inspectors, but it palled after the first fortnight of having to chomp down two miserable, solitary restaurant meals a day.
Then — whoosh — we meet the Roux brothers, Albert and Michel, who dared to open a proper French restaurant in London. Michel arrived off the ferry and drove from Dover to London in the pouring rain in 1967, his car boot full of cutlery and china, and, lying on top, a painting of a Parisian urchin or gavroche, which inspired the name of their first restaurant, followed in 1972 by the Waterside Inn at Bray in Berkshire. That won a Michelin star (it now has three), and Sitwell goes on to give us a fascinating chapter on the way those stars can be a blessing or a curse — the curse horribly manifested by the suicide of the French chef Bernard Loiseau in 2003, when it was rumoured that he was going to lose one of his three precious Michelin stars for his restaurant in Burgundy. Marco Pierre White had already decided to get out of the game by then; he handed back his three Michelin stars in 1999: “I don’t need Michelin and they don’t need me. They sell tyres and I sell food.”
Restaurants reached the heights of exquisite pretension with chef Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in Roses, Spain, with its “menu in four acts”, of which one of the 35 courses consisted of a single caramelised quail’s egg. Two million booking requests per year were made for only 8,000 places. Instead of expanding, El Bulli did the more philosophically perfect act of closing it entirely and replacing it with a “creativity centre” to be “a think tank for creative cuisine and gastronomy”.
Bravely, considering his past misdemeanour, Sitwell devotes his final five pages to a serious look at restaurant veganism, including a (to me) stomach-churning photograph of raw meat substitutes created in laboratories from biopsies on live animals, which, according to Sitwell, “require 100 times less land and 5.5 times less water than conventional meat.” He has atoned.
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