The Restaurant - A History Of Eating Out


0120200413The history of eating out is a story of life - of politics, courage, skill, art, innovation and of luck.    We start in Pompeii, where the town was engulfed in lava in AD79 and where, in the excavations, much was discovered about how the Romans ate out - many restaurants doubled up as brothels.    

In the Ottoman Empire, we discover that doner kebabs were cooked in the open air at dainty picnics where learned men read books to each other while a cook carved the meat from a long wedge being turned on a spit over hot coals.

After Henry VIII’s break from Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, travellers were left with nowhere to get a meal and a bed for the night and so the monastic staff who survived the purges needed places to work and very enterprisingly opened taverns which were soon packed with locals and visitors. This meant that, for the first time, people weren’t humbly receiving bread and wine from a benevolent monk but receiving sustenance that they were paying for themselves - which, to an oppressed servant, must have felt like freedom.

On the day of the storming of the Bastille, it was estimated that one in every twelve men were in domestic service. Now, with the disappearance of the chateaux kitchens, many of the unemployed chefs opened restaurants in Paris and then later in London, where rich Englishmen were keen to discover how the French aristocracy had lived. By the 1820s, Paris was freed from the restraints of the revolution and became fashionable again with luxurious shops and restaurants and chefs - notably Marie-Antoine Careme who turned French cuisine into Gastronomy and remains an influence on chefs even to this day

The 20th Century saw the birth and domination of fast food.

In 1948, McDonalds became successful by simplifying their menu and doing away with the need for utensils. A man called Glen Bell found a way to mass produce Tacos in 1951, which led to another fast food craze, and sushi became a world favourite after a Japanese entrepreneur visited a brewery and was inspired by the conveyer belt system of carrying bottles, which he adapted for his restaurants.

The Indian restaurant started life in the 1940s when a number of cafes sprang up in London’s Brick Lane and Commercial Road to support a community of seamen from Bangladesh. More restaurants blossomed in bombed out shops and, by the 50s, Indian restaurants spread across towns and cities throughout the UK becoming a firm favourite with students.

Albert and the late Michel Roux set the standard of English restaurant food in 1960s London whether it was liked it or not. Customers complained that the portions were too small. "This is French gastronomy," Michel told one such couple, with his finest charming smile, a few days after the launch. But there were enough Londoners to keep the restaurant busy and full from day one. By March 1968, Le Gavroche was famous.

Written by William Sitwell
Read by Lesley Sharp

A Pier production for BBC Radio 4

The history of the restaurant from AD79 to now. Read by Lesley Sharp.

0120200413The history of the restaurant from AD79 to now. Read by Lesley Sharp.