Legend has it that a soup salesman named Boulanger opened the first modern restaurant 250 years ago in Paris. But when one historian went looking for proof, she found things were not so clear.
Back in the 18th century, few city-dwellers had the means for personal kitchens at home. So before a brasserie sprung up on every corner, they ate from communal platters laid out for inn guests or bought oysters and such from street vendors. If they had a little more time and money to spend, they could visit multiple traiteurs (cook caterers) specialized in particular trades or guilds, like roasting meat or baking bread.
Everything changed with Monsieur Boulanger around 1765, at least, according to the bible of French gastronomy, Larousse Gastronomique.
The sign allegedly proclaimed, “Boulanger débite des restaurants divins,” (“Boulanger sells restoratives fit for the gods.”) Now, the word restaurant here refers to rich broths then considered capable of restoring one’s health. Restaurant used in many languages today actually comes from the French verb restaurer, meaning “to restore or refresh.”
According to Larousse and other encyclopedic food tomes, all seemed to be going deliciously until Boulanger had the nerve to serve sheep’s feet in a white sauce—pieds de mouton à la sauce poulette.
While the sheep’s feet probably tasted as expected, this problematic menu tested the rules of the time. Boulanger’s competitors said his new dish took soup to stew status. That’s because until the French Revolution, authorities required butchers, bakers and other makers to stick to their own trade.
As the story goes, Boulanger found himself forced to convince the courts that—by separately preparing the egg yolk-enriched sauce on the side, then pouring it over the cooked mutton—he did not step on the traiteurs’ territory of slowly cooking multiple ingredients together in a ragout.
Apparently he won, because Boulanger’s first restaurant still tops many of the history books.
Boulanger’s place was likely a pretty basic affair. Larousse Gastronomique credits the Grande Taverne de Londres, which opened in 1782, as the “first Parisian restaurant worthy of the name” for its varied menu and individual table ambiance.
Just a few years later, French Revolutionists sent guild power to the guillotine, and all those private chefs who worked for the aristocracy found themselves unemployed. A “Restaurant Revolution” then took Paris by storm—feeding a new middle class hungry for an egalitarian table.
But for all the mentions of this first intrepid restaurateur unafraid to challenge the strict and silly rules of the Old Regime, no one, including Larousse Gastronomique, presents any record of Boulanger’s existence.
Fast forward to modern times. Rebecca Spang is an expert on 18th and 19th century European history at Indiana University Bloomington and her research on “dining out” led her right into the soupy story.
Spending years buried in French archives while writing her book, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, she found no direct sources that anyone named Boulanger existed, let alone opened a restaurant.
“My research on the earliest restaurants depended on police reports (stolen silverware, suicide in private dining rooms, etc.); guild records (such as still exist, most have been lost); and a host of notarized documents (marriage contracts, some listing lots of witnesses, so I can see who restaurateurs marry and who their families and friends are; and especially probate inventories). In all of this, I found no Boulanger.” Spang told The Plate in an email.
She also found no record of the supposedly famous legal matter over the mutton and sauce.
A completely different inventor stars in Spang’s book. An 18th century widely-circulated gossip column dished on Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, calling him the “creator” of restaurants. He later referred to himself in this way. Spang presents de Chantoiseau as a man with a plan, emblematic of the Enlightenment. He seemed to have multiple schemes going, beyond opening a restaurant. He even proposed a new form of currency to reduce France’s national debt.
But what about Boulanger? Nothing personal. “This doesn’t mean he didn’t exist,” says Spang.
As another culinary historian Dr. Ken Albala adds, “I have no reason to believe there isn’t a grain of truth in this, and it is repeated by reputable historians. But in general I am hesitant to say anything is the first.”
Whether the first person to open the modern restaurant was Boulanger, de Chantoiseau, or some other long forgotten member of the soup guild, these stories serve up reminders that today’s concept of a restaurant was never a given. Some enlightened innovator first needed to open a place for hungry people to gather on a whim for a meal of their choice.
Christine Blau is a researcher for National Geographic Travel. Follow her @Chris_Blau.