Early humans may have visited each others' caves for a shared meal, but they wouldn't have expected to be served at their own table, or to choose when and what to eat. But today, restaurants are ubiquitous: there are millions of them worldwide, and the average American eats roughly 200 meals a year in one. So who invented the first restaurant, and when and where did it appear? How did it change society—and change along with society? And, in today's saturated market, is there a scientific way to choose the best?
People traveling away from home, not to mention those without kitchens of their own, have always needed a place to eat. But, until 1760s Paris, those places were not restaurants. And indeed, even in 1760s Paris, originally a 'restaurant' referred to a type of soup. In this episode, historian Rebecca Spang introduces us to the aristocratic entrepreneur who invented both the restaurant and the restaurant guide, cleverly marketing them under different parts of his double-barreled surname.
The restaurant offered diners something completely new: for the first time, this was a place you could visit when you were hungry, rather than at a set hour; you could choose what you wanted from a menu, rather than eating whatever the innkeeper had prepared; and you had the option to eat it privately, just with your small group, rather than at a big communal table. But they weren't anything like the restaurants we know and love. According to Paul Freedman, author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, it took decades for the restaurant to arrive in America—and another century for the format to evolve the diversity celebrated today, in which all kinds of people are served all kinds of food, in all kinds of settings. We'll visit some of the restaurants that represent major milestones in that evolution, from Schrafft's to HoJos.
Finally, we take a peek behind the curtain of the famously secretive Michelin restaurant rating system, in order to understand its formula and, perhaps, its flaws. New Yorker writer John Colapinto—the first journalist ever allowed to dine with a Michelin inspector—talks us through the grueling evaluation process, while chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Richard Coraine of Union Square Hospitality Group give us the inside scoop on how chefs try to game the system. Is there any science to the stars?
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Paul Freedman, Ten Restaurants That Changed America
Paul Freedman is professor of history at Yale University. His food-focused books include Food: The History of Taste and Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination, as well as his most recent, Ten Restaurants That Changed America.
Rebecca Spang, The Invention of the Restaurant
Rebecca Spang is a historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and a professor at Indiana University at Bloomington. She is the author of The Invention of the Restaurant, as well as Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution.
John Colapinto, "Lunch with M."
John Colapinto is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where his feature stories have included "Lunch with M.," about his lunch with a Michelin inspector, as well as "Check, Please," a look at the efforts of chefs at Eleven Madison Park to impress Michelin.
Dan Barber, Blue Hill
Long-time Gastropod listeners will recognize chef Dan Barber from one of our earliest episodes, Dan Barber's Quest for Flavor. It's a conversation about his book, The Third Plate, and some of the fascinating, thoughtful agricultural collaborations he's developed as a chef. Check it out, and then, if you're lucky enough to taste his food for yourself at Blue Hill New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, bon appetit!
Richard Coraine, Union Square Hospitality Group
For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.