The use of the word restaurant
to describe an eating house came about in 1765 because a Parisian soup vendor by the name of Boulanger wanted to sell sheep’s feet in white sauce.
In his day, one usually went to an inn or to a “traiteur” for cooked food. The traiteur monopolized the sale of meats and would not sell a portion, insisting that the customer buy an entire piece – i.e. a whole joint, which made it both inconvenient and expensive. And often they did not provide seating to allow customers to dine on the premises.
Soups, however, were not under the jurisdiction of the traiteurs or the inns. Boulanger began to call his soups restaurants , a play on the French word, restaurer, meaning to restore, owing to the fact that highly flavored soups were commonly used for medicinal purposes. He hung a sign written in Latin outside his shop that said:
Venite ad me; vos qui stomacho laboratis et ego restaurabo vos
Boulanger sells magical restoratives
He was probably quite sincere about his soups being magical restoratives. In those days it was a very scary thing to get sick because doctors had so few options. Medical procedures consisted of such things as purging and applying suction cups or leeches for bloodletting and the like, and most people couldn’t afford such ministrations, so they held nutritious foods in high regard.
Monsieur Boulanger had too sharp a business sense to be limited to selling soups, so he blurred the line between traiteur and soup vendor by selling sheep’s feet in white sauce. I know, it sounds terrible, and probably was, but it turned out to be a good strategy.
The traiteurs sued him, claiming that sheep’s feet in white sauce was a ragout and ragout was strictly the territory of the traiteur. In the end, the French Parliament decreed that sheeps’ feet in white sauce was not a ragout. To be precise, a ragout is made from uniformly cut chunks of meat, fowl or fish, cooked without coloring, and served with or without vegetables. Sheep’s feet are not uniformly cut and ragout is not served with a white sauce. No case.
The lawsuit generated a great deal of free advertising for Boulanger’s restoratives and business boomed. Even Louis XV ordered it prepared at Versailles (he was a gourmand and didn’t like it at all).
During the 1780s, other entrepreneurs copied Boulanger and eateries sprang up all over Paris. So the word “restaurant” came to refer to the establishment selling the soup, rather than the soups it served. It wasn’t until 1827 that the English began to use it and by that time, Parisian restaurants were serving a wide range of foods.
Adapted from: Larousse Gastronomique, and “Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities”.