The Vintage and the Vogue: ‘I’ll have the restorative broth, please’

Created by Asli Kocak

Michael: Hey Robert, how was dinner last night at that restaurant in the North End?

Robert: Thanks for asking, Michael. I hadn’t been in over two years, so it was truly a delight. I never choose fancy, so it really made me feel like a little French aristocrat.

Michael: It’s funny you should mention French. The word “restaurant” comes from the French word “restaurer,” which means “to restore.”

Robert: That’s exactly right. The restaurant actually used to refer to what was served — a restorative broth called a “restaurant” — not the place. In the final years before the French Revolution began in 1789, it was fashionable in Paris to be publicly seen consuming “healthy” foods, so aristocrats would attend these eating houses which served restoratives. Modern restaurants, however — with table service, menus and the rest — only appear after the French Revolution. Personal chefs which served the aristocratic families dispersed across Europe during those years, especially to England. With no skills but producing fine French cooking for the court, chefs would open businesses to sell what they knew. 

Michael: Even the language of restaurants mirror aristocratic dining. Not only do chefs cook for the diners, but also someone — notably a server — brings and serves the food. It’s the wait staff who “waits” on customers, originating from the same context as the antiquated phrase “lady-in-waiting.” 

Robert: Exactly. And that’s not to say the common folk couldn’t buy food they didn’t make — people have been doing that for millenia, it’s very Lindy. Aside from ubiquitous tavern and inns at the time of the first restaurants, evidence of food stalls can be found in the well-preserved ruins of Pompeii. To sit down in public and be waited on, however, is an exclusive and expensive social exercise, which wouldn’t be available to the masses until at least 70 years later.

Michael: This seems like another not-so-Lindy phenomenon developing from very Lindy patterns: as mundane as retail food establishments or as political as emulating the elite. Even in classical Athens, what we might call a “middle class” gathered in symposia, imitating a much older ritual of the traditional, ruling elite dating back to the archaic period. We can refer to restaurant dining similarly. 

Robert: Indeed. It repeats with the Victorian middle class. They were arguably the first middle class in the modern sense of the word, and some were no more than one generation removed from rural village life or urban pauperism. The Industrial Revolution made them well-off, but they didn’t know the unwritten social rules attached to wealth; so, they emulated the British nobility around them. Not only did they go to restaurants, but they popularized them across Britain and the U.S. in the mid-19th century.

Michael: Emulating the elite doesn’t stop at restaurants, either. Consider white wedding dresses, Yeezy shoes or even single-family housing. It is intrinsically neither good nor bad that we find ourselves often looking up to the elite and wanting to be like them, but we should proceed with caution. Each new fad and craze may seem appealing, but it matters to question why they’re desirable and the consequences of chasing trends.

Robert: And here’s where I would ramble on about the connection between medieval estates and California — which just ended single-family housing as we know it — but we’ve already run out of space. A topic for another week then!

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