The Great Restaurant Reinvention
Reader's Digest UK|March 2021
The past year has been turbulent for the restaurant industry but, writes Lizzie Enfield, the restaurant was born after a period of chaos and will survive this one, too
Lizzie Enfield

In the past 12 months restaurants have been forced to adapt and reinvent themselves. Since Britain's first lockdown was introduced at the end of March 2020 they have become takeaways, delicatessens, and purveyors of online cookery courses and sellers of do-it-yourself home cooking kits. A year of lockdowns, curfews, new hygiene and social distancing regulations has presented huge challenges to the hospitality industry. The UK’s hospitality sector saw sales plummet by 48 per cent in the third quarter of 2020 according to research commisioined by UK Hospitality, and over 50 per cent of businesses are expected to fail before the end of the first quarter of 2021.

Necessity is the mother of invention and the inventiveness and ingenuity those in the restaurant trade have drawn on to survive the global pandemic has been impressive. It’s also perhaps unsurprising, given that the restaurant as we think of it today emerged from another period of turbulence and crisis—the French Revolution.

Eating out goes a long way back. The Romans had their taverns serving set meals and cook shops called thermopolia selling hot readyto-eat dishes of lentils and stews. In the Middle Ages, inns would provide communal buffets of cold meats or roasts to cater to the many people who didn’t have kitchens. Prior to the revolution in France, there were plenty of places where you could eat out but fine dining was a privilege enjoyed by the aristocracy in the comfort of their own homes, palaces, chateaux and manoirs.

In 18th-century France, while the aristocrats were enjoying haute cuisine prepared by personal chefs, harsh winters and oppressive taxation had left the bulk of the French population unable to afford bread. When the starving masses finally took to the streets of Paris in 1789, the aristocrats fled to the countryside, leaving their chefs and their fine wines behind. Both found their way to the cities' existing eateries and within a year, a host of new elegant restaurants with extensive menus had been established.

These restaurants were a microcosm of the New France, says David Gilks, a lecturer in Modern European History at the University of East Anglia. They were the places where the nouveau riche, who had profited from the revolution were to be seen. There were still shortages of basic food stuffs in many parts of Paris but in the nicer parts you would see people tucking into fine food in elegant surroundings.

In the 1760s the health-obsessed merchants of Paris developed a taste for light broths known as restoratives or restaurants, and dining halls where customers could sit at individual tables and sip them began popping up around the city.

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