We’re used to a restaurant-going experience where nearly anything is available at anytime. Want sushi-grade tuna delivered straight from Japan to your plate in the American heartland? Done. Want fresh tropical fruit in the dead of a New England winter? You got it. But that wasn’t always the case. Before refrigerated trucking and expedited shipping, what you got (and where it came from) was severely limited.
Restaurants as we know them today emerged from 18th-century France. After the French Revolution, the thousands of chefs once employed in aristocratic and royal households found themselves unemployed and struggling to survive. Hence the rise of the restaurant, which gave all citizens the egalitarian chance to eat together in harmony -- and a newly powerful middle-class turned the dining experience into a vibrant social one.
Ice and snow played an important part
Harvesting these early forms of refrigeration is an ancient method documented as far back as 1000 BC in China. Over the next two millennia, Jews, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used ice and snow primarily to cool beverages. But by the mid 1800s, a thriving mass market in ice swept through the United States and the Caribbean, with producers in New England breaking up whole ponds and lakes and shipping them south on rudimentary refrigerated ships and railway cars. Frederic Tudor, the father of ice harvesting, cut his ice wastage from 66% to 8% within five years, and by the 1850s major American cities like New York and Boston were consuming upwards of a million tons of ice per year. That coincided with the spread of restaurants around the country and made the icebox a requirement for any self-respecting establishment.
Fresh seafood was a pricey luxury
The advent of ice harvesting gave the seafood industry a major shot in the arm too, transforming the harvesting of fish, shellfish, and other specialties of the sea from localized necessity to global delicacy. Oyster markets first sprang up in France during Roman times, but by the 19th century these little pearls went from working-class sustenance to upper-class splurge (lobster, crab, tuna, and other desired species saw the same sort of downstairs-upstairs spike once ocean stocks plummeted and demand skyrocketed).
The preponderance of oysters in New York Harbor gave rise to that city’s thriving restaurant trade, and as Manifest Destiny and the railroads sent hundreds of thousands Americans west, they took their taste for the briny bivalves with them. At the peak of the California Gold Rush, oysters were selling for upwards of a dollar a pop, a price today’s discerning diner would still carefully consider before forking it over.
Foraging for hard-to-find foods began the fine dining "foodie" revolution
Before structured agricultural settlements, foraging -- hunting and gathering food from the natural environment -- sustained the entire human population for 95% of their time on Earth. Let that sink in for a minute. But since restaurants appeared, foraging has also driven a sub-sect of the dining industry. Case in point: in the Middle Ages, truffles were considered “witch’s fare” or the creation of the devil. But in the 1700s and 1800s, truffle production skyrocketed, coinciding with the rise of fine dining in Europe.
The best restaurants of the pre-refrigeration era offered the most specialized menus containing hard-to-find local ingredients procured by local experts. That created interest and generated word of mouth buzz for 19th-century institutions like La Grande Taverne de Londres in Paris, turning them into destinations for the earliest foodies. Which actually sound a lot like today’s global restaurant craze. The more things change…
Good old-fashioned farming elevated dishes
The only reason human beings are still here is because of the agricultural advances every civilization has made stretching as far back as 11,000 BC. By the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, global trade routes allowed previously localized crops to spread around the world. But it was the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries that drastically enhanced agricultural output, giving the earliest European restaurants all the grains, seeds, fruits, and vegetables they needed to create the world’s first proper menus. And before the advent of refrigeration, fresh, colorful veggies on a plate could soften the impact of tough-as-nails, low-quality meat. So today’s farm-to-table enthusiasts, calm down -- you’ve restored a purer, more harmonious connection between our food and us -- but you didn’t exactly invent the wheel.
Wild game was highly sought after
Put fruits and veggies aside for a second: throughout every era of modern restaurants, the roast has always served as the king of the meal. Pork, chicken, beef, lamb, and turkey were basic staples through the 1800s, while more refined offerings came from wild game hunted, dressed, and served close to the hearth. Rabbit, quail, pheasant, boar, and venison provided some of fine dining’s earliest options, but as restaurants sprang up across the Wild West in the 1800s, more exotic meats like buffalo, elk, and even bear became widely celebrated in the public houses of San Francisco and Virginia City. Back east, turtle was considered a rarefied delicacy for hundreds of years -- until us Americans finally wised up to how cute (and endangered) those gentle reptiles can be and stopped serving them in restaurants.
Salted, smoked, preserved, and pickled foods were the great equalizer
Of course, not everybody had the wherewithal to eat wild game or fancy foragings. But even laborers, migrants, and peasants craved a good meal out from time to time, which made the common practice of salting, smoking, jarring, pickling, and preserving the easiest way for early restaurants to keep their fares somewhat fresh. The fact that most lower-class people ate simply to fill their bellies, not for pleasure, meant flavor, texture, spice, and seasoning weren’t that important, of course. In early New York, restaurant workers slaughtered the pigs that roamed the streets, and roast pork became an early staple. But in the hands of capable chefs doing the best with what they had, old-timey basics like beans, bacon, biscuits, and beef eventually became the soulful, hearty fare that every American diner was built on.
Psychological tricks were often played on diners
Sounds crazy, right? But in the early 20th century, when modern science identified a definite link between health and hygiene, the desire for cleanliness gave rise to a whole new kind of restaurant tactic: the all-white environment of popular early hamburger joints like White Castle and White Tower. These sterile, modern settings often soothed a worried parent’s mind when it came to food safety -- even if the actual procedures and protocols in the kitchen weren’t anywhere near contemporary health standards.
Just remember, the restaurant experience we enjoy today -- anything available anytime, anywhere, and fresh -- only came about because of hundreds of years of hard work and countless technological advancements. So next time you bite into that piece of custom-caught, never-frozen salmon, say a little “Thank you” to our forebears who had it much harder when it came to both dining out and running a restaurant. Then you can tell yourself “Bon appétit!” without the first-world guilt.