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Restaurants were public places where people went to be private: to sit at their own tables, to eat their own food; to have their own conversations. At the same time, restaurants made this degree of personal attention available to anyone who could pay for it. By promising to restore circulation and facilitate personal well-being, restaurants offered both pleasure and profit: profit for the restaurateur, to be sure, but also for the individual customer and, by extension, for the public at large. Public benefits could come from private appetites.
In his essay “On Refinement in the Arts,” the philosopher and historian David Hume traced a similar logic, positing that improvements in production (what we today call the Industrial Revolution) and ideas (the Enlightenment) would necessarily spur greater sociability. What was good for one was good for all. “The more these refined arts advance,” Hume wrote, “the more sociable men become … enriched with science, and possessed of a fund of conversation … both sexes meet in an easy and sociable manner; and the tempers of men, as well as their behaviour, refine apace … Thus industry, knowledge, and humanity are linked together by an indissoluble chain.”
Not all 18th-century writers agreed with Roze de Chantoiseau and Hume (Rousseau notoriously argued the contrary). Nonetheless, the growth of consumer society in this era did as much as changing political ideals to replace Divine Right monarchies held together by vertical ties (from God to the king, from the king to the clergy and nobility, and then down to commoners) with a more democratic model of horizontal connections. Regardless of status, anyone in need of restoration could be served in Chantoiseau’s new establishment.
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Nineteenth-century travelers to Paris expressed astonishment at the delights promised by the capital’s finest restaurants—oysters by the dozen, followed by truffled turkeys, capered turbots, roast partridges, and then onto sugared peas, smothered artichokes, layered pastries, and brandied apricots—but they also took great care to explain to their correspondents that the printed menu defined and limited what any restaurant had to offer. Customers might be sitting at separate tables, having their own conversations, but they were all, in some sense, eating the same food.
Today, personalization is the norm—who among us has not said “dressing on the side” or ordered the Reuben without sauerkraut? And startup delivery services are pushing the restaurant logic of individualized choice to its breaking point. Why bother to go to a restaurant at all if Uber Eats will bring you the salad from one, the cauliflower from another, and the fish from a third? Services such as Deliveroo and Seamless have grown so quickly in the past five years that some new “restaurants” in London exist only as kitchens.