The Death of the American Restaurant

The dining experience is becoming less sociable and more atomized, even as old conceptions of public life wear away.

Rafa Elias / Getty

Ever since the first ones opened in 18th-century Paris, restaurants have been paradoxical spaces. Unlike private clubs, restaurants do not require membership; they thrive when they attract a growing and varied set of customers; published reviews are crucial to their success. In these and other respects, restaurants are public institutions. Yet few consider restaurants part of the “public sphere,” a concept that emerged around the same, politically tumultuous time.

That in-between status may now be changing. The restaurant experience is becoming less sociable, more atomized, even as old conceptions of public life wear away.

Like so many in 18th-century Europe, the self-styled inventor of restaurants, Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, believed that improving circulation—of food through people’s bodies or of money, goods, and information through society—would bring benefits to all. Initially distinct from inns or taverns on the basis of the “restorative” soups they served (hence their name), restaurants also promised new levels of personal service. Separate tables, flexible mealtimes, and menus distinguished dinner in a restaurant from the more collective, communitarian experience of an innkeeper’s or caterer’s table d’hôte.

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.

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.

If brick-and-mortar restaurants become mere storefronts for delivery services, they will cease to be public spaces in any sense of the term. When dinner from a restaurant replaces dinner in a restaurant, we lose track of all the other people who are dining as well. Part of the transformation of daily life wrought by Amazon and online retailing more generally, this hyper-individualization of consumption may bring a new political revolution as well.

The way we shop and eat now forms a feedback loop with the general discrediting of the idea of “public good”—and, with it, of public spaces and shared civility. Cell phones, charter schools, the rhetoric of “taxpayer” dollars (as if the money, once paid, still belonged to those who paid it): all make for a political climate and lived reality where very little that is “public,” in the sense of shared and common, remains.

When men and women heckle Trump administration figures in restaurants, they are trying to claim restaurants as part of the public sphere of confrontation, debate, and political action. When others respond negatively, they show that they’ve internalized the idea of restaurants as sites of private consumption. In a way, confrontations such as these are an exciting development—a challenge to the depoliticization of public, commercial spaces (and of commercial interactions) effected over much of the 19th and 20th centuries. They are also alarming, since one can imagine such protests leading to the disappearance of any putatively public spaces whatsoever.

As a leisure activity, going out to eat was always more or less about showing off, about making a public statement of private good taste. Why do it if you no longer care about others’ opinions or suspect their opinion may be that you are a fascist, communist, or other enemy of the public good? Wouldn’t it be so much simpler to order online?