April 23, 2019

You Are Where You Eat

“In late 19th-century Paris and London, there were many places to eat out and many reasons for doing so. But the fashion for restaurants was rooted in what the philosopher Jean-Paul Aron has called the ‘bourgeois ideal of gluttony.’ Middle class desire for conspicuous consumption was a way of staking out a reputation for wealth and savoir faire.

When he opened the Savoy in London, Richard D’Oyly Carte, the leading theatre impresario of his day, revealed his understanding of eating out as a kind of performance. Dinner was an opportunity to become part of the urban spectacle, while simultaneously acting as audience for strangers at neighbouring tables. D’Oyly Carte was not alone in understanding this. In Paris, in 1875, L’Illustration newspaper described a restaurant meal as taking place before ‘the gallery’, implying in no uncertain terms that diners needed to behave as if they were in front of an audience. The public nature of the meal – subjected to the watching eyes of strangers – created anxiety for many about the suitability of restaurant dining for respectable women.

In 1889, Constant de Tour stated that in Paris ‘One eats … in an incommensurable number of restaurants.’ He was impressed, and wanted his readers to be, by the great diversity on offer:

large, medium and small, à la carte or prix-fixe, always open, very expensive or very cheap, very luxurious or very simple; not to mention hotel table d’hôte, cafés and brasseries where food is served.”

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